Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Coming of the Son of Man

Mathew 24:36-44 On this first Sunday in Advent, when we hear the words of our Lord:  you must be ready for the Son of Man—we cannot help but think of all the preparations that need to be made before Christmas gets here.  In our minds Advent and Christmas go together.  And to an extent that is true, especially as the season progresses.
To welcome our newborn Savior and King—to understand who it is that sleeps in that cradle and what he has come to do—we do need to be prepared.  But of course those necessary preparations are something completely different than buying and decorating and baking and wrapping.  To be ready to welcome Jesus we need to be prepared spiritually.
We need to be ready to meet him as he continues to make himself present among us in Word and Sacrament—so that we understand that it is his voice that is heard in this place and his real presence received at this altar.  We need to be ready to meet Jesus whenever the Lord may call us home and we need to be ready to meet Jesus when he comes again to be our judge.
This Advent call that we hear today to be ready to meet the Lord is necessary because it is entirely possible to do everything on our to-do list over these next four weeks and still not be spiritually prepared to stand before the Lord.  The busyness of life can overwhelm and drown out the one thing needful.  It has happened before.  Jesus says:
Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heave, nor the Son, but the Father only.  As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…
Eating.  Drinking.  Merrymaking.  Parties to attend.  Sounds like the next four weeks, doesn’t it?  Oftentimes we think of ancient people of being somehow different than we are.  But they were just like us.  We think of their lives as being far removed from our own.  But they really weren’t.  They liked to eat and drink and have fun.  They had husbands and wives and children and friends.  There was daily work to attend to and I’m sure that they thought that there was more to do than there were hours in the day just like we do.
It’s not unique to us that the rhythm and busyness of daily life can lull us into spiritual sleep.  That’s what happened to the people of Noah’s day. 
From the creation of the world to the time of Noah the people of the world were caught up in their own lives to the exclusion of God who no longer showed up in their to-do list, so busy were they with the hustle and bustle of life.  But the way that they were living—busy with life but blind to God-- did not please the Lord.  The Bible says that: 
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually and the earth was filled with violence. 
Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it.  Eerily modern.  I bet that if you asked the people about their lives at the time they would have thought that everything, for the most part, was fine.  Sure, there were some bad apples.  Yes, there was crime.  No, they didn’t have a lot of time for God because after all, they were busy with necessities of life.  But that’s just normal, isn’t it?
God thought differently about their lives.  God regarded their lives as wicked.  He saw no goodness in their souls because he didn’t live there.  The Bible says that God was sorry that he made man and it grieved him in his heart.  But God also loved man and wanted to call them back to himself—he wanted them to turn from their sins and to return to him in faith.
And so God sent Noah to them with a message of judgment and salvation.  Noah preached for decades all the while he was building an ark as the instrument of God’s salvation.  But in the end, no one but Noah and his family believed God’s message—no one but Noah and his family were ready to meet the Lord’s judgment.  No one but Noah and his family were saved.  Jesus says that the people of that day continued living just as they had before:
until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Now this is an incredible statement because it shows just how blind and deaf we can become to the Advent message calling us to spiritual preparation.  There were decades of preaching.  Judgment was promised.  There was a giant boat being built.  Salvation was offered.  And yet so busy were they with daily life that they never gave any of this a thought until the day that Noah entered the ark and the door was raised and the drops of God’s judgment began to fall.
What about us? Can we honestly say that the world of today is any better than Noah’s day?  Is it possible that God is pleased when he looks upon the world we live in, filled with violence and sexual immorality and crass materialism?  Are our lives different than the people of Noah’s age, consumed with the day- to-day?  Are we less busy and more open to the call of God? 
God’s message hasn’t changed.  There is a judgment coming that is more terrible, more encompassing than even the flood.  The world as we know it will be destroyed by fire and every person will stand before a righteous judge whose standard will be the holiness of God. 
But there is also a way of salvation!  Jesus Christ is the enduring ark of salvation, made not of gopher wood but of the flesh of his virgin mother and from the church goes out the message:  forsake your sins and come to Christ and be saved! 
Will we listen or will we delay?  God grant that we would listen for the return of Christ will come suddenly and with a terrible finality.  Jesus says that when the he returns:
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.
            I would bet that as the people of Noah’s day went about their daily lives, with Noah building an ark in their midst and calling them to repentance—more than a few of them said to themselves:  “He’s right!  My life is on the wrong track!  I have been ignoring my relationship with God”.  But they always found a reason to wait just one more day to turn from sins and receive God’s salvation until that day there was not another day.
That’s the way it will be when Jesus returns—suddenly and finally while people are living as they always have.  All of the warning signs are there for those who have the faith to see them for what they are.  Signs that are just as clear as nails going into boards being shaped into a boat.  And the call to turn from sins and turn to Christ still rings out from the true prophets of God. 
