Sunday, December 23, 2007

Faith in the Midst of Unfaithfulness - Matthew 1:18-25 - Advent IV

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters Called to Faith in Christ:

We are not the only ones waiting and struggling against doubt in these days before Christmas. There are others who are trusting in God's advent - his coming to save.
It wasn't much of a paradise in Paradise California this last week for a father and three children waiting for someone to come and rescue them from bitter cold. The storms had dumped more than a foot of snow on the woods as the four hid themselves from the elements in the hollow of a forest log. Their quick jaunt into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree had gone terribly wrong. For three days through an almost continual prayer to God to keep his kids alive, Frederick Dominguez fought the doubt that they would not be found until it was too late. Singing Christian hymns with his children, he passed the hours of waiting. And when asked by a rescue worker how he had survived, he replied, "Jesus Christ."
Faith in the midst of the storms of doubt and wandering is not only a summary of a lost family in the midst of deadly winter storms, it is the resume of an entire fallen human race. Faith in the Word of the Lord and his promise to come and accomplish his saving work, even in the midst of the most threatening of conditions.
It is faith and the resulting anticipation it produces that meets our ears and hearts this morning on the Fourth and final Sunday in Advent. Faith and anticipation — in the midst of gnawing doubt — that gives us the ability to sing, "The King of kings is drawing near; the Savior of the world is here," and "The cloudless sun of joy is He, who comes to set his people free."
Faith and anticipation — in the midst of our incomplete comprehension of how and when God will do his heaven-restoring work — makes it possible for us to proclaim together the words of the 45th Psalm, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his Word I put my hope" and "He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities."
Faith and anticipation — in the midst of forces that threaten to shipwreck our salvation — give us the courage to pray, "Come Lord, and help us by your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be lifted quickly by your grace and mercy."
The King of glory comes to his people. But, as Psalm 24 asks, "Who is this King of glory?"
That's the million dollar question in these days before December 25th. That's the heart of the matter that separates faith from doubt, confusion from courage and patience and perseverance and hope.
"Who is this King of glory that comes to rescue?" was the question Mary was asking herself over and over again as she meditated not only on how she was going to break the shocking news to Joseph her betrothed husband, but as she searched the holy Word of the Lord: the psalms and the writings of Moses and the prophets.
It's difficult to know what went through her mind and soul as Gabriel left her after announcing the coming of the Lord in the most remarkable way: through a lowly handmaiden even now the betrothed wife of a Nazarene woodworker. Yes, she had believed in the Word sent by the angel, that she would, by God's pure grace, be the mother of her Lord's anointed.
But how would she approach Joseph with the news? What would she say? She felt speechless when the time finally came. "Please sit down, Joseph. I have a word to share with you." And what a word it was.
Even though we don't know exactly how Mary told her husband Joseph, and exactly how Joseph responded, their faith continued to struggle with doubt and fear and confusion and the unbelief that such a thing could be from God and be a part of his divine plan.
No matter what the exact words were between Mary and Joseph, they were worlds away from the response of wicked King Ahaz as he stood before the Lord and his mouthpiece Isaiah the prophet. "I refuse to put my trust in the Lord's offer to give a miraculous sign of salvation!" the king responded to Isaiah's gracious invitation.
But, thanks be to God, the promise of the Lord's coming was confirmed that day before rebellious Ahaz and God's rebellious people Israel. "This will be the sign: the Virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel."
Eight centuries before Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and John and Jesus, God reveals that the King of glory will surely come. He will come according to his divine nature, as the Son of God, the divine Word sent by the Father through the Holy Spirit; and he will come according to his human nature, son of David, from the house of David.
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. All of this packed into the name: Immanuel — God-himself is-with-us.
Now there are two ways to end a seemingly unfaithful marriage: Either loudly with public accusations and stones, or quietly and privately and a legal piece of paper. It appeared that Joseph had the same options as the Lord had with his bride, his Israel, his chosen people: put his beloved under the crushing weight of divine judgment or release her quietly through a legal declaration.
And being a righteous man, Joseph chose the best for his wife and the child she was now carrying: there would be no public humiliation or revenge or finger-pointing. Even in the midst of his inability to believe that the new life growing in Mary's womb was a result of a close encounter with the Spirit of God, he made plans for her sake and not for his own.
Joseph knew the Law of Moses. But, you know what? The Law of Moses wasn't enough to save him or Mary or the Child from this completely unexplainable situation. Joseph had followed the commands of Moses to a "t," but things were still spiraling out of control.
What would everyone say at the carpenter's union? What would the Magilacuty's across the road think? Everyone in the little village of Nazareth would be talking and coming into his woodshop nosing around, hoping to get a glimpse of the child who's father was anyone but Joseph.
With only the Law as his guide, Joseph didn't have a contigency plan for betrothed wives conceiving children without the direct involvement of a human father. The scenario Mary had described was simply beyond him. With only Moses and the Law, the only decision was how to separate himself from Mary his wife. How to prevent her from coming under his roof.
"I will divorce her quietly, with a paper holding a legal declaration of divorce. This way she might have shelter in her household, the opportunity to give birth to a son innocent of any sin of unfaithfulness, and the opportunity to marry another." But it would be a bitter separation any way he cut it.
A husband and wife struggling to please God and his Law in the midst of a seemingly no-win-situation. There was no way the families and the neighbors wouldn't find out. Their pride in living under the Word of God was on the rocks. Now shame would follow the three of them for the rest of their lives.
But in the silence of their speechlessness in addressing their situation, God's advent breaks through, the Lord comes through his messenger to Joseph with a word that strengthens his faith and begins to calm his fears. God intervenes to save Joseph from unbelief — just as he had come in previous generations of believers as they cried out, "Save me and my family from the storms that make my faith numb with cold. I wait for you, my deliverer!"
Joseph in his sleepless sleep of wondering, agonizing, praying, receives another unexpected character in the unfolding drama of God's great plan of salvation: an angel from the Lord.
This was the first of at least four angelic visits Joseph received during the course of these first years of Jesus' life. And appearing, the angel calls to Joseph by his legal name: "Joseph, son of David." Not "Joseph of Nazareth." Not "Joseph, the master carpenter." Not "Joseph, resident of Galilee." But "Joseph, son of David."
This is how this worker of wood from an insignificant northern village of Israel will figure into God's sending of his very Son into the midst of human sin and unbelief — right into the center of a condemned race of estranged and unbelieving people.
Through Matthew's narrative we hear that Joseph was from the lineage, the house of David. As a son of David, Joseph is directed to, by faith, take his wife, Mary, into his house, for the child conceived in her is — even now — a son of David — the Son of David. Jesus is to be the Son of David in a two-fold way: from Joseph, the Son of David by law; from Mary, the Son of David by blood.
Now, humanly speaking, Joseph got the short end of the stick in more than a few ways, not the least when it came to naming his first-born. Following in the path of men like Isaiah and Zechariah, Joseph was told by heaven the name that heaven had already given. "Savior? From this situation? Won't the giving of that name just make things that much worse for everyone?" he wondered.
But with the revelation of God's Word comes the power for unbelieving, doubting, can't-put-all-the-pieces-together people like Joseph to believe. And he allows faith to lead: guiding his hands and feet as he takes Mary under his roof, and guiding his mouth as he gives this child the name that marks him as God's appointed deliverer.
Joseph would have plenty of time to consider the weight of that name in the days and months and years ahead. But all he could think about at the moment was the impossibility of being delivered from this seemingly "no-good-way-out" situation.
While the picture for Joseph was still quite cloudy, Saint Matthew sharpens the focus for us and for all who hear in faith his Holy Spirit inspired Good News.
This whole thing happened in order that what was spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: Behold! The virgin shall be with child, and she will give birth to a son, and they shall call his name "Immanuel."
And for those listeners and readers whose Hebrew skills are a little rusty, Matthew adds: "Which is translated, "God-is-with-us."
On this final Sunday in Advent, we hear again Scripture's account of God's redeeming intervention in the midst of a confused, weak and doubting people. He graciously sends his Word and Spirit over lifeless water, as he did at the beginning of all time, to create and sustain a people who would be redeemed by the blood of his Son.
Yes this child named "Jesus" is a deliverer of God's helpless people, in the line of Moses and Joshua. But he will accomplish and fulfill and complete what neither Moses or Joshua could even dream of winning: deliverance from sin.
"Who is this King of glory who's advent is now — even now — at hand?"
He is "God-with-us," God-for-us, God-as-one-of-us — born to save and deliver and redeem and rescue as heaven's sacrificial substitute.
May Immanuel be the gift we wait patiently to receive in these days before Christmas: the Son of God and Mary's Son; the Son of David and David's Lord; the Son of Joseph and Joseph's Deliverer — even from doubt and the inability to believe in the unexpected way salvation comes.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Hope Against All Hope." Matthew 11:1-15 Advent III

