Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lovely Parting Gifts

Luke 24:44-53 I don’t know if you are aware of it or not but there is a bit of a cultural phenomenon going on right now on the game show Jeopardy.  James Holzhauer has won 28 times in a row—nearly 2.5 million dollars—which is great for him but every other contestant goes home with what is euphemistically called “a lovely parting gift”:  a toaster or a set of sheets or a blender.  I’m sure that those who receive these parting gifts are thankful for them—but they’re really not the big prize they wanted.
The disciples must have felt the same way to hear these words of Jesus before his ascension.  They walked with the Lord for the three years of his earthly ministry.  They heard him teach and saw his miracles.  They had seen him die on the cross and conquer death three days later as he rose up from the dead.  Surely the grand prize stood within their reach!
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  But it was not to be.  Instead, the Lord had other parting gifts to give:  gifts of his word and gifts of his work to do and gifts of worship—not quite what they were expecting or wanting. 
Maybe we too feel a bit of disappointment at times with the gifts of our ascended Lord.  After all we are not somehow miraculously immune from valuing material and physical and economic blessings more than spiritual blessings.  Much too often we play the game for the big prize.  Plenty of money—right now.  The end of sickness—right now.  One success after another—right now.  What I want—right now.
And because of our sinful, self-centered wanting, the Lord’s true ascension blessings go unappreciated for the great spiritual treasure they are.  For these gifts that the Lord gives to the disciples then and now at his ascension are not like toasters and sheets and blenders—consolation prizes that don’t quite measure up—instead they are the greatest blessings that our Lord has to give:  his words to live by—his work to do—and his worship to give.  Luke writes:
Then Jesus said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."   Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 
            For three years the disciples were privileged to hear the Lord’s voice as he taught them and encouraged them and preached to them—but soon he would return to his heavenly throne and they wouldn’t hear him that way again.
What a blessing it must have been to them to realize that even though he would soon ascend into heaven, his voice would not be silenced—he would still be heard every time the Holy Scriptures were read and preached.  “These are my words” Jesus said, speaking of Holy Scripture. 
That ascension blessing—of hearing Jesus’ voice in Scripture--continues to this day.  The bible is not dusty history or ancient myth but it is the living voice of Jesus telling his story—and when we hear God’s Word and read God’s word-- we hear the voice of Jesus just as clearly as the disciples did—telling us the same things. 
He counsels us when we need to know which way to go in life.  He convicts us of our sins when we have done wrong.  He comforts us when we are overcome by fears and worries and guilt.  Most importantly he tells us again and again what he has done for our salvation in his death and resurrection. 
Those events of the cross and empty tomb form the heart of his message to us and to all Christians and to the world.  The Gospel is what Jesus wants us to hear.  It really is the grand prize!
It is so easy—so tempting-- for churches and Christians to veer off track—to major in the minors when it comes to the Bible’s message.  What a blessing it is that Jesus reminds us again and again what his story really is all about:  his death and resurrection and the forgiveness for sins that is found there—forgiveness that is spoken not just to us-- but is intended by God to be spoken to the world.  Jesus said
Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things. 
            Most of us know at least something about the Great Depression.  We know the big picture.  We know that because of a variety of factors the stock market collapsed in 1929 and the banking system collapsed a short time later as people rushed to get their money.  Like the first two dominoes in a long line of dominoes, these two events set into motion a whole series of events that crippled our economy and put millions of people out of work.
What a lot of us don’t recognize is what this meant for many of the men in our nation who lost their jobs.  Many of them also lost their will to live—they committed suicide and abandoned their families and turned to alcohol--not really because of the financial hardships-- but because they lost their purpose in life and they simply couldn’t face their families or the future without meaningful work to do.
You see, God has created us to work—his design gives us dignity.  Work is one of God’s best gifts.  He gave Adam and Eve work to do in the Garden before the fall into sin—not after—and it is only after the Fall that work becomes not only a joy but also a struggle. 
