Sunday, December 25, 2011

By His Blood and in His Name

The text for today, the Circumcision and Name of Our Lord, is our Gospel, Luke 2:21:
 “And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Those of you growing up with brothers or sisters can probably relate to this scene.  It’s one of the days following Christmas.  As you shower, get dressed, and then eat breakfast, you plan out your entire day.  It’s going to be a great day!  You’re going to spend all your time playing with that favorite gift. 
  
But when you go to play with it, it’s gone!  Immediately, you know where to start looking.  You’ve seen that look in your brother’s eyes.  You know he’s been coveting it ever since you first unwrapped it.  Barging through his bedroom door, you catch him red-handed.  “Give it to me!” you yell.  “That’s mine!”   
  
And even though he knows full well it was your Christmas present, he replies, “I don’t see your name written on it!” 
  
Thinking back on this scene, I just realized that maybe that’s why Santa brought all three of us—my brother, sister, and me—label makers one Christmas.  Wise old man that he is, he realized that if we each had our name stuck on all of our own things, there would be no need for such arguments or fights. 
  
That’s how I came to have a roomful of toys and books and other stuff, each of them marked with a green, plastic label that had the name “Bob” written on it.  That label marked that stuff as belonging to me.  It was to prevent someone else from running off with my things.  And even if they did, it assured that the thief (or borrower) would have to return them to their rightful owner.  Putting our name on things marks them as our own.
  
Guess what?  God does the same thing.  He also puts His name down to mark His property.  “Wait a minute,” I can hear you say.  “We’ve been taught that everything belongs to God.  We’re His stewards given the responsibility to manage everything for Him.  But it’s really all His!  Psalm 24:1 says, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.’  Wouldn’t that mean His name would have to be plastered all across creation?”
  
Good question.  It is true that everything already belongs to God.  But it’s also true that God Himself has some special possessions, some properties that seem dearer to His heart than others.  Like Andy from Toy Story, He indelibly marks those that are especially dear to Him with His own name.
  
Think of the temple in Jerusalem.  That place was very special to God because it was where He promised to be for His people so they could find Him, come and pray to Him, and receive His forgiving love.  That’s why the Old Testament speaks of the temple as the place where God’s name dwells.   In fact, God Himself had promised King David, “Your son whom I will put on the throne in your place will build the temple for My Name” (1 Kings 5:5).  At the dedication of the temple, Solomon prayed, “May Your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which You said, ‘My Name shall be there.’”  
  
Certainly every building on earth is God’s own.  But that building—the temple—was a special building because that’s where God promised to come and meet His people to bless them.  And so we come here today because this is the place where God promises to come and meet us and bless us in His name.
 
 
Today, as strange it may seem at first, we celebrate the circumcision of Mary’s Son.  No, we don’t celebrate this painful and bloody surgical procedure itself, but rather its significance.  For a first-century Jew, the practice of circumcision was theological rather than medical or cultural.  It had to do neither with good hygiene nor social standing but with God’s promise. 
  
God instituted circumcision with Abraham and his descendants as a sign of His covenant with them—that He would be their God and they would be His people.  Every male was to receive this sign on the eighth day of life.  It served as a visible sign of God’s promise to Abraham that through his offspring all nations on earth would be blessed.  They were to live as God’s people by walking in His ways and trusting in His promise to send a Savior through Abraham.  Sadly, although the bodies of God’s people were circumcised their hearts were not.  They frequently worshiped and served other gods and walked in other ways.  Just like you and me!
  
About 2,000 years after Abraham another of his many descendants was marked with that same bloody sign on His eighth day.  Unlike previous generations, His circumcision was not the sign of promise made but of God’s promise kept.  He is the Savior of the world, the promised Offspring of Abraham through whom the world is blessed.  This Christ Child lived according to His circumcision with His heart as well as His body.  That is, He kept and fulfilled the entire Law, and so showed Himself to be the true Son of God.  In this way, He was “the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).
  
God always required the shedding of blood as part of His covenant.  In fact, very early on God explained the sacrificial system: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11).  The author of Hebrews adds: “Under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (17:22).
 
 
That shedding of blood normally consisted of the substitutionary sacrifice of animals.  But circumcision required the shedding of human blood.  Though a helpless baby who depended on the care of His parents, Jesus began to fulfill His mission to save the world from sin.  His obedience to the Law involved the shedding of His own precious blood for the first time. 
  
According to Colossians 2:13, the cutting off of the foreskin is representative of the cutting off of sin and rebellion against God.  While Jesus Himself is without sin, He took all humanity’s place under the Law as the sin-bearer, just as He would in His Baptism.  Through this One who represents all humanity, all people are circumcised once and for all. 
  
At the same time He was marked by circumcision, Mary’s Child was also marked with the name “Jesus.”  The purpose of the name was not to be cute or creative but to confess and describe who this Child is.  In the ancient world, names were not merely identification tags.  They were carefully chosen to reveal some characteristic trait or significance of the individual.  Generally the father named the child and if the baby were a firstborn son, he would give him his own name. 
  
In this case, Mary and Joseph were given the name, just as they were given the Child miraculously and without any choice or say in the matter.  Don’t overlook the theological significance of the miraculous revelation of Jesus’ name by God through the angel.  In a unique sense, Jesus’ name is chosen by His Father!  In fact, Jesus is named after His Father! 
  
“Jesus” is a Greek translation of “Joshua”, which means “Yahweh (the Lord) saves.”  The angel explained this when he broke the big news to Joseph.  Like Joshua of the Old Testament, Jesus was to take His people into the Promised Land in victory.  But Jesus is much greater, in that His victory would not just be over the pagan Canaanite enemies, but over all the forces of evil and death.  And the new Promised Land into which He leads His people is the eternal new heaven and earth. 
  