But life goes on as it always has (and always must) until the day of Christ’s return for no one knows that day or hour—not the angels in heaven—not even Jesus as he walked the earth.  The only question for us as we go about our daily lives, making a living and doing chores and enjoying life, is whether or not we have heeded the signs and listened to the Lord and repented of our sins and trusted in Christ for salvation. 
That is the preparation that must be done now because the blast of the trumpet and the appearance of the Lord in the clouds will be immediate and final and those who have delayed will be destroyed.  Now is the time to get ready for the coming of the Son of Man!  Jesus says:
Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
            If you have ever had your home or shop or vehicle broken into, you know what a sickening, helpless feeling that is.  Why didn’t we hear them?  Why weren’t we more proactive in protecting ourselves?  Why weren’t we ready?  We are outraged that someone has taken what belongs to us and we want to do everything in our power to make sure that it never happens again. 
That is how we react when our material goods are taken but there is coming a day when our souls will be required of us.  That may be the day of our death.  That may be the day of our Lord’s return if he comes before we die.  But on that day the one thing that truly, eternally matters will be handed over to God and Jesus asks every person:  What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?  We do not know when that day is, when our soul will be required of us.  Jesus will come at a time when we do not expect him just as a thief in the night and the time to be prepared will be over. 
The question for us is this:  are we spiritually awake and ready for that day?  Will we hand our soul over to the Lord and say:  Lord, this is yours!  You have created and redeemed it by the blood of your Son and by the power of Holy Spirit made it your own in Holy Baptims?  Or will it be taken from us by force of judgment and condemnation and cast into the eternal, terrible fires of hell?  Eternity is what is at stake and that is why Jesus says to us:  You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
This morning we have heard the call of Jesus to be ready for his return.  We know that it will be certain but unexpected.  We have been warned that others have turned a deaf ear to this call in the past and we know our own tendency to get caught up in daily life to the detriment of our soul. 
And so how do we get ready to welcome the Lord as the babe of Bethlehem and the One who is present among us in Word and Sacrament and our Judge on the last Day?  We repent of our sins.  And we turn in faith to Jesus Christ to receive the forgiveness he won for us on the cross.  We come to church and listen to what Jesus has to say to us receive his body and blood in Holy Communion.  We put flesh and bone on our faith by doing those good works he has planned for us to do. 
God grant us a day of grace and the Spirit’s help so that we can be prepared to meet the Son of Man!

Great Is Your Faithfulness!

Great Is Your Faithfulness!

Lamentations 3:22-25 The book of Lamentations was inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by the prophet Jeremiah who was called by God to prophecy the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  He lived to see his prophecy come to pass and was an eyewitness to the judgment God promised. 
Most of the people have been carried off into slavery—those who remained starved to death.  The city and the temple were destroyed.  The false prophets and unfaithful priests who cried out “peace, peace” were utterly mistaken and were slain in the temple that they never thought would fall.  The soldiers who defended Jerusalem lay dead in the streets. 
Jeremiah saw all of it—he was an eyewitness to the destruction and death he prophesied—and he knew the reason for God’s judgment.  He wrote: 
Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy…her transgressions were bound into a yoke and laid upon her neck…and the Lord gave her into the hands of those she could not withstand… for she rebelled against the Lord’s word.
The words of Jeremiah found in Lamentations are read in the Jewish liturgy when they commemorate the destruction of the temples and they are read in the Christian calendar on Good Friday in the service of darkness that commemorates our Lord’s death on the cross.  They are the Old Testament lesson at our funerals. 
The words of Lamentations give voice to the profound sorrow of the human heart when we see the destruction and judgment that our sins deserve and bring.
But it is right in the midst of these words of sorrow and suffering that the prophet Jeremiah is renewed in hope.  He says:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.
The love of the people for the Lord had failed.  Time after time, in countless ways, they had shown that they had divided hearts—that they were guilty of spiritual adultery.  So it is for us too—and with the same result.
While it is not utter destruction that we look upon in our country on this day of national thanksgiving—it is indeed spiritual darkness. 
Can anyone doubt that the stained, torn fabric of our common life together is unrelated to the declining commitment to the Lord in our nation? 
Can anyone doubt that the pilgrims who came to this country and our Lutheran forebears would be astounded and appalled to see that the Ten Commandments and public prayer and the emblems of Christianity are forbidden in more and more places in our nation? 
Can anyone doubt that rapidly declining church attendance is unrelated to the declining moral fiber of our people?
In our nation, love for the LORD has grown cold and hearts are divided in their loyalties and all we can confess is that we justly the Lord’s temporal and eternal punishment. 
But we too- along with Jeremiah- are renewed in hope—even in dark days—because the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.  The love that God has for us is not like ours for him.  It never ebbs and flows.  It never changes.  It is never divided.  It does not depend upon anything within us at all --but is reflective of who God is in his very being.