There are promotions-- and there are times when we get passed by.  There are profits and there are losses.  Bountiful harvests and lean years.  There are all the trappings of power and prestige in our offices-- and there is our retirement day when we take them off the wall and clean out our desk and someone else takes our place and our work is forgotten.  That’s the effect of sin on God’s good gift of work—it ends in futility.  But at his ascension Jesus blessed his disciples with an opportunity to labor for things that matter eternally. 
That you raised your children as Christians and taught them to do the same—that you witnessed to Jesus Christ among your friends and co-workers—that you gave generously for the work of ministry and mission in this place and across the world—that you were compassionate to those in need--these works last forever and they will be recognized and commended by Jesus on the last day and they give a meaning and purpose and value to our lives right now like nothing else that we do.
Each of us needs to have a part in that wonderful work of witness and proclamation that Jesus gives at his ascension.  And if you are a little bit hesitant or afraid, in this work or proclamation and witness—know that Christ has especially equipped you for just that thing.  Jesus says:
And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." 
That promise has been fulfilled.  Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to his people—the very power and presence of God himself in his people’s lives-- and you have been given that same gift of the Spirit in Holy Baptism that equips you for meaningful work in his kingdom. 
When Jesus ascended into heaven the angel that was there asked the disciples why they were still standing around looking up into the sky.  Jesus had given them work to do. 
God asks the same of us.  “Why are you just standing around?  There is work that I have given you to do—a glorious work that pleases me and advances my kingdom and makes your own life rich and rewarding—and I have given you all that you need by my Holy Spirit to do that work of proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in the name of my Son Jesus who is worthy to be worshiped and praised”.  Luke writes of this final ascension blessing of worship: 
Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. 
            We are blessed on this Ascension Day, like no other day in the church year, to know Jesus for who he is—to see the full truth of his divine dignity—to remind ourselves that he is worthy of our worship. 
During Christmas we see him as the Babe of Bethlehem.  During Lent we see him as the crucified Savior.  Throughout the rest of the church year we see him as the wise teacher and miracle worker. 
But on Ascension Day we see him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  As Paul says we see “the greatness of his power and the working of his great might—that he is above all things on earth and the head of all things in the church.”
Ascension Day is our Lord’s coronation festival where we see him once again seated at the right hand of the Father clothed with divine glory and power and honor and we worship him for who he is and what he has done in giving us these great ascension blessings of his word to hear and his work to do.  Amen. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Holy City

Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27 The holy Christian church includes from people every nation, language, and tribe.  It includes people who lived before the time of Christ and those who have lived since his ascension.  It includes men and women, adults and children, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, famous and obscure.  The holy Christian church spans the reaches of space and time.
But for all its height and depth and breadth—despite the countless multitudes who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior--no matter how diverse our backgrounds—we are all headed to one and the same heavenly home.
Before Jesus went to the cross, he promised that he was going to prepare a place for us so that where he is—we would also one day live.  That is God’s purpose for us—that we would live with him forever—that is what God created in the Garden of Eden.
But sin destroyed our home with God and man was driven from the garden and from that moment on we became a pilgrim people—strangers and aliens in this world.  That is why Jesus came to earth as a man—to bring us back to God--make a new home for us with God.  Today in Revelation we have a picture of that holy city. 
All of us have ideas in our mind of what our eternal dwelling place with God will be like.  Some of those pictures come from movies or paintings or descriptions in books.  Some of them come from our own imagination or from the culture around us.  But today we have a description of what our eternal home will be like from an eyewitness who saw it.  John writes:
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 
            When the apostle Paul talked about marriage he said that the husband and wife become one flesh and that this one-flesh union is a profound mystery because it actually gives us a picture of the relationship that exists between Christ and the church.  And here in these verses we see the same picture:  Jesus Christ and his bride, the church.