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Children of God who put their hope in the coming One:
This morning we have three inter-related readings from Holy Scripture that I believe God and his Spirit has guided the Church to hear and to take to heart on this Third Sunday in Advent. From Isaiah the Prophet we hear a breath-taking description of the restoration of the promised land — the restoration of the garden of Eden — ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. This was the restoration longed for by the Old Testament people of God, a re-creation they put their trust in, even though they did not see it's fulfillment before their death.
This specific hope in the One to come and make all things new again was a longing that saving faith produced in the generations of believers from the days of a wandering Adam to the days of those who wandered into the wilderness to receive God's work of preparation through John the Baptist.
And this is the hope that John had himself, even when he was arrested and put in prison: the restoration not only of the land of God's people but the restoration of God's people was at hand. Now everything would be different with the advent of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus. That's why John had instructed his own disciples to now follow the greater One, the One who must increase as John decreases and steps backward, out of the spotlight, that the focus might be on the Son of God alone, come to reign.
May God bless the preaching of his Word this morning, that, we might join all the faithful who have gone before us, hoping for the coming One - hoping with God-given endurance, patience and faith.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the eleventh chapter:
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. (Matt. 11:1 ESV)
Saint Matthew presents Jesus' ministry in two parts, and the first verse of chapter eleven begins the second half. Up until now things had gone pretty well. The crowds had favorable things to say about what Jesus had been saying and doing, but the Jewish religious leaders were becoming more and more determined to gain the upper hand as the crowds were increasingly swayed by Jesus and his forerunner John. Here, Jesus complements the stationary ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness by the Jordan by sending out his disciples to towns and villages to announce to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: The kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 10:7) Having completed his directing of the disciples in their work of preparing God's people for his arrival, he presses on towards the goal, all the while sowing the saving seed of his Word through his teaching and preaching. Jesus has completed the first phase of his coming that Matthew began to narrate way back in chapter 4, and now he will move on to the next. The work of preparation through all the prophets came to completion as the Word of God made flesh finished directing all he has sent out with his Word to prepare hearts and minds for the advent of their redemption. In Christ and his Word, the end-time reign of heaven, the hope of all the faithful, was now breaking through.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:2 ESV)
There is nothing more risky that putting all of your eggs in one basket, in betting it all on one horse, in putting all hope in one thing, and in one thing alone. That's what makes marriages and families and church families built on the foundation of Christian faith a risky affair. Every hope and every dream placed in one direction and goal, placed upon one person. And so it was with John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. John had placed all his chips on the son of Joseph and Mary, the Son of God.
In God-given faith he hadn't considered a "Plan B," a way out, an exit strategy. From the very beginning God had given him the ability to bank it all with his younger cousin Jesus, right from the day he had heard the voice of the mother of his Lord and leapt for joy that the Messiah had come — come to save and redeem John and his parents and his nation. John grew up in the Spirit of the Lord and a contingency plan had never been in the cards. John put all his hopes and expectations in this ordinary-enough looking man who — nevertheless — spoke with the authority of heaven and accomplished works only the Messiah from heaven could effect.
This question John lays at the feet of Jesus is pivotal in the Gospel of Matthew and it's importance continues to be reflected in our own culture and art. From episodes of Star Wars to the Matrix, the question continues to be asked for those who hope against hope as they place their faith in opposition to the world and their old nature and ask, "Are you the One to come, or shall we look for another?"
John, the greatest of the prophets, at the end of his calling, at the end of his life, struggles with the object of his hope. John was asking himself, "Is the one I have pointed to really the One? And if so, how can it all end up like this? No different than any of the other prophets that came before me. I thought, I believed, things would all be different now. He's come. He's here. Everything's in place. But look at me. Poor me. I have given everything and I have, seemingly, very little to show for it."
Can you identify with John the Baptist, chained to a prison cell for endless weeks and endless months?
Have you every questioned the object of your hope? Have you ever thought to yourself, "Christ has come to me, so why isn't my life and circumstances changed? Why do I still doubt? What is God telling me in the midst of my struggles and pains — when I want to throw in the towel, when I just can't seem to live in hope anymore? Where is my Messiah now?"
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matt. 11:3-5 ESV)
"The poor in spirit," those who have nothing to offer before God, stand as the introduction to the Beatitudes of our Savior, as he preached to his disciples the reality of the kingdom of God being ushered in through God's Son. In Christ, the disciples were, even then, blessed.
And what Jesus attributed to his followers he now attributed to John. It is as if Jesus were saying, "Go and remind John what he has actually known all along: In me the blind receive their sight and the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. Even the dead are raised up. And — all this points, just as you have pointed John — to the fact that in me, and in me alone, the spiritually poor have the life-changing, hope-producing Word preached to them."
In Christ, people are delivered from the effects of sin in this life as a testimony to the greater work of Christ as he delivers the faithful, the hopeful, the waiting, from the eternal effects of sin and sinfulness.
"The poor" is shorthand for those who confess that, before God, they have nothing good to show for themselves. They are spiritually bankrupt. They do not possess the human ability to earn God's favor or love or escape from all that they by their sins have deserved.
They must put all their hope — they must put their entire salvation — into the hands and care of another: the Messiah, the One who comes to establish his last-day kingdom of grace and mercy and forgiveness and restoration.
“And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matt. 11:6 ESV)
There were plenty in Jesus' day who took offense. Some he grew up with. Others within his own family. Some who were hoping for something better and more glorious and more powerful. Someone who would let sinners and unbelievers have it right between the eyes.
But Christ appeared as we would have never imagined: taking our fallen-ness, our weaknesses and infirmities right from the start through the miserable conditions of his birth. And he took our sins all the way to his innocent sufferings and death.
John suffered because of his hope. And even in that, he pointed to his Lord and the offense that only God can remove: the Lord will restore the promised land, the gracious reign of God, the Garden of Eden, as he comes to establish salvation through the offense of a poor manger and a repulsive Cross.
Each of us here today was created to hope - - to live our lives in hope and longing for the restoration of all things, something humanity has not enjoyed since the beginnings of time.
But we have, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, been given such a great gift and such a great hope. And with that Christ-given hope we can let everything ride on Jesus and his Word of promise.
Only faith in the One to whom John pointed can see us through the days when we say, "I can't make myself hope any more."
Follow John in putting all your hopes and expectations in this ordinary-enough looking man who — nevertheless — spoke with the authority of heaven and accomplished works only the Messiah from heaven could effect. Put your faith in the One who became poor, that you might become rich. Put your hope in his Word and Baptism and Supper. And then, after all, wait for his appearing.
He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"The Miracle of Christ's First Coming." Midweek Advent 1

In the Name of the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

"You've just have to believe me! It's true!" We hear it again and again as we watch the season's holiday specials on the television. "I believe! You should believe it too!" we hear the children say to the doubting adults. And although the object of the children's faith in Hollywood specials is the existence of flying reindeer or chimneys turned into elevators to the rooftop, there is something very "good, right and salutary" in believing that miraculous things do occur in this special time of year.
You see, the season of Advent, the season in which God prepares us through his Word and Spirit for the coming of his Son, is a time of real, honest-to-goodness miracles; miracles that defy human explanation or human reason; miracles directed to the minds and hearts of each of us and for all who would truly believe.
For these three midweek Advent services we will be hearing about the miraculous, the unexpected, the unbelievable ways and times and events of Christ's advent; how the prophets and apostles pointed to the spectacular star of God's bright Gospel light that came to rest over the Son of Mary, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God: the true "miracle baby" for all Christians of every time and place, language and nation.
This afternoon/evening we hear God's Word that points to the awe-inspiring miracle of Jesus' first advent — his first coming — into the world and into our very souls.
Now if anyone wants to challenge the importance of Advent, if anyone wants to skip right into Christmas and the birth of Jesus, if anyone wants to complain about Advent getting in the way of the music the stores have been playing for the last few weeks (the last few months), how would we respond? Where would we go in Scripture to support the discipline of the Church Year that observes the four weeks of Advent? How does the Bible make the case for a season of preparation before the coming of the Messiah?
The best case can be made when observing the interval from the first announcement of the Gospel of Christ and its fulfillment at Bethlehem. How many months was that? How many years was that? How many generations was that from Adam to Jesus?
In his perfect wisdom, God gave his people a good, healthy amount of time, that they might properly be prepared for the great day of the Lord, the coming of their Redeemer.
Prophet after prophet was sent to proclaim the coming of the Savior. Even though many did not listen or take to heart the words of Moses and Elijah, David and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Malachi, God was not moved in straying from his plan: to send in abundance the divine Word through the mouthpiece of the prophets, that repentance and faith and hope might be created and sustained.
And so even with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, God continued to prepare the way of his coming Son in the sending of the final proclamation: John the Baptist. The time had finally come. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" John cried out in the wilderness. And John would cry out to us this day, saying, "The Christ is coming soon! Let God prepare you for his coming by receiving his Word concerning our sinful condition and God's miraculous answer of rescue! The time of salvation has come!"
In these days and weeks of Advent, God gives his Son the honor due his name. He does not send his Son with the instructions to introduce himself, but he sends John and Moses and the Prophets to make an introduction worthy of the honored guest. The Messiah himself is coming! Look to God's Word that you might be rightly prepared for him!" they shout.
Moses said as much in one of the most telling verses in the entire Old Testament. Just before his death, in his farewell speech to God's dear people, Moses proclaims,

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him." (Deuteronomy 18:15-18 ESV)

