27 February 2013

The Word of Christ Is Near to You

It’s a rough and tumble world, and it’s easy to get caught up in the crush of the crowd, with so many people, all pushing and pulling at you, threatening to trample you beneath their feet, or else, to drown and destroy you with their endless chatter, everybody talking at you, telling you what’s what, and what to do, and what you should be like.  There’s lots of noise and confusion, lots of words and information, and lots of competition and jockeying for position.

It is both overwhelming and, in its own way, enticing.  Against the onslaught of the crowds, you are tempted to impress them and appease them, to protect yourself from the critics, and to promote yourself with the movers and shakers, in the hopes of becoming someone important.

But none of the people, neither the celebrities nor the crowds, are able to save you or destroy you.  They can neither make you nor break you.  For each and all of them are mortal, like yourself, subject to death and decay, and held accountable to the judgment of God.

It is in the presence of the Lord your God that you live your life and die your death: Coram Deo, that is, before God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth and of all things.  He is the One with all authority—the authority to judge all of creation—because He is the Author and Giver of Life.

Therefore, He is the One, not only with power to hurt and kill, such as fallen man presumes to do with those who are smaller and weaker than himself; but God has genuine authority to condemn both soul and body forever: To “Gehenna,” Jesus says (although it is sometimes translated “hell”).

Gehenna was the name of a valley alongside Jerusalem, where, at various times, even the Israelites had resorted to sacrificing their children, and where an ongoing fire served the potters’ kilns and the constant burning of rubbish and every manner of refuse.  It provides a vivid picture of hell on earth, but only God Almighty has the authority to consign both body and soul to such a place.

And He alone has the power and authority to save you, in body and soul, for the life everlasting.

Therefore, the Lord Jesus exhorts you, not to be afraid of the world and its power-brokers, but to fear, love, and trust in the Lord your God above all things.

A beautiful example is found in the case of St. Polycarp, whom the Church commemorated this past week.  He was a pastor, the Bishop of Smyrna (an ancient city in what is now Turkey), at a time of persecution in the second century.  As an old man, he was arrested and brought before the governor, where he was threatened with martyrdom if he would not renounce his faith in Christ and burn incense to the Roman Emperor.  He refused.  For he was threatened with a fire that would burn for but a little while, whereas he truly feared God and the judgment of eternal fire.

Besides that, St. Polycarp also loved the Lord, his God, who had for so many years been faithful to him; and the old bishop trusted that the same Lord God, who had raised Christ Jesus from the dead, would raise him also from death and the grave (or from the scattering of his ashes to and fro) to live with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Kingdom of heaven forever and ever.

This salvation is real and true, and it is for both body and soul.  For the one true God is the Creator of both the body and the soul, which together comprise the true Man who is made in His Image.

Not only that, but the almighty and eternal Lord, who changes not, has Himself become a part of His own Creation, by the conception and birth of the Son from the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He has lived and died in the Body, with flesh and blood like yours, and God the Father has also raised this incarnate Son, Christ Jesus, bodily from the dead.  So shall your body likewise be raised at the last, and glorified, like unto the crucified and risen Body of your Lord, unto eternal life in Paradise.

Do not doubt that it is true.  For the One who created the sparrows and still cares for them, though they are but a dime-a-dozen, also cares for you, and provides for you all that you need, for this life on earth, and for the life everlasting.  You are precious to Him, and valued most highly.  Consider the price that He has willingly paid for you: not gold or silver, but His own Body and His Blood.

For He who was crucified for you, who has also risen from the dead for you, and lives and reigns to all eternity for you, always interceding for you at the Right Hand of His God and Father, He now serves you in body and soul with His tangible Means of Grace, that is, His Word and Sacrament.

The Word of the Word-made-Flesh penetrates your heart and mind, your soul and spirit, through the ears of your body.  And your conscience is cleansed before the Lord your God by the washing of your body with pure water, that is, with water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word in Holy Baptism.  And your Savior, Christ Jesus, the incarnate God, feeds you with His true Body and gives you to drink of His true Blood, which you eat and drink with your mouth.

Therefore, your body also is justified and saved by the Gospel of God; and, in fact, your soul is not saved apart from your body, for it has no access to God apart from His Word and Sacraments.

Now, then, take this to heart, that the life which is yours in Christ Jesus, which you have by grace through faith in Him, is lived not only in your head and in your heart, but likewise in your body: in your words and in your actions; in what you say with your mouth and do with your hands.

But you already know that your insides and your outsides don’t always match.  You know that what you say is not always what you’re thinking and feeling.  You know that your actions are not always in accord with your own convictions and your actual preferences.

Those differences are not bad, but good and right, when they stem from the discipline of your sinful flesh, so that you do and say what you should, instead of what your old Adam desires.

At other times, however, it isn’t a matter of self-discipline, but of hypocrisy, in which you make an outward pretense for the sake of good impressions, but out of synch with your conscience.

In this respect, there is actually a two-fold danger of hypocrisy: There is, on the one hand, the outward show of false piety, in which you act the part of godly reverence, and you go through the motions of the fear and faith of God, while your heart and mind are still far removed from Him.  Then you are like a white-washed tomb, decorated pretty on the outside, but hiding death within.