Jesus would fulfill His name perfectly and completely.  Already at His circumcision, the eight-day-old child sets upon the road that would lead through the sufferings of Calvary, the stony silence of the tomb, and the jubilation of Easter morning.  In fact, in this eight-day-old Child, Yahweh, the Lord Himself, has come in the flesh “for us men and for our salvation,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. 
  
By His submission to the Law and His perfect keeping of it, Jesus saves and redeems those who are under God’s Law.  He gives His perfect obedience to you, and He bears the suffering and death of your failure to keep the Law.  In the Great Exchange, what is yours becomes His, and what is His become yours.  So the circumcision of Jesus is also your circumcision.  Its former theological meaning is now found in Him.  You no longer need circumcision; instead, you need Jesus—His circumcision, His perfection, and His fulfillment of the Law.
  
In our Epistle, Paul describes our “adoption as sons” in Jesus.  In Him, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female,” but only Christians baptized into Christ and belonging to Him.  “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  Through your Baptism into Jesus, His circumcision counts for you, male or female, and gives you the rights of a son of God.   
  
How does He give it?  How has God ever given His grace and blessings?  With His name.  Always He puts His name on someone, and that someone ceases to belong to God in general but instead belongs to God in specific as a precious and prized possession.  Like me putting name labels on my possessions so my brother or sister couldn’t run off with them, God has put His triune name on you with all its blessings so that you might never be lost, but belong to Him forever.
  
Just before He ascended to heaven, Jesus told His disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 
  
Jesus—the Lord who saves—is with you, for you have been baptized into His name.  Every time you say His triune name and make the sign of the cross, you recall how the Lord has made you one of His own people, His own child.  You are an heir of forgiveness, life, and salvation through Jesus’ blood and name.
  
In Baptism, you are given the benefits of Christ’s once for all sacrifice for the sin of the world.  In Baptism, you are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world to the cross.  Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you receive the forgiveness of sins earned by the shedding of His blood, from that first blood at eight days to His bloody Good Friday death. 
  
Risen and ascended, the Lord still comes to you.  In His Word, He speaks to you through His called and ordained servant.  In His Supper, Christ gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  At the altar you receive Jesus, the entire Jesus, the true body and blood of the one who is your life and salvation.  And that gives you everything earned by the shedding of His blood, everything that comes with His name. 

That includes the privilege of calling upon the Father in prayer.  Jesus’ name gives you access to His heavenly Father.  At the right hand of the heavenly Father, Jesus intercedes for you on your behalf.  When you pray in Jesus’ name, the Father promises to hear your prayers.  You may approach Him with your requests with all boldness and confidence, asking Him as dear children ask their dear father.
  
The whole rest of Christian life is just unpacking the joy of what it means to live life and die death as one who belongs specially to the triune God—what it means to live under the promise and mark of God’s holy name, as a person walking the way home to the Father and His Promised Land.
  
St. Peter described this new life as one baptized in God’s name this way: “You are chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of the darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
  
Now there’s a resolution worthy of a new year!  May you, people marked as God’s own by His blood, declare to all the world the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.  May you, people marked with God’s triune name, share His glorious name and all the power it brings with all of your family, friends, and neighbors.  May you spend this year with the Word of God in your ear, the blood of Jesus on your tongue, and the name of Jesus on your forehead and your heart.  For through His Word, and by His Blood, and in His Name, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
  
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Commending Your Children to God in Prayer


When my children were growing up I made it a point to pray for each of them regularly and asked the Lord to fill in for my parental shortcomings. Sad to say, now that they have grown up, I don't pray for them as often as I ought. I should do much better. And, as I think about it, when I do pray for them I don’t always pray for the right things. This is one element of my daily devotional discipline I wish to improve.

Toward that end, I recently purchased a copy of the revised Concordia edition of Starck’s Prayer Book. Originally written in German during the 18thcentury and first translated into English in 1921, this wonderful little book stands up quite well to the test of time. It contains prayer for many occasions and situations, but the one that really caught my eye is entitled “Believing Parents Commend Their Children to God in Prayer.”

The prayer includes a number of things you would normally expect to hear in such a prayer: thanksgiving to God for the gift of children; as well as petitions for help in raising them in the discipline and instruction in the Lord, that they would be well-grounded in the Christian faith, that they would lead godly lives, that the Lord would protect them from spiritual and physical danger, and that He would continue to provide for their temporal needs. But it also contains a paragraph that is just as important as all of them, but which most of us probably don’t think to pray. Or if we do think of it, we never voice it because it goes right at the heart of a parent’s deepest fears. Starck writes:

But if it should please You to make my children a cross to me, either by their sickness, or death, or any other calamity that I might have to see them suffer, grant me patience in such affliction, and remind me that nothing happens without Your divine direction, that my children were Yours before they were mine, and that You have sovereign power to take them again to Yourself. But if it is Your design by the suffering, misfortune, and death of my children to draw me to You, in order that I may recognize also in them that Your visible gifts are perishable, to stir me up to love You alone, the true and perfect God, keep me while traveling this thorny path in firm confidence and hope in Your almighty power, which can end and mend all things, even the crosses of my children.

Starck lived in a day and age when the loss of a child (or children) was all too common. In the days before antibiotics and modern medicines, every sickness was considered to be potentially crippling or even lethal, particularly among children. God has blessed us with many advances in medical science since that time that make the death of a child a rarity in our day. Praise the Lord! But that blessing has also come with a downside: our sinful minds have tricked us into believing that bad things can’t (or shouldn't) happen to us—they certainly shouldn't happen to our children!