Moses knew full well that although some saw him as God's deliverer, the true and rightful Deliverer was still to come, as the Lord had promised to Adam and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all their descendants in faith. This time of preparation became even more focused with the establishment of the dynasty of David the king of Israel. It was David's mistaken notion that he had been called to establish a house for the Lord that prompted God to renew his promise that he alone would establish the household of faith by the sending of the Son of David. As we heard in the Old Testament reading (2 Samuel 7:1-16), the coming Son of David would establish forever rest from the enemies that threatened the life of God's own. Because of the Lord's steadfast love for his wayward people, the Son of David would bear the discipline of not only God's chosen, but the punishment of the entire fallen race of man.
God prepares his people through his Word for the coming of the Christ, a prophet greater than the great prophet Moses and a king greater than the great King David.
That's what Joseph, son of David (Matthew 1:20) was told as God prepared him for the advent of salvation. That's what the magi believed as they read the Old Testament prophets and were prepared to receive the Savior of the Nations in the city of redeemed David and his redeeming Son: Bethlehem.
In this Advent season, God is preparing us to receive the coming Son of David as we honor not only his birth but the true meaning of his birth: the Son come to bear our sin in his body upon the cross, that we might escape the final judgment and consequences for what we ourselves have done and failed to do.
"What shall we do?" was the response of repentance as God prepared over three thousand to receive Christ as he came into their lives on that first Christian Pentecost. And the announcement of the Disciples? "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ [the Son of David] for the forgiveness of your sins." (Acts 2:37-38 ESV) This is properly the theme of the season of Advent and of every day until Christ returns for his own.
For those who might sentimentally wish that they could have been there on the night when the Bethlehem star announced that the time of waiting had come to an end, for any of us who believe that our faith would be much stronger if we could have only seen with our own eyes the miracle of the first coming of the Son of David, we have only to look at the miracle of the promised Messiah as he has first come to each of us — in holy Baptism.
The same faith that led shepherds to abandon their flocks and greet the newborn King is the same faith that believes that the Word of God in, with and under water, miraculously washes away all sin. The same faith that led the magi to journey to the city of David is the same faith that believes Christ himself comes to the baptismal font as he takes our great sins and gives us his greater righteousness. The same faith that led Joseph, son of David, to take Mary as his wife, despite the difficulties and struggles that would surely ensue is the same faith that leads us to rest our trust solely on the promises of the Messiah, the true Son of David, the true Son of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the true Son of Israel, the true Son of Adam.
It is Christ Jesus who calls us to the miracle of his coming into our lives as he cries out,

"If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scriptures has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' " (John 7:37 ESV)

Advent is a season of preparation — of God himself preparing us for the miraculous coming of his Son. It is a season of God's Word doing its great and mighty work with our lips and with our hands and feet and with our mind and heart. Advent is a season of miracles as Jesus comes to Bethlehem, as Jesus comes in Baptism.
How does faith respond to the miracle of Christ's coming? In repentant joy, trusting in God's gracious Word and praying always, "Come Lord Jesus, come." Amen

Monday, December 03, 2007

The "Have to" of Advent - Matthew 16:13-23

In the Name of our Coming Savior
Dear Fellow Pilgrims on the Road towards the Heavenly Jerusalem:
We hear the phrase all the time. It comes suddenly out of the mouths of others, and it comes from our own lips as well. It changes events and puts an end to conversations, to idleness and sleepiness and inattentiveness. "I've got to go."
When was the last time you were right in the middle of something that seemed most important, extremely important, but it was all shut down when someone made the announcement, "I have to go."
It gets us out of jams and it gets us into trouble. It cuts off plans and suddenly puts everything into motion. "I've got to go."
Maybe it's at the whistle of a train, the last call in an airport, the noisy music of a cell phone alarm, a quick glance at a wristwatch. "I've got to go."
Now most of the time, shouting, "I've got to go!" is anything but good news. The flight is leaving, the door is finally closing, the bus is pulling out from its berth, the meeting or class is about to begin. We are fallen human people living in a fallen and lost world. Everything runs by the phrase, "I've got to go. We've got to move. You've got to move."
And what is true for our pitiful, law-driven world is even more true when it comes to the Law of God.
There's an old blues song that just may say it best:
You gotta move / You gotta move
You gotta move, child / You gotta move
Oh, when the Lord gets ready / You gotta move

You may be high / You may be low
You may be rich, child / You may be po'
But when the Lord gets ready / You gotta move
There's no voting when it comes to the Lord saying to any of us: You gotta move. It's time. We can complaint, we can try to bargain, we can try to ignore the time and the announcement and the urgency of the situation, but it is all to no avail. We've got to go.
As we learned in Sunday School, as we learned in Catechism Class, the Ten Commandments are not negotiable. They give a promise to all who would live perfectly under them, and a curse to all who would attempt to live outside of them.
God says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And, if we are honest with ourselves, we'll confess the "have to" of God's Law is proper and just, but impossible for any one of us to keep.
The heart we inherited from our first parents is a heart that knows the demands of the Law but can only accuse others and excuse ourselves.
"I've go to go." It plagues us, even in the days leading up to December 25th — it plagues us, especially in the days leading up to December 25th. "I've got to do this. I've got to go and do that. I have to finish this. I have to mail that and show up for this other thing and pay for something else. And I'm sure there are five other things I need to do that I've completely forgotten about.
As we learn from the school of hard knocks, there isn't a lot of forgiveness and grace when it comes to the world's version of dealing with the demands of our life. All the world can tell us when we're under the gun is: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade." It's all law and it's all sugar-coated demand and promises that are always conditioned and based on our human performance.
No wonder why the most successful Churches and synagogues and mosques and ashrams are those who dispense "ten ways you can make God smile," "forty ways to clean up your spiritual life," "twelve steps you can do to straighten yourself out." It's all law and its all a crushing burden for people such as you and me; people who are sinful and selfish and weak and fearful — experts at making substitutes for God and excuses why we deserve a break before our Creator and Preserver God.
That's why it's not simply refreshing, but redeeming to come to a season of the church year that should rightly emphasize the death-producing nature of our lives under the weight of "I've got to go." Only in God's Law and Commandments and Instructions and Word do we get to see things clear and straight and up-front and as they really are. No whipping cream around the edges, no blurring of the lines, no cute or well-meaning interpretations. There it is, straight from God through the mouth of his prophets and apostles: "The life of have to go and need to go and must go and do and accomplish and achieve and make something in order for God to be nice to me and smile on me and bless me and take me to heaven is all exposed as futile and one big dead end. Our attempts to earn heaven, to climb into God's good graces are smashed to a thousand little pieces by God's Law. The gates of the heavenly Jerusalem are shut. We are not strong enough to climb over the wall or dig a tunnel underneath or clever enough to pick the lock.
So what is Jesus doing saying to the disciples, "I've got to go."? Has he inadvertently fallen into the same hole we've found ourselves trying to claw ourselves out of? Why is he announcing to his followers, "I've got to go. I can't rest until it's done. I have no choice."?
The opening verses of chapter 16 in Saint Matthew's Gospel account serve as one of two major turning points in the life and ministry of our Savior. One second Peter is led by the Holy Spirit to confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and the next second Jesus begins to unfold for Peter and the Twelve what it means for him to be the Christ. Jesus begins to explain what being God's Anointed is really all about. It's about having to go. It's about needing to accomplish. It's about not resting until it's all finished and done and achieved and put to bed.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the sixteenth chapter:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:13-23 ESV)
Wow. The disciples didn't see that coming. The Christ must do what? What about kicking the Romans behinds and ushering in a thousand-year reign of milk and honey and pomegranates and prime rib? What about giving us more rules and commands and edicts that will help us get a leg up on our spiritual condition and make us into better people, a righteous nation?
"I've go to go." Jesus says. That was nothing new for Jesus. He had already said those words in heaven when he looked upon our miserable, pitiful, helpless condition. "There just no way they can ever begin to save themselves. They are lost sheep who love to wander. I must go and be their righteousness, their savior, their deliverer. Father, I must go, to be born as one of them, that I might give myself as a sacrifice for their sin."
Jesus didn't become the Christ because he was strong-armed by his Father in heaven or because he wanted bigger jewels in his heavenly crown. Jesus didn't have to do anything to save us. We were simply getting our just desserts. We knew that and he knew that.
Then what's with all this "have to" talk?
For all those Christians who look to God's sovereignty, divine power and authority to explain the manger, to explain the triumphal entry, to explain the cross, there is no explanation or comfort in why our Lord "had to" be born, had to suffer and die, that he might be resurrected and ascend to heaven.
God's might doesn't give us an answer to why Jesus felt compelled to come and tabernacle among us with human flesh and blood.
It wasn't the great obedience or the great humility of the second person of the Trinity — or some great potential he saw in any of us — that made him to be born in a manger or die a death cultured people refuse to even talk about. It was something completely different and completely unexpected. Something we just can't explain. In the words of the hymn:
By grace God's Son, our only Savior,
Came down to earth to bear our sin.
Was it because of your own merit / That Jesus died your soul to win?
No, it was grace, and grace alone,
That brought Him from His heav'nly throne.
(By Grace I'm Saved LSB 566)
It was his grace and mercy for you and for me and for a whole undeserving world that "made" Jesus set his face as flint towards Jerusalem, to come as a self-giving, self-sacrificing king.
Any one else would have rode into the city and rode into our lives and demanded that we sacrifice for him, that we give our all for God and then, maybe he would reconsider our bleak fate.
This first Sunday in Advent we hear about Jesus' advent — his coming to us — to surrender his life and shed his life-blood for a city of rebels and a nation of transgressors. Advent is not a time that we must or we need to or we have to. It's an end to all of that as we simply receive the One who comes in grace, who's only compulsion is his loving-kindness for me and for you.
The Gospel — the true Gospel — of Jesus Christ is not something that appears in all its heavenly glory and knocks you down and says, "You have to go." The true Gospel of Palm Sunday and Advent and Christmas and Good Friday is the Gospel of Christ and his willingly, freely, just 'cause he wanted to, grace, grace offered to you with nail-pierced hands. "Here," Jesus says, "receive with open hands and open mouth and open heart what I have accomplished and won for you. Salvation, from beginning to end. I give you heaven without price, because I am the price. I am the Lamb of God slain as the price for your forgiveness. I am the One born and placed upon the wood and nails of a manger — that I might be placed upon the wood and nails of your cross."
That's the message of Advent and that's the message of the Gospel and that's the message of the stained glass window behind that altar and that's the message of the crucifix next to the pulpit. Born to save by being your sacrifice for sin.
So much of our life is dictated by the phrase, "I've got to go." Expectant mothers yell it when their water breaks, and the aged whisper it from their death bed despite the pleas of loved ones to stay with them. "I need to go now." But our salvation is not about what we are forced to do. It's all about what Jesus graciously, freely forced himself to do — for your sin and for your salvation. "I must come," the Christ says to you this hour. "I must come and offer you forgiveness won, redemption won, heaven won by my holy, innocent, suffering and death."
May God prepare us for the unexpected "have to" of Christmas: the Christ child, born to freely, graciously give his life for you. We pray:
Almighty Lord, Gracious Father: There's a part of each of us that simply wants to jump into the fun and merry-making of the world's spin on Christmas. Save us from an empty Christmas of have to's and need to's. Come and graciously do what we could never do. Change our hearts, that we might look only to your mercy and what Jesus has accomplished in our place. Prepare us in these days of Advent to hear and take to heart the one message the prophets would have us hear: the Christ born as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, through his life, through his life-blood. In his saving name we pray. Amen

