Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent Midweek I: The Invitation

Advent Midweek I: “The Invitation”[1]
Nov. 30, 2011
Text: John 1:1-14

God does not coerce us to believe in Him. He invites us. He forces no one to be in fellowship with Him. But He tenderly calls us into communion with the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Body of Christ, the Church. He calls us by the Gospel. He calls us in the preaching of His Word. He calls us by placing His Name upon us in Holy Baptism. An invitation, of course, does not have to be accepted. It may be ignored. It may be rejected outright. Such are the forms of unbelief. God invites by His Word and by Baptism, but not everyone believes. Not everyone wants fellowship with God or with His holy Church. Still, the invitation goes out from God, and it goes out with power, the power of the eternal Word of God through whom all things were made.

Creation itself is God’s invitation to existence through His powerful Word. God graciously called into being all that exists, the heavens and the earth and all living creatures. And without any cooperation or participation from man, God called Adam into existence, formed Him from the dust of the ground, and Eve, Adam’s wife, God formed from Adam’s rib. God invited our first parents, Adam and Eve, to live perpetually in fellowship with Him in paradise. But He did not coerce them. He gave them an opportunity to live outside of fellowship with Him. If you want to live without God, just eat from this tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Every other tree you can enjoy for food and remain in fellowship with God, but this tree is a relationship breaker. And of course, you know what Adam and Eve chose. The serpent led them to believe that they were better off without God, that they could do better on their own, as their own gods. An invitation graciously extended, even by the very hand of God, can be rejected. Such was the fatal mistake of our first parents. For what they had forgotten, the warning of God they had failed to heed, is that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit, they would surely die. Outside of the fellowship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is only death.

Adam and Eve died when they ate the forbidden fruit. They died spiritually, they began the process of dying physically, and they were condemned to eternal death in hell. They could do nothing about their mortal condition. So God graciously did something about it. The Father invited the Son to become one with sinful humanity by taking on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Father invited the Son to suffer and die in that flesh to deliver Adam and Eve and all their children, you and me and all people, from the wages of our sin, which is death, and to restore us to fellowship with God. The Father invited the Son to bring life into the world. The Son did not reject the Father’s invitation. For our sake, the Son accepted the Father’s invitation and accomplished His saving will. In Him, all our sins are forgiven, our relationship to God is restored, and we are given eternal life with Him. The invitation to receive this gift goes out with every sermon, with every confession of Christ, with every Baptism into Christ. And the invitation is powerful because it is the very Word of God. It is a performative Word, which means it is powerful not only to invite but to deliver, to deliver the faith to accept the invitation, and to deliver the very gift the invitation promises: The forgiveness of sins and eternal fellowship with God.

So the invitation goes out this evening here and wherever the Word is proclaimed. Some will reject. The world rejects the invitation. The world would rather remain in death and darkness, under the illusion that they are their own gods. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:9-11; ESV). God forces no one. He has extended a time of grace for repentance and reception of His gracious invitation. After that, He will give all who reject His invitation what they want. He will leave them alone, forsake them, which is hell. But you, beloved, you who also by your sins have rejected His invitation, hear Him now as He extends it to you once again in preaching and so delivers to you all the benefits of your Lord Jesus Christ and His righteousness and death and resurrection. Repent of your rejecting Him. Repent of listening to the serpent, of desiring to be your own gods, and believe that this invitation is for you. God has beheld your deadly plight, and He has done something about it. He sent His Son. And to all who receive Him, who believe in His Name, He gives the right to become children of God (v. 12). You are God’s own child by Holy Baptism. You have been born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God, by water and the Word. The relationship that God intended for His people from the beginning has been restored to you, that you might live perpetually in fellowship with Him in paradise. This is pure gift, beloved. God does not coerce you to receive this. He gives it to you freely in His Word and Sacraments. It is your life. Death is defeated. Life is yours in Christ. It is a reality that is yours now by faith, but it will be made fully manifest on the Last Day when your Lord Jesus extends another invitation to you: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).

