09 December 2018

To Worship the Lord Your God by an Acceptable Sacrifice

It is in His mercy that God speaks to you.  Listen to what He says.  Hear and heed His Word to you, His Voice.  For He sends His messenger before His face to preach to you, and by the foolishness of the preaching He saves you.  He takes away your sins and gives you life eternal with Himself.

By the speaking of His Word God called the heavens and the earth into existence out of nothing.  And so, now, by the preaching of His Voice, He calls you out of darkness into Light and raises you from death to Life, that you might live and love in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

Apart from His Word there is only death.  But God speaks to you.  So listen, and live according to His Word.  Do not pursue death and the grave any longer, which is all that your sin ever does, but turn away from evil and do good.  Do not take, but give; do not hurt, but help your neighbors.  Do unto your neighbors, to each and all of them, as you would have your neighbors do for you.

In loving your neighbors, you demonstrate the faith by which you worship the one true God, who does not take but gives, who does not hurt but helps.  And you are commanded to worship Him.

You will worship something, and you do.  Believe that.  Your heart is created to worship, and you will worship something, or someone.  But you are commanded to worship the Lord your God, Him only shall you serve.  And to do so, to worship Him, is not only His Commandment, it is Life itself.

To worship the Lord your God is to believe and trust in Him.  It is to hear His Word, and to confess what you have heard.  It is to call upon His Name, the very Name with which He has named you, to pray, praise, and gave thanks in His Name, even in the face of suffering and death.  It is to call on Him in confidence and hope, expecting only good from Him at all times and in all situations.

To worship the Lord your God is true and real Life.  Worship Him, then, not by any part or portion, but with your whole self, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, with all that you do and say.

That is the polar opposite of self-righteousness, whereby you barter and bargain with God in the hopes of buying Him off with a percentage and keeping the rest for yourself to do with as you will, to live your own life.  He calls you instead to sacrifice everything, to offer up your body as a living sacrifice.  You thereby worship Him with your entire being, trusting that God the Father will pour out His Spirit upon you and provide you with all good things and every perfect gift in Christ Jesus.

Open your mouth wide, and He will fill it.  For here is the delicious irony of faith and life, that in giving yourself entirely over to Him, the Lord your God gives Himself and His divine Life to you.  So have no fear that you will come up short.  If you live according to His Word, if your whole life is entrusted to Him, you will lack no good thing.  If God Himself is yours, what else do you need?

Open up your hands and mouth in faith, and He will feed you and fill you up with all that you need and more, so that His love overflows in you for your neighbors in the world.  That is the way of life with God in Christ, to live in faith toward Him, and so to live in love for your neighbors.

The alternative to such worship of the Lord in faith and love is to be consumed by the very things that you hunger for, the false gods that you worship by your lustful appetites.  That is the sad irony.  Those things that you chase after and pursue with all your might — those things that your heart, if not your stomach, growls and grumbles for — those things and your hunger for them will eat you up, devour you, and consume you, until there is nothing left of you but death and damnation.

It is a paradox, which your sinful mind cannot comprehend.  It is a conundrum, which your sinful heart cannot fathom.  Sacrifice yourself to God, and live with Him in faith and love now and forever.  Or else, pursue those things that you so desire, which seem so enticing and promising in this world, only to be swallowed up by your appetites, and to perish along with all of your stuff.

Repent.  That is the preaching of St. John, the Voice of God.  It is the preaching of Christ and His Apostles.  And it is the preaching that I am sent to speak to you.  Repent.  Turn away from evil, and do good.  No longer trust in your false gods and idols, but put your hope in the Lord Jesus.

For the Lord is coming, and He will appear suddenly, with refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap, to purify the sons of Levi, to purify all the sons of Jacob, all of Israel and Judah and Jerusalem.  The Lord is coming, and He will suddenly appear — with refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap — to purify you.

Now think back to Mt. Sinai, when God had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt with His mighty arm and outstretched hand.  Remember how Moses was on that Mountain forty days and forty nights, but then, as he was coming down, he heard the sound of revelry in the camp, among the people.  It was not the sound of victory or defeat, but the gluttony and fornication of idolatry.  It was the sound of the people worshiping the false god they had made out of their precious gold.

So Moses took that gold which had passed through fire and come out as a calf, he crushed it and pulverized it, and he cast it upon the water and made the people drink it.

Then God purified the sons of Levi and set them apart.  He took three thousand of them, and He told them to strap on their swords, to go through the camp and slay their brothers, their friends, their children and parents, to devour with the sword all those who had committed idolatry.  That is how the Lord purifies the sons of Levi and visits His wrath upon the children of disobedience.

How then shall you stand His coming?  How shall you endure His cleansing by fire and water?  And how shall you not be devoured by the sword on account of your own idolatry and unbelief?  For the Lord your God is surely coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire, with the Sword of His Spirit and with the fire of His Law, in order to thoroughly clear His threshing floor.  He is coming to harvest His wheat into His barn — and to burn up all the chaff with unquenchable fire.

Examine your heart, and consider your life in the light of the Lord’s Commandments, whatever your calling and stations in life may be.  What wheat is there in you?  And what chaff?  How much of your time and energy are occupied with taking and hurting?  How little do you spend on giving and helping?  What good fruits does your tree produce?  For every tree that does not produce fruit is cut down and, like the chaff, burned up with fire.  How, then, shall you be saved and survive?

Repent!  And take heart in the Lord.  For He is gracious and merciful, He is slow to anger, and He is full of compassion.  It is in mercy that He sends His messenger, St. John — the son of Zacharias, a son of Levi — to purify you by his preaching, and to prepare you for the coming of the Christ.

As the Voice of God, the Forerunner preaches a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  That is how he clears the way.  That is how he makes you ready and prepares your heart for the mightier One who is coming after.  That is how the Lord purifies you for Himself, not with a sword through your body, but with a Word that puts you to death in order to make you alive with Him.

Wherever that Voice is heard, wherever that preaching of repentance is proclaimed in the Name of the Lord, wherever that washing of the water with His Word is administered for the forgiveness of sins, there the Lord Himself is at hand, who comes in the flesh to save you for life in Himself.

Hear and heed the Word that is preached to you, therefore, and return every day to the banks of the Jordan, that is, to the waters of your Holy Baptism.  Not to be “re-baptized” (for there is only one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, which is the work of the Lord and cannot be improved upon), but to remember and to exercise the significance of your Baptism by contrition and repentance.

Believe what God the Lord is speaking to you.  Hear and receive His Word of Holy Absolution.  Be cleansed of all your sins, and bear the fruits of repentance in your life, not only with sorrow in your heart, but with good works in your hands, and with good words on your lips.  Bear the fruits of repentance in the place where God has put you on earth.  Bear the fruits of repentance, that your neighbor might open up his hands and his mouth to be fed and nourished by the good gifts of God.

Bear the fruits of repentance by worshiping the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and by loving your neighbor as yourself.  Those are the fruits of Christ, the fruits of His good Tree, His holy Cross.  They are the fruits of righteousness and peace, because they are His own fruits which He bears in you and for you, as surely as He has suffered and died for you, and just as He is risen from the dead to live and reign eternally as your merciful and great High Priest.

He is the One who has gone through the fire on your behalf, when the Lord was pleased to crush Him in your place.  St. John, the son of Levi, is the instrument by which this Lamb of God was anointed for the Sacrifice of Atonement by His Baptism in the Jordan River. Thus has He suffered the cleansing that you so required, so that by His flesh and blood, far more precious than gold, you are purified.  He has been pulverized and cast upon the waters of your Baptism, so that you might die with Him in those waters, and rise with Him and live with Him, as well, in His Resurrection.

It is by His sacrifice that He has entered into His Temple, into the Holy of Holies, into the Inner Sanctum, the very Bosom of His Father in heaven.  But so is it also by and from and through His sacrifice on the Cross that He now comes and enters into His Temple here on earth, as well.

Here within His Church on earth is the crossing of the Jordan, whereby the Lord Jesus brings you out of the wilderness into Canaan, as in the days of old when Joshua (the son of Nun) brought the sons of Israel into the good Land that God the Lord had promised to their fathers.

Then the sons of Levi took up the Ark of the Covenant and stood in the midst of the Jordan while Joshua led the people of Israel through the water.  So now does this son of Levi, St John, take his stand in the midst of the Jordan, preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As Jesus will enter those waters in His own Body of flesh and blood, and as He passes through those waters on His way to the Cross, so do you follow Him through the water into the Kingdom of God.