Monday, November 26, 2007

Looking Forward to the Last Day Through the Cross - Luke 23:27-43

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The subject of "last things" doesn't come up much in our day-to-day life, even as individual Christians. We find ourselves taken a little off guard whenever we hear our Lord reveal some of the details of that last and fateful day. There's just something about our old nature that keeps the subject at bay, until we have to somehow deal with its unexpected intrusion into our lives: maybe it's a horrific story in the newspaper or on the six o'clock news; the death of a loved one, the sudden threat from a natural catastrophe, friends discussing the latest "end of the world" prediction. We don't want to talk about it, but when we do, all kinds of concerns and questions start coming out.
A recent survey of questions sent in to the denominational headquarters of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod testify to the wide variety of anxieties we have about the Last Day. "Will our spirit be resurrected, or both our spirit and body?" "How many levels of heaven are there, and what level will I attain on the Last Day?" "What will happen to my pet goldfish on the Last Day?" "Are believers asleep until Christ's return?" "What age will those who are resurrected be?" and the infamous, "If believers are raptured on the Last Day, what happens to the passengers on city buses and airplanes piloted by Christians?"
With so many concerns, it is no wonder that from the earliest times, the Christian Church has observed a Church Year that begins with the First Sunday in Advent and concludes 52 weeks later with the Sunday of the Fulfillment: the last word God's redeemed on earth has been given to annually proclaim and sing and confess.
The early Christian Church got into the habit (a good habit) of reminding itself of the Last Day every time believers came together around altar and pulpit, lectern and font, through the liturgy, through the hymns, through the readings and sermon, and, especially, through the Creed and the "Our Father," the Lord's Prayer.
That good tradition is followed today every time we as a congregation confess to God and one another, "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."
That's the confession of a God-given faith, in the same way we plead to our merciful God to preserve us and keep us until eternal life when we pray to our father in heaven, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
In this way we are regularly, weekly, daily being prepared for the Day that will surely come: the great and awesome Day of the Lord, the glorious Day of the Lord of Sabaoth (the heavenly armies), the Final Day of Judgment, the Day of the Fulfillment.
We can doubt about it and we can refuse to believe it, but the final Day will surely come. Nothing can hurry it along; nothing can stop it; nothing can delay it. When the time is just right, God will usher in the Last Day, in order that all things might be fulfilled in his exalted Son.
But, if the Last Day is the Day of the Fulfillment, two questions need to be asked this morning. One you might be asking yourself, another you may not, but both need to be asked and answered. The first: "What will be fulfilled? What actually will be completed?" And, the second question: "Who got the church bulletin covers mixed up? I thought the cover might depict turkey or tinsle, but instead, we got something left over from Good Friday. What's up with that?"
But, the first question first. "What is being fulfilled on the Last Day?"
I use to hear a lot of sermons about the proper object of our faith being two Christ-events: the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and along with it, the Second Coming. "Keep you eyes of faith on both." the pastor would say. Well, I couldn't figure out how to train one of my eyes on the Cross outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, while straining my other eye into the future, on a future event that may happen this afternoon or a few thousand years from now.
Yes, these are the two history-defining events for each of us as Christians. The atonement for each of us and for the whole world at the Cross of Christ, and the fulfillment of our salvation on the Last Day of Christ. But short of employing a complex set of interconnected mirrors and neck stretching exercises, how do we keep our faith, our attention, our focus steadily on both?
The answer was re-discovered and applied to the new three year set of Scripture readings we began to enjoy a year ago as we dedicated our new hymnals. The answer is to be found in our "couldn't-be-more-appropriate for the Last Sunday of the Church Year" Scripture reading from the 23rd chapter of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke:
And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at [Jesus], saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:35-43 ESV)
"Oh." you say. I'm beginning to see the connection now. It's all there at Calvary. It's all there with Christ beginning his reign as King and Lord and Redeemer from, of all places, a cross. Here he holds court in the kingdom of grace and mercy and forgiveness. It is here that the true window into understanding the Last Day is to be found.
In the midst of mocking and jeering and open rebellion against God and his Anointed, the truth is, unknowingly, shouted out from the top of the hill. Jesus — God's Chosen One — cannot save himself, precisely because he is saving others in the offering up of his very life.
In his sacrificial suffering, the punishment that was upon us is taken up by the Lord of the heavenly hosts. In his substitutionary death, the condemnation that justly awaited each of us on the Last Day was taken up by the one who had done nothing wrong: the spotless Lamb of God.
This is the saving work only the King from Heaven could complete. This is the redeeming mission of the Christ, the Messiah, God's Anointed One: to graciously offer the gift of a restored heaven to all who would look to him as the payment for our sin; as the fulfillment of an age of redemption that began with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and will end when the last of God's redeemed children receives by faith the revelation of the prophets and apostles: receives the great Good News that all has been won by Christ on the Cross.
There is a proper way we can (as we should) keep our eyes upon the Christ of the Cross and the Christ who will come again in all glory to end these last days — the last days that began with the advent of Jesus in Bethlehem and Jerusalem two millennia ago. You see, we can only get a proper focus on the Last Day through the one, salvation-defining event of the whole of human history: Christ the verdict-giving King enthroned high and lifted up — between two sinners.
This is the crucial element that is missing from the bulk of any discussions we might have about the Last Day. Outside of the lens of the Cross, any talk of the great and awesome Day of the Lord will bring only fear, excuses, denial or despair.
The Son of God and Mary's Son upon the Cross as your sacrifice and the world's Savior. This is the proper lens through which we read the prophets and apostles. This is the proper measuring stick by which we measure any sermon, hymn, Bible study, devotional or ministry. This is the one key that brings into focus not only the Lord's precious Supper as a "foretaste of the feast to come," but the true meaning and weight and effect of the holy waters of Baptism, as they bind us to Christ's glorious return, and his glorious resurrection from the dead, by binding us to his most holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death.
Christ loved us — and the world — so much that he took upon himself on the Tree the horrors of the fearful Day of Judgment. At Golgotha God reveals what we were freed from on the Last Day, the terrible day of God's judgment and wrath. What is now being bestowed on us in, with, and under the ordinary-looking means of grace (the Holy Bible, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion) will be openly revealed to the entire creation on the Last Day.
Christ paid for all. And for those who believe in Jesus as the Passover Lamb, the Pillar of Fire and the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness, the fulfillment of all signs and wonders and prophecies and promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the great and terrible Day of the Lord has become a day that we no longer fear, but actually look forward to.
Christ's love for all condemned law-breakers freely placed him upon the Cross. Bearing a crown of thorns and the title "King of God's Chosen People" above him, our Lord of the heavenly hosts says to you: "Truly, truly I say to you: in me — baptized into what I have done in your stead — the "verdict" that is yours now, and will be yours on the Day of the final judgment is: beloved and acquitted child of Paradise restored. We pray:
Almighty God, by the death of your Son Jesus Christ you destroyed death; by his rest in the tomb you sanctified the graves of your saints, and by his bodily resurrection you brought life and immortality to light. Receive our thanks for the victory Christ has won for us, bestowed through the holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper and received by the hand of faith. Keep us in everlasting communion with all who wait for his appearing when he comes on the Last Day in all his glory to bring to completion all he has graciously promised his own, for he is the resurrection and the life, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

Friday, November 23, 2007

Blessed for the Sake of the Nations - Psalm 67

Day of National Thanksgiving November 21, 2007

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In the words of Matin Luther's great "thanksgiving" hymn:

May God bestow on us His grace, / With blessings rich provide us;
And may the brightness of His face / To life eternal guide us,
That we His saving health may know, / His gracious will and pleasure,
And also to the nations show / Christ's riches without measure
And unto God convert them.
(Martin Luther. May God Bestow on Us His Grace. LSB 823:1)

At this time of year the nation has designated a day of national thanksgiving, with the intent that we, as a nation, would, all together, as a nation, give thanks. That's a pretty big order for a country who's highest virtue is the American "pioneer spirit" — that spirit that champions individual values, individual achievement, and individual choice.
Maybe this is why it has been left up to us as individuals to decide for ourselves how to celebrate the day — which altar to bow before — be it a Christian altar or a self-made altar to ourselves and our fallen desires.
As Americans we like our holidays, as long as we retain the right to observe them the way we want to observe them: the right to decide what we will give thanks for, and the right to decide whom we will give thanks to.
In our day, the only necessary elements everyone agrees on when it comes to observing this national day of thanksgiving are the following: one turkey, a tray of snacks and beverages for the televised sports, and a handful of credit cards for the advertised sales.
Reminiscent of the Latin phrase pan-em et cir-censes (bread and circuses) — that ancient critique of a citizenry that forfeited the higher things of life for a shallow and self-absorbed life — so we today are tempted to turn a national day of thanksgiving into a day of too much food and too much entertainment and too much "us" — and too little faith-produced praise for what the faith-less world will never see and give thanks for: God's hidden harvest through Christ and his Word.
Nevertheless, God has graciously brought us into his house this hour to observe this national day of thanksgiving in a manner that not only pleases him and blesses us, but also blesses this nation and the entire world.

