Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon - New Year's Eve - Romans 8:31-39

Sermon – New Year's Eve
Romans 8:31-39
December 31st, 2017
We Christians live in a world of many dangers, troubles, and trials. We saw them this year, as we do every year. Natural disasters like Hurricane Michael in Florida, wildfires in California, even a volcano in Hawaii. There's been violence: school shootings continue. Persecution of Christians has continued, even if in our part of the world it's only the soft persecution that disguises itself as tolerance. Maybe we should count our blessings that we've been free from famine and nakedness and war. But your mileage may vary. We've lost some loved ones here this year, it seems more than most years for our congregation. Marriages have fallen to pieces. Children have rebelled. Jobs have been lost. Sickness has taken its toll.
Someone looking at Christians from the outside might observe that we are just as miserable and that we suffer just as much as anyone else, and maybe in some cases more. Someone looking at the Christian life as it truly is, not the cartoon caricature of it created by those selling books and DVDs, but someone seeing the true laundry list of troubles we still go through, of griefs and sorrows we bear, that person might wonder what's in it for us? Why waste your Sundays? Why write your checks? Why pray when it surely appears so many prayers fall on deaf ears, or that no one's listening at all? And it's year in and year out. It's young and old, rich and poor, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Where is this God you Christians worship, and why isn't he doing a better job in your life? Maybe these questions are asked out loud, maybe they are implied, or perhaps they're just rhetorical.
But even the Christian can ask them – usually when we're in the thick of such trouble. For when we suffer, we are perhaps most tempted to think God has abandoned us. We are most vulnerable to the thought that he's angry with us. That we are separated from him, and that all the world may as well be against us.
But St. Paul has some rhetorical questions of his own in Romans 8. We'll get to those in a minute. First let's recall the context of Romans 1-7. Paul is writing here to a church – the Christians in Rome – whom he's not yet met. And so he doesn't address their particular problems and issues like he does with the Corinthians, for example. Rather, this letter to the Romans is more like a systematic explanation of the Christian faith. It's a basic primer in doctrine, with an appeal wide and generic enough to include the early Christians in Rome and all Christians everywhere.
He begins in chapter 1 by building a case how no one can be declared righteous by following the law. And by chapter 3 he makes the turn to show that the righteousness of God comes to us by grace, through faith in Christ. He then shows what it means to live by faith – extols the blessings of baptism, and discusses the struggle between our sinful flesh and the new man, the “inner being” of the Christian. By chapter 8 he's showing how the Christian life is truly a life of freedom from the law. The law is no longer a terror to us who are in Christ. We have become heirs of the glory that will be revealed when Christ returns.
And then we arrive at today's text. What shall we say to these things? In other words, what is our response, our conclusion, indeed our confession when we are challenged by our conscience, or by the accusations of the law or the devil? How do we answer when it seems like God might still be holding our sins against us? What do we say, in response to all of this, when it seems like God has abandoned us? The questions here are meant to challenge us to respond in faith. And so we can, and so we do. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
If God is for us, who can be against us? Answer: No one, of course. I mean, the enemies are always against us, but do they really matter? If God is on our side, who can hope to have success against us, overpower us, or win the contest? No one.
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not graciously give us all things? Answer: He will graciously give us all good things, even as he already has – faith, hope, peace, and a promise of even more blessings to come. All in Christ, his own son, given up for us. Look at the lengths he's already gone to! Look at the extreme measures he's already taken! If he gives us his best, why wouldn't he make sure we have everything else we need? And so in Christ, we do.
Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? Answer: No one. Again, Satan will try. In the cosmic courtroom, the accusing attorney wants to hold us accountable to the law and see us condemned. He wants us to buy his argument and be left in despair. To think we stand guilty. But our advocate, our champion, our sure defense Jesus Christ has seen to it that no charge can stand against us. He has elected us, chosen us. He has taken all accusations and punishments upon himself, and given us his perfect righteousness. No charge can now stand, for “it is finished.”
It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Answer: No one. The condemnation was on Christ, and now it is gone. Not only did he absorb and endure it then, indeed he died and was raised, but he intercedes for us now. He is our connection to the Father. He is the way. Any sin that would have disconnected us from God, put us outside of the paradise of his eternal presence, all is cast off in Christ. Sin is separated from us, as far as east is from west. And we are made one with God, dwelling in unity through Christ, who has united us with himself.
And so, who shall separate us from the love of God? Answer: No one.
But what about tribulation? No.
Distress: No.
Persecution? Negative.
Famine? Nope.
Nakedness? Uh-uh.
Danger? Never.
Sword? Not even that. Not even death. The answer is nothing.... Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. No situation or circumstance, no plan or accident. No lack or want or poverty of body or possessions or reputation. No enemy from this world or any other. Not Satan or our sin or anyone else's can overshadow, overpower, overturn, outlast or outshine, limit or deny, or in any way get the better of the love of Christ for his people. Nothing that happened this year, last year or any year that may come.
We can face it all. We are being killed all the day long anyway. The world thinks of us as sheep ready to be slaughtered. And we say, bring it on. I have the love of Christ. What can man do to me? Let Satan slobber and squeal and scowl fierce as he may. I stand under the cross, under the protection of the blood of Christ. I carry the shield of faith, that quenches the devil's flaming darts of doubt.
The outsider might look in on us and say we're pitiful. Losers at life wasting our days chasing the shadows of a God that doesn't exist, has no power, and doesn't even care about us if he does. Look at everything that gets the best of us in this world. What advantage do we have? But Paul knows we're not lost. In Christ, we've already one the day. The victory is ours. We are more than conquerors. Not just winning, but even better than a triumphant conquering force. Our wagon is hitched to Christ. And he's already conquered all. Even death. And through his power and love, we are inseparable. All that the Father has is his. And all that is his he gives to us.
And it can't be changed by death, and it can't be destroyed by life.
No angelic being or worldly ruler can pull us apart from Christ.
Nothing now and nothing yet to be. No power, human or otherwise can do it. Not the highest height or the deepest depth, nor anything, anything else in the entirety of creation – nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So put the troubles of the past behind you and fear not the darkening shadows that loom ahead. You have Jesus. And he has you. Inseparable in all things. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sermon - Christmas 1 - Matthew 2:13-18

Matthew 2:13-18
Christmas 1
“Mercy for Those Who Suffer”

Certain feast and festival days are observed by the Lutheran Church, in the freedom of the Gospel, but with appreciation of our connection to the universal Christian, or catholic, church throughout history. If you look in the front of your hymnal, you'll see a list of those that we have retained – certainly a much shorter selection than that of our Roman Catholic friends, who count thousands of saints and have various individuals in commemoration every day of the calendar.

But the first few days after Christmas have an interesting trio of occasions appointed. December 26, 27, and 28 mark the commemorations of St. Stephen, the first martyr, St. John the Apostle, and then the 28th recalls the Holy Innocents. It is this observance that I'd like us to focus today. And to remind us of the story, I share the following reading from Matthew chapter 2. This happens just after the wise men visit Jesus:

The Flight to Egypt
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Herod Kills the Children
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Jesus is born. The wise men come, stop by Herod and ask about the new king. But the old king doesn't take kindly to it. He schemes to snuff out this possible threat to his throne. He snookers the wise men, tries to co-opt them into his scheme. But warned by the angel, they take a detour on their way home, far away from wily old Herod. Herod is enraged. He will not be outplayed! And so, in a grisly bout of literal over-kill, he orders all the young boys, 2 and under, in Bethlehem to be killed. And no doubt the soldiers carried out his twisted orders like soldiers do.

