Saturday, November 30, 2013

Your King Comes to You!

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The text for today is Matthew 21:5: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Your king is coming to you.”  Those words can either warm your heart with comfort and joy, or bring the deep chill of fear and trepidation.  It all depends on your perspective.  It all depends on who the king is, and what your relationship is to him.  Take, for instance, King Herod and the Magi.
Seeing the special star in the east, the Magi head to Jerusalem.  It is only natural for them to assume that a newborn king of the Jews would enter this world in the royal palace.  But wise as they are, their inquiry before King Herod shows little tact and even less understanding of who this man is.  For with this innocent question the paranoid king immediately suspects a potential rival to his throne.  Herod feigns interest and ferrets out whatever information he can from them.  Then, he assembles his priests to tell him where the Messiah-king is expected to be born.  On the basis of an Old Testament prophecy, the scholars are able to pinpoint Bethlehem.  Pretending to welcome this new king, Herod directs his guests to David’s city: “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found Him, bring me word so that I may go and worship Him…”
And the Wise Men would have done just that but for the warning from God’s angel.  They worship the newborn king and hightail it out of there.  Herod takes that snub with all the rage of the deluded and suspicious old paranoid he has become.  Ordering the ruthless massacre of all male babies two years old and under in Bethlehem, he hopes that the infant “king” will be among the victims.  It certainly is no way to meet a coming king, to welcome Him aright.
Thirty-three years pass between that first Christmas and Palm Sunday, and during that interval Matthew does not record a single time that Jesus is called a king.  He is called “Son of David,” and that messianic title certainly has royal overtones, but it is not until the Palm Sunday parade that Jesus is proclaimed to be a king.  And once again we are told that the whole city of Jerusalem is stirred.
When Jesus was 12 years old, He went up to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph to celebrate the Feast of the Passover.  This was something pious Jews did every year.  So we can assume that Jesus made many trips to Jerusalem to observe the Passover.  But this time is different.  Jesus is very much aware that He is going up to Jerusalem to die.  Along the way, He tells His disciples at least three times that He is going to be handed over to the chief priests and condemned to death, but that on the third day He will rise again.
As Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover for the last time, He wants the attention of all the people to be focused on Him.  That is why He makes special preparations, sending two of His disciples ahead to Bethphage to get the donkey He will ride.  Matthew tells us this takes place to fulfill prophecy.  Through Zechariah, God has told His people that their King will come to them “humble and mounted on a donkey” so they can recognize Him when He comes. 
The animals brought to the Lord are not saddled.  But the disciples quickly fix that.  They take off their outer garments and pile them on the back of the colt, to make a seat for their Master.  Their example is infectious.  A large number of the people take their cloaks and spread them out on the road. 
It is a strange way for Jesus to be acknowledged as the King of Israel.  He rides upon an ordinary, lowly beast of burden rather than a magnificent white stallion.  Jesus does not wear a kingly robe or a royal crown.  There is no scepter in His hand.  His attendants are mostly Galilean fishermen.  It does not look like a royal procession, yet there was an obvious and undeniable majesty about Him. 
The excitement spreads.  Some of the crowd cut branches from the trees along the way and cast them down to make a leafy carpet before Him.  But the climax of the exultation is reached at the Mount of Olives.  Here, the ranks of the singers are swelled by newcomers; some march ahead and others follow behind the Lord.  All of them sing: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We sing the same song in the Communion liturgy.  The familiar words of the Sanctus remind us that the same Jesus who humbly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey comes to us in the Lord’s Supper. 
In both cases—then and now—there is much more going on than meets the eye.  We would never guess that we are receiving the true body and blood of our Savior in the Sacrament, but Jesus says, “This is My body… This is My blood.”  Through the eyes of faith we see much more than bread and wine.  Because our ears have heard what Jesus said, we see our righteousness and salvation. 
And so it is with the original Palm Sunday parade; the words of the Old Testament prophets tell the people what to look for, and their eyes are opened so that they can really see.  They openly proclaim Him as the Son of David, as the true Messiah.  They wish Him blessing and salvation from above.  They gladly sacrifice their holiday garments.  They bring the palm branches and wave the green fronds of early spring to give full expression to their joy, to their confession of their Lord, the Messiah who has come as King.
Unfortunately this exultation is only temporary, and quickly forgotten by the people in attendance.  And yet the Spirit of the Lord—for a short while at least—takes hold of the people.  God wants this display to give testimony in behalf of His Son, before the shame and horror of the cross will be laid upon Him.  It is also a memory that has been passed down in history to this very day.  And what is more, it is prophetic of the time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father—the Last Day.
