Friday, November 27, 2015

As Jesus Was Drawing Near

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“As [Jesus] was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” (Luke 19:37-38)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
After the service last year on the first Sunday in Advent, a couple of you commented that the Gospel reading was more of what one might expect to hear on Palm Sunday rather than in Advent. Such a comment reveals three things about you and this congregation, all of which are reassuring and encouraging to me. First, you listen to what is being read during the Divine Service. Second, you have an understanding and expectation regarding the seasons of the Church Year. And third, we need to continue to preach and teach on how the life of Christ is revealed throughout all of Scriptures. That is really the purpose of observing a Church Year—it gives us access to the whole life of Christ so that we may gain a fuller understanding of the whole Bible in light of Christ’s person and work.
Toward that end, the Church has taken Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion—the two great scandals of Christianity—and raised them up to be the focus of the two great festivals of the Church—Christmas and Easter. The first half of the Church Year is built around these two festivals. That is why it is called the Festival Season.
Advent introduces the Festival Season. The word Advent means, “coming.” Advent prepares us for the coming of our Lord. The assigned readings for today are designed to remind us how God’s Son comes into this world, taking upon Himself our flesh and infirmities for our salvation. The prophet Jeremiah points to the “coming” day when the Davidic King would bring salvation to God’s people (Jeremiah 33:14-16). The psalmist urges us to lift up our souls so that our hearts might be ready to receive rightly our merciful Lord who makes His way into Jerusalem (Psalm 25:1). Likewise, in our Epistle, St. Paul urges us to prepare our hearts for our Lord, who will one day come again in glory (1 Thessalonians 3:13). And our Gospel reading reminds us that each of these other “advents” would mean nothing if it were not for one particular advent—Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem to die on the cross for the sins of the world. So, in a sense, you might say we have four “advents” on this First Sunday in Advent.
As He was drawing near to Jerusalem, Jesus set in motion an action that would result in a public demonstration in His behalf. He sent two disciples into Bethphage to bring Him a colt on which no one had ever ridden. He told them that if they were questioned about taking the colt to simply say: “The Lord has need of it.” The disciples brought the colt to Jesus and helped Him to mount it.
The significance of what Jesus has done is immediately apparent to the people who are following. Jesus is consciously fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). And so they spread their cloaks on the road as a kind of royal carpet.
Sons and daughters of God: Behold the King! Though He appears as one among the many men who walk upon the face of this fallen earth, He is the One true God whose holy habitation is beyond the universe. Though there was nothing special about Him in terms of His appearance when He walked the dirt-laden paths in Bethphage and Bethany—He is, nonetheless, the Lord God Incarnate—He is Immanuel, that is, “God with Us.”
On this day of the Lord, the King of kings goes down from the Mount of Olives as the prophet had declared (Zechariah 4:4), and he draws near to Jerusalem for His coronation. Here, He will be crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. Here it is that Justice Himself will be executed. The Judge will take the punishment deserved by each one of the prisoners in sin’s lockup. Indeed, this sinless Son of God will suffer the divine penalty due to every fallen son and daughter of Adam.
See the common garments, ones woven by the weavers on the hand-crafted looms of this world, worn garments now cast upon the colt and spread upon the rocky road leading to the holy city. Look at the ordinary ones enlisted to bear the Son of God and the Son of Man. This is a common creature carrying the Christ… a beast of burden upon whose back no one has ever ridden. Such an ordinary looking man this humble Jesus is; and such coarse fabric consecrated by, to, and under the King of creation; and what a menial mode of transporting the Lord of lords to His Temple! Thus is the Lord God present with and among His people.
Dear baptized, this is the Savior whose advent in the days of the Caesars and Herods was for the purpose of accomplishing our redemption. This is the Word become flesh and tabernacling among us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him” (John 1:10). “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). That is the way of His purpose from the moment of His conception by the Holy Spirit to His Sabbath Day of rest in the tomb—humble and hidden—the state of His humiliation.
This state of humiliation began with the angel’s annunciation to the modest maiden: the Lord was drawing near to sinful man in His Incarnation. He, who is the Word made flesh, the Alpha and Omega, without beginning or end, entered time and space in the Virgin Mary’s womb through a Word. Nine months later the Lord God Himself could be seen lying in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem.
Behold the King! See the swaddling clothes. These linen fabrics await the Advent of the newborn King that they might be wrapped about His tiny torso after He is received into the world. Years later, linens like these will be wound about His breathless body after He has taken your curse upon Himself and died in your place. Lower your eyes to that manger in Bethlehem; it will cradle the Redeemer. Lift up your eyes to a leafless tree upon which God is nailed and pierced outside Jerusalem’s gate. In these most unlikely places, your King draws near!
Look at the ordinary young lady enlisted to bear the Son of God and Son of Man. This handmaiden of the Lord is a carrying the Christ within her womb… indeed, a Jewish virgin who has not known a man. The Incarnation of God is both manifest and hidden in a temporal tabernacle as Mary bears the Savior “from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4). In these most unlikely places, your King draws near!
Such an ordinary unborn child this seems to be. And what a menial mode will be used when transporting the Lord of lords to His Temple—the womb of Mary and the donkey colt. Thus does the Lord God draw near and come to His people. Indeed, in a similar ordinary way, He still come to you and me through His Word and Sacrament. In these most unlikely means, your King draws near!
