Thursday, November 28, 2019

Eve of the Day of National Thanksgiving

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 2:00 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 24, 2019

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

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.
Last Sunday, you were a sheep. This Sunday, you are a virgin. Yes, once again, your Lord Jesus is speaking to you in a parable. However, the truth is that you are not a virgin, are you. Truth be told, you are more like that woman Jesus met at the well who had had seven husbands, and the man she was presently with was not her husband. You are a spiritual adulterer and idolater; You give your fear, your love, and your trust to foreign idols and false gods. And, yet, you have repented, and you have been baptized. And, even though you were a spiritual adulterer, your Lord looks upon you as His virgin bride. In fact, He has suffered for your betrayal and your wandering eyes and hearts, and He has died for your transgressions, paying the penalty for your sins in His flesh, and He has washed you clean in His holy, innocent shed blood and has called you His beloved, His bride. This is the Lord’s work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Yes, you are a virgin, and you are a bride in the eyes of the Lord. And, you are waiting, even now, for the arrival of your Bridegroom. But, your Bridegroom is delayed. He has been delayed for almost 2,000 years, and it may be another 2,000 years before He returns. Or, He may return today, or tomorrow, or next month. For, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Therefore, you must watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Ah, but, what does that mean? How do you watch? And, what are you watching for? Well, you are watching for the coming of the Bridegroom, Jesus. That’s simple enough. However, these past few weeks you have heard warnings about false Christs that will arise in the last days. The only way to distinguish the teaching of a false Christ is by checking it against the Word of the true Christ, the Holy Scriptures. And, how do you watch? Well, the best kind of watching is done, not with your eyes, but with your ears. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, and the ears that hear what you hear. Once again, being a regular hearer of the Lord’s Word and being a regular recipient of His gifts will equip you and sustain you with eyes that see and with ears that hear. All of this is to say that, in order to be well prepared for the Bridegroom’s return, in order to be found watching when He comes, you do not need to be found doing anything, but, rather, you need to be found receiving. What must you be found receiving? Well, your Lord Jesus describes it in The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as oil, oil in your lamps. Thus, the ultimate question that must be answered in this parable is, “What is the oil, and where can you get it?”
But first, let us consider why the oil is the all-important factor. As all ten of the maidens were virgins, it was not their virginity alone that made them more or less prepared to enter the marriage feast. Likewise, as they each, at least initially, had their own lamps burning with oil, having a lamp and oil at some time was not decisive either. Additionally, all ten virgins fell asleep, and, thus, it was not even their wakeful watching that made them well-prepared for the Bridegroom’s arrival. So then, the necessary thing that counted for preparedness when the Bridegroom arrived was the oil, and the oil alone. When the cry went out at midnight that the Bridegroom had arrived, all ten sleeping virgins awoke and began to tend to their lamps. However, five of the virgins, whom Jesus calls foolish, had run out of oil. They had not brought extra along with them and were not prepared for the Bridegroom’s delay. The other five virgins, who also slumbered, nevertheless brought extra oil with them. Because of this, Jesus calls them wise. They filled their lamps and lit them and prepared to enter the wedding feast.
Now, what is the oil? Where do you get it? How do you keep it over the course of your life? These are the questions you should be asking. What is the oil? The oil represents faith continually sustained by the means of grace, thus able to endure until Christ’s return. Where do you get it? Plainly, in the Church, for the Church is the Bride of Christ in which He is present with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. In the Church is the womb of the baptismal font from which new Christians are born. In the Church is absolution and the forgiveness of sins. In the Church is the proclaimed Word of the Lord, the Gospel, which comforts and strengthens faith, and equips for good works to the glory of the Lord. In the Church is the body and blood of Jesus for the faithful to eat and to drink that they may persevere in this little while in which our Bridegroom is delayed. The oil is faith, and the Word and Sacraments in the Church, the means of grace, sustain faith until the Bridegroom comes. Thus, how do you keep the oil of faith over the course of your life? You come regularly and frequently to the Church to have your oil replenished and to be forgiven, comforted, and strengthened that you may persevere until He comes and be found well prepared.