But the reality is that we live in a fallen world. Bad things do happen. And even if disease or death are not an obvious threat there are many other perils and trials that we must all face on a daily basis. Each one of us has to take up his own cross. But we don’t have to carry the burden alone. Our Lord will do that for us. We have not, because we ask not. That’s why one of the best gifts we can give our children (and receive ourselves) is to pray for them. No, God doesn’t always answer our prayers just when or in the exact way that we would want, but He does promise to hear our prayers and to answer in a way that is best for us and for those for who we pray in Jesus' name. A prayer like Starck’s helps me to remember that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Lord Humbles the Proud and Exalts the Lowly

The text for today is our Old Testament reading, the Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The theme of our midweek Advent services is “My pride, my defeat.  God’s pride my deliverance.”  We’ve been talking about the dangerous sin of pride.  Pride tricks us into believing that we are self-sufficient and self-made, that we don’t need anybody or anything to make our own way—not even God.  But such an attitude keeps us from realizing our great need: Before God we are beggars; we must rely on His grace and mercy to save us. 

Pride is a dangerous sin that separates us from God, and in order to rid us of its grip God will go to extreme lengths.  As when King Nebuchadnezzar boasted of his mighty power and was driven out to live with the beasts of the field, his hair as long as eagle’s feathers and nails like bird claws.  Or when King Saul thought he could order the worship of God in his own way, and forfeited his throne and life, and endangered his eternal soul.  But kings aren’t the only ones prone to pride; we all are.  And to prove this, tonight we have story of two everyday, ordinary women. 

Every family has its problems, and the family of Elkanah, located in the hill country of Ephraim, was no exception.  The strain in this household was obvious.  Here were two wives, Hannah and Peninnah, competing for the love and attention of the same man.  And it seemed that Hannah was losing, for while Peninnah had children—sons and daughters, Hannah was barren—the Lord had closed up her womb.  This is a very distressing condition for most any woman, but was particularly bitter in a day and age in which a woman’s value in society was measured by the number of children she bore.

The worst times for Hannah were during the festivals.  Peninnah used such occasions to provoke her rival, even going so far as to exalt herself whenever Hannah went to the worship, as though fertility was proof that God favored her over Hannah.  It was depressing; not even Elkanah’s profession of undying love could fill the emptiness in Hannah’s life.  But there was One who understood.  And so Hannah took her need to the Lord in prayer.  The essence of Hannah’s prayer is found in two words in 1 Samuel 1:11: “remember me.” 

It’s a sad commentary on religious life in those times when the high priest doesn’t recognize fervent prayer, but assumes drunkenness instead.  But that’s what Eli did.  Hannah defended her honor: “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit.  I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” 

Eli felt her reproof and dismissed her with a high priestly blessing.  “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to Him.”  Hannah left the sanctuary that day having handed everything over to God.  And her confidence was not misplaced—“The Lord remembered her.”  She conceived and bore a son and called him Samuel, meaning “God has heard.”

True to her vows, Hannah took her son to Shiloh and presented him to the Lord.  Then Hannah broke out in a song of praise and thanksgiving, a prayer.  The theme of Hannah’s song is the glory of the Lord who humbles the proud and exalts the lowly.  Verse 10 is particularly prophetic: “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; He will give strength to His king and exalt the power of His Anointed.” 

Hannah prophesies the time when God would give His righteous judgments through His anointed king.  At that time, there was no king in Israel.  But Hannah’s son, Samuel would grow up and anoint Saul as the first king.  And when Saul’s pride brought about his defeat, Samuel would anoint David.  The words of Hannah’s song would ultimately be perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, the Anointed One.

Which takes us to another pair of otherwise ordinary women: Elizabeth and Mary.  Both women are “miracle moms.”  Elizabeth shouldn’t be pregnant since she’s been barren all her life and now is past the age of child-bearing.  But Mary’s pregnancy is even more miraculous, for she has not known a man.  She is a virgin.     

Mary greets Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth hears the greeting of Mary, the baby leaps in her womb.  Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit exclaims with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Among women, Mary is especially blessed.  Why?  Because Mary is what every true Israelite woman aspired to be—the mother of the Messiah.  She is the counterpart to Eve, who heard the doubting word of the devil and was deceived.  Mary heard the Word of God through the angel, she believed, and she conceived.  Mary’s Child is the Promised Seed, the One who conquers death and devil by dying.  As Eve was to be the mother of all the living, so Mary is the mother of the One who is the Source and Savior of all life.  And if that doesn’t give you a few Advent goosebumps, I don’t know what will.

Mary is blessed because the Lord is present with her, full of grace and truth.  Furthermore, Mary is blessed because she believed—the Word gave her faith so that she might give birth to the Word Made Flesh.  And she is blessed because God is faithful and will fulfill His promise.  Add it all up, and you see a common theme: Mary is blessed because of the Child within her conceived by the Holy Spirit.

And what does Mary have to say for herself?  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.  For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.  And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.  He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:46-55).

It’s quite a speech by an unwed teenage mother to be.  One might ignorantly decide that she must be a haughty young thing all stuck on herself.  But I doubt that you’ll hear anything so substantial from Chelsea or Janelle or any of the other teen moms on reality TV.  No, Mary speaks in the form of a psalm, much like the song Hannah sang when she brought her young son, Samuel, to the Lord’s house. 

Furthermore, listen to what Mary says: “All generations will call me blessed.”  What’s that mean?  Since she’s speaking Old Testament-style, let’s just take a look there.  How many blessed things last for all generations?  Well, the Lord’s name does (Exodus 3:15).  So does His will (Psalm 33:11).  So does His praise (Psalm 79:13), His faithfulness (Psalm 89:1), and His fame (Psalm 146:10).  So does His truth (Psalm 100:5), His absolution (Psalm 106:31), and His presence (1 Kings 8:12-13).  And Mary says that all generations will call her blessed?

It would be a haughty, prideful song indeed, except that Mary is singing about the Child inside her belly.  He is the Lord, the Son of God.  He is God’s truth, faithfulness, absolution, and presence with His people.  He brings salvation for Mary and the world—not by our works of pride, might, or wealth—but by His life, suffering, death, and resurrection.  That’s why all generations will look back and call Mary blessed: Because the Lord is present with her, full of grace and truth. 

