Saturday, June 15, 2019

For God So Loved the World

John 3:16 On this Trinity Sunday we confess our Christian faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed.  We carefully define and distinguish between the three persons of the Holy Trinity and we maintain their full divinity even while we confess that there is just one God.
We confess that long, theologically precise creed while hearing a sermon on just one verse of Holy Scripture, a verse that the smallest child among us knows by heart: 
For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
While we may be struck by the contrast between the theological precision of the Athanasian Creed and the simplicity of the verse before us for our meditation, what I would have you know, and believe, and understand-- is that there is no conflict, whatsoever, between the two!  They express the same, exact saving truths about the person and work of our gracious God.
Both the Athanasian Creed and John 3:16 deal with the two most basic, fundamental, important questions that any of us will ever ask:  “Who is God”?  And, “How can I have a life with him”?  And the answer to those questions is this:  There is one God in three persons.  A heavenly Father who loves us.  A Son who has given his life for us.  A Holy Spirit who has called us to faith so that we can be saved. 
This one true God is not a theological abstraction, or the academic subject of some dusty philosophical treatise, but is instead the God of our salvation.
Jesus says:  For God so loved the world…  That we are here today; that we have life; that we exist at all-- is only because we have in God a heavenly Father who loves us. 
The Bible says in 1 John that:  God is love.  We are the fruit of the love that exists within the three persons of the Holy Trinity and God created the world and placed mankind at the pinnacle of his creation because he is a God of love.
Not only has he made us, he continues to be involved in our lives, for our good, every step of the way.  He knew us before we took shape in our mother’s womb.  He has provided for every need of our earthly life.  He was watched over every moment of our life and he will bring his children home.
God’s love extends to every person in this world and to the cosmos itself.  Whether men know and confess him as their God, he continues, as the Bible says, to cause rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  In other words, he continues to provide for the needs of all his creatures, sustaining the universe moment by moment and providing even for those who are his enemies and wage war against him.
From the beginning of the Bible to the end, the Bible writers have stood in awe and wonder before this mighty God whose love extends to the smallest creature-- and they have marveled at this goodness that sustains and cares for all people whether they acknowledge him as their Father or not.
But such is the love that God the Father has for this world, and every person in this world, that he is never content for any part of it, or any person in it, to be lost to him.  God has made us and all men for himself and he is never satisfied in only blessing us for this life-- but desires to bless for eternity because his love for us has no end. 
It is that everlasting love for all the world and all the people in it that moved him to bestow a gift of love upon mankind like no other.  or God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
When God created the world in the very beginning, in very short order, man’s disobedience and rebellion against God destroyed everything that God created.  The world and all people were marred by sin and death including our own lives.
From that moment on, all of the earthly blessings of God would not extend forever like he designed—human life would not go on for eternity like he desired.  Life with God in all its fullness came to an end.  And yet…
Such was God’s love for the world that he did not destroy the world and mankind and begin again.  Instead, he promised that he would make things right-- and he did that in the most amazing, marvelous, unexpected way:  he gave his own Son to be the Savior of the world.
The Bible says:  This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, possessing the fullness of God, equal to the Father regarding his divinity, took upon himself our flesh and became one of us. 
He lived our life here on earth in perfect obedience to his heavenly Father.  He took upon himself all of the sins that have been a part of our own broken lives.  He took upon himself the curse of death that God has spoken of each of us because of those sins.  And he died on the cross as our substitute under his Father’s wrath.
But there was even more!  Death was not his end.  He rose again as the new, obedient Adam in whom everlasting blessing and life has been restored.  He did this for us and for our salvation and for the salvation of the world.
The Bible says Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and for ours only, but for the sins of the world.  The Bible says that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins again them.  The Bible says that
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Salvation for the world—bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus…given to Whoever believes in him.  I want you to understand how unbelievably wide and narrow is the salvation that the Father has accomplished for the world in his Son Jesus Christ. 
The word “whoever” means exactly that:  whoever!  No matter your status in this world, no matter the depth of your sins, no matter how far and long you have wandered, the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ are sufficient for your salvation, countless thousand times over.
Christ died for you, to make you God’s child.  But that word “whoever” is also necessarily tied to those who believe that Jesus is their Savior from sin and death. 
Christ died for all people, every sin of every sinner was paid for on the cross, but it is ONLY those who believe in him who will not perish but have eternal life.  ONLY those who believe in Jesus will be saved! 
  That is why God sent his Holy Spirit-- so that people could come to faith in Jesus and be saved—so that they could be born again from above.  That is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to understand.  Nicodemus was not going to be saved because he had been born a Jew.  He needed to be born again because flesh can only give birth to flesh.  What was needed for Nicodemus (and what is needed for all people) is spiritual birth.  And as little as Nicodemus caused himself to be born a Jew, just as little would he cause himself to be born again.
The Spirit would do that in his life and in fact did do that in his life!  We learn at the end of the Gospels that Nicodemus did indeed come to faith and n the same way the Holy Spirit continues to do his saving work in the hearts of men who hear the Good News about Jesus and come to faith in him as Lord and Savior. 
The Bible in 1 Peter says that God caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Bible says in James that God brought us forth by the word of truth.  The Bible says in Romans the faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ and that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to them that believe. 
God the Holy Spirit continues to give spiritual life to those who are born dead in sin and trespass just as he did for Nicodemus:  through the Good News about Jesus and what he has done for us in his death and resurrection.
And so then, the Good News for us on this Trinity Sunday is that we have in the Holy Trinity, revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds of the Church, a God who has known us and loved us for eternity, a God who has lived, and died and be raised so that we could regain God’s eternal blessings, and a God who has called us to faith so that we can believe in Jesus and be saved.  One God in three persons:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And it is indeed Good News for us because the difference his presence and work has made in our lives is the difference between perishing in the fires of hell forever and being saved unto eternal life.  The Bible says:  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Over the last two thousand years of the church’s history, men have fought and died for the truth about God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds of the church.  They have sacrificed all that they have, not because of some theological treatise, not because of some confessional hair-splitting. 
They have contended for this faith because it is nothing less than eternal salvation for those who believe and eternal death for those who don’t because it is the answer to the most fundamental questions of our human existence:  who is God and how can I have a life with him.
Today we have heard the answer in God’s Word and we confess the same in the words of the Athanasian Creed.  Amen.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Help of the Holy Spirit