It is by His sacrifice that you and all His people, all who believe and are baptized into Him, are purified in body and soul and presented as an acceptable sacrifice to God, pleasing in His sight.  In the Body and Blood of Christ, given for you on the Cross, given and poured out for you here in His Sacrament, you come into the Temple of God, into the Holy of Holies, the Inner Sanctum, the very Bosom of God the Father, who is now also your God and Father in His beloved Son.

Baptized into Christ Jesus, everything that belongs to Him is now yours.  Indeed, He withholds no good thing from you, but He feeds you with Himself, with His own Body and His Blood, the Fruits His good Tree, the Cross, the very Sacrifice of Atonement that He has made once for all.

Open your mouth wide.  See how He fills it.  See how He feeds you.  See how you lack nothing.  By the preaching of His Gospel, by His Word and works of forgiveness, you are anointed with His Holy Spirit and united with Him as a beloved member of His Body and Bride, the Church.  So do you worship God the Father rightly and well, in holy faith and holy love, in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Already you are righteous, already you are holy, already you are pleasing to the Father in heaven, through His incarnate Son, who is your Savior and Redeemer.  There is nothing lacking, nothing that comes up short, not in Him.  For He purifies you daily with His forgiveness of all your sins.

And He who has begun this good work in you by His Word, will likewise perfect it and bring it to completion by His Word, unto the appearing of your Lord Jesus Christ.  Then shall you also see Him as He is, and you shall be like Him, glorious as He is glorious, immortal and imperishable.

So now enter His gates with thanksgiving, enter His courts with praise.  Come into His presence with singing, with Psalms and hymns and Spiritual songs to the glory of His Name.  For He feeds you and He fills you in body and soul with the fruits of His righteousness, the gifts of His Gospel.  Wherefore, in Christ Jesus, you abound more and more in faith and love to the glory and praise, the honor and worship of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

05 December 2018

O Lord, Open My Lips, that My Mouth May Declare Your Praise

St. Luke doesn’t tell us specifically whether it was in the morning or the evening when Zacharias was chosen by lot to offer incense in the Temple — probably the only time in his long lifetime that he had the privilege to do so.  But it seems as likely as not that it was at the time of the evening sacrifice, since there were evidently crowds of people gathered outside the Temple in this case.

Among the people of God in those days, both every morning and every evening, there was first of all a sacrifice that was offered on the bronze altar in the Temple courtyard.  On the basis of that sacrifice, the priest on duty would enter the Holy Place on behalf of all the people, and there he would offer incense on the golden altar that sat before the veil, in front of the Most Holy Place where the Lord God caused His Glory to dwell in the midst of Israel.

So the sacrifice outside enabled the priest to enter in, but the incense offering was the high point.  The incense accompanied — but it also embodied — the prayers of God’s people.  You’ve sung that tonight in one of the ancient Psalms of Israel, Psalm 141, which has always been associated with evening prayer, especially because of the verse, “Let my prayer rise before You as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”  That is what Zacharias was doing here.

In offering the incense according to the Word of the Lord, Zacharias was offering up the prayers of Israel to God.  In his person, by virtue of his priestly office, all of Israel was gathered together before the Lord to pray.  And those who gathered outside the Temple to pray at the same time as the incense offering, they also prayed on behalf of Israel — much as you are gathered here in the House of the Lord to pray and intercede for the blessings of God on behalf of His entire Church.

The daily prayer of Israel, by the priest and by the people with him, was praise and thanksgiving to God for who He is, for all that He has done, and for all that He has promised.  It was thus a confession of His Word, a confession of the great deeds He had done for His people Israel in the past, and a confession of those good things that He had promised to do for the Seed of Abraham.

It was therefore also a petition that God would redeem His people from their enemies and gather them together to Himself from all the places to which they had been scattered among the nations.  It was a prayer that He would bring them to repentance, that He would restore and strengthen their faith in His Word, and that He would grant to them the way of life in righteousness before Him, that they should live and walk before Him blameless all their days, unto the life everlasting.

Among the specific prayers that we still have from the time of Zacharias, from the first century, one of them asks that God would restore the oracle to the service of His House.  That was a prayer and petition for the faithful preaching of His Word, such as the Prophets had spoken in the past.  It was a prayer that His Word would return to His House and be proclaimed to His people.

Another of the prayers petitioned the Lord to preserve and keep and gather the people, as I have said; that He would gather those who were scattered, that He would keep His people in the faith and sustain them by His Word, and that they would be able to serve Him with their whole heart.

Now, the situation when Zacharias offered incense in the Temple was similar to that in the days when the Prophet Samuel was conceived and born of Hannah.  She was not so old as Elizabeth at that time, but she was likewise barren, unable to have children, much to her great sadness.

Remember, then, how Hannah prayed that God would give her a son.  Not for the privilege and joy of having a little boy for herself, but that she might entrust him to the Lord and to the service of His House and His people.  And, of course, that is exactly what Hannah did when the Lord opened her womb and she gave birth to Samuel.  As soon as he was weaned — at maybe three years old — she brought him to the House of the Lord at Shiloh, and she left him there with Eli the priest.  For the remainder of his childhood, he served there before the Altar of the Lord, dressed in priestly garments, in the linen ephods that Hannah would make and bring for him each year as he grew.

As an adult, Samuel served not only as a priest, from a priestly family, but as a prophet and a judge of Israel.  He spoke the Word of the Lord, which had previously been silenced among the people.  For the Lord spoke to Samuel, and Samuel preached His Word to Israel.  As a judge he also led the people in victory against the Philistines, thus beginning the restoration of Israel in those days.  And it was Samuel who anointed, not only Saul, but also young David to become the king of Israel — the same David to whom the Lord promised a Son, who would be the Christ, the Messiah.

There are many parallels between the Prophet Samuel and the son who is promised to Zacharias and his barren wife, Elizabeth — St. John the Forerunner, who goes before the face of the Lord.  Born into a priestly family, he is also a Prophet of the Lord who will speak the Word of the Lord.  He is the oracle who preaches the Word of God to the people of God.  And with the Baptism he is given to administer in the Name of the Lord, he is the one to anoint great David’s greater Son, Christ Jesus, who is anointed by the Spirit of God to be the Redeemer and the true King of Israel.

St. John the Baptist is therefore a new and greater Samuel, a prophet, priest, and judge, if you will, who goes before the Lord to prepare His way.  By this child God begins to answer the very prayer of Israel that Zacharias offered there in the Temple as he offered up the incense — the prayer that God, the Lord, would redeem His people and restore them to faith and life, that He would gather them from wherever they had been scattered and renew them in their life before Him.

It is by his preaching and Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that St. John serves that calling and purpose of God.  He speaks the Word of the Lord, the Law and the Gospel, whereby the wicked are slain and the righteous are raised up.  For so it is, by His Word and Holy Spirit, that the Lord kills and makes alive, He wounds in order to heal.  And so it is that St. John preaches, not only the Law, the condemnation of sin and the correction of sinners, but also the beautiful and life-giving Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

It is by this preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins that the Lord gathers you to Himself.  He works repentance and faith in your heart and life, that you might live in and with Him forever.

Such repentance is, of course, a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith and life at all times and in all places.  But repentance is a special emphasis at night, at the end of each day, as the sun goes down and darkness covers the face of the earth.  In laying yourself down to sleep, in looking back at all that you have done wrong and all that you have failed to do right, you are called to repent of your sins in the fear of the Lord.  For you know that, at your best, you are an unworthy servant.

For all of that, you do not despair, but you call upon the Lord for the forgiveness of your sins; and in the confidence of faith in His forgiveness, you pray that He would also guard and keep you in safety through the night, that the wicked foe should not be permitted any power over you.  You know how dangerous the nighttime is, and how vulnerable your body is while you are sleeping.  So you approach the ending of each day with renewed reliance on the Lord and His providence.

In repentance you turn away from your sins in the hope of His mercy, and trusting Him you pray that He would preserve your faith and life, your body and soul, through the midst of the dark night.

So do you and all God’s people pray in the evening of each day, that the Lord would deliver you from all evil and grant you His Peace and Sabbath Rest.  And this indeed He does for you in Christ Jesus, whom He has raised up on the Cross as a Standard for the nations.  Even the far islands and all the ends of the earth are called and gathered to Him by the preaching of His Cross.