Even in the midst of the destruction that God had allowed to chastise his people, Jeremiah was certain of one thing:  that the love that God had for his people was still in effect and he would mercifully come to their aid.  He wrote that:
The LORD’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 
            Mercy is the attitude and aid given to one who is weak by one who is powerful—it’s what unceasing love looks like in action towards those in need. 
It was there between God and his people from the very beginning.  God could have destroyed Adam and Eve after their sin—but he didn’t—he did what only he could do and forgave them and restored them to their original purpose as the mother and father of all the living. 
God came to the aid of his enslaved people in Egypt when they had fallen so far as to have forgotten his name.  He brought his people back from exile in Babylon.  And he sent his own Son into the world to save those who could not save themselves.
God’s love is shown again and again in his mercy.  The One who is mighty and powerful and strong to save—reaches out in love to help those who stand in need of his mercy and aid. 
That is the certain promise that is made to us tonight in God’s Word:  The Lord’s mercies never end.  His willingness and power to aid his people is always present and can be counted on no matter how dark the day. 
When a nation is on the wrong track—when we are afflicted with a terrible illness—when we are faced with economic ruin—when our own personal failures stand before our eyes—God’s mercies are new every morning. 
Each morning when we open our eyes to begin a new day we can count on the Lord’s mercy, strength, and provision being sufficient for the day.  That is why we don’t ever have to worry about what the future holds and indeed, are commanded not to worry—for the Lord has promised to use his might and power to come to our aid.
It is this very thing that leads the prophet Jeremiah to say of the LORD:  Great is your faithfulness! 
We find the same sentiment in our catechism when we are asked:  what it is that moves God to preserve, provide, and protect us.  And Luther answers:  God does all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.  But then Luther goes on to ask us, what then do we owe our Father in heaven for all this?  And the answer:  It is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey him.
That is why we are here tonight—to thank and praise God for his faithfulness—that he has provided for us and protected us over this last year and promises to do the same in the year to come.
But what about those times like Jeremiah was going through—times when it seems like every good thing has been ripped away?  Still we can give God thanks for:  "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." 
Can you imagine wandering the streets of San Angelo, seeing everything that is familiar and loved brought to ruin?  Of coming here Lutheran Way and seeing our beloved sanctuary destroyed and defiled?  Of coming across your friends and loved ones lying in the street, dead and dying?
That was the scene that greeted Jeremiah as he wandered the streets of Jerusalem and yet he knew that the one thing needful had not been stripped away from him and indeed could not be lost:  that the LORD was his portion.  His life with God could not be harmed by terrible things that happened to him in this life-- and so it is for us.
God grant that we never go through what Jeremiah went through or see what he saw—but we should also never forget that there is coming a day when every earthly thing will be stripped away:  our health will fail, loved ones will die, and we will return to the dust of the earth. 
That is why it is such good news that we cannot lose the one thing needful—the one thing that really, eternally matters:  and that is our life with God.  The LORD himself is our portion because Jesus Christ has taken away our sins and restored our relationship with God.  And because the LORD is our portion, no matter how dark the days—there is hope for the future.
And so we too look forward to the future expecting good from the Lord.  Jeremiah writes:  The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. 
We don’t know what the new year will hold for us and for our nation.  But we do know that the One who is the Author of history—the One who wisely guides our lives—the One who has brought us to this time and place safely—will continue to be the same kind of merciful, wise, good God that we have known in this last year. 
The Bible promises us that ALL things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.  That is the encouragement we need to trust him in those times when he seems slow to act—to trust him in those times when we would chosen differently for ourselves-- and know that God is patiently working for our good in the midst of it.
The Lord’s goodness, mercy, and love give us the confidence we need to put him first in our lives.  We don’t have to worry that we will somehow miss out on some good things when we serve and obey him because we can trust his steadfast love to graciously give us all that we need for body and soul—just as he always has.  Amen.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Day of the Lord

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Since the time of the apostles there have been false prophets who have predicted the end of the world despite the plain and simple words of Jesus:  that no one knows that day or hour of his second coming.  But while the day and hour is unknown, our Lord’s return in glory to judge the world—what the Bible calls “the day of the Lord” --is certain.
Jesus promised that he would come again to take us to heaven.  At his ascension, the angels promised that he would return in the same way he left.  With the voice of the archangel and the sound of the trumpet of God, Jesus will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise from their graves. 
And so then, if we cannot know the day and hour of our Lord’s return, what do we need to know about the day of the Lord?  The Bible says:
Concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
            We do not need to know anything about the specific timing of our Lord’s return because what we do know is enough:  that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  These are the same words that Jesus used to talk about his second coming—that it will be sudden and unexpected.  That knowledge is more than enough to be prepared for that day—a day of destruction that the world around us chooses to ignore.  The Bible says that: 
While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
            The great danger of the end-time false prophets of the world is that they lead people to ridicule the second coming of our Lord and ignore or explain away the signs of his return and thereby remain unprepared to face the judgment of God.