Sadly, people often misunderstand Jesus’ role and purpose.  They miss out on the real reason for His advent.  His primary purpose in coming to earth is not to usher in an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one.  Jesus makes this clear when Pilate asks Him if He is the King of the Jews: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Jesus does not come to earth, as some would assert, to help us live our “best life now.”  Neither did Jesus come primarily to be our example or teach us how to be moral people or to teach us how to find our purpose in life.  Nor did Jesus come to encourage us to seek social justice or establish a Christian nation.  Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to earth is to die on a cross for the sins of all people so that we could receive God’s free gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
The manner in which Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday plainly shows that He has no intentions of setting Himself up as an earthly king.  The throne to which He will ascend is a crude wooden cross.  His kingly court will be comprised of two criminals, one on His right and the other on His left.  The crown He will wear will be crudely fashioned from twisted thorns.  His hands won’t hold a scepter, but will have nails driven through them.  And though they will dress Him in a purple robe long enough to mock Him, He will hang naked on His cross.
Yet, through His lowliness and humiliation, through His innocent suffering and death, Jesus will establish a kingdom of greater glory and majesty than any earthly kingdom before or since.  Jesus’ eternal kingdom will be established, not by shedding the blood of His enemies, but by shedding His own blood.  His blood will be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, even for those very enemies who openly reject Him and seek His death! 
When the crowds welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna,” we cannot say for sure how well they understand the significance of their own words.  Surely they do not understand the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  We’re told later that even His own disciples did not grasp the significance of these events as they happened.  Even forty days after His resurrection, they were still asking Jesus if He was ready to establish His kingdom at this time.  Yet, the fact remains that the Palm Sunday crowds proclaimed the truth.  And to this day, their words point to Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior of the world. 
Things haven’t really changed.  Each year, as we observe the season of Advent, the multitudes love to hear and sing the carols that proclaim, “Glory to the newborn King,” and plead, “Let earth receive her King.”  And in shopping malls and concert halls, the familiar strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” proclaim, “And He shall reign for ever and ever.”
Many people do not really hear what the words are saying.  Others hear the words but do not believe them.  That is why they quickly lose interest after the holidays are over.  Yet, the fact remains that many of the best-loved Christmas carols proclaim the truth of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, far too many miss the real blessing of Advent and Christmas.  They do not understand.  They do not believe.  They are not ready to meet the coming King.  What about you?
Your king has come to you!  He has washed you with water and placed on you His very own name.  He has given you new birth by water and the Spirit, and He has forgiven all of your sins.  He has brought you into His kingdom, the Church, and here He defends you by His Word from all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  He feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Through His means of grace, your King comes to you week after week, day after day, getting you ready for His final advent, His coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
And do you know why, dear Christian friends, your King comes?  He comes because He loves you.  He comes because He cannot bear to have a kingdom that is not filled with you, the one He has loved since before the very foundation of the world. 
But a sad thing happens when the Son of God enters the world and takes on human flesh to redeem His fallen creation.  We curse Him.  We mock Him.  We plot evil against Him.  Then we crucify Him.  We can’t handle having God among us as our King, and so we condemn Him with a shameful death.
That’s why Advent is a season of repentance.  Yes, we long for the wonderful celebration of Christmas.  We love to celebrate the Lord’s birth, His coming to earth in human flesh to be our Savior.  But while we know that His salvation is free, it did not happen without great cost.  Because of sin, yours and mine, the Lord’s incarnation led to His bloody and painful death. 
So before Christmas we take a few weeks to repent of our evil ways and beg the Lord to have mercy.  But our repentance is not a sorrow that leads us into despair.  We do not repent hoping that maybe if we’re sorry enough the Lord will forgive us.  No, we repent confident of the Lord’s mercy.  We repent with our eyes turned toward Bethlehem where the Lord was born… and toward Jerusalem where He won salvation for the whole world, and established His eternal kingdom. 
So, repent!  Repent as you wait with trembling and joy for His second advent.  But do not wait for Him in despair.  Do not wait in terror.  Your King comes!  Righteous and having salvation.  Look for Him with expectant joy and eager anticipation.  He loves you.  When He comes for you in His final advent, He will be rejoicing over you.  He will be raising you from the grave to give you and all His children life in His kingdom that never ends. 
How can you be sure!  He already died and rose for you.  He ascended to the Father’s right hand where He intercedes continuously for you.  And week after week, He continues come to you in His gifts of love—His Word and Sacrament.  In these means of grace, He speaks this Good News: “I forgive you for all of your sins.”   
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Autobiography of an Old Church Pew

