Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Luke 21:25 - 36 Watching and Waiting for the Lord

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
     Like many churches, our Lutheran church goes by the traditional church calendar, and this is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year.
     The Lord and his church don’t always take the obvious way, so this morning’s gospel doesn’t refer to beginnings, but to the end of time when Christ will return.  The Lord wants us to have a picture of our goal, the destination toward which he’s bringing us as we continue our pilgrimages under his grace.
When Jesus told his disciples about the end times, he did at least three things.  He issued a wake-up call, he offered comfort, and also guidance for living. We’ll talk about the wake-up call first. A day is coming when the heavens and the earth will undergo radical change.  “The day of the Lord will come like a thief,” Peter said in his first letter, “in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” Paul wrote that the last day will be revealed in a fire that will test the quality of each person’s work. Isaiah put it this way: “The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun and the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days, on the day the Lord binds up the fracture of his people and heals the bruise he has inflicted.”  And again, the Lord said through Isaiah, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create, for behold I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness.”
     A great day is coming, then.  The Savior commands us to be on the watch for it, We don’t know the exact day or hour.  It will come by surprise.  We are to read the signs of the times and be ready.
These signs will be partly physical – eclipses, storms at sea, and falling comets.  They will  also have to do with behavior.  A Christian who lived a long time ago said this: “When the end of the world draws near, the condition of human affairs will change and take on a more evil form.  Malice and wickedness will be so widespread that the age we live in now will be looked on as a happy time.  Then righteousness will become practically unknown.  Blasphemy, covetousness, and impure desires will be common.  Godly people will be a prey to the wicked, who will vex and grieve them.  Justice will be perverted, law overthrown.  People won’t have anything but what they can take hold of by their own strength.  There will be no faith or confidence, no truth or government or rest.  The whole world will be in arms.”  If this man is right, then the time just before our Lord returns will be dark days indeed, much worse than our own time, when most people respect law and government and hope for peace. 
     Now, one feature of the days before the end is that most people will be so absorbed in their work and their pleasures and cares that they won’t be watchful or reading the signs of the times.  Martin Luther, who believed that his own days were the end times, said that the majority of people would give themselves over to surfeiting and drunkenness and the cares of this life.  “The world will continue its carousing,” he said, “eating and drinking, building and planting, and diligently seeking after earthly things, and will look upon the day of judgment as a thousand years and more away.”
     God’s people, by contrast, will be alert and watchful.  They will understand the signs of the times because the Lord has instructed them and they will be ready for his return.
     Luther pointed out that Jesus knows that some folks will identify the signs correctly, but they will faint from terror, fearful of what is happening.  Consciences will be tortured.  This stands to reason, because people will have condemned the gospel, which is the only comfort for troubled consciences, and set up false doctrine in its place that teaches us to overlook sin and earn God’s favor by our works.  There will be countless burdened and distressed minds that can find no rest.  People will want to be pious and do good and be saved, but they’ll find torments rather than satisfaction.  The more people try to do on their own, the more sin there will be and without the gospel sinners will have no refuge to flee to.  Grief and perplexity will overtake them.  They’ll try everything and find no help.
     The situation will be different for believers.  They will stand up and lift their heads, as Jesus says, because they’ll know that the kingdom of God is near.  They’ll not only interpret the signs correctly but rejoice that redemption is at hand.  We have come, then, to the comfort in our Savior’s description of his return.  The last day for believers will be comforting and lovely.  It will bring great joy and a feeling of safety, just the way the gospel brings us joy now when we hear that our sins our forgiven through our faith in Christ and that we are safe in the hands of our loving Heavenly Father.  The pagan parts of the world may rejoice now and collect all kinds of good things, but on the Day of Judgment, Christians who are now afflicted by temptations and penalties will be rewarded with new and glorious lives in the presence of Christ.
     We stay alert, meanwhile, and keep watch.  We pray for Christ’s return, whenever we say the Lord’s prayer, not as empty repetition but with sincerity and meaning.  Many folks wish the Day of Judgment wouldn’t come because they fear the consequences. Everyone has a touch of this fear, of course, because we’re all sinners.  But we can cope with our fears wisely by bringing them to God and asking him to take them away so that we may delight in the expectation of Jesus’ return.  In this sense, fearful people are closer to salvation than hard-hearted ones who don’t pay attention to the signs.  Consuming fear, though, is a bad thing, for Christians look ahead to our Lord’s return with love.  If we ever find that fear gets the best of us, we ask God for the love that drives away fear.  A certain amount will remain, since our weak human natures can’t exist without the fear of death and judgment, but God’s spirit of love rules the minds and souls of his children.  We ask him for the confidence and trust to wait for Jesus’ return with the love that pleases him.
