Monday, November 24, 2008

Sheep do as Sheep are. Matthew 25:31-46

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

Dear Brothers — Disciples — in Christ, the Righteous Judge:

With this week, the Christian Church closes the book on an entire year focused on our Lord and his gracious promises and the gift of salvation freely given to us as revealed in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew. A year ago we heard of Jesus' first discourse to his own brothers — his disciples — in the words of the Beatitudes. And this morning we hear from Jesus the last discourse to the Twelve and to us as he winds up his public ministry with an increasingly clear announcement of what lies ahead for his own and for the world. The Seven Woes of chapter 23, followed by the signs of the last days and the command to keep watch in chapter 24, followed by the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.
And now, everything our Lord Christ has announced to his followers comes to it's completion, it's zenith, it's conclusion, with verse 31 and following:

[Jesus said,] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-48 ESV)

At first hearing, that's a difficult section of Scripture to respond to with the words, "Thanks be to God." But like any other Word of the Lord, Christ is doing two things as he reveals something much more real and impending than a simple story about shepherds separating farm animals. He is giving nothing but condemnation to those who are shown void of what Christ-created and sustained faith produces: care for those in need; true care for those deemed insignificant by the world and our own sinful nature: the least of those Christ calls his brothers.
But Christ also gives the most comforting promise of grace and hope to all who have put their trust in the Lamb who once was slain and in his righteousness, his innocence, his blessedness.
Through these words, our Lord announces that all things have been given to him by his Father. As the Son of Man — the Messiah foretold by the prophets — Christ will, by his all-powerful Word, raise the dead and gather all peoples before him as he sits upon his judgment throne.
Once he came with his glory hidden, to be born, to live, to suffer and die as one of us, to take our sins upon his sinless body and make atonement for all in the giving of his own life-blood.
But with the words, "It is complete. It is fulfilled. The debt has been paid in full," Christ-given faith begins to see that hidden, saving glory — in the Cross, in the Scriptures, in Holy Baptism, in the Holy Supper.
That is our faith as we confess with the whole Christian Church on earth: I believe in Jesus Christ, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom will have no end."
This is our faith as we confess in the words of the Athanasian Creed: I believe in Jesus Christ ... At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
The glorious Son of Man, before whom no unholiness can survive, will, on the last day, raise and gather all of humanity in order to separate each person into one of only two groups. No third, miscellaneous category. No third, "I don't really know what to do with this one" group.
Simply sheep and goats — and the sheep are placed on his favored side, on the side of honor, on his right.
As a shepherd separates at the end of the day those animals who have grazed together in the same field, as the farmer separates the wheat from the tares at harvest time, as the fisherman separates the good fish from the bad fish after gathering them all in his net, as the master of the house, upon his return, separates the profitable from the wicked servants, so the Son of Man will come in his glory to gather in order to separate what is judged holy from what is judged unholy, what is judged righteous from what is judged unrighteous, what is judged blessed from what is judged as cursed.
As the sheep and goats are ushered by the shepherd into two separate quarters at the end of the day, so it will be for Adam and Eve and all their children.
And to the favored sheep on his right he will say, "Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world."
Christ's precious sheep will be announced as gracious, undeserving heirs of the kingdom all of history has waited to be revealed, a kingdom cleansed from sin and doubt and rebellion and suffering and pain and death, a kingdom in which we will be released from the burden of an old nature that can do nothing but sin and grumble and attempt to work its way into God's good graces.
For Christ there will be no surprises, but for all those gathered, the judgment received will not be the kind of judgment expected.
More than a few will come before the King expecting praise for all the good they have achieved, for all the good they have manufactured, for all the accolades given to them by the world, for all that their heart told them would earn heaven and open it's glorious gates.
But they would have nothing to do with a King of the Cross, a Redeemer whose glory was hidden to all but God-given faith, a Savior who would freely clothe all undeserving sinners with his spotless robe of righteousness. And because they did not recognize Christ and the hidden glory of his Word and his Baptism and his Supper, they failed to see him in Christ's lowly and needy brothers.
In these days, we are tempted to look for a glorious Christ, that we might earn a favored place by his side through our own great and glorious works.
But the surprising thing is not that some will be revealed as goats on the last day. Salvation must remain a free gift that can be either received by faith or rejected in unbelief and rebellion. The surprising thing is that there are any of us who are judged righteous and blessed.
Scripture and Christ, the hymns we sing and the Catechism we learn — announce with one voice that we are the spiritually starving, wandering, naked, enslaved — sick unto death in our sin.
We were the needy ones that had no great or lasting importance — and Christ came and fed and clothed and visited us with his love and care, his grace and mercy, his very self.
To all who look to their own nature, their own spiritual poverty, their own sinfulness, their own inability to keep the Beatitudes — their own inability to produce any kind of righteousness of their own — Jesus comes to offer the gift of a righteous robe, a washing of regeneration, an undeserved place in heaven, a faith that gives us the ability to see Christ in the least of his brothers, in the least of fellow disciples and followers.
As we approach that great and fearful day, let us not fear but continue to keep our eyes on Christ and his righteousness — his righteousness that has made us his precious sheep, his righteousness that has made us blessed, his righteousness that gives us the ability to care for even the lowliest of Christ's own with a care that has no concern of earning God's favor.
God, in his abundant grace, increase our faith, that we might keep awake and watchful in these last days, and serve him — not by doing something glorious for his kingdom, but by simply allowing Christ to be our Shepherd, to work the works of faith through us, his undeserving sheep.
May Christ give us the hope and strength to look forward to the day when Christ will come in all his glory with his angels to declare his judgment upon all he has clothed in the redeeming fruits of his cross.
In faith, may we say today and always, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly, and clothe us in the robe of the Lamb."