An adaptation of a short story by W.R. Evans


I am an old church pew, an ordinary pew—like the ones you folks are sitting in now.  I belonged in a nice, ordinary church—something like your church.  My church was made up, for the most part, of ordinary, everyday people—people like you.  People who got together every Sunday for worship, who gathered with their families and friends for special holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

As some of you may have already discovered, one of the pleasures of old age is thinking back over one’s experiences and telling stories about people we have known.  I find it helps me remain more thankful for all of God’s blessings I have now, and it enables me to hold onto my hope for the future when I consider what He has already done in the past.  And since this is the evening before Thanksgiving Day—a time in which we reflect upon God’s blessings—I thought you might be interested in hearing my story.  You see, it could be about some of you.  Perhaps it will remind you of some of the ways God has blessed your life.

I came from a great oak tree, which stood with a lot of others on a rounded hill in Northern Minnesota.  From the top of our hill we could look down on a small lake hemmed in on all sides by a forest that stretched in every direction as far as we could see.  Standing in the middle of a scene like that through the changing seasons, how could one help but feel the presence of God?
         
Since the very beginning of God’s creation, my family has always offered service to others.  Our shade furnished a resting place for weary travelers, our branches have sheltered nesting birds, and our beauty and wealth of colored leaves were a pleasure for the eyes of all those who came to gaze and marvel. 

We were used to visitors in our countryside.  Families with picnic baskets, campers with tents, hikers out to fill their lungs with the smell of the forest, and children picking flowers, shouting at each other, laughing and trying to whistle like the birds.  Mine was a happy, beautiful world.  That reminds me of one of my favorite hymns —“Beautiful Savior.”  Won’t you sing it with me?

Hymn #537, v. 1-2, “Beautiful Savior”
Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,               
Son of God and Son of Man!                        
Truly I’d love Thee, Truly I’d serve Thee,     
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.             

Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands,
Robed in flow’rs of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.

But one day men came with strange equipment that we had not seen before.  They seemed to have found what they were looking for as they said we would make excellent lumber—whatever that was.  I was one of the trees that they cut down, trimmed, and hauled away.

I soon found myself in a great woodshop.  The strange surroundings made me uneasy, but the smell of newly sawn wood was exhilarating.  And, according to an inherited desire to serve, I felt willing to be put to any use that the craftsmen might determine.  Sometimes the treatment was almost unbearable—marking, sawing, planing, shaping, and sanding—but I was sure that it was necessary to prepare me to serve others, so I submitted to that preparation.

Hymn #698, v.1, “May We Thy Precepts, Lord, Fulfill”
May we Thy precepts, Lord, fulfill
And do on earth our Father’s will
As angels do above;
Still Walk in Christ, the living Way,
With all Thy children and obey
The law of Christian love.

After many days someone came to the wood shop where I was and called me a “church pew,” and I wondered what new adventure lay before me now. 
It didn’t take long to find out.  I was soon carried to a very beautiful place with an atmosphere of peace and serenity where I was placed with many new friends exactly like me.  I was to serve as a “family pew,” in a sanctuary, a house of worship.  The quiet peace of that first night in my silent new home reminded me vividly of midnight out on the hills of our forest and as I heard the echo of the organ and human voices I was sure that the same creating God was present.

Hymn #907, v. 1, “God Himself Is Present”
God Himself is present; let us now adore Him,
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple; all within keep silence,
Prostrate lie with deepest rev’rence.
Him alone God we own, Him, our God and Savior;
Praise His name forever!

Morning came.  The sun, rising higher and higher in the sky sent majestic colors creeping along the aisles of the church.  Suddenly, I heard a bell ringing.  It was like the bell from the village church by my woods, which had called generations of people to worship God.  Then I knew that this must be the day of worship and that people would be coming to this church.
         
As they came, there was a happy, excited stir as they expressed their pleasure as seeing me and my new friends in their church.  As the organ started its beautiful music, a pretty young woman chose me as her place to sit.  I was pleased that I would begin serving even on that first Sunday. 

A pleasant and handsome man also came to sit in me.  The young woman seemed as pleased as I was with his presence.  They were both very pleased with me, or else they were pleased with each other, for they smiled a lot during the service and happily sang the hymns from a shared hymnal.  I heard a murmured prayer of thanksgiving for the beauty of love that proceeds from the heart of God to the hearts of youth, teaching them love for one another.

Hymn #649, v.1-2, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”
Blest be the tie that binds                   
Our hearts in Christian love;                        
The unity of heart and mind                         
Is like to that above.                                    

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims, are one,
Our comforts and our cares.

Each Sunday morning they came and sat close together.  There seemed to be an increasing joy in our company and I hoped that we could go on like that forever.  However, one evening something different was happening in the church.  Someone lit all the candles.  The organ played, but John and Mary did not come!  Strangers sat in me and I wondered about John and Mary.

I could hardly contain my surprise and joy when I saw Mary coming down the aisle in a beautiful white dress.  She was lovelier than ever that evening.  But she passed me by and went down to the altar where she met John and some others.  The pastor spoke about promises to love and care for each other, about God joining this couple, and then he prayed for them.  As the organ played, they hurried down the aisle past me again.
         
But the next Sunday, they were back to sit close together on me.  The sermons they heard each Sunday opened their hearts and minds to the love of God through Jesus Christ, and pointed them to the life to come through faith in the only Savior of sinners.  Their lives were enriched by their worship of God, where they heard the life-giving Word, received the absolution of their sins, and celebrated Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Jesus’ own body and blood given for forgiveness and the strengthening of faith. 

Hymn #637, v.1, “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord”
Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord,
And drink the holy blood for you outpoured;
Offered was He for greatest and for least,
Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest.

