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

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.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On the Other Side of Glory

"The Revelation of St. John" from woodcut Biblical illustrations by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld. They were copied from the book "Das Buch der B├╝cher in Bilden." Used with permission of Multi-Language Publications - WELS

The text for today is Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” 

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

St. John gives us a glimpse of the other side of glory.  But be careful.  Don’t miss this brief opportunity by focusing on the wrong thing.   Look beyond the great multitude to the object of their focus.  Notice how they are all staring in the same direction, with the same look of astonishment and awe and love upon their faces.

This certainly is a very diverse group.  They come from all economic strata, ethnic heritages, skin tones, and eras of history.  Some struggled with this sin and some with that.  Some thought one thing and some another.  Some came into the kingdom early and others late in the day.  But the thing that holds them together as one crowd is the object on which their eyes and hearts are fixed, and the love and awe that shines from them as they rejoice to look upon that which they gaze.

Still, one must not analyze that look and imitate it outwardly so that he can sort of “fit into the crowd.”  That’s to be what Dr. Luther calls a “paper saint.”  Instead, one pushes this way and that to get in and to get a glimpse of what they are all so intent to look upon!  Because if you do that, you too—no matter what the unique struggles and burdens of your life—will come to wear that same look of astonishment and awe and love on your face.  Not because you are trying to be like the crowd, but because you also see what the crowd sees—and you’ll drop to your knees too, and awe and love will shine from your face as well.

So what is it that they are focused on?  They are all facing the throne of God and of the Lamb.  And they sing aloud one song in perfect harmony: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  These saints are truly blessed, because they have been granted the privilege to come before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple.  And He shelters them with His presence.  Nothing in all creation can harm them! 

The blessedness our Lord describes in His mountainside sermon of our Gospel, St. John sees in his vision.  He sees a great multitude of the poor in spirit made rich in the grace of Jesus Christ; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  He sees those who were persecuted like the prophets; they have come to their reward.  These saints have left behind all mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst and evil.   

And notice this: He sees no celebrities, no spiritual superstars.  He does not name the apostles, martyrs, or prophets.  He does not name the kings or reformers or saints commemorated by the Church.  Oh, they are there, to be sure.  But St. John does not see them or notice them; he sees all the saints of God purified and gathered about the Lamb who has freed them by the outpouring of His blood.

This is not to say that they are nondescript or blended into one New Age universal consciousness.  They are individuals—from every tribe and nation.  Heaven is not a place where the self is lost, like some imaginary Marxist ideal, where every saint is interchangeable.  Rather, heaven is where the self finally becomes most fully self—free of sin.  Your gifts and talents, personality and intellect, will be finally free of all envy, malice, and greed.  You will be that person God created you to be, still with your nation, tribe, people, and language, but no longer as divisions fraught with jealousy, fear, and enmity, but rather as distinctions of your unique character.  You will honor God and shine according to the grace given you as only you can honor and shine.  But you will be united to your brothers and sisters in the object of your affection, the Lamb. 

Salvation belongs to the Lamb, to Jesus, and to Him alone; yet He gives it to men.  Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might are His; but He bestows these upon men.  He has brought them out of the great tribulation.  He has purified them with fire.  They suffer no more slander and false accusations.  No one steals from them, betrays them, or hurts them.  They are free of gossip, jealousy, lust, anger, and fear.  No one sins against them and they commit no sins.  Cleansing their hearts and consciences, Christ has distilled them to their finest essence, their truest selves.  For in removing guilt and regret, shame and fear, He has made them truly men, just as He is truly Man. 

The saints on the other side of glory hold palms of victory in their hands.  Their robes are white.  They have overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb.  They reap the benefits, the plunder, and the glory of His sacrifice.  He relieves them of all burdens and bestows His own inheritance and perfect love upon them.  And of all of their joys, here is the greatest: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is with them.  That is the definition of “saint” or “holy one,” one who is declared righteous or holy by grace through faith in the merits of Christ.  That is the definition of “blessed”—to be with Jesus for eternity.

Jesus is the Lamb who was slain but who lives.  He did not love His life to death.  Instead He loved them to the end; for He loves His Father in perfect obedience.  He does not ask, “Where is the Lamb?” as Isaac did, for He is the perfect sacrificial Lamb.  He looks for no scapegoat, no mercy, no rescue.  He lays down His life in order to draw all men to Himself and show His love to creation. 

Thus does His Father love Him and in Him He loves them.  He loves His saints, washed in the blood, drowned and raised again in the water, fed with His body once hung on the cross, anointed with His own Holy Spirit.  His name is upon them.  And as He is holy so they are holy.  The kingdom is theirs.  They are His; He is theirs.  The Bridegroom is joined for eternity by the Bride, His Church.  

That is the view from the other side of glory—the Church Triumphant, the saints, the holy ones who are with the Lord in heaven, living in eternal bliss.  It sounds so… well, so heavenly… doesn’t it?  But as you gaze upon Christ’s Church from this side of glory, here on earth—it doesn’t look quite so glorious, does it?  And sadly, much of the damage is self-inflicted.  So often it seems we’ve earned the name Church Militant, not because we’re Christian soldiers marching off to war against the forces of evil, but because we’re a bunch of tyrants and rebels, engaged in a dangerous, deadly civil war amongst ourselves.

Congregations struggle financially, some unable or unwilling to afford a full-time pastor.  Pastors run roughshod over congregations.  Congregations run out pastors.  Politics replaces churchmanship.  Sound doctrine and practice gives way to expediency.  Grace gives way to grudges.  And many people, so fed up with all the troubles, are tempted give up involvement with organized religion, and sit at home with their Bible and spouse, until they decide he or she might not be able to be trusted, either.

