Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Word of the Lord Came

"Annunciation" by Caravaggio
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“But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan” (2 Samuel 7:4).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It just wasn’t right, and David knew it (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). The enemies were conquered, the kingdom was secure, and he lived in a beautiful palace made of cedar in Jerusalem, but the Lord’s house was still the tabernacle. The house of worship for the one true God was still a tent, just as it had been for 400 years.
It didn’t look right: it looked like David thought he was far more important than the one true God, and David wanted to fix it. He called Nathan and announced his plans. He was going to build a temple, a huge temple, the most glorious temple ever! One can imagine his excitement. Oh, to be there when the building was finished, when the Lord appeared in a glorious cloud, overshadowed the temple, and then entered it! It sounded perfect, and Nathan gave his blessing. What proclaimer of God’s Word doesn’t get excited at the prospect of a new sanctuary?
But that same night the word of the Lord came to the prophet Nathan. The Lord said no. He didn’t want a temple, not yet. He didn’t need a temple, either. That building—His house—would be for the people’s benefit, not His. For now, the building would wait. But the Lord had better news for David. He reminded David that He had taken him, a lowly shepherd boy, and made him ruler over all of Israel. David was king only by God’s mercy and faithfulness.
But more important was this: The Lord was going to make David’s house last forever. Not the cedar palace: no, that would decay like everything else. What He meant was that David’s household, his family line, wouldn’t end. Ever. The throne of David would be established forever. While David lived in a world of violence, death, and coups d’etat, the house of David would reign for eternity. One of his descendants would sit on the throne forever. He would be the Savior.
David would not live to see Solomon build the temple, or to see the Lord overshadow the Holy of Holies in a cloud before entering. For now, the Lord was content to live in a tent while a human king lived in cedar walls. And David would be long dead before the Savior was born. But while he would not see these things with his eyes, David had God’s Word on it. He had God’s promise. And so he declared in response to God’s promise, “Now, O Lord God, confirm forever the word that You have spoken concerning Your servant and concerning his house, and do as You have spoken” (2 Samuel 7:25). The Word of the Lord came to David through the prophet Nathan. God had said it. It would happen. And so it did.
God kept His promise; and nearly a thousand years later, the angel appeared to Mary: Mary, descendant of King David, but humble and poor and living in backwoods Nazareth. “You’ve found favor with God,” said Gabriel, “and you’re going to have a Son. He will be the Son of God, and He’ll sit on David’s throne forever.” It wouldn’t be a throne of this world, lasting for only a generation or two. It would be an eternal throne, for God’s Son would rule forever.
The practical Mary asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Once God had overshadowed the temple before entering in; now He would overshadow Mary and she would carry the Christ child in her womb. And as David had once added his amen and prayed, “Do as You have said,” Mary faithfully added hers: “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Luther explained how it happened that Mary became pregnant: “Where does [this Child] come from? The angel Gabriel brings the word: ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…’ With these words Christ comes not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it. No one can say otherwise, than that the power comes through the Word.”[i]
The angel preached God’s powerful Word to Mary. While he was preaching, the Holy Spirit was busy performing the very thing that had been promised in the Word. Clearly, the Word was “at work in” her (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The eternal, incarnate Word came to Mary. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, for the first nine months in the humble confines of Mary’s womb.
And it was like the palace and the tent all over again. Herod’s kids would cavort securely in royal mansions, while Mary would continue her life of poverty in Nazareth, Bethlehem, on the run in Egypt and back. Herod would sleep in a luxurious bed, but the Son of David would first be laid in a manger. And so it would go: Herod and Pilate and Caesar would have their proud warhorses, but Jesus would ride a colt, the foal of a donkey. They would have their palaces and Praetorium, but the Son of Man would have no place in which to lay His head. They would possess their golden thrones and crowns, but the Savior would have His cross and crown of thorns.
To the eye, Jesus would seem like nothing compared to those earthly rulers; but Herod, Pilate, and Caesar all died and remain dead. Jesus died. Jesus is risen. And, as the Lord gave His Word to David, Jesus reigns forever as King. Your King—because He died and rose for you.
Indeed, in the past two thousand years since the birth of Christ, countless kings have ruled and died. Empires have risen and fallen, civilizations emerged and disappeared. That is how kingdoms go in a dying world. But Jesus remains King of kings and Lord of lords—for now and for eternity.
Why? Because Christians say so, hold out hope and insist it to be true? No. Jesus is King because He says so. The Word who came to David through the prophet and to Mary through the angel still comes today. This miracle prompted Luther to rejoice over how Christ also comes into you. He marveled:
I preach the gospel of Christ, and with my bodily voice I bring Christ into your heart… I preach that he sits on the right hand of God and rules over all creatures, sin, death, life, world, devils and angels; if you believe this, you already have Him in your heart… Now see, as I have said, how much the poor bodily voice is able to do. First of all it brings the whole Christ to the ears; then it brings Him into the hearts of all who listen and believe.[ii]
The astounding and miraculous power of God’s Word is also a good reason for you to rejoice. Christ comes inside your heart in exactly the same way in which He entered Mary’s womb—through the power of the Holy Spirit. He does not come into you because of any human effort or by any decision you might make. Rather, Christ comes into you through the miracle of His Word.
Where the Word of God is preached, there Christ is also. Because Christ miraculously comes into you, not through your own human decisions or efforts but through His Word, you may praise God as Mary did: “Let it be to me according to Your Word.” Through the means of grace, the Word of the Lord still comes to you.
Throughout the kingdoms of the world, nations rising and falling, ruled by just men and despots, the Lord still speaks His royal decrees, His certain pronouncements. The Word of the Lord still comes! You hear Him ruling at the font, where He says, “I am the King who has conquered even death, which is why I live forever. I share that victory with you now: I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Through the water and Word, you are baptized into My death and resurrection.”
