25 November 2012

Be Alert to the Cross of Christ

Be on the alert!  So says your Lord, four times over, this morning.

Pay attention to what you see happening in the world all around you, in both church and state, among your neighbors, in your family, and in yourself.  But above all else, give ear to what you hear from God, the Lord.  Interpret what you see (and what you don’t) by what He says.

Everywhere you look (and no less, where you refuse to look), there is sin and death, decay and destruction.  The whole world is wearing out and wasting away.  None of it will last.  The days are growing short.  A harsh wind is blowing in a big storm.  The winter is coming.

It’s far more than just the weather, isn’t it?  There’s all sorts of uncertainty in these troubled and difficult times.  Political unrest and economic turbulence abound.  If it’s not a fiscal cliff, then some other precipice lies ahead of you.  So, watch your step!

Depending on your politics, you may be happy or sad about the recent elections, with various hopes or fears for the future.  But the Psalmist is right: Trust not in princes; nor presidents, either.  It’s not about a prejudice against politicians.  When it comes to what really matters most, do not trust in yourself, either; nor your neighbor; nor anything of this fallen world.  For all of creation is subject to the curse of sin.  It dies and decays.

You, also, are like the grass, which withers and fades; like autumn leaves, which look so glorious for a little while, but then they fall; they are gathered and burned, or they decompose into the soil.

Number your days, you son or daughter of man, and know how short your life here is.  Consider your end, which comes before you know it, sooner than you think.  Your mortal life is nothing.  There is no strength of man that survives.

Since everything looks (and is) so bleak, what hope is there?  What in the world shall you do?

Beloved, your hope is in the Lord.  Therefore, be alert to Him.  Give ear, again, to what He says.  Pay attention to what He is doing by His Word of the Cross, though it, too, appears to be futile.

Your dear Lord Jesus deals with sin, which is the real problem and the underlying cause of death and every evil.  He forgives all sins which you have done, but He also deals with your sin at its core: not so much as bad behavior to be punished, but as a turning away from God, the Creator.  You do not trust the Author and Giver of Life, the One from whom your life and all things come, on whom all things depend.  Your unbelief is the unrighteousness which leads only to death.

But, now, the Lord sends forth a Law, even to the ends of the earth.  He establishes His justice in the midst of sin and death.  Henceforth, His righteousness is near; for His salvation has gone forth.  Though the heavens and the earth and all of creation will perish — the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment — still, His salvation and His righteousness are forever.

Give attention to that fact: His righteousness and His salvation are forever, and they are for you.

His own arm will judge His people; and, it is true, His holy and righteous Law would condemn you and sentence you to death and damnation, because you are neither holy nor righteous in yourself.  Yet, He calls you to Himself; He calls you by name, to be His own, to wait upon His arm in hope.

For with His mighty, outstretched arms, in the tender palms of His own hands, He has suffered the tribulation and the final judgment in Himself.  It is in this way that He has accomplished justice and established righteousness in the earth.  He has taken all the hurt and all the heartache of the fall into sin upon Himself.  Though He is the Creator of all things, and He is Life in Himself, He has taken the entire curse of sin and death, the destruction and decay of the world, upon Himself.

In His Passion unto death, even death upon the Cross, the Lord Jesus Christ has atoned for the sins of the world.  And in His Resurrection from the dead, He has rectified what was broken in all of creation; He has reconciled the sons and daughters of man unto His God and Father in heaven.

You know the Story, which the Holy Scriptures tell, the Creed confesses, the Liturgy unfolds for you and for all, and the Church Year rehearses, even to the end of the age:

The beloved and only-begotten Son of God has left His home with the Father in heaven, and He has come forth on a journey to redeem you and save you.  As true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Word and Spirit of God — and, therefore, as your own Brother in the flesh, with a body and blood and a nature just like yours — He has waited in faith upon His Father.  He has lived as true Man (as man was created and meant to live), not knowing the day nor the hour in advance, but simply hearing and heeding and relying on His Father’s faithful Word.

He has taken heed.  He has stayed awake.  And He has been alert.  Therefore, when that day and that hour came, He was ready: Watching and waiting in faith, He went to His Cross in holy love.