Behold the King! He comes today hidden in the places He has promised. See the water united with God’s Word—a washing of regeneration that cleanses the soul with the forgiveness of sin and renewal that bestows salvation and eternal life. Hear the absolving Word of God spoken by a fellow sinner called and ordained by Christ to proclaim to you the Good News of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. Cast your eyes upon the altar and see the bread and wine consecrated to and by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The King draws nears; He gives you His very Body and Blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith unto life everlasting.
In the baptismal flood, the Lord God, whom heaven and earth are not able to contain, takes up residence in the temple of your body. In Absolution, the same Lord who created all things in heaven and on earth with His Word declares you forgiven. In Holy Communion, the very Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ are graciously distributed to and received into the worthy communicant through this sacramental eating. Thus is the Lord God present with and among His people.
Finally, behold the two groups of people as Jesus draws near Jerusalem. One group is made up of those who are offended at Jesus and opposed to the confession of the truth by those who are His followers. “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples’” (Luke 19:39). These men of the Law are offended at this Jesus who is humble in such lowly ways and draws near by such common means. These people will seek to kill Jesus of Nazareth and thus rid themselves of this King. They will get what they want and receive what they desire. In this way, they are no different than Herod who sent his henchmen to kill the newborn King of the Jews in the little town of Bethlehem.
These Pharisees are joined on the side of history’s road by the Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the divinity of Christ… by the Gnostics and Emergents, who emphasize the spiritual world and dismiss the physical… by Judaizers and Romanists, who insist on their system of works righteousness… by Manicheans and Mormons, who deny original sin and ascribe too much freedom to the human will… indeed, the Pharisees are joined by all the enemies of the cross as well as by those who oppose and deny the ways and means of God’s grace.
The other group of people gathered are those who are the multitude of Jesus’ disciples… those who preceded and those who accompanied and those who have followed after the first advent of the King. Included in this great congregation of the faithful are Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Job, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, David, Anna, and Simeon—all of whom waited for the King to draw near.
Then there was that Palm Sunday crowd of Jesus’ followers, those who saw the King drawing near in the holy city when the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Later in the history of this New Testament world, there stood in the one, holy catholic Church those faithful children of God… Timothy, Titus, and Philemon… Ignatius, Clement, and Polycarp… Luther, Chemnitz, and Gerhard… Walther, Loehe, and Stoeckhardt… Brockberg, Graphenteen, Severtson, Hachmann, and Hellwinckel—indeed all the faithful men, women, youth, children, and infants who have come out of the great tribulation and have been ushered into the eternal Paradise prepared by God from the foundation of the world.
Now, among those awaiting the crucified, risen, and ascended King to draw near in order to judge the living and dead are you—you are privileged to be in the presence of the Lord God Almighty on this first Sunday in Advent. You, dear Christian—you await that day when, with “the whole multitude of His disciples” you will see the King drawing near. You await the way when you will “rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works” that you have seen, “saying: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Indeed, it is that very Day of the Lord for which you are preparing each and every time you gather with your brothers and sisters in Christ to receive God’s gracious gifts.
Behold your King comes! He is drawing near to take you and all of His children home to live in His presence forever. In the meantime, He comes to you in His Word and Sacraments to prepare you fully for eternal life. Through His means of grace, He forgives you for all of your sins.

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving, with Humble Penitence for Our National Perverseness and Disobedience

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“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
If Abraham Lincoln released his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation today, it would be met with derision by all sides from the Huffington Post to the Drudge Report, from Fox News to MSNBC. In the statement that is considered to be the beginning of the annual tradition of presidential proclamations, Lincoln wrote:
The year that is drawing towards it close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come… the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity… peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict… Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence (sic), have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines… have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy…  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
That portion of the proclamation is remarkable in itself, but what is even more shocking to contemporary ears is what Lincoln says in his closing words:
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him… they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife… and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity (sic) and Union.
Can you imagine any politician today speaking of God dealing “with us in anger for our sins” or encouraging us to adopt a spirit of “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience”? Progressives would deem the words “sins,” “perverseness,” and “disobedience” judgmental, intolerant, and hopelessly archaic. Conservatives would bristle at national self-criticism from the country’s commander-in-chief (at a time of war, no less).
Lincoln had good reason to speak of perversity, of course. He was knee-deep in blood in a civil war precipitated by half of the country’s leaving the Union so it could protect the institution of slavery. But his proclamation was firmly within the American tradition. The Thanksgiving proclamation at Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1676, referred to God’s “sore displeasure against us for our sins.” In 1789, George Washington urged that we “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” John Adams in 1798 recommended that congregations “acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation.”
This penitential theme carried through into the 20th century. Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the need to “bow before God in contrition for our sins.” Both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush acknowledged “our shortcomings and transgressions.” But any suggestion of national failings, let alone sin or perversity, has gone missing from the Thanksgiving proclamations of the last three decades.         
I suppose that begs the question: Is this something a Christian should even be doing? Some hesitate to get involved, saying we should just focus on the Gospel. Others ask, “Why pray for someone who doesn’t want our prayers?” And sadly, there are those who claim we don’t really have much for which to repent.
That last claim is the easiest to refute. As a nation, we have much for which to repent. The blood of the Civil War is a mere trickle compared to that of more than fifty million babies aborted since Roe v Wade. Marriage was first abandoned and then redefined without much of a fight. The poor have been caught in a safety net that provides just enough resources to foster dependency, but never enough to gain release from the slavery of entitlements. Racial tensions and political rhetoric have escalated. In an age of instant electronic communication, we’ve lost the art of polite discourse and meaningful conversation. And sadly, we have too often trusted in our economic and military strength rather than the one true God.