O come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving,
Let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise.
(Venite Lutheran Service Book 220-21)

God deserves our thanksgiving. National leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that fact and took steps to institutionalize it. But laws and directives and observances — from the government or religious organizations — are powerless to make anyone truly thankful. There is no government fine for being unappreciative; no one is going to be put in jail for failing to give thanks today. This fourth Thursday of November is set aside to merely do what it can do, give people an opportunity to express any gratitude they might have to the one they believe most properly deserves it. But, still, the call goes forth:

O come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
For the Lord is a great God
And a great king above all gods,
The deep places of the earth are in his hand;
The strength of the hills is his also.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. (Venite Lutheran Service Book 220-21)

But, although we annually enjoy a special day for the purpose of giving thanks, and we are directed by those in authority to "be thankful," God's Word — God's Law — announces the devastating reality of our fallen human condition: outside of Christ and true faith in his redeeming work, we are unable to produce any true thankfulness to the One who deserves our constant praise and gratitude. Outside of Christ, our attempts to look thankful, our attempts to express thanks, are always tainted and soiled and spoiled with sin.
The despair that accompanies a day of thanksgiving is the despair of a God-wrought awareness that we, as fallen, sinful and rebellious creatures, are incapable of the thanksgiving properly due our almighty Creator. The despair is the same expressed by the prophet Isaiah when brought into the holy presence of the Lord of earth and heaven.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
       (Isaiah 6:1-5 ESV)

Isaiah knew his sins and he knew his sinfulness. All he could properly do is fall down before the Almighty, confess his poor, miserable condition, looking to God's abundant mercy for rescue.
This hour God calls us to be truly thankful, to express with all sincerity our heart-felt appreciation to him for the unmerited gifts given by his gracious hand, as he works through his created world and especially our own neighbor. But first we confess our needy, helpless, desperate situation: we are found by the maker of all things to be people of unclean lips and citizens of a nation — and a world — of ungrateful hearts. We join Saint Paul in crying out,

"Who will save me from this body of sin and inability to give thanks to God as I ought?"

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25 ESV)

In Christ, the great penalty for our unthankfulness has been paid; in Christ, a great atonement has been made —
for the judgment of ingratitude that fell upon us and the world.
For all the times I have been found ungrateful for the blessings God has freely given; for all the times we have been found taking for granted the gifts of life and the gift of eternal life in God's Son; for all the times we refused to express the thanks due God and those he gives his blessings through — the Lord of Hosts has provided a forgiveness and peace that alone can willingly give God his due.
Through his Son and only through his Son true, God-pleasing, God-accepted praise and thanks is to be found — for us and for the world.
Jesus is the Great High Priest through whom our prayers and praise rise before the Lord upon his throne. Being found in him, being baptized into him, we find ourselves freely acknowledging the greatness and grace of the Almighty. In Jesus we can gladly respond to the psalmist's invitation:

O come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture
and the sheep of His hand. (Venite Lutheran Service Book 220-21)

It is a sad reality that not all those who mouth the words, "Thank God" will be heard by the One who dwells above the seraphim. Only in our Savior can any of our poor and wretched prayers of praise make their way to heaven. And in our Savior, we come to realize that we have been blessed, not only for our own sake but for the sake of the nations.
You see, the rain falls on those with saving faith and those without saving faith without distinction; the earth yields its harvest in season for all fallen children of our first fallen parents. God continues to curb chaos and violence and evil, not only in the lives of those who put their faith in his Son, but for the sake of the nations — for the sake of the salvation of the nations.
God keeps evil at bay, that the rain of his holy and gracious Word might come and water the earth. The seed of the Gospel is recklessly sown to the four corners of the world, that an abundant harvest of people from every tribe and nation and race and language might give their thanks for the sacrifice of his Son on their behalf — now, here and in eternity.
God has not called us to be simply happy, clappy people who throw out a word of thanks around the turkey table once a year. The Lord of heaven and earth has called us to be what we, outside of Christ and his Spirit, could never be: truly thankful people who acknowledge all good things from our Lord's merciful hand: the blessings of this life and the greater blessings of heaven — not only for us, but for those who were brought to faith before us, and for those around the world who have yet to be redeemed by Christ's blessed Gospel.
In the closing words of Luther's hymn of praise:

Thine over all shall be / The praise and thanks of every nation;
And all the world with joy / Shall raise the voice of exultation.
For thou shalt judge the earth, O Lord, / Nor suffer sin to flourish;
Thy people's pasture is Thy Word / Their souls to feed and nourish,
In righteous paths to keep them.

O let the people praise / Thy worth, In all good works increasing;
The land shall plenteous fruit bring forth, / Thy Word is rich in blessing.
May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit bless us!
Let all the world praise Him alone, / Let solemn awe possess us.
(Martin Luther. May God Bestow on Us His Grace. LSB 823:3)

This day, let us give thanks that in Christ we are God's thankful people.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen

Monday, November 19, 2007

"The True Temple and Glory and Light of the Church." Luke 21:5-6

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Dear Brothers and Sisters Rescued and Redeemed by Christ:
A few Sundays ago we pulled out all the stops as we celebrated our history as the church of the Lutheran Reformation. We gloried in our heritage as children of a movement within the western church that re-discovered what the real glory of the church was, and continues to be: the glory of the grace of God revealed in Christ and his Cross and offered freely to a world that just can't bring itself to believe that salvation won is distributed with simple water, bread and wine.
But, as we heard last week, the time is later than we might think. The last Sundays of the Church Year call each of us to soberly assess the time and seasons of this age, and guided by Christ and his mighty Word, see with the eyes of faith who we were without him, what we have become in him, and what we have been called to glory in.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the twenty-first chapter:
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6 ESV)
Jesus shuts the mouths of disciples drooling over the golden glory of the Jerusalem Temple as he rescues them from being drawn into placing their faith in having a great Temple of stone and silver as their salvation. Like so many other signs given to prepare God's people for the real thing to later be revealed, what rightly pointed to its own fulfillment in Christ had become an idol, an ends unto itself, a talisman, a magic amulet that, by its very presence, guarantees heaven.
But before we too quickly jump onto the bash-those-who-should-have-known-better bandwagon, we must examine our own faulty motives and failings at recognizing the true Temple when he appears before us. Have we too passed by the Temple not made with human hands in a race to preserve what we have built for ourselves? Have we succumbed to the temptation that the light of the Church is our own human glory?
With these words our Lord exposes all empty and sinful trust in salvation based on anything other than his unmerited grace. He diagnoses the desire of our old nature to preserve our own religiosity and spiritual pride, that we might repent of our sins, and receive him as our eternal Temple and Priest and Deliverer.
Here, Jesus completes his ministry in Jerusalem in the same way he began it: pointing to himself as the true Redeemer who rescues all who, repenting of their sins, look to him for help.