Before that day, Jesus says that there will be wars and rumors of wars—that nation will rise against nation—that there will be earthquakes and famines in various places—that lawlessness will increase and false prophets will lead many astray.  And so it is -and so it has been- since Jesus spoke these words and prophesied these signs.
That’s the point—that at any time we are to be aware of these signs and expectantly looking for our Lord’s return—viewing the world around us through that lens of final judgment and eternity—trusting that Jesus is coming again to make a new heaven and a new earth by destroying all that is broken and evil in this one.
No one who has opposed the Lord and his ways and his people will escape destruction on the day of the Lord.  The Bible knows absolutely nothing of a second chance after the Lord’s return for those who have rejected him up until that day.  But we who live in the light of Christ have nothing to fear from his return.  The Bible says:
You are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.
            How often do we shake our heads at the sinful foolishness of the unbelieving world—at the things that we read in the paper and see on the news and hear on the radio-- and wonder to ourselves:  why on earth do they live the way they do and think the things they do and value the things they do? 
The Bible says that those who don’t believe in Jesus are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God. 
But we are not in darkness.  The light of Jesus Christ has shone into our lives and opened our hearts and enlightened our minds.  When Paul was converted to faith in Christ the Bible says that something like scales fell from his eyes—a vivid picture of what is spiritually true for every Christian. 
We are children of the light who know that Christ is coming again and that this world as it is will not endure that day and we are called to live our lives in light of the knowledge—ready for Jesus’ return at any time.  The Bible says:
Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night.
            Paul is not talking about the physical sleep which God gives that refreshes our bodies-- but spiritual sleepiness that keeps us from being awake and ready to meet the Lord when he comes again—the idea that, as things are now, so they always have been and so they always will be, and so there is no need to expect or do anything different. 
That is absolutely untrue!  We have been spiritually awakened to look for the dawn of the day of the Lord and we must not hit the spiritual snooze-alarm and fall back into the self-satisfied warmth of spiritual slumber.
Neither must we let anything dull our minds to the realities of that day.  Paul distinguishes between sleep and drunkenness—both of them are part of spiritual darkness—but there is a difference.  Spiritual complacency is a part of our flesh.  We have to fight against the temptation to let the Lord’s return fall to the back of our mind.  But drunkenness is something else. 
It is the intentional choice to abuse that which dulls our spiritual awareness.  Alcohol and drugs and pornography and the press of daily life and the constant need to be entertained and the pursuit of money dull us to the need to constantly repent of our sins and be renewed in our faith in Jesus. 
Anything that dulls our readiness for the Lord’s return needs to be put aside so that we can instead be filled with those things that make us spiritually aware and awake.  The Bible says that:
Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
            The image that Paul uses here would have been familiar to anyone living in the Roman Empire---Roman soldiers marching through the streets, prepared for battle, their armor flashing in the sun. 
The Christian likewise is to be prepared for the spiritual battles that will most definitely come as we wait for the day of the Lord by daily renewal in faith, hope, and love by hearing God’s Word and receiving Holy Communion.
These three Christian virtues constantly appear together in Paul’s letters and there’s a reason for that:  they encompass the entire Christian life. 
Faith directs our eyes to the past and the accomplished facts of salvation history.  Jesus Christ the promised Messiah entered into the world in a particular moment in history.  He died on the cross under the rule of Pontius Pilate and rose again three days later.  Who he is and what he has done is the content of our faith—and because we are looking forward to his return—he is also the hope for our future.
Hope directs our faith to the future and the promises that still remain to be fulfilled—Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead—and a new creation. 
Far, far from being afraid of the future and fearful of God’s judgment, we look forward in hope to a future that is filled with every blessing of body and soul because God’s faithfulness in the past is our assurance that our hope will not be disappointed.
And because Jesus is the content of our faith and our hope for the future he is also the one who guides and directs our lives right now in the ways of his love. 
We don’t know when Jesus will come again but we do know what he wants us to be doing in the meantime—loving one another in the same way he loved us—doing good to our neighbor and forgiving those who hurt us.  This is the way we are to live until the day of the Lord when we receive the fullness of salvation.  The Bible says that:
God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.  Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 
            Moment by moment throughout history God has been carefully, wisely, lovingly ordering the world so that we could come to faith in Jesus and endure in faith and so receive the fullness of salvation.  We are the reason that God sent his Son into the world—that believing in him we would be saved.
Much too often we think of salvation only in terms of forgiveness of sins—and certainly it is that!  But it’s everything else that comes from being forgiven and right in God’s sight:  it’s having peace with God and the assurance that he is with us and a life filled with joy and purpose.  But salvation also extends beyond this life into eternity. 
That God has saved us by the death and resurrection of his Son means that we have been restored to what God wanted for us in the beginning—a life with him as his children that even death cannot end.  Salvation means that God will restore everything broken by sin—that there will be a new heaven and a new earth—that we will enjoy perfect fellowship with God forever.