This picture of God as “husband” and his people as “wife” is found throughout the Bible and it portrays the closeness and care and love and intimacy that exists between God and his people—so close that we are members of Christ’s body. 
It is utterly false to think of God as disinterested in our struggles and detached from our lives.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  He loves and cares for us and wants us to be his people and live with him forever.
When John saw heaven—he saw us—the people of God, safe and sound in the glorious home that Jesus has prepared for us, a city filled with the glory of God.  John said that the angel:
carried [him] away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed [him] the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
            That our heavenly home is described as the “holy city of Jerusalem” and “having the glory of God” and “radiant and beautiful” is a powerful testimony to the saving work of Jesus Christ-- for the earthly Jerusalem was anything but holy and glorious and radiant! 
Now, it was meant to be that way—but sin destroyed its purpose to the extent that during that same last week of our Lord’s life before the cross when he promised to prepare a place for us-- he mourned over the city where he would die and said:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem how I longed to gather you to myself but you were not willing!”  God’s judgment would fall on Jerusalem, the temple would be destroyed, and to this day it is a place of hatred and conflict.
But the saving work of Jesus in his death and resurrection will extend even there and the place that is called the “city of peace” will truly become that once again as the Prince of Peace gathers us to himself in a new Jerusalem that is more beautiful than we can even begin to imagine—a home for those who trust in him.  John says of that place that is has:
A great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.  And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 
            One of the special features of Revelation is the symbolic use of numbers and we see that here.  There are twelve gates and twelve angels and twelve tribes and twelve apostles.  The number twelve is the product of the number for God—three—and the number for man—four-- and so twelve stands for the church throughout Revelation—how God has multiplied his kingdom among men in every time and place.   
In every age there have been those who have believed in and trusted in God and his promised salvation. 
In the days before Christ believers trusted in the promises of God that came through the prophets and priests and patriarchs.  In the days since Christ believers have taken their place in God’s kingdom through faith in the words of the apostles concerning Jesus. 
The important point to remember is this:  there is no gate there for Buddhists—there is no gate there for Muslims—there is no gate there for the atheist or agnostic or anyone who will not come into that beautiful place by believing the message of God’s prophets and apostles.  And it is a beautiful place!  John says that:
The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.
Our home with God is described by John in these verses and the verses that follow in terms of gold and pearls and precious stones and there is a reason for that beautiful picture.
God has given each of us a love for beautiful things and there is no shame in that for a love of beauty comes from God who created all things beautiful and good. 
We love to travel to beautiful places like the hill country of Texas.  We “ooh and ahh” over some magnificent piece of jewelry.  We are awestruck by great works of art and music.  These are gifts from God.
It is only when beautiful things are seen as an end unto themselves that our love for beauty become dis-ordered and sinful because our God-given love of beauty is intended to make us yearn for our beautiful home in heaven with the Giver of all that is beautiful and good and tue.
God wants us to desire a beauty that is beyond this life—a beauty that cannot be marred or tarnished by the passing of time—a beauty that is eternal.  That is the kind of beautiful home we have in heaven where we will live forever in the presence of the One who made all things beautiful and we will worship him face to face.  John writes:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
            The temple in Jerusalem was dedicated so that people could come into the presence of God.  Now, it’s not as if God was somehow contained in that place—that is a pagan idea and the LORD specifically refuted it for he fills heaven and earth.  But the temple was set aside so that the people could hear God’s Word and see in the sacrifices that their sins were forgiven.  It was a beautiful place and one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Our place of worship is dedicated for the same purpose—so that we can hear God’s word and receive the sacrifice of the cross under bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins.  And this place is also a beautiful worship space filled with color and light.
But man-made places of worship will not be needed in heaven for God himself will be there.  No longer mediated by words on a page or bread and wine, we will worship God face-to-face and we will live in his glorious presence forever in that place where there is no darkness because the One who is the light of the world fills it with his light.  John says that:
By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
            When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the devil took him to a very mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory and he said to Jesus:  All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.  Jesus refused and responded by telling him that worship is due to God alone. 
