Cruce Tectum

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

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, November 28, 2010

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (A)
November 28, 2010
Text: Matt. 21:1-11

The First Sunday in Advent, the First Sunday of a new Church Year. The world is already full-throttle into the Christmas shopping season, preparing for the big day. And the Church, too, has begun a season of preparation. It is not yet Christmas for the Church. We believe Christmas is so important that we have a whole season of preparation. It is, in fact, a minor penitential season, not quite as austere as Lent (we can still say “alleluia!” in Advent, but we don’t sing the Gloria in Excelsis or “This is the Feast”), but certainly Advent is a time of repentance for our sins and reflection on our need for Christmas. For Christmas brings to us our greatest need: A Savior! Christ, the Lord. Emmanuel: God with us, God in human flesh. This is the great mystery of Christmas: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14; ESV). The Word that was in the beginning, through whom all things were created, the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, is now also a man, Jesus of Nazareth. And He is a man who dies, dies for His people on the cross, making full atonement for our sins. But He is also a man who is now risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep, so that on the Last Day we also will rise and have eternal life with Him.

So the First Sunday in Advent marks a new beginning. And we assume that, as with everything else, we should begin at the beginning, with Jesus’ birth. But that’s not where we start on this Sunday. For the Church Year is a journey through the life and teachings of Christ. And in any journey, you actually begin with your destination.[1] You have to know where you are going if you are to plan a successful journey. And so today, we begin with our destination. Why this particular Gospel lesson on the First Sunday in Advent? The Triumphal Entry? Jesus is riding into Jerusalem to die on the cross. This is the Palm Sunday reading. And this is the perfect place to begin our journey this Church Year. For the coming of the Son of God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth was for this very purpose, that He come into Jerusalem as King of the Jews, and die there. Jesus came to die. You cannot understand Christmas without Holy Week and Good Friday. This is the grand mistake so many make who come to church only on Christmas (and maybe Easter). Without Good Friday, without the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, without His suffering and death, Christmas is meaningless. It’s just the birth of another baby. If you only come on Christmas, you’ve missed the point entirely. You’ve totally misunderstood Christianity, the Bible, and Jesus Himself. So today we begin the journey with our destination: Jerusalem, Holy Week, the cross.

Again, that’s why Jesus came. Advent means coming. Advent is a season of meditation on the three-fold coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: His coming to us as God in the flesh, the Babe of Bethlehem; His continual coming to us in His gifts in Word and Sacrament; and His coming again on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9b). This prophecy, recorded by the Prophet Zechariah, is directly fulfilled when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. But it is also continually fulfilled as our Lord continues to come to us in His gifts. Notice the present tense, “your king is coming to you!” He continually comes to you in His Word, preached, read, heard, studied, and in the Blessed Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. Jesus Christ is actually present in these gifts. And He isn’t just present in spirit, which would be meaningless. When I called my family back home on Thanksgiving and told them I was with them in spirit, what I really meant is that I wasn’t with them at all. I was here, not there. But Jesus isn’t just present with us in spirit. He’s present with us bodily, in His risen and living flesh and blood. This is true particularly, and in a special way, in the Lord’s Supper where He gives us His body and blood to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins. And this is the primary reason we come to church: Jesus is here. He’s really here! For you! For each one of you. He desires to speak with you and commune with you and make you His own. The miracle of Christmas and the pomp of Palm Sunday continues here in this place today where Jesus comes, and He comes for a very specific purpose: “righteous and having salvation is he.” His righteousness is that which He gives to us in the Great Exchange. He gives us His righteousness, and we give Him our sin and shame and death. Now, when God looks at us, He sees only the perfect righteousness of His beloved Son. He has taken away our sin by punishing it in Jesus on the cross. God pronounces us righteous for Christ’s sake. We are justified. It is all ours, not by works, but by grace, through faith alone. And so in giving us His righteousness, our Lord Jesus gives us eternal salvation.

Thus on account of His first coming, His coming as the Babe of Bethlehem to die for our sins on the cross, and on account of His continual coming to us to deliver the benefits of His cross in Word and Sacrament, to give us His righteousness and salvation, we look forward to His coming again to judge the living and the dead with great joy and confidence. Our sins are forgiven. We are righteous before God with the righteousness of Christ. The Day of Judgment will be a wonderful Day for us, for our bodies will be raised and reunited with our souls, and we will live forever in our bodies, made perfect like Jesus’ resurrection body. We’ll be with Him forever in a new heaven and a new earth. But the joy of this coming hinges entirely on His first coming as our Savior and His continual coming to us in His gifts in the holy Church.