That is where the five foolish virgins made haste when they awoke and realized that their lamps had gone out and that they had no more oil. Sure, they hoped to borrow some from the others, but that will not do. No one can believe for another, but each must believe for herself, each must have the oil of faith to fill her own lamp. Thus, they made haste to go and buy from the oil merchants. “Go and buy?” you protest. “But, pastor, you are always teaching us that we cannot buy, earn, or merit our justification by our works or money.” You are right, of course! Then, what does Jesus mean to say? Well, think of it this way: The time between Jesus’ Ascension and His Parousia, that is His return on the Last Day – the time of the Bridegroom’s delay – is the time of the Church. It is the time in which the faithful are gathered by the Holy Spirit around the means of grace, God’s Word and His Blessed Sacraments, that new Christians may be born, that faith may be created, strengthened, and sustained, and that sins may be forgiven. However, when the Lord returns on the Last Day, when the Bridegroom arrives, the time of the Church will be over. Thus, the five foolish virgins rushed out seeking to buy oil only to find that all the vendors were closed, not only for the night, but forever. The time in which to buy oil and to keep your lamp full with oil to spare is now. When the Lord returns, it will be to late. This is what it means to be prepared: You are prepared if you have oil in your lamp. You are prepared if your faith is being nurtured, strengthened, and preserved in the means of grace, through Word and Sacrament, in the body of Christ, the Church, His Bride.
“Ok,” you say, “but still, why does Jesus say that the virgins should go to the dealers and buy oil for themselves? You can’t buy or earn faith, right?” Right! You are absolutely right! But, what does the Prophet Isaiah say? “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.” If you have oil, if you believe, if you trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, then your God-given, Holy Spirit-created faith is credited to you as righteousness. Likewise, as St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle, “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.” And, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” You did not buy this defensive armor, but they are yours and they cover you and protect you because you have faith in Christ. The oil of faith is replenished and sustained in the same way, but you have to have it. You can’t borrow it. You can’t earn it. You can’t buy it. But, you must have your faith replenished through the Words and Wounds of Jesus, in the Church, through Word and Sacrament.
Therefore, if you absent yourself from the means of grace for a prolonged period of time, you are putting yourself in grave peril. No, you will not surely die, immediately, – remember who used that little trick on our First Parents – but you will die, spiritually, in time. This reminds me of the story of a pastor’s visit to a member who had stopped attending church. The pastor was welcomed in and was seated in a chair by the fire. Neither the pastor nor the parishioner spoke a word. After a while, the pastor reached out with tongs and removed an ember from the fire and placed it upon the hearth. As the silence continued, the ember grew steadily colder until it was stone cold dead. After a few moments’ silence, the pastor returned the cold, dead ember to the fire, and immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the coals burning around it. As the pastor reached the door to leave, the parishioner said, “Thank you so much for your visit, Pastor, and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.” The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is just such a story. Here Jesus teaches you to keep yourself glowing with His light by remaining in His gifts where He gives them and where He has promised to be until He returns. Having oil in your lamp is not something you have to go and seek for yourself, but your Lord, your Bridegroom Jesus suffered and died and rose again to keep your lamps full through His Word and Sacraments until He returns to take you to Himself to be His Holy Bride. Until then, He provides this feast for you today, which is but a foretaste of that great wedding feast that is to come.
If you remain in Him, He has promised to remain in you. He will never leave you or forsake you. And, nothing can separate you from His love. If you remain in Him and His gifts, it matters not should He return when you are awake or when you are sleeping, for your life is in Him throughout this little while until He comes. And, your Lord Jesus exhorts you to encourage one another and build one another up in this truth. If you see that a brother or sister is missing out on the gifts, that his or her faith is growing weak, or cold, is dying, or is already dead, encourage them to come and receive the true oil of faith and be replenished. For, the time is coming when the Church will be closed and will be no more, and then it will be too late. However, today the Church is open and Jesus’ gifts are free for you to buy without cost or price. Come, and fill your lamps with the precious, life-giving oil of faith in Jesus Christ, and fear not the day and hour of His coming. Join your voice with the voice of Christ’s Church of all times and all places saying, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Come, quickly come!” Behold! He has come. He comes. And, He is coming on the clouds. “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Come, quickly come!”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

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 Church of Christ always has Her eyes set upon Her Lord Jesus. In Advent She is focused upon Her Lord in His coming as an infant child, the Babe of Bethlehem. Throughout the Epiphany, Easter, and Trinity seasons She is focused upon Her Lord who has come as the Lamb of Calvary. And now, at the end of the Church’s Year of Grace, She is focused upon His coming again as Redeemer, Judge, and King.