Then one Sunday, John came to church alone.  I was disturbed, but John did not seem to be.  He seemed to have matured overnight.  I thought I read in his face a little more seriousness, a little more earnestness as he prayed and listened and worshiped. 

When Mary did come back the next Sunday, she was carrying a fluffy pink and white bundle that made strange noises which caused Mary and John to look to each other and smile.  A few minutes later another fine young couple, who turned out to be sponsors, walked with my Mary and John and their bundle to the front of the church where they met the pastor by the baptismal font.

Hymn #601, v.1, “All Who Believe and Are Baptized”
All who believe and are baptized
Shall see the Lord’s salvation;
Baptized into the death of Christ,
They are a new creation.
Thro’ Christ’s redemption they shall stand
Among the glorious heavenly band
Of ev’ry tribe and nation.

When the pastor said, “Margaret Louise, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” I knew the bundle was a baby.  And I hoped she would come to me every Sunday morning in spite of the funny noises.

Well, my prayer was answered.  In what seemed like an incredibly short time (for a tree), there were six occupants for me to care for each Sunday morning—four little ones sitting in a row between John and Mary.  There was Margaret, and Bill, and Betty, and little Charlie.  Sometimes they kicked me and scratched me, but I was so proud of them that only the joys of those years are remembered now.   They learned each Sunday the wonderful message of the love of God given to them in His Son Jesus.

Hymn #588 “Jesus Loves Me”, v.1, 4
Jesus loves me this I know                         
For the Bible tells me so,                   
Little ones to Him belong                   
They are weak but He is strong.        

Chorus:  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.
              Yes, Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so.

Jesus, take this heart of mine,
Make it pure and wholly Thine,
On the cross You died for me,
          I will try to live for Thee.

Chorus:  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.
              Yes, Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so.

Each Sunday they learned of the forgiving love of God in Jesus and the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit.  They were warned of the temptation of the Devil that might confront them and how they must stand strong in their Christian faith.  And they learned from their parents how to worship the Lord.  I saw them grow in the grace of God, in faith and understanding, until each of my little ones, in his or her turn, went forward to profess openly a faith in Jesus Christ at His altar on Confirmation Sunday.

Hymn #687, v.1,2, “Thine Forever, God of Love”
Thine forever, God of Love!                         
Hear us from Thy throne above;                  
Thine forever may we be                   
Here and in eternity.                                    

Thine forever!  Oh, how blest
They who find in Thee their rest!
Savior, Guardian, heav’nly Friend,
Oh, defend us to the end!
         
The years flew by.  One morning I heard Margaret whisper to a young woman that she was getting married.  Then before I knew it, she was absent from her place.  Soon Bill and Betty went away to college and I saw them only on holidays.  The sweet baby face of Charlie had turned into the handsome features of a young man.  Later, he went to the big city to work there.
         
How strange it was, and quiet for me then.  I imagine John and Mary felt it even more than I.  But the empty nest had its upside for them, too, as once again they were able to sit side by side holding hands during the sermon and sharing the same hymnal as they joyfully sang.  By God’s grace, time had not eroded their love for one another, nor had it lessened their faith and love for God. 
If anything, their prayers were more earnest now.  For the years had brought experiences, and the experiences—both joyous and painful—had broadened and deepened their faith as they learned to take everything to God in prayer.

Hymn #770, v.1-2, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
What a Friend we have in Jesus,                 
all our sins and griefs to bear!                     
What a privilege to carry                    
Ev’rything to God in prayer!                         
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,         
Oh, what needless pain we bear,                 
All because we do not carry                         
Ev’rything to God in prayer!      

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a Friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

One day Mary came alone.  She was dressed in dark colors and I knew as she prayed through her tears that John would not come again.  As this devout woman poured out her grief to God and confided in Him the loneliness of her heart, there was a living presence that gave the peace of God that passes all understanding.  Through the power of God’s holy Word, she was strengthened and assured of God’s tender love and care.  And she knew that because Christ had died on the cross and rose again to life, that one day would she see John in heaven.

Hymn #461, v.1 & 7, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”
I know that my Redeemer lives;         
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!     
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;       
He lives, my everlasting Head. 

He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death;
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.

And then one day after many years of faithful attendance, Mary did not come any more.  Look as I might for her friendly face, only strangers came to sit in me and to listen and worship. 

One rainy Sunday morning there came another woman who reminded me so much of Mary with all her sweetness and charm.  Something about the lady’s quiet, thoughtful ways made me realize that she was in sorrow, a deep sorrow that was breaking her heart.  And the pain in her heart showed on her face.  Eventually I realized that this was my Margaret, grown prematurely old with the hardship of the years since I had seen her so young and happy. 

Something in the prayer she breathed, as the pastor prayed the general prayer, revealed the cause of her pain.  God had given her a woman’s most precious gift, a little child.  But in His loving wisdom, God had taken the tiny infant back to His heart again.  So Margaret had come to seek the consolation of the Word of God in the old family pew.

I felt it surely must have been the hand of God when the pastor read the Scripture lesson that morning—“I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  It was the familiar text that Margaret had heard so many times while sitting on me long ago.  As Margaret heard the text again, she remembered and she believed.  And again she place her trust in Jesus her Savior.