You hear Him speak His final judgment through the mouth of His called and ordained messenger: “I have conquered sin and devil, and I set you free from that kingdom of darkness. I forgive you for all of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
You hear Him speak His invitation at the altar: “This is the King’s table, and I give you My body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.”
That is where the King rules today: by His means of grace. Not just in church, but wherever His Word is preached and His Sacraments administered according to His Word: in the hospital, the battlefront, the nursing home, the school, and the deathbed.
So be duly warned. You’ll always be tempted to look for Jesus in the glitz and glamour, the flash and sizzle of this world—in feelings and excitement and numbers and more. Or you’ll be tempted to despair because the world continues its death throes and the Lord does not return yet.
But when you are so tempted, remember that He has made you part of His household of faith, not household of sight. Remember the tent, not the palace. Remember Mary. Remember manger and cross and crown of thorns. Remember that your King comes humbly to save you, to make you His own, that you might be in His kingdom forever. Remember how the Word of the Lord came to David and to Mary; and how the Word of the Lord still comes to you today. He is not far from you, but gathers you here to rule with mercy, to speak to you His Word and feed you His Supper. So like David and Mary, you add your amen: “Let it be to me according to your Word.”
Your King rules and reigns forever, and you are His forever, too: because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 36: Word and Sacrament II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 36, p. 341). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[ii] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 36: Word and Sacrament II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 36, pp. 340–341). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Word among Us

"Madonna with the Infant" by Albrecht Durer
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What Child Is This?

"The Nativity of Christ" by Vladimir Borovikowsky
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“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
At first hearing, it seems as though Mary must have gotten it all wrong. I mean, isn’t Christmas a time for celebration? And here, Luke tells us that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The contrast is striking. While every year the Christmas retail season starts earlier and earlier and the hype gets more and more intense, the first Christmas was not an intense affair at all. If anything, it seems to be quite calm and quiet in comparison to today’s festivities.
Now, of course, you can’t blame people for trying to make a dollar. And we have probably all fed the beast of the commercialization of Christmas to one extent or another. But we’ve not come here to fight the “war against Christmas” or the bogeyman of big business; we are here to get away from the busy-ness of our hectic lives and this frenzied season so that we might discover anew the good news of great joy that was proclaimed a long time ago to shepherds on Bethlehem’s plain: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11).
You and I have much to learn from Mary, the mother of our Lord. What exactly did she “ponder” in her heart? Not those things many people have come to expect in this season: an extravagance of gifts and bright lights, the sound of carols and the glistening of new-fallen snow that casts a mystic glow over hearth and family—all these trappings lay far in the future. No, Mary’s enchantment was not found in any of that. Rather, what she pondered in her heart was that which that had been spoken by the angel of the Lord to the rugged shepherds concerning her baby boy, “Christ the Lord.”
She looked down at the tiny baby wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes in His manger bed. Could it really be that the Lord, the God of hosts, who feeds all creation, who opens up His hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing, could come to be so small that He would take flesh within her virgin womb, be born as a helpless infant boy, and be suckled at her breast?
“Good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10), the angel had announced to the shepherds. This was no pipe dream or human speculation; these words were from the very mouth of God. Her firstborn Son was none other than the Messiah, the promised Redeemer, and God in human flesh and blood and bone. So Mary treasured all these words, pondering them in her heart.
You and I can do no less on this holy night. For when all is said and done, there is nothing to say or do that could add the smallest luster to this day. The most overpowering music or overwhelming light display could never hold a candle to the simple wonder of a heart captivated by our gracious God, who loved the world so that He give His only begotten Son. When we could not go to Him, He has come to us, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
What child is this? This is the Savior, Christ the Lord; God in diapers, here among us. God in a crib—and then some 30 years later, God on a cross, made to be sin for us that He might remove forever the curse of sin and the sting of death, which is the just penalty of God's Law “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That’s the gist of Christmas.
Everything else will fade. The glitz and glitter will soon be packed away for another year. The excitement of children and the happy glow of all we’ve come to expect from this holy night is illusive and fast fleeting. All too soon it’s come and gone. But not this: Treasure in your heart the mystery of God made flesh for our salvation. Ponder with Mary this question: “What child is this?”
In faith, let Mary lead the way this night. Set aside the busyness. Shut down your head and open up your heart to receive the great glad news that Christ is born a child. “Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room” (LSB 387:1). For He comes among us wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the Word of His Gospel. He comes for every soul distressed and lonely and grieving. He comes for every wounded mind and heart. He comes for peace that passes all understanding, for forgiveness, for life and our salvation. He comes for you this night. And you can be sure of this: “Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in” (LSB 387:3). You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Based upon a sermon by Harold L. Senkbeil, Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 14, Part 1, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 2003.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Good Life and a Blessed Death: Sermon for the Funeral of Dorothy Williamson

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“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15).
Dear family and friends of Dorothy. Sometimes people will say about someone who has died, “She had a good life.” There’s a problem with that. The world’s understanding of a good life is at best inadequate, compared to God’s understanding of what constitutes a good life. Now there could be several similarities. A person who has a good, God-pleasing life might be blessed with a loving and caring spouse, loving and respectful children, a job or vocation that brought meaning and fulfillment to her life, enjoyable hobbies and interests, and more than adequate material blessings.
