Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prepare the Way of the Lord!

Matthew 3:1-12 “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 
We think of preaching as what happens in this pulpit but the word that we translate as “preach” had a special meaning for the people of the ancient world.  It described the work of a herald, a member of the royal court, whose duty it was to go before the King when he took a journey and announce his arrival and make sure that all was prepared and ready in each every place to receive the royal guest.
That was the task of John the Baptist–the herald of the Messiah–the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah who would announce the much anticipated arrival of the Savior of the world–the one whose duty it was to prepare the way for Jesus in human hearts–not by mere cosmetic changes to the outside-- but by changing human hearts through the preaching of the Word.
When Isaiah spoke of the work of this herald who would prepare the way for the king he said that: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, and the rugged places a plain.” 
John’s call to repent means that the mountains of pride and self-reliance in our lives will have to brought low–that we recognize that in God’s sight and according to the measure of his holy law that we are sinners who deserve only his condemnation.
To repent means that the low, valley places of doubt and despair and cynicism and faithlessness that fill our hearts will have to be lifted up–that these attitudes that destroy hope in ourselves and those around us will have to be confessed as what they are: a lack of faith in the goodness and power of God.
To repent means that the rough places of selfishness and impatience and anger will have to be smoothed out by selflessness, patience, and gentleness. 
To repent means to stop going in the crooked, sinful direction that we find ourselves in so often in our lives and to go in a new direction–towards God.  This is not our natural inclination.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they ran away from God.  They knew God was righteous and holy and powerful and they knew that they were disobedient and sinful and naked and so were afraid of God.   Sin still does the same thing.
Sin makes us forget the most important thing of all about God–that he is loving and merciful and forgiving—that he wants to be reconciled to sinners.  In gracious love, God sought out Adam and Eve, removed the pitiful, insufficient coverings they had made for themselves, and covered their shame through a bloody sacrifice of his own making so that their life with him could be restored.
What God did for Adam and Eve all the way back in the Garden of Eden was a promise of what was to come for all of us.  Sin would be atoned for.  Death would give way to life.  God himself was coming to save us.  Preparation was required.  Repentance was needed.
The false piety and frail good works that we use to hide our sin has to be removed through repentance–and that’s frightening–it makes us feel naked before God and ashamed of our sins all over again.  But God calls us to repentance, not to shame us, but to cover our sin with the blood of Jesus who laid down his life for us on the cross.
When John saw Jesus he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  He knew that the kingdom of God was near and he took to heart his own message to repent and believe and his life was different because of it.  The Bible says that:  “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
These details are not just interesting “food and fashion” notes from the first century A.D.  They show the radical, life-changing implications of the arrival of our King.  Food and clothing and all the other earthly things that we focus our attention on, and live our lives for, have to take on a different, lesser place in our lives.
John’s life -and lifestyle- was dramatically different than those around him, foreshadowing the words of the Messiah who said: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”
The kingdom of heaven and its King is unlike anything or anyone that has come before.  The values and priorities of the world are turned upside down and spiritual things take precedence over material things–eternal things over the things of this dying world.  And so every aspect of John’s life was changed–even simple things like food and clothing were changed-as a reflection of his changed heart.  So it must be for us. Our lives as Christians are to be demonstrably different than the world around us because of our faith in Jesus.
But then as now, there were many more people who were satisfied with the status quo in the kingdom of this world- than there were those who would enter the kingdom of heaven through repentance and faith.  The Bible says that:
When John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham
We don’t know what the reaction of the crowd was to these words but it must have been dramatic.  Later on in Jesus’ ministry, when the people heard that if there was any chance for them to enter the Kingdom of heaven their righteousness would have to exceed that of the Pharisees, they were amazed and wondered if anyone could be saved—but John calls them a brood of vipers because their lives and teaching were deadly poison.
These spiritual leaders of the Jews were supposed to be teachers of God’s people who would pass on to each generation the truth about God revealed to Abraham: that salvation would be by God’s grace alone–through faith alone–in the Messiah alone.  But because the leaders had forgotten that Good News–so had many of God’s people, who were lost in sin and unbelief.
The religion of John’s day it was nothing more than a system of laws for the Pharisees and dead traditionalism for the Sadducees–none of it sufficient for salvation–all of it a deception as old as the serpent’s lie in the Garden of Eden–that we can have a life with God on our own terms, based on who we are and what we do.
John’s words are just as true today as they were there on the banks of the Jordan River that day.  It is not enough to come from a long line of Lutheran Christians–it is not enough that your family was one of the founding members of this congregation-it is not enough that you are an important person in this place–it is not enough that your parents or spouse are devout believers.  If you are to be saved, you must repent of your sins and believe in Jesus.
Saving faith is not just a matter of words that we say-- or religious acts that we engage in–it is a new way of thinking and believing that turns into a new way of living so that we show forth in our lives what we say that we believe in our hearts, bearing the fruits of repentance in what we say and do.