Properly understood, the song of Mary is not about her at all.  She is simply the instrument that God uses to bring His Son into the world.  This is the great and mighty wonder at the heart of Christmas.  The Lord of the universe, the Word through whom all things were made, has a mother!  The infinite Almighty Son of God takes up residence in the finite confines of a mother’s womb. 

Jesus could have appeared suddenly out of nowhere, I suppose, as a fully grown man, much as the gods of the Greek myths were said to appear.  God can dwell among us any way He chooses.  But then there would be doubts: Is He fully human, or does He just appear to be that way?  Had not Jesus had a human mother we would forever doubt His humanity.  And then we would question whether He is our substitute under the Law, whether His death actually atones for our sin.

Had Jesus shown up as a 30-year-old man, He would have sidestepped some of the most difficult and painful parts of our human existence—the trauma of birth, the helplessness of infancy, the bumps and bruises of toddlerhood, the awkwardness of adolescence.  He would not have known what it’s like to be utterly dependent on father and mother and to live obediently under them. 

It had to be this way, for Jesus to literally be the Savior of all.  His human nature embraces all of our humanity, from the tiniest cluster of fetal cells in Mary’s womb to the dying breath of the Man on the cross.  Jesus embraces the fullness of our humanity with the fullness of His divinity.  God is Man and Man is God.  File that away for another week or so because that is true reason for the season.

But in the meanwhile, we’re still in Advent.  Like pregnant Mary, we are expectantly looking for the coming of the Lord.  And to help us properly prepare and focus we have Mary’s song of salvation, her Magnificat to the Lord who had done great things for her.  The Holy Spirit, by whom she conceived the Savior, put this song in Mary’s heart and upon her lips for your blessing and mine.

Her song begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Mary’s focus is on her Lord.  I find it fascinating that little is mentioned of Mary in the Gospels—virtually nothing at all after Jesus’ childhood, except for the wedding at Cana, the time when she thought her Son had lost His mind, and then at the cross.  Mary would not be pleased by all the attention that is given to her.  She magnifies the Lord, and would have us do the same. 

“All generations will call me blessed,” she says.  And so we do.  We bless her when we sing the song she sang, as we do at every Vespers.  We bless her for the mighty things God has done through her.  We bless her that God chose such a wonderful way to make His appearance in our world. 

We bless Mary for her servanthood, for her faith that said “yes,” that bowed humbly before the Word of God even when it didn’t make sense, and said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”  We bless her because she is the mother of our Lord.  If we lose Mary, we lose the Incarnation of the Son of God, for the One whom we call both Lord and God has a mother, just as you and I have mothers.

We bless Mary because she stands at the end of a long line of blessed and chosen mothers, from Eve, to Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, down the line through all the mothers of Israel, who carried the Promised Seed from one generation to the next, until the fullness of time came, when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under Law, to redeem those under the Law.

We bless Mary, but we must not worship her.  She would be offended and irritated by such misguided adoration.  Her name is not holy.  She did not earn her honor as the mother of our Lord; it was given to her.  God’s name is holy.  The Child whom she carried, who bears the name of God in human flesh, the Child whose name Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation,” His name is holy.

With her song, Mary also teaches us the proper fear of the Lord: “His mercy is on those who fear Him, from generation to generation.”  What does fear have to do with Christmas?  Jesus in a manger is safe, cute, cuddly—there is nothing to fear there.  The shepherds were afraid of the angels, not the baby. 

But don’t be deceived by His humble state.  Even in the womb, this Child has the power to create and destroy.  He is the arm of God extended to us, the arm that can kill and make alive, that throws down and picks up.  He scatters the proud in their arrogance.  He brings down rulers from their thrones.    

Just think of the sight of Saddam Hussein being pulled out of his spider hole eight years ago yesterday—all scruffy and unshaven and dirty.  This once proud and boastful king of modern Babylon didn’t learn very well from his ancient predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar.  It never goes well for any king or president, who arrogantly boasts of his accomplishments as though he were the driving force.

With the strength of His arm, the Lord topples the thrones of this world—Pharaoh in Egypt, Sihon of the Amorites, Og of Bashan, Tiglath-Pileser in Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Alexander the Great, the Caesars of Rome, Hitler, and Gorbachev.  One day He will sweep His arm and every throne under heaven, including our own nation, will crumble under the weight.

With the strength of His arm, the Lord sweeps away the riches of the rich.  He takes away our property, position, and honor.  He strips away our pride.  He crushes our egos.  He opens the floodgates to earthquakes and floods and fires, plagues and famines, disasters and diseases.  He takes away our life, our goods, our fame and fortune, our family.  He utterly devastates every idolatry in us by the strength of His arm—the pride of our hearts, the will to gain power and control others, the lust for fortune and fame.  Oh yes, the arm of the Lord is to be feared.

And yet it is also an arm of mercy.  To those who fear Him, who have heard the death sentence of the Law and tremble before Him, the Lord extends that arm of mercy.  He gives to the empty, to those who offer nothing, to the beggars, to the little ones of faith, the poor, the meek, the lowly, the least, the lost, the dead. 

The Lord humbles the proud and exalts the lowly.    

With His arm outstretched, God swore an oath to the patriarchs.  He promised descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, and an inheritance that would never pass away.  By His right arm He brought the children of Jacob out of Egypt and gave them a land.  By His right arm, God reached down to us and embraced our humanity in all of its sin and misery and death. 

But the strength of His arm is hidden under weakness—a virgin’s womb, a borrowed tomb, a manger bed, a cross of dread.  When He appears most weak and lowly, He is most Savior for you. 

