Sunday, November 25, 2012

Homily for The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Sunday of the Fulfillment / Trinity 27)

10 Virgins


Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Isaiah 65:17-25

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

Each year, on the Last Sunday of the Church Year, you hear today’s lesson from the Gospel according to St. Matthew – Jesus’ parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Though there are many interesting points of discussion and many layers of meaning in this parable, truth be told, there are only two things that you really want to know: “What is the oil?” And, “Where do I get it?”

That Jesus prefaces this parable by saying that it describes the kingdom of heaven, and that the protagonists in the story are virgins, waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom, this indicates to you that this parable is told to the Church, to the body and to the Bride of Christ, and that the virgins are, in fact, you, His faithful Christians. All ten virgins believe in the Bridegroom and trust that He is coming as He has promised. They have their lamps, lit and ablaze with the light of faith, and they wait, patiently, for the Bridegroom to come. However, this is when the crux arises: The Bridegroom is delayed, and as they patiently and faithfully wait and watch for Him to come, the virgins become sleepy, and all ten of them fall asleep.

Now, to this point there has been shown to be no difference between the virgins – all are forgiven by grace through faith, all are robed in the whiteness of baptismal righteousness, all are filled with faith, burning and shining with the light of faith. But, five of the virgins brought extra oil with them, and five did not. This fact hardly mattered when the Bridegroom’s arrival seemed to be imminent; however, now that He has become delayed, there is a crux, a crisis – literally, a crisis of faith. Yes, the answer to the first question, “What is the oil?” is faith – the oil in the lamps, and the oil in reserve, is faith: faith in the Bridegroom, faith in His promised coming. What distinguished the five wise virgins from the five foolish virgins was not that the wise were somehow better Christians than the foolish, or more faithful – remember, all ten of them fell asleep – but the five wise virgins had oil, they had faith to spare, to keep their lamps burning even through the delay of the Bridegroom.

Now, I know that your reason wants to credit the wise virgins for their having a surplus of oil, and that you are tempted to think of them as better or more faithful than their foolish companions, however, Jesus’ teaching will not permit this. For, oil, like faith, is not something that you have naturally, or that you can choose or develop on your own, but you must purchase oil from a dealer, that is to say that you must receive faith, not from within you, but from outside of you. Faith is a gift; it has to be given to you, sown within you, created within you ex nihilo, out of the nothingness of your soul in sin and death. Only if the Lord sows faith in you is there hope that it will grow; only if the Lord, by His Holy Spirit fills you with the oil of faith, not once, but again and again throughout your life, will you have oil sufficient to wait and to watch for the coming of the Bridegroom whenever He may come.

And, when the Bridegroom arrived, at an unknown day and hour, the wise virgins with their extra oil entered into the marriage feast, while the foolish virgins – whose lamps were going out and who realized that they could not produce for themselves the oil of faith – pleaded for the wise to give them some of their oil. But, of course, that is impossible, for no one can believe for another. This is why you confess in the Creed “I believe”, and not “We believe”. Indeed, we may, and we do, believe and confess together the same faith; nevertheless, each of you, dear Christians, must believe and confess for yourself. You must have the oil of faith within you. Therefore, the wise virgins had to reply to the foolish, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with Him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. “What is the oil?” The oil is faith. “Where do you get it?” That is the question we must answer next.

Jesus uses the language of commerce – “Go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” But, you cannot buy faith, can you? No, of course you cannot. Therefore, you should consider some other instances in which the Prophets and our Lord Jesus used similar language of commerce in regard to things you cannot buy. For example, from the Prophet Isaiah: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Jesus repeats the same in the Gospel According to St. John, and then again in the Revelation saying, “let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” Your Lord Jesus invites you to come and buy faith, eternal life, and salvation without cost and without price, for He has paid the price in full for you and for all men, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”