As far as individual sins—just run through the Ten Commandments. Have you coveted what is not yours? Have you told lies about your neighbor, betrayed him, slandered him, or hurt his reputation in any way? Have you helped your neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income? Have you led a sexually pure and decent life? Have you hurt your neighbor or failed to support him in every physical need? Have you honored your parents and other authorities as God’s agents? Have you failed to hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it? Have you kept God’s name holy by calling on it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks? Have you feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things?
An honest examination of our nation and ourselves will show that we do, indeed, have much for which to repent. We are by nature sinful and unclean and have sinned against God by thought, word, and deed.
So, given our own sinfulness, what gives us the right to pray for anyone else? Short answer: the grace of God. We can intercede for others before God the Father because we are right with Him and have access to His grace through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Only we who have access to the Father’s presence and grace can mediate Him and His grace to others. When we intercede, we use our position with God, our righteousness in Christ, for the benefit of others.
As Christians, we stand within two large communities. On the one hand, there is the fellowship of sinners that includes all the descendants of Adam and Eve. As human beings, we have a common origin, existence, and destiny. We are part of the human family and cannot disassociate ourselves from it. We share in each other’s prosperity and adversity. On the other hand, we are members of the communion of saints. As the body of Christ, we share in the sins and blessings of one another. Others pray for us, and we in turn pray for others. In intercession, we use our faith for the benefit of others, especially in common prayer.
The critics of the Early Church were astonished that Christians prayed for people who were unrelated to them, foreigners, and even enemies, rather than just their own families, community, and other Christians. This was, and still is, a countercultural feature of Christian piety. In worship, all Christians pray together with Jesus and the whole Church on earth for the whole world and its people.
St. Paul gives instructions on the nature and function of common prayer:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:1-6).
The Church has the responsibility to engage in prayer. This does not just please God the Father; it is an essential part of our involvement in His mission to all people on earth. It is the basis for the work of evangelism in our community, for evangelism flows from intercessory prayer for those who have not yet “come to the knowledge of the truth.” Jesus did not just sacrifice His life as a ransom on behalf of every human being. He is now the one and only mediator between God and man. Since God wants all people to be saved, Jesus intercedes for all people and prays for their salvation. So we, too, join with Jesus in His intercession.
Paul says that we should pray for two main groups of people. First, we should pray generally on behalf of everyone without exception because God wants all people to be saved. Second, we should pray specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Whether they are good or bad rulers, they need our prayers because they are meant to work for God in ruling His world. They can’t do that without God’s help and the prayers of the Church.  
Paul tells us to offer four different kinds of prayer on behalf of others: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. In our supplications, we, like Jesus, identify ourselves with others and stand together with them. With Christ, we stand in for them by our petitions to God for them in their need. We act as if their needs are our needs. If they are in trouble, we don’t distance ourselves from them, but stand beside them, pleading with God to help them, whatever their need.
Even if those around us aren’t in trouble, we still stand in for them with Christ by our prayers for their prosperity. We act as if their lives were ours and pray for them as if their welfare is ours. Even if they are not Christians, we ask Him to give them His good gifts, such as health or success at work or at home. We assume that God puts us in touch with them so that He can use us to bless them.
We also stand in for others with Christ by our intercessions when they have sinned. We ask God to have mercy on them and bring them to repentance. All too often the discovery of evil in others reinforces our own self-righteousness and isolates us from those who sin. Instead of gossiping about them, we, like Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, can treat their sin as our own sin and plead for their forgiveness.
We, surprisingly, also stand in for others with Christ through our thanksgivings of the blessings that they have received from God. If things go well for them, we do not envy them and begrudge them their happiness. Instead, we act as if their blessings are ours. We thank God on their behalf for His loving kindness and generosity to them because they are not yet in the position to do so themselves.
This is an aspect of intercession that has received scant attention in recent times, but it was prominent in the Early Church. They believed that the Church was appointed to serve, together with the angels, as a single choir that voiced thanks and praise to God on behalf of the whole human race. In this, we follow Jesus, who leads us in the praise of His heavenly Father.
The Scriptures indicate that we all have three basic circles of responsibility in which we are to exercise our spiritual vocation by the practice of intercession. First, and foremost, we have the duty of spiritual care for our own families, friends, co-workers, and associates. Among these, we have a special duty to pray for those who do not believe as well as those who are in trouble. We should also pray for our personal enemies. We need them in our lives as the touchstone for our love, just as they need us to relay Christ and His forgiveness to them.
We have the duty of spiritual care for the members of our congregation and for those who spread the Gospel. Pastors and missionaries, the sick, and the lapsed—all these are singled out for the special mention in the New Testament. By praying for them, we work with them, struggle with them, secure the help of the Holy Spirit for them, and open a door for the Gospel in the hearts of its hearers.
We also have the duty of spiritual care for the world and its rulers. Just as Christians benefit from good government, political stability, economic prosperity, and international peace, so the world and those in authority throughout the world are helped in their work by our prayers for them. Political instability and social unrest are signals for us to increase intercession so that matters do not get out of hand. We can do more for international justice and world peace by our individual and corporate prayers than anything else we ever do. Our prayers are our greatest contribution to the welfare of the world and the salvation of its people.
All of this frames your life on earth; and, actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day as well. I pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, of family and friends. But I also pray that it is a day of thanksgiving and humble penitence—for you and I, our nation and the world have much reason for both. Out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy, the Lord provides us with all we need for this body and life and eternal life. And as Christians, He gives us the privilege and responsibility to share those gifts with others by our confession and prayers.