Once upon a time there was a small and sleepy village nestled around the quiet, rolling hills and dunes of a cove that looked out on the ocean waves breaking onto the beach. The people of the little community enjoyed their carefree neighborhood gatherings and the glories of their seasonal festivals, the abundance of their village dinners and the little pleasures of their six meals a day.
The people of the village lived their "as comfortable as can be" lifestyle, devoting their spare time to new and interesting hobbies, and the preservation of their heritage as a well-to-do, yet modest society. They became more and more famous for the beauty of the cove and the rocks that jutted out just beyond the harbor. Artists would make special trips to come and paint and sketch the unique coastline and the gulls who would rest on the rock formations just outside the bay.
Everything seemed right with the world, until, one night, the entire village was awakened with the sound of driving wind and pounding rain and the distant cries of voices from children and adults they had never previously heard. By the illumination from lightning flashes in the distance they followed the pleas for help to the shore of the cove. Already large broken beams from a ship were beginning to wash up onto the beach.
"Help us!" cried a man who, suffering from a broken arm, was struggling to pull an unconscious woman out of the surf with his other hand. The heads of others could be seen farther out in the water, some crying for mercy, other silent.
The people of the village were immobilized by the shock and fear of what they saw before them, a great ship ravaged by the rocks and its human cargo in danger of quickly perishing. And then they were even more dumbfounded by the strange appearance of a man who instinctively risked everything to rally the villagers as he pressed ahead to deliver the helpless from the dark and raging waters.
Some standing there were encouraged by the voice of this unnamed rescuer and engaged the surf. Some swam out to retrieve the injured, others brought out their frail fishing boats to venture out into the stormy waves.
Many were rescued, some we lost — from the ship and from the village, but the sleepy town was not the same after that night. They pleaded for the man to stay in the village as long as he was able, to lead cottage meetings to plan a lighthouse that would warn incoming vessels of the dangers just outside the harbor. Teams were formed that began construction on solid rescue boats and the training of the younger adults on how to row out and rescue wounded and drowning victims. Older adults constructed a make-shift hut for conducting drills and crafting rescue gear and for the shelter and care of the injured survivors. While some of the villagers went back to their comfortable and predictable life after a few months, many continued to trust in this sojourner who brought with his words a new ability to serve under him in the care of others.
But time went on and the words of the sojourner were taken less and less to heart. The hut was replaced by a more permanent and elegant building. Rain and rescue gear slowly became more ceremonial than practical. The charts detailing the procedures and priorities for rescuing those in peril were slowly replaced with gilded frames and photos of the glories of the past. Older rescue workers began flaunting their medals as their stories of that first fateful night became more and more fanciful. The lighthouse was attended to less and less, until the town couldn't remember how to keep the beacon lit.
The true mission of the rescue station was all but forgotten and although the village continued its rescue festivals and extravagant reenactments of that historic night, their love for the lost and preparations for the injured was shameful the next time they were suddenly called on to respond to those whose very lives were hanging in the balance.
The field hospital became, after only a few years, a museum and social hall; and those the sojourner had trained to be medics slowly fell into the practice of merely giving speeches at Sunday brunches and guest appearances as callers at square dances.

The visible Christian Church today often looks more like the Church of Rome before the Reformation: more a religious performing arts center than a place where people are called to receive spiritual rescue and healing and wholeness for their souls from the one, true Savior and divine Deliverer.
In the days of the Prophets, in the days of Jesus, in these last days, generations who were rescued from the cold and deadly waters of believing that salvation was to be earned by good works; generations who were graciously spared from drowning in the empty promises of the world's religions; generations who were graciously brought to the Great Physician and healed by nail-pierced hands and a heart of mercy and forgiveness have succumbed to the temptations of trading in their calling and faith for a chance at being included in a village parade or making it on the six o'clock news.
Christ has come and won salvation for not only our little village but for all who are being pulled to the bottom of the watery depths of sin and eternal death.
Our sin is the sin of every village which has been graced with the presence of the Carpenter's Son from Nazareth: we are found to have fallen for the temptation of preserving our own prestige and the importance of what we have built with our hands while neglecting the one thing that defines us and redeems us and preserves us to eternal life: the Word and Work of Christ in our place.
May the God of Noah and his children rescue us from the temptation of believing we have been called to preserve our own name and comforts, that we, by his grace, might serve our Savior as he delivers those who are sinking into the icy depths of spiritual despair by his strong arm and redeeming voice — by his Word and font and table.
God have mercy on us, forgive us and preserve among us the one thing that will not pass away on the Last Day — the one object of true, saving faith — Christ our glory; Christ our temple; Christ our light; Christ our rescue and reward.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"The Eleventh Hour." Luke 20:27-40

In the Name of Jesus
Dearly beloved, baptized into the very resurrection of Christ our Bridegroom:

It is the eleventh hour. On this Lord's Day, the eleventh of November, God gathers his own to speak his name over us, to assure us that in Baptism our sin has been drowned in the once-for-all sacrifice of his Son and — that by his grace — a new nature has been created by his Word and Spirit. By faith in the promises of Christ our Redeemer, we are God's own dear children, even in these last days, these last hours before he sends his Son in all glory to end this age of separation and suffering, this age of war and rumor of war, this age of a world gone terribly, terribly bad and a humanity that will do nothing but interrogate Christ and refuse to believe his unexpected way of saving us.
And so it is appropriate on this, the third-last Sunday of the Church Year that we hear and read and take to heart the things of the last days, as we wait for the advent — the coming — the final appearance — of our salvation.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the twentieth chapter:
There came to him some Sadducees (those who deny that there is a resurrection) and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” (Luke 20:27-33 ESV)
The occasion: the last days of Jesus' public ministry. The place: the temple grounds in the holy city of Jerusalem. The participants: the Pharisees and Jesus' disciples listening in as the Saducees have their turn at gathering evidence to later be used against this self-proclaimed prophet from Nazareth.
The situation concocted by the Sadducees is almost comical in its improbability. One wife married eight times and widowed eight times, all without resulting children. "In the resurrection," the Saducees ask, "whose wife will she be?" This question from a group of religious leaders who openly denied belief in any resurrection from the dead; this question from a group of religious leaders who had no desire to be students of this tradition-breaking, crowd-pleasing miracle worker.
The battle lines are set as everyone waits to see if Jesus will say anything that can later be used to convict him of blasphemy against God, the holy prophet Moses and his five holy books.
What will Jesus say about the last things when it comes to marriage and children and family obligation to continue the family name? What will Jesus say about the last things of life and what awaits after death?
And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this [present] age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised — even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he [says,] the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live [in] him.” Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question. (Luke 20:34-40 ESV)
As is his custom, Jesus goes to the point of the matter, acknowledging himself as not only the Teacher of Israel but the last word when it comes to Moses and the inspired writings of Moses.
You see, Jesus accepts even from unbelieving Sadducees the title Rabbi, Teacher, and begins to teach all who would listen to him. Jesus teaches a clear word of Law to sinners who are unrepentant and rebellious and unbelieving, in order that he might then teach a clear word of Gospel (unmerited grace and undeserved gift) to sinners who have become broken and contrite and repentant.
"Marriage is a present-age shadow of something that will be fulfilled at the end of this age," Jesus is saying. "It is a lesser institution that has something greater, something heavenly as its fulfillment. Marriage and the demands of marital obligations are for the fallen sons and daughters of a fallen world. The demands to continue the family line are for the wilderness journey of this life outside the gates of paradise — this life continually threatened by rebellion against God's Word and the forging of idols to receive the devotion and allegiance reserved for God alone. Marriage will give way on the last day to what it has actually pointed to all along," Jesus declares.
Here Jesus shows that he is Lord of the Old Testament prophets and even the Spirit-inspired Word of the Old Testament prophets. For Saducees who feebly attempt to judge Jesus by Moses, Jesus has something to say, something definite, something that will shut mouths, something said with an authority greater than even great Moses. Here Jesus says the last word on last things and their relationship to marriage and the future of family and the outcome of everything dying and fading away.
Our Lord announces something we should have realized a long time ago: the institution of marriage is a temporary marker, a road sign, a pointer that will, finally, give way to the eternal thing it points to, its fulfillment, its perfection, its terminus — its consummation. This biblical understanding is echoed at every wedding performed in this sanctuary as the pastor announces at the beginning of the ceremony:
We are gathered here in the sight of God and of his Church to witness and to bless the joining together of this man and this woman in holy marriage. This is an honorable estate, which God himself has instituted and blessed, and by which he gives a picture [a foreshadowing] of the very communion of Christ and his bride, the Church. (Lutheran Worship Agenda 120)
The last word on marriage is the last day consummation of the wedding of the crucified, risen and ascended Lord and his bride the Church. The obligations and demands and laws and impositions of extending and continuing the family name find their completion in the vow of our Bridegroom.
For you see, even though God has demanded that we provide a son to continue the family name, we are powerless to carry out our duty. Born with weak intentions and the complete inability to carry out God's holy and perfect will, we cannot provide a son to continue the family line, to continue our legacy, to continue our life in this world, not to mention the next. Outside of Christ, we find ourselves spiritually impotent and barren and under the crushing verdict of a divine Law that declares: "Only those who are found righteous will be worthy of the title "Child of the Resurrection," "Child of God."
It is the only-begotten Son of God and Mary's son who knows the slavery of our sin in the same way that he knew the slavery of his children under the crushing hand of Pharaoh. For those who could not rescue themselves, for those who were bound to the deadly consequences of their sin, Christ came and, through his servant Moses, spoke a word, and pointing to his sacrifice and the shedding of his blood, delivered his people that they might be his bride, washed in his righteousness and cleansed for the eternal marriage feast.
To all who refuse to believe in the possibility of a resurrection of those declared righteous before almighty God, to all who have given up on climbing a self-constructed ladder into the eternal wedding chamber, to all who have been driven to despair of extending the family line of our first parents, to all who haven't a shred of righteousness of their own that the family name might be redeemed, Our Lord Christ has a gracious invitation, a word of sweetest comfort, a promise that seems too gracious to be true.
He is the messenger that speaks salvation to Moses from the burning bush. He is the Bridegroom who will buy back his enslaved bride with his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead. He will be for you and me Righteousness and Life and the final Word at the end of this age — on the last day when he will take us, and all who have put their trust in him, to himself.
It is the eleventh hour. And Christ's coming is as sure as his coming at Bethlehem, his coming at your Baptism, his coming in the Word of the prophets and apostles, his coming at his holy Table, the foretaste of the wedding feast to come.
God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has placed his redeeming name upon you. He has sealed you as his child and heir. You are his and he is yours. And he will, on the last day, take you to himself.
God grant us the faith to believe in Christ as our Resurrection and our Life, as we say with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, "Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus, come, and raise us to eternal life."