May this Advent Season be a joyful time for you to prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth and for His coming again on the Last Day, and also a time to revel in His gracious invitation to you to receive His gifts. For the Word became flesh and has made His dwelling among us. We behold His glory as He continues to come among us in the flesh in His Word and Supper. And so we receive the true Light which enlightens everyone, the Light of life, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Invitation delivered, invitation received. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the points made in this sermon are taken from Savior of the Nations (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (B)

November 27, 2011
Text: Mark 11:1-10

We pray in the Collect, “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance.”[1] Advent means “coming,” and this season is all about preparation for the coming of the Lord for our protection and rescuing. For if the Lord does not come, if the Lord does not protect us and rescue us, then the threatening perils of our sins will devour us. We are no match for those perils outside of Christ. Outside of Christ we are lost. The perils are too strong for us. Those perils include despair, unbelief, hardness of heart, being given over to the passions of the flesh, worldliness, spiritual blindness, enmity with God, DEATH. Finally, THE great peril of sin is damnation, hell. The devil, the world, and our sinful nature, our three main enemies, seek to deceive us and mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Even believers are attacked by these things, and so we fervently pray that God would deliver us from temptation and evil, so that we may finally overcome them and win the victory. But the victory is only won if the Lord comes. Advent. “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come.” Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.

“(B)ehold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he” (Zech. 9:9; ESV). The Lord does not leave us to be devoured by the perils of our sin. He comes. And He comes in three ways: in the flesh, in His Word and Sacraments, and as Judge on the Last Day. He comes first of all in human flesh as the Baby Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, in Bethlehem of Judea. He comes in the flesh to be our substitute, to fulfill the Law of God in our place, the Law we cannot and will not keep, the Law we have broken. He comes to bear our sin and to suffer and die our punishment, the death of the cross for our forgiveness. He comes to lie in our tomb and transform it from the gate of hell to a soft bed for the believer’s body to await the resurrection. He comes to rise from the dead and give us new life, eternal life, now, already, in our Baptism into Christ, and for all eternity in our resurrection bodies in a new heaven and a new earth on the Last Day.

Our risen Lord Jesus has ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of God, ruling all things. But He has not left us nor forsaken us. He has given us His Holy Spirit, and He Himself comes to us in the flesh in His Word, and in the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and with His true body and blood under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. This is the second way He comes, and in this way He protects us from the perils of our sins in the time of our earthly life.

And of course, He will come again visibly on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. On that Day He will deliver us from the threatening perils of our sins forever. That is the third way He comes. We must be prepared for that Day, which means we must always be in Christ, partaking of His gifts in the Word and Sacraments, which impart to us the saving benefits of His life, death, and resurrection. All three ways that He comes to us: His first coming as a baby, His continual coming in Word and Sacrament, and His coming again at the end of time, all three of these are interrelated and interdependent. We face His coming again with confidence because of His first coming, by which all our sins are forgiven, and His continual coming and presence among us in the means of grace, by which that forgiveness is applied to us. Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation, which He desires to give to you. He is coming to protect you and rescue you from the threatening perils of your sins.

He comes for sinners in the midst of their sin, in the midst of the threatening perils they have caused, in the midst of their death. He comes to you, right in the midst of your sin, right in the midst of the mess that is your life. What a comfort that is. You don’t have to be “good enough” for Jesus to come to you. You couldn’t possibly be “good enough.” You don’t win His coming to you by cleaning up your act, cleaning up your life, getting rid of your sinful habits. He comes by grace, regardless of who you are and what you’ve done. He comes to you, not because you are worthy, but because He is good. He comes to you, not to punish, but to rescue you and make you His own. When our Lord Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God from all eternity, took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He became one with sinners. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14). He lived among us. He patiently endured our sin against Him. He bore rejection, mockery, and insult. He ate and drank with sinners, with prostitutes and tax collectors. He died a criminal’s death, between two criminals, one of whom He declared would be with Him in Paradise. He was buried in a sinner’s tomb. And He rose victorious over sin. Now He comes to sinners in His Word and Sacraments. The righteous do not need His Word. They do not need His forgiveness. They do not need His Baptism or His Supper. Jesus comes for sinners in His means of grace. He comes to His Church, which is a hospital for sinners. The righteous need not apply. Sinners, however, who are covered by the blood of Jesus are declared righteous in Holy Absolution, and so they will be declared righteous when our Lord comes again on the Day of Judgment. Absolution is simply the declaration of God’s Judgment over you ahead of time: In Jesus, you are righteous.