So before we begin at the beginning, Christmas, with the birth of Christ, we begin with a view of the destination, Jerusalem, and the cross. We cannot understand Christmas otherwise. The season of Advent prepares us for our coming King by revealing the cross as the goal, the objective, the purpose of the coming of our King. Our King came to die, and He comes to us today as the Crucified One who is risen and lives. And as our King comes to us, with the crowds we sing Psalm 118, a Psalm of praise and thanksgiving sung at the Feast of Tabernacles: “Hosanna” “Save us, we pray, O LORD!” (Ps. 118:25). “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest” (Matt. 21:9; cf. Ps. 118:26). We sing this in the Communion liturgy, as the second part of the Sanctus. It is even appropriate to make the sign of the holy cross at the words, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” for Jesus is once again coming, in the flesh, to place His very body and blood on the altar by the power of His Word. A great miracle is about to happen: ordinary bread and wine are now also the body and blood of Jesus, the very same body and blood that rode on the donkey into Jerusalem, the very same body and blood that was nailed to the cross for our redemption. Jesus takes this body and places it in our mouths. It is holy food, the medicine of immortality. “Take, eat. This is Christ’s true body, given into death for your forgiveness.” He takes the chalice and pours His blood down your throats. It is holy drink, a cleansing and life-restoring flood. “Take, drink. This is Christ’s true blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.” Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He!”

When an honored guest is coming to dine with us and to stay at our house, we make all sorts of preparations before the day of their arrival. We clean the house from top to bottom. We make the necessary purchases. We decorate for the festive occasion. We want everything to be just right. We bring out the best linens for the guest room. We bring out the fine china for the dinner. Many of you will do all of these things for Christmas. Perhaps you already did these things for Thanksgiving. The point is, we put some thought into it. We prepare. We set apart our guest and the day of our guest’s arrival as special. That is what Advent is. Advent is a season of preparation in which we clean our hearts by repentance, confessing our sins and clinging in faith to Jesus’ Word of forgiveness. And then we prepare. We prepare to celebrate His birth, greeting Him as our newborn King. And we prepare for His coming again as Judge by continually receiving Him as He comes to us in His means of grace. Advent is both a penitential season, and a season of great joy and anticipation. Christ has come, the Savior of all. Christ comes now, here in this place, with His gracious presence. And Christ will come again. Indeed, blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The Rev. Mark Love.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Eve
November 24, 2010
Text: Phil. 4:6-20

The Christian life is a life of paradoxes, seeming contradictions, truths held in tension. And one of those paradoxes appears in our text for this evening. St. Paul writes: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6; ESV). Apparently there is reason to be anxious. There is suffering and persecution to be endured, in addition to the day-to-day challenges of life. Paul himself probably pens these words from prison in Rome. But Paul tells the Philippians and us not to be anxious in the midst of suffering, but to pray and to give thanks! And so here are two of the marks of the Christian life that are held in paradox: The Christian life is marked by suffering and the Christian life is marked by thanksgiving.

Of course, we don’t want to suffer, nor is it noble to seek suffering or to inflict suffering upon yourself. And in no way does the suffering of the Christian make up for any lack in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Christ’s suffering and death make full atonement for our sins. So we must confess that our sufferings in no way merit the favor of God or the forgiveness of sins. But God does permit us to suffer in this earthly life. And this is for our good. It is the discipline of God. It curbs and mortifies our sinful flesh. It drives us to Christ alone for help and salvation, to Scripture and to prayer. It molds and shapes us into the cruciform image of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we can say with St. Paul that, even though we don’t understand the specific reason for our suffering in many cases, nonetheless “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). This suffering that God permits in our life is for our good. Ultimately, the precious and holy cross is laid upon us with a view toward our salvation. It keeps us in the narrow way. And if this is true (and it is!), we need not be anxious in the midst of cross-bearing. We should actually give thanks! In the midst of suffering we should give thanks! Well, easier said than done of course. But that is because of our sinful nature, which we must once again drown in those baptismal waters. We should give thanks in all circumstances. St. Paul even says two verses before our reading, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Note that we should always rejoice, in all circumstances, and even in our suffering. St. Paul even repeats the word for emphasis: “again I will say, Rejoice”! Our rejoicing in suffering will never be perfect in this earthly life, but it does come with practice. So even when we don’t feel particularly rejoice-ful, we ought to do as Paul says: commend it to God in prayer. Pray. Supplicate God, which means to make specific requests for help. Give thanks, which means to say back to God all the things that He has done and is doing for you, to acknowledge to Him His great mercy. Such requests and thanksgivings will always be answered by the God who commands and invites you to pray. Of course they will be answered in God’s way and in God’s time. But this is where faith comes in. Faith trusts that God is in control and will direct the situation for our good.