     Luther said that some folks hope that Jesus will postpone his return indefinitely because it will mean they’ll have to stop sinning.  There are folks who delight in life as it comes, who don’t shrink from the sins that displease God, who may even wallow in sin to prove their worldliness.  God’s children, on the other hand, long to be free from sin.  Luther wrote that no one is so prepared for judgment day as the person who wants to be without sin.  They have nothing to fear.  They agree with the purpose of judgment Day, which will come to set the world free from sin.  If we recognize this desire as our own, they we are among God’s children.  We thank him that he has blessed us and keeps the desire for sinlessness alive in our hearts.  God commands us to put aside all fear of the Day of Judgment and take care and be watchful that we truly want to have our sins taken away.
     We watch for Jesus’ return because we trust that he has redeemed us from sin.  Jesus builds up the fainthearted.  Sin will be even more widespread at the end of the world than it is now, as we said, and so will the punishment of sin in the form of plagues, wars, and famine.  Believers will need to be strengthened against evil.  Jesus banishes fear and relieves bad consciences.  He invites us to rest in the redemption he has won for us.  He assures us now that we are ransomed, forgiven, so that if he returns this afternoon or tomorrow, we’ll have the confidence to receive him with joy and thanksgiving.
     The key to watching for the Lord is to hold on to the gospel, to trust deep in our hearts that we’re pardoned, washed clean, redeemed by his blood.  God will use our faith in his goodness toward us to keep us safe, no matter what may happen in the world around us.
      We sometimes hear forecasts about what the future will bring and how we should think and behave.  Although God forbids us from trying to predict the time of his return, the church has a lot to say to us as we watch and wait.  She encourages us not to be absorbed with the world and its cares.  She teaches us that we can’t save ourselves; she brings us relief from the rat race that can make us anxious.  The church offers us the love of Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, God’s gracious promises, and the hope that the future will go well for us.  Heaven’s message will spread and endure so that millions of hearts will rejoice when our Lord returns.
     A Christian thinker I once read invites us to be hopeful about the church and the future.  The horrors of the last hundred years will drive many folks to look for God, for they will make a connection between unbelief and war, turmoil, and everlasting uncertainty.  They will understand the signs of the times.  This writer predicts that the next hundred years or so will see a burst of evangelism unlike anything that has taken place since the 1800's. The church will move out in confidence with her message and people will respond.  Souls will warm up; hearts will vibrate with the thrill of faith; lost souls will take hold of redemption in the Lord.  It’s always a mistake to count the church out.  God’s powerful Word revives hearts every day.
     The future is in Jesus’ hands, not ours.  He calls us to be on the alert, to read the signs of the times.  He commands us to continue walking in faith, as St. Peter’s people are accustomed to doing, and to keep watching for his glorious return. In His name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mark 5:21 - 24a, 35 - 43 Receiving People

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,
      God loves to give – he gives us the earth to live on, he gives food and shelter, happiness to children, the satisfactions of maturity to grown-ups, and rest to our senior citizens. Along with earthly blessings, he also gives spiritual ones – inner strength, hope for the future, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of a better life to come. We praise and thank him for his never-failing generosity.
      We Christians are people who receive. We receive all good things from God – salvation from sin, acceptance so that we don’t feel badly about ourselves, and release from the fear of death. Luther once defined Christians as a people who receive something from Christ and who have Christ within them and who cling to him. We do not become Christians because of good works or pious lives but because we hold onto Christ and receive him by the gift of faith. Christ is an inexhaustible stream who overflows with goodness and grace. He is always giving. He asks for nothing in return except that we acknowledge his kindness and grace, thank him, praise him and love him, even though the unbelieving parts of humanity despise him. Christ is always giving; we are always receiving.
      Now, it isn’t human nature to be willing to receive. People like to do things on their own,  even the most important things that lead to salvation. I once read about an idea from secular thought that illustrates this human preference for self-reliance. Some thinkers tell us that three basic needs govern human behavior – the need for community, the need for power, and the need for achievement. In most people, one of these three needs is supposedly stronger than others. One thinker argues that the most socially beneficial need is the need for achievement, and this is the one we ought to develop, because it’s supposedly best for us and the best for society. We ought to build up our ability to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps and to do good works that benefit society.
      This way of thinking can set up a conflict in the minds and hearts of Christians like you and me. God declares that we are people who receive, while secular parts of society, though they mean well, encourage us to strive and to do.