The Day of the Lord is the culmination of God’s saving work.  It is not a day of wrath for us that we need to fear-- but the day of salvation when the fullness of what Christ has done in his dying and rising will be ours forever.  Amen.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Forgive Your Brother from Your Heart

Matthew 18:21-25 Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 
            Jesus says that we are to go to those who have sinned against us and forgive them and bring them back to God’s flock. 
We understand the greatness and difficulty of that task.  We live in a broken world.  We are surrounded by fallen and frail people.  Surely there must be some kind of limit to this call to forgive—particularly when we are the ones who are wounded.
The rabbis of the day put the number at three—three times we can be expected to forgive the same sin by the same person.  And so with seven times Peter was being quite generous!  But Jesus said:  “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 
Several thousand years before this moment, a man name Lamech had promised that he would seek vengeance against his enemies seventy times seven. 
Of course we know Lamech wasn’t really talking about 490 acts of vengeance and not one more-- and neither is Jesus talking about 490 acts of mercy and not one more. 
Unlimited, unending vengeance and hatred is set aside by Jesus for unlimited, unending forgiveness and love.  Jesus explained why.  He said:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
            I have seen various ways to calculate this debt but what we need to know is that the amount is beyond imagination, a debt beyond the man’s calculations-- but not the king’s.  Such is our sin debt in God’s sight.  Such is the ledger of our lawless deeds.  The King knows.
All of us can point to this failure or that in our lives.  All of us can bring to mind our pet sins.  All of us have some regrets about the past.  But none of us can truly know the greatness of our sins. 
The psalmist says, “Who can discern their errors”? No one!  But that we cannot reckon our sin debt, does not mean it is not owed.  That we cannot pay it does not mean that a payment will not be required. Jesus said that:
Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
            The man in the parable owed a debt that he could never repay but that did not mean that a payment would not be required.  The justice of the king demanded it and so does our own sense of justice.  For example:
Bernie Madoff stole billions of dollars from investors.  That money is long gone.  Thousands of people will never be repaid.  But that does not mean we do not want our pound of flesh.  Madoff is in federal prison and will die there.  Justice demands it and the law requires it.  
            At the close of the Ten Commandments, God says:  I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.  In Romans chapter six Paul says that the wages of sin is death.
            We owe a sin debt that cannot be paid by the generations that follow us.  We owe a sin debt that is greater than our own life.  We owe a sin debt that an eternity in hell still will not remove.  Such is the judgment of the king’s law.  Such is the king’s justice.  Jesus said that:
The servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’
            It is only because of the greatness and majesty and nobility of the king that he does not fall out of his throne, holding his sides, laughing out loud, saying, “You fool”! 
The servant still had no idea as to the gravity of his situation—no real idea of what was owed—no ability to calculate what was required to pay back his debt.  He thought that what he needed was just a bit more time and then he could make things right. Sounds familiar…
            “Just one more chance Lord, then I will straighten out for good”.  “Give me one more opportunity to love those around me and then I’ll have it down pat”.  “Lift me up just this once Lord, and I’ll never fall again”.  “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
But of course we can’t.  The ledger of the law not only reveals our debt—it reveals our utter spiritual bankruptcy—that we have no spiritual assets to offer for our lawless liabilities. 
If there is any hope, it must come from outside of us.  Jesus said that:  out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Please understand…
It wasn’t because the man was overwhelmed by the greatness of his debt—not because he was grieved over what his debt would do to his family—not because he was afraid of prison—not because sorrow drove him to his knees-- that the king forgave him his debt. 
It was because of the mercy and pity that resided in the king’s heart that the man was set free that day.  A debt that the man could never repay—was wiped clean by a word from the king. 
So it is for us.  Our freedom and our forgiveness do not begin with us or continue with us or end with us.  Our freedom and our forgiveness are found in the mercy and compassion of a king who was crowned with thorns—it flows from a heart that was pierced with a lance—it is given by word that was spoken from a cross:  Father, forgive them. 
Father, forgive them spoken from the font and altar and pulpit.  That is how our sin debt is paid.  That is how the kingdom of heaven works.  Jesus said that:
When that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
            Let’s be clear:  a debt was owed and simple justice demanded that it should be paid.  But where the first debt owed to the king was unimaginably large, this second debt owed to a fellow servant was incredibly small—especially in comparison. 
And so then let me ask you, what debts are you owed?  Is it the debt of an unkind word spoken about you by a co-worker?  Is it the debt of a friend who has failed you?  Is it the debt of a family who has treated you badly? 
That debt is real.  Justice demands that it be paid.  But grace asks:  what is that debt owed to you, compared to the debt you once owed to God?  How do your demands for justice sound compared to the king’s words of forgiveness?  Jesus said that:     
his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 
            What is so shocking about this scene is the complete inability of the first servant to see himself in the second servant.  But they were mirror images of one another.  They had the same need for forgiveness of a debt.  They take the same posture of a supplicant.  They spoke the same words begging for mercy.  All of us stand as equals at the foot of the cross, beggars all.