It is by the Sacrifice of His Cross that Jesus the Christ, the Lamb of God, bears in His body and takes away the sins of the whole world, as St. John preaches, and as St. John inaugurates by means of his Baptism of repentance.  So is the Lamb first offered up in the waters of the Jordan, unto His innocent suffering and death on Good Friday.  So does He make full Atonement for all your sins.  And it is by virtue of His Sacrifice that you are able to draw near and enter into the Holy Place, and that your prayers are heard and answered by God the Father in heaven.  Indeed, your prayers rise before Him as a sweet-smelling incense, because He delights in you in Christ Jesus.

It is by the Cross of your Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Resurrection from the dead, that repentance is worked in you, both the dying of the old man and the rising of the new man.  It is worked in you by the Word of the Cross, by the Word of the Gospel, by the Word of forgiveness, unto faith and righteousness and the life everlasting.  So that now, each night, you lie down with Christ in peace.

And every morning you rise up with Him in the newness of His mercies.  You rise up in Christ to live the new life that is yours in Him.  He raises you up to walk in His way by faith in His Word.

It is to that way of faith and life that St. John calls you, no less than he called the people of his own day when he went out preaching.  That you should live and walk by faith in Christ wherever God has placed you in this world, not only in the works of your body, but in the words of your mouth.

To give lip service only, when your heart is far from God and your actions contradict your words, that is surely useless and a hypocritical lie.  But when your heart is right with God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and when you are living by faith in accordance with His Word, then shall your mouth also be opened and your lips moved to confess the Lord your God, to call upon His Name, to praise and give thanks to Him, and to speak His Word in the world, as He has spoken to you.

And do not suppose that such words that you speak in faith, in the Name of the Lord, are a small or pointless thing.  As God Himself does everything by and with His Word, so does He also speak His Word in you and through you.  And it is not an empty Word when He speaks with your voice, though He must call you daily to repentance and restore you to faith by His Word and Spirit.

In the case of Zacharias — a man who was righteous by faith and lived according to the Word of the Lord, as the Spirit has testified through St. Luke — he faltered and fell short when he was faced with the Angel Gabriel, who stood there in the presence of God, before the Holy of Holies, between the altar of incense and the table of showbread, and spoke to him the Word of the Lord. In response to that Word, Zacharias asked, “How can I be sure what you’re telling me is true?”

He spoke then, at first, with the same kind of doubts and fears that reside in your own sinful heart, in your own sinful mind.  He did not speak from his heart of faith but from his sinful unbelief, such as remains in your flesh, as well.  But in mercy God did for Zacharias what both he and you have prayed with the Psalmist: “O Lord, set a watch over my mouth, and guard the door of my lips.”

That is exactly what the Lord did in response to Zacharias’ words of doubt and incredulity.  It was the sign of the promise, as well as the discipline of the Lord, that God set a watch over Zacharias’ lips and guarded the doors of his mouth for the next nine or ten months, so that he was unable to speak, lest by his words of doubt and unbelief his heart also would be led into sin and every evil.

It was during those nine or ten months of silence that he learned to wait upon the Lord.  He learned patience.  He learned to listen to the promises of God, to rely upon those promises and rest himself in them.  So that, when the time had fully come, and the Word that God had spoken was fulfilled, Zacharias was able to pray, praise, and give thanks, and to speak words of life concerning his son.

Those who wait upon the Lord shall not be put to shame.  As the Lord removed the reproach that Elizabeth suffered in her barrenness for all those many years, so does He remove your shame and disgrace through the forgiveness of your sins and by the redemption that He has accomplished in Christ Jesus, whose way St. John the Baptist prepared.  By His Word He delivers you, and with His Word He opens your lips to speak rightly, to confess His Holy Name, to pray, praise, and give thanks.  And as you speak His Word and call upon His Name, so does He save you by His grace.

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

02 December 2018

King Jesus Comes into His Holy City

Behold, the Days are here, which the Lord your God has promised.  Your holy and blessed King — the Christ, the righteous Son of David — He has come in accordance with the Holy Scriptures.  God has fulfilled His good Word in Him, this Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  He has established justice and righteousness on earth by the Cross of His Anointed and in His Resurrection from the dead.

Death is abolished, because sin is forgiven.  And there is peace on earth, because there is peace in heaven.  For God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  His favor is upon you in Him.

That is the justice of God, the exercise of His almighty power in mercy, according to His grace.

Now the Church is saved, and she lives in safety by this Gospel, resting in the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is her Righteousness, and He is her Surety, irrespective of her place or situation in this world.

This blessed King, your Savior, reigns in love over His Church, and she increases in love for God and man.  She loves her dear children and her neighbors, even her enemies, because in Christ Jesus she is established without blame in holiness before God.  She is forgiven all her sins by His Cross.  She is justified in His Resurrection from the dead.  She is sanctified by His Holy Spirit through His Word.  And she abides with the Holy Triune God forever in the royal Priesthood of Christ Jesus.

All of these blessings and benefits are yours, as well, within His Holy Christian Church, by the way and means of His Gospel.  He daily and richly completes and fills up all that is lacking in your faith and life by the preaching and ministry of those whom He sends to you in His Name, who deal with you according to His Word.  And it is just as He has spoken: “Your sins are forgiven.”

Repent, therefore, and believe the Gospel.  For the Lord has need of you.  Not that He is lacking in anything, but that you may be complete in Him and live with Him in His Kingdom by His grace.

The coming of this Lord Jesus Christ into His holy City of Jerusalem is really a twofold coming, a twofold Advent.  For He comes to His Church on earth, and He comes to His Father in heaven.

He comes to offer Himself up, once for all, in holy faith and love, as the Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the world.  So does He enter with His own flesh and blood into the Most Holy Place.  But so does He also come to His people on earth, to call them and gather them to Himself, and to give Himself to them in love, in order to bring them to His God and Father in and with Himself.

It is for this royal Priesthood of His that He has been anointed as the Christ by the Spirit of God.

That is why He sends His disciples — who by this sending are His Apostles — to unloose the colt, the foal of a donkey, and to bring it to Him.  That is why they set the Lord Jesus upon it, that He might ride that beast of burden into His City.  He makes His way to the Cross as the true King of Israel, not with oppression and violence, but as the One who comes in the Name of the Lord to bear the burden of sin and death for His people, and to bear His people in His own Body unto God.

He does the same thing now for you by the Ministry of His Gospel, by His means of grace.  He sends His servants to untie you, to release you from your sins, from the bondage of guilt and shame, and from the fear of death.  In His Name they set you free with His royal Word of Holy Absolution, and they bring you to Him.  They clothe you as one of His disciples in Holy Baptism.  And they set this Lord Jesus upon you, upon your heart and mind, His Body and His Blood upon your lips and tongue, in the Holy Communion.  So does He abide in you, and you abide in Him, unto the resurrection of your body — unto the Life everlasting of both your body and your soul.

Indeed, on this First Sunday in Advent, this Holy Gospel ushers you into the Divine Liturgy, and the Liturgy ushers you into this same Gospel.  It calls you to receive this dear Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed King who comes to you here in the midst of His true Jerusalem, His Church on earth as in heaven, and so to enter with Him into that eternal City whose Architect and Builder is God.

Which is to say that, in this Liturgy of the Gospel, Christ Jesus comes to you here and now, that you should thus come with Him into the presence of His God and Father, both now and forever.

Have you not heard, in this Holy Gospel, the Gloria in Excelsis and the Benedictus?  The “Glory to God in the Highest,” and the “Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord.”  Just as you also sing this morning with the whole Christian Church in heaven and on earth, as she ever sings at all times and in all places.  And have you not heard the Prophet of the Lord calling out to you?  “Rejoice!  Shout aloud!  Bless the Lord your King, who comes to you now.”  It is truly meet, right, and salutary that you should give Him such thanks and praise, especially here in His holy House.

Therefore, in the Eucharist the song of the angels, the never-ending song of heaven, is sung here within the Church on earth.  For God has come in the flesh to dwell among men, and in Christ Jesus man has entered into the presence of God to live and abide with Him in peace and joy.

More than pretty poetry and pleasant piety, that is what He actually gives to you and does for you in the Sacrament of His Altar.  Here He is, the Holy, Holy, Holy One, who sanctifies you with His own holiness, with His own holy Body, and with His holy and precious Blood.