John 14:23-31 James said that we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only.  John said this the love of God, that we keep his commandments.  Paul said that love is the fulfilling of the Law.  And in all this, the apostles are simply re-affirming what they heard from Jesus, who said:
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.
            In these verses we have the marker and the measure of our love for Jesus:  that we keep his word, guard his word, hold fast to his word, and obey his word.  According to Jesus’ own words, love for him is not primarily found is some feeling that we have, it is not found in some emotional, ecstatic experience.  Love for Jesus is found in our keeping his word.
Conversely, where his word is not kept, where it is unguarded, where it is not obeyed, Jesus says that in that person, there is no love for him at all. 
And he goes on to say that if there is no love for him (shown in our lives in keeping his word) then the love of Father and fellowship with the Father is not there either-- for the words that Jesus spoke are nothing other than the voice of the living God of the universe.
These words of Jesus about the nature of true love for him shown in our attitude and actions concerning his words-- and the consequences in our life with God when they are not there in whole or part-- ought to get our attention!  They ought to make us examine our lives!
 Now, I think that all of us, if asked, would say, “yes, of course I love Jesus!” But according to Jesus, the proof of that love is not found on our lips—but in our lives. 
Do we make it a point to read the word of God and hear the word of God preached and study the word of God?  Is there some part of our life where we are living in open rebellion against the Word of God:  regarding our sexuality or our lack of forgiveness or our speech or the place that money has in our lives or any other facet of our lives?  Do we entertain ideas that are contrary to the words of Jesus regarding salvation by faith or some other teaching?  Do we have an expectation about our life with God that is different than what Jesus described as a cross that we must all bear?
If any of this is true of us then the judgment of Jesus is that we do not love him as we should- and our fellowship with God is not what it ought to be.  The fact of the matter is that we are incapable (in ourselves) of being the people that Jesus has called us to be. 
The judgment of Jesus is that we must have help if we are to love him as we should and live with God as he desires.  The Good News for us on Pentecost is that help will be given.  Jesus says:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
            These words were spoken by Jesus in the upper room on the night he was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In just a few days he would die on the cross and rise again and in not much more than a month he would ascend to heaven.
The apostles were commissioned by Jesus at his ascension to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching all that Jesus commanded.  All!  But how could they ever hope to keep and guard and hold fast and obey ALL that Jesus had taught over the last three years?!
The heavenly Father would help them.  He would send the Holy Spirit to teach and guide them and help them to remember everything Jesus had taught so that it could be written down and passed on to every Christian in every time and place.
That promise was fulfilled on Pentecost as the heavenly Father poured out the Holy Spirit so that people gathered in Jerusalem from around the world could hear the message of Jesus in their own language and come to saving faith-- and that promise is still being fulfilled as we open our bibles and hear the words of Jesus recorded by the apostles and the Holy Spirit does his sanctifying work in our hearts and minds and lives. 
That is especially what Jesus was talking about when he said that the Father would send the Spirit in his name. 
It would be his saving works especially that the Spirit would bear witness to—to assure us that salvation is found in Christ alone, to remind us that Christ bore our burden upon the cross, to set before our eyes of faith again and again the promise of life for us that is found in the empty tomb, and to help us hold fast to his words of promise. 
It is the Spirit’s teaching and witness to the salvation we have in Jesus that strengthens our obedience and calms our fears and brings us peace.  Jesus said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
