Sunday, September 29, 2013

War Arose in Heaven

Click here to listen to this sermon. mp3 files are available upon request.

The text for today is Revelation 12:7-12.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, a day in which we commemorate the work of St. Michael and all the holy angels in service to God and man.  And what a variety of service that is!  In our Gospel, Jesus refers to what we sometimes call “guardian angels,” those who watch over the little ones and see the face of the Father.  Our Psalm speaks of angels who “guard you” and “bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”  In our Old Testament lesson, Michael, the archangel, comes to Daniel as a messenger sent by God, to help the prophet “understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days.” 
But perhaps most startling, is St. John’s vision of Michael and his angels engaged in a war in heaven against Satan and his army.  That’s the image portrayed in the picture to the right—Archangel Michael Hurls the Rebellious Angels into the Abyss” by Luca Giordano—not exactly the kind of angels that you’re going to see in a Hallmark greeting card or made into one of those cherubic Precious Moments figurines, is it?  But it is a much more realistic representation of angels than we will usually get from the myths propagated by pop culture or espoused in many versions of spirituality, including those calling themselves “Christian.” 
Let’s address a couple of those myths before we go further.  For one, angels are not good human beings who have died and gone to heaven.  They are spiritual beings created before human beings.  They don’t earn their wings.  They are created with wings (or have no wings at all if the situation dictates, since they are spirits without physical bodies).  And they aren’t cute and adorable like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  On the contrary, real angels are imposing enough to strike fear and worship in those who see them.  Not only are they holy messengers of God, they are fierce heavenly warriors, protectors of young and old alike.     
John’s vision is unsettling.  That there should be war before God’s presence in heaven would seem to be unthinkable, utterly out of place.  St. Luke tells us the angels sang at the birth of Jesus, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth” (2:14).  The pilgrims who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday sang a similar hymn of blessing: “In heaven peace and glory in the highest places” (19:38).  Christ was born to bring peace to earth, and through His death and resurrection He would bring peace in heaven.  But what does “peace” mean?  And for that matter, what kind of war are we talking about here?  For if there is anything worse than war, it is “peace at any cost.” 
We all know that human warfare on earth includes physical struggles and bloodshed.  But there is a more horrible battle being fought in the heavenly realm—one with higher stakes and more deadly enemies.  St. Paul addresses this spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v 12).  Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection established peace between God in heaven and humanity on earth, but that peace is now being contested by evil spiritual powers in heavenly realms.   
John Kleinig describes this spiritual warfare in his book, Grace Upon Grace: “The battle between Christ and Satan is an unseen, invisible contest that we experience most acutely and accurately in our souls.  But it cannot and must not be reduced to how we think or feel about ourselves and the world around us; it is not just a matter of religious psychology and spiritual self-understanding.  The battle is not even an ideological one between human beings for the right vision of our future, the future of humanity.  It is part of a real cosmic contest that involves the whole visible world, with all its people, and the whole of God’s invisible creation (Colossians 2:8-15)” (p. 226). 
In our text and the verses preceding, St. John gives us, perhaps, our best resource for understanding what’s happening in spiritual warfare as we go through life and the Church goes on through world history.  His vision is dramatic and nightmarish, cosmic in scope.  High up in the sky, he sees a pregnant woman, looking like a queen, with the sun as her dress, twelve stars as her crown, and a moon under her feet.  As she labors to give birth, a huge, red, seven-headed dragon waits to devour her child.  Destined to rule the nations, that child threatens the ambition of the dragon who fancies himself ruler of the world.  But the dragon is thwarted in his evil designs.  The child is snatched up by God and enthroned with Him in the heavenly realm.  And the woman escapes from the clutches of the dragon to the safe place that God has established for her in the wilderness.
War breaks out in heaven.  An angelic army attacks the dragon and his army.  They dislodge them from the heavenly realm, and then hurl them to earth.  A loud voice calls on the heavens to rejoice and the earth to mourn because with his casting out of heaven the fury of the dragon has been unleashed on earth in a short, desperate last stand to retain his last piece of occupied territory: 
“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the Word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.  Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!  But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:10-12).
Since the dragon cannot attack the royal woman’s son, he pursues her instead.  But she escapes, using wings like those of an eagle, to flee from his reach to her safe place.  When his further attack is frustrated, he, in his rage against the woman, wages war on her children instead.
The main players in this vision are quite easily identified.  The woman personifies the Church, the mother of the faithful.  Although she has heavenly status, she remains on earth after her son has been taken up into heaven.  The red dragon is Satan; his troops the fallen angels.  Opposing Satan is Michael, the captain of the heavenly army.  The woman’s son is Jesus, whose enthronement as king brings about Satan’s eviction from God’s presence.  The woman’s children are Christians, the brothers and sisters of Christ, including you and me.
Our enemy is depicted as a “dragon,” a power hungry monster of chaos that disorders the world God has made and tries to take it over from Him.  He is “the ancient serpent” that led Adam and Eve into rebellion against God with the false promise that they would be their own gods.  And he still leads their children astray with the same lie.  He is “the devil,” which means “the slanderer.”  He slanders God the Father by claiming that He is neither merciful to sinners nor just in dealing with sin.  He slanders Jesus by denying that He is God’s Son and our advocate before the Father.  And he slanders us by claiming that we are neither just nor holy before the Father, certainly not worthy to be called God’s children. 