Today is the day for us to listen to John’s Advent message and repent of our sin and trust in the Lamb of God who takes away our sins.  Time is short.  The king is coming.  Judgment is at hand.  John said that: 
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
            These are frightening images to be sure.  We are reminded of the shortness of time–that God’s judgment is closer now than it has ever been.  We hear of the terrible consequences of failing to heed his warning–that the unrepentant and unproductive will be burned with unquenchable fire.  We learn that a true and living faith must be a fruitful faith—that without those fruits our faith is a pious lie we tell ourselves.  We must take this warning from John seriously.
But we are also reminded of the wonderful promise that God will gather to himself that which is his—that the day of judgment and the fires of hell are nothing for us to fear for the one who is mightier than John has forgiven our sin by his death on the cross and made us God’s children in Holy Baptism. 
The Good News for us today is that we have been baptized with water and the fire of the Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We have died and been raised with Christ so that we can walk in newness of life, turning from sin and showing Christ’s life in our own life.  We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear good fruit by serving God and our neighbor.  We can welcome our king and come into his presence without fear or worry because we are his people.    

Today we come to the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood totally undeserving of so great a gift.  Like John the Baptist, we are not worthy to carry the Lord’s sandals.  And yet our  king comes to us in a way that we can receive him and become a part of his life --and his life, become a part of ours.  And so, heeding John’s Advent message to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus, we come to the Sacrament of the Altar in sorrow over ours sins and sincere trust in our Savior-- and in true humility receive our Advent King.  Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2016

"It Shall Come to Pass...A Day of Peace"

Isaiah 2:1-5 We live in a world that is anything but peaceful.  Our soldiers continue to die in the Middle East.  Japan and China are rattling sabers in the South China Seas.  Almost every nation on earth has military personnel involved in some kind of armed conflict somewhere in the world.
So it was in Isaiah’s day.  Assyrians and Babylonians fought for domination in the Middle East-- and the people of God were caught in the middle.
It was in the midst of this warring madness that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that a time of peace would come when “The Lord shall judge between the nations and settle disputes for many peoples.”  A time of peace when peoples and nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks.”  A time of peace when warfare would come to an end and “nation shall not lift sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore.”
This promise of peace must have seemed too good to be true to the people of Isaiah’s day–I know it seems that way for us.  We live in a world that is so steeped in violence that it is hard to imagine what true and lasting peace will look like.  But the Lord promised that day of peace would come through his Messiah—that he would be the Prince of Peace.  At his birth the angels proclaimed peace on earth and good will towards men.
But much of our world is still at war.  So was Isaiah wrong?  Had he misheard the Lord?  Were the angels mistaken in their proclamation at Bethlehem?  Has God failed to make good on his promises of peace through the Messiah?  No! God is faithful and always keeps his Word!
Still, we have to admit that there is a seeming disconnect between the Lord’s promise of peace-- and its fulfillment as we experience it at this moment in time. 
And so then, how do we resolve this tension between what God promised through his Messiah and what we experience in our lives right now? 
At least part of the answer is that the prophets of God were looking far into the future.  When they spoke of the person and work of the Messiah, they saw what would take place at his first coming and what would occur at his second coming.
And so they portray Jesus as suffering and weak–but also as mighty and strong.  They saw him as the Virgin Born child and the ancient of days.  They told of his death on the cross and his judgment of the world as the living King.  All of it, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was as present to them as the events of their own day–all of it equally true–some of it accomplished at our Lord’s first coming--some of it to be accomplished when he comes again.
As we look at the words of the prophet Isaiah over these next three weeks, we will get a complete picture of the work of the Messiah–what he did in his first Advent as the Babe of Bethlehem and Man of the cross and what he will do in his second Advent as the returning King who comes to judge the living and the dead. 
We will hear what his work means for us and for us as we live in this “in-between-time” as we celebrate Jesus’ birth and wait for his return.  Isaiah said:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.” 

The last days of which Isaiah prophesied began with the coming of the Son of Man into the human flesh of a newborn baby.  The writer to the Hebrews says that “in many and various ways God spoke to his people of old but now IN THESE LAST DAYS he has spoken to us by his Son.”  These are the last days of which Isaiah prophesies–these are the last days in which God promised that the people of the world stream into the Lord’s house.  But what is the “house” of which Isaiah prophesied?
It is not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem or a renewed Levitical priesthood as the false prophets of our day proclaim.  Instead, the Bible tells us that the house of God is the Body of Christ–the holy Christian church.  Paul says that:
We are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling place for God...
Wherever two or three Christians gather together in the name and remembrance of Jesus Christ, there is, in that place, is the house of the Lord—the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit—where the Good News of God’s peace in Jesus death and resurrection is proclaimed and believed.    
A renewed and right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ is the promise of peace that has made us a part of the house of God and it is our proclamation to this warring world.  Peace with God is what the Messiah of God came to give in his first Advent. 
When it comes to peace, the world focuses its hope on peace accords and cease fire agreements-- but fails to recognize that there is no foundation for peace apart from Jesus.
They fail to realize that all warfare and bloodshed is a reflection of the warfare between God and man over sin.  And because they do not know and believe that the warfare between God and man has been brought to an end through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they have no way to be reconciled and at peace with one another.
