Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (B)

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Eve

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Last Sunday in the Church Year

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 27)

November 9, 2014
Text: Matt. 25:1-13

            Be ready.  For you do not know the day or the hour.  Christ, our heavenly Bridegroom could come at any time.  Any day could be the Last Day.  And even if the Lord Jesus delays His coming, any day could be the day you die.  Have a care for the future.  Do not be lulled into a false sense of security.  As so many in the world say (as they did in the days of St. Peter), “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4; ESV).  Do we not, for all practical purposes, say the same thing in our hearts?  Jesus is coming soon, we may admit, but He isn’t coming today, we think.  And probably most of us believe, deep down in our hearts, that Jesus will not come in our lifetime.  How easily we fall into spiritual sleepiness.  We begin to nod off.  We neglect our lamps.  The flame starts to flicker.  We do not watch so carefully for the appearing of the Lord Jesus.  That is why the end of the Church Year, with its emphasis on the Last Things, is so important for us.  Beloved, be attentive to the preaching.  Repent, lest that Day take you unawares.
            The 10 virgins were waiting for the Bridegroom.  They were there to meet Him with their lamps burning, to escort Him to the house with rejoicing, and go in with Him to the Marriage Feast.  Now, for the most part, there is no difference between the wise virgins, and the foolish.  All 10 were virgins.  All 10 were waiting with their lamps.  All 10 fell asleep when the Bridegroom was delayed.  There was only this one difference between the wise and the foolish.  And that is the oil.  Five were prepared for the future.  They brought extra oil for their lamps.  Five did not.  They were caught unprepared.  They were not ready.  Thus when the Bridegroom came, five had to go to the dealers to buy oil, and they missed His coming.  But five were ready, and they met Him with their lamps burning brightly, and they went in with Him to the Marriage Feast, where the door was securely shut behind them. 
            The parable is a picture of the holy Church of God on earth.  The virgins are the baptized members of the visible Church.  Remember, all 10 were virgins.  All 10 had been purified by the washing of water with the Word.  So the distinction to be made here is not between Christians and crass unbelievers.  Rather, the distinction is between Church members who believe in Christ alone for their righteousness and salvation, and hypocrites, those who say they are Christians and belong to the Church’s outward fellowship, but trust in something other than Jesus for their righteousness.  Perhaps they trust in their own good works, how they stack up against other people, their superior knowledge or talent, reason or wisdom, their being “basically a good person.”  Perhaps they think they are covered as long as they are on the congregation’s membership rolls.  It’s almost cliché how we talk about people we never see again after Confirmation Day, as if they’ve now graduated from Church, but as long as they have those Baptism and Confirmation certificates, that’s their “get out of hell free” card.  Don’t let this be you.  If it is you, repent!  That’s utter foolishness.  There are other ways to be foolish, too.  In fact, there are infinite ways to be foolish.  It is certainly possible to have perfect Church attendance and still be one of these foolish virgins, if you don’t believe the Word that is preached here.  Any way in which you reject Christ and His forgiveness and righteousness makes you one of the foolish virgins.  Examine yourself.  Repent.  Confess your sins.  And return to Christ as the only source and unfailing fountain of righteousness and life, Christ crucified, Christ risen and living, for you.
            The difference between the wise and the foolish is simply this: who has the oil, and who does not.  The oil is faith in Christ, poured out by the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Word and the holy Sacraments.  You received it first at Baptism.  That is why all ten are virgins!  They were all purified, forgiven of their sins.  They all had oil to begin with, and notice, it was given them by God.  And now you receive the oil in your every encounter with the Means of Grace, as the death and resurrection of Christ are applied to you, your sins are forgiven, and you receive His life as your own.  That means every time you hear the Word: the Scripture readings, the Absolution, the Sermon, the Liturgy, the Hymns; every time You receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Supper; every time you read and study Scripture at home, with your family, in Bible Study and Sunday School; every time you encounter the Lord’s Means of Grace, there the Holy Spirit is present and active to point you to Christ, there He pours the oil of faith into your lamp.  The wise virgins aren’t any less sinful than the foolish.  But they have the oil.  They receive it in abundance at the Divine Service.  The Holy Spirit pipes it into them in the Word and the Sacraments. 
            Now, it is interesting that all 10 virgins fall asleep waiting for the Bridegroom.  So all members of the Church fall asleep.  This could mean a couple of different things, both true.  It could mean that all of us get distracted by the affairs of this world, the stuff of this life, to one degree or another, and thus fail to watch diligently for the coming of the Bridegroom.  This would be that false sense of security and spiritual sleepiness we were speaking of a few moments ago; really, denial of the possibility that Christ could come at any moment.  Again, we have to watch that as Christians, by constant self-examination, repentance, and confession.  Or, it could mean death.  All of them die.  And when the Bridegroom comes they are awakened.  They rise.  Remember, on the Last Day, everybody rises from the dead, believers and unbelievers.  Believers rise to eternal life with Jesus in a new heaven and a new earth.  Unbelievers rise to eternal death in hell.  But everyone is awakened from the grave and raised up in their bodies.  In any case, when that Day comes, those who have the oil of faith cannot share with those who do not.  You cannot believe for someone else.  Each one of you must believe for yourself.  And on that Day it is too late to do anything about your oil supply.  There are no second chances to believe on that Day.  Those who believe go in with Bridegroom to the Marriage Feast, and the door is shut.  Those who do not believe stand at the door and wail, “Lord, lord, open to us” (Matt. 25:11).  But for them He has these chilling words: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (v. 12).       
            “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13).  How do you become wise?  How do you stay ready?  You abide in Christ.  For by virtue of your Baptism, “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).  And by virtue of His Word in your ears and His crucified and risen Body and Blood on your tongue and coursing through your veins, you remain in Christ Jesus, remain in your Baptism your whole life long, through the valley of the shadow of death, and on to heaven and the resurrection of your body for eternity with Jesus.  You abide in Christ in connection with His Means of Grace where the Holy Spirit pours the oil of faith into you.  And thus possessing this God-given oil, your lamp burns brightly with works of love.  Faith always produces good fruit.  As Jesus says, “          I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