Here we have John, taken by the Spirit to a very high mountain and what does he see but the glory and honor of the nations and their kings (all of those things the devil tempted Jesus with) streaming into heaven and casting it all before Jesus as that which is rightfully his. 
What a comfort there is in this scene for us!  What a lesson!  Nothing of real and lasting value is EVER lost by trusting in God and doing his will.  The way to glory, the way to honor, the way to life with God in heaven goes through the cross and the sacrificial Lamb who died there.  It did for Jesus and it does for us too.  John writes that in our heavenly home:
Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
            Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He was sent by his heavenly Father to give us a rich, abundant life that death cannot end.  God intends that we would live with him forever in the beautiful home that the resurrected Christ has prepared for us—a holy city where evil has been defeated by Jesus.
            But we should be very, very clear that it is ONLY those whose sins have been washed away in the blood of the Lamb—only those who have trusted in Jesus as their Savior-- who have their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life and a home in heaven. 
Life with God here on earth- and life with God in eternity- is found in only one place and that is in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  May God the Holy Spirit keep us in faith until that day that God calls us to our heavenly home prepared for us by the resurrected Christ!  Amen.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Worthy Is the Lamb!

Revelation 5:1-14 Throughout the Bible—Old Testament and New--there is a connection between God’s will for how we are to live our lives and his saving work on our behalf.  In other words:  our obedience flows from his salvation.  Let me give you some examples:
When God gave the Ten Commandments he began this way:  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” and then he goes on to write his will for how we are to live on tablets of stone. 
We find the same connection between God’s salvation and our obedience in the New Testament.  Paul says in Ephesians that we are saved by God’s grace through faith so that we might do those good works God has prepared in advance for us to do.
Our life of faith and obedience and good works as Christian people BEGINS with God’s saving work for us.  That biblical principle is especially true when it comes to our life of worship.  Our worship flows from God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.
In our Easter series on Revelation we see a glorious vision of all of creation:  angels and archangels, the saints who have gone before us and the saints on earth, and every living thing—worshiping the resurrected Christ.  Jesus is worthy of that worship because of his great work of salvation.  John writes that he:
…saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.  
            The rest of the Book of Revelation is the story of the breaking of these seven seals and the opening of this scroll and what is revealed by the words written upon it.  That there are seven seals indicate that it is the unveiling of God’s work (symbolized by the number “3”) among men (symbolized by the number “4”) when added together give “7”.  In other words, written on this scroll is the future of the world.  And a mighty angel asks the question:
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”  And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it…
If you remember our sermon from last week you know that at this point in history the church was “back on her heels” and “up against the ropes”.  They were undergoing fierce persecution from the Roman Empire and many of them were facing execution and exile.  They had no ability to look into the future and see how it would all turn out.
So it is for us.  The future is hidden from us.  We do not what the future holds for us.  We do not know what will happen in North Korea or the direction of our economy or what our health will like in the days to come or how the lives of our children will unfold.  We just don’t know!
That kind of uncertainty can make us anxious and afraid like it did for John who began to:  weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.  You see, it wasn’t just that John didn’t know what the next few years in the future would hold, he wondered and worried about the final outcome of the whole world.
Was there any meaning or purpose to history at all?  The unbelieving world still asks the same question and because they do not know the outcome—they have no hope.  This is one of the big reasons why the world is full of depression and despair. 
If there is no ultimate meaning to life (or at least one that can be known) --if there is no purpose to our existence on this earth—if there is no final fulfillment but the same cycle of life and death until the sun runs out of energy and life on earth comes to an end-- why shouldn’t we live for the moment—if this brief life is all there is? 
We need to know that there is a purpose to our lives and a meaning to our existence and a fulfillment to the future.  We need to know that there is One who is guiding history in general- and our lives in particular- who has a purpose and plan that will give eternal meaning and lasting value to our few short years on earth.  And there is!  One of the elders told John:
“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,
            There was no need for John to weep about the future and there is no need for us to worry about it either!  Where before the future was literally a closed book, now there is someone who guides it and directs for our good. 