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Beatitudes - How Do You Read Them? Matthew 5:1-12 (All Saints Sunday)

The paraments have changed from the red of fire and the Spirit to the white of heaven's purity and brilliance. Eight days ago we celebrated God's grace evident in the reformation of the western Church and the re-discovery of the Gospel – the Gospel that proclaims the freely-offered gifts of Christ won upon the Cross, offered in the Word through prophets and apostles, the Word through water, the Word through bread and wine, and received by the empty hand of faith.
This Sunday is another special festival in the Church Year. Special prayers, special hymns, special Scripture readings that give opportunity to remember God's saints, honor God's saints, and, while giving thanks to God for preserving them, we again are assured that we too bear what the world thinks an unlikely title: God's blessed saint in Christ Jesus. This morning, as the hymn says:

We sing for all the unsung saints, / That countless, nameless throng,
Who kept the faith and passed it on / With hope steadfast and strong
Through all the daily griefs and joys / No chronicles record,
Forgetful of their lack of fame, / But mindful of their Lord.

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters Made Saints in Christ:
Who are the saints? For those outside the church, the saints could be a number of people: Those who do good deeds, those who have never uttered a swear word when they stubbed their toe or slammed the car door on a finger. Those who always did what their parents and teachers told them to do.
And religious people have their answers too. The saints are those who enjoy a special relationship with God and are available to us to soften him up or make a request on our behalf. The saints are the super-Christians who effortlessly skated through life and racked up surplus merits that can be applied to erase the sins of others. Saints are those whose images are purchased to be hung on a wall or rear-view mirror in order to ward off tragedy or sickness.
But contrary to popular belief, God's true saints are not those who have a positive balance in their good works bank account in heaven. God's true saints are not those who have more than three documented miracles to their credit.
You see, the world, and the world's brand of religion is pretty stingy when it comes to making someone a saint. Not everyone is given that title by the world we live in. Only a handful get a bridge or an airport named after them.
But the God of the Old and New Testament, the God of the prophets of Israel and the apostles of the Church is a very different God than what the world, the devil or our old nature would believe. When it comes to bestowing the title of "saint," heaven sees things in a way we would have never imagined.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, the fifth chapter:
Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:1-12)
These are the words that introduce Jesus' great sermon on the mount, the most quoted piece of Scripture in the writings of the early Christian church. These are the words that set the stage for a proper understanding of not only the fifth and sixth and seventh chapter of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, but for a proper understanding of how salvation is truly won, offered, received and preserved among us. In short, these verses in the Gospel of Matthew serve as an entrance door for all who would bear the title "saint."
For this passage — commonly referred to as "the Beatitudes" — is not merely a jazzed-up version of the Ten Commandments. In the same way, the Jesus revealed to us — and to all who would be his disciples — is not merely a jazzed-up Moses laying down a set of even higher hoops for us to jump through in order to earn sainthood.
The world will never believe it, the devil will continue working hard to obscure and twist it, our old nature will daily doubt it, but these words of Jesus are something very different than "what we must do in order to become saints, blessed by God and rewarded by Christ and extolled by the world. These words are pure promise, pure grace, pure Gospel, a description of every single Christian who has received Christ and his benefits by faith.
You see, Moses went up on the mountain on behalf of a people who dared not approach God and receive his Word directly from his mouth. And if Mount Sinai and Moses and the Ten Commandments taught the children of Israel anything, they revealed that the climb up into God's presence was one that, since the fall in the garden, could only lead to false human pride and the deadly consequences of not being able to measure up to God's holy and perfect will. A fallen humanity could not carry out the good it had been called to do. A sinful and rebellious humanity could not even begin to be what it had been called to be: wholly-trusting recipients of God's abundant grace and eternal loving-kindness.
How do you read these "Beatitudes"? How do you understand this entrance door through which the whole of the Beatitudes — the whole of the Sermon on the Mount — is to be received? What is Jesus teaching and announcing here?
First and foremost, Jesus announces these words deliberatively and authoritatively. The crowds soon recognize that Jesus proclaims the Word with authority, even though the have not put their faith in him. "This Jesus speaks as one who has authority!" they exclaim. And so it is. Saint Matthew's Gospel account ends with Jesus confirming what we and the world secretly suspected all along, as he openly proclaims, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
But Jesus has been given power and authority to accomplish something very specific: to rule his dear flock in mercy and grace, securing our forgiveness and gifting all who would confess their sins with the title "Blessed," "Saint," "Redeemed."
Only in the Triune God does the Word announced carry with it what it promises, and this is how we must receive the words of the Beatitudes. Jesus is not encouraging us with these words. He is not telling his disciples — those who would follow their Lord in faith — and the crowds who are also listening in — "If you go around stopping fights, if you make yourself financially destitute, if you keep yourself from merry-making, if you let others beat you up, if you purify your heart, then I will reward you with the status of being blessed."
Jesus, in these Beatitudes is announcing something that takes our breath away and makes our old nature wag its head in disbelief and ridicule. Our Savior announces to his own that they are blessed — here and now — not according to what they have done or have not done, but by reason of their being — here and now — in Christ, in union with him, connected with him through the Spirit and the Word and the water of the entrance door into sainthood, into blessedness, into being a dear child of God through the one who has been given all authority to declare: because of my grace, because of my mercy, because of my forgiving heart, your sins are washed away. I have taken them, and, in exchange, I declare you blessed before my Father in heaven."
It is Christ and his Word that gives us the ability to see ourselves as spiritually poor, with nothing to offer him that would merit being a blessed saint of God. It is being in Christ that we first learn that we are — before God — simply poor, miserable, helpless, needy sinners.
And it is in Christ that we are the blessed, comforted, forgiven people of God, in spite of the fact that, in this world, we continue to hunger and thirst for our Lord's word of forgiveness, his feeding us with — of all things — himself.
In Christ, today, you are blessed. In him you have been given the kingdom of heaven. In the Lamb who once was slain you have not only been given the ability to mourn over your sins and the sins of the world, but you are comforted by the promise that the Cross of the great Redeemer is for you. In Jesus we confess our lowly condition before the throne of God, and in him we are blessed with the announcement that through Baptism we are heirs of the promised land.
In Christ, today, we hunger and thirst for the righteousness we could never produce, the perfect righteousness that only Jesus can win and cover us with. And as we confess in our Lord's "Our Father," Christ's mercy and forgiveness is so great that it spills over into the lives of our neighbor as we find ourselves reflecting the mercy we first were shown in forgiving even those who sin against us.
In Christ — this morning — you are blessed, you are God's blessed saint. Through God's Spirit and Word a new heart has been created within you, a heart that is pure and desires nothing more than to give glory to God and serve him by serving those around us. And through the blessed Sacrament, we are strengthened as Christ's saints — his priests, offering the world the eternal Word of peace: the Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
The blessed Beatitudes point to our blessed Savior and his blessed gifts, gifts for needy sinners, gifts for those brought to confess that they are poor, helpless, undeserving. Again, the hymn:

Though uninscribed with date or place, / With title, rank or name,
As living stones their stories join / To form a hallowed frame
Around the mystery in their midst: / The Lamb once sacrificed,
The Love that wrestles life from death, / The wounded, risen Christ.

In Christ you have been given promises that will be revealed and brought to their fulness on the Last Day. But — being found in Christ — being found in the Lamb — even now, you have been marked with the cross and given the status of God's dear saint, God's own blessed child.
Your name is not written on a calendar or a coin, your name is not written on a street or a postage stamp, a building or a boat. Your name is written in the Book of Life. Because of Christ, his sacrifice in your stead, his gift of water and bread and wine and faith, you are a sinner, declared righteous before God.
A blessed All Saints Day to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Treasure the Treasure." (2Timothy 1:1-14)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Beloved brothers and sisters called to a life of faith and love in our Savior:
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
God has called us to be his holy people. The Creator of heaven and earth has, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with his gifts, revealing the mystery hidden before the ages began, the revelation of our Savior come in the flesh to overcome the sharpness of death and open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. In this Gospel, in this Salvation, in this Christ and Cross we put our faith, and by the grace of God we keep and ever hold fast the precious treasure entrusted to us — for our salvation and the salvation of those around us and the salvation of those who will come after us.
This morning we hear from Saint Paul's Second Epistle to Saint Timothy; the inspired Word of the Lord from a faithful, loving apostle to his beloved child in the faith as he nears the finish line he so longed to cross in order to receive his Lord's commendation, "Well done, good and faithful servant, pastor, apostle, teacher, under-shepherd."
Any cursory reading of the apostle's ministry shows the extent to which he had suffered. Paul had been beaten with rods, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, jailed and put on trial, all because of his witness to the Word of God made flesh and hung upon a tree of death in order that it might become a tree of life for all who would believe. And now Paul was more and more convinced that the dungeon he now was chained in would be the last stop in encouraging all the churches and pastors placed under his care as he tirelessly proclaimed the saving Good News of eternal life in the one whom he once persecuted but now has freely served. Paul therefore pens his final epistle to both Timothy and to all who will hear it read with him as God comes to redeem through his Word in the divine service.
Through Saint Paul the apostle, faithful Timothy — and all of us — are reminded that God has entrusted us with his precious, saving gifts: the gift of Christ — his perfect life and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection from the dead; the gifts by which trust in his Word has been created and sustained: Holy Scripture, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, the Holy Supper; and the gift of a joyous and courageous heart that can not but give witness to God and our neighbor in need. And as the blessed apostle exhorts his son in the faith to follow the pattern Paul has held up before him and all the churches, so we this morning are also called to serve the Lord with a clear conscience, a true faith, a resolute spirit, and a readiness to share in the sufferings of both Christ and all who would follow him.
It is as if Paul is saying,
Let cowardice give way to the courage given to you in Christ Jesus. Do not be ashamed, but treasure the one sure Treasure. Do not believe that heaven's promise of life for you is based on your great and mighty works, but confidently put your faith in the unshakeable promise that because of the grace and mercy God has made manifest in the once-for-all sacrifice of his Son, he has declared you holy, his dear child, and an heir of heaven.
And what the Lord says to Timothy through his chosen apostle he says to the Church today, "Though you are by nature timid and tense and uneasy, in Christ and united with him in Baptism, be an unashamed steward of what has been entrusted to you. Follow the pattern I have held up before you. Follow the life of faith I have lived. Follow me as I daily confess my sins, and, trusting in the Gospel of forgiveness, give the good witness that Christ came to rescue sinners broken under the crushing weight of the Law."
God, in Christ Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, has called us to be his people, robed in the righteousness of Christ, and sent as his ambassadors to those God has placed in our lives — to witness clearly to Christ and serve their needs in a way that says,
"We care — for you. We care for your salvation."
Our Crucified and Risen Lord has promised to bestow upon his Church on earth everything necessary to carry out what he has called his people to be and to do. By his Word and Spirit, may we continue to believe that in the Lamb who once was slain, we have been blessed for all eternity — that we might be used by him to be a blessing to many.
God keep you under his Word, in the grace of your Baptism, and the forgiveness and strength of his Table.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, October 01, 2007