And so by faith, we have peace. This is the peace God gives us in the Gospel, peace with God, peace that comes from sins forgiven, the peace of knowing that we have a gracious and loving heavenly Father: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). The peace of Jesus Christ is the power that helps us not to be anxious in suffering, but to give thanks. And so also that peace leads to other important marks of the Christian life. It leads us to meditate upon the gifts of God that are, as Paul says, “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise” (v. 8). We so often get bogged down in our suffering so that we are entirely focused on ourselves and our own troubles. The peace of Christ lifts us out of such navel-gazing so that we can see the good things, the blessings God gives, and so give thanks. And the peace of Christ leads us to seek the example of mature Christians, like Paul, that we might imitate them (v. 9), and so lead a holy life, a life that is itself an offering to God, a life lived for Him, a sacrifice of thanksgiving for all that He has done for us in redeeming us.

The peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding finally leads to contentment. Do you want to know the secret of happiness? It is contentment with what God has given you, with God Himself. If God is your greatest desire, and you have Him in Christ, then you will be content in all circumstances, in plenty and in hunger, in abundance and in need (v. 12). For Christ is your strength in every circumstance (v. 13). Thus being content in God, you can give all that you have for the sake of the neighbor. Again, it is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for all that He has sacrificed for you in giving His Son, Christ, into death for you. Like the Philippians, you can give to your neighbor in his need, sharing in his trouble by your prayers and offerings (v. 14). Like the Philippians, you can give of your time, your talents, your treasures for the sake of the Gospel, that Christ may be proclaimed to all. Such fruit increases to your credit, Paul says (v. 17). That is to say, while it does not earn forgiveness and salvation, it is nonetheless “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (v. 18).

And this is why we can make such sacrifices, without anxiety, but in thanksgiving: We have here God’s promise through the Apostle Paul, “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (v. 19). This is not a promise of prosperity. This is not a promise that you will never suffer. On the contrary, the Christian life is marked by suffering. This is a promise that God will always provide for what you really need. And this is seen from the perspective of eternity, not just this earthly life. This is where faith comes in. Faith trusts the promise in spite of the appearance of things. And faith is sure. It is based on the concrete reality of what God has done for us in Christ. The Father staked the blood of His Son Jesus on it. He will remain true to His Word. You can count on it.

Thus the peace of Jesus Christ leads to a life of thanksgiving and praise even in the midst of suffering. Because in the end, there will be no more suffering. Only endless praise. And we live from that perspective now. So we pray and we supplicate and we give thanks and make our requests, commending all things to God. We rejoice in the Lord always. For our hope is sure. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. In the meantime, He dwells among us with His Word and Spirit. Therefore what more is there to say than what St. Paul says: “To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen” (v. 20). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Sunday of the Fulfillment (C – Proper 29)
November 21, 2010
Text: Luke 23:27-43

Behold, your King, enthroned upon the precious and holy cross. Here He reigns, in suffering and death. For here, He purchases you with His own blood. Here He redeems you, buys you back from your slavery to sin, death, the devil, and hell. Here He pays in full to God the debt of your sin. He does this that you may be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. He dies that you may live. For death will not be the end of the story for Him, either. He will rise from the dead. And so you also will rise. You will live. Because by Baptism you are united to His death and resurrection. But in the meantime, here He reigns on the throne of the cross. He is lifted up above the earth in solemn coronation. Behold, your King. He is executed with robbers, as a common criminal. He is naked and exposed as His executioners cast lots for His clothing. The soldiers and the bystanders mock Him and deride Him: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35; ESV). “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 37). He who knew no sin has become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It is the great exchange: our sin for His righteousness, our death for His life. He suffers our punishment, our death. He becomes a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). And note this as of supreme importance. All of this He does willingly. Though He is King, He suffers for His subjects. For “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). This King rules from the bloody cross out of love for His people. Behold, your King.