Most significantly, he is called “Satan,” our prosecutor, the one who accuses us of sin and damns us as sinners.  Since Jesus’ ascension, Satan has lost his foothold in the heavenly realm.  Now he can no longer prosecute the faithful in the heavenly court, as he did with Job and Joshua the high priest.  He can no longer accuse us day and night before God the Judge.  His place has been taken by Christ, our advocate, who intercedes for us and pleads our cause before the Father.
However, even though Satan has lost the spiritual high ground in heaven, where he can do the greatest damage to us, the war is not over.  No, he cannot attack Christ, nor can he defeat Michael and his angelic warriors in the heavenly realm.  So, enraged at his eviction, he engages in a last stand in his only remaining stronghold—here on earth, the last bit of territory where he still holds some power.          Here he adopts a new line of attack, a strategy that is clever and yet simple.  He concentrates on attacking two chief strongholds that are occupied by Christ here on earth.  The first is the Church.  Since Christ is present in the Church wherever it assembles on earth its prayers and praises undo the work of Satan.  That makes the Church the main enemy of the evil one.  But he cannot destroy it, for it has been given a safe place by God, where it remains out of his reach.
The second stronghold of Christ is the conscience of each Christian, the clear conscience of those who repent of their sin and receive the Father’s Word of pardon and cleansing.  Each person with a good conscience is a stronghold of Christ in enemy territory, a place where Christ is present and active.  Christians are lamps through which Christ’s light shines out and routs the powers of darkness. 
Since Satan cannot destroy Christ or the Church, he sets out to destroy its Christians.  His method of attack is this: First, he tempts the holy people of God to sin.  Then, when they have sinned, he uses God’s Law to accuse them of sin.  Since he can no longer accuse them before God, he works in their conscience by reminding them of what they have done. 
Once his accusation has produced a guilty conscience, he chooses two different lines of attack, depending on the character of the person.  If a person is careless and self-confident, he will use the Gospel to excuse the sin so that his victim will not admit the sin and repent of it.  In this way he desensitizes and deadens the conscience.  Then, faith gives way to pride and self-justification.  His victim is trapped in impenitence (2 Timothy 2:25-26). 
If a person is conscientious and low in self-esteem, he assumes the role of judge.  Although he has no authority to pass judgment, he declares his victim guilty and uses God’s Law to threaten, demoralizing that guilt-stricken person and holding him or her captive by the fear of death and damnation.  In both cases, he tries to dislodge believers from Christ and to undo their trust in Him and His Word.
Our text shows that we have two main weapons to combat this attack.  With these seemingly insignificant weapons we use the authority and power of Christ Himself to overcome Satan; with them in our hands we win the victory on our personal front in this cosmic battle.
The first of the weapons we have against Satan is “the blood of the Lamb.”  Jesus is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world.  By His blood He atones for the sins of all people, just as the blood of the lamb offered as a daily sacrifice at the temple atoned for the sins of the Israelites.  With His blood He purchased people from all nations on earth for God the Father as His royal priesthood.  That blood cleanses us from the stain of sin and abuse and gives us a good conscience. 
The most holy blood of Christ consecrates us as the royal priesthood of God the Father.  When we drink the blood of the Lamb in Holy Communion, it does not just sprinkle our bodies, it sprinkles our hearts and our consciences so that we are holy through and through.  It covers us with Christ’s righteousness and holiness.  It is our holy spiritual armor, our sure protection against Satan and all the powers of darkness.  He may kill our bodies, but he cannot kill our souls.  By drinking Jesus’ blood and trusting in it for our deliverance and safety, we overcome Satan.
The second weapon against Satan is our “word of testimony” (Revelation 12:11).  Our word of testimony is our confession of faith in Jesus as the Lamb of God.  That Word is our chief weapon against Satan and all the powers of darkness.  By our testimony and the blood of Jesus, Satan is undone, and our spiritual warfare is won on the home front.
St. John’s vision throws much light on why those who are faithful to Christ so often come under attack.  It shows why at present the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is under such concerted attack all over the world.  It shows why those congregations and denominations that trust in the Gospel of Christ and keep God’s Word are treated with such contempt by the world. 
We who confess Christ do not need to go on a crusade against Satan and seek out his strongholds in our social environment.  He seeks us out and relentlessly hunts us down.  So every Christian congregation, every Christian school, every Christian home, and the conscience of every faithful Christian are the spiritual battlefields of the final battle for the cosmos. 
Satan, that old serpent, knows his time is short.  He has lost his place in heaven and soon there will be no place for him to do his dirty work on earth, either.  He and his evil angels will be cast into hell for eternity.  But wicked and prideful as he is, he tries to inflict as much damage as he can; he tries to take as many people with him as he can in the meanwhile.  He will do his best to accuse and condemn, to push you to despair and unbelief.  But remember: All this is his lies.