So let us give thanks to Him whose mercies are new every morning and who graciously provides for all our needs of body and soul. As God’s beloved children, let us use our standing to bring before Him petitions on behalf of ourselves and our nation, trusting that He will hear our prayers and answer them favorably for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ. In Him alone we have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, 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. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Build Yourself Up; Snatch Others Out of the Fire

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“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 20-23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
St. Augustine said: “In the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed; in the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.” It’s another way of saying, “If you want to have a better understanding of what an Old Testament passage is teaching, look for a parallel New Testament passage; if you want clarity and depth on a New Testament passage, look for its parallel in the Old Testament.”
The book of Jude contains many references which at first might seem dark or obscure, but gain clarity when examined in light of the Old Testament. That is why our sermon for today begins in Zechariah 3. There the prophet sees a vision of Joshua, the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord. Next to Joshua stands Satan to accuse him before God and show his unworthiness. As for the high priest himself, he is hardly blameless as he stands in the presence of God. He is clothed in filthy garments—not just tinged with grime, but downright filthy, a violation of the Law’s requirements and a reflection of his personal sinfulness.
But this is about more than one man, for it is about all the city of Jerusalem: if this is the condition of the man who stands between God and His people, what does this say about the condition of God’s people? Surely, they are all filthy with sin. Surely, they are all unworthy of the Lord’s grace. When Satan stands there to accuse Joshua, the high priest, he is there to accuse all of God’s people. The filth of Joshua’s robe is his exhibit A.
But the Lord will have none of it. He speaks, and His powerful, living Word crushes the accuser’s hopes. To Satan, He says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Then the Lord speaks, and Joshua’s filthy garments and filthier sin are removed from him; instead, he is clothed in pure vestments and righteousness, blameless before God and able to be in the presence of the Lord. Satan’s case goes up in flames, because the Lord speaks His Word and plucks His people like a brand from the fire.
Now, as the epistle of Jude concludes, it speaks of another priest being blameless before the glorious presence of God—you! For by God’s grace, you have been set aside as holy by God to be one of His royal priesthood. Jude presents a beautiful, blessed image of you, which is quite surprising, considering how unlikely this seems in the first 19 verses of his epistle, where Jude warns the people of God of a variety of sins that the devil, your own sinful flesh, and false teachers of the world use to seduce you away from your salvation.
Jude warns of turning God’s grace into lewdness, using forgiveness as an excuse to indulge in whatever sins you find pleasurable. How easy it is to abuse forgiveness as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. But to misuse God’s grace so, will harden your heart until you just go ahead and sin without bothering to ask for forgiveness, and assume you’re just forgiven anyway—when you are not.
Jude warns of the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness, who followed the Lord out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, but then began to complain about His Word and ways along the way. How tempting it will always be for you to believe you follow God in principle, but that there are certain allowances you must make contrary to His will, since He doesn’t quite understand your special circumstances. Remember, and take it seriously: when the people complained against God’s will in the wilderness, He struck them down for their unbelief.
Jude warns against the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, of homosexuality and all sorts of sexual immorality, as God’s gifts of marital intimacy and procreation are twisted to deny His grace and goodness altogether. Given the bombardment of images and words and temptations today, sexual purity is rare.
Jude further warns against those who, in defiling their flesh, reject authority and speak evil of it. In other words, those who warn against immorality will be rejected and slandered by those who glorify it. Few today have the courage to stand and denounce such sin. Look what happens to anyone who dares have the temerity to stand up for morality and freedom of conscience. They are practically crucified in the popular media, denounced as the worst of sexists and bigots.
The list of sins continue. You will be tempted to follow your own natural inclinations and believe that to be God’s will, thinking “It feels natural and right, so it must be right.” You’ll thus be tempted to believe that what feels natural to your sinful nature is purer than what God demands. You’ll be tempted to the sins of Cain, who envied Abel for his faithful sacrifice and God’s approval. You’ll be tempted to the error of Balaam, selling out your faith and your integrity in order to gain what you covet, since it’s easier to take coveting seriously than faith. You’ll be tempted to the sins of Korah, who rejected God’s appointment of Moses as His spokesman and wanted to call himself as the prophet to the people.
You’ll be tempted to dissatisfaction and discontent, to grumble and complain in order to get what you desire. You’ll be tempted to flatter people and enlist them on your side, using them to get your way. Tempted by desire and a mockery of God’s will, you’ll also be tempted to cause divisions because you believe your way is right. All of this is in those first nineteen verses of Jude. Furthermore, this is not a portrayal of the world out there, while Christians remain safe inside the church’s walls. These are sins that the devil will use to rip apart the people of God and to wrench you from the faith if he can, consigning you to the fires of hell.
It’s a fitting text on this Last Sunday of the church year as we ponder our Lord’s judgment at the end of the world, because the world will only grow worse before the end—and Christians more marginalized. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the world could depart from God’s Word a whole lot more than it has; but then again, ten years ago I could not have imagined our current moral climate.
In any event, this short epistle lists all sorts of sins that seek your death today. Examine yourself by all these sins, and remember that to sin once is to break the whole law (James 2:10). There is only one conclusion: left to yourself, you stand before God in a filthy robe like Joshua, for all of our righteousnesses are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Left apart from Christ and His righteousness, you’re far too sinful to be in God’s presence for a moment, let alone for eternity.