That is how He reigns over you in love, by and with His Word and Sacraments of the Gospel.  And that is how He establishes His divine, eternal Kingdom on earth, in the Life of His Church, despite her present frailty and weakness here under the Cross.  He establishes His Kingdom in the Liturgy, which is the heart and center of the Church’s Life, both here in time and hereafter in eternity.

So does He also establish His Kingdom on earth in the love that all His people have and exercise for one another, for strangers and aliens, for widows and orphans, and even for their enemies, for those who hate them and hurt them and persecute them viciously.  They love by the grace of their King, who is Love.  For the pattern of His Divine Liturgy is the pattern of His Church’s Life in Him, crucified and risen from the dead, just as Moses constructed the Tabernacle and arranged the entire Old Testament Liturgy according to the pattern that God showed to him on the Mountain.

The one Lord, Jesus Christ, exercises His dominion over this fallen world, and over against the devil, death, and hell, by this new Life that He now lives in you.  For He abides in you with His grace, by His means of grace, and you abide in Him in faith and love, in patience, and in peace.

That is the Truth and the real fact of His coming, His Advent, though you may not be feeling it at all, and though you may actually be feeling far more dead than alive, more impatient and cynical than faithful.  Your experience is that of sin and its consequences, all around you and within you.

Let’s be honest, in this body and life you are still a colt, the foal of a donkey.

But the dear Lord Jesus comes to set you free, and to set Himself upon you, though He is the One who now bears you in His Body into His holy City.  And so does He also now live in you, as surely as He has died for you, and as surely as He has risen from the dead and lives for you eternally.

Right here in His Church is where He enters His Jerusalem, and you enter Jerusalem with Him.  So also in the world, He reigns in peace and love, and you abide with Him in safety, despite the fact that you are a stranger and a sojourner on earth.  For He has entered the holy City of God, in flesh and blood like yours, by the sacrifice of His Cross.  His own God and Father has accepted His Sacrifice, and raised Him from the dead, and received Him to Himself, setting Him at His Right Hand, and setting all of His enemies beneath His feet.  Sin, death, the devil, and hell are defeated; they are overruled, and you are saved by Him who has subdued those enemies forever.

By the Sacrifice of His Cross, and in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead, the one true God is glorified in the highest, the Name of the Lord is praised and glorified in His Church on earth, and His Church abides in safety and peace — whether in Jerusalem, in Babylon or Rome, in Africa, Asia, or Europe, in Northern Indiana or Southern Michigan.  She dwells safely here.

That is why your heart of stone has become flesh, as He, your Lord, has become flesh and blood for you.  And so it is that your mouth is opened in the praise and confession of His Name.  Your lips are silent no more, but they cry out in prayer, in praise and thanksgiving, with the cherubim and seraphim, with St. Michael and all angels, and with the whole great company of heaven.

Look here and see, you sons of Israel and daughters of Zion.  Behold, your King is coming to you.  He comes to justify you with His Righteousness, and to save you with His great Salvation.

He goes on ahead of you, through death and the grave into the Resurrection and Life everlasting, up to the heavenly Jerusalem, and to His God and Father in the highest.

But in His going ahead and in His blazing of this trail for you, He does not leave you behind.

On the one hand, He rejoices over you with great joy before God in heaven; and on the other hand, He is here to bestow the peace of God upon you, which surpasses all human understanding.

Behold, the Days are here.  The good Word of the Lord is spoken and fulfilled.  The Church abides in safety, because her good King Jesus comes to abide with her in grace, mercy, and peace.

Here, then, in His Church, the Holy Spirit lays the Lord Jesus upon your heart and mind, upon your body and soul, by and with His Gospel, that you may truly be His own, and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

And in His own crucified and risen Body, with His own precious Blood, He bears you through the gates into the Kingdom of heaven, and through the everlasting doors into the presence of God.

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

25 November 2018

Watchful, Awake, and Alert in the Hour of Christ

The Word of our Lord this morning is a continuation of the Word we heard from Him last Sunday.  It follows His final departure from the Temple in Jerusalem, with His Cross and Passion right on the horizon.  It concludes His response to the disciples’ question concerning the destruction of the Temple: “When will these things be? And what will be the signs when they are being fulfilled?”

Understand that several significant events kaleidoscope together in these Words and warnings of the Lord Jesus.  He addresses not only the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple in particular, but also the final Judgment of the world and, above all, His own approaching sacrifice upon the Cross.  It is His Cross that really defines and governs those other events.  And it is solely by His Cross and Passion that you are prepared, made watchful, alert, and ready, for your own death and judgment.

It is the Crucifixion of Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, which fulfills and supercedes and renders obsolete the Temple in Jerusalem.  And it is the rejection of that same Lord Jesus Christ and His Cross which brings the judgment of God upon that once holy City, put to the sword and leveled to the ground a few decades later.  For it is by the Cross of Christ that God has atoned for the sins of all people and reconciled the world to Himself; and it is thus by His Cross that all people are judged, either righteous by faith or condemned in their sinful unbelief.

By faith in Him, crucified and risen from the dead, you have nothing to fear in the Judgment, but only a glorious confidence and blessed hope, as sure and certain as Christ Himself.  Thus does He admonish you to watch and to wait upon His coming, whenever that Day and that Hour shall be.

To watch, to be alert, and to pray.  That is the Christian faith and life to which the Lord Jesus calls you this morning.  Not only for a season, but all year long, and really throughout your life.  For with this exhortation He summarizes and describes the keeping of the first Three Commandments.

To watch, to be alert, and to pray, is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  Above your job and your income.  Above your house and home and all your stuff.  Above your own thoughts and feelings and opinions, and above your family and friends and what they would have you do.  And thus to worship and rely upon the Lord alone as your true and only God means that you call upon His Name at all times and in all circumstances, be they good or bad, with your prayers and petitions, your praise and thanksgiving.  And that means that you must give attention to His Word and the preaching of it, gladly hearing and learning all that He says to you.  For it is only by His Word and Spirt that you fear, love, and trust in God, and that you call upon His Name in faith.

To live in this way is to live as a Christian disciple of Christ Jesus, watchful and alert each day and hour of your life, hearing and heeding His Word; clinging to His Word — and so clinging to Him — with all that you are and have; confessing His Name and praying to Him by faith in His Word.

“Take heed,” therefore.  “Watch and pray!”  Thus says the Lord.  For you do not know when the Judgment will be, but He would have you number your days and know that your life is fleeting.

Remember that, when Jesus first spoke these Words, it was only a matter of days and hours before He would be handed over to His death.  It was so essential that His disciples be alert, and watch, and pray, that they should not fall into temptation in the face of His Cross and Passion.  It is no less essential for you, now, as you bear His Cross and follow after Him, lest you fall away and be lost.

Of course, if you consider those disciples in the days that followed, then you will know how badly they failed in every respect, and how they fell asleep on their watch at that most critical Hour.

The Master of the House had departed from His Temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples did not yet know when the Lord would raise up the Temple of His Body.  He would go away to the far country of death and the grave, and then He would come again, suddenly, in the power of His Resurrection.  They knew not when it would occur, and yet, they were surrounded on all sides by the signs of His coming: at evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and in the morning.

It was “at evening” when Jesus first celebrated and instituted His Holy Supper, thereby replacing the Temple and the sacrifices of the Old Testament with Himself.  As He was handed over by His Father to His voluntary suffering and death upon the Cross, He handed over His Body and Blood to His disciples (and so through them to His Church of all times and places).  He thus made explicit the journey that He was undertaking, as well as the divine significance of His approaching Cross.  It should therefore have woken the disciples up to the utter seriousness of that Day and that Hour.  Instead, those who were closest to the Lord Jesus failed Him in every way, and He was left alone.

It was “at midnight” when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane on that same night, and He asked His disciples, Peter, James, and John, in particular, to watch with Him and pray.  And you know what happened, how they fell asleep, not once, not twice, but three times over.  Their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak, as your flesh also is weak.  Not only that, but it was in that very Hour when Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, betrayed His Friend and Master with a kiss.

It was “at cockcrow,” while Jesus was being falsely accused, derided, mocked, and beaten, that Simon Peter denied even knowing the Man, cursing and swearing to that effect in his fear.  And of course, by that point, everyone else but St. John had already run away and fled into the night.

And it was finally “in the morning” when Jesus was then handed over to the governor, Pontius Pilate, by the chief priests, scribes, and pharisees, who should have been the watchmen of Israel.

