Thanksgiving Service (Deuteronomy 26:1-11; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 12:13-21)

1 Chronicles 16:34

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Thanksgiving Service – November 27, 2019
Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 12:13-21

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

It’s often easier to appreciate what you have when you know what it’s like to not have it.  Those who lived during the depression know what real scarcity is, and appreciate the richness of life today.  After World War II, commodities like rubber and steel were prized after they had been rationed. A full tank of gas meant a lot more during the Oil Crisis of 1973.

The point is sometimes it takes losing something before you appreciate how good you have it.  It’s a rule that the following generations have a hard time fully appreciating the hardships and struggles which their parents had to get where they are.

The Israelites were commanded yearly to offer their firstfruits at the Temple, and part of the liturgy was saying,

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’

But for most of the people making that confession, they had no personal experience of this history.  They might be able to imagine what it was like to be called out of Aram, dwelling as slaves in Egypt, hearing stories about crossing the Red Sea.  Yet, that’s quite a different thing than walking in the sandals of your fathers.

The thanksgiving God is desiring here doesn’t come from the outside in, by mandate of the Law of Moses.  That thanksgiving can be contrived, muttered under your breath as you’re forced to say grace with your family tomorrow.

Thanksgiving without faith may be glad that things are going well, that the pantry is full and health is good.  But that’s as far as it can see. As soon as those things are taken away, so is any apparent reason to give thanks to God.  This is the work of the sinful flesh. It works a selfish, short-sighted, and earthly outlook.

But a heart in which the Holy Spirit is at work sees God as faithful Father who provides and continues to provide even when times are lean and painful.  The Spirit turns a believer’s heart outward not to be consumed with your own problems, but be willing to bear one another’s burdens and let God decide how He will provide for both of you.  The Spirit works perseverance and resilience, because we know that this moment isn’t all there ever will be. It’s not in the present lack or abundance that God’s love is known, but in the everlasting promise He made and fulfilled when He gave His only Son to open eternal life to us.

That’s the basis of the Apostles’ words in 2 Corinthians 9:

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 

The one who can only see the temporal stuff will sow sparingly because he can only see what his own hands produce.  He’s limited, shackled, and without faith in the promises of a heavenly Father who gives daily bread.

Thanksgiving and giving go hand-in-hand because a heart that knows God by faith also knows how lavish He is in caring for the world.  So one who is filled with thanksgiving also freely gives because he believes that God supplied and will continue to supply everything that is truly needed for this short pilgrimage on earth.

It comes up in Jesus’ ministry, this condition of the heart:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The fleshly heart retorts, “How can you say that? Life is full of possessions and they’re very important.  You must be a Pollyanna fool to whitewash the practical necessities with faith.” In fact what faith does is rise above those necessities and the urgency our hearts put on them.  It’s no great feat to trust God when everything adds up and fits into the right boxes. It is a feat of faith to be a poor widow who has only two mites to live on and give those away for the service of the Temple (Mark 12:41-44).  The stronger the faith, the less the power of insistence that things go my way.  What do you put your trust in?  Not in an intangible, fairy tale God, but in the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who is praised in Psalm 104:

27  These all look to you, 

to give them their food in due season. 

28  When you give it to them, they gather it up; 

when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 

29  When you hide your face, they are dismayed; 

when you take away their breath, they die 

and return to their dust. 

30  When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, 

and you renew the face of the ground. 

Today, just as much as any other, it is God’s will to fill us with faith and the thanksgiving which flows from knowing Him. May His Holy Spirit keep you from all covetousness and malice that you may celebrate these holidays in sincerity and truth.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Last Sunday of the Church Year (Isaiah 65:17-25 )

foolish virgins knocking at door

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 24, 2019

Text: Isaiah 65:17-25

When Jesus came the first time, He gave the world a preview of the new heavens and the new earth.  God walked with His people, speaking with them face-to-face. He healed their diseases, cured their uncleanness, and raised their dead.  Parents received back their children, Mary and Martha received back their deceased brother healthy again. All of these miracles were not just for the private benefit of those individuals; they were recorded for us, so that we would know that God is actively at work restoring what sin and death destroyed in this world.

These wonderful signs even continued into the ministry of the apostles, as God used these powerful signs to verify their authority as representatives of the risen Christ.  But it wasn’t long that the stream of miracles dried up. God had given them as a signal that He had broken into His creation to restore it to what He wants it to be—and will be forever.

As I mentioned on All Saints Sunday, the Divine Service is something from which we have to depart.  The time of fulfillment and nearness of the Kingdom gives way to waiting again. Yet, just because we are made does not mean God has forgotten us.  His promises are just as sure as they ever have been, from the minute sin and death came into this world, to the final trumpet.

So God has spoken to you and me by the prophet Isaiah today to affirm His promise to you, of redeeming and restoring creation:

17  “For behold, I create new heavens 

and a new earth, 

and the former things shall not be remembered 

or come into mind. 