But wherever that Good News of peace with God through faith in Jesus has been proclaimed and believed, people have flocked to the house of God and abandoned their warring ways.  Isaiah promised that it would be this way.  He said: 
“Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’.  For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”
We see how true Isaiah’s prophecy was as we view the church today filled with people from every tribe, language, nation, and culture who know what it is to be at peace with God through Jesus–a peace that can even transcend violence and warfare and death.
But we also see in the world around us the consequences of those who do not know the Messiah as the Prince of Peace–who turn away from the peace he gives and prefer to follow the prince of this world in lives of hatred and violence.  We see it in racial discord and in broken homes and destroyed families.  We see it in a culture that calls violence “entertainment” and we see it in wars around the world.
This culture of death exists in direct opposition to the will of God who wants his world and his people to be at peace.  And so these days of violence and hatred and warfare will be brought to an end once and for all at the return of the Prince of Peace.
On that day of our Lord’s return in glory, those who were unwilling to be reconciled to God--those who were unwilling to let the peace treaty signed with the blood of Jesus at Calvary be their peace-- those who promoted violence and death-- will face the Son of Man’s righteous judgment.  Isaiah promises that the Lord will:
“Judge between the nations and shall settle disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
At the second advent of Jesus, the culture of death in which we live will come to an end.  The way of war will be no more.  Instruments of death will be turned into implements of life. 
And those who are unwilling to have peace with God- will be punished by God- so that we who are reconciled to him through faith in Jesus can live in peace with one another.
Those who have come to the mountain of the Lord’s temple to be saved become different people–we lose our warring ways—and God teaches us his ways so that we can learn to walk in his paths. 
Just like our Savior, the Prince of Peace, we live as peacemakers in a world that is broken by violence and hatred.  Jesus assures us that ‘blessed are the peacemakers” and Paul says that “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
And so then, what does this mean for our day-to-day lives as we await our Lord’s return?  That’s what Isaiah is talking about when he says:  “Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord”.   What does it mean for us who live in God’s peace?
1. It means that we value and protect all human life–especially that which is weakest and lest valued by the world.  2.. Living as followers of the Prince of Peace means that we let the Lord settle our disputes with one another through his Word-- and where the Word is silent we yield in love to those around us.  3.. And living in the Lord’s peace, means that we work and struggle and sacrifice to bring about peace and justice for all people.

Advent is a waiting time—but it is not an idle time.  We wait for the fullness of the salvation that God has promised at the return of his Son and that includes the final peace he comes to give.  But we do not have to wait to live out the realities of that day, and that promised peace, in our own lives.  In fact, we must not wait.  We can begin tonight to walk in the light of the Lord and bring the peace of Christ to bear on all our relationships.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Your King Comes to You!

Matthew 21:1-11 This lesson from Matthew’s Gospel is read two times in the church year.  When it is preached on Palm Sunday the emphasis is on what Jesus rides into Jerusalem to do:  to suffer and die and rise again for the sins of the world.  When it is preached on the first Sunday in Advent the emphasis is on who it is that rides into Jerusalem that day.  It answers the question that we hear from the citizens of Jerusalem:  “Who is this”?
Matthew gives a four-fold answer to that question.  He shows Jesus to be the Lord—the God of Israel en-fleshed. He shows him to be the promised King of Israel.  He shows him to be the Savior of the world and he shows him to be the prophet who truly speaks the Word of God.   
As we reflect upon God’s Word to us this morning we will see what each of these pictures of our Lord’s person and work means for us and what our response ought to be as Jesus comes to us in Word and Sacrament just as surely as he came that day to the people of Jerusalem.  The Bible says that:
When they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth-phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,  saying to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord needs them,' and he will send them at once." 
            Because we live in a very different time and place, the importance of how Jesus refers to himself in these verses is lost on us.  During his earthly ministry Jesus’ favorite title for himself was “Son of Man” but as he rode into Jerusalem to suffer and die, he called himself “the Lord.”
            When we hear that title “the Lord” we tend to think of our word “master” and of course Jesus is our master—the One to whom we yield every part of our life in holy obedience.  But for the people of that day, the title “the Lord” meant much more than just master—it was the name of God himself.  Let me explain.
The Old Testament covenant name of God that was given to Moses to take to the Israelites is comprised of four consonants in the Hebrew—it is called the “tetragrammaton”.  Sometimes in old hymns we see this covenant name of God rendered in English as Jehovah or more recently Yahweh.  The point is this:  the word that was used by the Jews for the covenant name of God was:  Lord.
People who say that Jesus never claimed to be God are either ignorant or intentionally deceitful.  When Jesus called himself the “I am” who existed before Moses, the Jews knew exactly who he was claiming to be and picked up rocks to stone him for blasphemy. Here he called himself- what his fellow Jews called- God.  Jesus claimed to be, and was indeed, the one true God of Israel clothed in human flesh. 
Jesus’ divine identity completely changes how we see what happens as he rides into Jerusalem and dies on the cross and rises again.  It is not just a great king or wise teacher or good man who does these things—it is God who takes on flesh and saves us.  His “humility and suffering and death” take on a whole new dimension when we see who he truly is-- and that knowledge invites our worship and love and trust.
That is why God came to us in the humility and frailty of human flesh of Jesus—so that we could love him and trust him and have a relationship with him. 