In that moment, the first servant had a remarkable opportunity to extend the mercy and generosity of the king into the life of a fellow servant-- but all he could see, was not the love of the king for this servant too, not the desire of the servant to be forgiven, but only what he was owed.  It is an ugly but familiar picture.
    Christian spouses alienated from one another.  Congregation members at odds with one another.  Battle lines drawn through church bodies.  Fellow Christians who won’t speak to one another at church.  And you can be sure that those around us take note.  Jesus said that:
When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
            When Christians forgive—the world takes note.  But as much as people take note when Christians forgive—they also take note when we don’t.  The world may not know all the details of Christian doctrine—but even unbelievers know that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith.  They know that we Christians are supposed to be different than the angry, vengeful world around us.
How much more do we Christians know that what defines us and makes us who we are, is forgiveness—forgiveness received and forgiveness given. 
And so, when the world howls in protest at our lack of forgiveness—when a brother cries out to God because we hold a grudge against him—you can be sure that the complaint makes its way to the king.  Jesus said:
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
            Our text today began with a question:  how often do we have to forgive others when they sin against us?  And the answer of Jesus is that we are to forgive and keep on forgiving.  As long as there are sins against us, there will be forgiveness from us.
That is a difficult thing to do!  Our flesh rebels against it.  We are tempted to fall back into the pattern of the world: standing in judgment over others—demanding a strict accounting of every word and action—and seeking to hurt rather than to heal.  In essence, living just like this unforgiving servant.
With this stern warning that concludes the parable, Jesus wants us to make sure we understand that when we choose to live like that, we are also choosing to leave his kingdom, outside of which is only judgment and punishment and death.
How much better to live under our King’s gracious rule and receive his forgiveness and extend that to others!  Amen.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The LORD is the God of the Living

Luke 20:27-40 The Bible says that we should always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  And yet that is the very situation that so many of us dread—confronted in our faith—called upon to confess the truth we believe. 
There are many people in our world today who deny some part of what we believe as Christians.  There are people who ridicule our belief in a God who creates.  There are people who reject the idea that all life is precious in God’s sight—even that of the unborn.  And of course there are many, many people who deny that salvation is only found in Jesus.  We know they are out there.
But to be confronted by them—perhaps among our circle of friends or folks at work--to be called upon in that moment to give a defense of our faith and the truths that we have built our life on—that makes us anxious and even afraid. 
Especially when what is being challenged is as fundamental to our faith as the resurrection of the dead.  Eternal life with God is our most cherished hope and what makes this particular question even more of a faith challenge is that often times—truth be told—we have our own struggles to believe in the resurrection. 
To lay a loved one in the grave seems so final.  To conceive of a life other than the one we enjoy right now seems impossible.  But what Jesus wants us to know and believe is that when it comes to the resurrection (whether we are challenged by the world or whether the questions come from our own frail heart) we need have no fear, for the dead will be raised. 
The Bible says that:  There came to Jesus some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 
            Before we talk about the details of the challenge, I want to point out the tone of the question-how it falls into the absurd—far beyond the scope of anything in these men’s experience. 
I point this out because this is still the way that the world challenges our faith—by distortion and ridicule and scorn.  The men who came to Jesus (like so many in our world today) were not true seekers after the truth but people who:  had already made up their mind—had an agenda—and had given a lot of thought about how to undermine our faith.
Those who challenge our faith on the sanctity of life never mention the fact that the vast, vast majority of abortions in their country are simply birth control after the fact—the murder of innocents on the altar on convenience.  Instead, they come up with questions about very rare cases of having to choose between the life of the mother and the child.  Those who challenge our faith on salvation being found only in Jesus never talk about the billions on earth who have heard the gospel and reject him.  Instead they focus on the relatively few people who sadly have never heard the Gospel.  Those who challenge us on creation never ask us about the words from Genesis that talk about the meaning and purpose of the universe and our own human existence.  Instead, they ridicule the old editorial dates placed in the King Jesus Bible and make them normative for what they think Christians believe about creation.
In other words, many of the faith-challenges we face are not the serious questions of someone who is earnestly seeking the truth about God and their own existence-- but instead are the scorn and derision of those who have already made up their mind and have devoted a lot of time and thought to coming up with ways to ridicule our faith.
That’s what was going on here in the question of the Sadducees.  The situation comes from the Old Testament teaching of levirate marriage—the responsibility of one brother to marry his brother’s widow so that a family could be raised in the dead brother’s name.  That’s all pretty straight forward but a situation where there are seven dead brothers and one wife and no children all standing around in heaven trying to figure out who belongs to who is absurd and these skeptics meant it be absurd so they could ridicule the very idea of a life after this one. 