Dear saints, your Jesus, even at this very moment, stands before the Father pleading your case, pleading His blood, pleading His innocent suffering and death in your place.  And the Father hears the prayers of His Son, and He looks upon you with compassion and grace and mercy.  He puts away your sins.  The devil is still overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of our testimony, of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus Christ.
No, there is no room in heaven for the devil; but there is room for you.  Jesus has promised that He has gone to make a place for you.  By His death, by His blood, by the ministrations of the angels, by the war in heaven, by His means of grace, heaven is open to you.  That is to say, for Jesus’ sake, 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, September 22, 2013

The Merciful Lord and the Unrighteous Steward

Click here to listen to this sermon. An mp3 file is available upon request.

The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 16:1-13.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m on Facebook.  My wife says it’s a waste of time.  I think she’s worried that I might reveal too many details about our life to the whole world.  I justify my use of this media with the fact that I am able to keep up with friends and family members, many of whom I haven’t seen for years.  And now I can share what is happening here at St. John’s: things like pictures, newsletters, and sermons. 
Since a great deal of my “friends” are fellow pastors, I also get a chance to sharpen my skills by engaging in theological discussions.  A while back I read an article in Christianity Today, entitled “What Makes a Good Bible Study?”  The author states: “Remember that the point of all Bible study should not be to simply impart knowledge.  It should produce change... We can study the Ten Commandments until we’ve completely dissected them, but if we don’t figure out how to obey them, that will be meaningless.”
Fuddy duddy Lutheran that I am, I disagreed.  I replied online: “I need a Bible study that shows me Christ as He is revealed in all of Scripture.”  That, to me, is what makes a good Bible study.  It has to show me Christ.  It has to teach Law that shows me my sin; and it has to teach the Gospel, showing me how He came to save me and a world of sinners with His perfect life and atoning death. 
Jesus told the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39).  The Pharisees took God’s Word very seriously; they just misunderstood it.  They thought it could bring them eternal life, if only they could learn to keep it good enough.  But you already know what’s wrong with that: None of us can keep the Law perfectly. 
This misapplication of Law and Gospel describes much of what passes for biblical teaching today.  It’s all Law.  Do this and you will find your life’s purpose.  Do that and you will have a perfect marriage and well-behaved children.  Too often the Bible is used simply as a handbook for morality, a tool to tailor your own twelve step program for whatever is holding you back from success.  Or as a spiritual get-out-of-jail-free card to excuse those “harmless idiosyncrasies” that used to be called sin.  That’s dangerous!  For those who come to realize the futility of reaching perfection, it leads to hopelessness.  For those who think they’re somehow succeeding in pulling themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, it leads to false security and self-righteousness.  Both paths lead to hell.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bible does teach morality.  That’s what the Law is—the holy will of God, how to live a God-pleasing life.  But the primary purpose of God’s Word is not to make you a better person, but to save you.  St. John’s summary of his Gospel applies to all Scripture: “These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing you might have life in His name.”  God’s Word is not about what you must do to be reconciled to God; it’s about what Christ has done to reconcile you and the world to God. 
Our text for today is a perfect example of what happens when you put the emphasis on the wrong thing.  It is often called “The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward,” but that misses the main point.  If you think this parable is about the steward, you’re going to get it all wrong.  After all, what sorts of lessons are there to learn from the steward?  If you slack off or waste your boss’s goods, don’t get caught?  If you do get caught, decide you’re too proud to beg, too weak to work?  Use your boss’s business to gain friends by losing more of your boss’s money?  Do any of these lessons sound like something you want to teach your child?  Hardly.  This guy is the reason that when someone gets fired, they hand him a box with his personal effects and the security guard escorts him out the door. 
No, if you think this parable is about the doings of an unrighteous steward, you’re in for a bumpy ride.  There’s one thing to learn from the steward.  There’s one thing that the steward does that all of us ought to do; but we’ll get to that later on.  Right now, let’s get to what the parable is really about: the steward’s lord.
The steward’s lord is a just man who runs a good business, and he employs the steward to look after things.  When he finds that the steward is wasting his goods, he tells him that he’s fired and the day of reckoning is coming.  That only makes sense.  But here’s the part that doesn’t: the lord leaves the steward in charge of his business until that future day of reckoning.  Talk about the fox guarding the hen house—and in this case it’s a fox with the smell of feathers on his breath!
The steward makes the most of his time before the day of reckoning by taking the lord’s profits and giving them to others.  And then the lord commends the unrighteous steward for his shrewdness.  Kind of a strange story from our Lord, yes?  This obviously isn’t meant to teach a moral lesson.  Neither is it a real-deal message about how to succeed in business.  Nope.  This is a parable about mercy. 
To understand what the lord in the parable is doing, we need to first talk some about stewardship.  Relax, I’m not going to preach about increasing your offerings, although that could certainly be relevant.  Toward the end of our Gospel Jesus speaks of using money wisely for His kingdom.  No, I’m specifically talking about the man who is left in charge of his lord’s business affairs.  He is a steward.   Our text uses the word “manager.”  But a steward has a great deal more authority than a manager of a business.  He is like a regent, ruling on behalf of the king.  Whatever he says is just as binding as if the lord said it.