But do not weep for Him. Weep for yourselves and for your children. Weep the bitter tears of repentance. For you crucified Him. You placed Him on the cross by your sins. He has not been your only god. You have not feared, loved, or trusted in Him alone as your highest good. You have doubted Him and looked to other things and other people for help and happiness and satisfaction. Your lips have neglected to call upon Him often, in every trouble, in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Your mind and heart have neglected His Word and Sacrament and the gifts you receive in His house. You have joined in the mocking and the jeering, using His Name to curse and to swear deceitfully or in unimportant matters. Your anger and your malice toward your neighbor pierced His sacred flesh. Your disrespect and dishonesty pressed the thorned-crown into His brow. Your greed and covetousness and lust burned and bludgeoned His hallowed body. So there He hangs. For all of this He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (v.34). His death is your absolution. He is not excusing you, as if your sin were a mere trifle. He is forgiving you. He is paying for your sin. And in the midst of the agony and bloody sweat, the curses and the derision, the blatant unbelief of the crowds and the desertion of the disciples, Pilate’s sign hangs as a witness: “This is the King of the Jews” (v. 38).

A similar sign appeared on most every cross. It was a notice of the charges against the condemned. Crucifixion served as a sober reminder to the populace not to cross the Roman government. The crucified served as examples to the people: Get out of line, and this could happen to you, too. But remember, Pilate couldn’t find anything worthy of death in Jesus at His trial. Jesus was innocent of all wrongdoing. And that verdict, by the way, is very important, because if Jesus were guilty of even the slightest indiscretion, the tiniest little sin, His death could not have counted for us sinners. He could only have died for Himself. But here we have the official proclamation of the Roman government. This Man is impeccable, sinless. He is guilty of nothing. There is nothing in Him deserving of death. The wages of sin is death. But Jesus has not earned those wages. So what sign to put on His cross? Only the truth. “This is the King of the Jews.” And it had to be that this King would reign in this way, through His innocent suffering and death. It was divinely necessary. It was the only way that a just God who loved His people could justly punish sin, yet spare His people the punishment they deserve. God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son. And now whosoever believes in that Son will not perish, but have eternal life.

So do not weep for Him. Weep for yourselves. Weep in repentance. Yet as you weep, rejoice. Rejoice in faith. For you have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred by your heavenly Father into the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13). In Christ our crucified King, you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (v. 14). And now the whole situation has changed. We see this in the penitent thief on the cross. At first he joined the other condemned criminal in railing at Jesus. Matthew tells us that both robbers “reviled” Him (Matt. 27:44). But something happens in the heart of this criminal as he witnesses first hand Jesus’ sin-atoning death. He hears Jesus speak, and the Word Jesus speaks is the Word of eternal life. He witnesses Jesus’ willingness to receive this punishment for others, for you and me and all people, for the thief himself. Jesus does not respond to the taunting and cursing in kind. Instead, He blesses. He forgives. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And all this time, the Holy Spirit is working through the Word of life to bring the condemned thief to faith in his crucified Lord, His King. While the other thief continues to hurl insults, the penitent confesses his sins. “Dear brother thief, we are receiving the due reward for our transgressions. We’re getting what we deserve. The wages of sin is death. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Repentance always leads to the confession of sins. Repentance begins in contrition, sorrow over sin. But repentance is completed in faith, faith in the crucified King. And so the thief prays in faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The prayer is at the same time a confession of faith that Jesus is, as Pilate’s sign declares: The King of the Jews. And this faith grasps and clings to the Savior’s promise: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).