He has come. He comes. And, He is coming. Our Lord Jesus, Emmanuel, has beenis, and will be with us always, even to the end of the age. He was before the foundation of the world. He sustains the world in its present existence. And, He is coming again at the world’s end. And, throughout it all, He is a two-edged sword, He is a stone of stumbling and a cause of division amongst men. Indeed, the Prince of Peace did not come to bring peace, but a sword; that is to say, Jesus did not come to leave things as they are, but Jesus came to break hardened hearts of stone and to bring hope to the hopeless and despairing. But this world must, and it will, pass away; its very elements will burn and melt in fire.
And when He comes again, He will not come in lowliness and humility. He will not come in a scandalous manner that will be questioned and doubted. But, when He comes again, He will come in the fullness of the glory of God with a multitude of the heavenly host, and He will sit upon His glorious throne. Then all will be gathered before Him from all the nations and every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
But He was, and He is, and He will be the same Jesus, the same Lord. Those who believe know this and they can see His glory now through the eyes of faith. They can behold the same glory beheld by Mary and Joseph, by Moses, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and by Adam and Eve after their fall. It is a glory that is hidden but, nevertheless, is real, like the mass of an iceberg below the surface of the water with just the peak exposed for all to see. He was Lord of Lords before there were men. He was Lord of Lords before there was a world. And, as it was in the beginning, so it is now, and so shall it ever be in the world that has no end.
And, this is the truth. He is the Truth. Jesus is the Truth incarnate; Jesus is the Truth in human flesh. He has always been the Truth, and He is the source of all things that are, the very Word of God, the Word of creation apart from whom nothing was, is, or ever shall be. But, at His Father’s bidding, He willingly laid aside His glory and became what we are so that we might become, in Him and through Him, what He is. And, here’s the really amazing thing – He has done this for everyone in all the world, for all of creation, He has done this for you, whether you accept it or not, whether you believe it or not. And, because of this, God the Father has given Him the Name that is above all names, the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
And so, when He comes, He will come as King and He will come as Judge. He will come with the fullness of His glory and with the fullness of His Kingdom, and no one, no one will be able to deny Him any longer. Then He will judge all men; then He will judge the world. He will judge the world in this way, like a shepherd separating His flock, dividing the sheep from the goats. He shepherded them both, cared for them both, fed and gave drink to them both, and He died for them both, laying His own sinless body into the jaws of the wolf, that both His sheep and His goats would be spared and live. But, though He did this for them all, though He died for them all, there is a key difference between His sheep and His goats, the goats believed that it was their good works that kept them in the Good Shepherd’s flock while the sheep truly believed that they were there by grace alone and thus they trusted in their Good Shepherd’s favor alone.
This difference is exhibited in the responses of the sheep and the goats to Jesus’ judgment concerning them. To the sheep on His right Jesus said, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The sheep’s mystified and humble reply is, “When?” “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” They simply cannot imagine that they have done such a thing for anyone, least of all their Lord Jesus. And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
The sheep do not look to themselves for righteousness. They do not find righteousness within themselves. When the sheep look to themselves they  see only unworthiness and helplessness. But the Lord declares them blessed, inheritors, and righteous. Blessedness, inheritance, and righteousness are each things that come from outside of you; they are bestowed upon you by another. The righteous sheep are recipients of Christ’s righteousness. They are blessed by the Father for Jesus’ sake. They will inherit Christ’s kingdom because He died for them and has presented them pure, holy, and blameless before His Father in heaven. The sheep do not look to their works; they do not look to anything in themselves at all, but their eyes are set on Jesus and Him alone. When Jesus points out that they actually have done much good to others and that they have in fact done good to Him, they are amazed, they are stunned, they are incredulous. They cry out, “When, Lord?” But the truth and the reality is this, when they kept their eyes upon Jesus, gratefully receiving the gifts of forgiveness, love, and mercy He died to give them, then they were equipped to bear fruitful good works toward their neighbors in need who exemplify our Lord Jesus who, though He was rich, became poor and needy, low and humble, He suffered mockery and ridicule, suffering, pain, and even death for you and all His precious sheep and goats.