This is important because the lord in the parable will and must honor the deals that the steward makes.  If the steward says, “Take your bill and write fifty,” then it’s fifty.  He has the authority, the power of attorney, if you will.  To renege on the new bill would be like the lord going back on his own word.
So far, so good.  The lord might do that simply out of honor or to uphold the law out of fear of punishment.  But here, the lord commends the steward for what he has done.  He praises him!  That’s the real surprise.  This lord wants to forgive debts.  He wants to give away his kingdom.  He was displeased before because the servant was wasting his possessions.  How so?  We’re not explicitly told, but we are given an important clue: The ESV calls this steward “dishonest.”  The Greek says “unrighteous,” which tips us off that this is a lesson about sin and forgiveness.
In our daily lives, possessions are wasted by spending them frivolously, by throwing good money after bad, by not paying attention.  But if giving away the lord’s possessions for free pleases the lord, then how were they wasted before?  By keeping them.  By holding debtors to their debts. 
This parable should be shocking to your sensibilities.  Jesus means it to be.  Because your vanity is forever thinking God is like you.  But His ways are not your ways; His thoughts are much higher than your thoughts.  Your old Adam is small and petty, incapable of separating temptation from sin.  You can’t and don’t love your neighbor as yourself.  But you most assuredly love yourself, and from early childhood on, you covet being treated fairly above all else.  Think about it: Isn’t “that’s not fair!” one of the first appeals made to a higher authority—Dad or Mom—from almost the time we are able to speak?  We want every thing to be fair: fair play, fair trade, fair pay, a fair shake, and our fair share.     
But do you really want fairness?  Do you really want to get what you deserve?  Consider it carefully.  Your Lord has created you.  He has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them.  That makes you the steward to whom the Lord has entrusted His “business” of loving Him above all things and your neighbor as yourself.
So, how’s that stewardship thing going for you? 
Your Lord gives you possessions with which to serve others, and instead you want even more for yourself.  The Lord gives you a mouth to sing His praise, but you put it to use for gossip, deceit, or malice.  The Lord gives you eyes to see the beauty of His creation, but you use them to indulge your fleshly lust.  The Lord gives you ears to hear His Word, but you let them be filled with coarse words and crude jokes.  The Lord gives health and fitness and you’re tempted to vanity.  You are the unrighteous steward, wasting the things your Lord entrusts to you.  So the Lord declares that the day of reckoning is coming.  It’s only fair.  It’s only just.
But thank the Lord, the Lord isn’t just just.  He’s also merciful, and here’s the part of the story that doesn’t get mentioned in the parable: The Lord has sent His Son to be your Savior.  From conception on and throughout His life, Jesus went about His Father’s business.  He kept the Law perfectly, fulfilling every requirement without sin.  He loved His neighbor as Himself and obediently served His Father in heaven.  In other words, Jesus was the perfect, righteous steward. 
And then what?  He was crucified in your place.  He gave up His sinless body to death for you.  He was made to be sin for you, in order to suffer the just judgment for your sin.   In other words, at the cross, Jesus was accounted as the unrighteous steward of the world.  Good Friday was the day of reckoning where the Lord condemned His Son for the sin of all the world and He redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  All this He did that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness as His steward.
As His steward, the Lord sends you out with simple instructions:  “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” 
Money is unrighteous because it has no forgiveness to give.  It’s only for this world.  Do you make use of what you have in service to others, particularly for the spread of the Gospel so that others might be friends in an everlasting home of heaven for the sake of Jesus?  Or do you find yourself hoarding it all, still using what you have in service to you?  The Lord says, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” 
And how well do you make use of true, everlasting riches?  Do you begin each day remembering your Baptism, giving thanks to the Lord that you’ve already died the second death and have eternal life?  Or do you regard it as just a point of history that has little relevance for you now? 
Do you eagerly desire to hear the Absolution, knowing that it is only by the Lord’s forgiveness that you have the hope of salvation?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps you regard His grace as a safety net, as you decide which sins will be useful to you in the coming week.  Or perhaps you think that you’ve heard enough of forgiveness to last a while, and no longer desire to hear of the Lord’s love for you. 
Do you take the time to prepare for the Lord’s Supper, marveling that the Lord visits you, to serve you, to give you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith? 
An honest examination in the mirror of God’s Law will show you are far from a faithful steward of the Lord’s riches.  Sadly, you are probably more careful with gifts of unrighteous wealth that provide for this body and life than you are with the gift of Word and Sacraments that bestow righteousness and eternal life.   The day of reckoning is still deserved.
But once again, look how your merciful Lord treats you.  Although you often take His means of grace for granted, He does not relieve you of your stewardship.  From now until the Last Day of reckoning, He keeps you as His steward.  He wills that you continue to make use of His means of grace, so that through them He might forgive you for the sake of Jesus.  Furthermore, He wills that you use them to erase the debt of others.  As you encounter sinners who are burdened with a load of killing sin, you do not tell them to erase half the debt and go from there.  No, you tell them that Christ has died for all of their sins.  You share God’s grace with everyone who will receive it.
