Sunday, November 25, 2012

Are You Prepared to Meet the Lord?

Matthew 25:1-13  Over the course of our lives there are many important days:  the day we graduate--the day that we begin our professional career --the day we get married-- and the day that we retire.
As important as these special days are, all of the days of preparation that leads up to that day are also important.  In fact, the way that those important days turn out for us is totally dependent on how well we prepared day by day up to that moment.
Of all the important days in our lives, none is as important as the day of our Lord’s return when we will stand before him and be judged-when heaven or hell are the only two choices for eternity.  But as important as that day is, every day that we can prepare for that day, is also vitally important.  The parable of the wise and foolish virgins vividly illustrates how important it is to be prepared—day by day-- for our Lord’s return.
To understand the point of this parable it is enough to recognize that the virgins are the members of the church, their lamps are their individual faith, the oil is the Spirit that enlightens that faith, the bridegroom is the Lord, the wedding banquet is the great eternal feast in heaven that begins on the Last Day for all who have trusted in Christ. 
But all these details exist to make only one vital point—one thing that Jesus wants us to know today:  that it is absolutely necessary to be prepared for the Lord’s return—no matter how long it takes.  Jesus says:
"The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise.  For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” 
The picture that we have before us is that of the believing church—each of the virgins representative of the child of God who is pure in God’s sight through faith in Jesus—each of them with the light of faith burning bright through the powerful oil of the Spirit—each of them waiting for the Lord’s return.
Bible scholars tell us that the word used for lamp in this passage describes a kind of torch used at night with enough oil to keep it burning for only about 15 minutes and the only difference between those virgins who are called “wise” and those who are called “foolish" is that the wise ones were prepared to wait with extra oil to keep their lamps burning bright--and the foolish ones were not.  Not only did the wise virgins have enough oil to keep their lamps burning at that moment-- but they were prepared to keep their lamps lit for a long, long time.
At various times in the Gospels Jesus reminds us that we are to expect his return at any moment—but here he reminds us that we also ought to be prepared to wait—that the believer who is truly prepared for his return has a supply of the oil of the Spirit to keep his faith burning bright as he waits for the Lord’s return.
For 2000 years the church has had to wait for that day and the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know if the Lord will return today or if it will be another two thousand years.  As Jesus says about his return in our lesson today:  "keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”   and so we have to make sure that we keep our faith strong until that day whether it comes tomorrow or in 2000 years. 
Our confidence on that day depends on the measure of God-given wisdom that we exercise on this day and then tomorrow and the next day and throughout our lives—wisdom that causes us to prepare for his return because not only do we need to have a true and living faith right now if he comes in this moment—but we must persevere in that faith throughout our lives and then die in that faith--if we are to enjoy an eternity with God. 
Our faith in Jesus Christ is not a one-time thing but must be renewed and replenished again and again with the Holy Spirit to keep it burning bright throughout our lives.  So how is faith kept alive in us?   
A big part of that preparation is what we are doing right now.  Worshiping God—hearing his word—receiving the body and blood of Christ.  These are some of the most important ways that the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts and strengthens faith in our hearts and sustains faith in our hearts.
It is the height of spiritual foolishness to neglect the means of grace through which the Spirit works to keep our faith strong because we simply do not know how long we will have to wait for that day.  Spiritual sloth is deadly to our life of faith just like the sleepy virgins in the parable. Jesus says that:  As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.
It is so easy to grow complacent in our spiritual life—so easy to lay our head back down on the pillow on Sunday mornings and tell ourselves it won’t matter that much just this once if we miss church.  It is so easy to grow complacent because, let’s face it, it has been a long time since our Lord’s promise that he will come again to judge. 
It’s also easy to get caught up in the pressures of the daily grind—of the pressing need around us—of the” right now” of tomorrow’s deadlines-- that it’s difficult to keep in mind the big picture and take the long view when it comes to our Lord’s return.
This is especially true in a culture where we are never disciplined to wait for anything—where the idea of saving for a purchase is ludicrous if there’s a credit card in hand. 