Yes, even for the goats. The goats belong to Jesus too. They too are the recipients of Jesus’ atoning life, suffering, and death. But the goats are shocked and stunned that Jesus could say that they abandoned him hungry and thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. The goats are certain that there has never been a time that they did not serve Jesus when He was in need. That is because they were so focused upon serving Jesus and being recognized for their service that they neglected and ignored, perhaps even despised, the poor and the lowly, the sick, naked and imprisoned people who truly had needs and in whom Jesus is exemplified. For, when you are concerned and worried about earning and meriting favor with Jesus for yourself, how can you be concerned with and serve your neighbor in the selfless way of Jesus?
Jesus calls His sheep to Himself, to inherit the kingdom that was prepared for them before the foundation of the world, but to the goats Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Indeed, as much as the kingdom of heaven was prepared for the faithful even long before the foundation of the world, so the hell of fire was prepared for the devil and his angels, but not for people, not even for goat-like people. But, nevertheless, that is where some will find themselves, not because of Jesus’ judgment, but because of their rejection of Jesus’ gracious gift and their insistence that they be judged according to their works, their wisdom, and their reason. The sheep are those who listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice and follow Him, while the goats are those who stubbornly go their own way. Moreover, it is the nature of sheep to follow their shepherd’s voice, trusting Him to lead them to good pasture and cool water, while it is the nature of goats to walk along the cliffs and the precipices which represent sin and the temptation to sin.
But you must understand that the goats are every bit as much a part of the Good Shepherd’s flock as are the sheep. For each and every one of them has the Lord provided, cared for, protected, kept, and even laid down His life to save. In their goatishness, however, they have chosen to go their own way. They have actually chosen a damnation that was not intended for them at all. Their judgment is not the result of their failure to do good works, but their judgment is the result of their refusal to believe, and their faithlessness which made it impossible for them to do good works, to bear the fruits of faith.
And, what you must understand also, dear Christian, is that seeing Christ in everyone is the fulfillment of the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus has promised to be with you always, even to the end of the age. Because of His incarnation and ascension to the right hand of the Father He now fills all things in His humanity and in His divinity. Thus, Jesus is you neighbor, and He is seen and served most clearly in the poor, the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, sick, and imprisoned. That is to say, Jesus is seen and served in the humble and lowly and in the despised of this world.
St. Peter warns that in these last days scoffers will come saying “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately overlook this fact, says Peter, “that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” That is to say, the earth and the world had a beginning; so too, will it have an end at a time that we do not know. The scoffers would have you believe that the world will continue onward perpetually evolving in a natural course under the authority and control of no God at all, therefore, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die, but don’t worry about any accountability or judgment for your actions, for there is no one to judge, therefore judge for yourself what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, what is moral, ethical, and virtuous.
“But the Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done in it will be exposed.”
Therefore, “what sort of people ought you to be?” That is the question. Will you be a sheep or will you be a goat? Will you listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice and follow Him, or will you choose to go your own way and skirt the precipices of sin?
You do not have to gaze into the heavens to find Jesus. Nor do you have travel or send your gifts far away to serve Jesus, for He is right where He promised to be, with you, always. Jesus is in the face of your neighbor in need of kindness, charity, grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness. By loving your neighbor you love Jesus. And you love your neighbor only with Jesus’ love. There’s no need to calculate how much love you show, for there’s always more with Jesus. There’s no need to make certain you are seen in your charity, for Jesus knows the intents of your heart and the deeds that you do in secret. And the best place to begin in your charitable service is right in your own home, towards your husband or wife, your children, and the members of your church. Each and every one of them is the face of Jesus, hungry and thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison for you to serve with the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness Jesus has show to you.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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.
Today’s Gospel is unquestionably about God’s judgment upon sinful mankind. The only question is “When?” Our Lord presents us with a myriad of signs and prophecies, some seemingly already fulfilled, others perhaps being fulfilled right now, and still others seemingly yet to be fulfilled. But, that is how things are with our Lord who is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, and everything in between. Our Lord is the Lord of History and the Lord of Time, and this is the nature of His Advent, His Coming: He has come. He comes. And, He is coming. Indeed, the end of the Church’s Year of Grace is much like its beginning in Advent:  We are to watch and to wait, always in faith, always in prayer, always prepared for His Parousia, the Day of His Coming. That He has come is the foundation of our faith. That He comes is the substance of our faith. That He is coming is our hope in faith for which we expectantly watch and wait. To do so is to be a Christian, a subject of Christ our King and recipients of His kingly reign on earth and in heaven. However, the kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed. You must see with your ears and not your eyes. For God’s kingdom in this world is one of faith, and faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ. Only on the Last Day, when the King returns, will our faith be turned to sight.
