Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1

Sermon on Matthew 21:1-9
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 30, 2008 (The First Sunday in Advent)

The Gospel lesson for today is the account of the events we celebrate every year on Palm Sunday. When you think about it, that does seem a little strange. Why tell a story that takes place less than a week before Jesus’ death, to start off a season leading up to His birth? Especially since there’s another Sunday in the Church year, Palm Sunday, devoted to this event? Well, the reason the Church has historically read this lesson today is because it depicts for us what the season of Advent is all about: preparing for and meditating upon the coming of our King to us, His people. In fact, that’s what the word Advent means: “coming.” When we talk about Jesus’ advent, we are talking about His coming. Of course, there are many ways in which our Lord comes to us. For the sake of convenience, we usually talk about our Lord’s advent in three ways: past, present, and future. He has come to us, referring to Christ’s incarnation at Christmastime, which we will celebrate in less than a month, He comes to us now in Word and Sacrament, and He will come to us again when He returns in glory on the last day. Just as Christ came to Jerusalem lowly and riding on a donkey, He came to this world lowly, born of a poor young virgin named Mary, in a cave that functioned as a stable because there was no place else to stay. Just as when He came to Jerusalem the people sang, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest,” when He comes to His Church Sunday after Sunday we sing these very same words that He has first given to us in Holy Scripture. When He comes again in glory there will be no stopping Him despite the wishes of those who would rather He stayed away, just as the Pharisees couldn’t stop Him or His disciples when He entered into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. All in all, the entry into Jerusalem is a good picture for us of what Advent is all about.
The first thing we notice about what happened on that Palm Sunday is that Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, a lowly beast of burden. We might have expected Him to ride on a fine horse or a chariot drawn by several horses, instead of this lowly donkey. But then, we might have expected Him to choose a more glorious method of becoming man than to become an infant and be born in the normal manner from the womb of a young carpenter’s fiancee named Mary. And when He comes to us now in the Divine Service we would expect Him to come in a way more glorious or noble than water, the words of a pastor who is a sinful human being like everyone else, and bread and wine. But God doesn’t do things in the way we might expect. He comes to us in simple, lowly things out of love, so that we in our sinfulness can be healed by His forgiveness rather than destroyed by His righteousness. Only when He comes again in glory will His divine power and majesty be shown forth to the world. When He came to us at Bethlehem, and when He comes to us now, he shields His power and majesty under lowly and ordinary things, just like He did when He came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
But because He comes to us in this lowly and simple way, it becomes too easy for our sinful human nature to think that there is nothing special here. It is too easy for us to dismiss the words of the pastor in Holy Absolution and in Preaching as just the pastor’s words, and not as God’s Word. It is too easy to forget about the glorious reality of death and resurrection that Christ works in a person being baptized, and instead focus on the cuteness of the baby and how he reacts to having water poured upon his head. In the same way, it is too easy to forget the purpose for which Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, namely to die and rise again, and simply focus upon the cuteness of the baby lying in the manger. It is too easy to forget the glorious reality of the heavenly feast of victory of which we partake in the Lord’s Supper, and simply focus on the fact that it adds to the service time.
This failure to see things in their proper focus is exactly what the problem of the Pharisees was when they complained to our Lord on the road outside Jerusalem. Their Old sinful flesh didn’t want to be bothered by the Lord’s coming to Jerusalem, because His message and His life was an upset to their complacency and their pride. It makes us uncomfortable when we remember what our Lord came to do for us, and what He does for us when He comes to us now, because our pride doesn’t like the idea that we needed Christ to die on the cross. Our pride doesn’t like the idea that we need Christ to forgive our sins, to wash us clean in Baptism, to give us His body and blood. We like to think we can do it ourselves. We, like the Pharisees, would rather Christ didn’t come, because His coming shows us our own unworthiness, and we’d rather pretend that everything is alright.
But of course the Pharisees weren’t the only ones who were with Christ on that day. He also had with Him a large multitude of His disciples who worshiped Him and sang His praises. These disciples had been born again through the Word of Christ and lived no longer for themselves but for the Lord who was going to Jerusalem to win their freedom from sin, death, and hell. Despite the lowliness of the donkey upon which Jesus rode, His disciples gave Him the treatment fit for a king. They made the dusty road into a royal, cushioned highway using their own cloaks, and waved palm branches, and sang His praises. Even though Jesus did not exalt Himself but rather humbled Himself, He was still the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator who ruled in heaven over all of creation. His people, those who had been born again through His Word, saw Him for what He was, and they treated Him as well as they were able like the mighty ruler He is. And even though He was humble and lowly in that manger in Bethlehem, His praises were sung by angels, and He was worshiped by the shepherds and even by the wise men from the east.
We do the same thing when He comes to us in the Divine Service. When He comes to us in the Word, on most Sundays we sing the same song the angels sang on Christmas night, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” To be sure, because Advent is a penitential season we didn’t sing it this morning, but the next time we will sing it again, on Christmas day, we will join with the angels who sang His praises that first Christmas. And when He comes to us in His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, we echo the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest,” just as the people on the road that day did. Despite the common appearance of water, human speech, bread and wine, it is Christ who comes to us, and we his people recognize Him and praise Him for it.
When He comes again in glory, the majesty and power and glory which have been hidden under His seeming lowliness will be seen by everyone, and whether or not they want to, all people will acknowledge Him as the Lord of the universe. We who have received Him in Word and Sacrament will be overjoyed at His coming, and even those who would rather ignore His coming will for once not be able to complain, because they will see their true Lord coming to judge them. His coming again will fulfill everything that we have received in His life on earth and His coming in Word and Sacrament. During this season we focus on preparing for His coming to us, and we do that by receiving Him in His Word and His body and blood. By His grace, we will be ready to sing His praises when He comes in glory. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Day

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 27, 2008 (Thanksgiving Day)

What does it mean to be thankful? Does it simply mean saying a polite “thank you,” like our parents taught us to do when we were little and someone gave us a Christmas or birthday gift? Does it mean that we have a particular warm feeling in our hearts, that our emotions are stirred in a particular way? Does it mean that we owe some sort of debt to the person to whom we are thankful? And, since we learn in today’s Gospel lesson that we’re supposed to be thankful to God for the blessings we have received from Him (and the fact that today is set aside in our nation for that purpose as well reminds us of that fact), the question also arises, how do you make yourself be thankful to God? How can you cause yourself to do and to be an imitator of the Samaritan leper whom Jesus holds up as our example in this text?
Being thankful, of course, often includes most of the things I mentioned before in various proportions depending upon the situation, but thankfulness doesn’t start in outward politeness or in the emotions or in the desire to do something for the one who has helped you in return. All of these things are the result of thankfulness, not its cause. And yet God demands it from us. Those who are not thankful, who do not confess back to God and to one another the great things God has done for Him, are showing that they have hearts not right with God, a condition which our creator and lord finds unacceptable in those who would inherit His eternal gifts. And by the way, one way in which we confess to God and one another that we are thankful for His great gifts to us is that we support with our time, talents, and treasure, the Church where He gives us His greatest gifts of all, the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and I do urge you to think about that when you sit down to decide how much to put in the plate on Sunday mornings. And yet, true thankfulness is not something we can make ourselves do by our natural powers. You can’t make yourself “be thankful” by doing these outward actions. Thankfulness starts in the heart. We must, but by our own reason or strength we can’t. So how do we get out of this trap? Where does the solution come from to this dilemma?
It helps to remember that being thankful involves faith first of all. According to the Augsburg Confession, the founding document of the Lutheran Church, the highest worship of God is not in outward actions, not even the outward actions of singing and speaking and giving to the Church that we normally refer to as “worship.” The highest worship of God is to believe in Him, to trust that He will continue to provide everything we need both in this life and for eternal life. After all, everything that He gives us in this life is a free gift and not a reward of any kind for anything we’ve done. As the Catechism puts it in its explanation of the Fourth Petition, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” Of course, the faith that springs forth in thankfulness is itself not something that we can produce in ourselves in response to a command, but it is something that God creates in us by means of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament. We can only be thankful to God because He freely gives us the ability to do so.
Faith will inevitably spring forth in a confession of that faith. We say back to God, and to others around us, what He has first said and done to and for us. The heart by faith trusts in God as the one who gives all good things, and the mouth naturally reflects that trust in words. To be thankful, in other words, is to see God as the source of our blessings, as we do in the Fourth Petition. What will then naturally happen is that we proclaim Him, both in prayers and praises back to Him and in confession to one another, including also by our support with time, talents, and treasure, as the source of everything we have. The Samaritan leper realized who it was that had healed him, and so he went back to confess his faith in an outward act of worship toward our Lord Jesus. We can imagine that he also confessed his faith publicly to others who saw him and welcomed him back to his community and family, just as we are to confess our faith in word and deed to our friends and neighbors as well. The nine others didn’t seem to care from whom they had receive this blessing, and by not showing their thankfulness they showed their lack of faith. Faith itself is, of course, a gift of God. In Psalm 51, which is the Psalm David prayed after he had repented of his sin with Bathsheba, David prays, “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.” It is only God who can open our lips. It is only God who can enable us to thank and praise Him for His blessings to us. He does this first of all by giving us His gifts in the first place. He has blessed each of us individually with what we need to support this body and life, in response to our prayers for daily bread.
But all of these blessings would be for nothing if it were not for God’s eternal blessings, the blessings He has given us in response to our prayers for the forgiveness of sins. He hasn’t just given us a roof over our heads, He has given us heavenly mansions. He hasn’t just given us light to see by; He has given us our true Light, Jesus Christ and His Word. He hasn’t just given us food to sustain our earthly bodies, He has given us Christ’s body and blood to nourish our new selves which will live forever with Him. He hasn’t just given us clothing, He has given us the white robe of Christ’s righteousness with which we will be clothed eternally. He hasn’t just given us money to get by in this world, He has given us our true heavenly riches, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life itself. Therefore, it is truly meet right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places, not just today but every day, give thanks to the God who has given us these great blessings. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trinity 27

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 23, 2008 (The 27th Sunday after Trinity)

There are many Christian churches out there who seem to make it their full-time occupation to try to figure out what is going to happen when in connection with the end times. The tremendous popularity of the “Left Behind” books is part of this phenomenon. Of course, the Lutheran church doesn’t agree with the thesis of those books, namely that the believers will be raptured out of the earth several years before the end of the world; we believe that this is a mistaken interpretation of Revelation (and other passages) and that the believers will be taken to be with God on the last day itself. Revelation is not a chronological account of the end times; it is composed of several different perspectives of the same event, the last day, from several different “camera angles,” as it were, presented one after another. But the point is, no one will know the day or the hour. And so it should not be our primary concern to figure out the end times. Rather our primary concern is to make sure that we are always ready for His coming, that we always have the oil of our faith replenished by the Holy Spirit working in us daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament here in this place and through our private devotions as well.
There are no guarantees in this life. Whether Christ’s return is imminent or a long ways off yet from our human perspective, there is no reason for complacency. Things can happen, things which we do not plan for or expect. That’s the reality of life in this world. Even apart from the question of when Judgment Day itself will come, we are reminded that we could face our own personal Judgment Day at any time. Those who die before the last judgment will have their eternal fate decided by the question of whether they trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of sins at the time of their death. This, too, is Judgment Day. This, too, can happen to any of us at any time.
In today’s text, Jesus tells a parable about two groups of virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so that they can play their part in the ceremonies of the wedding feast, which involved carrying their oil lamps in with the bridegroom when he arrived. Five were wise and five were foolish. The wise ones made sure that they were prepared by having extra jars of oil for their lamps, just in case the bridegroom was delayed. The foolish ones only took the lamps themselves, and whatever oil was already in them. As it happened, the bridegroom was indeed delayed for whatever reason, and so the oil in the lamps themselves was nearly burned up. The ones who had not brought extra oil along asked the ones who had if they could borrow some, but the others replied that there wasn’t enough for all ten of them, so they would have to go find a shop that was still open and get some. By the time they got back, however, they had already missed their part in the feast, and the bridegroom refused to let them in. In fact, he was even so hard as to deny that he even knew who they were.
This parable is a picture of us as we await our Lord’s coming. Our Lord has delayed His return for almost two thousand years now, and so it is tempting to forget that He is coming again at all. It is tempting for many people, even if they know there is a heavenly Judge who will hold them accountable, to assume that they will have time to “get right with God” before they die, and that in the meantime they can simply do whatever they feel like. But the fact of the matter is, you can’t do that. You can’t cynically “get right with” God. We can’t do anything from our end that will affect our relationship to Him. What God expects of us is that we be perfect for our entire lives, and we already failed at that while we were too young to remember. Even if we were able to be perfect for the rest of our lives, and we’re not, we would only be doing what God expected anyway, and so we wouldn’t be making up for what we had already done wrong. And we can’t rely on other people, either. We won’t be saved by having our names on a church membership roster; we won’t be saved because our parents or friends are Christians. Yes, you were baptized, and the flame of faith was lit in your heart then, but if you aren’t replenishing your supply of oil through daily contrition and repentance, through frequently sharing in God’s Word and Christ’s body and blood, the oil just might not last and the flame of faith can go out. The new you who was created in Baptism is just like any other human being; he needs to be fed or he will die. And just like the foolish virgins who tried to borrow oil from their companions, we won’t be able to rely on our friends or on the presence of our names on a congregational roster at that point.
So, if we are already sinners and we cannot make it up to God, then what? Well, it is good to remember where our supply of oil comes from. God Himself gave us the fire of faith in the water of Holy Baptism, and through His Word and His body and blood He continues to provide that fire with the fuel it needs to continue to burn brightly. The sins you have committed are forgiven because of Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf on the cross. And not only are those specific sins forgiven, but your inherited sinfulness, your inherited orientation away from God and toward that which displeases Him, of which specific sins are only mere symptoms, is also forgiven and taken away. That forgiveness, given you by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace, is the oil which sustains your faith. Nothing else can do it. But that is enough. Your sins are forgiven, and since your sins are forgiven, you have salvation and eternal life. “For where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation,” according to the Small Catechism.
And since we have this forgiveness, life, and salvation, we can celebrate with joy the marriage feast of the lamb which has no end. Since forgiveness is given to us even now, we have live and salvation even right now, even though we can’t see it yet. In receiving Christ’s body and blood we participate in that great feast of victory which has no end, the marriage feast of the lamb in His kingdom. And we are more than just bridesmaids and guests in that wedding feast. We, the Church, are, collectively, the Bride Herself. What we celebrate is nothing less than the union between ourselves and God, a union which was begun when the Son of God took on human flesh and united God and man in one Person, which will be fulfilled on the last day when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead. This will be a greater and more glorious festival than any party, any wedding reception we have ever experienced here on earth. We will be celebrating nothing less than our eternal fellowship with our creator. “Now let all the heavens adore Thee, Let men and angels sing before Thee, with harp and cymbal’s clearest tone. Of one pearl each shining portal, Where, dwelling with the choir immortal, We gather round Thy radiant throne. No vision ever brought, No ear hath ever caught, Such great glory; Therefore will we Eternally Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee.” Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trinity 26

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 16, 2007 (The 26th Sunday after Trinity)

One thing that’s always struck me about this particular Gospel lesson is the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats knew that they did or didn’t do these things for our Lord. “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” the sheep ask. And the goats ask a similar question: “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?” Of course, we all know Jesus’ answer, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did (or did not) do it to the least of these My brethren, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.” When we serve our neighbor in love, it is really God we are serving, as we are acting as His hands to give them what they need, whether in terms of the things we do in our daily vocation which helps provide food for our own families or others, or in terms of the things we make a point of giving to others out of pure charity, it is through these things that God provides their daily bread. And so when we do these things to the best of our ability, when we serve our neighbor in love, we are in reality serving God.
Of course, we never do these things totally with a pure heart, do we? The work we do to make a living, we do for ourselves, so that we can get the paycheck and buy food. We don’t think of it as serving our neighbor. And when we do give to the Church or to charity (which none of us does as much as he should), the left hand manages to find out what the right hand is doing, and we still end up thinking of it as something that we’re doing so that someone, somewhere will reward us. Either we’re thinking that God will be more pleased with us because we’re doing as He wants, or, especially in the case of donations to the Church or of work done serving in offices for the church, we might possibly think it gives us some say in the direction of the church, as if the fact that we help the congregation out gives us the right to tell the congregation what to do. It’s still all about ourselves, isn’t it. It’s not about our neighbor and it’s definitely not about Jesus.
And that poses a problem, because the judgment scene depicted in today’s Gospel lesson is something that we could face at any time. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. And even if that doesn’t happen for a long time, the verdict is already “locked in” when you die, which is also something that could happen to any of us at any time. What we see in ourselves, however, matches pretty closely the description of those on Jesus’ left. Even when we outwardly seem to be serving God and our neighbor, we’re doing it for ourselves. And even outwardly we haven’t done as good a job as we could have.
The thing to remember here, though, is that those on His right are also surprised when Jesus points out that they have done all these things for Him. Just as those on His left think they’ve done a pretty good job of serving God and their neighbor and are surprised to find out that they hadn’t, those on His right are surprised to find out that they have served God and their neighbor in a manner that pleases God. God sees us opposite of how we see ourselves. If you think you’re doing a pretty good job of serving God and your neighbor, through God’s eyes you will fall short, because you’re not doing nearly as good as you think you are. But if you realize you’ve fallen short, and you know that there’s no way for you to do as well as God expects of you, then you’re one of those who will be surprised to find out that you and your good works are, in fact, pleasing to God and done in service to Him.
After all, when God looks at you, He sees Christ. And Christ did all these things for us, when we were spiritually in need. He visited us when we were sick and in the prison of this sinful world. And not only did He visit us, becoming one of us and bearing all our sin and infirmity; but He healed the sickness of our sin, just as He healed those who were sick with frail and diseased bodies in His Ministry on earth. He freed us from the prison of our sinfulness. And just as He clothed Adam and Eve with skins after their Fall into sin, so He clothed the nakedness of our sinfulness with the pure white garments of His perfect righteousness in the waters of Holy Baptism. He feeds the spiritually hungry and gives drink to those who spiritually thirst with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper.
And yet, He did all this by taking it on Himself. He fed us and quenched our thirst by becoming hungry and thirsty Himself. He said so on the cross: “I thirst.” He resolved our separation and estrangement from God by becoming estranged from the whole world and even His own Father. He clothed the shame of our sin by being exposed to the elements on the cross, while the soldiers divided his garments and cast lots for his cloak. He healed our disease of sin by becoming “sick” to the point of death for us. He released us from Satan’s bondage by becoming a prisoner of the Sanhedrin and the Romans despite his innocence. He took all of sin upon Himself, and so all the effects of sin in the world afflicted Him as well. He did all these things for us, and so now all those who are suffering under the continued effects of sin in the world become pictures for us of what our Lord did for us.
That’s why Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did (or did not) do it to the least of these My brethren, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.” Because all the suffering that is in the world on account of sin, which we still see around us every day, was actually taken by Jesus into Himself and nailed to the cross. And so when we in some small way try to alleviate that suffering, whether by providing a shoulder to cry on or a kind word, or whether we offer more substantive help in the form of charitable donations, we are doing it for Him who already took all of it upon Himself. And, further, we are also preaching by our actions about that place where there is no hunger or thirst, no estrangement or nakedness, no sickness and no prison. That’s what Jesus won for us by becoming all these things, and that’s what we ultimately have to offer. Not just temporary help for this life, but eternal life without any problems or suffering or grief ever again. And that’s what we ourselves will inherit, and that’s what we receive even now as our hunger and thirst is satisfied by Jesus’ own body and blood, His righteousness clothes our unrighteousness, and we even now enjoy the visitations of Him whose separation from His Father unites us to both Himself and His Father. It was Christ’s charity to us that got us this, not anything we did or could do. And it is Christ’s charity working through us that He will see in us on that last day. Come, you blessed of the Father. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Trinity 25

Sermon on Matthew 24:15-28
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 9, 2008 (The 25th Sunday after Trinity)

As we read the Scripture lessons that have to do with the end times, Judgement Day, and all of that, sometimes it can be a bit confusing as to what is being talked about. Sometimes it sounds like Jesus is talking about His own death, sometimes it sounds like He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., sometimes it sounds like he’s talking about the struggles and trials that we will endure leading up to our own deaths, and sometimes it sounds like he’s talking about the struggles and trials and tribulations that the world must endure leading up to the final judgment. In fact, sometimes it sounds like He’s talking about September 11th, or about the struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis, or about the war in Iraq, or any of a thousand other world-changing events. Sometimes it sounds like one of the hurricanes or wildfires that have happened recently. Pages upon pages have been written about passages like the one which serves as our Gospel lesson this morning. What is Jesus saying? What is he predicting? Was he referring to something in his own time period or the end of the world? Or something in between? Was He, in fact, speaking of something that has happened or will happen during our own lifetimes? There is no end of such questions among academic students of the Bible. And if the “experts” can’t come to an agreement on what these texts are really saying, what these words from our Lord’s lips really mean, how can we?
My answer to the problem of these end-time texts is simply to say “yes.” Is Jesus talking about the final judgment or is He talking about His own crucifixion? Yes. Is He talking about the destruction of Jerusalem or the destruction of the world? Yes. Is he talking about the end of the world or the end of each of our individual lives? Yes. You see, there are a number of different points on the time-line of this world’s history which really are all one event. For example, when you were baptized you traveled back in time to 33 A.D. to die with Christ on the cross and rise again with Him a few days later, as well as going forward in time to your own death and even to the end of time for your own resurrection. Christ’s death, your death, Christ’s resurrection, and the resurrection of everyone at the end of this old world, all these things are really one event, an event that happened to each one of you when your old Adam was drowned in the baptismal water so that the new Christ in you could come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And so it doesn’t really matter all that much whether Christ was speaking of the end times or of His own death and resurrection, or of your and my death and resurrection, or for that matter of those believers who are caught up in the wars and violence and disasters we see around us.
In this particular Gospel lesson, Jesus warns us that life in these end times is not going to be easy. The world is the Church’s enemy and will seek to destroy the Church by whatever means possible. In one sense, Jesus is warning the people of his day what would happen to the city of Jerusalem because of their rejection of Him; 35 years later, in the year 70 Jerusalem would be besieged and conquered by the Roman armies, the population either killed or driven away, and the city itself destroyed so thoroughly that not one stone would remain on another. The Romans would do this because, during the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there would be a series of rebel leaders among the Jews proclaiming themselves to be the promised Messiah, and urging rebellion against the Roman overlords. The final destruction of the city would be the punishment for that rebellion, and indirectly, punishment for refusing to accept the true Messiah, whose message was not one of rebellion against earthly authorities but of eternal life in a heavenly kingdom. The Romans, whose emblem was the eagle, would gather around the dead carcass of Jerusalem even as a few of their soldiers gathered around the carcass hung on a cross outside Jerusalem on Good Friday.
But Jesus wasn’t only talking about Jerusalem. What happened to Jerusalem because of its rejection of the Messiah was only the beginning of a much larger process of destruction and dissolution of the whole world. It was the whole world that rejected its Creator, and thus the whole world is subject to destruction and futility so that the new heavens and new earth in which we will spend eternity can be put into its place, just as our old Adam must be drowned daily so that the new man in Christ can come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. The world itself is suffering under the mortal illness of sin, just as each one of its inhabitants is. We don’t know for sure when this time will come to an end, but we see the signs all around us, signs which have been with us since Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, signs which will continue to be with us even until that day, whether that day be two days or two millennia from now.
And, just as was the case with those caught up in the siege at Jerusalem, living as a Christian in a sin-filled world isn’t easy. There are false gods, false saviors out there. Some of them even go by the name of Jesus Christ. There is the false Jesus whose proponents claim that He came to be primarily a moral example to us rather than the one who saves us graciously through the forgiveness of all our sins won by His death on the cross. There is the false Jesus whose body is locked up in heaven and not present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. There is the false Jesus who comes to us through feelings and visions and spiritual experiences rather than through the objective and real proclaimed Word and administered Sacraments. There is the false Jesus who is not God at all but just a good man and a fine moral teacher. There is the false Jesus who is only one path to the Father among many, a Jesus who is willing to share the stage with the false gods of the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Buddhists. There are all sorts of false Christs out there today, even as there were back when the true Messiah spoke these words. It is extremely easy to be misled by them, especially in the face of the overwhelming hostility of those who would kill and destroy in the name of their faith rather than seeking to persuade and convince with words. However, to teach falsely about Christ, even if you say nice things about Him at the same time, is to misrepresent Christ, to tell lies about Him. And those lies can eventually destroy people’s faith and cause them to rely on their own works for salvation rather than trusting that His sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for them and that He comes to them to give them Himself in His Word and body and blood. Of course, to say other people are wrong in the area of religion isn’t exactly the most popular thing to say these days, as our culture seems to want to react by lumping us in with those who would use violence to convert people, but unlike the more radical forms of Islam, for example, we believe that faith can’t be coerced but must be created in the heart through the Word. But the world doesn’t understand that.
God has promised that He will not leave us stranded. He will not give us more temptation and affliction, even in these times, than we can bear with the help of His Word and Sacrament. And he will not leave this world run on so long that the Christians will be unable to hold on to their faith any longer. There will be an end to it. That is the promise of Christ’s return in glory. The end of all things is not a day to be feared, it is a day for rejoicing. It is the day when we who believe in Christ will begin to experience the eternal life in which we have already become partakers by water and the Word. It is when we shall begin to fully enjoy the feast of victory for our God in which we already share through the Sacrament of the Altar. For some of us, that day will come sooner than for others. That day of salvation will come for the world as a whole on when Christ returns in glory, but it will come for each of us on the day of our deaths. God cuts short our lives in this world because this world simply is not a pleasant place to be for those who believe. Those who have gone before us no longer face the trials and troubles of this world, and he will not let us face those trials and troubles longer than we can bear them, either. Our salvation is sure, and, as we are strengthened by the Word and Sacraments, nobody will be able to take it away from us. Amen. ✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Saints' Day (Transferred)

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 2, 2008 (All Saints’ Day)

The first section of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly known as “the beatitudes,” is a description of all of God’s saints. And that means that it’s a description of you. You are a saint, if you are a Christian. God’s people are holy. He makes them that way. And that’s what the word “saint” means. Holy one. Hallowed one. All Hallows Day, or all Saints Day, is technically supposed to be on November 1st, which, by the way, is why All Saints Eve, or All Hallows Eve, or Hallows’ evening, or Hallowe’en, falls on October 31st. But recently the custom in many Lutheran congregations has been to transfer this festival to the first Sunday in November. All God’s people are Holy. He makes them that way. He takes their unholiness, their impurity, into His own body and nails it to His own cross. He declares us to be righteous and holy. And we are. We become holy, because He says we are, just as at the beginning of Creation the light shone forth because God said it did. We are sanctified. We are saint-ified. We become saints. The Beatitudes are a description of what we, God’s saints, are.
Those who have gone on before us are saints too. In the medieval church, saints were thought to be those who went straight to heaven when they died instead of spending time in purgatory. Certain noteworthy individuals were recognized by the pope as having lived remarkable lives, and given the title of saints. While we certainly do want to honor the great things that God has done through His people of all times and places, especially those saints whose lives and ministries are recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures such as the twelve apostles and others who were associated with our Lord, we don’t believe that there is such a thing as purgatory, so we refer to all Christians as saints, because all true Christians will go straight to heaven when they die.
Of course, when you examine yourself, you can’t see the saint in you, at least, if you’re being honest with yourself. All you see inside yourself is sin and death, from which you cannot set yourself free. You see envy, you see self-centeredness, you see gossip, you see lust, you see pride, you see greed, you see self-pity, you see failure to keep promises, failure to love your neighbor, failure to be diligent in the use of God’s Word. You may even remember vividly some pretty gross outbreaks of these things in your life in this world as well. What you don’t see is what the beatitudes describe. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. If you think you see these things inside yourself, you’re probably not looking at yourself realistically.
But God looks at you differently than you look at yourself. You see yourself as you exist in this old world. You see the self that is part of this old life, the old Adam in you who was fatally drowned in the Baptismal water but who still clings to life as long as your life in this old world continues. That’s why you can’t see the things that Jesus says about you in the Beatitudes. When God looks at you, he sees His own Son, whose righteousness covers your unrighteousness. He sees the only One who ever fulfilled the descriptions found in the Beatitudes perfectly. When God looks at you, He sees the One who was poor in spirit, not considering being God himself as something to be bragged about, but made Himself nothing, subjected Himself to our fallen existence out of love for us. When God looks at you, He sees the One who mourned over the unfaithfulness of the city where His own name had been established so that He could be with His people. When God looks at you, He sees the One who was meek even when falsely accused and convicted of all sorts of crimes and crucified for the sins of others, for the sins of the whole world. When God looks at you, He sees the One who so hungered and thirsted for the righteousness of the world that He took all of our unrighteousness upon Himself. When God looks at you, He sees the One who had more mercy and charity and compassion on us poor lost sinners than we can ever imagine or hope to emulate. When God looks at you, He sees the One who was the only human being ever to walk this earth to be truly pure in heart, to be truly free of selfishness or sin. When God looks at you, He sees the One who made the ultimate peace, the peace between God and man. When God looks at you, He sees the One who was persecuted and killed not just as a sinner, but as the ultimate sinner, and not just in spite of the fact that He was in fact not a sinner, but precisely because of His righteousness. When God looks at you, He sees Jesus Christ.
And yet, as I said before, what God sees when He looks at us, and what He says about is, is not a lie. His Word does what it says. When He sees Christ’s righteousness and says that we are righteous, that Word actually comes to pass. A clean heart is created in us and a right spirit is renewed within us. The new you really is accurately described by the Beatitudes. You can’t see that in yourself (and if you think you can see it in yourself, frankly that’s your old sinful pride talking and so it’s really more evidence of your sinfulness), but others can see it in you. They see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. And of course, as I said before, God also sees you that way. Because Christ is not only covering your sin, He’s living in you and working through you.
And so, the Beatitudes are descriptions of God’s holy ones, God’s saints. They are descriptions of you and me according to our new selves. Even though you can’t see it, God’s word tells you this. And His word doesn’t lie, because it creates what it declares. And that means that the blessings described by the Beatitudes are yours as well. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. You shall be given the ultimate comfort, eternal fellowship with your God and creator. You shall inherit the whole new creation when Christ comes again to raise you up. You shall be filled with righteousness, indeed, your hunger and thirst are already filled when you eat the body and drink the blood of Him who died so that these things can happen. You shall obtain the ultimate mercy, the ultimate charity, eternal life itself, where all your needs will be met before you are even aware that the need exists. You shall be called sons of God. And, summing it all up, again it is said, yours is the kingdom of heaven. That’s the inheritance of God’s saints. That’s where you are already by faith, and where your loved ones who died in the faith are already in spirit. That’s where you shall live forever, body and soul, into eternity. Blessed are you. Amen. ✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