We’re not used to waiting and all of us, like the 10 virgins in our text today, fall victim to spiritual drowsiness at times.  But today is the day to remember that, no matter how long it takes, the Lord will return and then it will be too late to prepare.  Who and what and whose we are in that moment-- will be true for us forever.  Jesus says that:
"At midnight there was a cry, `Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'  "Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil; for our lamps are going out.'  But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.'   
The sobering reminder from the Lord to us today is the light of faith can go out.  If our faith in Jesus Christ is not regularly replenished by the oil of the Spirit as he works through Word and Sacrament, it might not be there when we need it the most.
The Bible does not teach that, having “once upon a time” been baptized or confirmed or come to faith in Christ that you are spiritually “good to go” throughout your life.  When we die and depart this world—when we face the judgment of God—we must be found steadfast in faith in that moment.
The other sobering reminder in these words of our Lord is that we cannot prepare for another Christian.  My parents’ faith or my spouse’s faith or my friends’ faith will not save me--each of us, individually, for ourselves, must believe in Jesus and be prepared and ready to face his judgment.  Jesus says that:
"While they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was shut.  Afterward, the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he answered, `Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day not hour.  
Make no mistake about it, the Lord will come again—whether we are prepared or not—and we will either be welcomed into the eternal feast prepared for those who love Jesus--or we will be left on the outside. 
The bible knows absolutely nothing of an in-between place between heaven and hell.  You are either part of the wedding feast of the Lamb or you are not.  The bible knows nothing of a time of preparation or second chances after our Lord’s return.  You are either with the Lord on the day that the door of grace closes—or you are not. 
The great tragedy is that some of those who had every chance to be a part of the great feast of the victorious Lamb—some of those who, for a time, had lamps of faith that were burning bright—will hear from Jesus the most terrible words that can ever be spoken:  “I don’t know you.” And they will be cast into hell for eternity.
There will come a day when the door of salvation will be shut forever and then there is no more time for preparation—nothing that you can do-- to change the verdict that is spoken about you.
Dear friends in Christ, we have this God-given moment, this day of salvation, to re-commit ourselves to Jesus Christ—to thank him for his life, death, and resurrection that provides the way for us into that wedding feast of the Lamb in his kingdom that has no end. 
We have this day to resolve that, by the help of the Holy Spirit, we will stay close to the Lord throughout our lives, that we will gladly hear his Word and receive him as he comes to us in the sacrament and so stay strong in our faith. 
We have this day and every day until the Lord comes to remain steadfast in our faith so that we are prepared to partake of the feast that has no end.  Amen.     

Thankful For the Lord's Gifts!

Luke 17:11-19 Many Christians keep prayer journals and in these journals they keep track of the things that they are praying for—the various concerns and struggles that they have lifted up to God in prayer. 
Imagine with me that we have kept a list of all the things that we have prayed about over this last year:  healing for our loved ones when they were sick; protection on our journeys; material gifts necessary to support this body and life.  If we kept a journal of all that we have asked the Lord for over this last year it would be a long list.
People who keep prayer journals also record all the times that God has answered their prayers and how—and this is something that I can really see the value in.  Much too often we ask God for things and when he answers our prayers we have already moved on to something else and forgotten about what we asked for before. 
Just imagine what a faith-strengthening exercise it would be if we kept track of all the times that God has answered our prayers—how a list of God’s answers would give us courage and confidence in our prayer life.
One category ought to be added to our prayer journal (besides our petitions and God’s answers) is a column to add up the times we have given thanks for God’s gracious answers to our prayers because not only does God want us to ask him for the things that we need-- and not only does he want us trust that he will answer our prayers—but he also wants us to thank him for those answers.
That’s what Thanksgiving Day is—an opportunity to thank God for all of his blessings and tender mercies—to show our gratitude for all of those times he has answered our prayers-- and to praise him for all of those times he has provided for us when we weren’t wise enough or faithful enough to even ask for what we need.  