Throughout the Old Testament, to come into the presence of God was to know only fear and death because his holiness and our sin.  But God revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth so that the fear that separated God and man from the time of Adam and Eve would be done away with and we could come to him in faith and love. 
To know Jesus is to know God--and to believe in him-- is the only way to have a life with God.  There has always been just one way of salvation—even back on the days of the prophets and patriarchs—and that is faith in God’s Messiah.  Matthew makes that connection between Jesus and the Messiah promised in Hebrew Scriptures. He writes:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.' "The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.  Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 
            Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry and especially during Holy Week—everything that happened—down to the smallest detail-- had been foretold by Hebrew prophets.  Hundreds of prophecies were fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus—including the way he rode into Jerusalem that day. 
            Jesus was the fulfillment of the promised king who would set the prisoners free by the blood of his covenant--shedding his life’s blood upon the cross to set the world free from sin and death.  He was the promised king who would speak peace to the nations—peace between God and all men through him.  He was the promised king whose rule would extend from one end of the earth to another in human hearts everywhere. 
The humble king who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was not just any king—but THE king from David’s line who had been promised to the people of Israel.  The bible says that:
The crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!
            The humble king that the people of Jerusalem welcomed that day was the direct descendant of David—the One whom God had promised would rule over his people forever.  The disciples understood at least that much and they did what you do for your king—they obeyed him.  Matthew tells us that "The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  The guy who owned the donkey understood it too.  When the disciples came to him asking for his donkey—he gave it because the Lord needed it. 
As the King of the world, Jesus has the right to expect our obedience in all things.  He has the right to use our possessions for his mission.  The point is this:  the identity of Jesus that the Holy Spirit reveals to us today is not some theological speculation far removed from our day-to-day lives but has the deepest implications for how we live our lives.
In every moment of our lives- and in every decision that we make -and in every dollar that we spend-- it is to be our King’s voice that we are to be obey.  But when we are honest with ourselves we see that his word is not always the final word in our lives—that oftentimes we live our lives or some part of our lives in open rebellion against our rightful king-- and for that we deserve what every traitor deserves:  death. 
But the Good News for us today is that Jesus is not only the God in human flesh—he is not only our king—but he is also our Savior.  That’s what the people of Jerusalem were confessing that day when they said:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"  And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, "Who is this?" 
The Hebrew word “hosanna” means “save us now” and it reveals that there were at least some people there that day who understood who Jesus was and what he had come to do—that he had come to save the world from sin and death.  And in crying out “hosanna in the highest” they called upon the voices of heaven to join their own just as they had at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem
The Holy Evangelists portray this scene in their Gospels because the Holy Spirit wants us to join our voices in confessing Jesus as Lord and King and Savior who fulfilled all the promises of God to save the world. 
But the Holy Evangelists also paint this scene for us so that the citizens’ questions of “who is this?” would continue to resonate in our ears because that question is still being asked by the world today and we Christians are the only ones who have the correct answer—the answer that saves.
Of course there are all kinds of people who have all kinds of answers to the questions about Jesus.  They say Jesus was a great man and a great teacher and a great moral example but those answers won’t save anyone if that is all they know.  Only we in the church have the answer that bestows salvation:  that Jesus of Nazareth, David’s descendant, is God-- and that faith in his death for our sins and his resurrection that gives life is the only way that God has provided for salvation.
When we hear those voices in the Jerusalem crowd asking “who is this” the Holy Spirit would, by these words, open our ears to the same questions being asked today by those around us in this community.  He would open our eyes to the great harvest field that lies before us.  And he would open our hearts so that we might be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have.  An answer from God’s Word.  Matthew writes:  And the crowds said, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee."
            After being identified as Lord and King and Savior maybe it seems to be a bit of a letdown to hear Jesus identified as “the prophet”.  But whether the people that day realized it or not, this title conveys one of the deepest truths as to the identity of Jesus that John brings out in the very first chapter of his Gospel: 
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
            As the en-fleshed Word of God, Jesus was truly THE PROPHET.  He was the voice of the prophets and the content of the prophets and the hope of the prophets.  Everything that is written in the Old Testament is written about him.  The writer to the Hebrews says it this way:
In many and various ways God spoke to his people of old, but now in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.

The person and work of Jesus is God’s last Word to mankind and to know God and to have a life with God all that is needed, is to know that the answer to the question: “Who is this?” is Jesus—our God and our King and our Savior.  May God grant us this saving faith that we might welcome him aright during this Advent Season.  Amen.

Let All the Peoples Praise You, O God!

Psalm 67 Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to look back at the year gone by with thanksgiving for all that God has graciously done for us and provided for us—and--to look forward to the year to come with the sure hope and confident prayer that he will be the same loving Father in the future as he has been in the past.
And so, as we reflect on the blessings of the last year and give thanks to God for them, we also look forward to the year to come with confidence, knowing that our prayers for God’s provision will be met beyond what we could ever hope for or imagine:  that he will bless us spiritually and materially--that he will give us thankful hearts which recognize his gifts—and finally, that he will give us a mission to accomplish-- just as he has over this last year.  The psalmist writes:
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.
