Sunday, November 30, 2014

Awake and Aware and Ready for the Lord's Return

Mark 13:24-37 After we finished our Thanksgiving dinner Jacob’s eyes began to droop and his head began to nod and he pushed himself back from the table and said, “Now it’s time for a nap.”  Taking a nap after a satisfying meal or laying our head on the pillow after a productive day of work are some of the great blessings of life.  Our bodies need that rest.
But drowsiness and sleepiness when it comes to our spiritual life can be deadly.  During the last Sundays of the church year we heard about those sleepy virgins who were unprepared for the Bridegroom’s return and missed the celebration. 
And in today’s lesson we hear that same warning from Jesus about the necessity of being spiritually awake and aware of the signs of his coming so that we can be ready to meet him when he comes again.  Jesus says that:
“In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
            Throughout the thirteenth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus lists various signs of his second coming in glory:  signs among the nations such as wars and rumors of wars; signs in the family such as parents and children fighting against one another; signs in the church such as false prophets and the persecution of Christians; and signs in the natural world like those mentioned here.
            When we look out at the world around us and see the never-ending conflicts among the nations of the world and the destruction of marriage and family and the crumbling edifice of the church, Jesus wants us to understand these events for what they are:  sure signs of his return in glory to judge the living and the dead.
            From the moment that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (an event prophesied by Jesus exactly as it took place forty years before it happened) signs in nature and in the church and in the family and in the nations of the world have clearly revealed that Jesus will come again and that we need to be ready.
            The events that Jesus describes here in these verses will occur immediately before his return as the heavenly bodies he set into place at creation—heavenly bodies that men have regarded as eternally constant as the course of the stars and the rising and setting of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon-- will be no more as this world and all that is in it is destroyed to make way for a new heaven and a new earth. 
In that moment, when the world is literally crashing down around us, Jesus says that: They will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 
            Occasionally you will hear Christians worry that they will not know Jesus when he comes again in the same way that so many of his own people who did not know him or acknowledge him during his earthly ministry.  But that is nothing for us to worry about!
When Jesus comes again it will not be as a tiny baby or a humble carpenter.  He will come again as the King of kings and Lord of lords.  He will not arrive in a crib or carry a cross.
Instead, as the heavenly bodies fall to the earth, he will come in the clouds with the power and glory of God himself and everyone will look upon him, even those who pierced him and every knee will bow before him and every tongue confess that he alone is Lord.
That will be a moment of abject terror for all who have rejected him in this life but for all who have trusted in him, for all who have followed him, for all who have confessed him as Lord and Savior it will be the greatest, most joyous day in the history of the world for he will come to gather his people to himself.  Jesus says that:
He will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
            In that glorious moment of his return, everything that God has purposed and planned for our salvation from eternity will be accomplished for the elect. 
God chose you in Christ from before the earth’s foundations to be his own in time and eternity.  He worked throughout salvation history so that his plan to save the world would be made known.  He sent his Son Jesus Christ to live and die for you.  His Holy Spirit caused ou to be born again in the waters of Holy Baptism, strengthened and sustained your faith and ordered your life in such a way that you would endure to the end in the faith.
And on the day of his return, the everlasting love of God for you in Jesus Christ will reach its divine, saving purpose as he raises the dead and gathers you with all the other faithful and brings you safely to the heavenly home he has prepared for you.
The second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ will be the greatest, most glorious day the world has ever known and we are to be watchful for its coming.  Jesus says that:
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 
            The signs of our Lord’s return in glory are not any more difficult to understand or interpret than a fruit tree putting out buds in the spring. 
The temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins to this day, not even one stone left upon another.  All over the world earthquakes shake the foundations of the earth and tsunamis sweep thousands to their death.  Nations war again nations in never ending violence and hatred.  The fundamental building blocks of society in the marriage and family are under attack.  And the church is persecuted by her enemies and destroyed from within by false friends.
When we see these things taking place, we are not to say to ourselves:  “Well, that’s just the way it is.  It’s always been that way—it will always be that way.”  No!  Instead, we are to see these events for what they are—signs of the Lord’s return.  Jesus says:
When you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
            There’s always been some question about what Jesus meant when he said that this generation would not pass away until they saw these things happening.  The simplest way to explain it is that those people who see the signs of his coming and hear his word will not pass away until he comes again.  And so it has been from then till now.
There were those listening to Jesus that day who saw the destruction of Jerusalem.  They saw family members turn against them on account of Christ.  They saw the apostles go to a martyr’s death.  And the words of Jesus promising to return for his people rang in their ears. 
So it has been in every generation and still is today as we listen to the voice of our Lord and see the same signs all around us.  The comfort for us is the same as it has always been for God’s people: the enduring power of God’s Word. 
It is his mighty word, spoken to us in Holy Baptism, that has caused us to be born again.  It is his word preached in this pulpit and read in our homes that convicts us of our sins and comforts us with Jesus’ forgiveness.  It is his word that will endure and stand and save us even when heaven and earth comes crashing down around us.  It is word that will prepare us to meet him when he comes again.  Jesus said that:
“Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard, keep awake.  For you do not know when the time will come.
            From almost the moment these words were spoken by Jesus there have been those who turned aside from them in an attempt to predict the day of the Lord’s return.  It happened in the ancient world and the medieval world and the modern world. 
History is littered with false prophets who would not yield themselves to the plain words of Jesus—false prophets who thought themselves better informed than Jesus himself who did not know that day when he spoke these words.
No one knows the day of the Lord’s return except for our heavenly Father and so we should immediately reject as false prophets those who claim they do and instead listen to our heavenly Father and believe him when says that there will be a day when this world comes to an end and the dead are raised and all are judged and the elect are saved.
God has not revealed that date to us or anyone else because he wants us to be spiritually awake and aware throughout our lives so that no matter when Jesus comes we will be ready to meet him.  Until that day, Jesus says that our life as his people is like this:
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.  Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.  And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
            During the last Sundays of the church year we heard Jesus tell us the Parable of the Talents—a story that illustrates the great trust that Jesus has in us that he would give us gifts to use for his glory and the good of others until he returns.
Occasionally you will hear about some doomsday cult that has sold all their possessions and gone out into the desert to wait for the supposed return of the Lord only to be disappointed.  But that is not what Jesus wants us to do as we wait for him.
As God’s people, this time between our Lord’s ascension and his return in glory is not a napping time.  It is a time to be active and involved with the work that Jesus has given each of us to do—work that serves others and brings glory to him.  It is a time to use the gifts he has given us to extend his kingdom.  And it is a time to be aware of the signs of his return so that we will be ready to meet him when he comes to judge the world.  Amen.