In the familiar story of the thankful Samaritan we have a beautiful picture of Jesus’ faithfulness in meeting our needs and answering our prayers.  We have a mirror that we can hold up to ourselves and see our lack of gratitude that forgets to acknowledge and thank God for his provision.  And we have a beautiful example for us to follow in the thankful Samaritan who made it a point to thank Jesus for the good things he had received.  St. Luke writes that:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.  And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
When we criticize the unthankful lepers for their lack of gratitude at being healed we have a tendency to forget everything that they got right. 
They knew to come to Jesus in their need.  They were confident of his power and his mercy.  They understood their helplessness.  And they acknowledged that he was their master. 
There are all kinds of valuable spiritual lessons for us in their actions.  If we didn’t know anything more about them we could still safely say that in all these things they are an example of what Jesus wants from all of us—to come to him in our need and ask for help.
One of the most humbling verses of the Bible is found in James where he says that we have not because we ask not.  We have not because we ask not.  How true that is!  Our prayer life is not everything it ought to be. 
We don’t come to Jesus in our need either because we think we can handle life by ourselves or because we see some challenges and situations as too great for the Lord to help.  Sometimes we are afraid to pray “thy will be done” because we are afraid of what that will be.  Sometimes we are just too proud to humble ourselves, admit that we are incapable of helping ourselves, and cast ourselves upon the Lord’s mercy.
But the lepers who came to Jesus that day suffered from none of these spiritual problems.  They knew their great need.  They knew they could not help themselves.  They knew that Jesus could.  And they came to him in faith expecting his mercy. 
In all this—so far as it goes—they serve as a model for our own lives of prayer and they encourage us to pray boldly because they received that for which they prayed.  St. Luke writes that:  When Jesus saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.
            The faith of the lepers was not misplaced.  Jesus answered their prayers and met their needs and they were healed.  That is the great hope and promise of this story—that no one who comes to Jesus in their need goes away unfulfilled.
Now it may seem that way at times when our prayers are not really prayers asking for help according to God’s will-- but demands telling God what he has to do.  But Jesus meets our needs by giving us what we ask for OR something that is even better.  For example…
How many times over the course of our life have we asked for healing—either for our loved ones or for ourselves?  And how many times has God said “yes, be healed.”  Now there is going to come time for all of us (unless the Lord comes first) when we pray for healing and instead the Lord will say “Allan, I’ve got something better for you than that” and he will call me home where I never have to worry about getting sick again.  He always answers our prayers!   
Since Thanksgiving last year you and I have prayed hundreds, and probably thousands of prayers, and if we were presented with a list of our prayers and Jesus’ answers we would never worry again about whether Jesus has heard our prayer-- or has the power to answer our prayers—we would know it and believe it! 
As valuable as that lesson is, there is still one more thing that we still need to learn and that is the blessing of gratitude.  Just like with the lepers who were healed, thankfulness is one of the places in our life of faith where we could all do a better job.  St. Luke writes that:  One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.   
            I want you to notice that the Lord did not make their healing contingent upon their thankfulness—he healed them because of who he was not because of how they would respond to his gift.  But having said that, God does want us to acknowledge and be thankful for his gifts.
            When little Lutherans cover this in confirmation classes, we learn that the gifts that God gives us are given out of ‘fatherly, diving goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”  And then we go on to ask what we owe to God on account of his grace and we learn that “it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey him.”
            These of course are not Luther’s ideas—they are the teaching of the Bible.  God loves to bless his children and he gives these blessings because that is who he is.  But he also wants us to be grateful for his gifts—to thank and praise him.
That is what we see so beautifully portrayed in these verses—the grateful heart of a person who has asked for God’s help and received God’s help and is filled with gratitude for God’s help.  St. Luke writes that:  Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Much too often our list of prayer petitions is much longer than our list of thanksgivings for the prayers Jesus has answered.  Why are we so different from the thankful leper?  At least part of the answer is found in the fact that the man who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan—in other words, he was the least likely to expect anything from God.
