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.