      Now, there’s nothing wrong with striving to better ourselves and the communities  we’re part of. In fact, our Lord expects us to do good works. Paul wrote: “May our Lord Jesus Christ comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” And again, “Show yourself in all respects a model of good deeds. “And still again: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
      The conflict is resolved as we turn to God and ask him to rule our souls so that the horse is always in front of the cart. We are receiving people first and then people who do. The gospel text illustrates this basic point. The daughter of the synagogue ruler received a second earthly life from Christ. She did nothing on her own to obtain this precious gift. It came from the generosity of God. now she can play with her friends, grow up, marry, raise children herself, live in hope, and have a life of her own – now and in eternity, all through the generosity of God. As a receiving person, and in God’s eyes all of us are receivers rather than achievers, she has a chance to give him thanks and praise and to go on receiving. God’s supply of good things will never run out.
      He continues to reach out to all people through the Bible and the sacraments. He turns no one away who looks to him; he is eager to give the blessings of life.
      As for ourselves, we may ask what the return to life of a young person about two thousand years ago means for us. The death of a child usually brings great sadness. I once chatted with a man who said that he lost his faith because his daughter died. Perhaps you know someone who’s experienced a similar calamity. When a great misfortune comes, it may seem that life has lost all meaning and purpose. At such times humans easily lose the will to achieve. This is the great fallacy in secular models of achievement. The people who make them assume that people are strong and that the path to opportunity will always be clear. The facts of human life cause even the most self-reliant to stumble. The generosity of God shines through and we understand why he has made us receiving people.
      The gospel text invites us to see that in God’s eyes we are all like the daughter of the synagogue ruler. God gives us the earthly lives we now enjoy; we receive everything that’s good from him; we serve him and give him thanks. The story of Jairus’ daughter shows us at least two more things about the Lord’s generosity.
      First, what looks like death to us is really sleep to God. Luther said that none of those who lived and died before our time are dead, but all are alive, just as live as the people we see before us every day. God has determined that all shall live; he holds their lives in his hands. The Lord maintains our lives and when we are asleep he does it without our will or our help. It isn’t hard for Jesus, therefore, in the hour when body and soul are separated, to hold in his hand the soul and spirit of a human being, even though we ourselves neither feel nor see anything, even though the body is entirely consumed. Since God can preserve the breath of life and spirit apart from the from the body, he can also bring the body together out of dust and ashes.
      Luther wrote that we should understand our deaths in the right way, so that we are not alarmed. In Christ, death is a sweet and brief sleep that releases us from this vale of tears, from sin, and from all the misfortunes of this life, and we shall be secure and without care, until the time when Christ calls and awakens us along with his other dear children to his eternal glory and joy. Moreover, since we Christians call death a sleep, we know that we won’t remain in it, but that God will awaken us and we will live. It will seem, then, that the time between earthly life and heaven will be no longer than if we had just fallen asleep. We will suddenly come alive out of dust and ashes, and entirely well, fresh, with a pure, clear, glorified life. We will meet our Lord and Savior.
      Now, here’s a second feature of our Lord’s generosity – that he’s in control of life and he’s waiting to surprise us with the joy of eternity in heaven. We may need to stretch our minds to grasp that this will actually happen, because as we’ve already said, the world influences us to think in terms of power and achievement and the bonds of social life. We help ourselves when we remember that the Lord isn’t limited to our frame of reference. Luther wrote that the Lord doesn’t think in tens or hundreds or thousands of years, nor does he measure the years consecutively the way we do. He sees everything in a moment – the beginning and the middle and the end of the whole human race and of all time. He sees what we measure by time at one glance so that the death and life of the last human being as well as of the first are to him as only one moment of time. Against this, human strivings are meaningless.
      This is why we should entrust or bodies, our souls, and our whole lives with confidence and joy to our Savior and redeemer, just as we turn ourselves over to him before we fall asleep at night. It will be easy for him to awaken us on the last day, just as it was easy for him to awaken the daughter of the synagogue ruler.
But there is a catch. This revelation of God’s wonderful generosity makes sense to us only when we acknowledge that we are receiving people. We can earn some things – status power, the satisfactions of achievement. We can’t earn our lives with God, either our daily walk with him now or the promise of joy in eternity. We receive these as gifts.
      Most of us can imagine how the ruler of the synagogue felt. He was an important man with many resources to call on. One expert I read assumes that he must have consulted several doctors and ordered various medications for his daughter. Jesus doesn’t despise his concern. Instead, he changed him from being a doing ;person into a receiving one. He’s no longer a man who looks only to human methods. Now he finds hope through trust in God. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” He brings the man assurance and certainty. In Christ, the human race finds hope.