Indeed, it is our sin-corrupted vision and reason that hinder us from seeing, receiving, and sharing the kingdom of God, for, in our willful rebellion, our physical eyes and reason may have been opened to know good and evil, but our spiritual vision and certainty became blind. Where, once, long ago, God’s will and His ways seemed to us wise, true, and good, now they seem to us foolish, weak, and despicable. “Why should God prohibit the eating of that one particular fruit? It obviously looks good to eat.” That was the root of our fall from grace: man placing his vision and reason over and above God’s Word. Satan planted that seed of doubt, and then he leveled his masterstroke: “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Ever since that fateful day, man has no patience for God, His will, and His ways. Instead, man demands that God operate on man’s terms, according to man’s wisdom, and prove His existence by signs and wonders that men count as significant and wonderful.
When God first appeared to Israel on Mount Sinai, His Presence was accompanied by signs and wonders: “thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.” However, when Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, how quickly the people turned aside to idolatry, fashioning a god of their own making from the golden rings in their ears. When God did not act in the manner they considered wise and god-like, they took matters into their own hands and created a god of their own imagination, reason, and wisdom. They knew good and evil: They judged their own wisdom and reason to be good, and God’s wisdom to be foolishness and evil. In the golden calf, they created an abomination that resulted in their desolation before God, a desolating sacrilege.
The abomination is sin, and the abominable are sinners. The abomination of sin causes desolation, utter destruction of both the sin and the sinner because they are opposed and antithetical to God who is holy and righteous and just. The abomination of sin causes desolation by default, by definition, because sin and sinners cannot possibly stand in the presence of holy God anymore than darkness can exist in the presence of light. Therefore, sin must be dealt with, and sinners must be atoned for, if there is to be any hope of reunification. For this reason God gave His commandments and established the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system, that sins and sinners may be atoned for, covered over for a time, until the day when God would act to take away sin once and forever.
Until that day…. However, sinful, self-idolizing man won’t wait for that. Oh, no. Throughout the intervening years and centuries, men did not wait and watch for God’s mighty deliverance, but they continued to raise up and to worship creatures in the place of their Creator. They desired a king and a kingdom like the pagan nations, with wealth and military might that they might be glorious and strong in the eyes of men. They defiled themselves by comingling the pagan religions, with their multitudes of gods and goddesses, with their own, thus committing spiritual adultery and making themselves the whore, betraying their faithful God and Husband. Satan had lead them so far from the light of God’s Word into the darkness, ignorance, and foolishness of sin that, when the day in which God did act came, they were found not watching and waiting, but they were eating and drinking, planting and building, buying and selling, marrying and being given in marriage, and that day sprung upon them like a trap.
What day was that? It was the day that Jesus described in the Gospel when the abomination of desolation stood in the holy place. Yes, that day has already come! The abomination was Jesus, dead on the cross. The holy place was, not the temple, but Golgotha, the place of a skull. There, Jesus became what we are, a sinner, an abomination in the presence of God that cannot stand. However, Jesus was not merely one sinner among others, but in God’s eyes, He was the only sinner, a sacrilege to God. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us. And, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.
But, this is the nature of the kingdom of God, and this is how King Jesus reigns. It is a reign of love, a reign of mercy, and a reign of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins: Greater love is not possible than this – that the Son of Man should lay down His life in death for you. O, Kingly Love! Indeed, it is from the cross that King Jesus reigns. There He was crowned. There the title above His head read in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. When Jesus died, the temple – His body – was destroyed. Then did the earth shake and rocks were split. Then were tombs opened and many of the saints who had died were raised. Then was there a mighty earthquake and everyone was filled with awe, and men had to confess, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
How many people experienced all of this? As it was the Passover, and Jewish pilgrims had come from all over the middle east to celebrate the feast, hundreds of thousands at the very least. All of the phenomena associated with Jesus’ crucifixion and death were experienced by hundreds of thousands of Jews, Romans, and other Gentiles. And, what about those saints said to have come out of their graves alive and were seen in the city? Truly, it is not fabrication or myth, but these things actually occurred – their truth was incontrovertible, for too many had experienced it and seen it with their own eyes. Further, after Jesus’ resurrection, the Scriptures record for us at least eleven post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, at least one time before more than five hundred, and in the Jewish way of counting that likely included only the men present.