But make no mistake. Jesus does not come to us so that we can go on sinning. He comes to free us from our sin. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1-4). Jesus comes to you and me right in the midst of our sin, to be sure. It is a great mercy on His part. But He does not come to leave us there. He does not come to tell us that it’s alright for us to remain in sin, that we’re okay the way we are, that we should feel good about ourselves in spite of our weaknesses. No, He frees us from all that! As long as we remain in our sinful flesh, we will sin, there is no doubt about it. But we are baptized into Christ, into His death, and so we daily die to sin. We daily crucify the sinful flesh. The entire life of believers is a life of repentance. But so also we are raised to new life with Christ, new life now, so that the new creation in us daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony… Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” and “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:5, 12-14, 16-17).

Advent is a season of preparation for our coming King. It is a season to prepare for the celebration of His birth at Christmas, to prepare for His coming in mercy in His Word and Sacraments, and by these means of grace to prepare for His coming again to judge the living and the dead. So we prepare the way of the Lord by strewing before Him the palm branches of repentance (you’ll hear a lot about that this Advent season in the preaching of St. John the Baptist) and in faith praying “Hosanna! Save now, O Lord. Save us, for the threatening perils of our sins are great, and without You they will devour us. But You come to deliver us. You come to fight for us. You come to protect us and rescue us. Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” And as the Church prays these words again in the Sanctus, the Lord Jesus does just that. He stirs up His mighty power and comes with His true body and blood, that instead of being devoured by the threatening perils of your sins, you may devour Him in your mouths, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, and so be rescued. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He. A blessed Advent, beloved. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Pastoral Care Companion (St. Louis: Concordia, 2007) p. 538.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday in the Church Year

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

November 20, 2011
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

What will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? You know, of course, that you are a sinner. You just confessed it to God a few minutes ago, “by nature sinful and unclean… sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone” (LSB p. 167). To confess anything other than this truth would be fruitless. It is not as though you can lie to the all-knowing God. But to confess this truth about yourself, that you are a sinner, to plead guilty, is a fearsome thing as you stand before your almighty and righteous Judge. That is why you plead guilty now, confessing your sins, and you cling with all your might to the Absolution, to the word pronounced upon you by God’s called and ordained servant, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” knowing that by these words God Himself is forgiving your sins. You cling to your Baptism into Christ, by which your sins are washed away and you are clothed with His righteousness. Because this is true, beloved, on the Day of Judgment you plead innocent. You plead righteous. Not with your own righteousness. You have none. Not by your own works. Your works are as filthy rags before God. You plead righteous because of your righteous Lord Jesus, who covers you. When God looks at you, He sees Jesus, His innocent, righteous, beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.

But Jesus talks about works in the Gospel this morning, and this can be a little confusing to say the least. First, Jesus commends the sheep, those who are saved, for having fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. He commends them for their works. Then He sentences the goats, those who are condemned, to the eternal fire for their having failed to do these works. What’s it all about? Is Jesus here contradicting our doctrine that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works? It may appear that way at first glance, and this text is often misunderstood in that way, but what we have to ask of this text is this: What is it that makes the sheep, sheep? And what makes the goats, goats? And when we examine the text very carefully, we see that it is not the works that make the sheep or the goats, but the sheep or the goats that make the works, just as a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit (c.f. Matt. 7:17). In fact, before the judgment, before works enter the picture, the sheep are already sheep, and the goats are already goats. The sheep are those who are in Christ, the Lamb of God, by Baptism and faith. The goats are those who have rejected Christ and relied on their own works for justification and salvation.

So again the question, what will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? The sheep have as their only confidence on that Day their Lord Jesus Christ. The sheep will plead innocent and righteous because of Christ, who covers them. The goats will also plead innocent and righteous, but not because of Christ. They will make this plea because of their works. They will take confidence in themselves and in their works. And they will be condemned because their works are not sufficient. Their works are, in fact, sinful. The sheep will be surprised that they have ever done any good works. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” (Matt. 25:37-39; ESV). The sheep will be surprised because they know their works to be filthy with sin, impure, with mixed motives, and they know that they have often failed to live according to God’s will, that they have, in fact, blatantly sinned against His commandments. Yet their works are made holy by the blood of Jesus, which cleanses them. Their works are holy because of faith, which grasps the righteousness of Christ. The sheep will be surprised because they take no account of their works. They just do them, because faith is always living and busy and active, overflowing in love and good works. The works don’t make the sheep. The sheep make the works. And their sin and impurity and weakness is not counted against them, because they are forgiven in Jesus, who died for them and is risen for them. He alone is their confidence. They are justified by faith alone. But their faith is never alone. It is always full of love and the works wrought in believers by the Holy Spirit.