And while many of Herod's wicked deeds are recorded outside of Scripture, this one probably didn't raise an eyebrow for historians. After all Bethlehem was a small town, and some have guessed the number of children killed was only in the dozens, perhaps. Not so noticeable by historical standards. But the evangelist Matthew notices. Just as God notices when even a sparrow falls to the ground. He certainly regards, especially regards the little ones. And the church notices, too, and commemorates the event on December 28th every year.

Some have even said that these “Holy Innocents” were the first Christian martyrs, the first ones to shed their blood for Christ, though not of their own will. We call them the Holy Innocents, though, not because they were innocent of sin – that would violate the doctrine of Original Sin. But humanly speaking, these little ones had done nothing wrong but to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. And by the blood that they shed, they pointed forward to the blood that Christ would shed – though he was the only one of their number to escape – he was preserved for his future sacrifice at the cross.

It should not surprise us, the cruelty of Herod. It should not surprise us who live in this grisly world of violence, even upon the most innocent and helpless of our day. Young and old, persecuted and oppressed. We see the strong preying upon the weak, the powerful on the powerless. Selfish sinners have always been out for themselves, first. And this brings great suffering. You don't need me to point to the suffering
in this world – the evils and brokenness. This text, might, however, draw us to think of the slaughter of innocents in our day – in the abortion mills under the cloak of “choice”. A modern day scale of murder that Herod himself might even find shocking.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has special regard for the lowly, the outcast, the widow and orphan, the poor and humble. It is always in the heart of God to show such mercy. He shows mercy, first of all, to poor sinners. This is why the Christmas angels sang glory to God, for his favor that rests on men. This is the thing that has happened, that the shepherds found amazing and had to make known. This is the birth of the Savior, the King born in Bethlehem that the wise men came to see. Jesus is the embodiment of God's mercy to the world, and to you. He takes the cross you deserve, the suffering with your name on it, and he brings God's peace and love.

The church, however, as the Body of Christ in this world, sees the weak and oppressed, the lowly and humble, the needy and suffering – and we see them with the eyes of Christ. We regard them with mercy. This is why the Christian church has established so many hospitals and orphanages. The church that led the charge for justice in so many spheres – freeing slaves, working against racism, caring for the poor, the refugee, the persecuted. Even today, when disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes strike near and far – it is the Church that reaches out with Christ's mercy to those who suffer.

The Church does so on the macro-level, through national and district efforts, showing mercy to those even on the other side of the world. It does so on the individual level, as each Christian serves other individuals in our particular vocations.

But we also do so as a congregation, uniting our resources and efforts together to bring the mercy of Christ to those in our own community. We have shown mercy at Messiah in many ways over the years – through a benevolence fund, through helping immigrants, through showing mercy through our swaddling clothes ministry and angel tree gifts.

Today, we formalize a new way of showing the mercy of Christ as a congregation, through the churchly office of a deaconess. Pamela, you will be working on our behalf, with our blessing and support and prayers, as you show seek to bring the mercy of Christ to the vulnerable ones in our midst. We can't all be there to visit with the lonely, share our time and lend our ear. But you will do so with all of us behind you. You will help us help them, and embody our Christian love as you serve.

As Christians, we love because God first loved us in Christ. We love those who suffer, because God cares for those who suffer.

And we can remind those who suffer, and ourselves when we suffer, that God's love for us endures nonetheless. God's love even for those innocents of Bethlehem, and for all innocents who suffer, is seen in the cross, and in the suffering of Jesus.

All of us, to one extent or another, share in the sufferings of Christ. But all of us, even in our sufferings, can find comfort in Christ:

“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:13

“For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” 2 Cor. 1:5

We find comfort, in knowing our sins are forgiven. We find comfort, in knowing that the present sufferings aren't worth comparing to the glory that waits for us beyond death. We find comfort, knowing that Christ has suffered all for us, and sympathizes with us in our weaknesses.
And we also know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character and character, hope. And hope does not fail. In the midst of our suffering, even as at all times, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

We rest assured in his promises, so that as dark as these days get, as much as the wicked seem to prosper and the powerful abuse the powerless, as bad as it seems and truly is – even in the midst of weeping and lamentation - there is a hope on the horizon. There is a new day coming, and it will dawn with his reappearing. It has, in a way, already begun. For we are heirs of the kingdom of God. And he will not forget us, and he will never forsake us.

Lowly beggars that we are, we have a God of mercy. We have a Christ that came for sinners. We have a Jesus who suffered and died so that our suffering has meaning and our death is not without hope.

This babe of Bethlehem is not just the best hope for a fallen world, he's our only hope. But what a hope he is. He who shed his own, holy, innocent blood – to make us holy, and to declare us eternally innocent before God. This is Jesus – born for you! Born to show you God's mercy. Now go and echo that mercy, children of God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Sermon - Christmas Day

“Christmas is. Christmas isn't”

It's finally here. After all the preparations, all the waiting, all the expectation. Christmas is today. And Christmas is many things.

Christmas is decorations and celebrations. Christmas is Ham and Egg Nog and Cookies. Christmas is white, and red and green. Christmas is visions of sugarplums and big-hearted grinches.

Or is it?

Christmas is family. Christmas is spending time with loved ones. Christmas is love and joy and peace and good cheer. Christmas is giving, not receiving.

Or is it?

Is Christmas all these things? Surely it's not the crass and the outward, the greedy selfishness and sparkly lights. Perhaps it's the higher ideals, the love and generosity, the “spirit of Christmas” sort of thing.

Or is it?

What is Christmas, without Christ? It isn't.

And for all the moaning we do about “keeping Christ in Christmas”, for all the tisk tisks we point at our culture and world. For all the rightful criticism of those people who lose the true reason for the season... We aren't much better.

We are payers of lip-service. We say it's all about Jesus. We make of point of saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We even come to church when everyone else is home unwrapping presents and relaxing. We look good on the outside. But on the inside, from within us, comes the rot. Sin. Deceit. Selfishness. Anger. Revenge. Doubts. Lusts. Arrogance. Self-righteousness. And when no one is looking, and even sometimes when they are, the fangs come out. We show ourselves.

Christmas is, for many of us, another opportunity to lie to ourselves. To find comfort and peace somewhere other than in Christ. To tell ourselves how good we are for all our generosity. To pat ourselves on the back for how hard we worked to bring it all together. To distract ourselves from reality with some warm fuzzies and fleeting nostalgia. But none of that is really Christmas.

For some, Christmas isn't even that. It's a time to remember, perhaps in great sadness. It's a time to lament the losses of our life, the loved ones who are gone. It's a time of loneliness and helplessness. A sad little corner of the year that no one else seems to visit like you do. Is this what Christmas is?

Whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, we lose Christmas, no matter the reason. No matter what the date on the calendar says.

If Jesus is the reason for the season, what is the reason for Jesus? Why did he bother? Why give up his throne, his honor, his power and glory? Why be born a human? Why follow all the rules, heal the sick, raise the dead and preach good news to the poor? Why the betrayal, the suffering, the mockery, the sentence of death? Why the cross?

Jesus has a reason. To save. The reason he was born, was to die. The reason he died, is to save. To save you and me and all people from sin. To save us from the devil's power when we were gone astray. To save us from death by his death. To save us for life by his rising to life again.

Without Christ – the Christ who lives and dies for us – Christmas is nothing. But with Jesus, Christmas is everything. It is cause for wonder and joy. It is a treasure for the heart. It is glory to God and peace on earth. With Jesus, and in Jesus, Christmas is cause for singing and rejoicing, celebration and good cheer. Because Christ comes to save us from sin.

Christmas isn't anything more or less than the recognition that God's own Son sets foot on our little pebble of a planet. That he stoops so low as to put on our skin and bones. That he fulfills his ancient promises to his people. That he, and he alone is the worker of salvation. Christmas is about Christ, what he does, and who he does it for. Jesus Christ – for you, for us all.