Now, then, it’s easy enough to point fingers and find fault, especially from our vantage point in retrospect.  But surely you know better than that.  As the Lord’s own Apostles were unable to stay awake, alert, and watchful in that day and at that hour, do not suppose that you would have done any better then; and do not imagine that you do any better, even now, by any power of your own.

The truth is that only the Lord Jesus has remained steadfast in His faithful vigil.  In the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and in the morning, He was always watching, always alert, always in prayer.  His submitted Himself at all times to the Will of His God and Father.  That is why even He, the incarnate Son, did not know the Day or the Hour.  He rather lived His life in the flesh, and He went to His death on the Cross, in the same way that you are called to live and die, that is, by faith alone, not trusting in Himself but in the Word and Spirit of God.  So, too, with His prayer in the Garden (while His disciples were resting and sleeping), the Lord Jesus entrusted Himself entirely to the purposes of God, willingly taking and drinking the Cup of wrath and Judgment.

And so it was that, when that Day and that Hour came, Jesus alone was watchful and alert, awake and ready.  Not by an exercise of His divine prerogatives, by His might and power and knowledge as the very Son of God in the flesh, but rather as the true and perfect Man, by faith in His Father.

It is in Him, therefore, that both the necessary watchfulness of faith and the final Judgment of God have already been fulfilled and satisfied for you and all people.  For He has given Himself to suffer the entire punishment of hell for the sins of the entire world, the sins of Adam and Eve and all their children down to the close of the age.  But notwithstanding all of that, He alone has lived perfectly the life that you could not — the life of holy faith, of fear, love, and trust in God above all things, of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and of constant attention to the Word and promises of God.

The watchfulness to which you are called by the Word and Spirit of God — the patient forbearance of the Cross in your body and life, from the waters of the font to the dust and the dirt of your grave — it is all made possible for you by Christ Jesus.  His watchfulness and His bearing of the Cross strengthen and sustain you in the Word and faith of God through His forgiveness of your sins.

It was “in the morning” that Jesus was handed over to Pilate on Good Friday; but then it was also “in the morning” that the women discovered His empty tomb on Easter Sunday.  And it is in the power and promise of His Resurrection that you are woken up and raised from the death of your sin to the morning of His Life.  It is likewise in the power and promise of His Resurrection that the Hour of His Cross is proclaimed as the judgment and defeat of sin, death, the devil, and hell, and so also as the Day of righteousness, life, and salvation for you and all who believe and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is by His Cross and Resurrection that you and His entire Church on earth are made watchful, alert, and awake for His coming, now in the Ministry of His Word and Sacrament, and in His glory at the last, when He shall raise the dead and give life to all who are His own.

So were the Apostles prepared by their Lord, Jesus Christ, to be His faithful servants and the door-keepers of His new House, which is the holy Christian Church.  And those same holy Apostles, as well as the ministers of Christ to this day, prepare the entire Household of the Church by the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, by the speaking of His Word of Absolution, by the washing of the water with the Word in His Name, and by the feeding of His Christians with His Body and His Blood in remembrance of Him.  The administration of those various means of grace is the work and responsibility entrusted to the servants of Christ who are called to be pastors of His Church.

But the watchfulness to which Apostles and pastors are exhorted is a watchfulness also demanded of all disciples of Christ Jesus, each of you in your own place, your own office and station in life.

For each and every one of you, that watchfulness begins and continues in the faithful use of the Word and Sacraments of Christ, as those gifts are given and received in His Name in the Life and Liturgy of His Church.  For just as the Old Testament people of God were prepared for the coming of the Christ by the Temple and its sacrifices, so are you prepared for the coming of Christ Jesus by His coming to you now in those ways and means which have superceded and replaced the Temple in Jerusalem, namely, the Divine Service of preaching and the Holy Communion.  That is where and how the Holy Trinity makes His Name and His Glory available to you, where you are given to eat and to drink of the Sacrifice that Christ Jesus offered for you and for all on the Cross.

Thus are you exhorted, now more than ever, to watch, to be alert, and to pray, that you might cling to the sure and certain hope that is yours in Christ Jesus, and hear and receive His many good gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation, and rejoice all your days in His grace, mercy, and peace.

By the same token, as you are faithfully served by the Lord Jesus Christ in this way and through these means, so does He also serve others and prepare them for His final Judgment through you, through your words and actions in His Name and by His Spirit.  For just as you hear and receive the Word and Sacraments of Christ Jesus in the Liturgy of His Gospel, so do you become a kind of living Word and Sacrament of Christ for those who live outside of His Church.  The Lord thus comes to them through you, that He might bring them into His House, and there prepare them by the preaching of His Gospel and the nourishment of His Holy Supper for His coming in glory.

Of course, your watchfulness and your service to others are not what they should be.  Even at your best, you are doing nothing more than what is your duty.  And the fact of the matter is that, even as a Christian, you continue to sin every day in your thoughts, words, and deeds, falling far short of the glory of God in what you do and say, and in all that you fail to do in love for God and others.

But where your watchfulness and service are always so weak and pathetic, the Lord’s watchfulness and His Divine Service are always trustworthy and certain.  He continues to prepare you by His preaching of repentance unto faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.  He has already satisfied the Judgment of God by His sacrifice upon the Cross, and in your Holy Baptism He has granted you eternal life with God by His Cross and Resurrection.  And now, again this morning, He feeds you with Himself in that great Feast which goes on forever in His Paradise; so that already here and now is that Day and that Hour in which you are called to share in His divine Life and Salvation.

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

21 November 2018

Give Thanks unto the Lord, for He Is Good

“O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”

Indeed, the Lord is good.  And as the Catechism has taught you, He gives daily bread, even without your prayer, also to all the wicked — just as He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the evil and the good.  But He would have you to pray to Him, that by His Word and Holy Spirit you would recognize His grace and mercy and receive His many good gifts with thanksgiving.

It is for this very purpose that we are here this evening, that we should be catechized by the Word of the Lord to know and believe and confess that every good and perfect gift is from above — all that you need for this body and life, and all that you need for the life and salvation to come; and that we, in return, should give to Him the only thing we have to offer: Thanksgiving for His gifts.

As we sing and confess with the entire Church in heaven and on earth in the celebration of the Holy Communion, “It is truly meet, right, and salutary, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to God, our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

It is for that reason that one common name for the Holy Communion, from very early on, has been the Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” as when the Lord Jesus Himself gave thanks at the Last Supper.  The fundamental pattern of the entire Christian faith and life is there rooted and expressed in the giving and receiving of the Lord’s Body and His Blood with thanksgiving.

As you have heard from St. Paul in his Epistle to St. Timothy, he urges “first of all” that prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all people, including rulers and authorities, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord, who by His Cross has reconciled the world to God the Father.  And so does the Apostle go on to write in the same Epistle, that everything created by God is good; it is all to be received with thanksgiving and sanctified to our use by the Word of God and prayer.

Thus are you catechized, not only in the celebration of the Sacrament but throughout your life, to recognize and give thanks for the gracious hand of God in the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the home that shelters you, and the family, friends, and neighbors who surround you.

The blessed truth is that, in the Lord’s Creation and Preservation of all things, including your body and soul, your eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses, you experience and receive the same fatherly, divine goodness and mercy that you receive in His forgiveness of your sins.  Not that it is the same gift, but it is the same grace of the same God.  For just as the Lord feeds and clothes the earth and all its creatures, the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, and just as He feeds and clothes you for this body and life on earth, so does He also feed and clothe you with His forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation here in His House, the holy Temple of His Church.

Unfortunately, as thanksgiving resides in the heart of faith and rises from it in gratitude and love, so it is that, from your heart of sin, you fail to acknowledge the constant grace and providence of the Holy Triune God.  You are rather prone to pride yourself in all the good that you enjoy, while blaming God and others for whatever bad that you suffer.  Perhaps it even takes a national holiday to remind you of your duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey the Lord your God for all His gifts and benefits.  God grant that you do so according to His Word, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As a sinner, you are constantly in need of such reminders of God’s grace, for your fallen flesh is always inclined to turn away from the Lord while you vainly attempt to make and preserve a life for yourself.  Like Adam and Eve, instead of rejoicing in all that God has freely bestowed, you choose to live as a god unto yourself, despite the fact that every breath you take is from the Lord.