But the very fact that he was the least likely made him especially aware that he didn’t really deserve anything from the Lord—that all he had received was by God’s grace alone. 
It’s easy for us to fall into the attitude that when it comes to our life with God there is a “tit-for-tat” relationship:  God does this for me and I do this for him—that our life with God is really a transaction.
But God gives his gifts without ANY merit or worthiness in me and when I acknowledge that—when I understand that I can demand nothing of God—that I have no right to expect any good thing from him and yet have received blessings without number—it totally changes my attitude towards him. 
How can I not be thankful for all his blessings when they really are gifts?  How can I grumble about what I have when he has graciously met my needs?  How can I fail to rejoice in ALL circumstances when I understand that my very life is a gift from him? 
This is where God wants to bring us all spiritually—to understand and rejoice in the Good News that our life with him is by grace alone.  St. Luke writes that:  Jesus said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
The thankful Samaritan received healing just like the others.  But he also received something more.  His faith in Jesus changed him- not just on the outside- but on the inside.  He understood what kind of gracious God he had in Jesus. 
As we give thanks to God for his material gifts on this Thanksgiving day may the same be true of us—that we are truly thankful for the forgiveness and new life we have in Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Take Heart, Your Faith Has Made You Well!

Matthew 9:18-26 Two weeks ago we saw a picture of the saints in heaven at the end of their faith journey and we talked about how they got there—that despite their differences of language and culture and tribe, all of them shared a common faith in Jesus Christ.
Last week we heard the Apostle Paul call us to follow his example when it comes to our life with God and put our faith in Jesus alone.  What is common to these lessons and the lesson that we have today is faith—faith in Jesus. 
We talk a lot about faith in the church but we don’t always talk about faith itself:  what it is and how we come by it and what it accomplishes in our life.  That’s what we are going to talk about today.
To set the stage for our lesson, we are going to look at what came before the events of our text and so if you want to open your bibles to Matthew chapter 9 you can follow along as I briefly recount what happened before the events of our Gospel lesson today.
Chapter 9 begins with Jesus healing a man who was paralyzed and not only did Jesus heal him he forgave his sins.  If you remember how all this happened you know that some of the Jewish religious leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy, recognizing correctly that he was putting himself in the place of God. 
As chapter 9 continues we see Jesus calling Matthew to be his disciple—a man who was hated by his countrymen, a man with a poor reputation.  Not only did he call Matthew to be his disciple, Jesus made a point of seeking out sinners and calling them to himself.  “Jesus eats with sinners” was the charge against him.
Then we hear a question from the disciples of John the Baptist, wondering why Jesus’ disciples weren’t fasting.  And Jesus told them that this wasn’t a time for fasting and mourning but a time for rejoicing because the bridegroom had come.
What you have in those days leading up to our text is diseases healed and sins forgiven.  Life with God for all people no matter what their sins.  A day of rejoicing because God’s promised deliverance was at hand. 
That is the context for our meditation today about what faith is and how it comes to us and what it gives.  St. Matthew writes that:  A ruler came in and knelt before Jesus saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. 
            This scene shows us what faith is: a confident trust that Jesus is who he says he is and can be counted on to do what he has promised to do.  But many people in the church today are confused about this biblical definition of faith.
People talk about faith as if it were merely head-knowledge that agrees that yes, there was a man named Jesus who lived long ago and went about doing good and died on a cross and rose again.  But this is simply knowledge of information and the devil knows these same things.  True and saving faith is something different—something more.
Faith is a confident trust in Jesus that moves us to rely on him and count on him and order our life around his words.  That is the kind of faith that Jairus had—a confident trust that counted on Jesus even in the darkest of times.
And so how did he get that faith that trusted in Jesus even when something as terrible as the death of his child had taken place?  He got it from what he had heard about Jesus.
People were being healed by Jesus.  Sins were being forgiven.  Outcasts were finding a place in God’s kingdom.  And these stories of what Jesus was doing and the kind of man he was were being told and retold and people who heard this Good News —believed.