Learn the lesson of His Tree.  Consider its tenderness, its leaves and fruit, which are for the healing of the nations — and no less so for your healing, unto strength and perseverance and eternal life.

He has sent forth His messengers with its rich and lush fruits, to gather His elect from the four winds, His disciples from all nations.  Thus, by the fruits of His Cross, that is, by the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His whole Christian Church on earth.  With these healthy fruits, by this Ministry of His Gospel, He Himself is near you — He is right at the door — daily and richly to forgive you all of your sins.

It is for this purpose that He has appointed His servants to care for His household, that is, to feed and clothe, to nurture and teach His family.  His pastors and teachers are watchmen on the heights, doorkeepers, and stewards of the Mysteries of God.  They are called and ordained to keep watch, both day and night; to guard your coming in and your going out by His Word, by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; and to guide all your days and your deeds in His Peace.

But what He says to them, He also says to you: “Be on the alert!”  For to you, also, He has given your own proper tasks, your own particular duties, within His household and family.  Do not think that, if you are not a pastor, you do not have to pay attention or take care.  But be faithful in your own office and station in life, and care for your neighbors according to your calling.  That is where you are to watch and to wait for the coming of the Lord, faithfully doing what He has given you to do, in the hope of His mercy; which is to say, in the sure and certain hope of His Resurrection.

Take heed to the Word of the Lord, to His Law and His Gospel.  Thereby set your heart on the pilgrim’s way, to live by faith as a sojourner through the wilderness, as a wayfarer on earth.  Not with your eyes downcast and your chin dragging in the dirt, but lift up your head, your heart and mind, your eyes and ears, unto Christ your Savior; for He is ready, willing, and able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in His glorious presence — blameless in body and soul.

Keep yourself in the Love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, your Savior, and so live by His grace.

Beloved, He has taught you how to live in His love; and day after day, week after week, year after year, He continues to catechize you in the way you are to go, which is the way of life in Him: To say it short and simple, rest yourself in the Word and promise of Christ, that is, upon His Gospel.  Rely not on yourself, but on Jesus.  He will never leave you nor forsake you.  He will not fail you.

In the midst of the great tribulation — which is to say, in your pilgrimage under the Cross — build yourself up on your most holy faith by giving attention to His Word: Do not despise it, but hold it sacred, gladly hearing the Word of Christ as it is preached, and learning from His Word when it is taught.  Avail yourself of the Gospel, not only in the preaching, but also by making regular use of the means of grace.  Receive the Sacrament according to the Word of Christ.  Confess your sins, and receive the Absolution (that is, forgiveness) from your pastor as from Christ Himself; in no wise doubting, but firmly believing, that by this Word your sins are forgiven before God in heaven.

So, too, keep yourself in the Love of God and live by faith in Christ, by praying in the Holy Spirit: at all times, and in all places, without ceasing.  Not by your own reason and strength, but by the Word of Christ, as He has spoken to you.  For you have the Spirit of Christ only by His Word.  And in turn, you pray and confess His Word only by His Spirit.  Such prayer is the voice of faith.

Therefore, pray throughout your days, when you get up in the morning, and when you go to bed at night, and as you take up and lay aside your duties of the day.  And let your whole life be a kind of prayer, by constantly repenting of your sins before God, and by relying on His grace and mercy.

Pray, also, within the fellowship of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  For it is in Him and with Him and through Him that you pray, and He has taught you to pray with and for each other.  Thus, you serve and support your fellow Christians with your prayer, and they do the same for you.  And together you receive the answer to all of your prayers in the Word and Flesh of Christ Jesus.

So, then, by the Word of God and prayer, wait eagerly upon the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto eternal life.  Set your hope firmly and fully upon Him, and fix your eyes on Him, by clinging to the promise of the Gospel.  Trust that, by His sacrifice and bloodshed on the Cross, and in His bodily Resurrection, He has established His righteousness and His salvation, for you, forever.

Do not be consumed by the temporal things of this life on earth, but temper your consuming with the humility of repentance.  After all, you don’t know what the next four years may hold; nor even what tomorrow may bring; nor if there will even be a tomorrow for this earth, or for you upon it.  But, rather, comfort and strengthen yourself with the eternal things of Christ, who has risen from the dead and lives and reigns forever, and whose Word shall never pass away.