It is by His Word and Spirit that the Lord in His mercy turns you back around — by His Word and Spirit that He pulls you out of your own heart and head, and turns you away from sin and death — that you might receive the life that He bestows upon you in humble faith and with thanksgiving.

By His Word of the Law, on the one hand, the Spirit exposes the depths of your sin and the utter futility of trying to make it through life on your own.  He brings you to that sobering knowledge, not only by the preaching of the Scriptures, but also by confronting you with the challenges of mortal life in a perishing world, with poverty, hunger, sickness, and so many griefs and sorrows.

By the preaching of the Gospel, on the other hand, the Spirit presents you with the one and only solution to your otherwise hopeless condition.  For the Gospel conveys that Christ, the almighty and eternal Son of the living God, has taken all the challenges of life and death upon Himself, bearing them all in His Body to the Cross.  And in His Resurrection, by the Word and Sacrament of His Gospel, He bestows upon your body and soul the free and full forgiveness of His Cross.

He gives it all to you by grace.  The Lord your God, the blessed Holy Trinity, cleanses you of sin and washes you like a newborn infant in the waters of your Holy Baptism.  He proclaims Himself, His love and mercy, through your ears and into your heart and life by the Word of Christ.  And He lays the life-giving treasures of His Cross upon your lips and tongue in the Holy Communion.

Thus, by way of the Law, the Lord is always driving you and forcing you back to the Cross of Christ; and by the Gospel of His Cross He raises you up to newness of life in His Resurrection.

Even so, the sad reality is that the vast majority of people do not receive their “daily bread” with thanksgiving.  As we have heard in the example of those ten lepers whom Jesus healed.  They all received that gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus, but only the one worshiped Him with thanks.

In much the same way, there is no one in this world who has not received everything he or she has from the gracious Maker and Preserver of all things.  And yet, how many refuse to acknowledge His grace and His gifts with thanksgiving?  And how often do you also fail to give Him thanks?

It remains the case, at all times and in all places, that only by the work of the Spirit through the Law and the Gospel are you delivered from your ingratitude and the hardness of your heart.  And that is true, not only for you, but likewise for your neighbors in the world.  The Law, to be sure, is already working on everyone in the challenges of this mortal life, but the saving promises of the Gospel remain hidden until they are confessed in the words and actions of Christians like yourself.

Indeed, you exercise your gratitude to the Lord your God in no better way than by demonstrating the forgiveness, love, and mercy of Christ Jesus in dealing with your neighbors.  And then, by the grace of God, perhaps your words and actions of love will lead your neighbors to the House of the Lord, that they also might receive His Gospel–Word and Sacraments with faith and thanksgiving.

Thus do we confess with the Psalmist: “Blessed are those whom the Lord so chooses and causes to approach; for they shall be satisfied with the goodness of His House and of His holy Temple.”

Bearing that blessing in mind, consider what you have heard from Deuteronomy tonight, in which the Lord instructs you in the Christian faith and life by the example of His dealings with Israel.  For it is a description of His Law and His Gospel actively at work in the history of His People.

During their forty years of wandering in the desert, following the Exodus from Egypt, He humbled them with His Law; He allowed them to go hungry, that they might feel their need for Him and for His providence.  Then He fed them with manna from heaven, a miraculous bread of life, given by His Word of promise, that they might learn to trust His grace and lean upon His Word at all times.

In this way, says the Lord, the people were disciplined to live as the children of God.  And having become His children by the grace of His Word and Spirit, they were given the Land of Promise, a Land flowing with milk and honey, in which they enjoyed the blessings of their heavenly Father.

In all of this, you are hearing not only the story of ancient Israel, but also a description of your own Christian life.  For you also are disciplined as a child of God by His Law, and fed by His Gospel.  You also are nourished with the Living Bread from Heaven, set before you by His gracious Word of Promise: “Take, eat, drink; this is My Body, this is My Blood, given and poured out for you.”

Having become His child by the washing of the water with His Word, you are on a pilgrimage with Christ Jesus, through the wilderness, into the Good Land of everlasting Milk and Honey.  And on the way, even now in the midst of sin and death, by faith you are able to see and acknowledge the hand of your dear God and Father in all the temporal blessings of this body and life, as well.

And as the Lord Himself has promised, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good Land He has given you,” here in time, and hereafter in eternity.

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

18 November 2018

The Lord Jesus Christ Endures to the End

The Temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent thing.  It’s no wonder the disciples were impressed.  The massive stones of the Temple buildings were beautiful white marble, adorned with gold and very strong.  Some of the stones were as large as semi trucks.  Certainly, the Temple was the match of any pyramid in Egypt, and it was rightly considered one of the great wonders of the world!

But out of this great Temple steps a Carpenter from Nazareth, days away from being crucified.  Earlier that week He threw the money changers out of the Temple courtyard; and now it sounds like He’s ready to tear the whole place down.  As Jesus leaves the Temple for the very last time, His final words are a cry of anguish: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  Your beautiful house will be left a deserted place!”  Not one stone of this great building will be left upon another!

The words of Jesus must have stung the ears of those who heard them, not least of all His own disciples.  The Temple was the heart and center of the Jewish faith.  Not only were the buildings magnificent, but more important, the priests who served the Temple offered up the sacrifices that the Lord had commanded through Moses.  How and why would Jesus criticizes the Temple?

The thing is that God, the Lord, had commanded the sacrifice of lambs and sheep and goats and bulls to prepare His people for the Sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God, for the sins of the world.  The Temple priests came every day to offer up those sacrifices in the Name of the Lord, but none of those sacrifices could redeem the world from sin forever.  They were a shadow and a preview of the sacrificial Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the whole world in His Body on the Cross.

Sadly, when the Christ of God appeared in the flesh, the people of God were largely unwilling to receive Him.  The long-awaited Savior was rejected by the majority of His own nation.  After all those years, the Jewish people by and large missed the point of their own history and religion.

Instead of looking at the sacrifices in the Temple as a Gospel proclamation of the coming Savior, most of the people saw them as a way of buying God off.  Their whole point and purpose had been in preparation for the Christ, the Messiah.  Once He had come in the flesh and been rejected, all that remained of the sacrifices was an empty and pointless shell.  Those who persisted in relying on the Temple and its sacrifices were bastardizing the Gospel into a means of self-righteousness.

But how often aren’t you guilty of doing the very same thing?  How often do you come to Church, not to receive the blessings of God, but rather to appease Him (or impress others) by going through the motions?  How often do you come to the Lord’s Supper, not because you need the forgiveness of His Body and Blood, but instead because you wonder and worry what everyone will be thinking if you do not?  How often do you blasphemously treat your Holy Baptism as a license to continue in your sins, instead of exercising its real significance in repentance and confession of your sins?

Do not allow the shadows of the Temple to eclipse the Gospel of the Lord.  For you are a sinner, and what you need is His forgiveness.  As a son or daughter of Adam, you are born in bondage to sin and death, and only God can set you free.  There is nothing you can do or give to save yourself.  Christ alone has done it all.  Everything else, like the Temple, will be left deserted and torn down.

The sacrifices of the Temple were brought to an end in the Year of our Lord 70, when the Roman army destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  To this day, the Temple has not been rebuilt, the sacrifices have not been restored.  But even if men were to rebuild the Temple and attempted to offer the Old Testament sacrifices as before, it would all be for nothing and a sinful rejection of Christ Jesus, who has already offered Himself once-for-all upon the Cross.  There is no other sacrifice for sin.

Jesus Christ alone has stood the test of sin and death, and only those who endure steadfast in Him will survive until the end and be saved.  There is forgiveness and salvation nowhere else.  Not in the massive stones of magnificent Temple buildings.  Not in the good works that you or anyone else might do.  Not in the spiritual charade of a pietistic life.  But only in the Sacrifice of Christ.  By His voluntary suffering and death, He has made Atonement for the sins of the entire world.

God’s wrath and judgment against sin have thus been set aside forever, having been spent upon the Son in His Cross and Passion.  And yet, as the words of the Prophets and Christ Himself have warned, there will be a Day of Judgment for the living and the dead.  The destruction of Jerusalem is only the beginning, a miniature foretaste of that devastating final judgment at the end of days.

Christ has made Atonement for the sins of the world by His holy and precious Blood, and by His innocent suffering and death.  The final Judgment will thus turn on where you stand in relation to that same Lord Jesus Christ.  Jerusalem was destroyed because the majority of its inhabitants rejected Him and His Gospel.  So, too, those who will be condemned in the Day of Judgment are those who have persisted in their rejection of the very One who died to redeem and save them.