By those definitions, I think you could say that Dorothy had a good life. Married to Elmo on June 14, 1946, the couple enjoyed over 60 years together in a union which has been further blessed with four children, twelve grandchildren, and twenty great-grandchildren. A farmer’s wife, who took on all the activities that includes, yet still found time to volunteer at church and in the community, as well as hobbies like sewing, knitting, entertaining, and golfing. And then there were those special trips with Elmo and winters in Mesa, Arizona. I don’t remember who it was that said to me, “It’s too bad you didn’t get to know her a few years ago.” After hearing stories about Dorothy and watching her tribute video, I’d have to agree: it seems she lived a very fulfilling life, a good life.
But from God’s perspective, there are even more important ingredients that make a life good and pleasing to Him. Christians look to the goodness, kindness, and compassion of our Lord for the key to a truly good life. To begin with, we give God the credit, honor, and glory for all of the good gifts and blessings we enjoy. By faith we can say with the psalmist, “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful… when I was brought low, He saved me” (Psalm 116:5-6).
Christians know that there is no higher calling in life than to walk in step with the Lord and His purposes, following Him and serving Him all the days of our life. Christians know that our true meaning and fulfillment in life is found not in money or the things that we accumulate, but rather in the love, kindness, and forgiveness that our Lord moves us to share with others, during our daily life and daily relationships. Christians know that the motivation for our life of Christian love and service to others comes from the love of Christ living in us. As the Bible tells us, “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
For Dorothy, that walk with the Lord, began at the baptismal font, here in Trinity on March 3, 1926. There she received the Holy Spirit with His gifts of faith, forgiveness, and eternal life for the sake of Jesus Christ. That faith was nurtured at home, in church and Sunday School, and in Catechism class. She confessed that faith publicly in the Rite of Confirmation here at Trinity on May 28, 1939. Her confirmation verse was Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” No doubt, this promise of the Lord provided Dorothy great comfort and strength and encouragement as she faced the trials and triumphs, sorrows and joys, in the following years.
As Christians, we also may know from our faith and life experience that when we are confronted with struggles, sickness, and sorrow—which are an inevitable part of life in this fallen world—we have a sure source of comfort, strength, and hope in Jesus Christ, His Word, and His promises. When we live by faith in our Good Shepherd and Savior, we know that He will lead us through all the valleys and shadows of life, until that blessed day comes when His angels will welcome us to our eternal home in heaven. Then we will finally grasp the full meaning of the words of our text, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”
That is what constitutes a truly good life—living with Christ and for Christ, living each day in His love and forgiveness He earned for us on the cross, sharing His grace and mercy with those around us every chance we get, and living always with the assurance than nothing in this life, not even death, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
There’s another phrase I’ve heard much more in recent years, probably because of the hospice movement: “She had a good death.” People might mean various things by that phrase, not all of which would be in conformity with God’s will and purposes. As Christians, we might mean by that phrase some of the following: Despite a long and difficult illness, toward the end of her life, the person’s pain was largely under control. The person was able, during her final days, to be alert enough to communicate with her family or to have her family there with her. The person could die rather peacefully, gradually slipping away from the struggles of this life to the glories of God’s eternal peace.
Based upon those definitions, I suppose we could say that Dorothy had a good death. But from God’s eternal perspective, as well as in the eyes of those who live by faith in Christ, there are even more important things that would make it a good death. It depends upon who walks with us.
You see, in the whole history of the world, in the whole human experience, only one man has lived a truly good life. Only one man loved the Lord His God above all things. Only one man loved His neighbor as Himself. Jesus lived the sinless, obedient, righteous life that you and I are required to live, but could not, would not. Consequently, only one man has died a good death. To be sure, it did look so good at the time, as He hung from the cross, bloodied and beaten. It looked as if death had the final say. But His life was not taken from Him, the Good Shepherd willingly laid down His life for His sheep—for you and me and Dorothy. And then He took it back up again on the third day.
Risen and ascended to the Father’s right hand, Jesus promises to be with us always. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, either by ourselves or with a loved one, we know with great assurance, that our Good Shepherd walks with us every step of the way. What matters is knowing that we have a Savior who on the cross paid in full for all our flaws, faults, and failures, and continues to love us and forgive us unconditionally. What counts, when the going gets tough, is to know we can count on God’s sure promise that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
What matters most of all is to be able to live—and to die—with the sure confidence that when our Lord calls His people to their eternal home, the Good Shepherd Himself “will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
Living and dying in faith in Christ Jesus—that is the truly good life and blessed death. That is the sure and certain faith by which Dorothy lived—and in which she died. By God’s grace, may you and I be able to say the same. May you and I be able to confess along with the psalmist and Dorothy our faith in the saving power of Christ in His good life (a perfect sinless life), His good death (the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world), and His victorious resurrection and the resurrection of our own bodies unto life everlasting:   
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 116:7-9).
The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Blameless at the Coming of the Lord

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Last week, we heard how John the Baptist told people to get ready for Christ’s coming—through repentance and Baptism. We are to live a life of daily repentance. In our Epistle for today, St. Paul gives us further instructions to be ready, that we may be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24).
St. Paul tells us how to be found blameless at the coming of our Lord. In rapid fire, no less than eight imperatives follow one after the other. Rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! Don’t quench! Don’t despise! Test! Hold fast! Abstain!
With these eight commands, the apostle reviews for us “the will of God in Christ Jesus.” These are not manmade guidelines. They are from God Himself. These are the keys for getting ready for the coming of our Lord.
So… how are you doing? Do you always rejoice? Do you pray without ceasing? Do you give thanks to God in all circumstances? Do you always gladly hear and learn God’s Word? Do you test everything according to God’s Word? Do you always hold on to the good, and abstain from that which is evil?
Of course you don’t! And neither do I. But according to our text, these are the things that make you ready for Judgment Day. That should give you pause.