And as you wait upon His mercy, so have mercy on your neighbor: Comfort and encourage the doubting in their weakness and fear, by loving them graciously and well.  Save others by snatching them out of the fire, by warning them straightforwardly.  Don’t wink or nod at sin, but call it what it is, and call your neighbor to repentance in a spirit of gentleness.  To hate the garment polluted by the flesh is not to flee from your brother or sister, but to flee from sin in the fear of the Lord.

Have mercy on your neighbor, who is a sinner like yourself; as you also depend on the mercy of God in Christ, and as He Himself is merciful.  Be gentle and compassionate, as the Lord your God is gentle and compassionate with you.  Forgive, as you yourself are freely and fully forgiven.

Have no fear of death, and do not despair of hope; for the Lord Himself now helps you in your weaknesses and doubts, and He now saves you from the fires of your passions, and from the fires of eternal punishment in hell.  As your merciful and great High Priest, He persists in constant prayer and intercession for you.  And here in His Church, He faithfully speaks His Word to you.  He sends His holy angels to guard you and keep you in body and soul, and His ministers to gather you to Himself by the peaching and teaching of His Gospel, by forgiving you all of your sins in His Name and stead, and by giving you the Food and the Drink that you need at the proper time.

In calling you daily to repentance, He calls you daily to faith in His forgiveness of all your sins, and to find your Sabbath rest and perfect peace in His righteousness and holiness, His innocence and blessedness.  Indeed, the forgiveness that is yours in His Blood delivers you from every evil, unto that day and that hour when He shall call you from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven; as even now His fruitful Cross shines the summer sunshine of His faith and love upon you in Peace.

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

04 November 2012

Hear, O Israel! The Lord Is One

To set aside for God a part or portion of your time is idolatrous.  To dedicate or offer to the Lord a portion or percentage of your possessions is sacrilegious.  For how shall you call Him the Lord your God, to whom you would give only a part or portion of yourself?  How shall you presume to worship Him, whom you would place beneath your feet as but one priority among many others?

No, it will not do to subdivide yourself, your time and energy, your stuff, your heart, mind, soul, and strength.  But with all that you are and have, you shall fully love and serve the Lord your God, and nothing else besides Him.  For there is one Lord, one God, not many.  There is but one Author and Giver of Life.  Wherever else you would look for life, you will have nothing but death.  Not that God is merely a means to some other end, but He alone is your Life and Light and Salvation.

To whatever or whomever else you would direct or dedicate your thoughts, words, and actions, if not the Holy Triune God, that is your idol and your false religion.  Or to suppose at any point that you have “done your time” and “paid your dues,” is already to have failed and fallen short of the glory of God.  For He would have all of you; that you would have your whole life entirely in Him.  Do not look at your neighbor, either, to measure and compare how much he has done, or how much he has given.  For your own life is lived before God, and you will not ever do or give “too much.”

Your offerings and your alms are inadequate and insufficient, no matter what the amount, and no matter what percentage of your income and your wealth, so long as you withhold yourself from God and from your neighbor.  For you are to love the Lord your God with everything that you are, with your entire being; and you are to love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Which is not to say that you should love your neighbor in addition to God, nor alongside of God; for that would be to make another god out of your neighbor.  Rather, you are to love your neighbor under and within your love for God, that is, according to His Word, and after His own great heart of love.

It is for God’s sake that you love your neighbor: in humility, in faith, in mercy, and in peace.  And that is how you are to live your whole life in the good land to which the Lord your God has called you, which He has promised to you in His Word, and which He gives to you in Christ Jesus.

Many of you know, and can still remember, what it is like to be “in love,” to be “head over heels” for someone.  Your every waking thought is turned toward that person, as well as your dreams at night.  Every decision, every action, every utterance is considered and weighed and carried out with reference to your heart’s desire.  The way you dress and groom yourself, the smile on your face and the spring in your step, all derive from and return to the object of your affection.  So much the greater and all the more consuming is your love for the Lord your God to be, at all times and in all places: A single-minded devotion, an undivided heart, and a living sacrifice of body, soul, and spirit, all belong to Him by right.  Because He is the true and only God.  There is none other.