So great is the love of this King for His people, that He does not leave them behind in sin and death. In His death, He opens the gates of paradise, and He promises His eternal and life-giving presence. You see, in this Kingdom, under the authority of this King, we need not fear death. For death is for the Christian simply the door to heaven. And so also, in this Kingdom, under the authority of this King, we need not fear the Day of Judgment. For on that Day, the King will return visibly to judge the living and the dead. The dead will be raised, the books will be opened, and all will have to give an account. But for us who are in Christ, who have loved the appearing of this King, who are united to Him by faith, this is a Day of great joy. For our sins will not be counted against us. They have already been judged in the crucifixion of Jesus. They have been blotted out by Jesus’ blood. They have been atoned for in His suffering and death. Only His perfect righteousness will be recorded in the book for us. That alone will be the evidence in our judgment. Thus knowing that this King is also our Judge, and that the verdict is already determined by His death, we approach the Last Day with confidence, even praying that it would come quickly, that we may be delivered from this fallen flesh and the fallen world and the crafts and assaults of the evil one.

And so also, we live each day of this earthly life with confidence. For this King continues to reign. He reigns over all things, even now. He is risen from the dead, and He has been exalted by God. He ascended into heaven where the Father has seated Him at His own right hand, which is not a physical place, but the seat of all divine power and authority. This Jesus, who loved you to death in His death on the cross, who was crucified for you, He rules everything. There is nothing and no one that is exempt from His authority. “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He rules all things for the benefit of His people. He rules heaven and earth and everything in the whole universe. He even rules the devil and his demons. All must submit to Him in His Kingdom of Power. But He rules all this only with your benefit in mind. Only out of love for you. Only with an eye to your salvation. King Jesus rules all things for the benefit of His Church, the benefit of His redeemed and beloved saints. So what finally can harm us when we are under the power and authority of this King? If this King is for us, who can be against us? What can mortal man do to us? Not even death itself can harm us, for when we die, we have His sure promise: We will be with Him in paradise. And so we entrust each day, each moment of our lives, to this King, because He is almighty. He is almighty God Himself. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). The crucified One rules in love for us. And He reigns among us by the preaching of His cross. May this be our sure and certain comfort and confidence now in this earthly life, in the Day of Judgment, and for all eternity. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thy King Cometh

Dr. Luther preaches concerning the Triumphal Entry (Matt. 21:1-9):

"This is what is meant by 'Thy king cometh.' You do not seek him, but he seeks you. You do not find him, he finds you. For the preachers come from him, not from you; their sermons come from him, not from you; your faith comes from him, not from you; everything that faith works in you comes from him, not from you; and where he does not come, you remain outside; and where there is no Gospel there is no God, but only sin and damnation, free will may do, suffer, work and live as it may and can. Therefore you should not ask, where to begin to be godly; there is no beginning, except where the king enters and is proclaimed."

--Complete Sermons of Martin Luther 1.1, John Nicholas Lenker, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) p. 27.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (C – Proper 28)
November 14, 2010
Text: Luke 21:5-36

Judgment Day, the Day of our Lord Christ’s second coming, His coming to judge the living and the dead, is understandably scary to most people. Books and movies from Ghostbusters to Left Behind capitalize on the sinner’s natural fear of the end of the world and the notion of standing before the judgment seat of a righteous and holy God. And so our Gospel lesson this morning can be one of the scarier readings of the Holy Scriptures. To complicate matters, many of us don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. And so to the fears already mentioned, we add the fear of the unknown. What does all of this mean? How should we regard the Judgment Day? What will happen on that Day? Should we be afraid? How do we prepare? These questions are imperative, for our Lord Jesus is coming again, and He is coming to judge. That Day will be the end of this fallen creation and the full manifestation of the new. On that Day, which will come when we are not expecting it, like a thief in the night, in the twinkling of an eye, everything will be changed. The books will be opened, and all will have to give an account of themselves to God. Those who have believed in Jesus need not fear this Day, however. For their sins have been covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. They have been forgiven. In Christ, they have the sure and certain hope of eternal life. None of their sins will count against them, but the perfect righteousness of Christ alone will be counted as their own. But those who have not believed in Christ should indeed fear a great fear. For they have rejected their Savior’s salvation. They have refused His blood and death as their atonement. And so even though Jesus died for them also on the cross, His death cannot benefit them. They will be cast into hell with the devil and his demons to suffer the wrath of God for all eternity.