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

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Blessed Ones and the Blessed One

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

Dear Beloved Saints in Christ:
Today, a week after Reformation Sunday, the Christian Church commemorates her saints. That can be more than a little confusing for those who believe Martin Luther's great contribution to Christianity was ridding sanctuaries of statues and paintings and stain glass windows depicting believers who have been called to the Church triumphant.
But, contrary to what some may believe, there is no inconsistency between observing the Lutheran Reformation — the rediscovery of the true Gospel of God's grace and forgiveness in the substitutionary sacrifice Christ Jesus — and observing the commemoration of the saints — those who have received by true faith the true Gospel of God's grace in Christ.
God always means for the two to go together: the bright beams of the Gospel — and the fruits of that saving Light in the minds and hearts of the faithful that constitute the Church — Militant (Christ's children on earth) and Triumphant (Christ's children now in heaven).
God in his mercy gave us the one saving gift of his Son upon the Cross — and with that redeeming gift comes all others, including the gift of the saints.
And how many individuals came up to you Friday and wished you a blessed Reformation Day? How many did you wish a blessed Reformation Day to, only to receive a blank stare back?
And so it is with a proper understanding of All Saint's Day. The world knows of Hallow's Eve, but knows nothing of the true reason to bow the knee and give thanks to the Triune God for all those our Creator and Redeemer properly considers his own dear saints.
For example, ask your neighbor the significance of the first of November — and more likely than not you'll get the answer: it's the day after Halloween. The day to pick up the discarded candy wrappers in the front lawn. It's the day to take the rented costumes back to the store and put the "cobwebs in a can" and the squeeze bottle of fake blood back in the box until next year.
But what of the saints? The hallowed of All Hallow's Eve? Does our world (and our old nature) commemorate saints? Well, yes, but in it's own worldly way.
You see, the world's saints are marked by behavior thought to earn the title "saint" or "holy" or "pious" or "moral." If you're shooting for sainthood you can't kick the dog or be a disappointment to those who know you best. If you want to make the grade you have to prove yourself worthy of the title "saint." No investing in tobacco or oil companies. No problems at work or at home or with the neighbors. To be a saint, you need to present yourself to everyone around you in a way that will make them compelled to confess, "She's a saint." "He's a saint."
The requirements are grueling if you desire to be the world's saint. You have to stand out from the crowd with your saintliness, with your holy living. The competition is so ruthless the Roman Catholic Church now requires three miracles by the candidate — performed after his or her death.
But what of us here this morning? What of us here who have given up long ago on impressing the world or our relatives or boss or neighbors that we're on our way to earning our halo and becoming a saint in the eyes of the world? What of us who just struggle to get through the day without saying something stupid or hurtful — or neglecting those we have been called to serve with our time and care and resources? What of us who have our hands full trying to curb our own pride and self-centered concerns, that our Lord and his Word and love of God and neighbor would follow? What does commemorating the saints have to do with us who are so spiritually challenged — so morally disabled — so crippled and debilitated with temptation and sin and excuse-making?
We might, on a good day, be able to fool those around us, to produce in our neighbor some applause or accolades for our saintly behavior, but everything comes to a dead end when we realize that before God, everything is seen as it really is, for God looks at the heart. God looks at our fallen heart and sees even in our desire to be saintly the stain of sin and the hunger to be rewarded for what we believe we have made ourselves into.
But as we hear the clear words of the Beatitudes that come from our Lord before his disciples, a part of us cried out with the recognition that the moat he constructs is too wide and deep to cross, and the wall is too smooth and high to get over.