The Good News is that you’re not left apart from Christ. He who has redeemed you by His own blood has joined you to Himself, to His death and resurrection, in Holy Baptism. There, He removed your filthy robe of sin and clothed you with His own righteousness. Therefore, were the devil still able to stand before God’s throne and accuse you, Jesus would readily say, “I rebuke you, Satan. The one whom you accuse is one for whom I have died, one whom I have cleansed with My own righteousness. Depart from Me, you and your lies.”
Since the devil now has no chance to stand before God, he whispers his accusations directly to you. “Look at all your sin. Look at how defiled you are. Your robe is filthy. You surely cannot stand before God!” At which point, you can respond, “Why not? I don’t plan to impress God with my righteousness, for I have none. I stand clothed with Jesus and His righteousness, and for His sake God has given me eternal life.” When that is your confession of faith, the devil has no accusations left. Like God’s people in Zechariah 3, Jesus has plucked you like a brand from the fire, refined and tempered by His work. Like the high priest Joshua, He has removed your filthy robes and clothed you in His perfect righteousness.
All of this finally leads us to our text for this day. Knowing now the many sins with which the devil will try to seduce and destroy you, and assured that Christ has won your salvation by His death and made you His, how shall you then live? As to yourself, the text declares: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). In these verses, Jude mentions three aspects of how Christians are to live.
First, build yourselves up in your most holy faith. Jude is not talking about your personal faith, but rather the faith, the Christian faith given to you by God in His Word. The battles of Christianity are fought not on military battlefields but in your heart and mind. Use the weapons and armor that God provides you. Build yourself up! How? Read the Word. Hear the Word. Sing the Word. Share the Word. Remember the Word. Eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord. Satan’s lies will shrivel up under the bright light of the Bible’s truth. Despair and fear fade away when you and your Savior are united through the blood of the covenant.
Second, continue praying in the Holy Spirit. After God has spoken to you in His Word, you speak back to God with your words. Communicating with your God celebrates and strengthens your relationship with Him. Pray with confidence, knowing that the Spirit intercedes for saints who don’t quite know what or how to pray. Pray with confidence, knowing that the Lord processes every request, has no limits to His power, loves to hear from you, and delights in fulfilling the hopes and meeting the needs of His children. He makes things happen for you to bless you.
Third, and perhaps most difficult, wait for the mercy of our Lord. Believers know that in spite of all our labors, we will never be able to purify this planet. It is terminally corrupt. God’s plan is to come soon, melt it down, and fashion a new heaven and earth. Our ultimate goal, therefore, is to experience the saving mercy of Christ when He returns. That bright hope keeps us moving forward.
As to the work of the Church, the text says this: “And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). Jude encourages us, who have experienced the mercy of Christ, to show mercy to other people. Show mercy to those who doubt and waver, not despising them for their weakness but patiently encouraging, rebuking, leading, and loving them. Show mercy to those whose feet are already hot from hell’s fires by intervening to prevent their spiritual suicide, caring enough to speak God’s Law and Gospel.
Christians, as God’s Church on earth, are to have compassion. We are to snatch others out of the fire—and how is this done? By proclaiming to them God’s Word—that Law which shows them how filthy their robes, and the Gospel that declares to them Jesus as their Savior. By this Word, the Holy Spirit does the work of salvation. That is how Joshua was plucked from the fire and made clean; that is still the only way that people are saved unto eternal life. To proclaim God’s Word is the highest of Christian compassion; we do so with joy.
We therefore compassionately proclaim the full counsel of God’s Word, and we do so with this distinction: we hate the garment stained by the flesh. We recognize that filthy robe of sin that is naturally ours. Therefore, we don’t make room for all those sins that would lead us astray. While so many churches sadly declare that certain forms of immorality are no longer sin, the Lord gives us no permission to do so. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a nice sounding slogan, but too often it is used as a license to sin without regard for the devastating effect sin has on a soul. There is nothing loving about allowing, much less putting the stamp of approval upon, thoughts, words, or deeds that will lead to condemnation. We, therefore, maintain the distinction between truth and error, right and wrong; because to make allowances for sin is to lie, to tell people that they can wear filthy robes into God’s presence. That’s a false teaching that leaves them in the fire.
No, rather than giving permission to sin, we proclaim Jesus Christ, who is able to keep you from stumbling; but should you fall, He has grace to clothe you with His righteousness once more. We proclaim Christ crucified, who has rebuked the devil and clothed you with His righteousness in your Baptism. We proclaim Christ crucified, present with you also in His Word and Supper, to forgive your sins. And because He forgives your sins, you are prepared for the day when He will present you blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy.
Jude’s beautiful doxology gives great comfort when your faith is under assault. What a relief to put your life finally in the hands of the One who is committed to getting you home to heaven! When you are exhausted by the struggle against sin and Satan, it is exhilarating to lift up your eyes to our great, changeless, majestic God, whose power and authority are unlimited, whose victory over sin and Satan is a fact, history, done, unchangeable, to realize that all your troubles are only for a little while, and to give Him all the honor and glory of which your lips and lungs are capable. To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever, because only by His Word and work, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet! (3.0)

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“And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mark 13:7-8).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Even his critics knew President Ronald Reagan as “The Great Communicator.” I think much of that ability to communicate was due to the consistency of his message. No matter what the forum or audience, he always spoke of the greatness of America’s heritage, the productivity of its citizens, and the potential for even greater success. Frequently, he would close his message with these words: “America’s best days lie ahead. You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Though certainly not grammatically correct, it did get his point across and it captured the imagination of millions of supporters for years afterward. Even in this current election cycle many people say they are looking for someone who can effectively communicate that sense of optimism and purpose.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I can almost imagine Jesus saying that to His disciples as they oohed and aahed at the splendor of the temple compound. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” says Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” You ain’t seen nothing yet!