It’s not a nice thought. And so there is good reason for many people to be scared of this impending Day of Judgment. But again, how should we as Christians regard this Day, and how should we prepare for it? For the Christian, Judgment Day is not a Day of dread, but a Day of rejoicing. Jesus tells us how we should regard this Day in our Gospel this morning: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28; ESV). Yes, “your redemption is drawing near.” As strange as it may seem, the Christian looks forward to the Day of our Lord’s visible returning. We even pray that it may come quickly. Why? Because it is the Day of our deliverance. It is the Day of our deliverance from our old Adam, the sinful, fallen flesh. It is the Day of our deliverance from this fallen creation that groans under the weight of our sin. It is the Day of our deliverance from sin and death, from pain and sadness, from suffering and persecution, from the crafts and assaults of the evil one, and from any possibility of spiritually perishing. And it is the ushering in of the full manifestation of the new creation brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the Day of our own resurrection from the dead, to enjoy eternal life with Jesus Christ in a new heaven and a new earth with all believers in Christ, including all of our loved ones who have died in the faith. It is the Day of a new order. The old order of things has passed away. No more hunger and thirst. No more anger and malice. No more suffering and sighing. We will have come out of the great tribulation. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 7:17).

That we may keep the joy and hope of this Day before our eyes, it is helpful to understand Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel lesson. There are actually three things Jesus speaks of in His prophecy, all related. To begin with, Jesus is speaking of the actual siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Jewish Temple that would, and did, take place in AD 70, at the hands of the Romans under emperor Titus, to punish the Jewish zealots who had taken control of the city. Thus a little less than 40 years after Jesus spoke the words concerning the Temple, “the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down”(Luke 21:6), His prophecy came true. Many of the things Jesus speaks of in our Gospel this morning have to do, not first and foremost with the end of the world, but with the siege of Jerusalem, including Jerusalem being surrounded by armies (that’s the Romans!), the people of Judea fleeing to the mountains (again, from the Romans!), and the woes to the women who are pregnant and nursing (because fleeing from the Romans would be harder for pregnant women and those who had little children to worry about!). Thus the Jewish Temple was destroyed, and has not been rebuilt since. This was God’s judgment against the Jews who had rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Nor need we Christians be concerned with any rebuilding of the Temple, for the Temple, the dwelling place of God with men, is no longer a temple built by human hands, but the Temple that is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our Emmanuel, God with us, God in human flesh, and He dwells in His Church in His Word and Holy Sacraments. But more about that in a moment.

Jesus says that the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the earthly Temple were signs, however, of the Last Day and the coming of the Son of Man. And this is the second thing He speaks of, His coming to judge. He points to other signs as well: nation against nation, earthquakes, famines and pestilences, persecution of Christians, great fear and foreboding. These are all signs of the end, and beloved, they have always been a part of this creation since the fall of man into sin. These are not terrible signs that will happen just before the Last Day. They have always been happening. And they are always a sign of the end. 9/11 was a sign of the end, and a call to repentance. Hurricane Katrina was a sign of the end and a call to repentance. The earthquake in Haiti was a sign of the end and a call to repentance. Every tragedy, every natural disaster, every sickness, is a reminder to us from God Himself that our death, and the end of the world, is immanent. Therefore we should repent of our sins, confess them to God, and believe that on account of His Son’s suffering and death on the cross, all our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life. For the Day is coming. “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). But this is a Day for which Christians long. We pray for it to come quickly. We greet it with joy. “Now when these things begin to take place,” when you see the signs, “straighten up and raise your heads.” Do not be overcome by fear and despair. The Lord who is coming is gracious to you. He became flesh for you. He fulfilled the Law for you. He suffered and died for you. He is risen and lives for you. He gives you His righteousness. He loves you. So straighten up. Raise your heads. For “your redemption is drawing near.”

Finally, when Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple, He is looking forward to the destruction of the true Temple that is His body. He will be surrounded by armies, arrested, mocked, spit upon, tortured, and destroyed on the cross. And His disciples would flee. These things had to take place. It was divinely necessary. It was as Jesus said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He was speaking of the temple of His body, of His death, and His victorious resurrection on the third day. And beloved, it is because of this destruction of the Temple of Jesus’ body, and His resurrection on the third day, that we can approach the Day of Judgment with every confidence. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are already judged. Our sins have already been punished on the cross. The resurrection is God’s verdict upon the whole world that we are justified, righteous, with the righteousness of Jesus.

