Most of you will already have heard about the shooting at a church in Texas this past Sunday morning. Two parishioners were shot and killed before the assailant was taken out by another. It is a sobering reminder of the troubled times in which we live and of how precarious this life is.
Various “mass shootings,” school shootings in particular, have been much in the news in recent years, often being used as political playing pieces to advance one agenda or another. Lots and lots of strong feelings, understandably, and many conflicting opinions as to the causes and solutions. But setting aside all the clutter, it remains a tragedy when even one child is killed — to say nothing of the fact that 3,000 children are being “gunned down” in the womb every day in the United States (making Herod’s wicked slaughter of the Holy Innocents look like child’s play by comparison).
In early 2018, I happened to catch an impassioned statement and plea that one bereaved father, Andrew Pollack, made to President Trump following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Grieving for his murdered daughter, he pointed out that it wasn’t about partisan politics or even gun laws, but simply about protecting the children. “We need our children safe,” he said. “Let’s get together and work with the president and fix the schools. That’s it. No other discussions.” “Whatever we have to do,” Mr. Pollack insisted. “I didn’t think it was going to happen to me,” he noted. “If I knew that, I would have been at the school every day if I knew it was that dangerous.”
To be sure, if the parents, principals, teachers, or school boards knew ahead of time that there was going to be a shooting — if they knew on what day and at what hour the gunmen were coming — they would have their schools on lockdown before the tragedies could happen, in order to prevent them. They would take whatever steps were necessary to keep their children out of harm’s way.
But, of course, there is far more at stake than temporal life and mortal flesh and blood. Our life on earth is not very long, in any case, whether six or sixty years, or barely more than 100 at most. And this brief mortal span is not yet the Life for which you and your children have been created.
It is a tragedy for anyone to be gunned down, whether at church or school, at a movie, a concert, or a club, or in the womb. But for those who are catechized in the Word of the Holy One of Israel, who are kept in the true Christian faith by His Word and Holy Spirit, their death from this body and life (whatever the cause) is their release from the burdens and labors, pains and sorrows of this fallen and perishing world, and the beginning of true peace and Sabbath rest in the nearer presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as they await with us the Resurrection of all flesh. For the steadfast love of the Lord abides forever with those who fear Him, who are called to faith by His Gospel.
Blessed are those parents who teach their children the fear and faith of the Lord by caring for them with His Word. There is no more significant or valuable work for any father or mother than that!
To bring their sons and daughters to the washing of water with the Word and Spirit of God in Holy Baptism, by which the Lord guards all their going out and coming in, henceforth and forevermore. And to catechize their children in the Name of the Lord, with which they have been named. To teach them the pattern and practice of repentance and forgiveness, both by exemplifying the use of Confession and Absolution with the pastor in the life of the Church, and by exercising mutual confession and forgiveness of sins in the life of the home and family. And to bring their children to the pastor for the Holy Communion, also, in order to be fed by the Lord Jesus at His Table.
Fathers and mothers, you do not know the day or the hour when death may snatch your sons and daughters from your stewardship forever. You have no idea how much time you’re going to be given to care for your children, to give them what they need the most, and to teach them the most important things there are to learn in life. So do not waste the time you do have now! Bring them to Christ Jesus in His Church; and give Christ Jesus to them by rehearsing, confessing, and praying His Word together with them. Thus do you prepare them for the ongoing Feast in His Kingdom.
What, then, if you have no children? Blessed are you, one and all, who watch and wait upon the Lord by giving careful attention to His Word and to His works, whereby you live now and forever. Blessed are you when you remain awake and alert and alive by His Holy Spirit, by the grace of God in Christ, even through the night. Not that you must never take your rest or get any sleep; for He does also give to His beloved sleep. But how is it that you might stay up late to bring in the New Year on a night like this, and yet not keep vigil to watch and wait upon the Lord your God?
You do not know how little time you may have, or how long you may have to wait. What if the loud and angry voices that you sometimes overhear at McDonald’s, or even at the library, were to escalate into physical violence? What if treacherous roads or a fire in the night were suddenly to wreck your car, destroy your home, or end your life on earth? A tree might fall on you; accidents do happen. Deadly cancer might strike you down, regardless of your age. Or your mind might fail long before your body. Number your days, therefore, and let each one count for what matters most.
Do you not hear the watchmen singing on the heights? “Christ has come!” And “He is coming!” Be ready, then. Have your loins girded, and keep your lamp burning. Do not be caught unawares.
If you were a father, a mother, a child, young or old, a big brother or a little sister in Egypt on that night of the Lord’s Passover, then you would know from the Prophet Moses that the Lord was coming at some hour after twilight. A terrible Thief in the night, He would come to steal away the firstborn sons of Egypt — from the mighty Pharaoh in his palace to the lowly captive in his cell.