Christmas is life: it is the beginning of Jesus' earthly life, and the beginning of our eternal life. It's the first earthly step in the Son of God's walk to the cross, and of our flight with him to heaven. Christmas greens – evergreens – do well reminding us that in Christ, our life is forever.
Christmas is love: God is love, and that love became flesh at Christmas. But love isn't just feelings, it's action. And greater love has no one than laying down his life for his friends. That kind of love was just what this baby is about.

Christmas is gifts. It's not about your little gifts, given OR received. But it is about God's greatest gift, and the multitude of gifts he brings. Jesus gives life, salvation, righteousness, healing, relief, atonement, resurrection, new birth, new creation, a crown of victory, a place in the Father's house, God's love and favor. He gives water and word in a flood of blessings. He gives his body and blood in a feast of forgiveness. Christmas gifts, if you will, from God's gift to this earth.

Christmas is all about Christ. Have a blessed Christmas, in Jesus Christ our newborn king. Amen.

Sermon - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-45

Luke 1:39-45
“The Visitation”

Today, as we stand on the brink of Christmas, the Gospel reading is from Luke 1, an episode called “The Visitation”. Mary, the mother of our Lord, visits her cousin Elizabeth. And miraculous words and actions take place. Elizabeth confesses her faith, by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”. But the unborn John who can't even speak also confesses his faith clearly, and “leaps for joy” in the womb. The Greek word actually means he “skipped”. In word and deed, these people of God welcome the unborn Christ, who is about to appear in the flesh.

I'd venture to say that in this time of year, many of us either visit someone or are visited by someone. Out of town family come for a while. Or maybe you stop by to see some friends. Maybe it's a party. Maybe is just to drop off gifts. Maybe it's just to talk and catch up with someone you haven't seen in a while. The holidays are a great excuse for a visit.

But not all visits go so well. As family and friends stop by, or else we go to visit them – a short visit can be a good time, or it can be another stressful obligation in a busy season. Maybe your in-laws seem more like outlaws. Maybe you're on the opposite side of politics with that certain someone. Or maybe it's just an overbearing personality or two that gets under your skin. It really shouldn't surprise us that holiday visits and visitors can be more of a headache than a joy. After all, we are all sinners – and one thing sinners know how to do is mess up something good. You might find yourself being relieved when even a short visit is over.

After all, a visit is a temporary arrangement. Visits, by definition, don't last forever. Mary stayed with Elizabeth about 3 months. Most of us don't entertain house guests anywhere near that long. If a visit becomes permanent, then it's a residential situation. And so by this measure, then couldn't we say we're all visitors here on earth? None of us will be here forever. We're all short-timers. We weep with those whose lives are cut short, say in a tragedy where some young people die. But really, death could come and visit any of us on any day, even at Christmas. Our problems as sinners in the world go far beyond not getting along with visiting relatives. We are at odds with creation, with each other, with ourselves, and our God. And so we're on the clock. Time is short.

Sinful man doesn't want, and really should not want a visit from Holy God, either. God's holy presence terrifies our old Adam. The original Adam and Eve hid in the garden when they had sinned, and God came to visit. Peter fell on his face before Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish and said, “Go away from me Lord”. Isaiah saw God in the temple and cried out, “I am ruined!”. Even today, some people don't or won't come to church out of a sense of unworthiness. They joke, “Lightning would probably strike me if I set foot in there”. But there's a seriousness behind it, an admission of sin, a wariness of the holy.

Maybe you and I should have a little more of that wariness. A little more sense of fear and awe when we, sinners, also approach or are visited by Holy God. Perhaps we take our confession a bit for granted, that we are deserving of temporal and eternal punishment. Let's not just mouth the words, but let's mean them. We, too, deserve the lightning strike, and much worse.

But there's a difference when God visits people who have faith. Like Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit. Like you and me, as we gather in God's presence each week. He comes to us, he visits us, not in judgment but in mercy. Not in wrath, but in kindness. Not with punishment, but with the forgiveness of sins won by Christ at the cross.

Because Jesus has visited our earth, visited his people, and not just for a pleasant hello and goodbye. His temporary time on earth was purposeful and meaningful. He had a job to do, and he did it. He had a life to give, and he gave it. His visit ended in his death, and his resurrection to glory. And those 33 years bring eternal blessings to all who trust in him. For he now prepares for us mansions in heaven, a permanent place for each of us.

But back to Elizabeth and Mary.
Elizabeth shared some kind words with Mary, but they were more than just the pleasantries of a warm greeting. They were words inspired by the Spirit of God: “Blessed are you among women, and  blessed is the fruit of your womb!

Elizabeth rightly calls Mary “blessed”. But it's not because Mary is without sin, or has some extraordinary spiritual credentials. Elizabeth probably knew Mary for Mary's whole life. She was probably old enough to be Mary's grandmother. She would have, normally, been the one due greetings of honor. But she lavishes Mary with her words of blessing.

Why is Mary blessed? Because of the fruit of her womb. Because he is blessed. He is the blessing that would bless all nations, promised to Abraham and delivered through Mary.

And Mary is also blessed because of her faith in the words of promise. She believed those words would be fulfilled. Unlike old Zechariah who doubted and demanded a sign. Mary's response of faith, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me as you have said.”

This short visit before each woman gives birth reminds us that even a brief visit with Jesus is cause to leap for joy. Just the sound of Mary's greeting was enough for unborn baby John to react. With Jesus, it doesn't take much.

What about the sound of our Lord's greeting, through the ones who bear him today? When the pastor invokes God's name, and Christ is present according to his promise? What a cause for joy! When the sins we confess are forgiven and absolved, by the pastor, as if by Christ himself in the flesh, we could leap for joy. When we hear God's voice in his holy word, equipping us with righteousness and showing us Christ, we rejoice all the more. And when we receive the very body and blood of Christ – when we taste and see and touch, if only for that brief moment, our soul could and should skip for joy within us. But not of our own reason or strength, but only through his Holy Spirit at work in us.

And finally, Elizabeth expresses her humility, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

It's as if she says, “I'm not worthy for such a visit, from someone as honored as the mother of my Lord. Surely, Mary, you have more important people to see. Surely, Mary, you deserve a more fitting welcome than I can provide. After all, your womb is now home to the Lord of Lords and God of Gods, the Holy one of God, even the long-expected Christ.”

What blessings should come to me, poor, sinful, little old me, that God himself comes to visit me, and give his own body and blood for me, and give to me, yes, even me, his grace and mercy and love! And you, too, for that matter.

So take a page from Elizabeth and Mary and Unborn John. Confess your faith in Christ by word and by action. And don't be a stranger! May your frequent visits to his house make this place seem more like your home, and may it all remind you of and prepare you ever more for the eternal home Christ is preparing for you. Blessed are they, and blessed are you, who believe the words spoken to you will be fulfilled, in Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Meditations - Lessons and Carols - Advent 3

Rejoicing at the First Promise
Genesis 3:1-7, 14-15

The serpent. He overcame by a tree. He took his captives into his tyranny and held them for ransom. His misery loves company, and the path is wide. Not just Adam and Eve, but all people fell in that bitter day. Even before they were born, the nations were doomed to come forth in sin, under death's dark shadow.
In exile, soon from the Garden, but already from harmony with God, sin's wages of death would come due. It seemed the serpent had won the day. It seemed he crushed his foes.

Enter Emmanuel. God was with them, even in the garden. Even after they turned away from his word, turned away from his love, he came – he walked in the cool of the day and called out for them. He already had a plan. He already had a promise.