            While Thanksgiving is set aside to give thanks to God especially for material blessings, the faithful child of God cannot help but think first of all of the spiritual blessings that God gives to us --and most especially the blessings of salvation and forgiveness and eternal life that ours through faith in Jesus. 
What the psalmist and the patriarchs and the prophets had to look forward to in faith, we know as the accomplished fact of history—that God has made his saving power known to the nations by sending Jesus into this world as our Savior--dying on the cross and rising again to forgive our sins and give us eternal life.
If every other blessing from God was taken away from us on this Thanksgiving Day—the turkey and dressing—our friends and family—our health and jobs—we could still never exhaust eternity in giving thanks to God for the immeasurable, gracious gift of salvation that we have in Jesus Christ. 
It is because of Christ and Christ alone that we know beyond any shadow of a doubt what our heavenly Father’s attitude is towards us:  that his face shines upon—beaming with a Father’s love for his children.
As God’s children, he has not only provided for our salvation, he has also provided a way for us to live our life:  a way that is revealed to us in his Word—a way that we can be confident pleases his—a way that he promises to bless. 
His way is made known to us every time we hear and read the Bible.  We know how he would have us live our lives in our marriages and families and workplaces and church.  We know what sorts of things we ought to value and what we ought to avoid.  We know what pleases him and what earns his wrath.
So many people in our world tonight are lost, not knowing which way to turn, or which direction to go because they don’t know God’s will.  But God has blessed us by making his way known to us-- and so we go forward in life confident of God’s guiding hand upon our lives.
Salvation- and fellowship with God- and guidance for our lives are just a few of the spiritual blessings that God showers upon his children and we give him thanks for those spiritual blessings even as we also give him thanks for his material blessings. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!  Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.  Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!  The earth has yielded its increase;
            Tonight we thank God for two broad areas of material blessing:  his guidance of the nations of the world-- and his ongoing blessing that brings the harvest from the earth to shelter us and clothe us and feed us.
Of all of those earthly blessings that we can thank God for tonight, surely the blessing of being citizens of this great country ought to be near the top of our list.  Yes, this nation has its own set of problems and they seem to grow larger every day as the genuine righteousness that exalts a nation appears to be in ever shorter supply—when even those who say they are Christians live like the unbelieving world. 
But when we look around at the other nations of the world, how can we not be thankful that the Lord has ordained that we would be born at this particular place and time?
Most important of all those national blessings that we enjoy as citizens of this great nation is the freedom to worship God according to the light of his Word.  All around us in the world are people who have not been blessed in that way—who suffer persecution from their own nation for their faith in Jesus Christ. 
And so, as we thank God for the blessings of freedom that we enjoy here in the U.S., we also remember this nation and its leaders in our prayers--that God would continue to bless us and keep us free-- and we remember those who don’t enjoy this freedom and ask God to bless them with the same. 
The second material blessing that the psalmist especially mentions is that “the earth has yielded its increase.”  Where the atheist sees nothing but biological and chemical processes that govern the natural world, the child of God looks at nature and he sees the powerful, creative hand of God that perfectly orders and sustains it all:  the planting and the harvesting—the rain and dry weather—the producer and consumer.  God wisely orders it all for our earthly good.
Our Creator invites us to lift up our eyes from our desks and computers and classrooms and fields and bank balances and paychecks and stores and open our eyes of faith to the One who stands behind it all—and thank him that he causes the earth to flourish so as to feed and clothe and shelter us. 
God has abundantly met all of our physical needs over this last year and he will do the same in the year to come and for that we thank him and praise his holy name.  Let the peoples praise you, O God; let ALL the peoples praise you! 
That we have thankful hearts- is another of the great blessings that we can praise the Lord for tonight.  What a blessing it is for us to recognize, by  power of the Holy Spirit, that it is God who does it all and in recognizing it, to give him thanks. 
In Luther’s explanation of the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer—“Give us this day our daily bread:—he makes this very point:  that when we pray for daily bread what we are really praying for are the eyes of faith to realize that it is God who gives us all that we need and a heart of gratitude to thank him for it. 
The psalmist invites the world to do the same:  Let all the ends of the earth fear him!  Those words speak of another blessing for which we can be thankful tonight and that is the blessing of a God-given purpose for our life.  So many people in this world live out their lives without any meaning or purpose—going from one meaningless pleasure to the next to try and keep despair at bay.
But we know that there is a purpose for our lives.  We are here at this moment on earth so that other people, through our witness, can know that:  there is a God of love who desires to shine his face of blessing upon all people—that the LORD stands ready to bless those nations who humble themselves before him—that physical blessings don’t just happen, but that there is a God of love who gives them.  The psalmist reminds us that God wants all people everywhere to know him and that is our purpose: 
That your way may be known on earth—your saving power among all nations.  Let ALL the peoples praise you.  God’s love extends to all people and he wants all people of every nation to know him and believe in him and worship him and thank him.  That purpose of making him known to the world is one of the big reasons that we gather here tonight in corporate worship as the people of God. 
We gather here publicly in the Name of the Triune God so that those in this community would see that our thankfulness is not directed simply to something out there somewhere—but to the God who has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. 