Indeed, this is true for you even now as our Christ comes to you in His Word and Sacraments.  With the Word of God plain, ordinary water is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit.  Under the bread and the wine of His Supper, you receive the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Through an ordinary man—His called and ordained servant—Christ speaks His Absolution to you, a repentant sinner. 

To the eyes of the world, these all appear weak and lowly; but in them, you have salvation and eternal life.  In these means of grace, the arm of the Lord reaches out to you, bringing you this blessed Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful Even for the Detours of Life

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It’s not good for a pastor to talk about himself too much in a sermon.  The sermon can easily degenerate into a speech like those essays from elementary school: “What I Did During Summer Vacation” or given the holiday we are observing today, “What I Am Thankful For.”  Or it can easily turn into a Joel Osteen pep talk on how to have your best life now if you just follow my example.  A proper sermon should be focused on Christ, and Him crucified.”  No, it’s not good for a pastor to talk about himself too much in a sermon.  But this time, for the sake of illustration, I’m going to risk it for a little bit.  I pray that it will help you view your own life’s detours from a Scriptural perspective.

This is the second Thanksgiving in a row that I have had the privilege and pleasure of preaching at Christ Lutheran Church.  Certainly, two years ago, I would not have expected to be standing here today.  I was the pastor of one of God’s flocks at another location.  Even last year, when I preached here I did not expect to be here today or to still be working overnights at Wal-Mart.  I fully hoped to receive a call to be the pastor of another congregation by this time.  But as Thomas a Kempis is credited with writing in “The Imitation of Christ: “Man proposes but God disposes.”  Or as Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (16:9). 

Life’s journey is not one straight, smooth road, but full of potholes and detours.  And God is able to use all of it to shape us and make us into the people He wants us to be, to use us in the ways that He best knows as He gets us to our ultimate destination—our heavenly Promised Land.  So, on life’s journey, I find myself in the middle of a detour I could’ve never imagined less than two years ago.

How did I get here?  In one word—sin.  Without going into a lot of details—an error in judgment on my part created mistrust.  The spark of mistrust was fanned into a flame of unnecessary conflict by Satan through rumor, speculation, failure to put the best construction on the situation, and unwillingness to repent and/or forgive.  That conflict led me to resign in order to avoid a greater split to the congregation to which I was called.         

I certainly don’t tell you this to hold myself up as a role model.  Like you I am a poor miserable sinner who only stands here by God’s grace.  And I don’t tell you this in order to try to gain favor with God, although I must admit that the false promise runs repeatedly in my sinful mind that if I just do the right things, if I just please God well enough, if I just pray hard enough, that He might relent and once again call me as a pastor of one of His congregations.          

Neither do I tell you this as a sort of purging or catharsis.  I’ve confessed my guilt before God and man, and I know that no matter what others may think I stand before the Lord, pure and blameless, forgiven and absolved solely for the sake of Jesus Christ, His perfect life, atoning death and resurrection.  Nor do I do it make any accusations against others.  I accept full responsibility for the consequences of my actions.  I’ve done so privately and publicly.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.  My fault.  My own grievous fault.

And I do not tell you this in order to gain sympathy.  Though my life is very different than I would have expected, I still have a very good life.  If anything, these events have brought my family closer together.  I’ve come to better understand and appreciate the Lord’s provision of daily bread.  I enjoy my work at Wal-Mart.  I’ve made a lot of friends there, and have a greater opportunity to speak the Gospel on a one-on-one basis than I’d ever have as a parish pastor.  I get the opportunity to preach and teach on a regular basis.  We have a church home “in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”  I am certainly thankful for each of these many blessings. 

No, I don’t share this other than with the hope that it might somehow help you to better understand your own detours in life in relation to our text for today, Deuteronomy 8:2-3:  And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

“Forty years in the wilderness.”  Talk about a long detour!  And living in tents to boot!  I enjoy camping out.  The peaceful solitude, the sounds and smells of the great outdoors are invigorating.  But forty years?  That’s a different story.  And it wasn’t like the Israelites were in some lush national forest.  They were in the wilderness, a desolate region with no native food or water supplies.  And despite their wilderness setting they didn’t even have the luxury of “getting away from it all.”  Imagine, taking the entire populations of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming and placing us in a portable tent city slowly moved about the Badlands.  This is the kind of detour on which God led the people of Israel for forty years!

If you take a look at the map you’ll see just how strange it is that it would take this long to get from Egypt to the Promised Land.  In our present day, Cairo is less than 300 miles away from Jerusalem as the crow flies: to take forty years to get there works out to traveling about one hundred feet a day.  Most of us have to walk farther than that just to take the garbage out.  Furthermore, there were a bunch of bumps on the road: the people ran out of water more than once, which the Lord had to provide miraculously.  They ran out of food and complained until the Lord sent manna falling from the sky.  There were fiery serpents and scorpions and barren desert.  It just doesn’t sound like a pleasant place to be.

It certainly didn’t have to be this way.  The Lord is quite capable of doing things differently.  After all, this is the same all-powerful God who parted the Red Sea rather than say, “Why don’t you spend a few days going around?”  But He picked the long road—a forty year detour.  Why?  He tells us through His servant Moses in our Old Testament lesson for this Day of Thanksgiving.

Moses says, “Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

When they ran out of water and food in the wilderness, the people of Israel were quick to panic and fret that they were going to die of thirst and starvation.  In other words, they were quick to doubt the Lord’s mercy.  In fact, they were quick to accuse Moses and God of leading them into the wilderness to die! 

That sort of distrust can swing more than one way.  So the Lord warned that once they reached the Promised Land and had all of its abundance, they’d be likely to forget that it was all a gift from Him.  They’d be tempted to take it for granted, or think that they had earned it themselves.  So in preparation for the Promised Land, the Lord humbled them.  He put them in a situation where they said, “We cannot survive out here on our own.  We need the Lord to keep us alive.” 