It should be clear by now who and where “the dealers” are: The dealers of the oil of faith are those servants of the Lord whom He has set apart to give to you, free and without cost, the gifts that your Lord Jesus purchased for you at great cost – forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. You will find them where Christ has promised to be, wherever two or three are gathered in His Name around His faith creating and sustaining gifts of Word and Sacrament. Here, in this place, through these humble means, Christ your Lord creates faith ex nihilo, out of nothing, in the hearts of sinful men by the power of His Holy Spirit through His proclaimed Gospel Word and the washing of Holy Baptism. Here, in this place, He nourishes, feeds, strengthens, and keeps the light of faith burning brightly by replenishing the oil of faith in you as you confess your sins and receive His absolution, hear His Word and inwardly digest it, eat His body and drink His blood and commune in Him, and He in you. When God made you a Christian, He gave you a new life. Yes, you were born again, but your spiritual rebirth was no more by your will, reason, power, or choice than was your natural birth. God alone creates something out of nothing. God alone raises the dead to life. God alone creates and sustains faith in the hearts and souls of men conceived and born in sin, meriting only death.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the place where Christians come to replenish their faith so that they may continue to wait and watch in patient perseverance for the coming of the Lord. And, despite Her warts and wrinkles, the fact that She is composed entirely of sinful and hypocritical men, the Church is the holy and virgin womb in which faith is conceived and the children of God are born. She is bosom of Abraham from whence God’s children are suckled and nourished. That is why the Divine Liturgy is something that we must take great care to preserve and to keep and to do properly. That is why, no matter what the world throws at the Church and Her Christians, no matter what else our failings and foibles might be, Jesus Christ will be present amongst us with His Words and with His Wounds just as He has promised. And, blessed are you when you are humbled to see the Church and Her worship, not as something that you are compelled to endure, but the very location and means of your receiving the one thing needful – faith, which receives all the gifts and blessings of the Bridegroom Jesus Christ.

Still, there is another aspect of Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins that you must consider: When the foolish virgins returned from their search for more oil, they found the door to the marriage feast shut. They cried out to the Lord saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But He answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Hours ago, these were His holy virgins, waiting in faith for His coming, but now He says that He does not know them! Such harsh words from your Lord should cause you to wrestle with them to determine their meaning and how this can be, what has changed. This much is certain, what has not changed is the Bridegroom. Your Lord Jesus has paid for the salvation of all people, without exception, regardless of their faith. When He died on the cross, it was finished, for everyone. That truth will never change – thanks be to God for His grace and His mercy! Moreover, His Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He pleases, as a sower sows his seed, in hearts and souls that do not refuse Him. That is to say, His grace is not irresistible, and it is not true that we are “once saved, always saved”. Men who once believed can fall into unbelief. Faith that is not nourished, kept, and replenished will grow weak and die. That is precisely what occurred with the five foolish virgins. They neglected their faith; perhaps they took it for granted. They did not nourish it and keep it full and aflame, but they permitted it to slowly fade away, diminish, and burn out. Then, the Bridegroom came, at a day and an hour no one could know, and it was not that they fell asleep that caused them to be outside the gates, but it was that their faith had grown weak and had died. The Bridegroom Jesus pronounced the judgment that they had chosen for themselves, “I do not know you.” I loved you with my Father’s love; I did everything that was necessary to make you right with Him; I died for you and shed my blood for you that you could live; but you have rejected me. I knew you once, but now, I do not recognize what stands before me. You were flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, but now you are something else, something other.

“But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. […] For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.” Whether we are awake or asleep, that is not the issue, for it is not what we do that matters, but it is what Christ has done. You cannot buy it, choose it, reason it, or merit it, but salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is yours at no cost, right here, and right now. A foretaste of the marriage feast to come is here for you now that you may be well prepared, having sufficient oil of faith, whenever the Bridegroom should appear. The feast is prepared; “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

National Day of Thanksgiving (Harvest Festival)

F-12 St. Mark (Lu 10.1-9)


Luke 12:13-21; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Deuteronomy 8:1-10

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

Today is a day to give thanks to God for His providence. But, “Shouldn’t we give thanks to God every day?” you ask. Yes, of course we should; but we don’t. Thus, we should be thankful that our nation has set aside this one day each year when we collectively rest from our labors – well, most of us – and give thanks for food, for clothing, for shelter, for family, and for all things, to a higher power, however he, she, they, or it might be defined. Truly, we need this day of thanksgiving to get us to cease for a moment in our striving to carve out our own piece of the American dream and to gain our independence and self-sufficiency, to look outside of ourselves to our God, who lovingly provides us all that we need to sustain our bodies and lives, by no merit or worthiness in us, but because of His own Fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.