God holds you to the highest, holiest standards. He calls you to be blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; yet as we have just confessed you are a poor, miserable sinner, who justly deserves God’s temporal and eternal punishment. You are warned to not despise God’s Word, to test everything, holding fast to everything that is good and abstaining from every evil; yet you know you daily sin against God in thought, word, and deed. Your life is often filled with sorrow, frustration, and adversity; yet you are called to always rejoice, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you. How can you keep yourself blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Actually, you can’t. But God does! Only viewed through the cross can this dilemma be resolved. On the cross, Christ exchanges His perfect obedience and righteousness for your disobedience and unrighteousness. He pays the penalty for your sins and credits you with His holy life and His innocent suffering and death.
He must! You are a spiritual beggar, hoping to enter the gates of heaven. You are a pauper. You don’t have even a dime to pay toward the high fee for admission. But there is One who has! Christ opened the gates of heaven to all believers with His death on the cross. He purchased your admission, and for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or will ever live, not with silver or gold but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
But that’s not all! Not only are you a beggar before God, you are the worst sort of beggar—one filled with pride. You’re a beggar who sits by the gates with his hands in his pockets, not willing to accept a handout, because you think you’re too good to accept a handout. And the fact is… you would not have the strength to reach out your own hand if you should condescend to accept His charity. So Christ has to pull your hands out of your pocket, open your closed fists, place His gift of salvation into your hands, close your palms, and put your hands back in your pocket, so you won’t drop His wonderful gift.  
You cannot get yourself ready for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ—but there is One Who has! Who has done it for you, in your place! There is One who is full of joy—“the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). The One who rejoices with the angels in heaven over one repentant sinner” (Luke 15:7). The One who joyfully sold all that He had to redeem the world (Matthew 13:44).
There is One who prays without ceasing. He often withdrew to a solitary place to pray (Luke 5:16). During Holy Week, He prayed every night in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 21:37; 22:39). He prayed so fervently that His sweat fell like blood (Luke 22:43). In the upper room He prayed for Himself, for His disciples, and for those who would believe in Him through their message (John 17). On the cross, He prayed for His enemies (Luke 23:34). Even now He intercedes on your behalf (Romans 8:34) and speaks to the Father in your defense—Jesus Christ the Righteous One (1 John 2:1).
There is One who gives thanks in all circumstances. He thanked His Father for hearing His prayers (John 11:41). He thanked the Father for revealing His Word to the simple, and keeping its meaning hidden from the wise (Luke 10:21). And He thanked God before breaking bread and passing the cup (Luke 22:17,19).
There is One who did not quench the Spirit, but was full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). The Holy Spirit descended upon Him in His Baptism (Luke 3:17). The Spirit of the Lord was upon Him as He preached the Gospel and did merciful works of healing (Luke 4:18). This One did not quench the fire of immature faith (Matthew 12:20), but built faith up in His disciples through patient teaching. He taught that one must be born of the Spirit through water and the Word (John 3:5). He promised to send His Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (John 16:13). He breathed the Spirit into them that they might pass on His Word of forgiveness (John 21:22-23).
There is One who never despised God’s Word, but held it sacred and glad heard and learned it. At the age of twelve, He could be found in His Father’s house, listening to the teachers and questioning them. When tempted by the devil in the wilderness, He showed that God’s Word meant more to Him than food, power, or fame. The people were constantly amazed at His teaching because His message had the authority of God’s Word and not the so-called wisdom of men.
There is One who tested everything concerning Christian faith and life. He warned His disciples to be on guard against false doctrine (Luke 12:1). He held fast to what was good. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). He abstained from every evil. “He was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet [He] was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  
There is One who does all of these. And He does them for you! Not only does Christ justify you—declare you right with God, He continues to sanctify you—to conform you to His own image. The one who clothes Himself in Jesus’ blood and righteousness will be found blameless when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead. So live in your Baptism through daily repentance and faith.
Do you want to be able to “rejoice always”? Christ imparts His joy to you. The One who for the joy set before Him went to the cross, scorning its shame, teaches and enable you to be joyful even in times of trial and tribulations that cause sorrow. You know that Christ rules heaven and earth, so that the sorrow that enters your life is not a matter of blind fate. Anything that causes you sorrow is something our Savior has permitted to come and will ultimately serve your good. Sorrows draw you closer to the Lord (Romans 5:3-5). They purify and refine your faith (1 Peter 1:17). They provide you with opportunities to confess the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:13-15). There is, however, one thing sorrow cannot do. It can never, ever separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:39).
God also enables you to “pray without ceasing,” to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Jesus intercedes on your behalf. Jesus gives you His prayer and invites you to pray to God as your dear Father in heaven. Praying continually means developing an awareness of Jesus’ presence and an attitude that brings Him easily into every thought and every activity of your life. You learn to thank God for all of His blessings, including those “blessings” that come disguised. Giving thanks in all circumstances means living by faith and not by sight. It is a theology of the cross trusting that God is graciously at work for His people even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Nor is your thankfulness limited to words. It can also be expressed by your actions. God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does. The Christian mother who cares for her children, cleans the house, cooks meals, and mends clothes is expressing her thanks to God for these gifts. As one who rejoices in her Savior, her simplest task is an act of faith, which God looks on as an expression of true gratitude. That’s how it is with the simplest actions of every Christian, whether a laborer, farmer, businessperson, police officer, secretary, father, mother, child, grandpa, grandma, husband, wife, bachelor, or widow. Whatever good you do, can be done to God’s glory with thanksgiving and prayer.
In Baptism, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Your new man delights to do will of God. You hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Everything you meet in your daily lives is examined in the light of God’s Word. If you have found that what you are testing is “good” according to God’s Word, then you “hold fast” to it. If you find that something is “evil” by its nature, you “abstain” from it. Consciously and constantly, you put distance between yourself and whatever conflicts with His pure Word. Why? Because “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” A little bit of impurity mixed with God’s truth will eventually destroy the truth and lead to one error after the other.