Serpent, you will bite the dust. Serpent, your head will be crushed. Because the seed of the woman is coming. Emmanuel is coming. And he will overcome you by a tree. He will close the path to misery. He will disperse the gloomy clouds of night. He will give victory over the grave. He will dry the bitter tears of Eden and and give Israel reason to rejoice, rejoice, for now stands open wide our heavenly home.

Rejoicing on the Day of the Lord
Zephaniah 3:14-20

If the prophets spoke doom and gloom, Zephaniah was a prophet's prophet. His message: you're looking for the Day of the Lord, are you? Well think again. Because that day is a day of wrath. Distress. Anguish. Devastation. Darkness. Gloom. Blood like dust, flesh like dung. Not a pretty picture. The earth is consumed.

These are words of judgment for sin. These are the wages we deserve. And for those who reject the promise and its fulfillment, the judgment is all that stands. A bleak future.

But in Christ, these words take a different turn. He absorbs the judgment. He endures the wrath. So that all that God would pour out, is instead poured upon Christ. Sin still gets punished, but in him. Justice is served, but he bears the brunt. He is forsaken, stricken and smitten. He is condemned and dies. This is the cross.

And so, when that day, the great day of the Lord comes to us who are in Christ, it holds no more fear. In Christ, the sting is gone, the poison is expunged, night becomes day and even death is turned to life. And so the fear is turned to rejoicing. When you see him coming, lift up your heads, for your salvation has arrived. And rejoice!

Rejoicing in the Good News
Luke 7:18-28

The fever pitch of messianic expectations reached its crescendo in the voice of the one crying in the wilderness. But even that voice quavered when doubts crept in. “Are you the one, or should we expect another?” Even the one who confessed Christ in utero, who boldly proclaimed him the Lamb of God, even John, now rotting in Herod's prison, seemed to need reassurance. So he sends his disciples.

And Christ confirms it. Look at the signs, fellas. Tell John what you see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.

Good news! Cause for rejoicing! Even if you sit in a prison cell. Even in the prison of your sins. Even if you face certain death. For the dead are raised up. Even if all you can see or hear is the bad news, there's a thrilling voice that says otherwise: Christ is near! The Lamb, so long expected, comes with pardon. Rejoice.

Rejoicing Always
Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice, always. It bears repeating. Rejoice. Just as the promise of Eden, the foretelling of the prophets, the voice of the Baptist and even Christ himself proclaimed. The Lord is at hand. You have reason to rejoice, always. Not just when the times are good. No, even, especially when the days are evil. Rejoice.

Let your reasonableness, or gentleness be made known to all. Don't just keep all this to yourself, mind you, you've got a story to tell and a reason for rejoicing. And that reason is Christ. A real person who really died and really rose and gives a real promise that you will follow. So even past death, you have a future with him.

Don't be anxious. Be at peace. Let your requests be made known, for we have a God who answers such requests. And don't forget the thanksgiving. But above all, rejoice, for your salvation is secure in Jesus Christ. He will guard and keep the peace – that passes understanding.

Rejoicing at the End
Revelation 22:6-21

The bible ends with this chapter - Revelation 22. And the final words are words of Advent. Christ is coming. He who came to Bethlehem as a babe will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. For the wicked, it is a day to dread. For the blessed, it is a day of hope and joy.

These words are trustworthy and true. The warnings and promises of John's Revelation, as well as the warnings and promises of all divine revelation – they all agree. They all demand our attention, our adherence, even our faith.

And they show us Jesus. Not an angel. No mere messenger. Jesus. The Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and End. The root and descendant of David, and the bright Morning Star. Jesus is surely coming, and coming soon.

The church prays in response, “Amen! Come quickly!” We pray for that day. We look to that day with hope and not dread. We know it will be a day of rejoicing. And so we rejoice even today. Alleluia! Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon - Advent 2 - Luke 3:1-14

Luke 3:1-14
“Our Annual Visit with John the Baptist”

Like an old familiar friend, every year about this time, the Christian church recalls the unusual person of John the Baptist. He's one of the characters in God's salvation story that has really grown on me over the years. And not just because he's so eccentric. John is a voice crying in the wilderness, but a voice that it seems we need to hear ever more and more. John is the last of the prophets, and even Jesus calls him one of the greatest men ever born. John he died in Herod's dank dungeon, and his head was displayed as a trophy for the wicked. A prophet's reward, indeed. Today, we hear from Luke, and consider John the Baptist, not so much for his own sake, but especially in how he prepares the way for Christ.

Look at the parade of important men Luke details for us: Tiberius Caesar – Roman emperor and most powerful man in the world. Pontius Pilate, the very expression of Rome's power in Judea – the one who would eventually order the death of Christ. Edomites Herod and his brother Phillip, tetrarchs – local client-kings – a dysfunctional dynasty that would tangle with John ultimately to John's death. And Annas and Caiaphas, high priests of the Jews. You had all these men, so important in terms of the world, so that even time itself is marked and measured by their reign and rule.

And then along comes a voice. A voice that you can barely hear in the distance, out there in the desert. A voice that starts out squeaky and raspy but grows in tone and timber until the voice rings out loud and clear for all of Judea to hear, “Repent!” A voice that would reach the ears of Herod and Herodias, much to her own dismay. A voice that has rung out through the ages, through the centuries, and invades our Advent season even today. Predicted by Isaiah seven centuries before. Culminating in John, the forerunner of Christ. And continuing through the church in a mighty echo. This voice cannot be silenced by a beheading. It can't be stopped because it makes you uncomfortable. Like the nagging of our own conscience, John's call to repentance rings out to any sinner with ears to hear.

Prepare the way of the Lord! The Lord is coming. His Advent is at hand. And things aren't right. The paths are crooked and the valleys and mountains think they can stand in the way. But no! The voice says make them straight and level and plain. The status quo will simply not do when the Lord, the King is coming. So get your act together, even nature itself must receive him. And all flesh – those that like it and those that don't – all flesh will see the salvation of God. Because that's what Jesus brings.

He who would make straight the crooked and level the valleys has some rearranging to do in your life, too. In your heart, and in your soul. The task his harder than moving tons of dirt, it means removing the stain of sin, and the crushing burden of guilt. It means, in fact, salvation – from the same root as “salvage” - like an old rust bucket of a car that it completely restored and renewed. Or even better, a new creation that has already begun at baptism, and will sustain you even into the new heaven and new earth, on right to eternity.

But it all starts with a call to repentance. It seems like an insult. “You brood of vipers”. But the moniker fits. The original serpent who brought sin into the garden, and through Adam and Eve, brought sin into the world, has been brooding over little vipers at every opportunity. The same venom of wickedness spews forth from us all. The same slinky, slimy, slithery sin that lurks in my heart is squirming around in yours. Don't get insulted that John calls it like it is.

Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? As if you could escape it anyway. No, there's only one way out of this predicament, and it's not through the back door. It's to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. In other words, to turn from your sin, to repent, and then let your lives and actions show that you truly have!

John takes away their fall-back excuse of being “children of Abraham”. No pedigree or special status exempts you from this call to repentance. God's not impressed with this claim. He can raise up children of Abraham out of the stones, or out of thin air if he has to. That's nothing so special. That doesn't excuse you. That doesn't make you good-to-go. It won't stop you from being snake-children, and sons of wrath. Nor can any claim you make of your own righteousness or your own worthiness. Your predicament is the same as theirs – caught in sin. Born in sin. Thoroughly corrupted and bought in to sin, hook, line and sinker.