In the meantime, to be sure, your sin is still sin.  It offends the holy and righteous God, and He calls you to repentance for it by the preaching of His Word.  He also disciplines you, as a father disciplines his children, in love.  He punishes your sin in this body and life, not to the extent that you deserve, but that you might recognize its wrongness and its danger, and that you might turn away from your sins to the mercies of God in Christ, that you might live in faith and love.  For the fact is that persistence in your sins — in doing what you should not and failing to do what you should — is destructive of your faith and life and drives the Holy Spirit from your body and soul.

Those potential consequences of sin in your body and life are evident in the signs of the end that Jesus describes in His Word this morning.  It is a sinful world, and the consequences of sin are all around you: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, hurricanes and devastating fires.  There are no lack of nations rising against nations, of kingdoms rising and falling.  Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed the Word of the Lord and fell into sin, the history of their children has been full of death and destruction.  And all who cling to this perishing world perish along with it.

Dr. Luther, considering the trials and tribulations of his tumultuous day and age, remarked that, “The world cannot stand long, perhaps a hundred years, at most.”  But really, truth be told, every Christian from the Twelve Apostles onward has looked for the Day of Judgment to come at any time.  The signs have certainly been there all along, and they continue going on even to this day.

Those signs of God’s judgment should keep you mindful of your sin, and of your need for the Lord Jesus Christ.  The tragedies of life call you to repentance and drive you to the Gospel of His Cross.  And all the sufferings of this body and life are reminders that this present evil age is coming to an end, and that salvation is on the horizon.  As labor pains alert a woman to the time of her delivery, so do the pains of this world remind you that God is giving birth to new heavens and a new earth.

Even common sense should therefore warn you not to place your confidence and hope in anything but Christ and His Word.  For just as the massive stones of the beautiful Temple were finally thrown down and wrecked, so are all things of this earth eventually thrown down and destroyed.  Kingdoms do rise and fall, nations come and go, buildings collapse, and even the most powerful of people die.  The good works of today give way to the wickedness of tomorrow.  Christ Jesus alone stands head and shoulders over everything, always the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Despite what such logic and sound theology should tell you, it is still too often the case that you end up drifting, taking your stand on shifting sands instead of resting yourself in Christ.  You rely on your own wisdom, reason, and strength to secure God’s favor and forgiveness, even as the Jews relied on the Temple and rejected the Messiah.  And you are too easily persuaded and led astray by the flash and fiction of those who reject the Gospel in favor of the monuments of this world.

How on earth shall you endure in Christ alone, and finish the race, and make it to the end?  How shall you resist the temptations of those who would lead you astray?  The answer is surprisingly simple.  It is by going to that place where Christ Himself has promised to protect you.  By hiding in the bosom of His Church, the House that He has established on the Rock of His own choosing, which He has promised to guard against even the powers and gates of hell itself.  That Rock is the Ministry of His Gospel-Word and Sacraments, by which He comes to you and deals with you in mercy, in order to grant you faith and forgiveness, to give you Life and Salvation in His Body.

Beginning with His Twelve Apostles, Christ Jesus has sent His preachers into all the world.  And what a joy it is to preach and minister in His Name, to bring His means of grace to those in need, to forgive sins in His Name and stead.  As you have heard this morning from the Prophet Daniel, those who thereby lead the many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and ever.

So it was that, already in your Baptism, you were crucified, put to death, and buried with Christ Jesus, united with Him in His Cross and Sacrifice.  As the called and ordained servant of Christ administered the water in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you entered the tomb on Good Friday and rose with Christ Jesus on Easter morning.  You emerged from the water, a member of Christ’s Church, a beloved child of His God and Father, and a partaker of His Spirit.

Likewise, in the Holy Absolution spoken by your pastor, it is the gentle voice of the Lord Jesus that you hear and receive, granting you the forgiveness of all your many sins, and sustaining you with His Peace and with the sure and certain promise of the Resurrection.  What greater comfort could there be for those seeking shelter from the storms of life?  For we believe, teach, and confess that, when the called ministers of Christ deal with you by His Word, it is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ your dear Lord dealt with you in Person.  That is not “make believe” or “let’s pretend.”  It is in fact precisely Christ who is with you and gives you life in this way.

And in the Lord’s own Holy Supper, you receive again and again the very same Body and Blood that He sacrificed for you and all upon the Cross, here given and poured out for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Here you find and receive the Lord Jesus Himself, in the flesh, in the Breaking of the Bread.  Here at His Altar, with His own flesh and blood, He strengthens your faith to keep you standing steadfast in His Word until the end.  Your sin is covered by His Righteousness, and your guilt is washed away forever by the working of His Holy Spirit.  For here is your robe, your refuge, and your peace, the Blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, which cleanses you of all your sins.

It is all quite steady and strong, because the Church of Christ does not stand on massive stones, she is not girded by concrete and steel.  She rests and remains upon the Ministry of Christ in His Gospel-Word and Sacrament.  There is no army that will ever penetrate that Mighty Fortress.

With what, then, has that magnificent Temple in Jerusalem been replaced?  With the Body of the Lord, crucified and risen from the dead.  And so also with you and all the people of God, who are collectively the Body and Bride of Christ Jesus, our Lord.  In the waters of Holy Baptism, by His Word and Holy Spirit, you have become one of those living stones which, by the Ministry of His Gospel, are being built into a spiritual Temple, with Jesus Christ Himself the Chief Cornerstone.

As you belong to the living Temple of the living Lord Jesus, you now live wherever God has put you on this earth, proclaiming the praises of Him who has called you out of the darkness of your sin and death into His marvelous Light; who has called you from the false hopes and misleading lies of the world to endure until the end in Christ. For He has endured in perfect faith and holy love, even unto death, and in His Resurrection He has entered the Holy of Holies on your behalf.  In His Body and His Blood, by faith in His Word, you now live and abide with God in heaven.

And so it is that the disciples of Christ Jesus, living by faith under His Cross in the hope of His Resurrection, now stand back in awe and admiration of the living stones and the spiritual Temple which are His Holy Christian Church, on earth as it is in heaven:  “Look, Teacher.  What massive stones!  What a magnificent building!”  Yes, indeed.  For these are they who have come out of the great tribulation.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.  And those who are righteous by faith shine like the Son in the Kingdom of His God and Father.

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

11 November 2018

One Gave All

When you consider the holy martyrs of Christ, or the veterans of our country who have died in battle, it does not matter at all how rich or poor they were, because they have given, not a gift or a token, but themselves, their very lives.  There is no more that anyone can give, than to lay down his life, and then it makes no difference whether he has got a million bucks or barely a few cents.

But even to make the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life is not necessarily noble, just, or right.  It really depends upon the motive, the cause, and the purpose for which one dies.  Some causes are sinful, no matter how sincerely committed the one who serves them may be.  It can also happen that good and worthy causes are served by sinful hearts, for selfish and self-serving reasons.

Some give all in the worship of false gods.  Others do so in despair of any god, which is another kind of idolatry.  Some would go so far as to give their lives in the hopes of saving themselves, so to speak, by personal fame and glory — because they love the praises of men more than God — as though the memories of the mortals who come after them would preserve their life after death.

But now, what about these two widows whom the Lord has set before you from His Scriptures?  Neither of them loses her life, but each of them gives up all of her remaining possessions.  What is the heart of the matter in these two cases?  What motive, cause, and purpose are found in the widow of Zarephath, and in the poor widow who puts her last two coins into the Temple treasury?

The widow of Zarephath obeys the Word of the Lord, as it is spoken to her by the Prophet Elijah.  Her cupboard is almost bare, but she prepares the last of what she has to serve the man of God.  She evidently trusts the promise that her bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall her jar of oil be emptied, despite the drought and famine that persist.  Her faith is not misplaced, for the Lord provides all her needs, exactly as He promised.  Yet, the widow’s heart is divided between both faith and fear, as we discover in the story that follows.  For when her son becomes sick and dies, she rails at the Prophet that he has come to bring her iniquity to light and to put her son to death.  Only after he has raised the boy to life again does she confess that God’s Word is in his mouth.

As for the widow who puts her two small copper coins into the Temple treasury, we are not told her motivation, but only the extent of her gift.  It is extraordinary, that she would give up all that she has.  But is it out of faith, or out of fear, or out of fiercely competing attitudes inside of her?