That purpose is also why we gather an offering, so that in some small measure, each time we worship, we can do our part in supporting the work of the Church which exists to make Christ known to those who live in blindness and death. 
As we take our part in that mission making him known, we find a purpose that transforms our lives from simply “getting by” in the new year-- to working with God in his great harvest of souls.
 Because we have been blessed in this past year with spiritual and material blessings—because the Holy Spirit has blessed us with thankful hearts that acknowledge these gifts and because God has given us a mission to accomplish that gives purpose to our lives—that is what gives us the confidence to say with the psalmist:  God, our God, shall bless us! 

We have seen that hope and prayer fulfilled and answered during this last year and we will see it fulfilled and answered in the year to come.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The King of the Cross

Luke 23:27-43 The readings for the church year follow a logical pattern as they tell the story of Christ and his people. 
During Advent we hear the promises of the prophets who tell of a Savior to come.  During Christmas and Epiphany we hear the story of his birth and the Good News that is for all people.  During Lent we hear the story of his journey to the cross and during Easter we hear of his glorious resurrection and ascension.  During Pentecost we hear about the gift of the Holy Spirit and the growth of the church.  And in these last Sundays of the church we hear that our crucified, risen and ascended Lord will come again.
All of those stories from the Bible are familiar to us and we know how the whole story unfolds from beginning to end—from promise to fulfillment.
Which is why this scene of our Lord’s crucifixion that we have before us today in Luke’s Gospel may seem out of place on the last Sunday of the church year—that maybe it really belongs in Lent.  But these are exactly the words that we need to hear on this day.   
During the last Sundays of the church year we are reminded that this world is coming to an end—that with the same almighty power with which he called it into being, God will also bring it to its end. 
On that day the world as we know it today will cease to exist.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth.  The Lord will bring an end to evil.  And every person who has ever lived will stand before the King of kings and Lord of lords to be judged by the One who knows all things—the One who is holy and righteous—the One whose standard of judgment is himself.
For the vast majority of people that will be a day of terror and everlasting punishment.  But for all of those who have known and trusted Jesus Christ as we see him today—as the King on the cross who calls us to repentance and forgives our sins and promises us a home in heaven—it will be a day of everlasting blessedness and joy and peace.  The Bible says that:
There followed Jesus a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
            In the sermon last week we heard Jesus speak about the destruction of Jerusalem—that the city and the temple would be utterly destroyed as an act of God’s judgment in time upon all f those who rejected his Son during his earthly ministry in Judea-- but also as a sign pointing to his judgment on the last day upon all of those who have rejected in the days since. 
And now as Jesus carries his cross down the Via Dolorosa—down the way of suffering—beaten and bleeding--his compassion and mercy are still directed towards the people of Jerusalem—calling them to heed his words and repent of their sins.
The eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ are not directed to his own wounds –his heart is not filled with anger at those who rejected him and misused him.  Instead, in that moment of agony and humiliation, when every step is burden, his only concern is for those people of Jerusalem who are about to experience God’s judgment, calling them to repent of their sins and believe his words before it is too late.
Jesus knows just exactly how terrible and far-reaching God’s judgment will be.  He knows that no one will be excluded.  And so even in that moment when he struggles under the burden of the cross, when he falls again and again, his only thought and concern is to call upon those who see him to repent of their sins.
So it is for us today.  Jesus knows that there is still to come upon this world a judgment that is much more far-reaching, much more all-encompassing, much more terrible than the judgment that fell upon Jerusalem—that it will not just be a city that is destroyed—that it is not just the loss of earthly life that is at stake—but that the world itself will destroyed and countless millions will hear the words:  depart from me you workers of iniquity into the fires of hell.
And so he still calls out to us as the king who walks the way of suffering to heed his words of warning and weep tears of contrition and repentance over our sins before the day of judgment falls upon us and promises forgiveness for those who do.  The Bible says:
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.  And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
            On the day that our Lord returns, the Bible says that everyone will see him—even those who pierced him.  The Bible says that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord—that is, he is the true and living God. 
That day will be a day a terror for countless millions who will know and see nothing but his power and might and majesty and glory and holiness and righteousness.  The sound of a trumpet heard around the world and the presence of the heavenly armies will fill their hearts and minds with fear and trembling.  They will experience what every sinner who has ever come into the presence of the one true and living God has experienced and that is terror.  The Bible says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God and so it is.
But it will not be that way for us for we know this same holy righteous majestic powerful God to be the King of the cross who promises forgiveness for the worst of sins and the greatest of sinners.  Just picture this scene in your mind’s eye!
Standing around this king were those religious leaders whose sole function I life was the bear faithful witness to the Messiah God sent to save them and the world and yet they rejected him every step of the way.  They plotted against him.  They said all kinds of terrible things against him.  They sentenced him to die and cried out for him to be crucified—and yet the king of the cross he loved them and forgave them.
There were soldiers there who had whipped him and beat him and spit in his face and ridiculed him and drove nails into his hands and feet and stole the few possessions he owned—and yet the king of the cross loved them and forgave them.
There were criminals dying alongside of him whose entire lives were devoted to breaking the laws of God and man, one of whom with his dying breath heaped ridicule and scorn upon him—and yet the King of the cross loved them and forgave them.