Hymn #729, v.1 & 6, “I Am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus”
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,         
Trusting only Thee;                                     
Trusting Thee for full salvation,          
Great and free.                                            

I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus;
Never let me fall.
I am trusting Thee forever
And for all.

The sermon was heard, the prayers prayed, the benediction pronounced, and Margaret and her husband rose and went out to face their lonely world.  But they no longer felt so alone for they walked in the everlasting love of their Lord.  I rejoiced because I knew the love of God was a very important part of Margaret’s life once again.
The days turned into months and the months into years.  Other families came to sit in me and grew up worshiping the Lord, but none were ever so faithful as had been my first family.  One Sunday I realized that it was Easter again.  The sun was again streaming in with the colors from the stained glass windows.  It was a time to celebrate, but I felt sort of awkward.  Though a crowd filled the church, I was empty.  Some folks tried to sit in me, but the ushers, for some reason, excused me from service that morning, whispering something about having been reserved especially by someone for “memory’s sake.”

I was pleased when a well-dressed man and a very fashionably dressed woman finally came and sat in me.  They had two little children and I could tell from their restless inattention that they were not accustomed to sitting in a church pew.  I tried to be patient with them even though I felt that with all their wiggles and giggles they were acting very rudely.
         
I was only slightly interested in these folks who were sitting in me.  They seemed like more of the ever-changing crowd that had been occupying me since the good old days when I really was a family pew.  But something seemed slightly familiar about the man. 

Gradually I recognized the features of my Bill.  How successful he looked!  Apparently he had been well favored with this world’s goods.  His wife was a pretty woman, a trifle vain I thought, but she showed all the marks of culture and wealth.  The dress and demeanor of the whole family indicated that good fortune had been showered upon them.  Yet I could not escape the hardness in the look on Bill’s face.  I wondered if he had been as faithful in his prayer life and his church attendance as his mother and father had taught him to be, and as he had promised God he would be at his confirmation.

The sermon that morning was about the rich young ruler who could not find happiness in his life through his wealth and through his high position, but who had true satisfaction offered to him in a complete, total surrender to Jesus Christ.

Hymn #783, v. 1 & 5, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
Take my life and let it be                    
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;                        
Take my moments and my days,                 
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.               

Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
In the midst of the sermon, a tear formed in Bill’s eye and trailed down a cheek that was now becoming somewhat softened by memories that came flooding back.  And in the closing prayer he quite forgot his dignity as both eyes filled with tears and he bowed in humble prayer as his father used to do.  I heard a sob and a whispered prayer that if God could forgive his careless ways, the faith of his father would be his faith from that moment on.  I knew full well that if the wealth and ability of such a splendid man as Bill could be consecrated to God, my service as a family pew has been very worthwhile.
         
Many months later there dawned another Sunday morning.  The sun was shining.  The birds were singing.  Again, the colors crept along the aisle as they had thousands of times.  But this morning was to be different from the others.  An elaborately dressed young woman came to sit in me.  She seemed uncomfortable as she sat stiffly with eyes focused on the altar.  Then I realized that it was my Betty, grown hard and sophisticated with the experience that the years had brought her.
         
I was very disappointed in her, for she was obviously so far removed from the love of God which her mother had prayed might be hers.  It was all too evident that she, too, was disappointed with her life.  She missed the love that had been proclaimed to her in my presence.  She had come back to me, (well, actually to God), half cynically, as a sort of last resort trying to find the love and peace she really longed for.  Trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum within her soul.
         
Hymn #700 v.1-2, “Love Divine, All Love Excelling”
Love, Divine, all love excelling, joy of heav’n, to earth come down,
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling, all Thy faithful mercies crown,
Jesus, Thou are all compassion, pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation, enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Breathe, oh, breathe Thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit, let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
         
The pastor announced the text, 1 John 5:4-5: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Betty listened half to the pastor and half to the memory of her mother’s voice.  She whispered under her breath, “Faith?  Was my mother’s faith better than my education, my culture, my social position, my works of charity?  Is faith the way to the love and peace that she had?”
The sermon was finished, the organ was playing and the people passed quickly out of the sanctuary, greeting each other.  But Betty did not stir.  In the silence that followed I almost felt again the presence of John and Mary sitting there on either side of Betty.  I think she felt it to, for she slipped to her knees crying hot tears.  This was again my Betty and I knew it when she whispered a song—a song she had sung with John and Mary so long ago.

Hymn #878, v. 1 & 8, “Abide with Me!  Fast Falls the Eventide”
Abide with me, fast fall the eventide             
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. 
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,    
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’ns morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Then she rose and walked out of the church with a relief and a radiance on her face.  I knew it was because she had recommitted her life to Jesus Christ, the one whom the pastor described as “He alone who can give to everyone who asks, eternal life, abundant life.”
         