Does our Lord grow angry that you give out His grace so freely?  No, not at all!  He commends this as the mission of the Church.  “Freely you have received,” He declares; “freely give” (Matthew 10:8).  The Lord has more mercy than you could ever give away.  His supply is inexhaustible.  It is infinite!
How abundant and excessive is the Lord’s mercy for you!  Because His Law demanded a level of righteousness you could not muster, He became flesh, gave the accounting, and suffered the judgment for your sin.  So that you might be forgiven, He continues to pour out His grace upon you by His Word and Sacrament, proclaiming you righteous for His sake—by His work, not your own.
By the grace of God, you trust in the Lord’s mercy.  You confess your sin and unrighteousness to Him, trusting that He who gave His own life to redeem you will continue to save you now.  You pray that He would forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you for His sake. 
And so He does.  Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, not because of what you have done or haven’t done, but because your sin was accounted to Me at the cross.  So I declare you righteous.  I declare you holy and clean.  I declare you pure and blameless.  Indeed, 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.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Few of Days, Full of Trouble

Click here to listen to this sermon. An mp3 file is available upon request.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for today is Job 14:1-2: “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.  He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.”  This is the Word of the Lord.
Perhaps you noticed a theme today: “Trouble.”  I don’t mean it to say that Jack was a troublemaker… although I’m sure he had his moments, as we just heard from his grandson.  But the theme just sort of developed as we met to plan for this service.  Talking about Jack’s love of games, Vernice mentioned that every morning after milking the cows, they would go into the house and play a game of “Trouble.”  As we talked about Jack attending country school, Jack’s granddaughter, Kayla laughed as she recalled a story she had heard about him getting in trouble for throwing a snowball at the teacher.   
The word “trouble” brought to mind our readings.  In John 14, Jesus seeks to calm His disciples’ troubled hearts.  In Psalm 91, the Lord promises to be with those who call upon His name in the day of trouble.  And in Job 14, the ancient patriarch speaks of his own troubled life.  Each of these passages is quite fitting for a day like this, for there can hardly be anything more troubling than the death of a loved one.  Death—though a fact of life in this world—is not normal; it is not natural.  It is the ultimate proof we live in a world that is broken by sin.  We were created to live forever in a perfect paradise, not for a few days full of trouble.   
Job knew a thing or two about trouble.  He had been a prosperous farmer and loving father.  But in one day, he lost almost everything: his flock of 7,000 sheep, his herd of 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, very many servants, and worst of all, seven sons and three daughters.  Like Jack, Job knew physical suffering, being so besieged with loathsome sores from head to foot that the only relief he found was in scraping himself with a piece of broken pottery while he sat in ashes.
Scripture tells us that “in all of this Job did not sin with his lips.”  But that does not mean Job doesn’t complain.  “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble,” he says.  “He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.”  Not exactly sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, huh?
In these verses, Job makes several remarkable statements.  To us today, so used to the euphemisms offered in our feeble attempts to soften the blow of death, they might sound too pessimistic.  One might even wonder if Job was a believer, perhaps, for we are not accustomed to such transparent vulnerability and blunt honesty when it comes to speaking of our own doubts about God and life.  And we are so much the poorer for it. 
So let’s put ourselves in Job’s place.  He has just lost his children and all his property, and now he is suffering indescribable pain, intense anxiety, and deep loneliness.  He receives no help from his unfeeling friends; their visit rather increases his distress and adds to his sense of guilt.  In addition, he is tempted to think that God has forsaken him.  From his own experience, Job realizes that life is short and full of trouble.  It’s not really a mere opinion, but a cold, hard, documented fact.  Compared to eternity, even a long life is nothing. 84 years is a blink.  And as we all know, that brief life has many troubles and sorrows.  Job sees himself as a flower that blooms for a short time only to wither away.
Realizing his own wretched condition, Job makes a profound observation.  He asks, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?”  And then he answers, “There is not one.”  Job realizes he is a sinner and doesn’t deny it.  Indeed, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  Ever since the fall of our first parents in Eden, sin has contaminated every human being except our Lord Jesus Christ.  As a result of sin our life is few of days and full of trouble.  In his own case, Job wishes that God will give him relief from his affliction.  At this point, that could mean death or speedy healing; either is preferable to his current suffering. 
Job goes on to draw a comparison between mankind and a tree.  Many trees, if cut down, will sprout again.  With God’s blessing, proper amounts of rain and sunshine will make even a seemingly dead tree grow and thrive.  Thinking of man, Job wishes he could say the same thing.  Experience, however, leads him to declare, “But a man dies and is laid low, man breathes his last, and where is he?’  Then he concludes, “So a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep.”
On this ultimately crucial matter of the resurrection to a life hereafter, Job is wrestling with two possibilities: either there is an afterlife, or there is not an afterlife.  Here we see him waver and doubt that there is a resurrection; yet he uses words that hint at resurrection: “rises,” “awake,” and “be roused.”  And in a later passage (19:25-27), he will boldly profess such hope.  This is no contradiction.  Job is only human, with his ups and downs.  In his affliction, Job at times is tempted to doubt, but at other times he desperately clings to the hope that he will be raised from the dead to live forever.  