The Law of the Lord forbids the affliction of widows and orphans.  But the scribes, or many of them anyway, “devour widows’ houses.”  How so?  With their culture of appearances, whereby they establish a climate of comparing and competing for the praise and honor of the people.

So, is this poor widow prompted by faith and trust in the providence of God, to give her last two cents?  Or is she driven by fear and desperation to keep up and compete with the religious elite?

And what about you?  What do you give and do to support the Church and Ministry, and to care for your neighbors?  And what do you hold back for yourself, for your own family and friends?

Whether you give big donations out of your surplus, or sacrifice what little you have to live on, what is your motivation, your purpose, and your cause?  Is it to be seen by other people, to position yourself among the pious or the prudent?  Or do you presume to impress the Lord God Himself?

That same Lord God already knows the answers to all of these questions.  He observes your giving, and not only what you give, but how.  That is to say, He sees and knows your heart.  But do you?

Examine yourself before the Lord your God, according to His Word, and do not pretend that you don’t care what anyone else thinks of you and your actions.  Whether you are bold and outgoing, or timid and withdrawn; whether you are self-assured and sophisticated, or shy and self-conscious; whether you love and seek the spotlight, or you prefer to be a wallflower and hide in the shadows, you also are concerned with appearances, and with your reputation in the opinion of others.

To have no care and concern for your neighbors would be inhuman, and to have no regard for your good name and reputation would surely be lawless and wild.  What a frightening psycho maniac you would be, if you really didn’t care about anyone else or their opinions of you!  But neither is your care for others purely that of love.  Instead, your prideful ego competes for the affections and the accolades of the whole wide world around you.  You long to be admired and applauded, if not for your loud extravagance and flare, then for your simplicity and quiet modesty.  Either way, you do hope to be awarded some kind of prize and recognition for your efforts and accomplishments.

Here’s the rub: All men die, including you, and then comes the judgment.  There are no second chances.  And where you stand in the public eye, in the popular opinion of the world, won’t make any difference.  Whether you die a hero or a bum will be irrelevant when you stand before God.

Already now you live before Him.  Whatever you do in this body and life is done in His presence.  Whatever you give, it is given unto Him.  And whatever you withhold, it is withheld from Him.

How then shall you live (and die) before the Lord your God?  That should be your chief concern, at all times and in all places.  Not simply out of self-concern and self-preservation, though your life really does depend on Him, on where you stand in His judgment.  But you should chiefly be concerned with where you stand before Him, because He is the Lord, the true and only God.

Now, precisely because He is God, and you are not, the question is not, How shall you go to Him?  Nor, What shall you give to Him or do for Him?  You cannot save yourself, nor are you able to set yourself right before the Lord your God.  You cannot find Him on your own.  You cannot reach Him by your own power.  You cannot give Him anything that is not already His in the first place!

The question, rather, is this: How shall you wait upon the Lord?  And again: How shall you receive the Lord who comes to you in peace and freely gives Himself and all His gifts to you by grace?

For this, indeed, is what God does for you and gives to you in Christ Jesus.  It is His true character, His great strength, His glory, and His grace to do so.  He is under no compulsion, nor under any delusions, but He acts freely in divine and holy love, in order to give you Life with Himself.

It is not cheap or easy for Him.  Though He was rich, yet for your sake He made Himself poor, so that you, by His poverty, are now made rich with all the treasures of His Kingdom.  This is the divine Charity of God Himself, who became man and suffered death that you might rise and live with Him in His Resurrection from the dead, and thereby share His divine Life forever and ever.  He is the Veteran of that one decisive battle between life and death, and it is by the Victory of His Sacrifice that you are rescued from sin, death, and hell, and brought into the presence of God for everlasting life and perfect health in body and soul, for true and lasting Peace and Sabbath Rest.

Consequently, before God, there is nothing for you to give but thanks.  For all things come from Him by grace, and He needs nothing at all from anyone.  But the sacrifice of thanksgiving is truly meet, right, and salutary, by which you honor and confess His holy Name and His glorious grace.

The sacrifice of thanksgiving is offered to God in repentant faith.  That is to fear, love, and trust in Him, which is the right attitude and posture of your heart and mind, body and soul, before Him.

At the same time, you also give thanks to God by loving your neighbor in His Name and for His sake, with your words, and with your actions, and with your alms, which are your gifts of charity.  Not as though placing yourself above your neighbor, but as living under the Lord alongside your neighbor in humility and peace.  That is to live for your neighbor as Christ Jesus lives for you.

You bear the Cross for your neighbor by using your strength to serve him, and by forgiving him his trespasses against you.  You are ready, willing, and able to die for your neighbor, because God, who has given Himself for you and died for you, is your life and your salvation forever and ever.

Truly, you have much to give and share, because of what the Lord your God has done for you and given to you.  Your sacrifice of love for your neighbor is made possible, and it means something, it makes a difference, because of the sacrifice of Christ for you, and because you are raised up with Him in His Resurrection from the dead.  So it is that, whenever Christians lay down their lives in love for others, whether as martyrs or as soldiers, or in whatever capacity they are called to serve, it is in Christ Jesus that they do so — not unto eternal death, but unto the Life everlasting in Him.

So, how do you know what you should do and give?  Given your finitude and frailty, your limited capacities and resources, how shall you set your priorities and make good choices and decisions?

You have but one life to live, one life to give — whether for your country, or for what, for whom?

Shall you put your last two cents in the offering plate?  Or cash in your savings and give it as alms for the poor and needy, in order to follow Christ?  But how shall you serve some neighbors at the expense of all the others?  Is it really down to “random acts of kindness,” or what is your plan?

As a Christian, act according to the Word of the Lord, your God.  That is the answer to these good questions.  Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and then you will know what God would have you do and give, and where and how He would have you serve and sacrifice.  Realize that He speaks to you through your pastors and teachers, your parents and other authorities, whom He places over you in love.  Honor your father and your mother, therefore, and sanctify unto yourself the preaching of God’s Word by gladly hearing it and learning from it.

The key remains that, even in love for your neighbor, you live your life at all times before God.  Serve and support the Prophet of the Lord, therefore, that he may continue to preach and teach the Word of God to you and to your neighbor.  Contribute to the Church and Ministry, and do your part, that this, your congregation, may be a place of peace and hope in the preaching of the Gospel and in the Sacraments of Christ Jesus.  Then also serve and care for your own home and family with whatever the Lord daily and richly provides for you, be it bread and water or meat and mead.

Do not be afraid to do what the Lord has commanded you to do, and do not worry and fret about where you stand, whether you are giving too much or too little.  Have no fear of sin or death!  For though you fall far short, and you are frequently more fearful than faithful; and though you have not laid down your life, but are too often absent without leave from where the Lord has stationed you; and even though all men hate you, criticize and despise you, not only for your many faults, but also for your limited faithfulness — even so, the dear Lord Jesus has given Himself for you.

Consider how He greets you in grace and mercy and forgiveness with His Gospel.  See how He clothes you with Himself, in the long white robes of His Righteousness.  He covers your nakedness and shame with His purity and peace, and He adorns you in real beauty as His holy and beloved Bride.  For you are no longer a poor widow, but Christ is your Bridegroom.  And you are not an orphan, an alien or outcast, but God is your own dear Father in Christ Jesus, and you belong to His household and family forever, wherein the flour is not spent, and the jar of oil does not run dry.

He sets you in the place of honor in His Synagogue, that is to say, in the great congregation of His Holy Church, so that you may hear His Word and live by the preaching of His free forgiveness.  And He seats you in the place of honor at His Table, while He, who is the first and the best, girds Himself to serve you.  He removes His royal robes for this good work of His, in order to cleanse you, to wash your dirty feet with Holy Absolution.  And then He also waits on you and feeds you, not with simple bread and water only, nor even with perishing delicacies of cake and champagne, but with the choicest Meat and finest Wine of His own holy Body and precious Blood.  Here, then, with all the riches of heaven, with His own Body and Life, He makes you wealthy by His grace.

And as He comes and gives Himself to you here and now, He also appears, both now and forever, in the presence of God for you.  He lives before God as your great High Priest.  So that is where you and your life are now, and where you shall abide forever.  Even now, in the midst of the great tribulation, your life is already hidden with Christ in God.  And when He appears at the last, in Glory, He will bring you without sin, body and soul, into the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting.

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