So we need not fear. But we do need to be prepared. For no man knows when Jesus will return. It will come unexpectedly, at any moment, perhaps even today. So how do we prepare? We prepare by remaining in Christ, by remaining in His presence by continual use of His gifts in His Word and Sacraments. We remain with Him by remaining in the Holy Church. By remaining with Jesus and His gifts, we are able with the Spirit’s help to watch ourselves, lest our hearts be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the cares of this life. In other words, when we are separated from the gifts of Christ, we begin to be distracted by the affairs and concerns of this earthly life, as if this is what is all-important. And so our eyes are taken off of Jesus and His redemption and salvation, as well as the impending judgment. But when we come to the place Christ has promised to be, His Church, gathered around His gifts, He Himself firmly fixes our eyes upon Himself. And He opens our ears and hearts to hear His Word. And this is so important, because the Word is the only thing that lasts. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33). “(T)he word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:25). And this eternal Word conveys to us the righteousness of Christ in which we can confidently face the Day of Judgment.

Finally, let us avoid all false teachers, for Jesus says “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them” (Luke 21:8). Let’s not give credence to the half-baked notions of the Millenialist crowd about the so-called rapture and the 1,000 year reign of Christ. For these are precisely the false teachers Jesus speaks of. They neither understand the imagery of the Scriptures nor the use of numbers like 1,000 in the Book of Revelation. Beloved, Christ will come once to judge the living and the dead. He will be visible to all. Every eye will see Him. And those who believe in Christ will be raised to eternal life, but the unbelievers to eternal death in hell. No, let us not be deceived, but believe only the simple Word of God, and this will be our comfort. For those who are in Christ, those who believe in Him, will be caught up with Him in the clouds to meet Him in the air. And so they will always be with the Lord. We will always be with the Lord. Let us then believe this firmly, and be comforted by these words, even as we eagerly look for our Lord to come again. And let us join Him where He comes among us even now, in the Supper of His body and blood. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day (Observed)
November 7, 2010
Text: 1 John 3:1-3

Beloved in the Lord, All Saints’ Day was this past Monday, November 1st, followed the next day by the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed on November 2nd. If we really want to get technical, I suppose All Saints’ Day is the celebration of all those heroic saints whose faith and life serve as Christian examples to us, whereas the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is more general and includes all those who have died in the faith, and so now live with Jesus in heaven. Be that as it may, the Church has set aside this Sunday as the combined celebration of both, and so this morning we remember all the saints from the Bible and throughout the Church’s history, our family members and loved ones who have died in the faith, the members of our congregation who have entered the Church Triumphant in heaven, and especially those who have died since last All Saints’ Day. This morning we read seven names of the faithful who have departed to be with Christ since this time last year. That is a significant number for our congregation. And so this day has important significance for us. In the very midst of life, death has us surrounded. We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but that really isn’t helpful. We can’t escape it. It is the sentence pronounced upon all of Adam and Eve’s sinful children since the fall into sin. Unless our Lord returns first in His glory, every one of us must pass through the valley of the shadow. Try as we might to indefinitely extend our lives, we cannot finally cheat death. But there is One who has engaged death in mortal combat, even our Lord Jesus Christ, and through His death on the cross and resurrection on the third day, He has won the victory. If that is so, beloved (and it is!), then all who are united by Baptism to Christ in His death, are likewise united to Christ in His resurrection. Our risen Lord will not leave us in death. He will raise us from the dead. And in the meantime, as we live our lives in the midst of death, He gives us His sure Word.

The Son reveals the love of the Father to His disciples. This is what kind of love the Father has given to us: He calls us His children. He calls us His children because we are united to His Son by Baptism and faith, God’s own child I gladly say it! In Baptism He calls us His children and He makes us His children. He calls us by His Name, the Christian family Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He washes our sins away and creates faith in our hearts by His Spirit. We are reborn. We are born into eternal life. In fact, contrary to popular belief, eternal life starts not when we die and go to heaven, but when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, which for most of us happens as infants when we are baptized. Yes, you have eternal life now, you who believe in Christ. It may not be apparent yet. In fact, it is most certainly not apparent. John says as much in our epistle lesson. The world does not know us (1 John 3:1). It does not recognize us as the children of God that we are. And this shouldn’t surprise us. For of course, in this earthly life, we still have the old sinful flesh hanging around our necks. We still sin, and even though we are saints by the blood of Christ, in our flesh we are still sinners. And the fallen creation itself doesn’t recognize us, either. A tornado does not distinguish between the house of a Christian and that of a non-Christian. Cancer afflicts believers and unbelievers alike. But the biggest reason the unbelieving world does not recognize us is that it did not, and does not, recognize Jesus. To the world, Jesus was just a man. Maybe a good man. Maybe a wise man. But He was just a man all the same. A man who died on a cross. And to the world, that is the end of the story. All of this resurrection stuff is nonsense to the world. It should not surprise the disciple of Christ that if the world does not recognize Christ as the Son of God, neither will it recognize us as children of the heavenly Father.