Baptized into Christ you are united to His death and resurrection. He not only gives you His forgiveness, righteousness, and holiness to secure your standing before the heavenly Father and gain eternity in heaven, but He gives you His character, His identity, and His virtues to take as your very own and lead you in your life, amid trials and temptations, in this culture, at this time, here on this earth.
You are redeemed, purchased and won from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil with Christ’s holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. When our Lord Jesus Christ comes again on Judgment Day, He will find you blameless. You will enter eternal life purified, for you will regain the sinless state human beings had before the Fall. You may be certain of this because He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it! He’s doing it even now! For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Mightier One Comes

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:6-8).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Most of you here are old enough to remember Ed McMahon—the rest of you can Google it later. For thirty years, Ed was Johnny Carson’s sidekick on The Tonight Show. A very talented comedian, actor, singer, and announcer in his own right, Ed’s main job on The Tonight Show was to make Johnny Carson look good, to laugh at Johnny’s jokes, to play the straight man in their sketches, and to introduce the talk show host each night with his trademark “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
Like Ed McMahon, everything John said and did was an effort to direct everyone to look to the mightier One to come. John’s mission was simple: point everyone to Jesus Christ. He does this in our text by comparing the Lord with himself. In each instance, John shows that even though he is a profound prophet, the messenger sent to prepare the way foretold by Malachi, the voice of one calling in the desert prophesied by Isaiah, he cannot compare to the mightier One to come.
John the Baptist was a physically, mentally, and spiritually strong man. He stood in the shoes of the prophets of old. In fact, he wore the same kind of clothes as Elijah and many of the other prophets—a rough camel’s hair robe, with a leather belt around his waist. Until the time of his ministry, John lived like a hermit in the desert. He ate locusts and honey. John lived as a Nazirite, one set aside from birth for special service to God. He never drank fermented drink or wine. His hair was never cut. And he was filled with the Holy Spirit from before birth.
John could have done well on the television series Survivor. He would eat whatever there was, not worry about his hair or clothing, and not care where he slept. He probably would have been the first one voted off the island, though. Even though multitudes came out to see him, he didn’t have much guile. John could never be accused of being “politically correct.”
John challenged the religious powers of his time, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and warning them of God’s coming wrath and their need for repentance. He also tackled the political powers, daring to rebuke Herod for divorcing his wife to marry his own niece who happened to already be his brother’s wife. John spoke directly and clearly. He was unafraid of the religious and political powers of the time.
But as interesting a character as John the Baptist is, he is not the focus of our text today. The focus is on Jesus Christ, the One of whom John said, “After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” As mighty and as powerful as John was, he refused the fame and acclaim that came his way. He remained humble and focused on his relatively minor role in God’s plan of salvation. Instead of tooting his own horn, John pointed the way to the mightier One—Jesus Christ.
Jesus is mightier than John in His Spirit. John knew who Jesus is. After all, he is the one who leaped in his mother’s womb when his embryonic cousin entered the room some three months before his own miraculous birth. Perhaps John heard his mother talk about Jesus’ mother and the circumstances of His conception and birth. John certainly knew that an angel announced his own birth to his father in the temple, but that a host of angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds as they watched their sheep on the hills near Bethlehem! By God’s grace, John received the Holy Spirit before His birth by hearing the spoken Word. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and as true God is the Holy Spirit!
Jesus is mightier than John in His miracles. John did not do any miracles. He was a preacher, a prophet, a baptizer. John’s job was to be the forerunner, to prepare the way of the Lord. He preached repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus began to do His miracles shortly after His baptism, and by His works proved that He is the mightier One. His miraculous signs showed that He is true God. And they pointed the way to the greater miracle that He would bring about—His own bodily resurrection from the dead.
Jesus is mightier than John in His teaching. John’s message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:1). John simply stated that the kingdom is coming. He pointed to Jesus. Jesus’ message is “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom is here now in His person and work. Jesus not only brought the message, He is the message! He is God’s kingdom come in human flesh and blood!
To drive home the point that Jesus is mightier, John compared the thing for which he was famous, baptism. John baptized for repentance. Christ would wash with the Holy Spirit. Both baptisms were similar. They required the use of water. They required repentance. They were for the forgiveness of sins. They were received by faith in the Messiah. Jesus even received John’s baptism Himself. Holy and righteous, Jesus did not need this Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But rather, in being baptized by John, Jesus identified Himself as one of us, a true man. In the water of the Jordan River, Jesus took on the burden of all our sins that He would carry with Him throughout His ministry.
The Baptism of Jesus is mightier in many ways. First of all, it is commanded by God. In the Great Commission Jesus told His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus Himself gave us His Baptism.
Christian baptism is a means of grace that takes away our sins. It was given to the church to wash away our sins and mark us as adopted children of God. It imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit that brings us to faith and equips us for lives of discipleship. St. Paul tells us Baptism puts the old Adam to death. Our old sinful nature is nailed to the cross with Christ in our Baptism, and there Jesus gives resurrection power for new living (Romans 6:3-4).
But the greatest difference between John and Jesus is found in their mission. John was a herald announcing the arrival of the Messiah. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because He was before me’” (John 1:29-30).
In calling Him the Lamb of God, John was saying that Jesus would be the once-for-all sacrifice that would atone for the sin of the world. Literally and figuratively He would bear the sin of the world. He is the Lamb of God, the Lamb that fulfilled the sacrifices of all lambs for the payment for sin. As He went about His whole ministry, Jesus carried the weight of the sins of the whole world with Him. As He suffered and died on the cross, Jesus sacrificed His holy, perfect life for the sin of the world, my sin, your sin, the sin of every man, woman, and child who lives, and all who have ever lived, the sin of all future people.