That person is the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the root of David and the Lamb of God.  That person who holds history in his almighty hands and guides it to its glorious fulfillment is the resurrected Christ who has conquered our enemies of sin and death and the devil.
Try to picture that scene in your mind’s eye as it appeared to John:  told by one of the elders to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Root of David you can imagine what he expected to see:  a majestic golden lion who strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies or the ancient of days and King of kings who laid the foundation for David’s throne. 
But as he turns to look at the One who guides the future of the world, what does he see but a Lamb who still bore the marks of being slain.
You see dear friends in Christ, at the very center of human history—reaching back before the foundation of the world and stretching forth into eternity and influencing every moment in between --stands the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.
He is the One who guides history because history is HIS story—the story of God’s love for the world and his desire the reconcile us to himself—a story that will go forth into the world until that moment that the full of number of the elect have been brought safely into his fold through the work of the Spirit.  And that explains the lamb’s unusual appearance which had:
seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
The Holy Spirit--portrayed as the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb-- has but one purpose and that is to bear witness to Jesus Christ so that we can be saved from our sins and sanctified in God’s sight.  That’s it! 
That is the purpose of every sermon and every baptism and every celebration of the Lord’s Supper and every Word of Holy Scripture—that the Holy Spirit would work to bring us to faith in Jesus and increase our faith in Jesus and keep us in faith towards Jesus—for he is the way to life with God both now and in the future.  John writes that the Lamb took the scroll and…
the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,  and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
            The One who holds history in his Almighty hands—the One who guides all of human history—the One who wisely incorporates our own story into his story-- is not some cold, uncaring celestial bureaucrat or cosmic technician. 
Instead, the One who directs history and guides our lives is the Savior who shed his life’s blood for us on the cross—and knowing this makes all the difference in the world in how we view our lives and how we view the direction of the world.
Even the quickest glance at the newspaper or evening news is enough to make us almost despair of the world we live in.  There is war and injustice and hunger and poverty and ugliness and evil everywhere we look.  In our own lives it seems as if some kind of setback or difficulty is always just around the bend, casting a pall over the good times.  That said…
We are not caught up in some unending cycle of sorrow and suffering, always resulting in despair and death.  There is a loving purpose full of life at the end for us and the world.
That is what is seen as the scroll containing the future is opened by the Lamb who was slain—that is why the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb in worship as he took the scroll in hand! 
How could they keep from worshiping the resurrected Christ!  He changed the entire direction of creation away from death and damnation back towards life with God.  He paid the ransom price to set men in every time and place free from sin and death.  He took slaves and made them into a kingdom of priests who would one day rule a new creation.  Jesus is worthy of our worship!  John writes that around the throne of the Lamb he heard the voices of thousands of angels:
saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”  And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
            We can compel our children to attend Lord’s Day services and we can guilt our spouse into doing the same.  Over the course of history Christian monarchs have enacted laws requiring people to observe the Sabbath.  But no one can make another person worship God—not even at the point of a sword.  True worship—not just going through the motions of sitting and standing and bowing—true worship is a matter of the heart which stands in awe of God’s salvation.
The angels who saw man fall and creation destroyed in the beginning rejoiced to see Jesus’ victory over the devil and they worshiped.  All of creation (which also fell victim to man’s sin) looks forward in hope to the day when death is destroyed because of Jesus’ resurrection and it worships.  The saints in heaven worship before God and the Lamb day and night because Jesus kept his promise to bring them safely home.
Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven join their voices in an unending song of praise and thanksgiving on account of what Jesus Christ has done in his life, death, and resurrection.  What about us?  Is our voice heard among theirs as they worship God?   God grant that it is so for the resurrected Christ is worthy of worship!  Amen.