There was more to it, too.  It was a matter of discipline.  Moses declares, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.”  Some of the discipline in the wilderness was punishment.  There’s no hiding the fact that they were in the wilderness because when they came out of Egypt, they refused enter the Promised Land for fear of the Canaanites.  Because they doubted God, the Lord declared that none of the Israelites would enter the Promised Land until that generation died off.  That was the reason for the forty year detour—a year for each of the forty days they had spied out the land and then failed to claim the Lord’s promise.

But not all of it was punishment.  Discipline also means training.  And once again, the Lord was training His people to trust in Him.  As He provided food and deliverance from danger in the wilderness, so He would give them victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land.  The Lord was training them to know that they were to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

One more thing about that forty year detour: it had a starting point.  The Israelites weren’t always in the wilderness.  They’d spent over 400 years in Egypt, the last portion as slaves.  They would have died there as slaves, too.  But the Lord rescued them from that slavery—rescued them wondrously, miraculously, and dramatically.  No, the wilderness might not be the greatest place to be, but it was a far better situation than the slavery and death they’d known.

That’s especially true since it wasn’t their destination.  The detour in the wilderness was just the time between the slavery and the Promised Land.  Throughout those years, the Lord would humble them, test them, and discipline them.  He would also provide for them, protect them, and when the time was right, give them the Promised Land full of every good thing.  But more than that, He’d give them a Savior, one of their own, who would deliver them to eternal life.

It’s no coincidence that many centuries later Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  As Israel was baptized through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus was baptized and went straight to His temptation for forty days.  He did perfectly what the people of Israel failed to do.  Where the people sinned against God again and again, Jesus remained perfectly sinless and obedient.  Where they needed to be humbled, He was perfectly humble.  Where Israel panicked because there was momentarily no food, Jesus fasted and trusted.  In fact, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus quoted this Old Testament lesson: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). 

Always humble, He met every test and remained the disciplined Son.  Why did He do so?  Jesus wasn’t just re-enacting wilderness life to see what it must have been like for His ancestors.  He did this to redeem them—and to redeem you, too.  He lived that perfect life in order to credit you with His perfect obedience.  Then He went to the cross; and on the cross, His Father punished Him with the judgment for the sin of the world—that you might have eternal life. 

All of this frames your life on earth; and actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day.  I do pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, of family and friends, of food and fun.  But even if your life has taken an unexpected detour, remember, there is a reason for this: you’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the wilderness.  You’re not in the Promised Land yet!  You’re still in the land of fiery serpents and scorpions—of thirst and hunger, arthritis and cancer, bad decisions and troubled relationships.  That’s what the wilderness is like, and the troubles you face will be used by the devil to leave you thankless and doubting God. 

But you have so much to be thankful for.  There’s the obvious stuff for thanksgiving—the daily bread that the Lord provides for you.  In this land of plenty it is very easy to forget that the Lord provides and sustains from day to day.  That’s the reason for this day of national thanksgiving: as George Washington wrote in 1789: “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”  You have much because the Lord gives it to you and because the Lord sustains it from day to day.  For this, you should truly give thanks—not just once a year, but daily and likely far more than you do.

That’s true and pretty typical Thanksgiving sermon fare; but there’s more to be thankful for.  The Lord also gives you those other strange gifts that He gave Israel in the wilderness: namely, the humbling, the testing, and the discipline.  Be thankful for the detours. 

Life in this wilderness is a rocky road.  You will hurt.  You will lack.  You will sin.  You will stumble and fall.  And you’ll wonder why the Lord chooses to do things this way.  The best answer we can give from Scripture is that you’re His children.  The setbacks and troubles you face are consequences of being a sinner in a sinful world.  But their effects on you are not random slaps of a heartless cosmos.  The Lord has made you His children—you are heirs of His kingdom. 

As you make your way through this wilderness, remember the wilderness is already a step up.  Once you were enslaved in sin, dead and headed for hell.  But the Lord brought you out of your “Egypt” through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism.  For those apart from Christ, this world is the beginning of hell.  But you’ve already been rescued, redeemed by the blood of Christ.  This wilderness is a detour to the Promised Land of heaven.  Remember, though detours aren’t always enjoyable, they are generally meant to help you arrive safely at your desired destination.

So the Lord, who has made you His children, disciplines you as a father disciplines his sons.  That’s not an enjoyable thing: the book of Hebrews tells us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11).  In fact, Hebrews also tells us, in the mystery of the Incarnation, that “Although [Jesus] was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (5:8).  So it is for you.  When you fail or stumble, when life kicks you in the teeth, when the Lord takes you on a detour, He uses that that for good, to discipline you to cast your cares upon Him and trust in Him.  He tests you, because sinners like you and me need constant testing, constant redirection back to repentance and trust in Him.

The Lord is treating you like beloved children.  If He did not, you would be God-forsaken, left to yourself—perhaps with a nice life, but with no hope.  So where you are so humbled, disciplined, and tested, trust that God will use these things for your good.  Where you have been tested, you can be God’s instrument and a strong advocate for those who are tested like you.  Where the affliction overwhelms you as something greater than you can bear, know that Christ has borne it for you.  If such things continue to point you back to Christ and guard against falling in love with the wilderness, then that focus back on the cross is a blessing indeed and something to give thanks for.

And always remember this: you’re in the wilderness.  The Lord has led you out of the slavery of sin and death this far, and even if you are in the midst of a frightening detour, you have a destination.  The Promised Land of heaven is yours, where you have the certain hope of eternal life free from all sin and struggle, where God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

St. Paul puts this into practice in 2 Corinthians 12.  He writes that He was given a thorn in the flesh to keep from becoming conceited.  “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv 9-10).  In your weakness, the Lord demonstrates His strength and deliverance, and His strength and deliverance are indeed things to be thankful for.