  Sound familiar?  If you haven’t seen it yet, just stick around long enough and you’ll experience it yourself.  And the worst part is that the devil can use that to get your Old Adam to start thinking you might as well give up on your Savior, too.  After all, if Jesus can’t keep His Church operating smoothly here, in time, how can you count on Him for eternity? 

But in your most honest, soul searching moments, you must admit there’s trouble even closer to home.  There’s a civil war going on in your own heart, too.  St. Paul’s words on the frustrating paradox of living in this world as simultaneously sinner and saint strike a raw nerve. 

And you are not alone.  You are not the only one who grows frustrated and tired with your own failures.  You are not the only one who thinks that the Church on earth should look and act more like the Church in heaven. 

You are not the only one who believes that the Church of the Reformation should be more faithful to the Reformation.  You are not the only one who is shocked, scandalized, and disgusted by the Church’s in-fighting and worried about the impact of that fighting on its mission and witness.  That is the way that it is on the side of glory.

Such anxiety comes from cloudy vision, from judging by appearance only.  Those who live by sight are betrayed by it.  By themselves, the eyes can only see poverty, meekness, hunger, fighting, and persecution.  But faith sees through today and into tomorrow.  It embraces the promise.  It sees blessedness in the cross, in suffering, in fighting, and even in what seems to be death; for faith knows that there is no death for those who die in the Lord.  They pass through death from this living and temporal death we call “life” into real and everlasting life. 

This is the peace that passes all understanding.  It is peace that exists in turmoil, in sadness, and in the face of tragedy.  It exists and endures because it comes from God.  It lives by faith, by things unseen, things promised, things yet afar off (though not as far as they used to be).  It is the everlasting hope of the Church which has been bought and redeemed by the death and resurrection of her Lord.  It is peace with God, not men.  It is peace not now, but then.

This is how our Lord describes the Christian’s lot on this side of glory: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungry, cursed, reviled and hated by men, at war, in strife and difficulty—but only for a time.  In Christ, you shall be comforted.  By grace, you shall inherit the earth.  With righteousness, you shall be filled.  For you—baptized into His death—shall obtain mercy.  You shall not be judged by your sins, or by your deeds, but by His perfect life and death.  It is enough.  It is enough to make dead men alive, sinners into saints, a people from people who were no people.  In the resurrection, you shall see God.  You shall be called the son of God, for the kingdom of heaven is yours. 

I know.  This all sounds impossible.  But remember, this is how Abraham lived in the Promised Land: in a tent, as a foreigner, while hostile, pagan people claimed his land as their own and built fortified cities to prove it.  He was an old man, with a barren wife, with no prospects for children.  The Scriptures say that he was as good as dead.  But he waited.  He waited for a son, for a people, for a land… but most of all he waited for the Savior.  Abraham embraced the promise, and in that faith he was blessed.  The kingdom of God is his. 

It is also yours.  For this is how it is with all saints still on this side of glory.  We are waiting.  Mostly, this is waiting in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty…or of hardship and worry.  Some days are better than others, but there are no days when everything is just right. 

We are foreigners, not putting down roots, always outsiders, always suspect.  Always a target for the devil’s lying doctrines of glory now, always the object of the world’s scorn.  Thus the Word of God calls us to live by faith, to rejoice in things unseen but believed, such as a communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  You see, the great multitude that John saw was not simply those saints who had already come to heaven up to that point.  They were there, of course, but there were more.  For John saw the culmination of creation.  He witnessed the great multitude after the resurrection on the Last Day.  When he was transported to heaven, he was also transported out of time.  So he saw people who weren’t even born yet, like St. Augustine and Martin Luther. 

And I bring this up because this means that John also saw you and your dear loved one who has died in the faith.  What he describes in chapter 7 is not about “those” saints of God.  It is about you.  These are your people.  This gathering of the saints in heaven and earth is the Holy Christian Church that we confess each week in the Creed.  This is the blest communion, the divine fellowship we will sing about in our closing hymn, “For All the Saints.” 

By God’s grace, you have all been called into the Una Sancta, the one holy Church made up of believers from every nation, tribe, people, language, denomination, and era of history.  The only difference is they are on the other side of glory.  They have already passed through death and you must still abide in it.  They rest from their labors while you still toil.  They are free from turmoil and strife while you still live in the midst of it.  They nobly fought and won the victor’s crown.  While you feebly struggle, they in glory shine.  Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.  Allelulia!  Allelulia!

The other side of glory is your future, too—foretold in God’s Holy Word and seen by St. John.  So it doesn’t matter what happens on Tuesday; what they say about you at work; whether you suffer injustice or painful trial: out of the great tribulation you shall come with robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb, the Beatitudes fulfilled in you, and for you.  You shall neither hunger nor thirst anymore.  The sun shall not strike you, nor any heat.  The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd you.  He will lead you to living fountains of waters, to Life itself.  God Himself will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

But dear people of God—even now on this side of glory you are blessed: Jesus, the Lamb, is in your midst.  He is with you always, as near as His means of grace.  The kingdom of heaven is yours.  You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the object of angelic protection and prayers, for you were sealed and anointed in the holy waters of Baptism with the triune name of God.  You are here today to receive anew the forgiveness of your sins, to be absolved, to hear the Word, to pray and praise your God, and to finally join in communion, to join your fellow saints of both sides of glory in a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb. 

You are blessed.  You are holy ones.  You are saints of God—because you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Here is a link to the audio version of this sermon:

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