            Isaiah called him the Prince of Peace.  On the night of his birth the angels proclaimed peace on earth and goodwill towards men.  After his resurrection he appeared to his disciples and said peace be to you.  Jesus came to bring peace between God and man.  That was his mission.  He did that by removing the wrath and judgment of God on account of our sins by taking that upon himself on the cross. 
Peace as the world gives comes and goes.  Peace as the world gives depends of the honor and integrity of men.  Peace as the world gives never lasts. 
But the peace that Jesus brings rests not upon us or our faithfulness or our commitment-- but solely upon the peace treaty between God and man that was signed in Jesus’ blood.  It is real and lasting and complete and passes all human understanding.  The Bible says that having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.  The Bible says that Jesus has made peace through his cross.  The Bible says that this peace is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  
That is why there is no need for us to be troubled or afraid—anxious or worried.  No matter what trials we face—no matter what hardships we undergo—Jesus has made peace and the Holy Spirit has given us peace with God—even when, and especially when the road of faith we travel becomes dark and dangerous and difficult.  Jesus said:
‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.
            Throughout this long conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples in the Upper Room, he is explaining what is about to take place:  he will be parted from them by death on the cross but united to them once again by the resurrection—but that reunion will not be for long as he ascends and reclaims the heavenly throne that is rightfully his. 
And even though they and every disciple who follows them will never experience that kind of life with Jesus they have enjoyed over the last three years, nevertheless—they should be glad for Jesus and glad for themselves that Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.
   They should be glad for Jesus because at this ascension he would once again be in fullness who he truly was as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 
As he ministered upon earth he was hungry and sorrowful and weak and beaten and broken for our salvation.  The greatness and glory he shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit was hidden in humility.  But he was returning to heaven and the praise and worship of all creation would never be exhausted in his presence.
He was also ascending for their good and for the good of every disciple who would come after them including us here today. 
He would rule heaven and earth on behalf of his people, causing all things to work for our good.  He would stand before the Father’s throne as our great high priest, always holding up his sacrifice between God’s wrath and our sin and interceding for us before his Father’s throne.  And he would send the Holy Spirit as he promised so that we could believe in him and show our faith through our obedience to his Word.  He said:
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.
            We began our meditation on God’s Word today by talking about how our love for Jesus is to be shown by keeping, guarding, holding fast to, and obeying God’s Word.  We made the point that often times our life’s witness to our love for Jesus is not what it should be.
That is why these verses are such good news for us.  In these last few moments in the upper room, Jesus knew full well all that the devil had done and was going to do in the hours that followed in the lives of those around him.  He saw the betrayal and the denial and the rejection and the cowardice and the cruelty.  He knew all of it and came to destroy it by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross.
You see dear friends in Christ, Jesus loves his heavenly Father with a perfect love that keeps and guards and holds fast to and obeys his Father’s words.  Jesus said very simply, very humbly:  I have come to speak my Father’s words.  I have come to do my Father’s will.  And he makes that plain for the world to see as he accomplishes his Father’s saving will by going to the cross.  Jesus says:
Rise, let us go from here.  Those words are spoken from an untroubled heart that has no fear because he knows that he is acting in perfect concord with his Father’s saving words and will and in this he shows us what true love really is.
It is an example that we cannot follow in our own strength or resources but that we are called to nevertheless, and so Jesus sends us a helper in the Holy Spirit so that in our own lives we can show this same holy obedience to the words of our Lord.  God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Faith Comes from Hearing the Gospel