            Abide in Christ, beloved.  For the Day is coming when He will appear, when He will descend with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, with the sound of the trumpet of God.  Then the dead will arise, the books will be opened, and the wise who believed in Christ will receive eternal life, but the foolish who did not have oil, who did not believe in Christ, will be sentenced to eternal death.  And we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together in the clouds with those who have arisen, to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will always be with the Lord (Cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18).  The Bridegroom is coming.  He is coming soon.  Today the Holy Spirit pours out His oil upon you.  In the faith of Christ, you watch and you pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).  You are ready.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day (Observed)

November 2, 2014
Text: Matt. 5:1-12

            What is a saint?  An appropriate question on this All Saints’ Sunday.  Most people probably think a saint is someone who has little or no sin, who is always doing good things, helping the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and therefore earning merit before God.  A saint is a shoe-in for heaven, so the thinking goes.  Characters from the Bible, early Christians, those canonized by the Pope.  We certainly are all for doing good things, and we do call many of those in the Bible and the early Church “saints,” like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Mary, St. Augustine.  But that is not the biblical definition of a saint.  What is a saint, according to the Bible?  We heard in in our First Reading: “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. 7:14; ESV).  A saint is a sinner whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has been clothed with the righteousness of Christ, a baptized, believing Christian, who is therefore in that lineup coming out of the great tribulation here in this life into the eternal and visible presence of Christ and of God before His throne.  Well, by that definition, you are a saint!  And so are all your brothers and sisters in Christ across the centuries and from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (v. 9).  So are all your loved ones who died in Christ and already stand before the throne of God and of the Lamb, with palm branches in their hands, who serve God day and night and are comforted by Him as He wipes every tear from their eyes (vv. 15-17).    
            Saints, then, are not what most people think they are.  Saints are simply those redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  It is a great paradox, but a very important one: In this earthly life, saints are at the same time sinners.  Simul iustus et peccator, is the Latin phrase, you may remember from Catechism class.  According to your flesh, you are 100% sinner.  There is no goodness, no merit, no worthiness in you before God.  But by virtue of your Baptism into Christ, whereby He raised you up as a new creation, you are 100% righteous, 100% saint.  Because your righteousness before God comes from outside of you.  It is Christ’s own righteousness, applied to you in His Word and in Baptism and the Supper, credited to your account, as if you did what He did, as if you are what He is.  That means God looks at you and sees the perfect righteousness of His Son.  And He declares you a saint, sinless, righteous, perfect, holy.  Christ took all your sins away and paid for them with His blood on the cross.  In exchange, He gives you His righteousness as a gift, and you are free.  You receive it by faith.  You will be rewarded for it in heaven and in the resurrection of your body on the Last Day.  
            And so you are blessed.  The Beatitudes, the blessings pronounced by Jesus in our Holy Gospel, are themselves paradoxical.  Blessed are the poor in spirit?  Blessed are those who mourn?  Those who hunger and thirst?  Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake?  These are strange sayings, and much like the concept of saints, they are more often than not misunderstood.  We get them backwards.  We make them conditional, “if/then,” blessings.  If we are poor in spirit, then we shall be blessed and the kingdom of heaven will be ours.  If just mourn enough, in a pious and godly way, then we will be comforted.  If we’re meek enough, if we hunger and thirst enough, if we’re merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, sufferers for Christ, then we’ll be blessed by God.  And that’s wrong!  That’s not it at all.  That would make the Beatitudes Law when they are, in reality, the most comforting Gospel for those who live in this fallen world.  It is not the case that Jesus is here giving you more works to do so that you can earn your blessings from God, earn your sainthood.  He is rather pronouncing you blessed even in the midst of your sufferings, in spite of them, because you are in Him, and it is His good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.