It was natural for one of His disciples to remark on the splendor of the buildings as Jesus left the temple for the last time. We, too, are impressed when we view beautiful churches and monumental buildings. We tour them on our vacations and show slides and photographs of them to our family and friends. Historic societies raise millions of dollars to restore them and preserve them.
The temple in Jerusalem was perhaps more spectacular than anything we have ever seen. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world. In fact, there was a proverb in the Jewish Talmud that “Whoever has not seen Herod’s temple has never seen anything beautiful” (Baba Bathra, 4a). Herod the Great started rebuilding it in about 20 B.C., employing over 18,000 slaves. Fifty years later, work was still in progress and would continue for another 30 years.
The stones mentioned by Jesus in our text were massive. The ancient historian Josephus tells us some of them were 40 feet long by 12 feet wide by 8 feet high. Even the smallest “bricks” were 15 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet. Looking at this impressive structure, the disciples thought that here surely was something built to stand as long as this world would. They were mistaken. When those governing the temple rejected the Word of God and the authority of His Son, they wrote their own ticket of destruction. In A.D. 70 the Roman army overran Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Not one stone was left on another, so we can no longer even determine the exact location on the temple mount.
In further demonstration that He had rejected the temple, God has since permitted the Muslims to build their Dome of the Rock on that very site. Part of the great retaining wall still stands, but that was not part of the temple itself. Sadly, even its use today as the Wailing Wall does not turn hearts to the one and only Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Israel’s history shows that Jesus came to His own and His own did not receive Him. May we never make the same mistake!
In shocked silence, the disciples follow Jesus to the Mount of Olives. There they have time to pause and ponder Jesus’ weighty words and four of them question Jesus privately: “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” These four—Andrew, Peter, James, and John—had first been disciples of John the Baptist, who had spoken of the end of things as well. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John had declared. “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew  3:11-12). You think John the Baptist is great? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
For over three years, these disciples have followed this more powerful One, Jesus Christ, whom John pointed toward. Now He is also talking about this time of judgment and great destruction. It’s no wonder they have a few questions. You and I would too if we were in the same position. The four disciples believe the destruction of the temple will be one of the signs that usher in the end of the age when Christ comes in judgment. They want to know what else to look for so they are not caught off-guard.
Jesus answers accordingly. He does not reveal the date to them, for that would have been spiritually dangerous. But He does speak in detail of the signs and of what would happen in the meantime. Thus, He prepares them and us for the trials ahead. You think you’ve had hard times? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Jesus says to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” You think the world’s gone crazy? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
These words of Jesus read like a page out of our daily newspaper: cults with their messiahs, wars and threats of war, earthquakes and famines. We have them all. They are the evidence that sin has corrupted all things and that only the Lord’s coming can finally set things straight.
False messiahs appeared before the destruction of Jerusalem, and there have been many since. They are among us now. Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons have taken millions captive by their false teaching while they claim to be Christians, while they claim, to be the actual true church. And even within Christian denominations there are more and more false prophets who dismiss Biblical teachings on topics such as sin, sexuality, marriage, abortion, euthanasia, the person of Christ, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and the pastoral office. They spread soul-damning “new, enlightened understandings,” and their words are eagerly received by people with “itching ears.”  
If you think that this isn’t bad enough to fit the terrible descriptions of the end times in Scripture, remember that the worst kind of distress is not physical but spiritual. The worst disaster is the loss of the Gospel, when Jesus becomes merely a model for victorious and obedient living rather than Savior and Redeemer from sin. When God’s Word is not purely taught and the Sacraments are not correctly administered, the very means of our salvation is taken away from us. Jesus’ words are sharp and to the point: “Watch out that no one deceives you.” On the surface, things may appear normal or even peaceful. But Satan’s best work is done in secret, without people realizing what he is doing or that he is the one doing it.
Jesus also cautions, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom” (Mark 13:7-8a).
The last century witnessed the most destructive wars on the broadest scale in the world’s history. And with terrorists dedicated to another god and the elimination of all who will not convert to their Islamic faith having access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, this age has the potential for something far worse in the future. You think our world is dangerous now? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Jesus also says, “There will earthquakes in various places and famines” (Mark 13:8b). Nature itself will “act up” in these last days. Creation itself will start to fall apart. We’ve certainly seen this happening in a variety of ways. Whether you want to blame it on “global warming,” “El Nino,” or just regular climate cycles and changing weather patterns, there have been earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and droughts on a broad scale. But you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Jesus does not say that all these signs are indications that the end is present, but they are “the beginning of birth pains.” St. Paul explains: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22, 23).
Now, Jesus doesn’t want us to become fatalists or doomsayers. But He does give us a healthy dose of realism here so that we will remember what’s really important. We are all fallen people in a fallen world that is headed for judgment. Still, it is not all bad news. When Jesus says, “Such things must happen,” He indicates that God has a hand in it. In fact, if it were not for God’s intervention in our lives, we would be among those many people whom Daniel describes as condemned to shame and everlasting contempt. But God, in His mercy, has forgiven us for the sake of His Son. So the appropriate attitude for us in these latter days is not fear, but one of repentance and humility before God.