It is the blood of this Lamb of God that has paid the price for all sin. It is the sacrifice of the blood of this precious Lamb of God that cleanses all who are brought to faith in Him and takes away our guilt. It is the blood of this Lamb of God that brings us new life in our Baptism. It is the body and blood of this Lamb of God that is given to us in the Lord’s Supper, bringing us forgiveness of sin and strengthening our faith. It is the blood of the Lamb of God that makes it possible to hear those sweet words of absolution: “I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It is the Gospel of the Lamb of God that sustains and grows our faith as we go through this sin-filled world.
It is this Lamb of God before whom we, and all who believe, will one day bow as He is seated on His heavenly throne and sing: “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth…Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:9-12).
As we wait for that Great Day, let us prepare the way in our hearts and minds. Let us always remember the mightier One, the One who is greater than us all. Let us daily repent of our sin and produce the fruits of repentance. Let us always remember that we have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. By His death on the cross, our sin has been exchanged for Christ’s righteousness. In God’s eyes, we are as spotless and pure as His Son.
Secure in that knowledge, let us live in the power of our Baptism, repenting daily, putting to death our old sinful nature, that our new man may arise to live before God in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. Let us continue to be fed with God’s Word in regular worship attendance and daily devotions. Let us bring our prayers before the heavenly Father who hears us for the sake of the Lamb. And let us love our neighbor according to our current station in life.
In this season of Advent, let us also help prepare the way for the Lamb of God to come into the hearts and lives of those around us. Let us warn them of sin’s dangers and consequences. Let us tell them of the forgiveness won for all by the Lamb on His cross. Let us share the Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection with all our friends, family, and neighbors, that they may they come to know the mightier One, as well. May God grant this to us all. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Properly Prepared for the Return of the Lord

Martin Luther Preaching, from the Altarpiece of the Church of Torslunde, 1561
Click here to listen to this sermon.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’ve always enjoyed reading, but there is never enough time to read as much as I would like. Recently, I started to listen to digitally recorded books. While I still prefer to hold books in my hand (especially the more academic and theological works), I have found it to be an entertaining way to listen to well-written and well-performed works of fiction as I drive. I just finished listening to “World without End” by Ken Follett that is set in 14th century England, with its feudal system of dukes and earls, serfs and servants, monks and nuns. Believe it or not, it helped me better understand the context of Jesus’ parable in our text for today.
Occasionally, the lord would have to leave his manor and estate for a while. Sometimes he would be off to war. Other times away on business. Occasionally, he would take a holiday. The lord would leave his steward in charge, giving him the authority to run the estate as though the lord were still there. He would manage the lord’s farming operations and oversee all the servants. He would make sure the pantry and wine cellar were well-stocked, the whole house was kept clean and in good repair, always ready for the lord’s return. And woe to you if you were not. In the days before mobile phones, email, and Facebook, you never knew when that might be, so it was important to be always ready. If you were properly prepared, you need not fear the return of the lord.
Jesus says in our text for today, Mark 13:33-37: “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”  
Speaking to Peter, James, John, and Andrew, Jesus compares the life of the Church until His return to the running of a household. The lord of the house goes away, and no one knows when he’ll be back. But they better be ready for his return. So what are they supposed to do in the meantime? Before he leaves, the man put his servants in charge. More accurately translated, he “gives them authority” to do the tasks that are necessary to keep the estate running. If they continue in what he’s given them to do, they don’t need to fear his return.
That’s the gist of the parable. The Church on earth is like the household. The Lord Jesus has gone away—ascended into heaven, but He’s coming back. He declares that His people should be always ready. In the meantime, what should they be doing? How can they be properly prepared for the return of the Lord?
They should be doing what Jesus has given them authority to do.
So, what authority has Jesus given to His people? After all, He declares that all authority has been given to Him, and even the wind and seas obey Him. He could grant His people quite a bit of authority and still have plenty left. However, keep in mind that the Lord entrusts different individuals with different tasks to do.
For instance, it’s not the job of the Church to wage wars or punish criminals: Jesus entrusts that task to civil rulers, whether they believe in Him or not. In fact, remember that when Jesus stood on trial before Pilate, Pilate asked, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11). Do you see? Even though all authority was given to Jesus, He delegated certain powers to civil rulers and instructed them to make use of them; and because He gave them the authority, He refused to take over their station. In fact, in His state of humiliation, Jesus allowed Himself to be under several human authorities, including His mother and earthly father, the civil and religious leaders.
So, what has Jesus given you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the authority to do? Let’s trace the word “authority” through the New Testament and see.
First off, Jesus gives you the authority to be His child. St. John writes: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13). The ESV uses the word “right,” but it’s the same Greek word translated as “authority.”  
Consider what that means: Jesus gives you authority to be His child—something you could not do on your own. You cannot say, “I choose to be born into this or that family.” But Jesus has made you His beloved child by His sacrifice on the cross to redeem you. Only because of His death and resurrection, you have the authority to say, “I am God’s beloved child.” This, of course, takes place when you are baptized in the name of the Triune God.
Then there’s Hebrews 13:10: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no [authority] to eat.” The text is speaking of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross, offering His body and shedding His blood for the forgiveness of sins. Once again, this declares to you that you have the authority by Jesus to be forgiven, to no longer be guilty for sin. And given the reference to eating in the text, one can’t help but think of the Lord’s Supper. You have the authority to join Him at His Table, to receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Not everyone has that right, but He gives that authority to you as His beloved child.