I want you to consider those who have gone before us in this life on earth: What do they have now?  Is it life or death?  Is it God or the devil?  There is no middle ground, no in between, no other options or alternatives.  There is only the life everlasting, or eternal damnation.  There is only the Kingdom of God, or the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his wicked fallen angels.

Some of you have known some of those whom we name before the Lord’s Altar this morning, who have departed in the faith and confession of Christ.  And all of you have lost loved ones in the past, whether recently or long ago; whether from the womb or after many years of life together.  Parents and children, spouses and siblings, neighbors and friends.  Think about those people, those men and women, boys and girls, all of whom were mortal and sinful like yourself.  What was important to them here?  What did they treasure?  How did they spend their time?  Where did they invest themselves?  With what did they depart this vale of tears, and with what did they enter eternity?

What did they take with them?  And what do they have now?

All that remains forever is Christ Jesus and His Word, His Spirit and His Father.  Apart from Him, there is only darkness, and death, and damnation.  Where, then, shall your heart and life be given and belong?  How shall you live, here and now, that you may rise and live with the Lord forever?

According to His Covenant with Israel at Sinai — according to His Ten Commandments, which are His statutes and His judgments, His good and acceptable will, and irrefutably His holy Word — He says, the Way of Life is the way of faith and love: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and, in love for Him, to love your neighbor as yourself.  That is how you shall live in the good land that He promises and gives to you.  That is how you shall thrive.

But where you do not love the Lord God and your neighbor, there is alienation, enmity, separation, loneliness, and fear.  Not peace and rest, but anxiety and hard labor.  Not life, but death, now and forever.  That is the land laid waste by your lack of love for God and man.  That is the kingdom and the city of your own idolatrous self-love.  It is sprawling, unruly, divided, and running amok.

Yet, over His good land, the Lord your God has raised up and established a good King, who is the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed; His Servant David, with whom He has made an everlasting Covenant: Not like His Covenant with Israel at Sinai, which His people broke, although He was faithful to them.  But a New Covenant in the very flesh and blood of great King David’s greater Son.

As the ruler goes, so goes the nation, right?  You know it’s true.  You see it, time and again, in the kings of Israel and Judah.  There is a bond between the prince and the people.  And when you go to vote for your presidential candidate this coming Tuesday, you won’t be voting only for one man, but for what he stands for (or against): for his ideals and his values, and for what you hope that he will do.  You’ll be hoping, and I hope you’ll be praying, for a leader who will truly be a father of the country, who will be instrumental in helping the entire nation to be healthy, strong, and great.

As the ruler goes, so goes the nation.  But the King whom God has raised up for His people and His land, that is, the Lord’s Anointed, with whom He has made His Covenant forever, He is more than any ordinary Monarch.  He is not only a ruler or leader, but a merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God.  He is, indeed, the Royal High Priest, who has redeemed you with His Life-Blood, by His Cross, and has reconciled you to God in His Resurrection from the dead, in order that you may live with Him in His Kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness; that you may have Peace and Sabbath Rest in a good land, freely flowing with milk and honey; that the Lord may be your God, and you His own dear child and beloved heir; and that you may abide forever and ever in His presence, blameless and holy before Him in body and soul.

Who is this King of Glory, and how is He able to do and accomplish such great things for you and for His people?  He is the Son of David, who is also David’s Lord, because He is the Word made Flesh, the incarnate Son of God.  For the Lord your God is one Lord, one God, but He is the Holy Trinity: Three Persons in one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And the Son has become true Man, the Seed of David, by the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Thus, from one Psalm, this same Lord Jesus Christ lays before you the great Mystery of the Holy Triune God and of the Incarnation.

He is not showing off, but He is teaching you the Gospel.  For in His Incarnation, the Lord your God has fulfilled the first and greatest commandment, and likewise the second, for you and for all people.  The Son loves the Father, also now in His own human flesh and blood, with all His heart, with all His soul, with all His mind, and with all His strength.  And in such love for His Father, He has made Himself your neighbor, in order to love you with His own body and life.