There were disciples and friends standing at a distance, men who had denied him and betrayed him and fled from him in his hour of need—and yet the king of the cross loved them and forgave them.
And so then, on this last Sunday of the church year, the question for each and every one of us is this:  do we know Jesus this way?  Do we know him as the suffering servant who glad bore our sins upon his own shoulders as he walked the way of suffering?  Do we know him as the compassionate master whose eyes are always turned towards us, calling us to turn from our sins and be saved?  Do we know him as the King of the cross who loves us and has laid down his life for us? 
And then the next question is this:  if we know him this way, what is there in our life, what failing or sin or shortcoming or missed opportunity is so great that we cannot stand there at the foot of the cross with every other sinner and hear and believe the words that he speaks to us there:  I forgive you.  What shame or guilt we feel in our hearts is more powerful than the love of the king of the cross who allowed himself to be pierced and whipped and beaten and scorned and ridiculed so that could be forgiven and made whole and live a new life?
The last day is coming.  The destruction of the world will take place.  Evil will be destroyed.  And every one of us will face a judge who is perfectly holy and righteous and just and judges us by the perfect standard of himself. 
But that day holds no fear for those who know Jesus as the King of the cross because he is the one who will judge us and he has already forgiven us and has promised us that day will be the day of our final redemption.  The Bible says:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
            Last week we heard about the signs of the Last Day and they were frightening:  wars and tumults between nations—false prophets in the church who deceive even the elect unless God cuts the days short—dissension among family members—persecution of the church and terrible natural disasters.  It is a dark and dangerous world in which we live and it will continue to be so as time goes short.
So it was that day of our Lord’s crucifixion:  there were the screams of agony of those who were dying—there were the wails and groans and cries of their loved ones who looked on—there was the blood that flowed from the cross and the darkness that covered the land and the earthquake that shook the very foundations of the earth as the Lord of creation died upon the cross.  Every bit of the brokenness of creation and sorrow of the human condition was on full display.
But in the midst of all of that darkness and death—above the cries of agony and screams of pain, a promise was made—a gracious promise of eternal life in the mansions of heaven to someone who deserved only death and would be laid in an unmarked grave:  Today, you will be with me in paradise spoken by the King of the cross. 
Today you will be with me in paradise and the pain you are experiencing will be no more.  Today you will be with me in paradise and death will be finished.  Today you will be with me in paradise and this ugly place of death will be replaced by a beautiful garden.
That is what the word “paradise” means and the promise that the king of the cross makes to the thief on the cross and to us here today on the Last Day of the Church year is the promise of Eden restored:  a new heaven and a new earth; God and man in perfect fellowship; and the end of sin and sorrow and Satan.
Today you will be with me in paradise is the promise of the king of the cross to all of those sinners who have repented of their sins and believed in his sacrifice and trusted in his salvation as they draw their last breath in this life.  Today you will be with me in paradise is the promise that the King of the cross makes on the Last Day to all of those who have trusted in him as their Savior and followed him as their Lord.

On this last Sunday of the church let us hear the words of the king of the cross and repent of our sins; let us look to the king of the cross and trust his words spoke form the cross that we are forgiven of our sins; an as we live our lives in the end times and face the Last Day, let us go forth in courage knowing that we too will be with him in Paradise.  Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Your Redemption Is Drawing Near

Luke 21:5-28 While some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
In 70 A.D. the Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem.  In the ensuing massacre, over a million Jews lost their lives.  Another 70,000 were taken captive and paraded through the streets of Rome as the spoils of war.  The temple of Jerusalem was so completely destroyed that even today not one stone is left standing upon another. 
There was a group of people living in Jerusalem who were spared these terrors—the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.  You see, Jesus had prophesied that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed 40 years before it happened. 
The Jewish Christians believed his words--recognized the signs of what was to come—fled to a town called Pella on the Sea of Galilee—and were spared. 
And so what is the connection between these ancient events of history --and Jesus’ Words to us today-- and our own lives of faith?  Just this:  the destruction of Jerusalem is a sign pointing to the final judgment and the destruction of all things. 
God does not want anyone to perish eternally on that day—but that people would turn from their wickedness and live and so Jesus has provided signs that can be clearly seen so that all people would be left without excuse. 
The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem believed Jesus’ words—understood the signs for what they were—and so were saved.
Jesus speaks to us today for that same purpose and to that same end—that recognizing the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as an accomplished fact of history—knowing that Jesus promised that very thing 40 years before it happened—we too would:  believe his words about the Last Day—be watchful for the signs of his return-- and be saved.  The Bible says that:
They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
            Please note that Jesus never answers that first question:  when will these things be?  In the same way, Jesus never tells us when the Last Day will be and any religious leader who says he knows the answer is a false prophet and deceiver of God’s people.
But Jesus did answer their second question:  what will be the signs?  He told them just exactly what would happen before Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed-- so that they could be prepared no matter when it happened. 
All of those signs took place just exactly as Jesus had prophesied.  It was with that same truthfulness that Jesus prophesied:  the end of all things- and his return in glory- and the judgment of all people -and the redemption of those who were his own. 