Do you see what the Lord has given you to do until He returns? First and foremost, He gives you the authority to be forgiven! Daily, He desires that you repent of your sin and rejoice in the forgiveness He has won for you by His suffering and death on the cross. That is how you are properly prepared for the return of the Lord. Your task is really no task at all, because Jesus has done all of the work for you, by His life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus gives you authority to be forgiven. It sounds funny, doesn’t it? But consider this: the devil will always work to accuse you, telling you that you’re much too sinful and guilty and unworthy to be forgiven by Jesus. You’re no match for the evil one; but the Lord is. And so you respond, “I know I am forgiven, because Jesus says He forgives me—and He gives me the authority to say so!” Against that, the devil has no response.
Now that we’ve been given so much, we have much to give. This brings us to another use of the word “authority.” Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Now that Jesus has spoken forgiveness to us, He gives us the authority to tell others. Therefore, as a Church we rejoice to teach all that He has commanded—His Word. We delight to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. By that Word which we are privileged to proclaim, the Lord gives authority to others to be His children. That’s the authority that Jesus gives to the Church. It’s sometimes called the Office of the Keys. It means that Jesus gives us the authority “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Let us be clear: we are merely His instruments. It is the Lord who does the work of forgiving.
This fits in with the first Sunday of Advent quite well. Who was prepared for the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem? Mary was. Joseph was. The shepherds were. Why? Because they heard God’s Word and believed that Jesus was the Savior. Likewise, you hear God’s Word and believe that your Savior will come again in glory. Believing and forgiven, you’re properly prepared.
Be forgiven: that’s your charge until the Lord returns.
Now, do you have other responsibilities as well? Sure, according to your vocation. If you’re a parent, God gives you the authority to train your children. If you’re an employee, He gives you the authority to serve your employer. If you’re a student, He gives you authority to study the subject and respect your teacher. These are things that God has given you to do, and they’re good things. But they’re not things that properly prepare you for the return of the Lord.
Therefore, hear the Law which this text proclaims: do not be caught unprepared for Jesus’ coming. If you persistently live in sin and do not repent, then woe to you: you are unprepared. If you take the need for forgiveness lightly and neglect the Lord’s Word and Sacraments, then you are not going about the “task” of being forgiven. You will be found sleeping: repent. Should you not support the Church’s corporate task of proclaiming the Gospel so that others are prepared for Jesus’ return, examine yourself. Where priorities have gotten misplaced, repent. If you believe that you’re too guilty to be forgiven, repent of that sin, too: your sins do not exceed Jesus’ authority. He has more grace than you need. If you believe that someone else’s sin against you is so great that you cannot forgive him or her, you've not understood the depth of Christ's forgiveness; repent. And should you believe that the Church should be about something else than Word and Sacrament, repent. There are other great things the Church could do… but none prepare you for the Final Judgment; only the Gospel does.
Because this is the Gospel which this text declares: Jesus has brought you into His household, and He is coming back in glory to deliver you to heaven. In the meantime, He gives you authority—authority to be forgiven and set free from sin. The Lord charges you to stay awake and do what you have been given to do. You must be ready for His return at any time. And so you are. You are properly prepared for the return of the Lord: because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Saved by Faith, Judged by Deeds

"The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Ready for a pop quiz? I’m going to read a quote and I want you to determine whether it is a statement of sound doctrine or false teaching. Don’t worry. I’m not taking grades. I’m not even going to ask you to raise your hands. Just answer in your own mind. Give yourself bonus points if you can identify the source.
At [Christ’s] coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.
So, is it sound doctrine or false teaching? It’s sound doctrine. In fact, it’s part of the Athanasian Creed, one of three ecumenical creeds of the Church.  
One Sunday, a dear woman approached me after the service. She was probably the best catechized Lutheran in the congregation. Well into her 80s, she could still recite any portion of the Small Catechism. She said, “Pastor, I have a problem with those words we just said in the Athanasian Creed.” I thought maybe it was the words “catholic faith” that bothered her. And I was ready to explain that this just means this is what the true Church of all times and places has confessed. But she already understood that part. “No, Pastor,” she said. What bothers me is that it seems to be saying that Christ’s judgment is based upon our works.” 
I think it shocked her when I said, “We are judged on our works.” Actually, I said it a little bit more pastorally: “I understand your concern. It does seem confusing, especially to our Lutheran ears, so well taught from Scripture that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We are not saved by our works. But Scripture does make it clear that we are judged by our works.” 
I then pointed her to St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” And Romans 2:6: “[God] will render to each one according to his works.” And Jesus’ words in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
Then I took her to our text for today, Matthew 25. On the surface, our text is simple enough. It is a picture of the Final Judgment, when Jesus will separate believers from unbelievers. But there’s one strange note: It seems that the righteous get into heaven for helping the underprivileged, while the unrighteous are condemned for their failure to do so. But that would mean that we are saved by our works. And we know that is not true.
Fortunately, when we encounter a difficult text in God’s Word, we know what to do. We see if other portions of Scripture can help us out. “Scripture interprets Scripture.” And that’s why we go to Matthew 10.
In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the twelve to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near. They are to carry no extra supplies, but to rely upon the hospitality of those who believe the Gospel they preach. Believers will feed them, give them water, care for them in sickness, visit them in prison if need be. They’ll do so in response to being forgiven, in thankfulness for God’s pardon and peace. As for those who reject the Gospel and the disciples who preach it, what will happen to them? Jesus declares in verse 15: “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” 
We should note two more things. As Jesus concludes His instructions, He tells His disciples in verse 40, “Whoever receives you receives Me.” The disciples are Jesus’ ambassadors, proclaiming His Word. To receive them is to receive Him. To care for them is to care for Him. To reject them is to reject Him, because they proclaim His Word. And note Jesus’ final comment: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (v 42). Jesus praises those who will give water to His disciples because they are His ambassadors; and He calls His disciples “these little ones,” in the sense that as His servants, they are among the least of all.