The goats will also be surprised on that Day, surprised to find out that none of their works count. None of their works help them. They will blame Jesus for having misjudged them, for being unjust. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” (v. 44). “Lord, don’t you see all that we’ve done, what good people we are? We gave lots of money to charity, we volunteered at soup kitchens, we were upstanding citizens, we did everything the sheep did.” And you know what? They will be right. In terms of outward works and outward obedience, they did everything sheep did. But they did it without faith. They did it outside of Christ. And so the sin and filth and impurity and mixed motives that are forgiven the sheep for the sake of Christ are not forgiven the goats. The goats want to be judged, not in Christ, but on the basis of their works. And God gives them what they want. But no one, neither sheep nor goat, can stand before God by his or her works. Works done outside of Christ, no matter how noble and good in the sight of men, are damnable sin. Yes, a million dollar donation to a children’s hospital (or even a church, for that matter), is a damnable sin when done outside of Christ. But in Christ, the mother who changes her baby’s diaper, who feeds her children, feeds and clothes Christ Himself. In Christ, the father who sets a roof over his family’s heads welcomes Christ into his home. In Christ, when you visit your Christian brother or sister in the hospital for their comfort and consolation, you visit Christ. We often think that the works Jesus speaks of in our text have to be extraordinary works of service, above and beyond what we do in our daily lives, but in reality, Jesus speaks of our living in our daily vocations, loving and serving those around us in faith that Jesus alone is our righteousness, not these works we’re doing. We do these works precisely because Jesus is our righteousness, and we live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

What we learn from this text is that Jesus is one with His Church, with His little lambs. We serve Jesus by serving them. We love Jesus by loving them. Because Jesus is in and with His people, what we call in theology the “mystical union” of Christ with His believers. Christ is in you and you are in Christ. The Holy Trinity is in you and you are in the Holy Trinity. This is your reality in Baptism. And this is the reality that makes all the difference on Judgment Day. Not the works you’ve done. Those are a result of the Judgment already rendered, that Christ has become your sin and paid for it in full on the cross, and you are righteous in Him because He has fulfilled the Law for you, died for your forgiveness, and is risen for your new and eternal life. The Judgment is that you are righteous on account of Christ alone. And that Judgment has already been pronounced. On Judgment Day it will be made manifest, declared publicly, for all the world and for the devil and his demons to hear. But it is a reality now. So you can go to work now, loving and serving your neighbor, knowing the end is near, but not worrying about it, because you know exactly what will happen on that Day. The Lord Jesus will say to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). And that will be a Day of great joy for you. Only those not found in Christ need fear that Day. For the Christian, it will be the Day when all that is wrong is made right again, when we are freed from our sinful flesh as our bodies are transformed into resurrection bodies like unto Christ, when God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Indeed, this is how it will happen on that Day: “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” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Hereupon will follow the Judgment, when the unbelievers will be cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. But you, beloved, because you are in Christ, will receive eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth. Believe it. Be comforted by it. Do not fear. For you are in Christ, and all your sins are forgiven. The verdict has been pronounced over you in Absolution this morning. You are righteous. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 28)

November 13, 2011
Text: Matt. 25:14-30

Beloved in the Lord, everything you have, everything you are, belongs not to you, but to God. He created you and all things, visible and invisible. He has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives you clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, family, and your daily living. You may think you have earned these things by your hard work. Even devoted Christians battle with such thinking in their sinful flesh. But every good gift and every perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights, from our gracious God (James 1:17). He richly and daily provides you with all that you need to support your body and life. So you are not yours to do with as you please. It is not your body, your choice. And what you believe belongs to you is not yours to do with as you please, either. It all belongs to God, your Maker and Redeemer. And He does all this, gives all of these things to you, only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you. For all this, then, it is your duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