This struggle leads Job to ask a very penetrating question, a question that gets to the heart of the matter, one that certainly comes to mind on days like today.  “If a man dies, shall he live again?”  Here, Job’s faith comes to the fore and shines as a bright light in the darkness of pessimism.  Despite all outward considerations, Job clings to his conviction that God is his Savior and Redeemer.  He holds on in hope.  “I would wait until my renewal comes.”  The Hebrew word for renewal is of the same root as the word translated as “sprout again” earlier, describing the new growth of a tree that has been cut down.  It provides a striking picture of resurrection, and it points forward to St. Paul’s description of our resurrection on the Last Day: “The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). 
Confident of that Day, Job also expresses the hope that he can then stand in the presence of God as one whom God has pronounced innocent on the basis of His grace and mercy.  “You would not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and you would cover over my iniquity.”
Job’s experience is not unique.  We are also like that when we suffer, a mixture of faith and doubt, saint and sinner.  And that is especially true when it comes to mattesr of life and death, our own death or the death of a loved one.  The death of a loved one, without fail, triggers every emotion in the human existence in very short order.  For people of faith, the question also arises concerning the eternal welfare of the departed.  And too often, our thinking becomes fretting in light of what we knew or thought we knew.  It is difficult for us, in such a time as this, to reflect and focus our concerns with what God knows.
Our Lord spoke to His people through Isaiah the prophet and had to remind them that He operates in ways that we cannot always understand; and He points out the arrogance of man in presuming to know better than God.  “My ways are not your ways; My thoughts are higher than your thoughts,” He tells us.  And that is sometimes hard for us to accept.  We like everything all wrapped up neat and tidy.  We seek “closure,” whatever that might mean.  It pesters us to no end when we are confronted with things that are beyond our limited human comprehension.  We find it difficult to place the knowledge of all things with God alone and leave it in His gracious, powerful hands.
But there is much we do know, from which our Lord would have us receive strength and comfort, especially in times like this.  We know, according to the Scriptures, that it is the Lord alone who searches the heart and the Lord alone who has the power to save.  And He has promised us that His Word does not go out into the ears of His hearers in vain.  God makes contact with sinners through His Word, and it produces fruit.  God’s Word is effective and powerful.
Through His prophet, God compares the work of His Word to rain and snow coming down from heaven.  Any farmer like Jack knows that when rain and snow come down, they water the ground and make the crops bud and flourish.  When God’s Word comes to sinners, it works in the same way.  God’s Word works when and where He pleases, simply by His grace, by His almighty power.
The free gift of eternal salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is just that—a free gift.  And the Lord has told us in His Word how it is that He gives us this saving faith.  He tells us in Titus, chapter 3, that He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 
This washing He granted Jack in his baptism, for our Lord declares that as many of us as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  In Baptism, Jack was buried in the death of Christ with the promise that He would raise him again.  Our Lord never forgot His promise to Jack, and Jack was confirmed in the faith that was once delivered to the saints.  He confessed his Christian faith publicly and acknowledged God’s gift to him in Holy Baptism.
And though it had been a while since he had been in church, Jack still heard God’s Word; he confessed his sin, and received Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins through pastoral visits in his home.  Even as recently as Thursday, I had the opportunity to read God’s Word, to pray with him, and we confessed our Christian faith together in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.  And so I commend Jack to our heavenly Father’s gracious and merciful care, trusting that He who has begun a good work in Jack will be faithful to complete it.
God’s Word does not return to Him empty, even when we can’t measure the results with our limited human minds and sinful hearts.  Your peace and your comfort must not come from a few days, full of trouble, but from the certain and the eternal; and that is the precious truth that God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  Christ Jesus died to save sinners.  He is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  He is the only Way to the Father.  And He has prepared a place for His own.
The Lord Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, is the Word made flesh who dwelt among us.  He came to His people to redeem them.  Christ reconciled the whole world, Jack included, to Himself.  He bought us back from sin and the power of the grave not with gold or silver, but with His own precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  Through the power of His death, He has forever destroyed death, and all the dead will be raised on the Last Day.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and died for Jack’s sins, as well as the sins of every person here.  Though the wages of sin is death, as we are grimly reminded today, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  He died for you.  He died for me.  And He died for Jack.  He paid the price for all of our transgressions, and gives the promise of the resurrection of the body to everlasting life to all who would believe in Him.
May our Lord impart this comfort and hope to you, no matter what trouble or temptations you may face today or in the days and years to come.  Trust in God’s great love and mercy, His Word and His promises, which are far above our ways and beyond all human comprehension.  He will sustain and keep you.
In the Name of our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What Makes the Angels Rejoice?