Thus, the one true God, beside whom there is none other, has come beside you, and He has placed you beside Him, so that you might share His Life and abide with Him in His divine and holy Love.

He has held nothing back.  He has emptied Himself, poured Himself out, and given Himself to God, even unto death upon the Cross.  That is His Priesthood and His Sacrifice, which He offers to God on your behalf.  His Life is in His Blood, and He gives His Life entirely, in love for God, and in love for you.  For by the shedding of His Blood, He atones for all your sins; and not for your sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.  He redeems you for Himself, forever and ever.  And He establishes the New Covenant between God and Man in His own flesh, with His own Blood.

His own Body is the new and greater Tabernacle, in which God abides with you, and you abide with God.  For this Son of David, the King of Peace, replaces the old Tabernacle with the Temple of His crucified and risen Body.  And by His holy and precious Blood, you enter with Him into the Holy of Holies, which is to say, into the very presence of God.  You are brought to the Father in Him, in order to receive the eternal inheritance that belongs to the Son of God.  That is what He freely gives to you, by grace, in the Holy Communion, which is the New Covenant in His Blood.

Here there are no contingencies; nor is there anything lacking or amiss.  There is nothing “iffy” or uncertain about the Life that is here given by the one true God, who gives Himself to you.  For He has offered Himself, as the perfect Sacrifice, once for all.  And this same Lord Jesus has risen from the dead, and has ascended to the right hand of the Father, where He lives and reigns forever.

Therefore, with His Gospel, which is the sprinkling of His Blood, He cleanses your conscience of all sin and shame and every stain.  As He was crucified for your transgressions, and raised for your justification, so now He daily and richly forgives you, reconciles you to His God and Father, and sanctifies and purifies your body and soul with His Holy Spirit.  All of this by His Blood, with which He gives to you His Life.  He thereby raises you from death to life in Himself.

The Law commands you and requires you to love the Lord your God, but here the Lord your God loves you.  The Law tells you to cleanse your heart and draw near to God, but here, by His Gospel, the one true God draws near to you in Christ, in order to cleanse you by His grace and forgiveness.  He comes to free you from the devil’s kingdom, from the slavery and prison house of sin and death, and to bring you into the Kingdom of God.  The King Himself, the Christ, the Son of God, shares with you His faithfulness, His faith and holy love.  He fully gives to you His relationship with His God and Father, so that the true and only God is now your God and your Father in Him.

That is what the dear Lord Jesus Christ has done for those who have gone before us in the faith, whom we rightly remember with thanksgiving to God in Christ.  We do not worship them, but with them we worship God; and, loving Him above all things, we love them also, for His sake.  For they belong to us, in Him, and we belong to them.  They are not dead and gone, but alive forevermore.  Not by their own wisdom, reason, or strength — not by their own faithfulness and love — but by His grace, by His faith and faithfulness, and by His love for them; by His perfect obedience and the absolute sacrifice of His entire Body and Life; and by His Gospel in the Word and Sacraments.

So does He give Himself, His Life and His Love, to you.  This only-begotten Son of the Father, your merciful and great High Priest, the Prince of Peace, preaches and teaches the Word of God, which is the Word of Life, the Word of faith and love, to you and all His children, and to His children’s children, from one generation to the next, even to the close of the age.

It is in the Temple that He preaches and teaches the Word to you; that is to say, within His Body, the holy Christian Church (on earth as it is in heaven).  His Word is spoken to you from His Holy Altar, from which He also gives to you His Body and pours out for you the New Testament in His Blood.  For as the Word has become Flesh and tabernacles among us, the Word is never without His Flesh, but He always brings you to His Father in His Body and with His Blood.  He gives you, not a part or a portion, but Himself, whole and complete.  He withholds no good thing from you.

As there is one Bread and one Cup, one Spiritual Food and Drink — of one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all — so there is one Holy Communion in heaven and on earth, which is the one Body of Christ.  He is not divided, but the many are united and become one in Him, as the many grains of wheat become one Bread, and the many grapes are united in one Cup of wine.  In this one Body, all of the faithful, of all times and all places, live and abide in perfect peace, forever and ever.

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