Jesus does not tell His disciples these things to terrify or discourage us, but rather to prepare us for what lies ahead. We need strengthening to be able to live out our faith in this world and bear the cross. We need to be reminded that for God’s people, suffering comes before the glorious victory, just as it did for our Lord Jesus. Yet, that victory is ours as surely as Jesus is now at the Father’s right hand, ready to return for His people.
In the meantime, He has not left us here alone. In Word and Sacraments, Jesus continues to lead us and guide us. In Holy Baptism, God seals us with His Holy Spirit. He gives us His holy name and makes us His children. His Holy Spirit gives us faith, wisdom, and understanding. As we hear and study God’s holy Word, we grow in the faith and are “prepared to given an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15).
As we confess our sins and receive God’s holy absolution we are cleansed of our sins and renewed for service in God’s kingdom. In Holy Communion, we receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and strengthening of our faith. We are given a foretaste of the eternal feast that awaits us in heaven. In these means of grace, we are equipped to take up Christ’s cross and share the Gospel with our family, friends, and neighbors, and all of the world until the end of time when Christ appears in glory.
When will that end be? Jesus does not say specifically. Rather, he points to our assignment in the meanwhile: “The Gospel must first be preached to all nations.” And then He encourages us to remain faithful in the meanwhile: “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” Instead of being concerned about the exact date, let us go forward using our time and talents to witness for Him. Let us regularly gather around His life-giving Word and Sacraments, knowing that as we do, Christ Himself will help us face and overcome the trials.
Remember, the best days lie ahead—for eternity. You ain’t seen nothing yet!  Of this, you can be most sure because the One who has overcome the world for you declares to you His love and forgiveness. That is, He lived for you, He died for you, and He rose again for you so that you would have salvation and eternal life. So that you would be forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Giving Out of Poverty

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“[Jesus] called His disciples to Him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:43-44).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When I started out as a pastor, the congregation I served published a list of giving, breaking it down into the number of anonymous family units giving at various levels: those who gave nothing during the year, those who gave 1 to 100 dollars, 101 to 200 dollars, 201 to 300 dollars, and so on. Because they had been doing this for many years, the list came out before I had a chance to offer any input. During the next year, I had a number of opportunities to discuss with the church’s leadership some of the stewardship implications of such a list. On the positive side, I found out that the congregation had at least given up the practice of publishing a complete list of the amounts given by each donor some forty years earlier. That had caused a number of hard feelings. We Americans with a northern European heritage take our privacy seriously—especially when it comes to money. And unfortunately, there was always a temptation for those giving the largest amounts to think that entitled them to a larger voice in congregational business.
We talked about how such lists can be a helpful tool—to a limited extent. It is good for congregational leadership to have an idea of how many people are giving and how many are not. It is helpful to see trends of offerings from year to year. But publishing such a list for the whole congregation teaches a number of poor stewardship principles. While it can display cold dollars and cents, it cannot measure the heart. Sadly this method often resorts to the use of shame or appealing to pride for motivation to give rather than trust in God’s goodness.
This negative potential was affirmed soon after the congregation decided to discontinue publishing the list. One of the members spoke to me privately. “Pastor, I’m disappointed that we quit publishing the list of giving. My wife and I used it to gauge our own offering. We always figured if we ended up as one of the top three givers we were doing well. If we weren’t, we knew we needed to raise our weekly offering.” I just shook my head and asked him if he really thought that was the most God-pleasing way to decide what to give. He sheepishly admitted, “No, it’s probably not.” And to his credit, he never brought it up again.
Faithful stewardship is not a matter of dollars and cents, but a matter of the heart. Jesus teaches us this in our Gospel as He contrasts the hypocrisy of the scribes with the faith of the poor widow. Beware of the scribes! They wear long flowing robes in the marketplaces to evoke honorable greetings. They have seats up front in the synagogues and thus are highly visible to the crowds. And, of course, they take places of honor at banquets. What self-centered pride!
But there is an even darker side. Like the televangelists today who prey on the homebound who watch them on TV, the scribes make easy marks of the helpless widows. Instead of helping them, the scribes take advantage of them for their own profit. Then they cover up their wickedness with long-winded prayers so that everyone will think them to be holy. They may be able to fool men but not God. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” says the One who will judge all on the Last Day. God doesn’t take kindly to defrauding widows.
While Jesus and His disciples are sitting in the courtyard, a widow enters with her offering. Offerings in Jesus’ day weren’t handled the way we do today, at a specific moment in the service. Instead, there were thirteen trumpet-shaped metal receptacles. Worshipers would walk up and drop in their coins. Often people would mill around and watch, waiting for a particularly loud offering to be made by one of the rich people, and hear it clang down the neck into the treasury box.
Then this widow drops in a couple of copper coins. These were leptons, the smallest coins in circulation—in today’s money, a fraction of a cent. Not big enough to make a ping that could be heard above the noise of the crowd. But Jesus hears, and to His discerning ears it is the sweet sound of faith and trust—a widow’s trust in the goodness and mercy of God who cares for the widow and orphan. Bold faith that dares to put her last two pennies into the collection place.
It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of a three-year-old being excited about a couple of pennies, but Jesus is! He tells His disciples: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” With Jesus it’s not the amount that counts; it’s faith. Faith alone.
All of you probably recognize this story teaches proportional giving. Jesus says the rich give out of their abundance. They make a lot, and so they give a lot. But the woman gives all she has, 100 percent. Proportional, or percentage, giving is always the way God prescribes. In the Old Testament, Israel was required to give 10 percent of their crops or whatever form of income they received. The tithe was God’s system of percentage giving. One reason God prescribed percentage giving is that it works at any income level. It grows or shrinks with the paycheck.