General Prayer Advent 1b

Gracious heavenly Father, we lift up our souls to You in prayer, trusting that as we come to You in Jesus’ name, we will not be put to shame:

Bless the missionary work of Your Church throughout the world that Your name would be made known to Your adversaries.  Support and encourage missionaries and their families.  Convert those who do not yet believe in You.  And protect all of those who are persecuted for Your name’s sake.

When we are confronted by our sins and begin to question our salvation remind us that Your Son Jesus Christ has taken away our iniquities and made a way for us back to You.  Fill us with Your Spirit so that we would call upon His name in faith and be saved.

Remind us in all the difficulties of life that You are our potter and we are the clay so that we would trust the work that Your hands are accomplishing in every moment and circumstance.  According to Your wise fatherly will grant healing to those ill and meet the material needs of those who do not have the necessities of life. 

Comfort those who mourn with the promise of Your Son that because he lives we also shall live.  Especially do we remember Lucy and her family at the death of her brother Joseph that You would be with them in the days ahead and surround them with Your love.

Fill us with Your Holy Spirit and equip us with every spiritual gift as we wait for the return of our Savior so that we would be found faithful on that day.

We thank You that You have called us into the fellowship of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Especially do we thank You for the gift of life and faith that You have granted to Your servant Jack and pray that as he celebrates a birthday You would grant him every good gift of body and soul. 

Open our eyes to the signs of Jesus’ return that are all around us.  When we become spiritually drowsy, awaken us again and again by Your Word so that we would be ready to meet him when he comes again in glory.

Until that day O faithful God, sustain to the end, guiltless in Your sight.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Let Us Be Thankful For The Lord's Mercy!