With all this evidence and eyewitness testimony, preserved and handed down over the course of two millennia, why then do men today refuse to believe? Because, seeing is believing, they say. That is, seeing with your eyes, having no regard for the eyes of faith. But, this is nothing new. Indeed, it is the first sin repeated again and again – idolatry. Men are not satisfied and content with the Word of God, even when it is supported by facts, but prefer to go their own way, according to their own reason and wisdom, which is foolishness and the pathway to sin and death. Further, men cannot imagine that God would reign and rule in such seeming weakness, humility, and pathetic suffering unto death. Surely there must be another, a different god – or perhaps there is no god at all. Either is preferable to this God who hides Himself and veils Himself in lowliness. Where is the God of Sinai? Let Him appear before us, then we will believe; but do not tarry lest we become the whore and worship gods of our own making. Oh, He will appear in glory and great power and might, but woe to those who did not receive Him in His first appearing.
For, indeed, the Day of the Lord has come, on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. Then began the Last Days, the thousand-year reign of Christ, with His death, resurrection, and ascension. Now He reigns at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Now are the days in which you are not to be enslaved to material things, but you are to be watching and waiting in faithful, expectant, hope for His second coming, His Parousia. Now are the days to remain vigilant in the Word of God that you may not be lead astray by false teachers and false christs who say, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “There He is!” or “Look, He is in the wilderness.” If they tell you he is to be found in nature, do not believe it! If they tell you he is to be found in reason and science, do not believe it! And, if they tell you he is to be found in worship of yourself, do not believe it! No, when He returns, He will not come in meekness and humility, veiled so that you may only see with the eyes of faith. No, when He returns, He will come on the clouds with the sound of a trumpet and a cry from an archangel, and every eye will see Him, every tongue will confess Him, and every knee will bow before King Jesus, the Lord.
No, we do not need signs and wonders, but what we need now is mercy. We pray for mercy, and we receive mercy. “For the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” King Jesus reigns even now, for you, His Kingly reign of love, mercy, and sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. He blesses you and keeps you. He makes His face to shine upon you and is gracious to you. He lifts up His countenance upon you and gives you peace. He comes to you now on the clouds of heaven with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to dine with you at His banquet, a foretaste of the Great Wedding Feast that is yet to come. Though you do not see Him with your eyes, through the eyes of faith you see and hear and believe, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And, as the Roman vultures gathered around the corpse of Jesus dead on the cross, so we, His faithful subjects, as eagles, gather around His resurrected and ascended body and blood for the strengthening of our faith, the forgiveness of our sins, and the hope of eternal life in His Name. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His hand Christ our God to earth descending comes our homage to demand.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Feast of All Saints (observed)

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.
The kingdom of heaven is not really a thing or a place in the proper sense, but it is more like an action: It is the power and the authority, the ruling and the reigning exercised by King Jesus. Thus, when Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” He means to say that the poor in spirit are the recipients of His Kingly action: His forgiveness, mercy, and grace. Further, the kingdom of heaven is not something that they will receive at some later time, with the return of Christ and the resurrection, but it is something that they are receiving right now, and it is something that they will continue to receive until the fullness of Jesus’ kingdom comes. Thus, blessed is not something that the poor in spirit will be, but blessed is something that they are, right now. Indeed, all the other beatitudes our Lord speaks are founded in this first beatitude. Those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful and pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted and reviled for the sake of Jesus and His righteousness, they are blessed, right now, even though they surely do not appear to be so from the perspective of the world.
For, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, and this is the kind of King our Jesus is, and this is the manner in which King Jesus rules and reigns. For, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. When Pilate questioned Jesus about His being a king, this is what He answered saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” That dialogue occurred just before Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, the ultimate and final expression of the kingdom King Jesus is King of. The kingdom of heaven reaches its point of culmination in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but it will become visible to all when the Son of Man reveals Himself as the King on the Last Day.
For now, the kingdom is hidden under the guise of poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, peacefulness, and persecution for the sake of Jesus. However, when King Jesus returns, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Thus, when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying for the Parousia, the second coming of King Jesus, even as we are praying that His kingdom, which has already come, and continues to come, would come amongst us now. Luther explains in the Small Catechism that “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” Therefore, we pray that King Jesus would reign upon us, and to us, and through us. As subjects of the King in His kingdom, we become His heart and His hands and His mouth, for the kingdom is not only nearyou, but it is in your midst through faith in Jesus Christ.