Now I will confess that when I am asked foolish questions like these I fall into two temptations—to ignore it and walk away because of where it’s coming from --or to say “you’re an idiot.”  But look instead what Jesus says and how he says it:
“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage,
            Jesus knew where these guys were coming from—he knew what was motivating them (not a desire for the truth but to undermine the faith)—but he didn’t roll his eyes and walk away—he didn’t say “You’re an idiot”.  Instead, he answered them kindly but authoritatively. 
            There’s a lesson here for us.  We are going to face faith-challenges from the world about what we believe. We are going to face scorn and ridicule.  But the Bible says that we are to always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have.  That’s what Jesus does.
First of all, he corrects their false assumptions.  He says that heaven is not going to be a continuation of our earthly lives.  It IS life—real life—but much of what we identify with our earthly lives will not be a part of our life in heaven.  No sorrows—no sin—no separation.  But neither is there marriage.  Marriage is for this life—not for the life to come.
Now I know that for all of us who are blessed by God with good marriages this is a hard teaching. But Jesus isn’t saying we won’t know our loved ones.  He is not saying we won’t live with them forever.  He is not saying that we won’t love them.  What he is saying is that marriage is for this life and its purpose is to prepare us for the life to come by teaching us how to love. 
After correcting their false assumptions, then he teaches them the truth about the resurrection—that those in heaven: 
cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
  We do not know everything there is to know about our life to come in heaven but we do know that there are real differences from our life on earth.  Jesus says that our heavenly life more closely reveals that of the angels who live directly in God’s presence and who see God as he is and whose eternal lives are filled from beginning to end with the worship and service of God and are focused on him alone. 
Jesus wasn’t concerned with answering all their questions or our questions either.  Instead, he was focused on teaching the truth about the resurrection and the reality of heaven AND how to have a part in it and a place there by being members of God’s family. 
It is only those who are God’s sons through faith in God’s only-begotten Son who will go to heaven and have a life in God’s presence.  Jesus Christ has conquered death and the grave for this very purpose—so that we would also rise from our graves just as he did from his grave on that first Easter morning. 
The Bible says that he is the first-fruits of an entire harvest of people who will live forever and that because he lives we will also live.  And Jesus says of himself:  I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. 
That is what Jesus taught the Sadducees that day who thought they were so smart and looked with contempt on those who believed in the resurrection.  But Jesus’ answer went even farther.  They were willing enough to listen to Moses regarding levirate marriage as long as they could use it as a tool to challenge the idea of eternal life.  But were they willing to listen to Moses when he contradicted their false teaching?  Jesus said
That the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
            Like many who challenge our faith, the Sadducees were willing to pick and choose what they did—and didn’t—believe from the Bible.  Still today, people are perfectly willing to quote verses about loving our neighbor and not judging him and caring for the poor but deny those passages from the same Bible about the roles of men and women and the creation of the world and the sanctity of all human life. 
But the authority of God himself stands behind every word—including those that teach a physical resurrection from the dead and eternal life with God.  This is taught throughout the Bible—not just taught by Jesus and the apostles—but by Moses as well who heard it from God. 
When Moses stood before the Lord at the burning bush, God identified himself as the God of the patriarchs—not as the God of dust in the ground—but as their Savior God who would raise them from the dead.  And hearing the words of Jesus and remembering the words of Moses, at least some who doubted were convinced.  The Bible says that:  some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question.
            Often times we are afraid of having our faith challenged because we think there is not an answer to the questions we are asked or because we will fail to convince the one asking.  But the convincing is not our job—that is the job of the Holy Spirit.  Our job is to simply tell—in a kind way—what the Bible teaches.  All may not be convinced—but some will be. 
            That’s what Jesus wants for us today—to be convinced in our heart and mind that the dead will be raised and to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have when our faith in his promises are challenged.  May God grant us the courage and the clarity and the conviction to do so!  Amen.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A Great Multitude from Every Nation

Revelation 7:9-17 During his earthly ministry our Lord Jesus promised his saints in every time and place that he was going to prepare a place for us, that where he is, we would also someday be.
He secured that promise by his death and resurrection and ascension, shedding his blood to wash away our sins; rising from the dead to destroy forever the power of the grace; and returning to his Father’s house to make a place for us there.
Today, God pulls back the curtain that hides our departed loved ones from our sight and lets us view their life in heaven—and our life to come—with the promise that the Lamb of God will lead us safely to our heavenly home too.  St. John writes:
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice,
            When we say our final goodbyes to a loved one who has died in Christ—we may be lonely—but they are not all alone.  There is an empty place in our life--but they have more friends in heaven than they did in this earthly life. 
They are reunited with loved ones and fellow believers who have gone before--welcomed into heaven by a great multitude of people who have shared the same faith- and worshiped the same God- and gone through the same earthly difficulties and trials.
We are sad to see them go—but they are filled with joy as they add their voices to that great hymn of praise to their Savior God who brought them safely home. 