The truth of the matter is that “we are God’s children now” (v. 2; ESV). But it does not appear so. And that is the problem. Living in the eternal life of Christ, we appear to be dying, for that is precisely what is happening to our sinful flesh. Our life is, as St. Paul says, “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). So we must live by faith, not by sight. We don’t yet know what eternal life looks like, even though we possess it even now in Baptism. It is a great paradox: We have it, but we don’t see it. The seven names we read are the names of the living, but they have died, and we do not see them now. They live though they have died. They live in heaven with Christ. But they have not yet been raised from the dead. And so we mourn. This is precisely the paradox St. John points out to us this morning: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” But faith has something to say about this situation, too. For John continues, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Faith knows that one day we will see, with our own eyes, what eternal life looks like, even as we see with our own eyes the risen Christ. On the Day He returns to judge the living and the dead, He will raise up all the dead, reuniting their bodies and souls, and He will give eternal life to all believers in Christ in their bodies. And our lowly bodies will be transformed to be like His glorious body (Phil. 3:21), perfect, holy, complete, risen. Death will no longer have mastery over our bodies because death no longer has mastery over Him. Then we will live no longer by faith, but by sight, for we shall see Him as He is!

But that is then. This is now. And so in the meantime faith must live by the Word of the Lord. Faith must live by the promises. Therefore St. John writes that “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). The one who believes in Jesus has the forgiveness of sins and lives in hope for the life to come. And this is not an uncertain hope where there is any question that it will not be fulfilled. This is a hope that looks expectantly toward a sure and certain future in the Lord Jesus. You have the forgiveness of sins in Jesus. Now you hope for His deliverance from a world of sin and death, knowing that your deliverance will come. And so as St. John points out, this shapes how you live in this world that does not recognize you as a child of God. You purify yourself, which is to say, you seek that which is holy and right, and you shun evil things. You avert your eyes from things that make you covet and lust. You do not walk according to the wisdom of the world. You do not determine right and wrong according to the world’s measure, but according to the holy standard God has revealed in the Scriptures. You live in love and service to God, which means loving and serving your neighbor. You purify yourself with Christ as your model, as He is pure. You become a little christ to your neighbor by loving and serving him and sacrificing yourself for his good.

Why can you do this? Because you know that this life is not all there is. This earthly life is nothing in comparison with the eternal life won for you by Christ on the cross and given you in your Baptism. You have it now, and it will be manifest on the Day of His coming. So you live now from the perspective of eternity. You are God’s children now, even though what you will be has not yet appeared.

And this also makes all the difference in terms of how you face death, both the death of a loved one and your own impending death. Death is not the end. For the believer, death is but the peaceful slumber of the body while the soul lives with Christ, awaiting the resurrection of the body. For the believer, death is the portal to heaven and the manifestation of the eternal life you already possess in Baptism. So those seven names we read, we can say with confidence, are the names of the living. We have not lost seven members of the congregation. They are still members of the Church! Only now they are members of the Church Triumphant, and they join us at the Supper from the other side of the altar. When we confess that at the Lord’s Supper we join the feast with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we mean them! This is the communion of saints. We are part of this communion already, for even though we are sinners, by the blood of Christ we are saints, literally “holy ones,” declared righteous and made holy on account of the innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Christ, and given new life by His victorious resurrection from the dead.

All Saints’ Day is a celebration and confession of our ongoing fellowship, communion, with the dead in Christ who still live. We do not see them now. But we join them here. And we will see them again. We long to see them again. For we know what they are doing. “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:15-17). We don’t need to pretend death doesn’t exist. We need not fear. For whoever lives and believes in Jesus, though he die, yet shall he live. Indeed, O Lord, bring us at last into your heavenly kingdom. And come Lord, Jesus. Come quickly. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.