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Dressed in the finest white gown, this beautiful young blonde comes to meet her Bridegroom and receive His name.  She’s escorted down the aisle by her father and her mother joins in giving her away at the front of the church.  Eight days old, she’s certainly unable to come up on her own or speak on her own behalf.  The pastor marks her with the sign of the cross as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and baptizes her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Dressed in faded blue jeans and an old flannel shirt, he feels a bit out of place among the suits and ties, dresses and skirts, of those standing with him.  But then, he’s certainly not there to make a fashion statement.  He’s not even really sure why he’s there.  He feels so lost and alone.  It’s been a long time since he’s joined in the assembly.  At first the words come to him with great difficulty, but soon the confession he learned as a young boy rolls off his tongue.  Then comes the absolution, sweet music to his ears: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Dressed in his Sunday best, the old man walks forward to the rail just as he’s done almost every week for the last 75 years.  Kneeling, he receives a small piece of bread and a sip of wine.  It doesn’t look like much, but through the eyes of faith he sees a heavenly feast.  This is the Lord’s Supper, the only food and drink that truly satisfy.  This is the meal that will strengthen and preserve him in body and soul unto life everlasting.  Here at the Lord’s Table, in the presence of his fellow sinners, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, he receives his Savior’s precious body and blood.  And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Dressed for bed, she’s weighed down by the normal cares, struggles, and mistakes of the day.  She makes the sign of the holy cross in God’s triune name, recalling her Baptism, as she does almost every morning and evening.  She repeats the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  Then she whispers this little prayer: “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that you have kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night.  For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.  Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.  Amen.”  Unburdened and with a clear conscience, she cheerfully goes to sleep at once.  And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
“There is joy before the angels of God.”  Something special must be happening.  What could make the angels rejoice?  It has to be something pretty big.  It has to be something really special. 
The Bible mentions only three times when the angels rejoice.  In Job 38:7, God Himself tells us that “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” at the dawn of creation.  In Luke 2:13-14, the evangelist reports that the angels sang for joy the night when Christ was born.  We repeat their hymn almost every week: “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  And in our text for today from Luke 15:1-10, we hear “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 
What makes the angels rejoice?  Creation, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the repentance of one sinner.  All three, miraculous, powerful, creative works of our loving and gracious God.  That’s what makes the angels rejoice. 
Today, we will focus on the third.  Each of the opening stories is an example of one sinner repenting, of someone confessing his or her sins and receiving God’s gracious gift of forgiveness and life.  If repentance is the cause for the angels of God to sing, it is obviously important for us to understand it clearly. 
Unfortunately repentance, true repentance, is a concept that is often misunderstood today even as it was in Jesus’ day.  Many mistakenly see repentance as a human activity, what I must do to make myself right with God.  Others think of repentance more in terms of a one-time conversion experience—“the day I accepted Jesus into my heart.”  Both misunderstandings turn us inward and away from God’s gracious work.  Both of these false understandings lead people away from the real joy that true repentance brings. 
So let’s turn to the only place that can help us rightly understand this wonderful teaching—God’s holy Word—and our text from Luke 15:1-10, where Jesus teaches the Pharisees, His disciples, and us about the joy of true repentance.  
The previous section of Luke’s Gospel had concluded with Jesus’ admonition: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  This new chapter tells us who did gather to hear: tax collectors and sinners.  And not only did they listen to Jesus—they were even welcomed to eat with Him!  The word “sinner” may refer to people who were especially immoral and wicked.  But it can also refer simply to people who were not strict about fulfilling all the requirements of the ceremonial law.  They were “sinners” in the eyes of the Pharisees because of their neglectful attitude toward religion.  The tax collectors were just one example of such.
The question of eating with tax collectors and sinners was raised previously when Jesus called Matthew to become one of His followers.  “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners,’” the Pharisees asked.  Jesus answered them. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Here, once again, the Pharisees and scribes mutter about the people with whom Jesus associates: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  In answer to the criticism, Jesus tells three parables in which there is joy over finding what was lost.  We have two of them today: the lost sheep and the lost coin.
The description Jesus gives of the shepherd joyfully returning home carrying the lost sheep is heartwarming.  He bids his friends to come and celebrate with him the recovery of one lost sheep.  There is no mention at all of the 99 sheep out there in the open country.  All attention is focused upon the lost sheep that was found.  Jesus says that the same is true in heaven: there is more rejoicing over the lost sinner who repents than over the 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.
The suggestion that some people don’t need to repent sounds wrong to us.  Jesus had said to the crowds, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:5).  Everyone needs to repent.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  We need to understand Jesus’ statement as a criticism of the Pharisees who thought they were so righteous that they did not need to repent.  Jesus is saying to them, “God is not rejoicing over you and your self-righteous attitude; God is rejoicing over the lost sinner who realizes he is lost and repents.”
The second parable presents a woman who has lost a coin.  But she diligently seeks until she finds it.  She lights a lamp and carefully sweeps the dirt floor.  She uses every possible means to recover what she has lost.  That a poor woman should search so diligently for a lost coin does not surprise us.  But that she should invite her friends and neighbors to join in celebrating her find is a bit much.  It’s the way in which Jesus stresses the divine joy over the repentance of a single sinner.  “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Greek word for “one sinner who repents” is a present participle, indicating continuous action.  Literally, it should be translated: “over one sinner repenting.”  Jesus does not mean just a one-time conversion, but constant, daily repentance.  Martin Luther highlights this aspect of repentance in the first of his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, said, ‘Repent!’  He meant that the whole life of a Christian is one of repentance.”  Repentance is a daily process, one that needs to be repeated over and over again. 