18  But be glad and rejoice forever 

in that which I create; 

for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, 

and her people to be a gladness. 

19  I will rejoice in Jerusalem 

and be glad in my people; 

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping 

and the cry of distress. 

The Creator of all is making all things new in Creation. He is restoring His creation to its proper glory, including you and I.  This transformation will be so momentous that how things are now will fade to black. Imagine that! The things which haunt our dreams and keep us up at night, which choke up our throats and make our hearts sink…instead of being heavy on our minds, will be outweighed by the glory of eternity!

St. Paul describes it this way in Romans 8, 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  And when we consider our present sufferings and longings, it seems almost too good to be true to hope that those burdens will be no more.  But the Holy Spirit convinces us to believe it, even though we have not seen it yet, because we know God does not lie.

The Day is coming when the Lord Jesus will restore to us what sin and death has robbed us of:

19  I will rejoice in Jerusalem 

and be glad in my people; 

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping 

and the cry of distress. 

20  No more shall there be in it 

an infant who lives but a few days, 

or an old man who does not fill out his days, 

for the young man shall die a hundred years old, 

and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. 

Mothers who have lost your children, He will wipe every tear you have shed.  Widows, who have lost your life-long companions, your aching will be stilled.  God is going to destroy the last enemy—death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). Death and Hades must give up the dead in them (Rev. 20:13).  There will be no more funerals, no more grieving having to give up the ones we hold dear. The tragic and vain course of this world will be no more!

21  They shall build houses and inhabit them; 

they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 

22  They shall not build and another inhabit; 

they shall not plant and another eat; 

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, 

and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 

23  They shall not labor in vain 

or bear children for calamity, 

for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord

and their descendants with them. 

One of the frustrations of this life is the ultimate futility of our life’s work.  As much as we try to hold onto a legacy, it can easily be forgotten, absorbed into the Medicaid coffers, or wasted by whoever comes after us.  As Solomon laments, 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:18-19)  The vanity comes when we try to hold onto it in this present world.  Instead, we’re made to wait until our Lord’s return and the resurrection, because only then will the work of our hands endure.  But it won’t be for our own pride, to have buildings and cities named after ourselves, but for the glory of God who removes the curse of death.  Humanity will endure forever.

24  Before they call I will answer; 

while they are yet speaking I will hear. 

25  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; 

the lion shall eat straw like the ox, 

and dust shall be the serpent’s food. 

They shall not hurt or destroy 

in all my holy mountain,” 

says the Lord

This passage speaks to something that is already true today—that God hears and answers before we answer.  We recognize this in part, and there are moments when we can connect our prayers to God’s answer. But often our faith flags and the next time the day of trouble comes, we worry that something will prevent God from hearing and answering.

The full realization of this intimate conversation will be when calamity is removed from us.  The danger of creation will be removed. The evil of this world will be cast out, as the Lord says “[angels] will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace.” (Matt. 13:41-42)

Whatever place mosquitos, black widows, ticks, or infectious diseases play in this world, they will not be dangerous in the world to come.  With the curse of sin and death removed, there will be nothing harmful left. Can you imagine the wolf and lamb grazing together? The lion eating straw, but this is what God ultimately, eternally, intended for his creatures.  

Remember the One who promises these things to you.  It’s not a man, who could fail you. It’s the same God who fulfills all that He promises, from the beginning and wondrously brings these things to pass in spite of what our eyes see today, what our minds are capable of conceiving, and what we could achieve by our own ability.  The seal placed on this is “Thus says the Lord.”

And as the wise virgins, who heed the bridegroom’s call [Matt. 25:1-13], may we ever say, “Yes, yes, it shall be so. Amen.” (SC Lord’s Prayer, conclusion)

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:31-46)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

This is one of the most uncomfortable passages of Scripture to read, because it leaves us with questions of, have I been good enough to stand on the Lord’s right hand? What does it take to be counted with the righteous?

I could give you the Lutheran pat answer that ultimately we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and that’s what qualifies the righteous to stand on His right.  Amen. End of story, go in peace.

But that would be whitewashing the Lord’s message is here.  Another related passage that makes us uncomfortable is these words from James 2: 

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:20-24)

To rightly understand salvation by grace through faith, we need to know that Jesus is more than the salvation version of the Staples “Easy” button—all you have to do is believe in Jesus and you’re set!  Or put another way, when he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” that wasn’t the end of the story.

What makes us uncomfortable about this passage in the Gospel is that we live in light of the final judgment—“He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”  And what’s uncomfortable and hard is that believing in Jesus is not a once-and-done, instant trip to eternal life.  Like Abraham, that faith is put to the proof.