When we say our final goodbye to a loved one, our thoughts are often turned to them—we look back at the life we had with them—we are lonely for them and mourn for them—but the focus of their lives is not what is past, but on the Lamb who saved them.  The Bible says that:  Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
When sin and death entered into the world, God promised that he would restore what man had destroyed—that he would send a Savior who would conquer the devil and death.  Over salvation history, God renewed this promise again and again.  He told the patriarchs that their descendants would be so great that no one could number them.
God kept his promise.  He sent his Son as a sacrificial Lamb whose blood set us free from sin and death and as St. John looked upon that great multitude of saved sinners clothed in the righteousness of Christ, he could not count them all—so great is their number. 
But because they cannot be counted-- that does not mean that they cannot be recognized.  There is Bill and Carol and Pearl and Jay and George and Clayton and David.
In that great multitude are all those who trusted in Jesus and now stand in his presence giving him thanks and praise for their salvation, including you and me one day.  And not only do they give him their thanks and praise, they are joined in that song of praise by the whole company of heaven.  The Bible says that:
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 
            The sad story of our fall into sin and death is not just the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience—it is also the story of an angelic rebellion—a war in heaven.
Before the creation of man, God created the angels and some of those angels rebelled against him and made the destruction of man their goal so that Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin against God and evil entered into the world and death came to man.
The moral and physical evil that we witness every day is a direct result of that first sin and the death and destruction that the devil brought into the world.
Though the devil won that battle in the Garden of Eden, God promised that Satan would not win the war—but that God would send the Seed of the Woman, Mary’s Son Jesus, to destroy the devil and have the final victory.
From that moment on in salvation history, we see the heavenly angels doing their part to bring about God’s saving purpose in our lives.  They visited God’s people to comfort them.  They waged war against God’s enemies.  They served as God’s messengers to announce his salvation. 
That salvation was accomplished when Jesus rose up from the dead and the angels were right there at the empty tomb to tell the world that God had kept his promise and destroyed the power of death and the devil through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here we see all of the heavenly host (angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim, the elders and the four living creatures) joining with all of God’s redeemed people around the throne of the Lamb to thank and praise God for his mighty work of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Can you just imagine the joy and wonder and awe of the saints in heaven being in the presence of these heavenly beings who were beside them each step of the way on life’s journey, fighting on their behalf, so that they would reach their heavenly home despite the tribulations of this life?  St. John writes that:
One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”
            The fall into sin has made life on this earth a hardship for us that God never intended.  Earthly toil is often drudgery rather than a joy.  Bringing forth new life involves suffering.  There is conflict with those closest to us.  There is sickness and finally there is death.  We go through life with trials and tribulation.  With each funeral it seems that sin and defeat have the last word about us and those we love.
But the saints in heaven are depicted with palm branches in their hands and are clothed in white robes.  Waving palm branches was an ancient custom to welcome a conquering king and the white robes were a sign of holiness and purity. 
And so…How do the saints in heaven come to possess this sign of righteousness and what victorious King do they praise? 
The Bible says that:  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  That is one of the most powerful images of our salvation in the Bible and it is meant to be because it portrays the greatest truth of the Bible! 
Those who are delivered from earthly tribulation into the joys of heaven—those who can stand unashamed and unafraid before the throne of the true and living God—those who can celebrate their King’s victory—are only those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. 
In other words, the saints in heaven are those are those who have put their faith and trust in the bloody sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  They are the one who have safely gone through the great tribulation and enjoy a new home in heaven.
St. John tells us about that heavenly life that all the saints enjoy in heaven-- and the life that we too will live in heaven when the Lord calls us home.
“They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
            When we say goodbye to a loved one, there are tears that we shed.  There is no shame in that and neither is it a sign of a lack of faith.  Jesus wept at the graveside of Lazarus and the Bible says that we grieve—but not as though who have no hope—because the tears that we shed, ARE NOT shed, by the saints in heaven.
When our Christian loved ones depart from us we are grieved—but they enter into the joys of heaven and God wipes away their tears and they never experience hardship or sorrow again.  Life for them is the way that God meant it to be for all of us—a life of peace and plenty in his presence—a life we too will one day enjoy.
That is so important for us to remember!  Often times the last moments of an earthly life are painful—illness or an accident or just the frailty of old age has done its ugly work. 
But today God pulls back the curtain that hides heaven from our view because he wants us to lift up our eyes from that sorrowful scene and feast our eyes on what is really true for those who put their trust in the Lamb:  no more sorrow—no more suffering—no more trial or tribulation of any kind-- for they are safely home just as Jesus promised.
Unless the Lord comes first, all of us will one day say goodbye to this earthly life and goodbye to our loved ones we leave behind.  But that is not the last word for us or about us or from us-- and it is nothing to fear --because salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb and he will lead us safely to our heavenly home.  Amen.