So let’s look a little closer at this process of repentance and how it might be applied to our lives.  The first step comes, unfortunately, all too easily. 
A Christian teacher once asked her class, “What is the first thing we must do in order to be forgiven?”  One boy’s hand shot up immediately.  “Sin!” he shouted.  And of course, he was perfectly correct.  The process of repentance begins as the Holy Spirit uses His Law to convict us of a specific sin and to produce true contrition in our hearts.
What is true contrition?  As the apostle Paul once discussed contrition, he sought to help his readers distinguish between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.”  As anyone with a few traffic tickets can testify, most of us regret being caught in some violation of the law.  We dislike the inconvenience of going to court to pay a fine, or we find ourselves embarrassed when our name gets in the paper.  Perhaps we fear possible future consequences (such as higher car insurance rates).  In any case, most of us regret having our transgressions exposed, because in one way or another, we fear punishment.  This is one definition of “worldly sorrow,” and we have all experienced enough of it to recognize it instantly.
Another definition of worldly sorrow involves what the Scriptures sometimes call condemnation—the feeling of despair that crashes in on us when we fear that we have used up our quota of God’s grace, and, therefore, that He will refuse to forgive us for a particular offense.  I think it’s safe to say that all Christians struggle with this sense of condemnation from time to time.  We recognize it in ourselves, and Christians who listen carefully to others will almost surely discover individuals who struggle with this kind of worldly sorrow as well.
Worldly sorrow comes from Satan; it brings death.  By way of contrast, Paul commends “godly sorrow.”  This kind of sorrow for sin leads us to the next step in God’s process of repentance.  Recognizing our sin and sorrowing over it, grieving that we have offended our righteous God, we confess our sin. 
The word for “confess” in the Greek of the New Testament means literally “to speak together” or “to say the same thing.”  When we confess our sins, we simply say what God says: (1) We have indeed done what His Law has forbidden.  (2) Our action (thought, or attitude) was wrong.  (3) Our sin hurt God; it hurt us; it hurt other people.  And (4) we deserve God’s punishment.
When we honestly confess our sins to God in this way, we do not try to excuse ourselves.  We do not try to shift the blame for our sin.  We do not try to trivialize what we’ve done, as did the Pharisees and scribes in our text.  Nor do we minimize the consequences we deserve.  As the apostle John wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).  No, we speak the truth about ourselves. 
Standing before God stripped of all self-righteousness, we hear the beautiful words of our Father’s absolution: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  And “there is joy before the angels of God.”
Absolution is, for the Christian, a glorious emancipation.  The Latin word from which we derive the English word “absolve” literally means “to set free; to release.”  Absolved from our sins, we find freedom from their guilt and shame and from the punishment we have deserved.  But also—and this is critically important—we receive in God’s absolution release from the power of our sins to enslave us.  That freedom from sin comes, not as we try hard to amend our sinful lives, but as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to not only cleanse us, but also to create a new heart and renew a right spirit within us.  We realize that in our own strength, we cannot obey God.  We acknowledge that, left to our own resources, we do not even want to obey God.  And so we ask Him to work these things in us by the power of His Holy Spirit working God’s means of grace—His Word and Sacrament—for the sake of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 
Contrition.  Confession.  Absolution.  Yielding to God’s Spirit.  That is the cycle of repentance.  And, we repeat this process of repentance as often as we need it.  We may, at times, find ourselves mired in a sin that we confessed only minutes before.  In fact, we may find ourselves repeating the process a dozen times within a 10-minute period.  But God will not become impatient or angry with us.  He simply invites and encourages us to use the medicine He has prescribed.  We can take it as often as we need it; we need not worry about overdosing.  In fact, Jesus tells us: “There is joy before the angels of God” every time this process is used.
As the Holy Spirit leads us through this process, He continually adds the surges of power we need so that, little by little, we can obey on ever-so-slightly higher a plane.  By the Spirit’s power, this process in our lives becomes a spiral headed gradually upward.  Not that we will never fall back again into the same sins, but the general trend of our lives will be toward increasing Christ-likeness.
Perhaps all this seems too simple.  Admittedly, it is simple, so simple that we could easily let our human pride prevent us from using the process our Lord has given us to enable us to live more fruitful, less frustrating lives of discipleship.  It is simple.  But it works.  It is the only thing that works.  And our Lord Jesus yearns to help us use it.  And there is joy before the angels of God every time we do.
What makes the angels rejoice?  One sinner who repents.  Join them in rejoicing!  Be the cause for their rejoicing!  Repent!  Encourage others to do the same.  Remember your Baptism daily.  Partake of our Lord’s life-giving body and blood in His holy Supper.  Confess your sins and receive Christ’s absolution.  For truly “there is joy before the angels of God” every time you do.  Rejoice with them hear and believe this Good News: For the sake of Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death, you are forgiven of 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 ...