We get so wrapped up in the notion of earning a wage by our own works and labor so that we can buy food and shelter and all the necessities and pleasures of life that we seldom stop to think about the source of all these things. Most likely, whether we think about it or not, we consider ourselves to be the source. This begs the question, “Who, then, is our god?” That is what the man in Jesus’ parable believed. He had stored up a great wealth of grain, more than he could possibly use. He said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” From his perspective, the labor was his and the harvest was his. He had done his work, and in his work he trusted. Why not then kick back and have a drink to himself, his labor, and self-merit? But, the God who gave him the grain and his goods, the God who gave him his life and breath, required it of him that very night. And when the man was dead, what do you think became of his storehouses of grain? Did they not spoil and decay? Were they not eaten by insect and vermin? In the end, not only did they not benefit the rich man, but they benefitted no man.

The truth is that we are stewards, managers of God’s creation. When we give Him thanks we acknowledge this truth; we fear, love, and trust in Him alone as God. He lovingly provides us with all that we need, and more, with which we can serve our brother and our neighbor in his need. Our heavenly Father wants us to sow bountifully, and so reap bountifully. There is no need to be stingy or selfish, for we sow, we give, only of what belongs to Him. And, you cannot be compelled or forced to give, but you must give freely from your heart, in cheerfulness, without resentment. For, by giving to others, you acknowledge the Lord to be God, and your neighbor, too, may turn in thankfulness to the God who provides for His children. And, since your heavenly Father knows what you need, and graciously provides you what you need, you do not need to be anxious or worrying, and you do not need to covet what belongs to your brother and your neighbor. For, with faith comes comfort, peace, and contentment. Through faith in Christ you lack nothing; therefore, give thanks for what you have, and give thanks for what your brother and your neighbor have. Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. However, misplaced fear, love, and trust in possessions can cause them to possess you. Therefore, lay up your treasures in heaven, and not on earth, for the one who lays up treasure for himself cannot be rich toward God.

There is an interesting corollary between the beginning of the Lenten season and the observance of our National Day of Thanksgiving. Everyone knows how New Orleans celebrates the beginning of Lent by gorging in all manner of lasciviousness the day before known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday – Let’s relax, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we fast and die. However, do we not go a step further at Thanksgiving? Indeed, we gorge ourselves into a stupor on Turkey Day, and then we go insane for twenty-four hours (or more) and bow down and worship the god of commercialism, ironically, in the name of Jesus. This year, more stores than ever before will be open, not only at four in the morning on Black Friday, but they will open their doors as early as 4:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day! Truly, wherever a church is built for God, there the devil builds a chapel next door.

Covetousness, greed, selfishness, these are the fruits of self-righteousness, which itself is a fruit of unbelief and idolatry. We are at risk of bowing down to the false gods of commercialism and materialism every day, but perhaps never as much as the so-called holiday season. Indeed, our culture, our neighbors, our friends, and even our family and children place pressures upon us to buy, to consume, to acquire, and to amass stuff, and things – idols; even the secular media and the government tell you that it is patriotic and responsible citizenship to buy, buy, buy so that our nation’s economy will recover. Do not listen to that whispering voice. But, give thanks to the Lord in all things, at all times, and in all places, for He knows your needs, and He graciously provides you all things needful. And, when your brother or your neighbor has a need that you can satisfy, give it to him, freely, with cheer – Your Lord will generously replace what you give. He will always give you more than you need, that you may freely give to others and glorify Him.

Even now He is present in this Holy Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, to give you forgiveness anew, eternal life, and salvation in Jesus Christ. Come, and give thanks to the Lord who is here for you; come, and give thanks to the Lord by receiving Him into your body and soul. When the Lord is your treasure, then you are truly rich, and you will have all that is needful for eternal life. Trust in Him, for He provides you all you need for life in this world as well.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Homily for The Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26)



Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Peter 3:3-14; Daniel 7:9-14

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

The scene described in our Old Testament lesson today from the Prophet Daniel depicts the coronation of “one like a son of man”. At first Daniel describes the Ancient of Days, who is God the Father, sitting upon His throne in judgment, surrounded by the heavenly host as the royal record books are opened. The scene is descriptive of a king’s courtroom where he is about to pronounce a binding legal judgment. A little horn is speaking, bringing charges and making boastful and proud accusations as a prosecuting attorney. In the verses preceding today’s pericope, Daniel describes four great beasts come up out of the sea. This blasphemous little horn is but one of ten horns upon the head of the fourth beast in Daniel’s vision; Daniel describes it as having eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth.