In Romans 10:10, St. Paul says, “With the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  Faith operates in the heart, but it actually does change the heart it occupies.  Each week, we say—God forbid that it just be out of routine—“I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities…and I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.” (LSB 184) However, if we say that and there is no movement in the heart or intent to lead a God-pleasing life, that confession is nothing but straw—straw that will be tested by the fires of Judgement Day.

In Luke 3, when the crowds are answering God’s call through John the Baptist, he told them, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…and the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” (3:8, 10-11) Genuine repentance is manifested a changed heart, and an effort to change behavior.

In Ezekiel 36, the Lord says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (36:26-27)  This is what it looks like when God works faith in you.

Faith gives you a new heart.  Of course, it removes the love of sinning, intentionally doing those things which anger God.  But faith also includes the work of renewal.

When Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”  These were all things which God created humanity to be.  They’re an echo of the good He originally made us to be, but there is so much evidence of how our hearts have changed.  It’s sin that has hardened our hearts—toward God and toward each other. We go from being people who have compassion to finding excuses why it’s not our problem or why they deserve the hard lot they have.

As I left California behind, I remember listening to the Stevie Ray Vaughan song, “Crossfire,” in which he sings, “Day by day, night after night; Blinded by the neon light/ Hurry here, hustlin’ there/ No one’s got the time to spare/ Money’s tight, nothin’ free/ Won’t somebody come and rescue me?”  At the time, I thought this coldness was just a symptom of overcrowding or politics, and that moving to a smaller city in Washington would be the answer. Of course we recognize that this is not the kind of society we want to live in, and yet we find ourselves being a part of that problem every day.  That’s because it’s a symptom of the hardness of heart that sin has brought about in us.

But through the “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” in Holy Baptism (Titus 3:5), God not only gives the gift of trust in Christ, but also a heart being renewed to be like our Creator once more (Col. 3:10).  With that renewed heart, we are able to look at those around us less as inconveniences to be avoided, but as people made in the image of God and loved by Him!

One last thing about this regenerated heart, lest we should think Christianity is not much more than a moral system like Buddhism: Notice what the works were: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothed the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.  These people who God turns our heart toward aren’t just the easy cases—the family and friends you get along with, those who are self-sufficient and fun to hang out with. These are people in need, and God will give you a heart for them. Faith can only be said to be His work, because who in their right mind would care about hungry, thirsty, naked strangers, who are sick and imprisoned?  Oh, that’s right, our Lord does. In the same way He cared about us when we were strangers and even enemies of God.

So, yes, it is true that the righteous receive an inheritance prepared from before the foundation of the world—“saved by grace through faith, not a result of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)—a true, living, and active faith, and you can know that you have this faith through the sorrow over your sins and your trust that only Christ—not anything you do—can make you acceptable in God’s sight.  It is that genuine faith in which God’s mighty hand can be seen not only by Him, and also by our fellow man in need. As we live in the light of this Judgement, let your hearts not be fearful about the how much, because Christ has done it all to earn our blessed peace.  As He calls you His own here on earth, He gives you a heart to show His mercy. May God’s gracious kingdom come among us, and bring to His right hand, as the psalmist declares:

      You make known to me the path of life; 

      in your presence there is fullness of joy; 

      at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)

Amen. Go in peace.

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Exodus 32:1-20)

Lucas Cranach - The Law and the Gospel

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 10, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

The congregation got impatient when Moses was gone for 40 days and nights.  We are coming on 2000 years since our Lord’s ascension. It doesn’t take long to find some of the foolish things people have done hoping for or trying to hasten the Lord’s return.  

We’re more impatient than we’ve ever been as a race.  Two or one-day shipping, broadband Internet, text messaging, Skype calls to the International Space Station—it’s amazing what can be done and how small it’s made the world.  But the side effect is that we get impatient even waiting at a 40-second-long traffic light or balk when our first-world comforts are out-of-stock.

But this isn’t a new problem.  Impatience is borne in the heart, and it was just as much a problem for people thousands of years ago.  The lesson is the Lord says, “Wait on Me” and we do stupid stuff thinking we can help God along. We get impatient and want our own solutions to help the time pass.  In that delusion, it’s easy enough to sweep God’s will under the rug and turn “the Bible says” into a stamp of approval on whatever we want to do.

The people pressured Aaron into doing something which made them feel better about the wait.  Make us gods like the rest of the nations. Come on, Aaron, that’s what will let people know we’re really the chosen people of Abraham.  And the people we all behind this plan, so much so that they let go of the wealth which hung around their necks and on their ears (which God had given them as a gift in Egypt) and poured money into this project.

There’s much to learn from the parallels between this story of Moses going up the mountain and leaving Aaron to lead the people.  Several times, the Lord compares the Kingdom of God to a man going away and returning after a long time. He leaves stewards in charge who are to keep things running.