A blessed Thanksgiving to you all; and rejoice, my friends—even in your weaknesses and detours.  The Lord is treating you as His beloved children, because you are His beloved children.  He gives you all that you need for this body and life.  He gives you all that you need for this body and soul for eternal life—the Word that comes from His mouth and the Bread that comes from heaven—His very body and blood.  In these means of grace, you have forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Link for audio version
      http://www.christsiouxfalls.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=79%3Asermons-preached-at-christ-lutheran&catid=28%3Asermons-preached-at-christ-lutheran&Itemid=13&limitstart=1

Monday, November 21, 2011

Come, You Who Are Blessed by My Father

Giotto, Last Judgment, Scrovegni Chapel
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Are you ready for a pop quiz?  I’m going to read a quote and I want you to determine whether it is a statement of sound doctrine or false teaching.  Don’t worry.  I’m not taking grades.  I’m not even going to ask you to raise your hands.  Just listen and answer in your own mind.  Give yourself bonus points if you can identify the source.  “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds.  And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.  This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

So, is it sound doctrine or false teaching?  It’s sound doctrine.  In fact, it’s part of one of the three ecumenical creeds confessed by the Church.  If you turn to page 320 in Lutheran Service Book, beginning at verse 38, you’ll see that they are the closing words of the Athanasian Creed, a beautiful confession of the Christian faith, particularly the mystery of the Holy Trinity.   

I recall one particular Sunday.  A dear woman approached me after the service.  She was probably the best catechized Lutheran in the whole congregation, regular in her attendance at worship and Bible studies.  Well into her 80s, she could still recite any portion of the Small Catechism upon request.  That’s because she and her family read from it every day for devotions.  She said, “Pastor, I have a problem with those words that we just said in the Athanasian Creed.” 

I thought maybe it was the words “catholic faith” that bothered her.  They sometimes seem foreign to Lutheran ears.  And I was ready to explain that this just means this is what the true Church of all times and places has confessed.  But she already understood that part. 

“No, Pastor,” she said.  What bothers me is that it seems to be saying that Christ’s judgment is based upon our works.” 

I think it shocked her when I said, “We are judged on our works.”  Actually, I said it a little bit more pastorally:  “I understand your concern.  It does seem confusing, especially to out Lutheran ears, so well taught from Scripture that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  We are not saved by our works.  But Scripture does make it clear that we are judged by our works.” 

I then pointed her to St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”  And Romans 2:6: “He [God] will render to each one according to his works.”  And Jesus’ words in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

Then I pointed her to our text for today, Matthew 25:34-36: “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me. 

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘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?’  

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.’” 

That’s when I really needed to do some explaining.

On the surface, our text is simple enough.  It is a picture of the Final Judgment, when Jesus will separate believers from unbelievers.  But there’s one strange note: It seems that the righteous get into heaven for helping the underprivileged, while the unrighteous are condemned for their failure to do so.  But that would mean that we are saved by our works, not by faith.  And we know for certain that is not true.

Fortunately, when we encounter a difficult text in God’s Word, we know what to do.  We don’t rely on our inadequate human reason or limited knowledge for biblical interpretation.  We see if other portions of Scripture can help us out.  “Scripture interprets Scripture.”  And that’s why our sermon begins today with a look at Matthew 10.  If you have your Bible, please feel free to follow along.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the twelve disciples to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near.  Before the disciples leave, Jesus tells them, “Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor staff, for the laborer deserves his food.” 

Jesus’ disciples are to carry with them no extra supplies as they go out to preach the Gospel.  They are to rely upon the hospitality of those who believe the Gospel that they preach.  Believers will feed them, give them water, care for them in sickness, visit them in prison if need be.  They’ll do so in response to being forgiven, in thankfulness for God’s pardon and peace. 

As for those who reject the Gospel and the disciples who preach it, what will happen to them?  Jesus declares in verse 15: “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” 

We should note two more things from Matthew 10.  As Jesus concludes His instructions to the disciples, He tells them in verse 40, “Whoever receives you receives Me.”  The disciples are Jesus’ ambassadors, proclaiming His Word.  To receive them is to receive Him.  To care for them is to care for Him.  To reject them is to reject Him, because they proclaim His Word.

And note Jesus’ final comment in verse 42: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”  Jesus praises those who will give water to His disciples because they are His ambassadors; and in that praise, He calls His disciples “these little one.”  They are not little ones in the sense of infants or little children; but as servants of the Servant, they are among the least of all.

Now there’s a reason we have spent so much time speaking of Matthew 10 so far: I propose to you that Matthew 10 is the best commentary you’ll find to explain our text from Matthew 25.  Notice the connections.  In our text, all people are gathered for the Final Judgment.  The believers enter the kingdom of heaven and eternal life; the unbelievers depart into everlasting fire—a judgment far worse than the momentary fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.

What is the measure by which they are judged?  They are measured by their treatment of “the least of these.”  To the believing sheep, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.”

When the sheep express confusion as to when they did this, Jesus responds: “Truly, I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.”  He condemns the unbelieving goats for their failure to do the same.  When they object, He says to them: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”  It’s an echo of Jesus’ words from Matthew 10.  So we ask the good Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” 

First of all, it does not mean our text teaches that the sheep save themselves by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick or imprisoned.  We know this already, of course; for if believers are saved by such things, then they are saved by their works—not by the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus.

However, this is often how this text is interpreted: Help the one in need and go to heaven; ignore them and you’ll be condemned.  This is the popular application of our time—social gospel—the false teaching that the Gospel is all about helping the underprivileged in this life, and not really about forgiveness and eternal life.

We must be clear what else this text does not teach.  It does not teach that believers are saved by how well they treat the apostles—or pastors who continue the apostolic ministry.  If believers are saved by making sure that the pastor is fed and clothed, then they are saved by their works—not the atoning death of our Lord.