It is enough to understand the little horn as the activity of Satan in the world through men. And, though his charges and his accusations are against men, they are truly against God Himself. Thus, he is a blasphemer. Likewise, though men are the instruments of Satan to do evil, and are guilty of their own sins and transgressions, it is truly God Himself who is on trial. This is consistent with God’s answer to Job’s pleading question, “Why my suffering?” God’s answer: “That the righteousness of God might be revealed.” When Satan asked to test Job, he wasn’t concerned about Job’s faith and righteousness at all, but he wanted to put God to the test; he wanted to pit God’s justice and righteousness against His goodness, love, and mercy. Thus, it is true that no man is your enemy, for only Satan is your enemy; and Satan is only your enemy because He is God’s enemy first.

As the little horn was speaking, however, Daniel tells us that the beast upon whose head the horn was planted was destroyed. Who was that beast but Satan himself? And what was the cause of his destruction? That is revealed in the coronation of one like a son of man. He was presented before the Ancient of Days and to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him; His dominions is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. What Daniel foresaw in prophetic vision was fulfilled in the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When Satan hurled his charges, his accusations, and his blasphemies against God’s Son on the cross, Jesus took it all upon Himself and He died in your place, in my place, in Job’s place, in Adam’s place, that we might live. And, because of His perfect selflessness, sacrifice, and obedience, God the Father crowned Him and has given Him dominion and authority over heaven and earth and all things in them, so that the same description of the Ancient of Days is used to describe the Son of Man, Jesus, in the Revelation to St. John which closes the canon of Holy Scripture.

For, the Revelation much less reveals something new, that is yet to come, than it unveils something that is already accomplished: The Lamb of God Jesus Christ has died, and yet He lives – He stands as the lamb that is slain. He reigns and He rules with the Father, the Ancient of Days, and together with Him receives blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power forever and ever. It is accomplished. It is finished. Thus, what Daniel foresaw in prophetic vision was already a done deal. God had determined it. Therefore, no matter what life lays before you, no matter what challenge or fear or frustration you may face, the end of the story is written, and Jesus has us for all eternity – we win! And, since His dominion is everlasting, those who are in it are also eternal. That means that we are not looking forward to eternal life, actually, for we already possess it. Scripture calls it a hope because we do not experience its reality fully at this point in time. But we have it already, by virtue of our Baptism, and by the gift of the Medicine of Immortality which we receive in the Holy Supper. Jesus had accomplished it all for us already, it is pure gift. "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved."

The Apostle Peter expounds upon the ramifications of this reality by answering the question, “How then shall we live?” That is to say, if God created all things that exist, if Satan plunged all things into sin and death, if God redeemed all things through the victorious death and resurrection of His Son, and if Jesus is returning in glory and judgment on a day to come when all created things will burn and dissolve away, then what kind of people ought you to be? You are to live lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, being diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace. Of course, this is impossible for man, but it is a reality through baptism and faith in Jesus Christ. You are to take comfort and strength in the victory and eternal life that is already yours in Jesus and wait for His return in patient vigilance, in humility and repentance, in service to your brother and neighbor, persevering to the end.