And so, we who wait for the Last Day can look back in history and know with certainty what our Lord has revealed of the future.  But there are other signs too—signs beyond the events of history--signs happening at this very moment.
There are signs in nature.  There are signs among the nations.  And there are signs in the church.  Of signs in the church, Jesus said:
“See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.
            Over the last two thousand years there have been countless deceivers within the outward, visible boundaries of the Church:  false prophets who teach doctrines not found in the Bible--“date-setters” who claim to know when Jesus is coming and have been proved wrong again and again--and the David Koresh types who actually claim to be the Messiah.
To these signs of the end that are found in the church, Jesus says:  Watch out!  Be on your guard!  Do not follow them! 
Instead we are to listen to his words- believe what he says- and remain steadfast in the faith that is taught in the Bible. 
Regarding signs among the nations, Jesus says that before his return there will be wars and tumults—nations will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.  Many folks in this congregation have lived through WWII and the Korean War and the war in Vietnam and the two Gulf wars and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We see these signs of Jesus’ return all around us.
Regarding signs in nature Jesus says that there will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences—the roaring of the sea and the waves.  And hearing these words from our Lord we cannot help but think famines in Africa and earthquakes in Haiti and the Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.  Human history is filled with such disasters.
And right there is the faith challenge we face.  It seems that all we know of the world is:   war and bloodshed between nations- death and destruction from nature-- and the church torn asunder by false prophets. 
We are tempted to believe that this is just how the world is- this is how it has always been- and this is how it will always be. 
But Jesus says that we are not to view a violent world and a broken creation and divided church as the normal course of events-- but to view these events as:  signs of the end—signs of a world that is heading for destruction- signs that humanity is headed for judgment. 
Jesus wants us to be prepared for his second coming in glory—he wants us to be found faithful on that day---and so he directs our attention to the broken-ness of this world as an enduring sign that what we are really seeing is the effects of sin which will be changed forever on the Last Day at our Lord’s return.  And so then…
Rather than driving us to despair, the signs that we see all around us are intended by Jesus to point us to a hope that lies beyond the crumbling edifice of this dying world.
When Jesus told the disciples that not a stone would be left standing upon another of the temple—it must have been hard to believe—but they did believe him and were saved.
Jesus wants us to believe the same—that the very foundations of this world will shaken and destroyed—but we who believe in him will endure and be saved.  He promises us that not even a hair on our head will perish—that we can be hopeful even in dark times for we know that they are leading us toward our final redemption.
These promises have been secured and guaranteed by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Sin and evil does not have the last word about us—his forgiving death on the cross does.  Death does not have the last word about us—his resurrection does.
Victory over evil- and victory over death- are assured to all of those who trust in Jesus and hope for the day of his return.  On that day… 
Our bodies that are laid in the grave will be raised.  The evil in the world that seems to have the upper hand will be punished.  A broken creation that brings cancer and drought will be restored to the perfection that it had in the beginning.
Jesus wants us to see the signs of the end for what they are—as the beginning of our final redemption so that we would have a vision of the future:   a vision of the future that extends far beyond this world—a vision of the future that is based upon his promises—a vision of the future that shapes our lives in this broken world until the day of our redemption. 
And so what does that life look like—that life that is shaped by the promise of our final redemption at the Lord’s return?
1. We are watchful and alert to the signs of the times.  When we hear of some war—when a natural disaster occurs—when we encounter some falsehood being taught in the church—right then, in that moment-- we are to be reminded that our Lord is coming again and that these moral and physical evils will not endure that day.
2. We are calm and confident.  Jesus says:  “When you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”  Let the unbelieving world around us “faint with fear and foreboding” as Jesus says, we know how the story ends—we know the Author of history—we know that we will endure and gain our lives and that not even a hair on our head will perish because Jesus has promised that very thing.
3. We see hardships and difficulties as opportunities to witness to Jesus.  Jesus warned his disciples that
“they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends.  This will be your opportunity to bear witness.
We know about the persecution of the church from the pages of history—and yet how hardship and persecution—far from being an impediment to the mission of the church—was actually the mechanism through which the Gospel spread throughout the world.  The same thing is true for us. 
More and more we live in a culture where Christians are held up to contempt and our values and lifestyles are the objects of ridicule and even our own families reject those things that we hold sacred.  Jesus promised that this is how it will be. 
But rather than moan and groan, we see this is as our opportunity to bear witness to Jesus-- and the Lord will keep his promises to give us a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.
4. Finally, we are people of hope because Jesus has already told us where all of this is leading:  to our final redemption.  Jesus says that:
The powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
            The road to resurrection went through the cross for Jesus and it will for us too.  Rather than being broken and bowed down by what is happening in the world around us—Jesus says that we are to straighten up and raise up our heads because we know that with the passing of each day the Lord’s return and our final redemption is one step closer.
The world around us is moving to judgment and destruction and we need to see the signs of that for what they are---but we who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb are moving towards a day of redemption when sin and death will no longer have any claim upon us. 
Two thousand years ago the Christians of Jerusalem listened to these words of Jesus—believed what he said—were spiritually awake and aware of the signs around them-- and were saved.  God grant the same to the Christians in this place.  Amen.