God has made you a manager, a steward, over what He has given you. He expects you to use it, and use it well. And recognize, there will be an accounting of your use on the Last Day. He gives these gifts to you by grace, apart from works. These are your talents, your abilities, your blessings. Many of these things you were born with, others God has given you throughout your life, and God has charged you to foster them, develop them, and use them responsibly, not for selfish gain, but out of love for others and in thanksgiving to God. This is the doctrine of stewardship, and while it includes how you manage your money and contribute to the work of the Church, stewardship concerns so much more. It has to do with everything God has given you: Your very body and life, your relationships, your time, your talents and abilities, how you care for people and the things God has given to you, your prayers for others, the creation you enjoy, your daily vocations. Essentially, Christian stewardship is how you live your life in relationship to your neighbor. A good steward directs his or her resources for the benefit of the neighbor. A bad steward stores up all of his or her resources for him or herself. And, of course, the sinful flesh is always a bad steward, always curved in on itself. Beloved, you and I have a lot of repenting to do. Especially in view of the fact that the Master, our Lord Jesus, is returning soon to demand an accounting. Thus the parable Jesus tells us this morning (Matt. 25:14-30).

Jesus speaks of a man going on a journey who entrusts his property to his servants. To one servant he gives five talents, to another two, and to another one. A talent was a unit of mass in the ancient world used to measure money. The Roman talent was equal to about 71 pounds. The master in the parable is giving out money to his servants. And the money is not for them to do whatever they please with. The money doesn’t belong to them, but to the master. They are to put it to work for the master, to manage it as good stewards. Each servant is given his talents according to his ability. No servant is given more than his ability. No servant is given less than his ability. The master is wise in his distribution. Now the master goes away, and the servants do not know when he will return. As it happens, he is gone a long time, but one day he does return, and he expects to settle accounts with his servants. The one who had five talents had been faithful. He put the talents to work for the master, earning five more talents. And so the master commended him and richly rewarded him: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (v. 21; ESV). So also, the servant who had two talents was faithful and had made two more talents. He was likewise commended and rewarded. But the servant who had only one talent was worried for himself. He did not put the master’s money to work, as he had been commanded. He was not concerned to multiply the master’s blessing by investing it. Instead, he hoarded it. He buried it so no one could find it. Why? Because he did not trust the master. He believed the master to be a tyrant. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” (vv. 24-25). The master’s judgment is swift: “You wicked and slothful servant!” (v. 26). The unfaithful servant is rebuked, the talent is taken away from him and given to the one who has ten, and this worthless servant is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Notice that the first two servants are not rewarded because of their success, but because of their faithfulness, as the master points out in his commendation. There was always the risk that they would not have been successful, but they were nonetheless faithful, trusting in the master’s wisdom and intentions with his talents, desiring to do the master’s will. The third servant is not condemned for his lack of success, but for his unfaithfulness, for his lack of faith in the master, for his self-interest. And this is very important as we apply the parable to our own situation. God has graciously given us all that we have, without any merit or worthiness in us. He has generously poured out blessing upon blessing for our use and enjoyment. But His blessings don’t belong to us to bury under the ground or hoard up for ourselves. He gives us our blessings to use in love for others. Now this includes money, but again, it isn’t just about money. It is everything we have been given. In fact, we get our English word “talent,” as in gift or ability, from this parable. So we should use our gifts and abilities, our resources, yes, our money, as well as our time and effort, in love, for the sake of our neighbor. Because this is the investment our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, would have us make with what He has given us. And the question with regard to our investment is not one of success, because success or failure is not in our hands to determine, but of whether or not we have the faith in our Lord to do as He commands with what He has given us. If we believe that the Lord is gracious, if we trust Him, if we know that everything we have is from Him, that He has redeemed us for Himself, that He will not leave us or forsake us, that He gives us each day our daily bread, our meat in due season, opening His hand to satisfy the desires of every living thing, if we trust that His blessings will never dry up but that He will always provide for us, then we will be generous toward our neighbor. If, however, we think that the Lord is a hard God who does not love us, who does not care for us, who will not provide for us, whose blessings will dry up, then we will hoard what has been given to us for ourselves. So the question is, do you trust the Lord, or not? Trust, faith, alone makes the difference whether you will be commended and invited to join in the joy of the Master, heaven, or be cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, hell.