But how many sons of Israel has Pharaoh already put to death? And now shall the Lord Himself slay even more? Not so! For He has heard your cries. He knows your sorrows. And He has come to save you, to release you from the Egyptians. He shall bring you through the waters into safety and freedom, and feed you generously with bread from heaven in the wilderness, and bring you at last into the Good Land He has sworn to give you, a land of creamy milk and sweetest honey.
What, then, shall you do, now, on this dark night in Egypt? The Lord your God has told you. He has given you His Word to guide you and guard you. You shall take a male lamb, unblemished, from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall slay it in the evening, as the night falls. If your household is too small for the lamb, then you shall join with your neighbor and his household. And you shall anoint the doorposts and the lintel of the house with the blood of the lamb, and you shall roast its flesh and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Eat it with haste. Your loins shall be girded as you eat, with staff in hand and sandals on your feet, ready to leave in a hurry.
You know the story. The Lord is faithful, and He brings you out of Egypt with His mighty arm and outstretched hand. No plague befalls you, for the blood of the lamb covers and protects you and your whole household, all according to the Word that God the Lord has spoken to you.
Now, then, this is how you are to live each day and every night of your life on this earth. For the Thief is surely coming at an hour you do not know. Death is coming, yes, tonight, tomorrow, in the new year ahead, or at some point in the years to come, if the Lord in His wise mercy grants such years to you and to this old earth. But the Lord Himself is coming like a Thief in the night.
You do not know the day or the hour of His coming. But He has not left you clueless or without a Lamp to light your path. He has given you His Holy Scriptures and the preaching and teaching of His Word. And there is for you also the Lamb who has been slain. His Blood anoints your lips and tongue, the doorposts and lintel of your body, and so covers you from death. And His Flesh is your Meat indeed, your true Passover Feast, which you eat with the unleavened bread. You share this sacrificial Meal in the household and family of God, regardless of your station in life, no matter the size of your own household. And here you are kept safe, in order that you may live.
Therefore, let your loins also be girded, and be ready to leave at any time. Be dressed for work and packed for travel at a moment’s notice — like a woman ready for her labor and delivery to begin.
And know that your watching and waiting upon the Lord are not simply “biding your time.” But, no, these serve the point and purpose of your time on earth, whether in Egypt or the wilderness.
Here and now you learn to live by the grace of God, by faith in His Word. You learn to live each day in view of your Holy Baptism, dying and rising with Christ Jesus. You learn to live with Him, to follow Him through the water, and to be fed by Him in the wilderness, without complaining or grumbling. And thus are you taught to number your days, to know how short your life here is, and to apply your heart unto wisdom, which is to fear the Lord your God and to love and trust in Him. You are taught to repent of your sins, and so to rest in His mercy and forgiveness. You are taught to be alert to the Lord and to His coming, neither anxious nor afraid, but in quietness and peace.
In such repentance and faith, you also love and serve your neighbors, especially those who are entrusted to your care: Your spouse and children, if you have them; your siblings and parents, your co-workers and customers, your neighbor next door, and your brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.
If your own household is small, or if you are alone, you still share the Lamb with your neighbors.
You love and care for all of these others, as the Lord so enables you to do, in order that they too may be prepared for His coming; so that, when death and judgment come, they also shall be found ready and waiting in the faith of Christ Jesus. Such love for your neighbor is a priceless service.
All the while, dear little child of God, you already do live by the grace of your Father in heaven, through faith in His beloved Son, your Savior, Jesus Christ — even while you are still watching and waiting upon Him in the power and peace of His Holy Spirit.
For the Lord is coming to you here and now, and He is already with you by and with His Name, with which He has named you as His own in Holy Baptism, and by which He still claims you and richly blesses you with His Glory in the Divine Service, in the Invocation and the Benediction.
He is your very present Help in every trouble, for with His Word and Holy Spirit He attends you. And because you are His very own, and you are dear to Him, He watches over all your going out and coming in, even to the last: With His Holy Angels, whom He has given charge over you; and through the service of His watchmen, your pastors, who shepherd you with the staff of His Word.
By the preaching of His Gospel of forgiveness, He satisfies you in the morning with His steadfast love, and He gives you peace and rest in the night season, no matter what terrors may lurk outside.
And now, again, as day by day and week by week throughout the year, through summer and winter, seedtime and harvest — here and now He comes into His House. And though He is your Lord, He girds Himself to serve you. He gently invites you to recline at His Table, and here He waits upon you in tender love and mercy. He washes you and feeds you. And doing so, He gives you Life.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.