So, what does this parable teach?  It teaches that people are saved because they believe the Word.  Really.  Let me explain: Jesus sends His apostles as His ambassadors to preach His Word.  Those who receive the Word are saved—not by their work, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.  When they receive the spoken Word, they receive Christ, the Word-made-flesh who told His disciples: “Whoever receives you receives Me.”  In response to that Word, they receive the ones whom He has sent and care for them.  In fact, the word “welcome” in our text is the same word particularly connected to the early Christian practice of providing hospitality for traveling missionaries throughout Acts (see 16:14-15; 17:5-9; 18:7-8; 21:8). 

The sheep are saved because they believe the Word.  Believing the Word, they want it proclaimed to all nations.  This desire will lead to good works, and they will take care of those whom Jesus calls and sends to do the public proclaiming.  Those who do not believe the Word are condemned; not because of their lack of support, but because they did not believe the Word.

So let’s apply this text to our present day.  First, there is this plain truth: Judgment Day is coming.  Jesus will return in glory to judge all nations.  But you have nothing to fear.  If you remember the One who sits on that throne, you will want no other seated there to do the judging. 

For one thing, He has not always sat in heaven, waiting for judgment.  Indeed, He has done much to prepare you for a favorable judgment.  At times, Jesus was hungry—as when He was tempted in the wilderness and remained righteous for you.  At times, He was thirsty—as when He suffered on the cross.  At times, He was a stranger—as when His hometown rejected Him and sought to kill Him.  At times, He was naked—for the soldiers stripped Him bare before they drove the nails into His hands and feet.  He was sick, too—for He bore your sickness and infirmity to the cross.  And though He was not imprisoned, He was in the brutal custody of Roman guards who scourged Him before His death. 

As Jesus suffered these various torments, who was there to help Him?  No one!  But there is reason for this: Jesus did not undergo such agonies so that you might do something for Him.  He suffered them to do something for you—to present Himself as a holy sacrifice, to deliver you from sin. 

In addition to Christ’s suffering, consider His death.  You were under the sentence of death—everlasting death—for your undeniable sins against Him.  But this Judge suffers the sentence of death for you—in your place!  Do you know of any other judge who serves out the sentence of the guilty who stand before him? 

Friends, what cause for joy as we anticipate Judgment Day.  The Judge has arranged the trial so that you are innocent.  There’s only one way you can still be condemned.  You can insist on it.  The undone works are only a symptom of the real problem: lack of faith.  If the goats had called on the Lord in faith, He would have forgiven them, prepared them, and completed good works in them. 

This is the curse of unbelief, for the unbeliever says, “I don’t believe that I’ve done anything wrong” or else “I don’t believe the Judge has died for me, so I don’t want His pardon.”  It is a frightening demonstration of the blindness of sin, that so many cling to the one way to be lost.

But you can rejoice!  As you anticipate Judgment Day, you already know the verdict.  Even now, the Judge says, “You are not guilty.”  While the Gospel writers and Paul continually remind people of the final judgment on the Last Day, they also insist that even now we live under God’s judgment.  And for you who have been brought to faith in Christ that is Good News.  In Christ, God has executed His judgment, for which the Last Day is a public proclamation—the revelation and public vindication of all believers. 

Even now you hear Christ’s not guilty judgment in His Word.  Baptized into Christ, you are blessed by the Father to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  In the Absolution, the pastor bestows Christ’s forgiveness in His stead and by His command.  In the Word preached and read, the Holy Spirit connects you to Christ, applying His saving work to you.  At the Lord’s Supper, Christ Himself gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  These means of grace prepare you to stand before Christ on the Last Day—whenever that might be!—because they strengthen your faith in His forgiveness. 

Therefore, as you wait for Christ’s coming, you are set free to do good works, according to your vocation.  Whether or not our Gospel applies to all in need around us in general, or fellow Christians in particular—serving our neighbor is certainly what Christ are set free to do.

In the vocation of father and mother, parents care for those who are hungry, thirsty, and sometimes sick.  In the vocation of child, adult children may find themselves doing the same for aging parents.  In the vocation of neighbor and citizen, there is always the opportunity to assist the poor, the unemployed, and downtrodden.  You are set free to do these things because the Lord has served you with such compassion.  You do not do these things to become a believer.  You do these things because you already believe, because you’ve already heard and received the Word.  And the Word leads to the deeds.

It is not inappropriate that we speak of another vocation—that of church member.  Even as those early believers cared for those who declared the Word, so you also have opportunity to give offerings so that the church is heated and the lights are on, so that people might gather in comfort in to hear the Word.  And such offerings go to pay pastors, so that they can spend their time studying and training others to share God’s Word. 

Please note: Jesus declares: “As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.”  Offerings to the Church are an acknowledgment that Christ is present here in the Word that is proclaimed.  Again, such offerings will not earn your salvation.  They do not have to, because you are already saved.  Your offerings are given in thanks, and they are part of God’s plan.  They are dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel, so that others will hear and be saved.  So that you and your fellow Christians would continue to be blessed by God’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Therefore, each Christian is set free to give such support as he is able, and in proportion as that ability changes. 

What a message we find in our text.  There is the warning that Judgment Day is coming.  Christ will come to judge all.  People will be judged on the basis of their deeds.  But yours is not a life of terror in the meantime.  Instead, it is one of joyful service and grateful obedience to Him.  This is because you already know the outcome of the Final Judgment for you. 

On the Last Day, all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  The King will say to you and all His sheep: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  Receive eternal life.  Having suffered your sentence for you, I declare you not guilty.  I declare you My sheep.  I declare your works good in My sight.  I declare you righteous.  I declare you blessed.  I declare: You are forgiven for all of your sins. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...