On the other hand, there is the hiding and disguising of the Christian faith and life, as though you could carry on with Jesus privately, while outwardly you live like a pagan and talk like a pirate; whether it be out of fear of “persecution” (be it martyrdom or being laughed at), or maybe to compete with the world on its terms, contesting for popularity, power, and prestige—whatever.

One and the same person can be as pliable as Play-doh, shaped by the expectations, or perceived expectations, of the people around him.  So he may be pious at church, profane at school or work, and something else altogether by himself: probably lost and lonely without the crowd to play to, without an audience to perform for.

But the truth will come out.  It will.  Jesus says so.  And that is both a warning and a promise.  Your secret sins are not hidden from the Lord your God.  But, so too, your faith and life in Christ are also known to Him, who loves you.  There is no concealing of your conscience before Him.

Where you actually stand with the one true God will be made known — in your life and in your confession; and in the final Judgment — whether for everlasting life or everlasting punishment.

So, here is what you need to know: True Life is found only in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, and it is had only by faith in Him: in His Gospel of forgiveness.  Not by your works, but by His.  And yet, such faith in Christ cannot be kept hidden in the heart.  It can’t.  Not without suffering loss.  No, faith in Christ is exercised, as it is expressed, with your mouth and with the rest of your body: In worship, and in works of love; and in words of confession, that is, to speak as the Lord your God has spoken to you, and to say what He says.  That is how you know and speak the Truth.

Both faith itself, and the words and works by which you confess the faith, are the gracious work and the good gifts of God the Holy Spirit.  He is near to you, He is actively present and at work in you, by and with the preaching of Christ Jesus.

The Holy Spirit calls you and brings you to faith in Christ by the Word of Christ.  There is no other way by which you believe and are saved.  And He likewise strengthens and sustains you in this true and saving faith by the same Word of Christ.  Apart from this Word, you die.  By it, you live.

The Holy Spirit preaches Christ to you, so that you believe in Christ, and call upon His Name in prayer, praise, and confession of His Word.  Thus, what He speaks into your ears, comes out of your mouth.  For this is how the Spirit works, in and with the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

The power and authority of this Word is the Gospel.  For by the Word of Christ, your doubts and fears, your denials and failings, and all your many other sins, are freely and fully forgiven: Just as He was crucified for your transgressions, and God raised this same Christ Jesus from the dead.

So it was that Simon Peter, who denied Him, was forgiven and restored to faith and life in Christ.

But to set your heart and mind against the preaching of the Word of Christ, is to resist and reject the Holy Spirit and His gracious work.  So it was that Judas Iscariot ended his own life in despair.

Beware that you do not harden your heart and mind in this way!  Lest you be condemned to the fire that burns forever, and your soul and body be consigned to a worse Gehenna than earth has known.

Rather, hear and heed the Word of Christ that is preached to you.  Hear and receive His Word of Absolution, that is, the forgiveness of all your sins.  For with this Word of His, He sets His own Cross and Resurrection before your eyes, by which He saves you from the fire, forever and ever.

You need not (nor can you!) scale the heights of heaven, as though to bring God down to you.  Nor can you raise yourself or anyone else from the deep dark abyss of death and the grave.  But the Lord your God has come down from heaven, and has gone into the depths, into Sheol, and into Gehenna, in order to raise you up with Himself.  God the Father has sacrificed His own dear Son, in order to atone for all your sins, and thereby to rob death and the devil of any claims on you.

Now the Son draws near to you in peace, and He befriends you with His Word and Holy Spirit.  He reconciles you to Himself, by the way of repentance and forgiveness of sins.  In this way, He returns you daily to your Baptism, and He raises you up from sin and death to life with God.  For the Lord has surely set apart the godly for Himself, and you are godly by the grace of His Gospel.

With this Word of Christ, the Holy Spirit teaches you what to confess, and He likewise gives you the confidence and courage to do so, come what may.

Cling to that Word in both body and soul, as He gives it to you generously in so many different ways: by preaching and teaching, by the Holy Scriptures, by the Catechism, and by the Hymnal.

And for God’s sake, teach these things to your children, and to your children’s children, as you are given the opportunity; that they, too, may live forever with God, and not die.  Read the Bible to them.  Sing hymns with them.  Pray with them, as well as for them.  And bring them to church.

This Word of Christ is not powerless, but living and life-giving.  Indeed, the Lord your God is very near to you, in and with this Word of His: as He preaches it into your ears, as He lays it upon your heart, and as He brings it to confession in your mouth.  So is He a very present help in trouble.

By His dying and rising, He has received all authority in heaven and on earth, that is, the true power and authority of the New Creation, to forgive sins and to save sinners; to comfort you with His forgiveness, life, and salvation; to justify and save you in body and soul, for now and forever.

So does He grant you a quiet night, a restful sleep, and peace at the last.  And so does He raise you up in the true joy of His mercy, which is new every morning, and ever shall be, world without end.

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

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