This is a Seventh Commandment issue, “You shall not steal.” The Commandment, remember, is more than the prohibition of taking what doesn’t belong to you. There is also the positive command; we should help our neighbor to improve his possessions and income. It is also a Fifth Commandment issue, “You shall not murder.” This Commandment, likewise, is about more than prohibiting the taking of our neighbor’s life. There is also the positive command; we should help and support our neighbor in every physical need. We act as though it would kill us to give even a little bit of our abundance for the sake of our neighbor who needs our help, as if we’d be ruined.[1] We act as though we don’t have any time to spare for a neighbor who needs a helping hand or a little encouragement. We act as though, if we don’t look out for ourselves, the Lord certainly won’t do it. Beloved, “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t in the Bible. It’s a false teaching. God helps the helpless. God helps you. He has helped you in the past and is helping you now and He will always help you. He is your only help. And He helps your neighbor through you. Repent of burying your talent in the ground, of hoarding it up for yourself, of failing to trust in the grace and generosity and providence of God. The good news is, your Lord Jesus Christ has taken your failure upon Himself, and given you His faithfulness. He has fulfilled the Seventh Commandment and the Fifth Commandment and every other Commandment in your place, and suffered the punishment for your unfaithfulness, your sin, in His innocent suffering and death on the cross. And He is risen, which means your sins are forgiven, and you have eternal life. Because just as He has given you His faithfulness, so He gives you His life. He has invested all, His very self, for your sake, that He may present you to His Father. And because He has done all this in your place, you already know the verdict that He will pronounce over you on Judgment Day: “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master.”

The Lord Jesus has ascended into heaven. It is very true, to be sure, that He dwells among us in the flesh in His Word and Sacraments, but He is gone from our sight. Just like the master in the parable, however, He has left us with every grace and blessing. We are to manage it. Knowing His faithfulness, knowing His providence, knowing that everything you are and have belongs to Him anyway, and knowing the verdict He will pronounce over you on the Last Day because of His faithfulness, trust Him enough to invest in your neighbor. Give generously. Be a good steward. Crucify the sinful flesh, that wicked and slothful servant who wants to be selfish with everything. Crucify your old Adam. And know that Christ Jesus, into whose death and resurrection you are baptized, has already done everything for your eternal life and salvation. He has redeemed you that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. This is most certainly true. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Stolen from the Rev. President Matthew Harrison.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

All Saints' Sunday

All Saints’ Day (Observed)

November 6, 2011
Text: Rev. 7:9-17

“Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? … 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” (Rev. 7:13-14; ESV). There is a lot of confusion out there about the great tribulation. What is it? When is it? Who experiences it? Should I be scared by it? It doesn’t help that popular preachers, popular book series, and the rest of commercial Christianity sensationalize the great tribulation to catch your ear and draw you into their audience. And this sensationalizing is almost always based on a false theology called premillennialism. There are several stripes of premillennialism, but the most popular, dispensational premillennialism, goes something like this: On a day that God determines there is a rapture where all the Christians disappear (go to heaven) and everyone else is left behind (thus the name of a certain popular book series a few years back). And so begins a seven-year period of tribulation in which the antichrist reigns on earth, the Jews are converted, and the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt. At the end of those 7 years, Christ visibly returns and raises the saints from the dead. The Battle of Armageddon is fought and Jesus reigns on earth for 1,000 years, after which comes the final judgment. Now, understand, this is a false theology that fails to understand the genre of Revelation, namely, apocalyptic literature, in which images and numbers are symbols. The symbolic nature of these images and numbers was readily understood by the original audience, the early Christians, living in the Greco-Roman world and familiar with Old Testament apocalyptic literature. But to you and I, living as we do in the Twenty-first Century Western world, this can be a little confusing, and even a little scary.

But beloved, the book of Revelation was never meant to be scary. Our Lord has given this book to His Church for our comfort and joy. We interpret Revelation in light of the rest of Holy Scripture, and so it is clear that this is how it will happen on the Last Day: On a day determined by God from all eternity, and known only to Him, Christ will return visibly to judge the living and the dead. The dead will be raised. Those still living will be gathered together before the throne. And our Lord Jesus will divide those who believed in Him from those who did not believe in Him. Those who believed in Him will enjoy a new resurrection heaven and earth where they will live with Jesus Christ in their risen bodies for all eternity. Those who did not believe in Him will be cast into hell, the lake of fire, in their risen bodies for all eternity, along with the devil and all his demons. It will all happen on one day, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. No literal 7-year reign of the antichrist during the great tribulation. No 1,000-year earthly reign of Christ. Lutherans are amillennialists, because the Bible is amillennialist. The name “millennialism” comes from the idea of an earthly thousand-year reign of Christ (a millennium is a thousand years). Lutherans don’t believe there will be such a reign since the Bible doesn’t support this teaching, and since Jesus Christ already reigns over all things from the right hand of God in heaven. Thus we’re amillennialists.