There's no turning from sin without turning to Christ. There's no true repentance without Jesus. Without his Spirit working on you, and in you. Repentance has two parts, after all, first contrition – and that we confess our sin, and second that we turn to Christ in faith and receive the forgiveness that only he can give. That's what John preached – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins

It's what some seem to forget about John's preaching and ministry. Sure he was a screechy voice of condemning law. Sure, he spoke the hard words. But he was also a preacher of Good News! He preached forgiveness. He baptized for forgiveness. And he pointed to one greater who was coming, who would not just proclaim this salvation but procure it and secure it. There's no John without Jesus! Without Jesus, John is just another religious kook, a crazy cultist making a spectacle of himself. But John is flashing neon sign and a big fat pointing finger that shows us Jesus – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

And repentance isn't really even about your work, your decision, your solemn promise to do better. It's not even mostly about feeling sorry or being guilt-ridden for your sins. It's a process that God works on you and in you to turn you around, about-face, from that to this, from sinner to saint, from wicked viper to beloved child of God. That's what John wanted for those who heard his preaching. To receive the salvation that comes in the Lord whose way John prepared.

And the fruits are what follows all this. Fruits are the effects. They are the out-growth of a tree, and the fruits of repentance and faith are the out-growth of the Christian. John calls for them. He wants our faith to be active and evident. “Produce fruits in keeping with repentance”. Show it, in other words, by how you live.

And how does John answer those who press him for more on that topic? Always according to the situation of your vocation:

If you have two tunics, give to one who has none. Likewise share your food. In other words, how we use and manage our earthly goods, even food and clothing, is a fruit of repentance. Having a drastically different view of life than the unbeliever, we see “things” for what they are – just “things”. Not to be worshipped or hoarded. Not things that we deserve or have earned. But all of life is a gift from God, and is to be managed for the good of others. So if God has placed you in the position of having much, from you much is expected. If God has given you an abundance, you have the great joy of sharing with those who have less.

Tax collectors, who were notorious for over-collecting. What do the fruits of repentance look like for them? Simply, do your job and collect what you are due. Don't exceed your authority, but exercise the authority given to you justly. Fair treatment of other people is a fruit of repentance. Respect for authority. Doing your duty. All of these flow from faith, and should be obvious, but to the sinful nature are not.

Likewise soldiers – are not condemned for being soldiers – but only the misuse of their office is condemned. So don't extort money by threats or false accusations, as so many soldiers must have done. Don't take advantage of other people for your own gain.

And be content with your wages. A fruit of repentance is contentment, that is, be satisfied with what God gives you. It's the opposite of coveting, really. Contentment and thankfulness also go together, as we see God's provision and his blessings for what they are.

But you could add your own vocation and the expectations proper to it. Are you a husband or father, wife or mother? Care for your family. Are you a worker? Do a good job. Are you a student? Study well. Are you a citizen? Do your duty. Are you a pastor? Preach faithfully and boldly. Are you a hearer? Receive the word of God with joy. Each vocation, every calling, comes with its own fruit that we are called to produce out of the faith that God has worked in us. Every Christian has the joy and privilege of doing what is right – not to earn salvation (for that has already come in Christ) – but as an expression of faith and for the love of God and neighbor.

So, John, thanks for your annual visit. We will see you again next year, if not before. Thanks for pointing us again to Christ. For calling us to both repentance and faith, and encouraging us to let our fruits show and grow. May we ever repent of of sins, and have faith in Christ, our coming Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Sermon - Luke 19:28-40 - Advent 1

Luke 19:28-40
“The King is Coming! (Palm Sunday in December)”

Did someone print the wrong bulletin for today? Why is Palm Sunday on the cover? Why is our Gospel reading about Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Isn't Christmas just around the corner? I do seem to remember just eating turkey and stuffing. What's going on, is this some sort of liturgical time-warp or something? No.

It is the beginning of the new church year, and of the season of Advent. Once again the church flips the calendar, and starts the time of preparation looking forward to that first great festival – the celebration of Christ's birth. For about 4 weeks leading up to it, we prepare. We observe what led up to that blessed event. We hear from the Old Testament prophets. We listen to the forerunner, John the Baptist, his voice crying in the wilderness. We meditate and contemplate, even in a slightly mournful and somber fashion, just why this Savior had to come. Because we wait in exile here. We long for his salvation.

We look back to the first coming, and still we anticipate the second coming. First he came as a babe of Bethlehem. Someday, even soon, he will come again in glory. So for the Christian, every day is Advent, just as we are never far from any other blessed event in Christ's life, and are always mindful of his many promises.

But why Palm Sunday?

In fact it makes perfect sense to observe Palm Sunday in Advent. Because both occasions highlight this simple theme: “The King is Coming”. He is coming to be born in Bethlehem. He is coming in the clouds to judge the nations. He is coming, riding on a lowly donkey, to Jerusalem. And when Jesus comes, he brings with him salvation. Our theme today, therefore is simple. Jesus is coming. The king is coming.

The King is coming: who invited him?
Around this time of year, with all the parties and get-togethers, there will be lots of invitations sent out, and lots of invitations received. Maybe you are having a party and have made your guest list. But imagine what it would be like if someone came who wasn’t on the list. Someone you didn’t invite. It would be strange.

One thing you might notice about most of Jesus’ various arrivals, is that he is not the one being invited. No, it’s just the opposite, he invites himself. No one asked Jesus to come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. In fact, it was he alone who made the arrangements – down to the last detail.

Just like no one invited him to be born a human child in Bethlehem. No act of human will brought him to our world. It was the work of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary – at the initiative of God alone.

Just like the day and time of his promised return are already appointed, and though we pray, “come quickly, Lord Jesus”, he will come in his time, according to the Father's will.

And though some preach and teach otherwise, we also do not invite Jesus into our hearts. We don’t open the door of our heart, or purify ourselves, or make ourselves worthy of his coming to us, individually. He takes the initiative. He calls us, invites us, by his Gospel. He makes us pure, and worthy, and he enters our hearts by his own divine mercy and grace. An uninvited but welcome guest is our King, Jesus!

Jesus is coming: And so we want to be ready.
Maybe you've see that certain bumper sticker message which seeks to poke fun at this reality, and reads, “Jesus is coming: Look Busy!” As if the boss is away at a meeting, and we his employees have to fool him, when he returns, into thinking we’ve been hard at work. But God cannot be mocked. Jesus is coming. And we haven’t been busy. Jesus warns us himself to be awake, watchful, and ready for his coming. Don't let the master find you sleeping when he returns!

Trouble is, we haven’t been busy doing what we should. But we’ve been plenty busy doing what we shouldn’t. In this busy season of the busy year – stop and ponder how you’ve been using or abusing your time. None of us have perfect priorities. We don’t always balance too well the many demands on our time – so many of which we put on ourselves. Sometimes we are over-burdened with things that matter little, and neglect those that matter most. We may appear busy; we may feel busy; but we are often simply distracted.
No amount of “looking busy” or “trying to get busy” will suffice when our king comes. He knows the truth. He knows our busy-work is for show, a lame attempt to cover the inadequately prepared heart. Our prayers falter. Our love grows cold. We boast of prideful works that are so often filthy rags. The light of faith that ought to shine brightly in us is sometimes a dull glow at best.

Perhaps contrary to our normal way of thinking, to be ready for Christ's coming is not about being busy at all. Rather, it takes time out – times of rest – times to pause and hear and ponder the word of God. And in his word, and by his Spirit, the king who is coming will prepare you to receive him rightly. To receive him as he comes to you. On his terms.

Just as you don't invite him, but he brings you his salvation. So you don't receive only a start toward him that you have to finish. Rather, Christ is both the author and finisher of our faith. As today's epistle reading puts it: “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” He does the doing of our salvation.

Jesus is coming: Shout Hosanna!
But as we read the Palm Sunday account, it seems people were busy in a godly way. They were busy welcoming the coming king. The disciples followed his instructions – and brought him the donkey. The crowds following him and welcoming him shouted and sang his praises.