In this regard, Jesus prophesied of that day, that He will come in glory and will sit upon His throne in judgment. Then He will separate the sheep from the goats. Yet, the clear indication is that the judgment will have already occurred, for the sheep are already sheep and the goats are already goats – all that is left is to separate them, a task easily accomplished by the outward appearance of each species. Still, Jesus does describe the behaviors of those He recognizes as sheep as compared to those He recognizes as goats. The sheep, Jesus says, gave food to Him when He was hungry and drink when He was thirsty, they welcomed Him as a stranger, clothed His nakedness, and visited Him when sick and in prison. In contrast, Jesus says, the goats did not do these things. Then, lest we make of His words a mere moralism, Jesus adds that the sheep did not realize that they had done these things to Him, nor did the goats realize that they had not. Thus, Jesus’ words are not a prescription for what you must do to be a sheep of His flock, but rather they are indicative that Christ is in those who trust in Him so that He counts them as His brothers. Therefore, to serve one of Jesus’ brothers is serve Jesus, and to refuse them and to reject them is to reject Him. It is much less about your deeds than it is your faith in, or rejection of, Jesus that makes you either a sheep or a goat. Yet, the truth remains that sheep will do sheepy things (love, compassion, mercy, charity, kindness, and forgiveness), while goats will be goats. The undone works are only a symptom of the real problem: lack of faith. If they had called on the Lord in faith, He would have forgiven them, prepared them, and completed good works in them.

The Judgment has already happened. Judgment Day was Good Friday. That was the day that our sins were judged and punished. It is not a day ahead of us, but the day Jesus died on the cross. So we look to the cross for comfort and hope, and we gladly bear the cross appointed for us, that we may share in the victory which Christ, the Son of Man, won for us, and was given, with us included, in Daniel's Vision of the End.

Life hurts. Dangers threaten. Illness frightens us. We often feel overwhelmed, and out of control. But God tells us that we should not trust our senses here, but listen to His Word. Already in the time of Daniel, five centuries before the time of Christ, it was a settled plan, and He locked it up in Jesus. God doesn't want us fearing what the world throws at us. He desires that we trust Him, and find daily peace and comfort in Him. Your sins are forgiven because Jesus died for you. God gives you eternal life for Christ's sake – or, as Daniel saw it, God gives you to Jesus for an eternal dominion. Either way, it is not what it may feel like at the moment that is important, but what we see in this apocalyptic vision of the end.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Homily for The Third-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25)



Matthew 24:15-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Exodus 32:1-20

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

Let’s get this right from the start: The abomination that causes desolation is not a statue of a pagan god, or even of the Roman emperor, set up in the Jewish temple, but the abomination of desolation is the One True God hanging dead upon a Roman cross. Thus, there’s no need to speculate when it’s going to happen, or if it’s already happened, or what, or when, or where it was or will be, because that’s it: God, dead upon the cross, is the abomination above and beyond all abominations. And to the wise and to the strong, to those whose unbelieving eyes, ears, and hearts see Jesus’ crucified corpse as weakness and defeat, this is a cause for stumbling and for desolation. However, for the perishing, for those with eyes, ears, and hearts of faith, it is a cause for strength, and peace, and comfort.

The people of Jesus’ day lived under Roman rule. The Romans demonstrated this by placing their insignia, the eagle, upon the lands they ruled. This eagle insignia was called an aquila, and it was carried before a legion of soldiers by a standard bearer. The Romans even affixed an aquila upon the temple in Jerusalem, thus reminding the Jews that “even the temple, the center of their worship and the assurance of God’s presence among them, belonged not to them but to the Roman emperor, whose guards kept a watchful eye on it.” For the Jew, this was an abomination. It was idolatry. It was outrageous that a man like the Roman emperor, who claimed to be a god, would set his insignia upon the place where the true God dwelt on earth. The temple doesn’t belong to Rome, it belongs to the Lord.

Understandably, the children of Israel were angry and upset, even desolate at what they perceived to be the abomination the Roman’s had placed upon God’s temple. Also, in the face of subjugation, taxation, the limiting and controlling of their religious freedom, not to mention the ridicule, mocking, and degrading they suffered under the Roman occupiers, the people became impatient, wanting to be free of Rome, and their faith and trust in God to provide and protect waned, and they drifted off into idolatry just as their ancestors had done in the days they waited for Moses to come down from the mountain with God’s Commandments. They recast the temple into their own image. They used the temple as a way for them to take power, seize control, and make money. They made it into a den of robbers. They used it as a way to enslave. They created an idol, an abomination.