But if that’s the case, what about the great tribulation in our text this morning? It’s in the Bible, so we have to deal with it, and Lutherans certainly don’t deny that there is such a thing as the great tribulation. We need to teach it rightly. Beloved, you’re living in the great tribulation now. The great tribulation is the time between our Lord’s ascension into heaven and the day He returns to deliver us from our suffering on earth. St. John, the writer of Revelation, clearly says at the beginning of his book that the Church is already suffering the great tribulation. He writes, “I, John,” am “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). And St. Paul writes that we should be patient in tribulation (Rom. 12:12), knowing that the Church on earth will always suffer tribulation on account of her Lord Jesus and His Gospel. Our Lord Jesus Himself unpacks what it means to suffer the great tribulation in our Gospel lesson this morning, the Beatitudes. Christians, according to our Lord, are poor in spirit, they mourn, they are meek, they hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Jesus in an unrighteous world, they are called upon to show mercy to those who are unmerciful, they are pure in heart by the cleansing of the Holy Spirit in a world of impurity, they are to be peacemakers in a world of divisions and war and bloodshed, and they are to suffer violence, persecution for righteousness’ sake. But they are blessed, because this is the description of their Lord Jesus, and the description of them in Jesus. This is a description of you, beloved, as you suffer the great tribulation, as you live in an unbelieving world that is hostile to Christ and His Christians. You are blessed. Because yours is the kingdom of heaven, you will be comforted, you will inherit the earth, you will be satisfied, receive mercy, see God, and be called sons of God. Blessed are you in Christ Jesus your Savior.

So you’re suffering the great tribulation now, and if that’s the case, never mind all the hogwash being pedaled by pop/commercial Christianity and those under the spell of premillinnialist false-doctrine… if it is the case that the great tribulation is now, as the Bible teaches, then this reading from Revelation is of great comfort and consolation to you. Just who are these clothed in white robes and from where have they come? “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.” These are the saints who have died. These are the saints we commemorate on this All Saints’ Sunday. They were sinners, corrupt to the core of their nature, but they washed their filthy robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They are baptized into Christ and have been made perfectly holy with His holiness, perfectly righteous with His righteousness. Who are these? These are all your loved ones who have fallen asleep in Christ. They are in heaven with Jesus, standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, awaiting the resurrection of all flesh, with palm branches in their hands, joining with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in lauding and magnifying their Lord, crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). They are a great multitude that no one can number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They are all Christians who have died and are with the Lord. There is King David, and there is Mary, the mother of our Lord. There is Martin Luther and C. F. W. Walther. There is St. Augustine and Johann Sebastian Bach, and there is my dad, and my wife’s brother, and your loved ones, and all the saints who have died in our beloved Epiphany congregation. Behold, a host arrayed in white. They are not dead. They are standing around the throne of God and of the Lamb, where you will join them in a few moments from this side of the veil to feast on the Lamb’s body and blood for your forgiveness. And, beloved, this is a description of you when you depart this earthly life. For your robe has been made clean and white in the blood of the Lamb. You are baptized. And when you die, you come out of the great tribulation into heaven where you will see the Lamb for yourself, with the sure and certain promise that He will raise you from the dead on the Last Day.

Yes, you will be before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His Temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter you with His presence. You will hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike you, nor any scorching heat. The tribulation can no longer come near you or harm you. The Lamb will be your shepherd and lead you to springs of living water. How can this possibly be meant to scare you? Shame on those who would make this into a cheap horror flick. This is rather a comforting glimpse into your eternal future and the eternal present of your loved ones in heaven. What great joy. The Lord reveals this to you to strengthen you for endurance now as you suffer the great tribulation. It’s hard to be a Christian at this time in this fallen world. Many Christians suffer great persecution for the Name of Christ. Others, particularly in our culture, are lulled to sleep by materialism and affluence. Whatever the case, recognize this for what it is. This is the great tribulation. The devil is seeking to turn you away from Christ. But you’re safe in the Lord Jesus who died for you, and who is risen for you, and who is coming again for you to take you to Himself. You have washed your robes and made them white in His blood. You are baptized. And you have now beheld the future that awaits you. The Kingdom is yours now. The tribulation only lasts a little while. Very soon, beloved, God will wipe away every tear from your eyes. Blessed are you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.