      The same assurance comes to us. Chances are the conflict between the world’s demand for action and achievement and God’s desire that we receive from him will continue. It would be wrong for us either to give way to the world or pretend that we can overcome it on our own. The solution for us is to open our hearts and minds to take hold of Christ and the promise of everlasting life he offers, to humble ourselves and to ask him to help us remember that we are people who receive from him.
      It’s a wonderful thing to be a receiving person when the giver is God. As we take hold of Christ by faith, we find that sorrows vanish and heartaches are healed and empty places are filled. As Jairus" daughter wakened to new life, so do we – and not just once but every morning if we take hold of God’s forgiveness and ask his blessing on the day ahead. It’s a joy to give up our cares to him and acknowledge that he is in control of our lives. It may be hard for us now to let go, so we ask him to build up our trust in him. We seek more and more to be receiving people so that we may be ready to accept the great and wonderful gifts that he plans for us now and on the day of his return. In his name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Matthew 5:1 - 12, A Blessed Life

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
            No one can say exactly where in Israel the Sermon on the Mount took place, but crowds of people flocked to Jesus with their bodily and spiritual needs.  He spoke to them in a way they’d never heard before – not doctrine, not a summary of the law or a step-by-step program for pleasing God but the offer of a new community, a new kind of fellowship – the kingdom of God.  He made as a gift right at the start of his ministry what others offer as the end-point – friendship with God, life in his kingdom, which comes not as a result of human striving but as the invitation of the Heavenly Father to live with him by faith.
            With the help of experts on the gospels, we’ll examine the opening of Jesus’ great sermon.
            “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.”  A highly-respected Lutheran scholar said that in this passage Jesus wasn’t referring to folks who must work for a living or who have just enough to get by, but to those who have nothing at all, the destitute, who go from day to day, and yet he wasn’t referring to physical poverty that we hate to think about a but a kind of poverty we gladly accept with profound submission – the attitude of believing souls toward God, when we understand our complete helplessness before him.  We have nothing to bring him other than our emptiness and need.  We are beggars before the throne of grace, in a state of continual repentance. Amazing as it is, Jesus said that people in that condition are truly fortunate, blessed, for the Heavenly Father feeds and comforts the humble and contrite as soon as we turn to him.  The kingdom of heaven is not an earthly set-up but Christ alive in us now, a present-day blessing that each of us claims as our own.  The proud of spirit resist God and his kingdom – and there are always plenty of those in the world, though none that I know of at St. Peter’s – while Jesus uses his powers of grace and strength and glory for the benefit of the spiritually needy. He fills our hands and our hearts with an abundance of grace and pardon.  He has adopted us as his children; he blesses us with the gift of godly living.  We receive his grace every day, every hour, in a never-ending stream as long as we live in a world of sin and sin everyday ourselves.  The kingdom of heaven belongs to us now by faith.  In times to come, the kingdom will bring us everything the father has in mind for us.
            “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Life brings us plenty of joys and sorrows. We pass through times of loss and grief.  We find consolation in God’s Word.  He sends Christian friends to comfort us so that we don’t live forever in a valley of grief.  His word strengthens us to carry the heaviest losses.  What’s more, Christians understand that mourning includes grief for our own sins, which have lots of consequences and inflict losses upon ourselves and others.  Martin Luther once said that the life of a Christian is continuous repentance for our misdeeds.  At the same time, we remember that our Savior says to us, “I will not leave you comfortless.  I will come to you.”  The greatest comfort is the pardon sorrowing sinners receive from the Lord.  His Word lifts us up in times of tribulation.  The promise of deliverance from evil in the coming kingdom of glory comforts us today.   God’s consolation flows down upon us, and so we who mourn are the most blest of all.
            “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Mild, gentle, patient folks, like St. Peter’s people, testify to the faith the Spirit has put in our hearts by not showing resentment, for example, and refraining from avenging ourselves when we’re wronged.  Bitter people, violent ones, like terrorists and suicide bombers, always attract attention, while the meek usually go their way and follow the Lord without being noticed.  They don’t rise in fury if they see wicked people becoming strong and great, for they live by the blessings the heavenly Father showers on them day after day.  “A little that a righteous man has,” Jesus said, “is better than the riches of many wicked people.”  Because he doesn’t want us to lose salvation, Jesus disciplines covetousness and greed, though he lets his children find a spot, a resting place, that is our very own.  He provides us a supply of earthly goods and earthly happiness.
            “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  But what is righteousness?  In everyday speech, righteousness means good, law-abiding conduct or what happens when our thoughts and words and actions all go together in one direction.  Integrity.  Many people strive for these and other excellent qualities, even folks who don’t claim to be Christian, but everyone falls short and no one likes to have weaknesses pointed out, because most of us are sensitive and like to have others think well of us.  “I’m plenty righteous,” someone might say.  “I don’t steal.  I’ve never murdered anyone.  I set a good example everywhere I go.”
            Righteousness means something else to God.  The word comes from the legal profession of Bible times and means a verdict of acquittal, a declaration of not guilty.  No human has ever found a way to turn a guilty soul into a righteous one, but God can bring about what is impossible for us.  Christ met God’s demand for righteousness by his perfect life and sacrificial death and he transfers his unblemished righteousness to us as a gift.  He won a “not guilty” verdict for us before heaven’s court of judgment.  The Father pardons the world, redeems it from sin, because of Jesus’ work.  Those who seek his gift, who hunger and thirst for a savior, will be satisfied.  Our Heavenly Father declared us to be righteous at the moment the Spirit worked faith in Christ in our hearts.  As we hunger for his grace and favor, not once but thousands of times, the Father declares that he accepts us and is pleased with us.  We cling to his approval of us now, because it is an advance declaration of the verdict we will hear on judgment day.  Maybe you have seen a wall poster of a smiling face saying that God doesn’t make junk.  That’s an informal way of expressing heaven’s gift of righteousness.  God declares us to be not guilty because of Christ.  We aren’t junk but our Savior’s adopted brothers and sisters.  Heaven’s kindness toward us will never stop overflowing.  Christ’s righteousness feeds our souls every day.  We are highly blessed and chosen of God.
            “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Jesus invites us to think about how we treat others.  The mercy we receive from God awakens a spirit of mercy in us.  The Father blesses us when we show mercy to others. We pardon them if they offend us; we perform works of charity.  The hard, competitive world needs the mercy of Christian people, who don’t bear grudges or keep a record of wrongs and who help neighbors less fortunate than themselves.  The Lord’s teachings about mercy influence even people who don’t know him as their Savior.  We have Jesus to thank for Canada’s concern for the well-being of her citizens.  The country’s willingness to provide medical care and other forms of social assistance is an indirect result of Christ’s ministry.  We have the Savior’s promise that the gospel light of mercy will not go out before he returns and it won’t be needed after that, because there will be no sin in heaven or want or deprivation.
            “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  Purity of heart means singleness of purpose, the honesty that has no hidden motive or selfish interest, truth and openness in everything.  It’s a common thing for religion to become a matter of routine, a habit that people practice without thinking.  Jesus commands us to give him our hearts in singleness of purpose – to keep faith, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before him, as St. Peter’s people strive to do. Purity of heart is a great testimony to God, for there is a resemblance, a similarity between God who is completely pure and the pure of heart in his heavenly kingdom. We cherish this resemblance between God’s earthly family and the heart of the Heavenly Father.  We aren’t perfect but we rejoice that God has restored his image in us in Christ. We ask him to nourish the resemblance between ourselves and him.  The greatest joy of heaven will be the vision of God. As his presence delights the hearts of angels and fills them with blessedness, so is his presence revealed to the pure of heart, partly now, completely in the next life.  Blessedness will flood his saints like lights in the vision of the one who is completely pure.
            “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Because believers are at peace with God, we strive to live at peace with our neighbors, if this is possible, and work to keep the peace when it is threatened and to recover peace if it is lost.  Again, we see a resemblance between Jesus and his people as we follow in the footsteps of the prince of peace.  He makes us messengers of peace wherever we go, not easy-going, sociable peace, not “peace at any price”, but the sturdy peace of the gospel that comes from trust in the merits of Christ’s saving work.  It may be that the Lord will lead us to bring his peace this week to a tangled situation where confused people are looking for a way out.  
            To sum up, then, we say that the beatitudes are about the presence of God in ourselves and in the world around us.  Jesus blesses folks who seek his ways – peacemakers, the pure in heart, the meek, the merciful.  The heavenly Father declares for his Son’s sake that we are the way he wants us to be – righteous, humble in heart, poor of spirit, whom he makes rich in faith.  He sends us out as his representatives.  He teaches us how to comfort folks who are grieving.  He invites us to speak steadying words to people whose expectations are flying too high.  He invites us to show his way to the cynical, the discouraged, and the disappointed.  He enriches us with the blessings of faith so that we may share them with others.  When we affirm that it is possible for wise, believing hearts to live by Jesus’ guidelines even today, we give a testimony to God’s constant activity in the world around us.  In Jesus name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus AMEN