I propose to you that Matthew 10 is the best commentary you’ll find to explain our text from Matthew 25. Notice the connections. In our text, all people are gathered for the Final Judgment. The believers enter the kingdom of heaven and eternal life; the unbelievers depart into everlasting fire—a judgment far worse than the momentary fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.
What is the measure by which they are judged? They are measured by their treatment of “the least of these.” To the believing sheep, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me” (vv. 35-36). When the sheep express confusion as to when they did this, Jesus responds: “Truly, I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me” (v. 40). It’s an echo of Jesus’ words from Matthew 10. So, what does this mean? 
First of all, it does not mean our text teaches that the sheep save themselves by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick or imprisoned. We know this already, of course; for if believers are saved by such things, then they are saved by their works—not by the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus. However, this is often how this text is interpreted: Help the one in need and go to heaven; ignore them and you’ll be condemned. This is the popular application of our time—social gospel—the false teaching that the Gospel is all about helping the underprivileged in this life, and not all about forgiveness and eternal life.
We must be clear what else this text does not teach. It does not teach that believers are saved by how well they treat the apostles—or pastors who continue the apostolic ministry. If believers are saved by making sure that the pastor is fed and clothed, then they are saved by their works—not the atoning death of our Lord.
So, what does this parable teach? It teaches that people are saved because they believe the Word. Really. Let me explain: Jesus sends His apostles as His ambassadors to preach His Word. Those who receive the Word are saved—not by their work, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. When they receive the spoken Word, they receive Christ, the Word-made-flesh who told His disciples: “Whoever receives you receives Me.” In response to that Word, they receive the ones whom He has sent and care for them. In fact, the word “welcome” in our text is the same word particularly connected to the early Christian practice of providing hospitality for traveling missionaries throughout Acts (see 16:14-15; 17:5-9; 18:7-8; 21:8). 
The sheep are saved because they believe the Word. Believing the Word, they want it proclaimed to all nations. This desire will lead to good works, and they will take care of those whom Jesus calls and sends to do the public proclaiming. Those who do not believe the Word are condemned; not because of their lack of support, but because they did not believe the Word.
So let’s apply this text to you and me. First, there is this plain truth: Judgment Day is coming. Jesus will return in glory to judge all nations. But you have nothing to fear. If you remember the One who sits on that throne, you will want no other seated there to do the judging. 
For one thing, Jesus has not always sat in heaven, waiting for judgment. Indeed, He has done much to prepare you for a favorable judgment. At times, Jesus was hungry—as when He was tempted in the wilderness and remained righteous for you. At times, He was thirsty—as when He suffered on the cross. At times, He was a stranger—as when His hometown rejected Him and sought to kill Him. At times, He was naked—for the soldiers stripped Him bare before they drove the nails into His hands and feet. He was sick, too—for He bore your sickness and infirmity to the cross. And though He was not imprisoned, He was in the brutal custody of Roman guards who scourged Him before His death. 
As Jesus suffered these various torments, who was there to help Him? No one! But there is reason for this: Jesus did not undergo such agonies so that you might do something for Him. He suffered them to do something for you—to present Himself as a holy sacrifice, to deliver you from sin. On the cross, the One who will judge the world gives Himself in your place! Do you know of any other judge who serves out the sentence of the guilty who stand before him? 
What cause for joy as we anticipate Judgment Day! The Judge has rigged the trial so that you are innocent. As you anticipate Judgment Day, you already know the verdict. Even now, the Judge says, “You are not guilty.” Baptized into Christ, you are blessed by the Father to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. In the Absolution, the pastor bestows Christ’s forgiveness in His stead and by His command. At the Lord’s Supper, Christ Himself gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. These means of grace prepare you to stand before Christ now and on the Last Day because they strengthen your faith in His forgiveness. 
Therefore, as you wait for Christ’s coming, you are set free to do good works, according to your vocation. In the vocation of father and mother, parents often care for those who are hungry, thirsty, and sometimes sick. In the vocation of child, adult children may find themselves doing the same for aging parents. In the vocation of neighbor and citizen, there is always the opportunity to assist the poor, the unemployed, and downtrodden. You do not do these things to become a believer. You do these things because you already believe, because you’ve already heard and received the Word. And the Word leads to the deeds.
It is not inappropriate that we speak of another vocation—that of church member. Even as those early believers cared for those who declared the Word, so you also have opportunity to give offerings so that the church is heated and the lights are on, so that people might gather in comfort in to hear the Word. And such offerings go to pay pastors, so that they can spend their time studying and training others to share God’s Word. Please note: Jesus declares: “As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” Offerings to the Church are an acknowledgment that Christ is present here in the Word that is proclaimed.
Again, such offerings will not earn your salvation. They do not have to, because you are already saved. Your offerings are given in thanks, and they are part of God’s plan. They are dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel, so that others will hear and be saved, so that you would continue to be blessed by God’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Therefore, each Christian is set free to give such support as he is able, and in proportion as that ability changes. 
What a message we find in our text. There is the warning that Judgment Day is coming. Christ will come to judge all. People will be judged based on their works. But yours is not a life of terror in the meantime. Instead, it is one of joyful service and grateful obedience to Him. This is because you already know the outcome of the Final Judgment for you. 
On the Last Day, all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The King will say to you and all His sheep: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Receive eternal life. Having suffered your sentence for you, I declare you not guilty. I declare you My sheep. I declare your works good in My sight. I declare you righteous. You are forgiven for all of your sins.” 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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