The kingdom of heaven is the ontologically real reign of King Jesus. Therefore, you are either His subject, or you are the subject of another king in another kingdom – Satan’s. This is why Jesus teaches that he who is not with Him is against Him, and that those who do not gather with Him scatter. For, King Jesus has penetrated the world of His creation – a world of time, of flesh and blood, of temptations to sin, and the penalty of sin, which is death. But, through His own incarnation, temptation, obedience, suffering and death He has done all things well. Now, as King, christened and crowned in blood on the cross, but recognized and qualified to be God’s King and enthroned in His resurrection from the dead, He has begun His reign and the recreation of this fallen world; He is making all things new, restoring it to life through mercy and forgiveness, love and grace. For, God’s kingdom is His redemptive activity in Jesus, but it extends itself in the preaching of its redemption through His body, the Church.
On this Feast of All Saints, we are given a glimpse of the totality of God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven. St. John first describes the saints on earth, you and I, and all believers, coming out of the Great Tribulation by virtue of Holy Baptism and faith, having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Then, he describes “a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
We must not succumb to the temptation to think that our goal is to pass from this life to the heavenly life only, or that the death of the body is the release of the soul to its final state in heaven; no, these are gnostic and false doctrines, despising the body and the earth that God has made good. Rather, our goal is, as the Scriptures consistently proclaim, the resurrection of our bodies and the real, true, and eternal flesh and blood life we will enjoy with our Lord in the new heaven and the new earth that will be revealed in Jesus’ return on the Last Day. For, in King Jesus heaven draws near to earth so that there is no longer any separation. Indeed, this is what John beheld in the Revelation saying: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’.”
That is our goal: Eternal life in the new heaven and the new earth, in our resurrected flesh and blood bodies, with God. Indeed, this is yet the goal of the saints who have died whom we remember this day. For, while it is most certainly true that while “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine,” they are not yet complete and fulfilled, anymore than you or I. Their flesh and blood bodies lie in the earth. But, when Jesus returns, they will be raised first, and those who are living will be transformed. Therefore, we must remember this, and All Saints Day is a wonderful time to do it. For, too easily do we get caught up in the pious sentiment that this life is something to be thrown off like soiled clothing, and that death has become a blessed friend that enables us to do this. That doctrine is a lie, sown by the devil himself. The Scriptures do not speak of death as a blessed friend, but rather as an enemy, even the last enemy, that will be swallowed up in Jesus’ victory, not when He rose from the dead, but when He returns on the Last Day! That is our goal. That is what we, and the saints in heaven, are waiting for!
For, if Satan is successful in his deception, he will have taken our eyes off of Jesus and placed them upon some false idea of heaven, paradise, or anything else. Therefore, we must keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. We must keep our eyes and our faith on the whole Jesus, and not just a part of Him and His teaching. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn and destroy the world, but in order that the world might be saved and restored through Him. That was His work and ministry through His kingly reign, culminating in His death and resurrection, and that is His work, ministry, and kingly reign that He continues still through you, His body, the Church.
In His ministry, Jesus was the in-breaking of the reign of God. Wherever He went, He forgave sins, and He healed the sick, and He cast out demons, and He calmed deadly storms, and He raised the dead. Wherever He went, Satan's power and sin's effect were held at bay. Jesus’ miracles were not just proofs of His divine power, they were manifestations of the reign of God, and it was altogether fitting and necessary that the Bringer of the Reign of God should heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. In Him, the reign of God is already present in anticipatory fashion, and when God's reign breaks in finally and completely, then He will heal our bodies and all creation and will raise us up forever.
Until that day, we await with all who have come out of the Great Tribulation, having washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. And, we take comfort that those who die in the Lord are blessed, at peace and at rest in the bosom of Abraham. Likewise, we take comfort that we are blessed too, right now, though we feebly struggle in poverty, mourning, meekness, persecution and reviling, for of such is the kingdom of heaven, the righteous reign of King Jesus through His subjects, His body, His Church.
For, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when King Jesus appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. This is His promise and our hope that makes us pure. Our hope is to be with Him in the new heavens and the new earth He will bring when He returns. That day there will be a great wedding feast, of which our feast today is but a foretaste. Now our King and Bridegroom comes to us hidden in, with, and under bread and wine; then we will see Him face to face. But, as we wait His coming, the sainted Church of Jesus Christ on earth joins with the saints of heaven - with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven – in singing the King’s praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.