[Jesus] 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. (Matthew 5:2-8 ESV)

How could Christ come and announce such an impossible standard for those who's simple desire was to become God-pleasing saints? How could he take the measuring stick of the Ten Commandments and not only affirm them but show them to be a thousand times more impossible for any of us to master?
How can a loving, merciful, forgiving Savior announce such standards that are beyond our grasp, even for an hour or a day? Why did he have to shut and bolt and weld the door shut on my attempts to attain holiness and sainthood — and with it the reward of heaven?
Couldn't Jesus simply overlook the demand for complete obedience under the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes? Couldn't God just look the other way and measure my life only according to my outward behavior — when I'm in public? Why does everything I say and do and think, why does everything I have done and failed to do have to factor into the Almighty's decision when it comes to granting me the title "saint"?
King David himself may have been wrestling with the same impossibilities of attaining sainthood when he wrote the psalm quoted in this morning's introit — Psalm 31. In repentance, aware of his own sinful hopelessness, he is given the gift to accept the fulfillment and end of Moses and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes as he cries out:

In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; ... .

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-3, 5 ESV)

We are God's dear, holy saints in the same way we are God's dear, holy Church. Not because we have attained or earned or deserve it. Not because we have sincerely tried or somehow desired to make it our own.
We are God's saints because Christ has won that title for each of us. It was Christ whom God judged by both his public behavior and his private thoughts. It was Christ who was laid in the balance and proclaimed without spot or blemish. Christ is the holy one, the saintly one, the dear one before God on his almighty throne.
And in winning that title "saint" with his perfect life, our Lord Christ bestows it on all who will look to him in faith as their only righteousness and blessedness and holiness.
If there are any here this day who have fallen for the temptation to believe that the title "saint" and the status of being God's own dear child is for sale, that it can be earned by outward behavior the world labels good and perfect, then turn and look to the holy and perfect Law of God and then look to your own heart. Repent and confess the reality of your fallen human condition and God's revelation that only One has earned righteous before God. Salvation belongs to him alone.
Christ has taken upon himself your failure and sin and inability to keep God's righteous Law. He has taken it and made atonement for it. And in your Baptism, you have been given that white robe that makes you God's dear, precious, holy saint. Clothed in Christ you have been declared blessed, sanctified, hallowed, God-pleasing, perfect and pure.
In repentant joy, come to his table, clothed in faith and in the wedding garment of the Lamb who knew no sin, yet was made sin for us. Feed from his pierced hands and hear again the word of his heavenly Father this day:
"Trusting in my Son and his Cross, I declare you my dear child and saint."

A blessed All Saints Day to you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen