Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Joyful Reveille

Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 24th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Joyful Reveille - Matthew 25:1-

Wake Awake, For Night is Flying, Philipp Nicolai, LSB Hymn 516  (public domain)
   Stanza 1
Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
Awake, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
Oh, where are ye, ye virgins, wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake;
Your lamps with gladness take;
Alleluia! With bridal care yourselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom, who is near.

     I thought about playing my cornet.  With the sermon theme “The Joyful Reveille,” and a desire to interject some music into this sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, I thought, for a moment, that I should play my cornet like a bugle and actually blow reveille to start the sermon.  But reveille, that traditional military wake up bugle call, is not very joyful, is it?  Reveille, blasted on a bugle, is jarring and annoying.  That’s the whole point of blowing reveille, to awake someone who needs to be get up, but persists in dozing, please, just five more minutes.  Your reveilles may have been your mother, yelling up the stairs that you’d better get moving or you’ll miss the bus.  Or perhaps your drill instructor threw an empty metal garbage can down the middle of the squad bay, followed by playing the lid with a baseball bat, greeting you into another fine military morning.  Or maybe your reveille still comes, at three in the morning, when the impending pressures of life and work and finances and worries about kids make you suddenly wide awake, bolt upright in bed, exhausted, but now you’ll never get back to sleep. 

       We don’t like to be rudely awakened.  We don’t like reveille.  So perhaps it’s hard to take the parable of the ten virgins as good news, even if you believe in Jesus.  Somehow, our hymnwriter Philipp Nicolai found great joy in this parable, but do you?  Aren’t we more like the Foolish Virgins?  When are we ever bursting with joy to be awakened at O-dark-thirty in the morning? 

     Well, what about Christmas morning?  Oh yes, as a child, and, truth be told, even as a parent, the prospect of the joy of opening all the presents under the tree made me only too ready to jump out of bed and race downstairs, the earlier the better.  And there’s another event that can spring us joyfully from bed, an unexpected homecoming.  Homecomings, and the separations that cause them, have been only too common through the 10+ years of overseas war our military has endured, so we’ve all seen it.  But military or not, if your beloved, your wife or husband, or fiancé, has been gone for a long time, and then suddenly arrives home unexpectedly, even if at 2:00 a.m., you can get up for that, because your beloved, the one you have been missing, the one who makes you whole, is home.  

     Christmas morning and the return of your beloved, these two earthly examples do a nice job of capturing the kind of joy the Scriptures describe at the return of Christ, since Jesus is the real gift of Christmas, the gift of the Bridegroom, the Son of God made flesh, come into the world to rescue and save His beloved bride, the Church, the assembly of all the believers. 

Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her Star is ris’n, her Light is come.
Now come, Thou blessèd One, Lord Jesus, God’s own Son,
Hail! Hosanna! We enter all, the wedding hall
To eat the Supper at Thy call.

     Why is Zion gloomy?  Philipp Nicolai suggests that the rising of the Virgins is a departure from gloom, and it is, for Jesus is teaching us about His Return, on the Last Day.  He is coming to deliver us from this vale of tears, to eternal joy with Him, in heaven.  But does this note clang a bit for you?  Don’t we love our lives?  You and I live pretty well, for the most part.  Indeed, one of the central teachings of this parable is a warning against complacency, a warning not to forget that Jesus is returning, a warning that is of particular importance for you and me, for we live in an age of remarkable comfort and bounty. 

     The poorest Americans enjoy luxuries and technological marvels that kings and queens could not even imagine one hundred years ago.  God has showered many great and wonderful earthly blessings upon us, but satan is trying with all his trickery to get us to make these gifts and the comforts they offer our highest good, so that we forget about the Good Giver.  Almighty God is the One who delivers them all to us.  Faith created by the Word of God is what we need to be ready for the return of Christ, but if we just doze comfortably through our lives, never refilling our lamps, we will forget what light we were following when the End comes, be that the Last Day, or our personal end, our physical death.  Faith lives from the Word of Christ, and so it is strong and enduring.  But if we starve it long enough, faith can die. 

     We live very comfortably, but our wealth and technology haven’t really changed our biggest problems.  We are remarkably blessed, and the pleasure of material things and the marvels of the digital age are alluring.  But no amount of riches or technology can take away the sadness of being unloved.  No material thing can truly ease the pain of being abandoned or betrayed by someone you love.  No bank account or oil well or fancy electronic device can forgive your sins, or take away the guilt that hounds you.  The healthcare system may or may not get fixed in America, but even if it does, people will still get sick, and die. 

     Philipp Nicolai is right, still today, five centuries after he penned this hymn.  The good things of this world do not help us fundamentally with the bad things we suffer.  No amount of man-made light can dispel the gloom of human existence, because the darkness flows from our sins, and our sinfulness.  And against these, earthly goods have no potency. 

     But, the Bridegroom is omnipotent, all powerful, against every trouble we face, because He has solved our central problem, sin, by the blood of His Cross, which purchased our forgiveness.  The Bridegroom for whom the Church awaits is Jesus Christ, who has risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven, His victory for us complete.  The Bridegroom is our solution, and He is coming.  Arise, sing, rejoice, the table is set, and Jesus is holding our seats for us.        

Now let all the heavens adore Thee,
Let saints and angels sing before Thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone;
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where joining with the choir immortal
We gather round Thy radiant throne.
No eye has seen the light, No ear has heard the might
Of Thy glory; Therefore will we eternally
Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee!

     By the gracious will and working of God, we will sing hymns of praise and joy to Christ, who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever, Amen.  And also, by the gracious will and working of God, we do sing hymns of praise and joy to Christ, right now.  And as we sing, God will be working through our praises and joy to continue to expand His Church. 

     I come here on Sunday mornings, in part, because if I don’t, you won’t pay me.  But even more, I come here and gather with you around God’s Word and Sacraments because I need Christ’s grace and mercy.  I need forgiveness.  I suspect that motives for gathering together here vary across the room, and from moment to moment, for each one of us.  Obligation, socializing, compulsion by parent or spouse, all of us no doubt sometimes come here for reasons that do not shine like the stars in heaven.  But you also come for forgiveness.  You also come craving God’s Word, and the mercy and peace it gives you.  Also the joy of knowing that God has promised to meet us here, to be truly present, in the Word,  in the Wine and Bread, truly present to bless  us and strengthen our faith, for another day, another week, until Jesus comes back, all these beautiful promises also draw us together.  And in every case, when and where and how He wills, the Holy Spirit works on us, and in us, and through us, shaping us by His Word to the form of Christ, and sending us back into the world to live our lives as Christians, to do our regular work, but with an exceptional difference, the difference of Christ and His Spirit, the difference of knowing that the future for His Bride the Church is brighter than any of us can yet imagine. 

     As God works on us, He also works through us, causing us to speak joyfully of our faith, of our life in Christ, of our congregation, God’s family gathered around this altar.  God works to show how the forgiveness and new life we have in Jesus changes everything.  And that is what people need.  That is what God longs to give.  And so God grows His Church, and will continue to grow, until that Day when Christ returns, and we will be free from every sin, free from every need, free to rejoice and sing, with every saint and angel, of all time.  Wake, Awake!  The Joyful Reveille. 

Come Lord Jesus, Come, Amen. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Cause of Generosity, in the End

2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, Nov 17th, A + D 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Cause of Generosity, in the End
Matthew 25:31-46, 2 Peter 3:1-14, Daniel 7:9-14

     Why might I send money to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines? 

     One of the headlines I saw concerning Typhoon Haiyan was a quote from a survivor who said:  “I thought the world was coming to an end.”  This suffering woman’s interpretation is not far off from the truth, since Jesus promised that natural disasters would come before the End, the beginning of the birth pangs, He called them, the beginnings of the End, but not the End itself.  But if the victim’s of Typhoon Haiyan, or if we, watching the devastation from afar, turn our thoughts for a moment to that Day when God the Father will blow the final whistle and send Jesus to end this age, well that’s good.  That’s the same thing our readings do every year, in these last couple weeks of the Church Year.  On this second to the last Sunday in the Church Year, Jesus in our Gospel describes the Last Day, and the Final Judgment, in terms of blessed sheep on His right, and cursed goats on His left.  Our Lord then focuses specifically on the question of serving the poor, the hurting, and the downtrodden.  So, in light of what Jesus says this morning, why might I send money to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan? 

     Lord willing, I won’t be taken in by one of the devil’s most common twisting of Scripture, a twisting often built  on a hasty reading of the Sheep and the Goats.  You and I should not fall into thinking that if we love our neighbor, then, because of our good deeds, God will love us, giving us an inheritance in heaven.  The devil wants me to think this, so he can suck me down into his whirlpool of doubt.  So, if I love others, feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, then the Father in heaven will bless me?  Great, but have I loved enough?  What about when I still sin?  What’s the exchange rate between my sins and my good deeds?  Do I always need to do more and more?  And did I love well enough?  How can I be sure I’ve earned the Father’s love? 

     I can’t.  I could never know for sure if I’ve earned the Father’s love with my good deeds, because I don’t and can’t live the perfect life that He commands, that totally selfless life, the life of love toward God and love toward the neighbor that Scripture teaches.  I don’t love that way, and I can’t begin to make up for all my sins with the puny good works I might produce, since even my best works are still tinged with sin, coming, as they do, from this sinner.  If I believe the devil’s lie, I will be tormented by doubt.    

     It would be a tragedy if I fell down satan’s hole of doubt, because this is not what Jesus teaches us today.  The good deeds Jesus describes are evidence of being in the Father’s favor, just as a failure to do good is evidence of standing outside God’s favor, in danger of eternal fire.  But please note that Jesus does not say the blessed will be blessed with eternal life because they do their good works.  No, indeed, Jesus first says they are blessed, they are inheriting the kingdom prepared for them, from before the foundation of the world.  Their blessedness has its cause in the action of God, a choice made long before God ever created the world, long before any man, woman or child ever did a good work. 

     Good works are commanded by God, and when they are absent in my life I should take that as a warning that I’m drifting away from the Lord.  When I fail to do good works, I need to repent, confess this sin of omission, and ask the Lord to change me.  But this passage does not make good works a cause of salvation, and the rest of Scripture makes it clear that we are saved by faith in Christ alone, not by works, so that none of us can boast.  We are saved apart from works, saved by God,  through the life and work of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God.  Salvation has to work this way, because God demands perfect holiness, and try as I might, I cannot produce it.  I must receive holiness from somewhere else, from outside myself, from someOne else.  The man Jesus is the only Holy One, the only Sinless One, the only One who could ever earn the Father’s love.  And good news, because the man Jesus is also God, He can, and does, share His Holiness with His people.  That’s how we become His people. 

     We love, as John the Apostle writes, because Christ first loved us, giving His life on the Cross so that our sins not be held against us, and by giving us His Cross in our Baptism and in the Supper, so that day by day we know, Jesus has saved us, by forgiving us all our sins.  Knowing this, we love, because He first loved us.  Our good works are really His love flowing through us to others, nothing more, nothing less.  So why might I help the Typhoon victims?  Because the One who has helped me, the One who has loved me unto death, and unto new life, is concerned for all hurting people, and by my union with Him, His concerns are my concerns.  Indeed, Christ offers us the privilege of serving them, not to earn heaven, but because we know we have already inherited heaven. 
     Yes indeed.  Why might I send money to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan?  Because I know the end of the Story, and that sets me free.  Daniel saw the Son of Man in his vision, five centuries before Christ was born in Bethlehem.  I know that this Son of Man approaching the Ancient of Days to be given dominion over a great, countless multitude in the everlasting Kingdom of God, is none other than the Son of Mary, who has died, and risen from the dead, thus setting His people free from the bondage of sin.  I know the Son of Man whom Daniel saw was a prophetic vision of the Ascension into heaven of the Risen Jesus, ascending to take His seat at the right hand of the eternal throne of His Father, the Ancient of Days. 

     This plan of salvation, complete in the will of God even before He created the heavens and the earth, is guaranteed.  The place of mankind in God’s eternal presence is guaranteed, because the Man Jesus, who is also truly and fully God, has gone ahead to prepare a place for all who trust in Him. 

     And so, knowing the end of the Story, you and I need not fear going out on a limb to help someone in need.  We need not fear helping a seemingly helpless cause, because the very Son of God became helpless, dying on a Roman cross, so that He could share His eternal power with His people.  We need not fear that our giving will cause us to suffer want and need, because the King of Heaven gave up His rightful place in glory, and became needy, thirsting and wanting and lacking good things throughout His  earthly life, as He worked to prepare endless heavenly treasures for all nations.  The Creator of every good thing became poor, so that I can be eternally rich.  That’s enough to make me generous. 

     The end of the Church Year readings, along with disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, will cause us to consider the End.  That’s good, because it’s important.  In the last week before going to His Cross, Jesus taught mostly about the End Times.  So what does all this End Time teaching mean, for your life?  It means you need not fear, even though surely the Bible’s description of the End is frightful, roaring fires burning up all the created universe.  Peter speaks of how the Lord will end this world with fire, a frightening warning to sinners everywhere not to just sit, satisfied in your sins.  Repent, turn away from your sins, before the End comes upon you like a thief in the night.  Repent, and remember this Good News:  Just as God created the world out of water, and through water, by His Word, and just as God used water in the Flood to destroy evil, so also, the baptized need not fear the fire of the end.  For through the Water and the Word of our Baptisms, God has already made us part of the new creation, heirs by faith of the new heavens and new earth, that Jesus will bring us into, when He returns.       
     End times talk should never make us think we must get busy doing good, or else.  This type of End Times teaching is false, no matter where you hear it from.  The End will be fearful, but nevertheless, Jesus teaches His people to rejoice, to lift up your heads and pray, “Come Lord Jesus, come,” because the End is good news for all who abide in Christ. 

     This abiding, this trusting and resting in Jesus, is a gift He gives to you and me by the forgiveness of all our sins.  As you consider the End, focus on Jesus, who has conquered your sin and death.  Fix your eyes on Jesus, and He will give you a confident joy in God’s limitless blessings, joy that will overflow to your neighbor freely, causing you love the needy, from the love you have received in Christ.  Fix your eyes on Jesus, and you will receive a confident knowledge.  You will be made ready to give the reason for your hope, ready to give the good answer to anyone who might ask why the End does not frighten you.  You can tell them because you know your future, stored up in heaven for you, by Jesus, your Savior, and theirs. 

Come Lord Jesus, come, Amen. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two Governments, Two Lies, Two Promises

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, November 10th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Two Governments, Two Lies, Two Promises – Matthew 22:15-22

     This morning we have a nice confluence of events and Scripture.  It’s Sunday, a good day to be gathered in the presence of God.  And, it’s November 10th, Martin Luther’s birthday, an added bonus.  And, did you know Martin Luther had the good sense to be born on the same day as the Marine Corps?  Yes, on November 10th, 1775, in Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, the United States Marine Corps began.  One might even think today a good day for regulation hair cut, although if my drill instructors were here they would no doubt ask why a regulation shave didn’t come with the high and tight.  Well, no need to get too crazy. 

     The intrepid Reformer Martin Luther and those intrepid Jarheads share more than a little in common, Luther being all about boldly protecting and serving the Church, while Marines are all about boldly protecting and serving the nation, these United States.  Speaking of the United States, last Tuesday was Election Day.  And, tomorrow is when we Americans honor all our Veterans, most especially those who have sacrificed their lives in service to these United States. 

     So, with all of this going on, when I saw today’s assigned readings, I thought “Perfect!”  O.K., full disclosure:  I thought I was looking at today’s assigned readings, but after celebrating the Reformation and All Saints Day the last two Sundays, I miscounted.  Today is the 24th Sunday after Trinity, but the readings before you are actually for last Sunday, the 23rd.  By the time I realized my error, I was too far down the path of this sermon to turn back.  So, it’s only due to my mistake that we have this helpful confluence of birthdays, and Election Day, and Veterans Day, a helpful confluence because our readings, especially our Epistle and Gospel, are all about the distinctions between worldly things and churchly things, between the earthly and the heavenly, readings which offer a good bit of counsel on how we Christians are to navigate our lives, which are lived in both realms. 

     We get pretty bound up, sometimes, trying to sort out how Christians are to act in regards to the government and the nation, all too often confusing and mixing up the things of Caesar and the things of God, misusing both in the process.  Lord willing, we will leave here this morning with a clearer understanding, and joyful hearts, looking forward to our heavenly homes, and also ready to live out our earthly lives in God-pleasing ways. 

     Two governments.  One of Luther’s most helpful rediscoveries in the Reformation is Scripture’s teaching about the two governments by which the Lord rules things on the earth in this age.  Jesus makes reference to these two governments when He says:  "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  Jesus did not come to establish a kingdom, or government, of this world, but rather to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, a spiritual government whose capitol is literally the heavenly throne of God.  However, earthly governments are not outside God’s concern or control.  Just a few days after the encounter we heard in today’s Gospel, a bound, suffering, and about to be crucified Jesus would teach Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that he would have no authority at all if it had not been given him from above. 

     As Luther rediscovered and taught, God rules the affairs of this world, but indirectly, through earthly authorities, kings and queens, presidents and legislatures, to whom God has given authority on earth.  Luther called this God’s left-hand government.  Not to insult the lefties out there, but what Luther meant was that this Left Hand Government was important, but not as important, as God’s Right Hand Government, which is the spiritual rule of God in His Church, a rule that God exercises purely by His Word.  God through His Left Hand Government provides for peace in the earthly lives of men.  But God through His Right Hand Government provides the peace that passes all understanding, the peace with God won for us by the blood of Christ, the peace of knowing that your sins are forgiven and you are a citizen of God’s heavenly kingdom, where God will eventually bring you, and all believers. 

     Earthly rulers may think they are pretty important and powerful, but their power can disappear in a moment, and their purpose, from God’s perspective, is simply to keep a lid on the wickedness of the world, to maintain enough order and justice and peace on earth so that the Church can gather and preach and serve one another and the world, as she awaits the return of Christ.  Good government, from a Biblical perspective, is one that keeps order and allows Christians to gather, preach, teach and love their neighbors.  This might be through a republic, a monarchy, a dictatorship, or a democracy, through a government filled with Christians, or a government that is completely atheistic.  Through various forms of government, God provides the order and peace His Church needs to live. 

     The Pharisees, who came with their clever and deceitful question about paying taxes to Caesar, were trying to trap Jesus by mixing heavenly things, the things of God, into our understanding and actions in the earthly realm.  If God is our king, the Pharisees imply, then how can any self-respecting Jew pay taxes to Caesar, a question they ask with the Herodians, that is, the lackeys of King Herod, Caesar’s local enforcer, standing by, just in case Jesus might actually suggest that Jews should rebel, and refuse to pay Roman taxes.  Jesus, teaching us to keep heavenly things out of earthly government, easily avoids their trap, just as He had done moments before, with another group of foes. 

     If you look just after this encounter in Matthew 22, you will read about the Sadducees, another religious faction, trying just the opposite trick to Jesus.  The Sadducees tried to make Jesus look ridiculous by applying earthly rules to the heavenly realm, asking about the woman who, following the law of Moses, had married seven brothers, who died one after the other, each unsuccessfully seeking an heir for the first.  Whose wife would she be in heaven?  Jesus casts off their feeble attempt to trick Him just as easily as He did that of the Pharisees, teaching us to keep earthly things out of the heavenly realm, for as Jesus taught, marriage and bearing children are of this life.  In heaven, the faithful are not married.  But they are very much alive, since the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, not the dead. 

     In these two passages then, Jesus distinguishes between God’s Left Hand Government on earth, the order He maintains through kings and presidents and congresses, and God’s Right Hand Government, which has only the Law and Gospel to use.  God’s Spiritual rule over His Church is effected by His Word, by which He delivers eternal life and peace to all who trust in Christ.  So far so good, a neat and fairly simple explanation of our simultaneous life in this world, and life in Christ’s Church.  Give honor to the king.  But put your faith only in Christ.  However, satan, whom God has defeated but not yet completely caged, still tries to confuse our understanding, so that we mix up these two governments, like the Pharisees and Sadducees did.  The devil uses the same trick that he originally used to drag down Adam and Eve, whispering sweet sounding lies into our ears, lies which, sad to say, engage and attract us.        

     Two Lies.  satan spews forth a dizzying array of reasonable and attractive sounding lies, helped along by the world and our own sinful nature, which both prefer his lies over the Truth of God.  But in the area of rightly understanding the Two Governments, we can narrow our focus down to just two major lies from the devil.  The first lie is this:  The Left Hand, earthly Government and the life we lead under it is the most important thing there is, much more important than God and His Word, so important that you should be dedicating all your efforts to succeeding in this world.  Now, when you hear this lie plainly stated, it’s easy to reject.  We all know faith in Christ, which leads to eternal life and saves from eternal suffering, is clearly more important than a good life on earth.  We know this, or at least we say we know this.  But, oh, how we act just the opposite.  I could demonstrate this a hundred different ways, but since we’re talking about governments, let’s just consider the love-hate relationship we have with the Presidency. 

     Democrats have long looked at President Obama as the one who will fix everything.  Recent struggles have shaken faith in the man, but no worries, we just need to get to Hillary, because she’s the one, really.  She will finally make everything better.  On the other side of the aisle, Republicans, who once thought the world of George W. Bush, slowly became disenchanted with him, and hoped for a new Reagan.  Look, Mitt Romney, he’s the one.  No?  Well, look, Marco Rubio.  No, Ted Cruz.  No, Chris Christie.  Americans of every stripe, Christians and unbelievers alike, have a very strong habit of thinking fixing the government is the most important thing we can hope and work for.  I mean, doesn't it just seem like if we could get the right people in place, America could be great again, maybe greater than ever before?  satan smiles, encouraging us to think this way, because every moment we spend worrying and fretting about finding a political savior is another moment we don’t hear the Word about the One True Savior.  

     The second lie satan tells about God’s Left and Right Hand Governments is for those who don’t get caught up in seeking heaven on earth, those who still make Church a priority.  This second lie goes like this:  If you must concern yourself with God’s Right Hand Government, if you insist on considering spiritual matters, just remember that success in the Church, being worthy of God’s favor, works pretty much the same way as things do in the Left Hand, earthly realm.  So, continues satan, you better get busy and make your way in God’s Kingdom, earn your place, so that you can be sure you have that heavenly citizenship you think is so important. 

     Again, when this lie, that we must earn our place in God’s Spiritual Kingdom, just as we must earn our place in the world, is stated bluntly, we know to reject it.  And yet, this notion creeps into our hearts and our thinking, yours and mine and every Christian’s.  Pastors think, oh, there is so much work to do, I must get busier, or else…  Elderly Christians, robbed by disease and frailty from serving others like they always used to, begin to question their faith, because they can’t do anything, and they have always associated being a Christian with doing things.  Newly baptized and newly confirmed Christians are drawn away from pure grace and free salvation to “Christian” churches who say Baptism and the Supper are fine, but if you really want to be sure, you need to master sin, or go door to door, or scurry off to Africa, or wear special clothes, or something.  You must, they say, do something more than simply believe in the forgiveness Christ gives.  And when whatever list of things they give you, or whatever list you think up yourself, when that list ends, another one soon comes along.  These lists of things you must do will keep coming, for just as long as you keep believing satan’s lie that you must earn salvation, just like you must earn a living in this world.   

     Two Promises.  Jesus responds to these two lies about earthly and spiritual matters with two promises.  First, Jesus promises, in this world you will have troubles.  God is not making the New Heavens and New Earth by reforming this sin soaked world, He’s going to burn it up and start over.  But for now, God keeps a lid on things, not trying to perfect the world, but making sure His Church has just enough peace and opportunity to gather, and proclaim, and serve the neighbor.  It is fine to try and live a decent life, and thank God for the earthly blessings you receive, including the blessing of good government.  And it is fine to participate in government, as long as that participation does not require you to deny Christ.  But regardless of how you make your way in this world, do not be fooled into thinking that you are going to find your best life now. 

     In this world you will have trouble, says Jesus, because the world, along with satan, hates Me, hates the Gospel, hates the notion that everything depends on a God who died on a Cross.  Even if your government isn’t actively persecuting Christians, (and, by the way, God often uses persecutions to cause great growth in His Spiritual Kingdom), even if the government favors the Church, don’t expect too much from earthly authorities.  For they are all shot through with sin and error.  They are only temporary, passing away.  The poor you will have with you always in this life, says Jesus.  Sickness and crime and drought and famine and earthquake and fire and flood are all consequences of living in this fallen world, and will continue, until the End. 

     Remembering that Jesus has promised life in this world is never going to be all peaches and cream is important.  Knowing not to put your hope in the potential of earthly heroes will keep you from seeing your hopes dashed into pieces.  Ironically, a lowered expectation about how great this life is going to be will help you more fully enjoy the good things you do receive.  Even more, it will keep you from transferring your faith from God to those earthly goods, which is idolatry. 

     Jesus second promise is concerning His Spiritual, Right Hand Government, that is, concerning His Church.  The gates of hell will not prevail against it.  The Church, created and sustained by the Word of Christ, will like that Word, endure forever.  No matter how bad things might look on earth, the Church wins in the end, and so by faith in Christ you are a winner already, today, and every day.  Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, is Almighty, all Wise, all Just and all Loving.  And He has promised to maintain His Church, to do everything needed to deliver her to His Father in heaven, spotless and radiant, a joyous and countless multitude gathered around God in all His glory.  Jesus will do it, everything, working through His Word, even working through His Word when it is spoken and sung and explained by sinners, like me, and like you.  Jesus, who has already completely received and swallowed up the entire wrath of God against all human sin, will go with His Word, will give His Spirit to all the baptized, will pursue the wandering, and will comfort the downtrodden and those who mourn.  Jesus has promised.  He will  do it. 

     The source of every problem in the Church is sin.  And so, in order to fulfill His promise to 
build and maintain and give the final victory to His Church, Jesus keeps one thing at the center 
of the life of the Church on earth.  Since it’s his birthday, I’ll say it the way Luther did:  
 “Therefore everything in the Christian church is so ordered that we may daily obtain full 
forgiveness of sins through the Word and through signs.” 
     The world sees only weakness in forgiveness, but then the world sees only death and defeat in the Crucifixion.  But God, and satan, and you also know better.  By the forgiveness Christ 
delivers to us, through Word, Water, Wheat and Wine, we are already citizens of heaven, free to live our lives without fear, loving our neighbors, in the Church and the world, because we have 
been perfectly loved by Jesus, Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blessed Holiness

All Saints Day (Observed)
 November 3rd, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches
Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Blessed Holiness

     This morning we celebrate All Saints Day, all the saints on earth remembering, and rejoicing with all the saints in heaven.  We continue our lives in the church on earth, a mixture of joy and sorrow, as we continue in the fight that is the Christian life.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us are finished with the fight, and know only joy, gathered around the throne of God, worshiping the Lamb who has been slain.  And yet, while today we focus on all the saints above and their heavenly worship of Jesus, every day, each time we gather around God’s Word in worship, our prayers and praises are joined to theirs.  Because our connection to them is the living Lord Jesus Christ, the One whom all the saints worship, in heaven and on earth, all the saints finding their peace and joy in Him.

     Our Gospel for All Saints Day is very familiar, the Beatitudes, or blessings, which begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus describes to a congregation of disciples the life of the church on earth, a  description which may leave us wondering why or how we are to find peace and joy in our life as Christians.  Blessed, says Jesus, are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  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.  

     What do you think?  Are peace and joy to be found in these Beatitudes, in these blessings?.  And while these Beatitudes that I’ve read may be the hardest to accept, even the sweeter sounding ones might still trouble us.  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. 
     No doubt, receiving mercy, seeing God, being called sons of God, these are things we wish for.  But what about when we are not merciful, when we are unclean in heart?  What about when we make strife and conflict, not peace?  And how can we find joy in the midst of humility, in mourning, even in persecutions?  How can we be merciful and pure?  How can we be peacemakers?  Jesus seems to describe a spiritual stature we can never hope to attain. 

      Consider your life.  Consider just this past week, alongside these Beatitudes.  For Jesus does not speak of some future spiritual stature.  He speaks of now.  Today.  He doesn’t say that the poor in spirit will be blessed, but rather “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.”  “Blessed are the merciful.”  Right now, those who are merciful, poor in spirit, they are blessed.  This stature is not for tomorrow, it is for right now; no future growth in holiness is implied here.  This is my church, Jesus says, how they are, right now, today.  Jesus’ present tense speaking can make us question, as we consider our lives alongside the Beatitudes, “Are we really in the Church?”  In Isaiah, and in Revelation, and in many other places, the LORD says he will come out of His dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins.  He comforts His people, and tells them to take refuge for a moment, until His wrath has passed by.  But when the LORD comes out from His dwelling, should you and I expect blessing, or punishment?  Considering our lives, and the way Jesus describes His Church in our Gospel lesson, what should you and I be expecting?   

     Considering our lives, we have cause to despair.  But do not despair.  Repent of your failures in holiness, yes, but do not despair about your salvation, do not give up your hope of heaven.  How?  How can we honestly think we are bound for blessing and glory?  Because, while Jesus is speaking about what His church is like, first and foremost His church is His body.  He goes before us in all things.  As Jesus describes blessedness in poverty of spirit, in mourning, in suffering and persecution, He is first and foremost speaking of Himself, the firstborn among many brothers.  In His life of humility and service, in His death for all sin, and in His resurrection which proclaims peace to all mankind,  Jesus fulfills the beatitudes, just as He fulfills all the Law of God.  When Scripture prophesies that the LORD is coming out of His dwelling, it is speaking of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, down from His rightful dwelling, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man: and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried.  The third day He rose according to the Scriptures.  So we see, in Jesus, the Beatitudes are already reality.  The lofty spiritual stature we cannot attain by our efforts, Jesus has already obtained, for us.  It is just as Isaiah prophesied in his 26th chapter: O LORD, you will ordain peace for us; you have done for us all our works.
     But wait, there’s more!  We see the completion of Salvation in the Resurrection, but Jesus did not stop working for us after Easter morning.  He continued to work, by His Spirit, sending His Apostles into all the world, building His church by the forgiveness of sins.  Today He continues to grow and protect her: teaching, washing, forgiving, and feeding her so that she stands.  When you gather around His word, God speaks words of forgiveness and blessing, to you.  By your Baptism, you are in Christ.  By His Supper, He is in you.  In Him and with Him we can stand meekly, but confidently, in the midst of poverty, mourning, and even persecution.  In Jesus, we always have reason to rejoice, for we know that in Him we have the guarantee of eternal peace and joy. 

     In Him and with Him, we can show mercy, we can make peace.  We will never do these perfectly in this life.  If it were possible for any of us to live as perfect saints, then why was it necessary for Jesus to die, to make us holy?  He came to be holy, in life and death and resurrection, because we are not holy, and cannot by our own reason or strength become holy.  But His perfection is our perfection, credited to us by faith, and so we have perfect confidence, knowing that with the saints who have gone before, we will see God.  We have been adopted by the Father for Jesus’ sake, and so we are sons of God, sons and daughters of the Most High. 

     Because you have Jesus, you have joy in the midst of suffering.  This promise does not trivialize your sorrow, or make it go away, like it isn’t real.  No, rather it sanctifies your sorrow.  It makes your sorrow holy, because by your union with Jesus, God shares in your sorrow.  In this union, you are free to show mercy, to make peace, and to rejoice, even in suffering and persecution, because Jesus has gone before you, and continues to go, before you and with you.  You have not attained great spiritual stature, but Jesus has, and He is with you.  You have Jesus, the One who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, all the way to the cross on Calvary.  You have Jesus, the Peacemaker, the One who has made peace between Man and God, by the blood of His Cross.  There He won your righteousness, your forgiveness, and so also your peace and joy.   

     So rejoice on this All Saints Day, and every day, and sing with the whole church, in heaven and on earth: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"  "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" Amen."