That is how faith came to Jairus and that is how faith comes to us.  The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.  John says that the Bible was written so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and have life in his name.  Jairus heard the Good News about Jesus and believed in him.
His faith was not misplaced.  Jairus came to Jesus in his need and Jesus responded and went with him to his house.  But as they traveled along they met another person in need, another person who trusted in Jesus and we learn from her how faith works to receive God’s blessings. 
St. Matthew writes that:  A woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.”  Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
            Not only are people confused about what faith is they are also confused about how faith actually works in their lives.  They see faith as an action on their own part that causes something to happen rather than a gift God gives so that we can simply receive what he has already accomplished for us. 
It’s like the way that people talk about prayer, saying “I believe in the power of prayer”.  But the power in prayer is not our asking—the power of prayer is the God who one answers!
Faith comes from hearing the Gospel and faith receives what God has given in Jesus.  The woman with the flow of blood had heard the same stories about Jesus as did Jairus.  She too had come to faith in Jesus by hearing these stories.  She trusted in him for help. 
Her situation was almost as desperate as Jairus’ daughter—not only did she have a terrible physical ailment—but because of the laws of that day, she was cut her off from even those closest to her.  And yet she knew that this Jesus who healed and this Jesus who didn’t keep anyone at arm’s length was able to help even her-- and so trusting in Jesus, confident that he could help, she reached out to him in faith and received healing.  Now, please understand…
Her faith didn’t make Jesus who he was.  Her faith did not give him power.  Her faith did cause her healing.  Her faith came from who Jesus was and received what he had come to give. 
So it is for us.  Our faith comes from hearing the Good News of Jesus.  For most of us that came when we were baptized and heard the words about Jesus inviting children to have a life with him and the kingdom of heaven belonging to little children and Jesus wanting us to be his disciples through baptism. 
And believing in Jesus we have received the forgiveness and new life he earned for us on the cross.  Our faith is sustained by that same message in Word and Sacrament. 
Just like the woman that day, our faith has made us well—not because faith in any old thing matters—not because it is a work that deserves God’s reward--but our faith has made us well because it has laid hold of Jesus just like that woman laid hold of his garment.
So that there is no confusion about this, or any doubt in our mind about how faith works to receive rather than create, Jesus shows us just exactly where the power lies as he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. 
St. Matthew writes that:  When Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.
            So who was right?  Were the mourners right or was Jesus.  Was the girl really only asleep or was she dead?  Jairus knew that she had died and that is why he came to Jesus.  Her friends and family knew she died, that is why they were mourning.  They knew what they could see—that the girl was dead.
But Jesus knew that, in his presence, death is transformed into a peaceful rest from which we will waken just as surely as we got up for church this morning.  With Jesus there, there was no need for the professional mourners—no need for the tears—no need for the grief—for his powerful life is greater than death. 
Jairus had sought out Jesus by faith.  The woman with the flow of blood reached out to Jesus by faith.  And  just so that there was no confusion then or now about what faith is (whether it is power we exercise to get what we want or whether it is a gift of God that receives what Jesus gives) Jesus took the girl by the hand and she  rose from the dead
The little girl did not do this—Jesus did it.  It was not her fervent prayers that raised her from the dead-- but the Savior’s touch.  She did not reach out to him—he reached out to her. 
That’s the power of Jesus.  Death has to give way to life.  Uncleanness has to give way to holiness.  Stormy seas are calmed.  Devils are defeated.  Sins are forgiven.  So it is for us.
Our faith has made us well not because it is the act of believing that is praiseworthy in God’s sight—that simply turns faith into a work must we do. 
Our faith has made us well not because it is some power in us that enables to create the reality we want—that is heresy that makes us into God. 
But rather our faith has made us well because of who and what it lays hold of—the person and work of Jesus Christ.  May the Holy Spirit grant us an ever deeper faith in him as we hear his words and receive him in Holy Communion!  Amen.