            The Beatitudes are first of all a description of Christ, and then of you in Christ.  It is Christ, the Son of God, who becomes poor in spirit for your sake, clothing His divine majesty in the humility of flesh and blood, suffering for your sins on the cross.  Now, baptized into Christ, you recognize the poverty of your own spirit, your utter helplessness and inability to save yourself, the fact that you bring nothing to the table in your dealing with God except sin and death.  And you are blessed, because you are filled with all the riches of Christ.  The Kingdom belongs to you.  Salvation, eternal life, the resurrection, these are all yours.  Christ is the One who mourns over your sin, over the fallen-ness of His creation, over the suffering and death of His people.  He weeps over Jerusalem.  He weeps at the tomb of His friend, Lazarus.  He cries out for you from His cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  And you also mourn, you who are in Christ.  You have a tremendous sense of the fallen-ness of the world, and of your own flesh.  It grieves you.  Death grieves you.  Your sin against God grieves you, because you love Him, and you don’t want to grieve Him.  But Christ is your comfort.  He has taken away your sin, and given life to you and to your loved ones, even those who have died.  So you are blessed.  Christ came in meekness, gentle and lowly, that you might be gentle and lowly toward your neighbor, counting others better than yourself.  And so you shall inherit the earth, the new earth that Jesus gives you on the Last Day.  And so with the rest of the Beatitudes.  They are true of Christ, and they are true of you in Christ.  Christ hungers and thirsts for your righteousness, and so do you, so He gives you His, to count as your own.  He is pure in heart, true, clean, and so are you, in Him.  He has made peace between you and God, reconciling you to the Father by His cross and death.  And so you now make peace with others.  And of course, He was persecuted unto death for you.  And you will be persecuted, too.  That is the promise.  But in that persecution you are blessed.  You can rejoice and be glad.  They persecute you only because you are in Jesus.  It is Jesus they hate.  But again, yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.  So what is the worst they can do to you?  They cannot take you out of Jesus’ pierced hands.  They cannot take away your eternal life.  The Kingdom ours remaineth!
            Blessed are you, beloved.  Though you suffer now, in the great tribulation, you will come out of it, for your robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  His blood has been poured out upon your sin-parched lips, to quench your thirst for righteousness.  His body has been placed on your tongue to satisfy you with that which alone can fill your emptiness: the Bread of Life, Christ Himself.  And what of those who have gone before, who have come out of the great tribulation and are with Christ?  They are happy.  They are in bliss.  For they see Jesus now for themselves.  They see God, and stand before His throne with their palm branches, and they sing: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!... Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen” (Rev. 7:10, 12).  They understand the Beatitudes.  They know that they are blessed in spite of the tribulation they suffered here.  For Christ has taken away their sins, and He is their comfort and their joy.
            Now when the tribulation becomes too much for us, when we are weary and burdened by sin and sadness, when the peaccator (the sinner) overshadows the iustus (the saint) in us, when a loved one dies, when the devil accuses, when “the fight is fierce, the warfare long,” then, as some of us heard at Nancy Erickson’s funeral a couple days ago, then “Steals on the ear the distant triumph song” (LSB 677:5).[1]  Through God’s holy Word, and here in the Divine Service, we can actually hear that song the saints are singing.  Because Jesus is here, with angels and archangels, and with those very saints, all the company of heaven, gathered around the altar, where the Lamb is enthroned.  They join us here around the Body and Blood of Jesus.  And we join them in singing the heavenly triumph song.  “And hearts are brave again and arms are strong.  Alleluia!”  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).  And since that is true, we are blessed, indeed… sins forgiven, saints in Christ Jesus.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

[1] Rev. David Fleming, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, MI.