Yet, God, dead upon the cross, is the abomination that causes desolation. The abomination created by the Jews of Jesus’ day was but the fruit of their desolation. God gave His only-begotten Son to be the Messiah, the anointed Savior of all mankind. He had made this covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and had kept it throughout years of want and years of plenty, years of captivity and exile, and years of prosperity and peace. But they rejected God’s Christ, and made for themselves a salvation by works according to the laws of men, just as they rejected God’s commandments long ago, and made for themselves a god of gold in the form of a calf. They chose for themselves man’s religion, the religion of the Pharisee, scribes, and Saduccees, and they rejected the Good News of man’s redemption in Jesus Christ. They worshiped the temple, and they sent the Temple of God in human flesh, Jesus, to a Roman cross to suffer and die. There, upon the cross, the Roman standard and insignia, the eagle, encircled His mutilated corpse, just as Jesus had prophesied, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

Indeed, vultures is a satisfactory translation of the Greek ἀετοί, but eagles is better. When God died on the cross, His corpse was surrounded by the eagle insignia of the Roman Empire. For, this was the true abomination: The Christ of God, betrayed into Roman hands, crucified and dead upon a Roman cross. This was the true abomination that brings desolation to those who do not see in Jesus’ death the victory of Christ over sin and death and Satan. Thus, Jesus squarely placed His prophetic warning of tribulation and suffering after His own death and resurrection. However, He did connect it to an event in the future, though not far off, when tribulation such as the world had never experienced before, or would ever experience again, fell upon Jerusalem and upon all of Israel. For, within forty years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, within the time of that present generation of men, the Romans would lay siege to Jerusalem and then invade and utterly destroy her, her walls and her temple, and leave her utterly desolate like a corpse.

When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., the Jews, and the Romans, indeed, all the world, thought that God had abandoned His people. But the truth was, not that God had abandoned His people, but that the people had abandoned their God. They left God’s Word behind for a god, an idol, of their own making. They worshiped a building, they worshiped men and their laws and commands, they worshiped their occupiers by placing their fear and their trust in them. But God had not abandoned them. In fact, in Jesus’ death upon the cross, God was most for His people. For, upon the cross, Jesus atoned for man’s sins, suffered in man’s place, was obedient under God’s Law, and substituted for man’s death. And, though He died, our God is not dead, but He has destroyed the power of death and set us free from sin. And He has made you to be His temples in which He dwells. He feeds you with the fruits of His cross. He marks you with His own insignia, the sign of His cross. And He places upon you His Name and covers you with His righteousness.

You look around the world today and you imagine that it is filled with abomination, things and people and deeds that are so outrageous that you recoil in horror at the sight of them. But, when you look to the cross, you see God’s true power to overcome your real problems: sin and death. When you see the cross, you see God’s wisdom. When you see the cross, you see God’s true love for you. See God, therefore, where He may be truly found. For false prophets will say “Look, the Christ is here!” or “Look, the Christ is there!” But if they point you away from the Means of Grace, away from Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, they point you where He has not promised to be. They point you to idolatry, an abomination that will leave you desolate.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Thanks to Rev. Jason Braaten and Rev. Dr. David Scaer for portions of this homily and for much of the inspiration behind it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Homily for The Feast of All Saints (observed)

van eyck adoration of the lambs-resized-600


Matthew 5:1-12; 1 John 3:1-3; Revelation 7:2-17

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

Our First Lesson today from Revelation chapter seven describes the Church of Jesus Christ in heaven. Our Gospel Lesson from Matthew chapter five describes the Church of Jesus Christ on earth. What we celebrate today on this Feast of All Saints is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is the body of Christ, both in heaven and on earth, together, gathered around the throne the God and the Lamb in ceaseless worship, peace, and joy.

In Revelation chapter seven, the Church of Jesus Christ in heaven is unveiled for us. The 144,000 are sealed in Holy Baptism. They are the twelve tribes of Israel, even though this precise listing of the names of the tribes appears nowhere else in the Holy Scriptures. Joseph and his son Manasseh are included, but Joseph’s other son Ephraim is omitted. The priestly tribe of Levi is included, but Dan is omitted. Thus, the number 144,000 is a symbolic number, and the twelve tribes represent not only faithful Jews, but also God-fearing Gentiles grafted into the True Vine Jesus Christ – the entire Church of all times and all places. This point is clarified when John then sees “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. When an elder asked John, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” he proceeded to explain, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”

These are the saints of Christ, made to be holy in the blood of the Lamb. Their white robes are Christ’s righteousness which covers all their sins, bestowed upon them in Holy Baptism. They have come out of the great tribulation which is this life and world wrecked by sin and death. They are the living proof of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan. They are the living proof of God’s promise to you kept in, through, and because of the sacrificial, substitutionary, and atoning death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. “They are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence,” or, more literally, He will spread His tabernacle over them.