"God is my Help." (Luke 16:19-31)

In the Name of Jesus

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
In the words of the hymn:

Forgive us Lord, for selfish thanks and praise,
For words that speak at variance with deeds;
Forgive our thanks for walking pleasant ways
Unmindful of a broken brother's needs. (LSB 788:3)

The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the sixteenth chapter:
[And Jesus said to them,] “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.  The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.  (Luke 16:19-22 ESV)

If the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was made into a realistic video game, it would have to be rated GDHS for its Graphic Depiction of Human Suffering — human suffering both at the hands of a man with ample means to render aid and alleviate human suffering, and — if that wasn't enough — at the hands (actually the teeth) of ravenous dogs of the street on the prowl for a free meal as soon as this weak soul could not fend off the advances of their tongues.  
An invalid left parked on the sidewalk outside of the gated residence of a man who dressed to the hilt with clothes usually reserved for royalty and dined daily on the most delicious of dinners.
Poor, pitiful Lazarus.  Incapable of providing for himself the most meager of necessities, he is laid at the gate of one who proclaimed with his clothes and his feasts that he — a child of Abraham — was deserving of all placed into his large lap of luxury.  
And day by day, with all the festivities and merry-making, this rich man plunged himself deeper and deeper into his preoccupation of living the good life, living the blessed life.  Was it because he had spied the helpless man on the other side of the wall that separated his estate from his neighbors and their needs and quiet pleas for leftovers?  Was it because he refused to entertain the idea that he should lift even a finger for one he had convinced himself somehow deserved his miserable fate?  In any event, although we will later hear that he knows this helpless man's name (Lazarus, which means "God has helped") he fails miserably in alleviating the misery of a man who's only hope was a share in the scraps that inadvertently fell off the over-abundant table.
And if the contrast presented between these two men is stark during their earthly life, then it is as sharp as a razor at their deaths.  
Lazarus' death is met with the very angels from heaven, who lovingly carry a man who had only God's help to hope for.
He is not brought to lie outside a heavenly gate to be attended by Saint Bernards with whiskey kegs strapped to their collars.  His body is restored to health, his sores removed.  He is cleansed and clothed in the finest of linens to be brought to recline with Father Abraham himself as they join the wedding feast that has no end.
And what do we hear of the rich man's demise?  The description is matter-of-fact: "The rich man also died and was buried."  No angels.  No cleansing.  No clothing.  He died.  He was buried.  End of story.
With this parable Jesus paints the clearest of themes: the theme that the Saint Luke spotlights so well in his Gospel account: the Great Reversal of salvation that recounts again and again the judgment that awaits for those who live their lives in faith in response to the goodness and grace of God — and for those who do not.  One judgment for those who persist in their rebellion against God's call to repent, believe in his Son, and serve him freely by serving the needy God places before them, and acquital for all who would receive God's calling and promises in faith.
The Great Reversal announced by Christ and preserved in Luke's Gospel, from Mary in her singing of the Magnificat.  From Simeon as he holds the glory of Israel and the Light for the Gentiles in his hands.  And now from Jesus as he presents yet another parable to the Pharisees, who, as we heard last Sunday, were, with few exceptions, "lovers of money."
Our gracious and merciful God has called those who have abundantly been given his riches to freely, graciously, lovingly, serve the poor and helpless in joyful response to the mercies they have also been shown.  And the only way that can become a reality in our lives is as a fruit of faith in God's atoning mercy as he gives us who deserved only his wrath and punishment everything in his Son.
Have we followed the will of our heavenly Father as clearly presented by God's own mouthpieces: Moses and the Prophets?  Or have we succumbed to the temptation to believe that the helpless are simply getting their just deserts for their laziness and stupidity and lack of ambition to be what we have made ourselves into?
God forgive us and change our hearts.  God forgive us and open our eyes and our hearts to those whose cries for help are drowned out by our cries of merry-making and day-to-day excess.  

Forgive us, Lord, for feast that knows no fast.
For joy in things that meanwhile starve the soul.
For walls and [gates] that hide your mercies vast
And blur our vision of the Kingdom goal.  (LSB 788:5)

Jesus continues his parable:
"And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.  And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’  But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ "  (Luke 16:23-26 ESV)

He just doesn't get it.  Although the nameless rich man has come to grips with the meeting out of just deserts after a life of excess and success at the expense of such as poor Lazarus, he continues in his belief that Lazarus (and Father Abraham) are merely waiting to carry out his requests.  "Hey, Father Abraham, I'm thirsty over here.  Send errand boy Lazarus over here to re-fill my water glass."
No repentance.  No regrets.  Only the first inklings that the consequences for hoarding God's good gifts, for self-centered rebellion against God's merciful will, for neglecting the plight of the needy are just beginning.
Abraham announces the finality of the final judgment.  No deal-making.  No request-making.  No changing places.  Those who's only hope is in the grace of God — and his Son — find themselves comforted.  Those who's only hope is in the ordering of the universe with themselves in the center find themselves in anguish.

  Forgive us, Lord, for shallow thankfulness,
For dull content with warmth and sheltered care,
For songs of praise for food and harvest press,
While of your richer gifts we're unaware.  (LSB 788:1)

Lazarus longed for mere table scraps, the leftovers that we might assign to the garbage disposal or the plastic bowls of our house pets.  But despite the agony he experienced left for dead on the sidewalk, God had given him a name and a faith to trust that, despite all appearances, God had promised to be his help.  Lazarus longed for leftovers, but in Christ, God has lavashly given him his very best, the very life-blood of the one who was crowned with purple and a one-of-a-kind crown that he might win for all a heavenly robe and a chair at the banquet table with Abraham and all the faithful.
The eighth chapter of Second Corinthians tells us that Christ became poor that we might become rich.  Christ came to be our help and rescue from all that would come and devour us and leave us for dead.
Christ robed himself in our incurable sores and diseased skin.  Christ took upon himself our weakness and helplessness and abandonment - that we might be received by heaven's angels and readied for the feast with all who died trusting only in God and his only-begotten Son as their help and redemption.
Jesus concludes his parable:

"And [the rich man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’  But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”  (Luke 16:27-31 ESV)

With increased resignation, the rich man turns his requests to those of his own house, those who joined him in his daily routine of gulping and gorging.  "O.K., well, if it's too late for me, warn those I care for.  Send a word to my five brothers from someone they will listen to: someone who has come back from the dead!"
Now we see why Lazarus is comforted and the rich man is destined for an eternity separated from God's grace and mercy and gifts at table.
You see, in this life and in the next, it's all about which word we put our trust in.
Will we believe a word from those who claim to have been brought back from the dead — or will we believe the Word through whom heaven and earth was created?
Will we believe the spirit of Christmas past — or will we believe the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us?
Will we believe those who claim to have a word from the great beyond — or will we believe the Word in whom Moses and the Prophets and Abraham and Lazarus put their faith: even Christ Jesus, the Word Incarnate.
It is Christ who laid aside the riches of his glory for Lazarus and for all who would confess that their only help is in God and his loving-kindness for those who, before him, hold only their sins in their hands.
We too have been found helpless and abandoned, unable to fend off the attacks of the world, the devil and our own sinful flesh.  But we have not been left for dead. At your Baptism, God gave you a name and a faith in his Word, a faith to trust that, despite all appearances, God had promised to be your help.  Being found in Christ, you have been washed and given the whitest of robes, that you might dine on the richest of foods at the wedding feast of the Lamb in his eternal Kingdom.
We pray:

Open our eyes to see your love's intent,
To know with minds and hearts its depths and height;
May thankfulness be days in service spent,
Reflections of Christ's life and love and light.  (LSB 788:6)

In the Name of our only help, Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen