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