But Charlie did not come.  I longed for his handsome face, and wondered what had become of him.  I was now an old pew, out of style.  There was talk of getting new pews, those fancy padded kind.  And if that happened, I would never know about Charlie.  But Charlie still did not come.
         
Then one cold winter afternoon, as the sun began to set behind a bank of clouds, gloom filled the whole place.  Cold and darkness was settling in as I heard the train pull away from the elevator loaded with corn.
         
A few minutes later, I heard footsteps shuffling down the aisle.  They made such an unusual sound in this holy place, and I felt a strange foreboding as a ragged, dirty tramp came into the sanctuary.  It had happened before, but still I wanted to shrink away from him, for those men only came to sleep, not to worship.
I’m ashamed of it now, but the man was so dirty and smelled so bad I actually prayed that he would choose some other pew to sleep in.   As I watched, he came straight toward me.  But instead of laying down, he knelt down beside me.  As he drew near to me, I recognized even in the gathering darkness, the once handsome face of my Charlie! 
         
But oh, oh how he had changed!  He was no longer a bright, mischievous boy.  He was not a clean-cut youth.  He was a broken man.  It was a sorry tale of wasted life that he poured out as he confessed his many sins to God.  A torrent of tears flooded upon me as he tried to sing the song that he had heard his father sing so long ago…

Hymn #570, v.1 & 5, “Just As I Am, without One Plea”
Just as I am, without one plea                     
But that Thy blood was shed for me             
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,      
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.                  

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Then Charlie stood up.  There was a certainty in his step that I could tell hadn’t been there for a long time as he walked out into the darkness.  And I knew that whatever his sins had been, he was now a forgiven man.  And by the amazing grace of God, the grace He furnishes to the lost, Charlie would be found forever in that grace.

Hymn #744, v. 1, “Amazing Grace”
Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see! 

I am an old pew now.  They say I have a certain comfort about me—not the comfort of a lounging chair, but the comfort which is far more needful, the comfort for troubled hearts, the comfort of prayers offered and answered.  I am content to have spent my life as a family pew because I have been of service to God.

Down in my wooden heart, there are some things that I know.  I know that the love of God made the mutual love of John and Mary sweeter and deeper than anything on earth ever could have done.  I know that the faithfulness of John and Mary gave their children an example of faith to follow, which in times of their trials and temptations brought them back to the Lord through a stronger faith. 

I can no longer speak of my first beauty, for I am old.  But I pray continually, “O Lord God, heavenly Father, I thank you for the opportunity to serve you these many years.  Thank you for all of those in whom through your Word and Sacraments you began, equipped, and renewed faith throughout the years.  Thank you for John and Mary and the faith they passed on to their family.  I ask that just once more before my time of service is done, that you would let some other family use me.”
         
To all of you in the pews of this church tonight, I want you to know that you are very precious to me, too.  More importantly you are precious to our heavenly Father!  He loves you so much that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.  He loves you so much that He gives you the gift of His Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies you and the whole Christian church through His means of grace.

With that in mind, I ask you to live close to Jesus—stay linked to His love in His Word and Sacraments.  Come here regularly to hear the Good News of His faith, forgiveness, and eternal life.  Come with thankful hearts to sing the hymns of His mercy and grace.  And please, never let your pew be empty.  It is so lonely without you.   

I am very old and perhaps the day is not far away when I will be replaced, and some new pew will stand where I have served so many years.  If it does, I hope it has a family like I had.  In the meanwhile, even if I cannot really speak of any future for me, I can speak of your eternal future and the love that God has for all of you.   Won’t you please join me in singing one more hymn?

Hymn #917, v. 1 & 4, “Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise”
Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise     
With one accord our parting hymn of praise;
Once more we bless Thee ere our worship cease,
Then, lowly bending, wait Thy word of peace.        

Grant us Thy peace throughout our earthly life,
Our Balm in sorrow and our Stay in strife.
Then, when Thy voice shall bid our conflict cease,
Call us, O Lord, to Thine eternal peace.

With Beggars and Angels

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

"Cleansing of the Ten Lepers" by James Tissot

The word of the Lord from Luke 17: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
What would it take to get you to beg?  What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member?  
Recently a friend of mine was on the news.  Perhaps you saw the story.  It was about the man in Rapid City who wanted to get his smile back.  A succession of health problems and limited finances had prevented him from fixing the teeth that troubled him for years.  Finally, he decided to do something about it—he set up an account on the internet to ask people to help.  “The hardest thing I've ever had to do is to do this, you know, to swallow my pride and ask for help," he said on Keloland News.  He told his story on gofundme.com. It didn’t take long for that funding to start, and to date he has raised nearly $3,000.
That’s not to say everyone is happy with his efforts.  About two weeks ago, he wrote, “I was feeling pretty beaten up today after talking to someone I know.  He said, ‘Panhandling seems to be a good way to get a new set of teeth for yourself.”  My friend admitted he was having some doubts about the process.  But then he received an encouraging message on Facebook.  That was enough to keep him going.  He had the procedure completed and his new smile looks great!
I’m happy for my friend.  He got what he wanted, and it has certainly raised his spirits.  But I must confess I have been somewhat conflicted.  Part of my dilemma is ethical.  I wonder, “Is it even right to ask someone for help to pay for a medical procedure that would have be classified as elective rather than emergency?”  And part of it is personal: I’ve thought about my own neglected dental work and the expense that will come when I get around to getting it done.
But I’ve come to realize that most of my hesitancy is a matter of pride: I don’t think that I could do it.  I’m generally too self-reliant, too prideful to ask for help—and often I’m the poorer for it.  And so I decided to help my friend. 
So, what would it take to get you to beg?  What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member?   I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request.  First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least, recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself.  And second, it takes confidence that the one you are asking is able to fulfill that need.   
And so we turn to the beggars in our Gospel.  There are ten of them.  They’re all out of options.  There’s nothing else to do.  They’re lepers.  They’re dying from a terrible contagious disease.  They can’t go to work.  They can’t stay home.  They can’t hug their wives and kids.  The Law is clear: they are unclean.  They are required to stay away from everyone else, except other lepers.  If anyone who doesn’t have leprosy happens to wander their way, these loneliest of men are required to shout out a warning to stay away.
When Jesus comes along, they shout from a distance.  Not “stay away,” but “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  They’ve heard.  Although they’re ostracized and isolated, they’ve still gotten the news of Jesus and his miraculous healing.  And they realize they have no other options.  They are completely at the Lord’s mercy.  So they beg.
Jesus simply tells them to show themselves to the priests.  As they head to the temple, all of them are cleansed.  One of them comes back—a Samaritan.  And while we usually note the ingratitude of the other nine at this point, this one—this foreigner—only highlights the Lord’s mercy more.  He has nothing to give Jesus in return for healing.  Neither can he appeal to him for help as a fellow Jew.  He has to rely solely on begging and trusting that the mercy of the Lord is for all.
The man returns because he has faith.  Jesus says so: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  That’s what faith does.  It keeps running back to Jesus.  It runs back with thanksgiving, because faith gladly says, “I had nothing to give, but Jesus was merciful to me anyway!” 
Faith always runs back to Jesus for more.  This is, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the other nine: Jesus has more to give them, but they run away.  They’ve got what they most want—they have their lives, health, families, and home again.  They won’t have to beg any more.  But they don’t have what they need most—forgiveness, faith, life, and salvation.  They run to the temple to see the priests, not realizing that there in their very midst is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrificial system—Jesus, the great High Priest, the Temple of God’s presence! 
The nine get what they want, but miss what they really need.  That’s what unbelief does.  Faith, on the other hand, keeps running back to Jesus.  Faith keeps running back with thanks, and faith keeps running back for more.  By faith, this leper knows that it’s not just that he was at the mercy of God.  He remains at the mercy of God.  And by faith, he knows there’s no better place to be. 
I submit to you that the components for faith in Christ for salvation are much the same as begging.  First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least, recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself.  And second, it takes confidence that the one you are asking is able to fulfill that need for you.  And so today, we will not be focusing so much on thanksgiving, but the lost art of begging—for the natural fruit of fulfilled begging is thanksgiving and praise.
Streets in the ancient world were filled with beggars that accosted those who passed by.  These beggars had no assured livelihood; most of them had no family network of support and could not work due to a disability.  There was no government-funded social safety net.  They depended upon the mercy of the well-to-do for their livelihood.
There was an art to begging.  From bitter experience beggars knew that they were far more likely to receive a handout if they approached people nicely and appealed to their better nature than if they were aggressive and demanding.  So they usually appealed for help by saying, “Kyrie, eleison!”  “Lord, have mercy!”  This cry was heard almost every day in every street. 
It was, of course, considered shameful to beg.  Respectable citizens took pride in earning a living and in having enough money to support their family.  Apart from some unscrupulous con men, no one chose to become a beggar.  Desperation alone drove them to seek charity from others in public—and they begged only if they had no other option.
Therefore, it’s quite surprising how Jesus describes the life of a disciple in the first beatitude of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Notice how Jesus commends spiritual poverty.  The Greek word for “poor” is also the term for a beggar.  Those who are poor in spirit have no spiritual assets.  They have nothing to offer to God the Father; rather, they receive everything from Him.  They receive the Holy Spirit as beggars who ask for what they do not have.  They receive the Father’s kingdom as a gift for the sake of Jesus Christ.