Some of the Pharisees told Jesus to have his disciples settle down. “We don’t want to give the Romans a reason to be angry. They might see all this fanfare as a sign of unrest – and people could get hurt, Jesus! make them be quiet. Rebuke them. Tell them to cut it out!”

But Jesus, who accepted the praises rightly due to him, answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out”. The king is coming, you see. And a king deserves praise. If his people didn’t give it, his creation would have. It was inevitable.

And so they shouted, “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us now!” They knew, in some way, that the king had come. It was the miracles, Luke tells us, the mighty works that they had seen, that caused such a reaction. The recent raising of Lazarus, in particular, was still all the talk, and word must have traveled fast. A miracle worker. A maker of wonders. A great king, yes, the king has come to save us!

If they only knew. For he had come to save them – from their sin. He had invited himself, as he always does, for the great Passover feast. He soon told his disciples to go make preparations in that upper room. And for the few days leading up to the Passover, Jesus the King, Jesus the Lamb of God, would stay in his holy city, with his people. Just like the Passover lamb, according to the custom, was to be kept in the home for several days before it got ugly. Before the lamb was slaughtered and sacrificed. So the crowds that sang his praises Sunday would by Friday cry for his blood, as shouts of “hosanna!” became clamoring for crucifixion.

But it was in that very cross that he answered all the hosannas, that he did, in fact, “save us”. That’s why our king came, after all. It’s why he came to Jerusalem. It’s why he came to Bethlehem. He came to save. And because he has died and because is risen, and because he has promised… he will come again to make his salvation complete.

Advent means coming – but here we mean not only his first coming, his coming as a babe in Bethlehem, or even his coming as a humble king on Palm Sunday – but also his second coming which has been promised. The color of Advent is blue – because Jesus will come again from the sky. The tone of Advent is expectant – not because we’re waiting for Christmas – we know when that will be. We wait for the salvation of the Lord to be made complete on that, the last day, whenever it may be.

The king is coming. He doesn’t need an invitation, because it’s his party, after all.

The king is coming. Don’t just look busy – you can’t fool him anyway. But receive him on his terms.

The king is coming. So add your Hosannas to the Palm Sunday crowd, Hosanna to the one, Jesus Christ, who came once, and will come again, to save us. His Advent is at hand.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 25 - Hebrews 9:24-28

Hebrews 9:24-28
“A Great High Priest”

Some people seem to think that sin and forgiveness are just words. That they are ideas or concepts which are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant, even if they ever applied. For the unbeliever, God's law doesn't matter – each is a law unto himself. And so forgiveness of sins doesn't matter, because sin's not a problem.

And let's face it, even we Christians sometimes act as if we feel the same way. We act like sin's not something that matters, at least not all that much. Sure nobody's perfect, but no big deal right? We may acknowledge it when pressed, but does this inform our daily lives? Our reading from Hebrews today might make us think differently.

We don't know exactly who wrote the New Testament book of Hebrews. But we do know it was a letter written to Christians of a Jewish background. They would have been familiar with the priesthood of the Levites, the sacrificial system from the time of Moses, and all that went along with it.

Once a year, the High Priest would enter the holiest part of the Tabernacle. Only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year. And as he brought the blood of an animal which had been sacrificed, he would sprinkle some of it on the Ark of the Covenant. All this he did as a representative, on behalf of the people. And all this was according to God's explicit instructions.

So what was the point of all this? And what does this all have to do with you and me, who aren't ancient Israelites? Nor are we Jewish Christians from the first century. But we have one thing in common with them – the need for forgiveness, atonement, someone to make satisfaction for our sin.

None of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was by accident. God was very specific in his instructions on what was to be done, and when, and how. It was, first of all, a way he provided the people to deal with their sins – to have the assurance that their sins were atoned for. Those sacrifices and rituals weren't just for show – they really counted! God so promised.

But they were more. They pointed to more. Hebrews says these earthly holy places are “copies of the true things”. That is to say, they drive us toward a greater and deeper reality. They are earthly copies of heavenly things. In and of themselves, the tabernacle and temple, the rituals and sacrifices, the priests and all the adornments provided – they are nothing. But they are not in and of themselves.

They were a foreshadowing of something and someone greater which was to come. Something more perfect and fulfilled. The priests, the sacrifices, the Tabernacle, the Day of Atonement... all of these were shadows of the salvation of God that came in Jesus Christ. The salvation that God had promised to Adam and Eve. The salvation he had prepared even from the foundation of the world, in his beloved Son Jesus Christ.

The Book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us that Christ is the great High Priest. He is the fulfillment and apex of all priesthoods. He makes the best and the most perfect sacrifice. A once-and-for-all-time shedding of his blood, a laying down of his life, for all the sins that ever were or would be. Christ the victim, Christ the priest, as the hymn puts it.

That Day of Atonement was a shadow of what was to come. When the REAL High Priest would enter the true heaven (as Jesus is now ascended there for us). And before God, he makes his case for us – he shows God the basis for our salvation. It's not the blood of a goat or a bull, but his own blood. “A sacrifice of nobler birth and richer blood than they”

No we're not ancient Israelites or early Jewish Christians, but we have the same problem of sin, and the same solution in Jesus. They could no more approach God without a mediator than we can. They needed a go-between, an intercessor. But even the High Priest could only do what he did on the basis of the coming Christ. All the blood of beasts, all the rites of priests, it all pointed forward to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Any forgiveness they enjoyed was won at the cross of Christ, and so too for us.

And Christ is far above the high priest. He is the true, the ultimate high priest. He is not a Levite, following in the footsteps of Aaron. He is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, of an entirely higher order altogether. The earthly high priest conducted his rituals again and again, year in, year out. But Christ died once, for all. Once, to deal with sin and death. Once for the sins of all people – not just the Jews, but the world.

You see, Jesus is the center of all history, of all Holy Scripture, and of God's perfect plan for our salvation. The creation was made through him, redeemed by him, and will one day answer to him. We confess in the creeds that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It's why all this business of sin and forgiveness really matters. There will be a final judgment day, and woe to those whose sins are counted against them! God doesn't simply look the other way when it comes to sin. There is blood to be paid in this serious business. And for those that reject the free gift of Christ's blood, they have only their own to pay – eternal punishment and separation from God awaits. God does not mess around with sin, he is deadly serious about it.

But, we read here in Hebrews that, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” There are no second chances on that judgment day. Jesus has already dealt with sin. But for us who receive his gifts in faith, for the believer, his day of return is a day to eagerly anticipate. There is no fear for us whose debts have been paid, whose sins have been forgiven, for whom only life and victory await.

Sin brings death. And death comes once. For Christ, and for us. He died once for all, and we will die once in him. But just as he lives and reigns to all eternity, so too is our day of resurrection on its way, and our eternal life in him assured.

What a comfort to know that our great High Priest has shed his own blood to make us right before God. What a blessing to know that our Great High Priest has fulfilled all requirements of sacrifice by his own perfect death on Calvary. What a hope we have in his resurrection – that we too will conquer death through him, and live and reign with him for eternity. And what a promise that he will return at the appointed time to make it so, when his day of final salvation arrives, when he comes again in glory, and brings us home.

And while we wait for that day, we are not without help. He leaves us, but he does not. He ascends into heaven, but he promises “I am with you always”. It's true, by his word and Spirit. But it's also true in a very concrete way here today, at his altar.

Here, the sacrifice that was once given at the cross, namely the body and blood of Christ – is now given for you. The blessings were won and procured there, but here they are distributed to you. There, he suffered and died, completed our redemption and declared, “It is finished”. Here, he sustains you with himself, until that day when he returns to bring all things to fulfillment. So, no, this meal is not a sacrifice, as our Roman Catholic friends would say – we offer nothing to God. Jesus has already done it all. But it is a sacrament, a holy and blessed gift – that the Great High Priest keeps on giving, and that we receive according to his words – often, in remembrance of him, and for the forgiveness of our sins.

And now we're full circle. Back to the forgiveness of sins. The chief blessing of God given to his people, from which flows life and salvation. Forgiveness of sins, that great balm for the troubled conscience, that great source of joy and peace. Forgiveness, which we enjoy even as we forgive those who trespass against us. And all of this, from our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. To him be the glory forever and ever, Amen.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Sermon - All Saints Day - Rev. 7:9-17

"Who Are These, Robed in White?"
A blessed All Saints Day to you. Today we celebrate the fact that God's kingdom, here and in eternity, encompasses a great multitude of believers. Sinners who are made clean and holy in the blood of Christ. At that is the definition of a saint – a holy one. Lutherans are fond of the phrase, “sinners and saints” - that is, deriving from the Latin phrase, “simul justus et peccator”, simultaneously sinners and saints. That's here and now, in this fallen world, this vale of tears. We struggle with the flesh. We sin daily, and much. And while God sees us as righteous through Christ, even as holy – as saints – we have a hard time seeing it.
But St. John saw a vision – which he wrote down for us as the book of Revelation. And part of that vision is this scene from chapter 7 – the great multitude in white. As we look at the text closely, we get a beautiful picture of the church in her glory, and really, a glimpse of our own future. Let's ask and answer two main questions then, this morning, concerning the great multitude: Who are they? And what is it like for them?
Who are they? They are Us.
Who are these, robed in white? They are many – from all tribes and peoples and nations and languages: Texans and Yankees. Jews and Palestinians. Nigerians, Indians, Pakistanis, Australian Aborigines. Celts and Romans, Egyptians, Syrians and Singaporeans... and on and on and on. They speak English and Chinese and Pidgin and Swahili and on and on and on. Pentecost was a foreshadowing of this great multi-lingual, multi-national gathering.
You want to talk diversity? You want to talk universality? Equality for all? Here, before the throne of the Lamb, the church in her glory does what no government quotas or human initiatives could do – it brings together people from all these different origins – and makes them one in Christ.
Who are these, robed in white? They are from all times and places – they are the ancients and the moderns, they are the then and the now and those who are not even yet here. Your forefathers in the faith are there in that crowd. And the people who will believe who are yet unborn. And you. Look closely enough into the faces of that crowd and you will see yourself, believer. You'll also see the joyous faces of those you love who have died in the faith. Friends, family, church members. Those for whom the bells toll today, and all who have died in Christ and rest from their labors. On that day, in that great assembly, we are finally reunited. And yet this is only part of the joy.
Who are these, robed in white? They are clothed in Christ – washed in the blood. Their robes are washed because they were once stained and soiled in sin. They carried through life the filthy rags of a fallen flesh. You and I know the stench well. But sin has corrupted not just the outer garments, but our very nature. The heart is a fouled spring, and out of it comes all sorts of wickedness. And it's not just the things you do that add more stench and soil, it's the very nature you are born with. It goes back to Adam and Eve, who tried to cover their sin with fig leaves.
But now they are washed, washed clean, clean in the blood of the Lamb. Normally if you get blood on your clothes that's just another way to soil them. But this blood, this holy precious blood and this innocent suffering and death – they are cleansing of all sin, spot and stain. The blood of Jesus, shed at the cross, washes away sin as nothing else can.
Who are these, robed in white? They also share in the victory of Christ. The Lamb that was slain, but is now alive. The one who wins the day, destroys the forces of evil, and even death itself lies in ruin. Christ, risen from the dead, tramples all his foes and takes his rightful place in glory, seated with the Father. He is the Lamb who once was slain, but is alive forevermore. He is the Lamb who is at the center of the throne of God, there receiving the same praises. But who are they? They are with him. He's their champion. They are his people. He won the victory for them, that they might share in the spoils. And so they wave the palm branches in celebration. This is like the ticker-tape parade after a super bowl winning team comes back to town, or at the end of a world-war with all the soldiers returning home – but only better. For now, eternal peace begins. Now, all is well, forever.
Who are these, robed in white? They are the glorified church in song. They sing God's praises. They sing of the worthiness of the Lamb. They sing of his blessing, honor, glory and might. They sing along with the angels in a never-ending chorus of praises. This is no funeral dirge, it is a song fitting for the occasion – a victory song, a hymn of thanks and praise.
Who are these, robed in white? They are with God, in his presence, before his throne. They are therefore, by definition, in glory.
Who are these, robed in white, and where do they come from? They are those coming out of the great tribulation. That is to say, they are those who have run their course on earth in faith – with all of its ups and downs, all of its challenges and temptations, all of the griefs and pains, sorrows and sickness and persecution. All the trials are now behind them. They have come through it, and now they are here. This is the end of the story. And it is a very happy ending.
Who are these, robed in white? They are the church in her glory. They are the people of God. They are the faithful of the Old Testament. They are the believers of the early church and the middle ages and of modern times. They are your ancestors who believed in Christ, and they are your loved ones who have died in the faith. They are you and me. And they are all believers who will follow us, up until the last day and the fulfillment of all things.
What is it like for them? It is good. Just look at the benefits the church in glory enjoys:
Sheltered – they find their shelter in him who sits on the throne. Can there be any more secure dwelling than the presence of God himself? An earthly shelter protects you from what is outside – wind, rain, and cold. Robber and predator. But this is like no earthly shelter. No big bad wolf can blow it down. No time or termite can deteriorate these walls. No leak in the roof. They are sheltered by the presence of God. He is with them. He protects them. And they shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
No hunger or thirst – The wants of this life, anything that they might lack, even the most basic needs of food and drink – there, in that eternal shelter, the Lord provides eternally. The table is prepared for them, and the feasting never ends. They are always filled. They are never lacking. No needs, no wants, just the perfect provision of the king.
No scorching heat- The scorching noonday sun is here a marker for all that would make us suffer in this life. The toils and troubles of the day. The aches and pains of the body. The heartaches and sorrows of the spirit. The sun is relentless in its scorching heat, and it does not rest when you've had enough. Neither do the woes of this world seem to let up, but each day has enough trouble of its own. But not there. Not in the shelter of the king. Not for this great multitude that have washed their robes. The scorching heat is over. The troubles of life under sin are a distant memory.
Shepherded by the Lamb – they are not lost, they will never wander. They are always, always in the care of the Good Shepherd, who is also the Lamb of God, namely, Jesus. And he who cares for the least of the sheep in his fold, will never let even one be snatched from his hand. He will lead them beside streams of still waters, to green pastures, and they shall not want.
Tears wiped away – and perhaps one of the most tender and dear pictures of the bliss that is heaven, one of the best promises of God for his people, is this intimate picture: that God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Like a loving parent that kisses a child's boo-boo. Like a warm embrace of that good friend who always knows just what to say. Like the comforting and strong presence of your go-to support in this life, but far, far more. That the God who created the earth and sea and all that is in them, that commanded the stars into existence and set them in all their precise and orderly motion. Who designed the multitude of life in all its variety. Who commands all the armies of heaven and knows all things. That this God would regard even you, stoop to comfort you, and wipe that tear, and every tear, from your eye. It is no small comfort.
But remember, this is the same God who sends us Jesus. And the same Jesus who suffers all, even death on a cross, for us. How will God, who spared not his own son, how will he not also do all of this for his people?
For we cannot consider the saints, the holy ones, without the Holy One of God. There would be no saints, no church, no white-robed celebration were it not for the one who was stripped and beaten and crucified for us, who shed his blood to cleanse our robes. Who gave his life over to death, so that death can have no hold on us. Who rose victorious and lives forever, to bring us that same victory, and is even now, preparing a place for us in that great multitude. Thanks be to him, for all the saints, who from their labors rest. And thanks be to him, who will welcome us there, to paradise the blest. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:17-22

Mark 10:17-22
“The Good Teacher's Loving Law”

I was reading something on the internet the other evening about people who've had encounters with celebrities. Sometimes they would find them to be rude, sometimes nice, sometimes just normal people. Oprah didn't leave a tip, but signed a napkin. Will Wheaton wouldn't talk to fans. Someone saw Ed Sheerhan and said, “I don't want to bother you” and he said, “Like you're doing now?”