Romans 10:14-17 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!  What good news this is!  What hope there is in this promise that the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write in Romans 10:  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved! 
These words of promise and hope are just like the words of St. Peter to the Philippian jailer who fell at his feet, asking him what he must do to be saved.  And the response of Peter was this:  believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.
That we are saved from the holy wrath of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the central teaching of Holy Scripture and the central teaching of our Lutheran Church and the central teaching of Romans.  It is our hope and peace and confidence in the courtroom of a a holy, righteous God! 
We confess, along with the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther:  that one is justified by faith apart from deeds of the Law:  declared right in God’s sight.
That is how important faith in Jesus is!  Faith in Jesus is our salvation.  Faith in Jesus is our justification.  Faith in Jesus is our peace in time and for eternity.  And… 
Everything that Paul has written in his letter to the Romans up to this point has been written so that we would know and understand that most important teaching that is faith in Jesus that saves.
In our text today there is a necessary transition from the absolute importance of saving faith in Jesus, to the way in which we come to possess that saving faith in the first place. 
And Paul asks us three rhetorical questions to help us understand how faith in Jesus has come to reside in our heart.  Since everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
            And the answer to each of those rhetorical questions is:  they can’t!  How can people call on Jesus if they do not believe in him?  They can’t!  How can people believe in Jesus if they have never heard of him or his saving works?  They can’t!  How can people hear about Jesus if no one preaches to them?  They can’t!
    Do you understand the point that Paul is making about the importance of the Gospel ministry of Word and sacrament?  It is that ministry and those gifts that connect us to Jesus by faith.
Our Lord Jesus Christ took upon himself our flesh and became man, born of a woman, born under the Law to redeem those under the Law at a particular moment in history. 
He lived a holy life, died a terrible death on the cross, rose again and ascended into heaven on particular days in history some two thousand years ago.  A real historical person.  A real historical life.  All of it to redeem the world from the curse of sin and death and the power of the devil.
And here we are on June 2, 2019 living our own lives at a particular in moment in history, two thousand years separating us from the historical person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We ask…    
What is there that connects us to Christ?  What is there that bridges that span of time and place so that we can come to faith in Christ?  It is the Word of God! 
It is the Gospel that is preached and taught in this church!  It is the Good News that in Holy Baptism we died with Christ and were raised in Christ and that in Holy Communion what was offered up for the salvation of the world upon the cross in Christ’s body and blood is given to us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. 
The promise of Holy Scripture is that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved and the Good News for us is that:  we can call upon Jesus because we believe in him-- and we believe in Jesus because we have heard of him -and we have heard of Jesus because someone has preached to us. 
That is just how important the Office of the Holy Ministry is to our life of faith and our salvation!  Our saving faith in Jesus has come from preaching!  The Lutheran reformers understood this and confessed this biblical teaching. 
In the Augsburg Confession, after confessing that we are “justified as a gift on account of Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ suffered for us” they immediately go on to say that to obtain such faith “God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments”, that through these means, “God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel”. 
  Saving faith in Jesus comes to us personally and individually through the Gospel and sacraments that are given to us in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  How thankful to God we ought to be that, through the church, the Lord calls and sends men into the gospel ministry of Word and Sacrament so that we can hear the Good News about Jesus and receive his gifts and be saved.  That is what Paul is reminding us of when he asks us one more rhetorical question:
How can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
            How can anyone preach unless they are sent?  Again the answer is, they can’t!  It is Jesus who gives gifts to the church of pastors and teachers.  It is the Holy Spirit who continues to direct men to particular places and fields of services.  It is the Lord of the Harvest who graciously and generously answers the prayers of his people when they ask for workers.
Nearly 60 years ago the Holy Spirit called the Rev. Thomas Sorensen to be the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Brownwood.  I will be forever grateful that he did because on November 4, 1962 Pastor Sorensen took me in his arms and baptized me in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Thirteen years later at Zion, Ft Worth the Lord called Pastor Socha to lay his hands on me and confirm me in the Christian faith and another 7 years after that Pastor Wuensche united me in marriage to Caroline and a decade after that Pastor Franke ordained me into the Holy Ministry.
Here is my point:  my life of faith is told in the names of the pastors who have been sent into my life by the Holy Spirit to serve me with God’s good gifts-- and so is your life of faith told in exactly the same way—through those who have served as your pastors.  And so then…
As of today the next chapter in your faith story will be told with the name of Pastor Middelstadt attached.  Just like all the faithful pastors who have come before him in this place, pastors who have served you with God’s good gifts of Word and Sacraments, now the Holy Spirit has sent Pastor Middlestadt.  The Holy Spirit has sent him! 
He is your God-given pastor.  He is the God-given Shepherd of your soul.  He is God’s own man in this place who has been sent to give you all the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation that Jesus has won for you in his death and resurrection. 
What a precious gift this pastor is!  This scene right here is what led Paul to exclaim:  How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!
Now Pastor Middelstadt, I have not seen your feet nor do I want to!  Much can be said of men’s feet but beautiful does not ordinarily come to mind—especially in the ancient world! 
But that is the very word that the Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to write about the feet of those who come to us bearing the Gospel because they bring us salvation itself.  And yet, that still does not mean that everything will always go smoothly.  Paul wrote that:
…not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”
            Until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ we will continue to live in a broken and dying world and the work of the church will go forward under the cross.  There will always be sorrows along with the joys as we are about the Lord’s work.
The very people of God (including those in this place!) are not magically immune from the temptations of the world and the assaults of the devil and the burden of their own flesh.
And so there has never been a preacher who ever lived who at one time or the other did not wonder and worry with Isaiah, “Lord, is there anyone who is listening and believing what we say?” 
But there is a wonderful  promise that God makes to you Pastor Middlestadt and to the members of this congregation that sustains us and keeps us from losing heart:  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.
Faith comes from hearing the message of Christ!  What a comfort and encouragement that promise is!  As you conduct your ministry in this place, preaching Christ and giving his gift—faith will come to those who hear it and receive it.  As you do the work of an evangelist in this community, preaching Christ and giving his gifts—faith will come to those who hear it and receive it. It is a promise of the Lord of the Church!
And so then, as you begin your life together as pastor and people, I pray especially that the Lord will richly bless the message of Christ in this congregation and community!  Amen.

The Beatific Vision

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Beatific Vision

Revelation 22:1-6 None of us likes the idea of dying.  This is the life we know.  Most of us are so blessed by God with countless earthly gifts that it is very hard to imagine a life better than the one we have right now.  Oh, we might change a few things here and there—but for the most part we are richly blessed by God and we love our earthly life and we are grieved to be parted from it.
            But for the child of God, death is not “goodbye” to life.  Death is not “farewell” to God’s blessings.  In fact, the Bible says that death is not loss-- but gain.  That Good News is not something that we could think our way into-- or reason out for ourselves.  It must be revealed to us—and so it is in God’s word to us today.  St. John writes that:
The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
            When we stand beside a loved one who is dying, all we can see with our eyes is their departure from this life.  All we can experience is our loss.  All we can hear are our sad “goodbyes”.  But there is much, much more going on in that moment. 
Our loved one is leaving a place of death and entering a place of life.  Their eyes that are closed in this life are opened to the wonders of the mansion God has prepared for them and their ears that no longer hear our voices, are filled with the glad “welcome home” of those who have gone before-- and the “well done good and faithful servant” from God. 
We cannot hear or see or experience that—it has to be revealed to us.  That is why God sent his angel to John the show him what awaits us all when we die.  That is why these words are written—to assure us that for the child of God, death is truly gain.
The picture of heaven that John reveals to us in his revelation is very similar to the Garden of Eden.  There is beauty and light and fellowship with God.  It is a place of life—of the rich, abundant overflowing life that Jesus came to give. 
Jesus said that “God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.”  Jesus said that it was the devil who came to rob and steal and destroy but that he had come to give us abundant life, a full measure, pressed down and overflowing.  Our passing from this earthly life is the gain of that eternal life. 
There in heaven is a river of life, a never ending source of living water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well.  Just as in the Garden of Eden, here in Paradise there is a tree of life with twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month, with leaves for the healing of all our sorrrows—a tree of life that we can eat from and live eternally.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, God kept them from the tree of life so that they would not live forever in sin and broken-ness and shame.  But on the tree of the cross, sin has been atoned for and the curse of death has ended and fellowship between God and man has been restored.  The Bible says that in Paradise:
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it,
            When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, the world and everything and everyone in it was cursed.  Nothing and no one escaped God’s judgment.  But in the Paradise there is no curse—there is only rich, abundant life. 
What accounts for that dramatic change from the Garden of Eden to Paradise?  Our crucified and risen Lord!
            When Jesus died on the cross he called out “It is finished!”—and it was.  Everything necessary for our salvation had been accomplished.  The curse that God pronounced upon the world, he charged to his Son Jesus Christ who suffered and died so that it is blessing not curse that we receive from God when we die.
Death must now serve God’s will as the means to deliver us from this place of tears to Paradise where we will worship God and the Lamb who has taken away our sin.  The Bible says that his servants will worship him.
  When we think about heaven, we not only wonder what it will be like-- but we wonder what we will do.  Our lives here on earth are busy and the days are filled with things to do, and people to see, and places to go.  We have this kind of unspoken worry that we will get bored in eternity. 
We don’t know all the answer to that question about what we will do in heaven but we do know some it. 
A big part of our life in heaven will be worshiping the God who has saved us and made us his own by the blood of the Lamb.  We will worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven—we will worship with the saints who have gone before and the four living creatures and all of those beings who are real and yet unseen.
It will be worship like we have never experienced on earth—filled with sights and sounds and smells that we have never experienced in our earthly worship. 
When we hear a beautiful solo- or when we join our voice to hundreds of others in a large worship service- or when we are particularly moved by what the beauty we see in a majestic cathedral- we begin to get some sense of what worship will be like in heaven except infinitely more. 
Far, far from being bored in heaven or tired of worship we will rejoice eternally for the blessing of being counted part of God’s people—a kingdom of priests and kings.  The Bible says those in heaven:
Will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 
            St. Augustine once said that God has made us for himself and our hearts are never at rest until we find our rest in him.  Whether we realize or not here on earth, these verses describe what we were made for-what we long for—what theologians call the “beatific vision” of God.
Over the course of our earthly lives we can have many successes and reach many of our goals.  We can become rich and famous.  We can marry the person of our dreams. 
But it will never really be enough to satisfy us completely because we were made for something more.  We were made by God- for God- and we will never be satisfied with anything else than God. 
When we enter Paradise, that longing will be fulfilled as we gaze upon the unveiled glory of God.  What we have hoped for and prayed for and longed for during our lives (even if we could never really put a name on it) will be fulfilled as we look upon the Holy Trinity:  the One who has known us and loved us for eternity—the One who gave his life for us on the cross—the One who has called us and kept us in faith.
We are his.  We belong to him.  He has placed his name on us in the waters of Holy Baptism where he rescued us from the darkness of sin and death and shined his light and life into our hearts and minds. 
We have nothing to fear from the darkness of death and the grave because the moment we close our eyes in this life we open them to the glorious light of heaven.  We can count on that and build our lives upon that promise!  The Bible says that:
“These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
            It is normal to mourn the death of those we love.  The Bible says that even Christians grieve—but not as those who have no hope.  It is normal for us to dread our own death.  Jesus wrestled with that very thing in the Garden of Gethsemane. 
But in these verses from John’s Revelation, God pulls back the curtain that hides Paradise from our eyes here on earth, so that we can face death unafraid and so that we can rightly order our lives right now according to his Word.
You see, the promises of God are true.  He has spoken to us in the Bible and told us the truth about all that matters here on earth and in the world to come.  He has revealed his holy will for our lives and made known to us his salvation in Jesus.
We cannot see God or touch him or experience heaven right now-- but he is real and so is heaven-- and as we live our life here on earth, God wants those realities shape how we live.
God wants us to face the challenges and temptations and sorrows of this life with our eyes of faith full of the glories of heaven so that we do not lose heart and give up and give in to the ways of the world.
He wants us to know that the challenges and temptations and sorrows of this life will not last forever—that this life will end—but there will another, glorious, eternal life for us in heaven—and that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come.
            The promise of Eden was that God himself would restore, by the Seed of the Woman, all that sin and Satan destroyed.  In Paradise we see that God has kept his promise.  Once again there is life for us with God that death cannot end.  Amen.

Lovely Parting Gifts

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lovely Parting Gifts

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

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Holy City

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