This contradicts conventional wisdom.  Popular piety presupposes our unrealized spiritual potential; it seeks spiritual enrichment and empowerment through the practice of certain spiritual exercises.  In contrast to this desire for spiritual self-improvement, Jesus teaches that we begin, continue, and end our spiritual journey with Him as beggars.  We do not, as we follow Jesus, become increasingly self-sufficient.  Rather, we learn, bit by bit, the art of begging from God the Father.  Christ teaches us to become beggars together with Him, until at our death we can do nothing but say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!”
Yet that is only half the story.  We may be beggars, but, paradoxically, we also associate with the holy angels.  We confess this wonderful paradox most clearly in the Divine Service.  In the Kyrie, we join our fellow beggars in pleading, “Lord, Have Mercy.”  Immediately after follows the Gloria, where we join with the angels who stand in adoration and joy before God the Father.  Isn’t that amazing?  In worship, we join with beggars and angels.  How is this possible?
You may remember that something remarkable happened on the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  The angels, who until then had performed their doxology before God in heaven, appeared to the shepherds and invited them to join in their great song of praise.  The angels had good reason to issue this invitation.  By His human birth God’s Son bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  From that day on, His human body was the new temple of God, the place where God’s people have access to the Father’s presence in the heavenly sanctuary here on earth.  That is why it was so appropriate for the former leper to return to Jesus and give thanks and worship.  He didn’t need to go to the priests in the temple; He had the fulfillment of both there in the person of Jesus Christ.
So there are now no longer two places of worship, one in heaven and another on earth, with two songs of praise, one performed by a human choir.  Now there is only one place of worship that is both earthly and heavenly, and only one song of praise sung by the faithful together with the angels.  With the incarnation of the Lord, the heavenly service begins, mysteriously and invisibly, here on earth in the Church, the body of Christ (Hebrews 12:22-24).
So we have a dual status, spiritually.  As the fallen children of Adam and Eve, we are beggars before God.  Yet in Christ we are holy beggars with angelic status.  Through Him we stand with the angels in the presence of God the Father and have access to His grace.  We share in the Sonship of Jesus.  We glorify the Father together with the angels.
In the Old Testament the angels were called the “holy ones” because they had open access to the heavenly realm.  In the New Testament, Christians are often called “the saints,” literally, “the holy ones.”  But even this holiness is borrowed.    Jesus became a human being and sanctified the human life cycle from womb to the tomb so that He could share His holiness with us.   
We are therefore holy beggars, people who are on the same footing as the angels.  Yet we have that status only in Christ, for we are holy to Him.  Paradoxically, the more we become beggars before God and live by His grace, the more reason we have to perform the song of praise together with angels, the song that they sing about God’s glory in heaven and His peace on earth.  Our trouble is that we would like to have the glory without the begging.
Paul reflects deeply on the paradoxical character of our spiritual life in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2 as participation in Christ’s suffering as well as His glory.  Paul claims that through the preaching of the Gospel the light of Christ has shone into our hearts so that we not only have bodily access to God’s glory but also have that glory hidden in our bodies as the temples of the living God.  Our bodies are the places for God’s theophany, places where God appears.  But that theophany happens in a strange way as we share in the suffering and death of Christ.
Paul uses a vivid analogy to explain this difficult teaching.  In the ancient world, houses were lit up at night by little clay lamps filled with olive oil.  Each had a small hole for a wick that floated in the oil and fed the flame.  God’s gracious presence, the treasure of His glory and power, is hidden away out of sight inside us, like olive oil in a plain clay lamp.  We do not generate spiritual life and power but receive them from God as we expend them.  Paradoxically, the life we have in Christ is most evident in our suffering, aging, and dying.  Thus “we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). 
Nothing is possessed; everything is borrowed from Him.  At Baptism we were marked with the cross to indicate that we belong to Christ.  Through His death He has redeemed us from death and given us eternal life with Him in the presence of the Father.  Together, with Him, we pass through death to life.  Our whole life, then, is marked by the cross and lived under the cross. 
The self-sacrificial death of Christ shapes our spiritual life and gives our lives their paradoxical character.  So Christ’s sacrifice reverses and revises all common notions of spiritual progress.  In our lives here on earth, growing up involves the gradual shift from dependence to independence.  But the reverse is true for us as we grow spiritually.  We become more and more dependent on Christ.  As we mature in faith we learn to borrow all that we need and all that we are from Christ.  Only as beggars do we have access to the Father’s presence and His grace.  Only as we receive grace upon grace from His fullness can we praise Him with the angels.  Only in recognizing our own spiritual poverty will we truly appreciate the richness of God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus set down the terms for our spiritual life quite clearly at the beginning of His ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”  Jesus calls us all to repent, to turn to God as beggars. Asking for His mercy and grace.  At the same time, Jesus also calls us to believe the Gospel of salvation and live under Him in His kingdom. 
God deals with us in a strange way as we travel on our course here on earth.  Little by little He strips us down until we are left with nothing except our bare, fragile human soul, a soul that relies on Him utterly for its existence.  Then He strips us of our soul in death.  He takes away everything that we have in order to give us everything that He has in store for us.  His purpose in this gradual demolition of us is to give Himself ever more fully to us to bless us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
We are all beggars before God.  This is true.  But by God’s grace, you are numbered among the holy ones as well, as you gather to worship, to receive His gifts and offer your thankful praise.  You bring nothing to our Lord but your sin and your weakness.  He gives you faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, solely out of His grace and mercy without any merit or worthiness on your part.  Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, and for Jesus’ sake alone, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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