I wonder if you and I were in the position of this rich young man who had a brief audience with Jesus – how might we act? What might we say? Would we gush over him? Call him “good teacher” or “Lord” or something else? And what would you ask Jesus if you had that one small chance? His autograph? Probably not. A Me-n-Jesus selfie? Hope not. Maybe a question for curiosity or reassurance? Maybe you wouldn't even know what to say.

The rich young man had a burning question, and it is kind of a strange one when you look at it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Putting aside for a moment the whole thing about him calling Jesus “good teacher”, it's a strange question on its own merits. What must I do to inherit? Under normal circumstances, in a situation of an earthly inheritance, there really is nothing to do to gain an inheritance. You simply wait until your Father dies. You can't change the inheritance – it's not based on how hard you work, what you do or don't do, or anything like that. It's the decision of the person giving you their stuff. At it only happens when that person finally dies.

That's the normal way, anyway. That's why it was so strange – and really scandalous – for the younger son in Jesus' famous parable to ask his father for his inheritance – NOW! It was like an insult, saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!”. But even stranger is that the father actually gives it to him!

No, this man is using the word “inherit” but what he really means is “earn”. He's looking for a deal, a roadmap, an end-of-the-bargain to hold up and to receive eternal life by his works. He thinks there is something he can do – and though he's done a lot – he knows somehow something is missing. What's that one cherry on the sundae that will seal the deal, Jesus? What's that one above-and-beyond good work you're looking for? What must I do? What a question of law. Not “what can I do to serve my neighbor?” Not “how can I ever repay God's love to me?” No, just crass do the work, get the paycheck salvation.

So Jesus humors him, at least for a bit. For after all, if someone could actually keep the law – well, that is one way to be saved. So he rehearses the commandments for him – the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, the 4th. Notice these are all from the Second Table of the Law – which deal with how we treat our neighbor. And without much thought or reflection, the man nods along and agrees that he's kept all of these – even from his youth! Quite an achievement! If it were only true. But like many today, he must have had a checklist mentality about the commandments, and a very shallow one at that.

Perhaps Jesus was looking for a little self-reflection here, a little more honesty about what the law really demands and how the young man really didn't measure up. And Jesus could have rightly pressed the point on each of these commands and taken the man to task... really? You've really kept them all? But Jesus shows the wisdom of a teacher – he knows how to best make his point.

So rather than argue each point with the man, rather than get sidetracked or bogged down, Jesus knows just what to do.

Of the parallel accounts here, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, only here in Mark do we have this little comment, that Jesus looked at him and “loved him”. He loved him. But the way Jesus showed that love here, was by telling him a hard truth. He told him something the young man didn't want to hear. Sell all your stuff. It was tough love. And love sometimes is just that, as any parent can tell you. Love isn't just an emotion, it's doing what's best for someone else, even if they don't know it, or can't see it. And sometimes love means the tough word of the law, even the law that kills. God speaks that law to you, too. But not to leave you in the law. The love of God speaks that law to prepare you for the love of the Gospel. But the law does its work first...

Jesus hits the young man where it hurts. He moves now to the first table of the law, and really, the First Commandment. He clobbers the young man square in the face of his idolatry. Jesus pulls out his law-laser and zaps the man's main idol, the one he clings to, the place of his ultimate fear, love and trust. He says, “sell all your stuff, and follow me instead”. Ouch.

Now, this is not Jesus telling us to sell all of our stuff. You've got plenty of people in the Bible who are wealthy AND faithful. Oh it's not easy, mind you, tell that to the camel going through the eye of the needle. But with God all things are possible. So it was possible for this man to see his idolatry and repent of it, it was possible that he turned and lived and believed in Christ. But it doesn't seem that was so. He hung his head and went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions. And it didn't seem like he was ready to let them go, or to embrace the true treasure.

But this is Jesus telling you to give up your idols! This is Jesus telling you to put aside your gods, whatever they are, and follow the only one who is Good, the Good Teacher, that is, God alone. Follow his Son, the Savior. The one who brings true treasure. The one who dies for all sins. The one who generously gives of himself, gives his blood, more precious than gold or silver, and his body, a perfect sacrifice. Jesus gave everything – everything – for you. Repent, and believe in Christ!

What's your idol? What's your self-made god? What's your pet sin? What is your particular struggle? Is it lust or anger or pride? Is it covetousness or gossip or gluttony? Is it pride? There's plenty of law to go around. There's plenty of ammunition to blast away any sin you would cling to. Are you going to go away like the young man, head hung low, because you won't, you can't give it up? Or are you willing to sell all, give all, even die to the sin that has you tangled up, and follow Jesus?

Sure I've never physically murdered someone. But I've had plenty of hate in my heart. Sure I've never cheated on my wife – except with my eyes, and in my head. Sure I never lied under oath, but I've dragged my neighbor's good name through the mud and back on a regular basis. And other gods – too many to count, to mention, to know. Christians, I hope you never take a shallow and careless view of God's law. Rather, let its light shine even into the deepest darkest corners of your sin, and as the sins try to scurry away, squash them instead with confession and absolution. Let Christ clean house. And be at peace.

And Jesus gives you an inheritance. That's the wild thing here. You can't earn it or deserve it – you can't even ask for it. You can't decide or will it. You can only receive the inheritance in faith. You can only come by eternal life as a gift – and you only get it when the one who gives it dies. Jesus does just that – all of that – for you. Would that the rich young man could see it, hear it, believe it.

If you keep seeing salvation as something to earn – then you'll never deserve it enough, you'll always doubt – and you should! For an inheritance that depends on you – your worthiness, your merit, your deserving it – is no inheritance at all. That's an imagined IOU. It's worthless. But an inheritance that is a promise. An inheritance that is a guarantee. An inheritance that rests on the sure and certain word of the Good Teacher and the true God. That's worth trusting and believing. That's worth selling everything. That's worth more than your life.

Even if this man did sell everything and follow Jesus – it wouldn't have earned a thing with God. But it would have shown his heart set right. It would have been a very stark outward expression of a deep inward change. A way of confessing his sin, and receiving Christ's forgiveness.

Today, Jesus calls you to receive your inheritance – that is what he gives you by his death. His body and his blood, given and shed for you, so that you may be forgiven and that you will inherit eternal life. Here at his altar, the Good Teacher gives you the goods, which you could never earn or deserve. But that's what makes him so good. He gives his everything to you, for you, for your eternal salvation. It's not a matter of “what must I do” but “what Christ has done”, and what Christ is doing.

The young man went away sorrowful. The Greek suggests he had a look on his face as dark as a storm cloud. It was, for him, a far from a happy ending. But, today, you get to depart in peace, sins forgiven.

The young man went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions, and couldn't let these idols go. You, now, go in joy, for you have the greatest possession in the Gospel, the greatest treasure in Jesus Christ, and an inheritance that will never fade or falter – eternal life with God.