How do the saints in heaven serve the Lord? They worship and they pray the liturgy with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

But, what about you? What about Christ’s Church on earth? What about the saints of God here, still in the great tribulation? Be comforted and be strengthened, and stand firm in your faith, for you are a part of the Church of Jesus Christ in heaven as well as on earth. You too have been clothed in Christ’s righteousness in Holy Baptism. You too have been sealed in His holy, cleansing, and purifying blood. You too serve God in His temple and are sheltered under His tabernacle, which is Jesus’ body and blood. You gather with the heavenly saints at this altar, where heaven meets earth, until we come out of the great tribulation and join the heavenly host before the throne of God and the Lamb.

Yes, I know that you don’t see what they see, the radiance and the glory of God and the Lamb. But, what you see are the Church’s scars and bruises. What you see are Her faults and imperfections. What you see is the Church and Her members, Her Christians, in meekness and poverty, in mourning, and in hunger and thirst. This is not the Church in glory, but this is the Church under the cross. She is no more glorious to the eyes of men or in the eyes of the world than Her Lord appeared on the glorious cross. Her glory is hidden, just as Christ’s glory was hidden in His suffering and death. It is hidden under weakness and sin and death.

Jesus looked upon His Church upon the mountaintop and he opened His mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Jesus’ Beatitudes are not prescriptive, they are descriptive. They do not tell you what you must do, but they unveil before you what you are. You are blessed. You are blessed, not because you are so very meek; but you are blessed because Jesus is perfectly meek. You are blessed, not because you are poor; but you are blessed because Jesus is perfectly poor. You are blessed, not because you are merciful and mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, persecuted or peacemakers; but, you are blessed because Jesus is all those things perfectly for you. Jesus is your salvation, and when you actually experience and practice these selfless qualities in your life, then you are empty of your self sufficiency that you may be filled with Christ. But, if you insist on bringing your own thoughts, words, and deeds to God, then you will stand with them alone, and you will be judged by them alone – not blessed, guilty, sinful, meriting death and eternal punishment. Nevertheless, you are not blessed because you do and practice these selfless works, but you are blessed in and through them. Jesus does not teach that you will be blessed in doing them, but he teaches that you are blessed in and through them. You are blessed because you participate in Christ, and He works in and through you.

Again, the world does not count such selflessness as glory, but weakness. The world mocks and shakes its head at the Church filled with sinners and hypocrites. The temptation is for you to do the same. The temptation is for you to despair at the church rent asunder by schism and heresy, by infighting, lethargy, and worse. The temptation is for you to join with the chorus of Satan and mock Christ and His Bride. Do not give in to temptation. Today is a reminder of the victory of the Church of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and Satan through the victorious death and resurrection of Her Lord and Head. The saints in heaven are living proof of this victory and of your own victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Martin Luther wrote about the hidden glory of Christ’s Church saying, “While worms and rottenness are before our eyes, we cannot be unmindful of them, nevertheless there will be a time when God will wipe away every tear, as is stated in Rev. 7:17. Therefore faith should begin to forget tears and dishonor which it does not see. Although the eyes see the rottenness, the ears hear the complaints and sobs, and the noses smell the stench of the corpses, nevertheless it is the part of faith to say: ‘I do not know this. I see nothing. Indeed, I see a multiplication and a brightness surpassing the sun itself and the stars.’ Therefore, such examples are set before us in order that we may learn that God is the Creator of all things, restores the dead to life and glorifies worms and the foulest rottenness. And He wants this to be acknowledged and celebrated by us in this life in faith. Later, however, in the future life, we shall experience it in actual fact.”

Today we are reminded of the great cloud of witnesses that are the prophets, apostles, evangelists, and saints who have gone before us. They are the living proof of our victory over death and the grave through Jesus, the founder and perfecter of faith.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.