Now in the New Testament, God still speaks about proportional giving, but He doesn’t demand a particular percentage. We can give more or less than 10 percent. But offerings should still reflect the way we’ve been blessed. How do our financial blessings compare with those of the widow in our text? More important, how have we been blessed spiritually compared to those Old Testament people who had to give 10 percent? They were blessed with the promise of a Savior to come someday. We are blessed with the certainty that the promise has been fulfilled. The Savior, Jesus Christ, has come. We know He died and rose for us, that He has taken away our sins. Could we really consider giving a lesser proportion of our income than people who only looked ahead for the promise?
Now something you may not know—or may not always consider—about the story of the widow’s mite: It isn’t primarily a story about proportional giving. It isn’t primarily a story about giving at all. No, the story of the widow’s mite is primarily a story about faith. Faith is recognizing what God has done for us in the past and believing what He will continue to do for us in the future.
The widow in our text has so little of everything except faith. She’s lost her husband, which in those days meant she’s lost her source of income. She is literally down to her last cent. Yet somehow this woman believes God has done right by her and trusts that He will continue to do so in the future. And that leads her to display her faith with a “reckless” gift of all she has.
Christian giving is always a matter of faith. Do we recognize what God has done for us in the past? Do we trust that He’ll be there for our future? God has given us all we have. God has given us a Savior. Do we believe He’ll continue to provide and save in the future? If we believe as the widow did, our giving will be in substantial proportion too. Christian giving is primarily a question of faith, isn’t it—of trust that God will take care of us? The widow in our text trusts totally.
Boy, does that come into play on the last thing we need to talk about this morning. There’s one thing no one knows about the story of the widow’s mite: What happens to her after she gives? We would like to think that Jesus and the disciples take her under their care. Surely Jesus didn’t walk away without helping that day, but what about future days? Did she starve? Maybe. It’s absolutely possible. We’d like to say, “No way! God would feed her!” But we don’t know.
It’s no accident Mark doesn’t tell us. If he did, it would ruin the story. If he did give us an earthly happy ending, we might think the point is if we do what God wants, He’ll take care of us. If we tithe this year, our income will go up next year. But such a view sells God short. He is not into quid pro quo, but grace and mercy. God cares for us because He loves us, not because we make a deal with Him.
Mark fully intends to leave us in uncertainty about what happened to the widow, because our Christian offerings are always to be given in the face of uncertainty; they are always to be an exercise in faith. We don’t know about our jobs next year. We don’t know we won’t face catastrophic bills. Those things are always possible because God doesn’t promise that kind of security to anyone.
What we do have is a far greater security. Our epistle from Hebrews reminds us, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time… to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (9:28). Here’s something that’s never uncertain: Christ is coming back for us. Heaven is one certainty every Christian can hold on to. Jesus’ death and resurrection have made it certain for everyone who believes. And if we mattered to God that much, we can also be certain that He will care for us every day in the meantime—somehow.
This was the faith of the woman. Not that she’d have a meal tomorrow; she really didn’t know where her next meal was coming from—or if there’d be one. Not faith in the next meal, but faith that God would take care of her—His way. Maybe a well-to-do widower would walk into her life tomorrow. Maybe friends would take her in. Maybe God would call her home; but if so, it would be the culmination of what she’d really been trusting all along: provision and security that would be perfect and without end. This is the richness by which we give out of our poverty: when God tells us He will take care of us, we can be sure it’s true.
As you sit here this morning, you don’t know for sure your income for the coming year; you don’t know you’ll have an income. You don’t know if you’ll have a crop; if the yields and prices will be high or low. You don’t know what your expenses might turn out to be. But you don’t have to give in to that uncertainty. You do know you have the Lord. That’s for certain. You do know He has earned for you eternal life; that’s absolutely certain. And you do know He already cares for you and that He’s going to keep caring for you. That’s certain too.
The poor widow held those two precious pennies loosely with the dead hand of faith. That’s how she could so easily let go of them. She was dead to them and alive to God. Everyone else contributed out of abundance; she out of poverty. Those two pennies—they were all she had. And she gave it all away because she realized it wasn’t hers in the first place—everything she had was a gift of God.
I doubt that any of us is going to put everything we have in the collection plate this morning. I know I won’t. And while it may be more than a couple of pennies or even dollars there is no reason for pride or boasting in our generosity. This poor widow’s two pennies will rise up to testify against us. She’s there to keep us from being proud of our giving and to call us to repent of our distrust of the Lord and His goodness. She’s there to remind us of our poverty.
Luther said at the end of his life, “We are all beggars.” It’s the truth. Like the poor widow, we have nothing to offer God. That’s true not just spiritually, but also financially. In reality, you and I don’t own a single thing. Between us, we don’t even have two pennies to rub together that we can legitimately call our own. All that we are and all that we have belongs to the Lord. He just places it under our stewardship to use for His glory and the good of our neighbor.
God freely gives you all that you need to support this body and life and the next. Solely out of His goodness and mercy, He richly provides for you, a poor, miserable sinner. He does something with His Word that you cannot do for yourself. He forgives you. He makes you His own in Baptism. He feeds you the bread of His body, the wine of His blood. In the midst of sin’s famine, to your utter lack and emptiness, to your spiritual hunger and thirst for righteousness, God gives you the Bread of Life. In Him, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, 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
Based upon a sermon by Carl C. Fickenscher II for Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 22, Part 4, p. 43-45.

Into the Wilderness

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