Luke 17:11-19 St. Luke writes that:  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. The picture we have before us today of our Lord Jesus Christ is a beautiful summary of his mission:  journeying toward Jerusalem where he would lay his life down on the cross for our sins and take up it up again, leaving his tomb empty with the promise that ours will be empty as well one day.
That was his mission-- and the promise that he makes to us is that his death and resurrection will change us forever and unite us to God and restore to us the wholeness that our Father wants us to have—a wholeness that has been taken from us by Satan and the deadly effects of sin—just like the lepers that day.  
St. Luke writes that:  As Jesus entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance.  If this journey to Jerusalem is a pictorial portrayal of our Lord’s mission in this world- then the scene he encounters here in this village is the perfect picture of why that journey to the cross was necessary at all.
Ten lepers standing at a distance—separated from their loved ones—cut off from the temple—united only with one another in their misery and brokenness. 
Here is the picture of what sin has done. 
God created us for life.  Rich, abundant life.  God created us for fellowship with himself and for life together with our fellow man.  But this scene is what sin has done to all of us. 
Sin has made a chasm between us and God.  A holy, righteous God cannot have fellowship with sinful, unrighteous people.  And sinful, unrighteous people can never have the kind of friendship with one another that they were made for because their self-centeredness always drives a wedge between themselves and others.
And the effects of sin go even deeper than broken fellowship.  The Bible says that the “wages of sin is death” and that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men.” 
Here in these ten lepers we see those deadly effects of sin.  These men were under a death sentence.  A world that was ruined by sin had turned against them in this terrible disease and they knew that they would surely die in the most horrible way—literally piece by piece until they would no longer resemble the human beings that God created and intended them to be.
This is why our Lord set his face towards Jerusalem.  This is why he was so resolute in going to the cross.  This is why he had to go all the way into a cold, dark grave:  because there is an entire world full of people just like the lepers who were under a death sentence--alienated from God and one another—the image of God so disfigured in them that they no longer resembled what God created them to be. 
For them and us Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was a mission of mercy to save us and restore to us what sin and Satan had robbed from us.
St. Luke writes that the lepers:  “lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” While all ten may not have been models of thankfulness, they were models of faith for they recognized the truth about themselves (and their great need) and they recognized the truth about Jesus (that he could meet that need).
These men suffered under no illusions about their broken condition.  They couldn’t hide it like we try to do.  They knew the truth in the distance between themselves and those they loved.  They knew the truth in their pain and suffering and deformity.  They knew that such was their brokenness that only God could help—that’s why they called out to Jesus.
Whether we see it or not—whether we are willing to admit it or not--the same broken condition is true of us.  There is conflict and distance between us and those we love.  Our aches and pains are a sufficient testimony that we are not going to live forever.  And we see that in ourselves there is not much power at all to stop this trajectory towards death and the grave.  We have our own place in this sad group of broken men. 
That is why when they heard that Jesus was coming and when they saw him journeying towards Jerusalem they called out to him in faith for the help they so desperately needed—and their cry--Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!—was not just a call for help—it was a confession of real faith.
 It was a confession of their great need—it was confession of their lack of resources—it was a confession of faith in Jesus to meet that need and provide their healing.  St. Luke writes that when Jesus saw them he said to them:  “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
This may seem like an odd kind of answer to us but the lepers knew exactly the promise and hope found in those words.  The Law demanded that the priests declare when someone had been healed and so even though the lepers didn’t yet see their healing—they believed Jesus’ promise and stepped out in faith. 
This is what Jesus wants from us too.  His redeeming work outside the walls of Jerusalem has been accomplished.  Our sins have been forgiven.  The devil has been defeated.  Death has no claim on us.  But we still struggle with sin- and the devil still tempts us- and our loved ones still die.  In other words, we can’t see the fullness of our salvation quite yet.
And so like the lepers we must learn to walk by faith and not by sight.  But also like the lepers, our faith in Jesus will not be disappointed for we will receive the mercy for which we ask!  St. Luke writes that:  as they went they were cleansed.
            When we began our meditation on these verses we talked about how these lepers were emblematic of all people and what sin and Satan have done to us—that it has alienated us from God and put up barriers between us and others and brought death with all of its ugliness into our lives so that we don’t always resemble what God created us to be. 
But this healing of the lepers is also a promise to all of us that the compassion and power of Jesus can be counted on—that our faith in him is not misplaced—that when we call to him he will listen—that he can be trusted to heal us and make us whole.
The Good News for us is that Jesus’ compassion and powerful presence that day in the healing of the lepers is the same power this day to heal what is broken in our lives and we can count on receiving the same wholeness that they received. 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.
            In Luther’s explanation to the first article of the creed, he says that for all God has done for us, it is our duty to thank and praise him, serve and obey him.  It is our duty to thank God.
All ten of the lepers had a need.  All ten of the lepers had enough faith to turn to Jesus.  All ten of them received healing.  But this Samaritan had even more—he had a heart that was thankful for the mercy he received from Jesus. 
His faith moved him to praise and thanksgiving for what God had done for him and that faith directed him to the feet of Jesus.  So it is for us here tonight.
Thankfulness to Jesus for all that he has done for us is our duty- but it is so much more than that—it is our delight.  The Samaritan was glad to have that opportunity to worship and praise God at the feet of Jesus.  Now he was truly whole—body and soul—because he knew that in Jesus God had saved him and that knowledge moved him to worship and thanksgiving. 
When we are thankful for the mercy of Jesus we are showing that we understand that we have a gracious God who loves to give good gifts to his children and we are blessed doubly when we recognize that and call it to mind and give him our thanks and praise and worship.
In the Small Catechism Luther talks about the reason we pray for our daily bread when God gives it to all even without our prayer.  He says that we pray for our daily bread so that we may realize it is God’s gift and receive it with thanksgiving. 
There is something missing in our relationship with God when thanksgiving is missing from our lives.  Jesus asked his disciples and the man who was healed and the crowd who gathered around: 
“Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
            All of them had to report to the priests.  All of them wanted to see friends and family from whom they had be separated.  All of them had a lot to do now that the leprosy was gone.  But for nine of the ten the most important thing was left undone—and that was a life of worship and thanksgiving in the presence of Jesus. 
            When Jesus told the Samaritan that his faith had made him “well” he was talking about much more than just having clean skin like all ten received.  He was talking about the wholeness in body and soul that God gives through faith in Jesus—a wholeness that shows itself in a life of worship and gratitude for the mercies of Jesus.
            Dear friends in Christ we too have been made well through faith in Jesus.  Our sin-sickness has been washed away in the waters of Holy Baptism and our great high priest has declared us clean in his sight.  May this wholeness always lead us to worship Jesus and be thankful for the Lord’s mercies!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Final Judgment

Matthew 25:31-46 Each week we confess that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Our Lord’s return—as an event in history-- is clearly taught in the Bible.  It is his final work of salvation.  It is an article of faith that we must believe to be saved.
            On that day each of us will stand before the Lord and he will render his verdict about our life—what we have believed and how we have lived. 
Today in our Gospel lesson, in simple language, we hear just exactly how the final judgment will take place from the one who will judge the world.  Jesus says:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.   Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  
            On judgment day every person who has ever lived will stand before the glorious throne of Jesus Christ and we will be judged. 
Before a word is spoken—before the evidence is given—Jesus will separate all the world’s people into two groups—one group on his left and one group on his right. 
That separation is the judgment—and there is no changing sides at that point.  The day of grace that we enjoy today- to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus- to amend our lives--will come to an end with that division.
Shepherds have no problem making a distinction between sheep and goats because there is nothing that a shepherd knows more about than the difference between sheep and goats. 
So it will be on Judgment Day as the Shepherd King separates those who are his (those who have believed in him and followed him) from those who are not his (those who have rejected him and went their own way).  Every person in the world (and in this sanctuary) will fall into one of those two groups.
            The unbelieving world around us sees fine moral distinctions, with many shades of gray, when it comes to their relationship with God—they say that surely it cannot be so simple, so cut-and-dried as those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t.  But it is just that simple.
When it comes to your relationship with God—you are either righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus—blessed by God from the foundations of the world with all that is needed for salvation— OR--you are cursed by God because you have not counted yourself worthy of his salvation and have rejected the forgiveness and eternal life that comes through faith in Jesus.
The basic division of all people into one of these two groups is not always evident because faith in Jesus is, finally, a matter of the heart. 
But that division between the saved and the lost will be plain for all to see on the Last Day when the Son of Man comes to judge the nations and presents the evidence for his perfect, righteous judgment.  Jesus will say to the saved on his right hand:
‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,   I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
            There is nothing here that is difficult to understand:  those who had faith produced the fruits of faith--those saved by grace were gracious people to others—those who received the mercy of God in Christ extended that mercy to others—those who were forgiven were forgiving.  In other words, the life of Jesus was seen in the lives of those who were his.
The evidence that is given for a true and living faith is found in the small acts of mercy and kindness and generosity given to others simply because those who are saved by Jesus want to live loving, self-sacrificing lives like their Savior’s.
            Another really remarkable thing about those who are saved is that all the things that we have failed to do-- are not even brought up. 
We haven’t fed every hungry person or clothed every naked person or housed every homeless person—but these sinful failures to be all that we have been called to be-- have no part in this judgment because they have been taken away by the blood of Jesus.
But for those who have rejected Jesus Christ it is a very different story.  Every sinful failure, no matter how small, is remembered and entered as evidence.  Jesus will say to the lost on his left hand:
“'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.   
The great tragedy is that it never had to be this way.  Hell was not prepared for people but for the devil and the other angels who rebelled against God at the beginning of the world.  But when a person rejects Jesus Christ, they choose to align themselves with the devil and they too will receive hell as their eternal punishment. 
And just as there are no great works of faith that are mentioned for the redeemed, so there are no great sins that are mentioned for the damned.  Jesus says:
I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 
Those who had no faith-- simply failed to produce the fruits of faith that come from being saved and will hear the terrible judgment of all who die apart from faith in Christ— “depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire.”   
It has become fashionable in these modern times to deny the existence of hell but there are very few things that Jesus teaches as clearly as the existence of hell because he does not want us to go there.  Hell is real, it is terrible, it is eternal, and it is deserved. 
As a final proof that our Lord’s judgment is valid, we hear the reaction of each group to the Lord’s verdict—their own testimony to the truth of the Lord’s verdict.    
 “The righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'   And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
The Good News for the child of God is that on judgment day, not only will our sins not be remembered, but all those small acts of mercy and kindness and generosity that we have forgotten about—that we would never have dreamed to lift up to the Lord as deserving of eternal life— will be remembered by him-and counted as if we had done them all for him.
That the Lord’s people are astonished by his accounting is a sure sign that they simply did good to others out of love for the Lord—not to earn heaven for themselves. 
Acts of love, done in faith, require no accounting on our part.  They are simply given in the context of our ordinary, daily vocations. 
When we are forgiving with our family; when we set a good example at work; when we are compassionate and merciful to those in need; when we are concerned for the needs of others; we show ourselves to be the Lord’s people.  On the other hand, those on the King’s left will answer, saying:  
“'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?'   Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
The lost, even at that late hour, exhibit no sorrow or repentance to Jesus.  They have no compassion for those who have gone without food and drink and clothing and shelter through their faithless neglect.  Their only desire is to call into question the righteous judgment of a perfectly just judge.
We are tempted to believe that faced with hell, even the most hardened sinner would come to their senses, repent of their sins, and beg for mercy—but it is not so.
Those who were not concerned for others will never be concerned.  Those who have rejected the Lord throughout their life will continue to reject him for eternity. 
That is why judgment day is merely a final demonstration of what was true:  in a person’s life—at the moment of their death—and then forever in eternity as they “go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
And so what does this plain and simple teaching from our Lord about the final judgment and the Last Day have to do with our lives this week?  What does the Lord want us to do as a result of his words?  How then should we live, knowing that we will stand before the throne of Jesus Christ and be judged?
First and foremost, no one ought to leave this sanctuary today without knowing for sure that they are one of those whom the Lord will call righteous and blessed on the Last Day.  That confidence comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone. 
None of us, by nature, are worthy to stand before a perfectly righteous judge.  Each of us deserves hell.  But God sent his Son to save us from what our sins deserve.  Jesus suffered hell for us on the cross.  He paid for our selfishness and sins with his shed blood—and he rose up from the dead to give us eternal life. 
We receive the salvation he accomplished by believing the Gospel as it is preached and given in the sacraments.  As we do so, we can look forward to Judgment Day with confidence.
Secondly, we should measure our lives by Christ’s standard of what really counts and not the world’s.  On the Last Day there are no questions about how much money we had, how important we were in the community, what car we drove, where we went to school, or what we did for a living. 
Instead, the only thing that matters on judgment day is that we showed with our lives that we belonged to Jesus by caring for those around us. 
Nothing miraculous is required of us, but only that our faith in Jesus would bear the fruit of good works as we deal with others in the same gracious, generous, merciful, forgiving way that we have been dealt with by Christ.
And finally, we should live our lives this week -and always- in expectation of our Lord’s immediate return. 
All of the worries and trials and temptations that we are faced with daily-- become something altogether different and altogether smaller when they are seen in the light of that glad and glorious day when the Lord says to each of us:
 ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! 
May God graciously grant that each of us hear those words on Judgment Day for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.