I mentioned earlier that it’s been far more than 40 days, nearly 2,000 years actually.  But where the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. When our Lord gives us the account of Moses on Sinai and tells us parables about a long journey, He’s helping us to understand our own place as the people of God.

Forty days after His resurrection (hey, there’s a significant number), Jesus ascended—not just a mountain—but into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Before He left, He gave instructions, appointed stewards of the mysteries, and promised, “Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

It is our place, as the children of God on earth, to live by faith in and through faith in His Word.  There’s a distinction: 

  • We live by faith in His Word, meaning we hold to it and trust it as the living Word of God which He inspired to be written for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16).  Whenever the children of God add to or subtract from this Holy Word, they fall into grave errors. If we add to it and try to bolster it with talk of history, church councils, and precedent, we minimize the sufficiency of the Word alone to sustain the Church until Christ’s return.  If we take away from it, to gloss over the parts which offend people who are proud of their self-made religion, then we let people go merrily to perdition. We live by faith in His Word.
  • We also live through faith in His Word.  As cute as the acronym is, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” the Bible is not like other instruction books, like assembling a chair from Ikea.  One of the ways sin has infected our hearts is with the idea that we can do something that can get us in good with God. We see God’s command to jump (so-to-speak) and we say, “How high?”  When in fact our legs are broken and our muscles have atrophied on account of sin. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.” And after all that we can do, the judgment is still “By works of the law shall no human being be justified in His sight. For through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)  Instead, our life is given to us as complete gift.  “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17) The reason we are able to sit here today having peace with God is because of the life of faith that continually comes from God.

And this is possible because Jesus far exceeds what Moses could ever do. 

Moses went up on the mountain and was no longer with the people.  As a man, he could only be in one place at a time, and God had called up to Sinai to receive the Law.  Jesus, on the other hand, ascends into heaven, and by personal union of God and Man, He can truly say that He is with us until His return (Eph. 4:9).  He is with us through His Word being spoken, through forgiveness being shared (“where two or three are gathered, there I am among them” Matt. 18:20), in His very Body and Blood given for us to eat and drink, and with His Spirit who comforts and preserves us.

Like Moses, our Lord appoints men to keep watch over His congregation.  It’s true they can err and fall. But that’s no reason to write off all clergy as if they were a manmade after-thought.  Think of it this way: The Lord has also preserved faithful preachers and members of His flock through the millennia. You don’t have to look anywhere further than where the pure Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered according to the Lord’s command.  Where you see that, you can be confident that you have found His chosen people.

There are times when His people make a mess of His Church on earth and profane His holy Name.  Sometimes we may wish that God would open the earth or strike down all false teachers. He doesn’t squelch Korah’s rebellion, or kill Uzzah for mishandling the holy things (Numbers 16, 2 Samuel 6:5-9).  Instead of destroying heretics, what He does is pray for them, that they turn from their error and save both themselves and whoever listens to them. And this is what we should to, because it could just as quickly be one of us who is deluded and has a corrupt view of the Word.

The day is coming when our Jesus will come down out of heaven.  He will not come down with tablets of stone that will be smashed in anger.  That’s because all the wrath against our disobedience has already been poured out on Calvary.  He—the Son of God Himself—was forsaken, not you or me (Matt. 27:46). He will come again to gather the faithful—those who waited for Him and live in and through His Word.  

All Saints Sunday (Revelation 7:9-14)

The Adoration of the Lamb

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

All Saints Sunday + November 3, 2019

Text: Revelation 7:9-14

This scene of the faithful at rest is given to John in the middle of great judgments at the end of the age.  After the sixth of seven seals, the proud of the earth who have rejected the Gospel vainly call for the mountains to hide them from Judgment.  What follows is further judgment against God’s enemies. But chapter 7 stands apart as interlude—both a heavenly picture of the Church on earth arrayed for battle (Rev. 7:1-8), and a vision of what our Lord has promised his disciples when He says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…”

This time of year, sneak previews abound.  Retailers like drop hints about what will be on sale over the holidays (like Costco sending out a flier detailing their sales week by week).  It creates anticipation and the promise—however remote—of good things on the horizon.

Hope is why the Lord gave the Revelation to St. John.  It is an inspiration and encouragement, and yes, it’s meant to evoke excitement for the end of our lives and the end of the this present world.  Sure, it has a lot of scary scenes and hideous depictions of God’s enemies, but it doesn’t really tell us anything which the Gospels haven’t already covered.  It’s as simple as we confessed in the Creed—“He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come in glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”

Now, if we can get manipulated by advertisers to get excited about worldly goods, think about how much greater Revelation is for our spirits:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Before His Ascension, our Lord commanded that His Church make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.  This is a picture of the sum total of all the Church’s evangelistic ministry. It’s the fruition of the seed of the Word being planted, and while we often see the part that gets snatched by the devil, falls away in persecution, and gets choked by the cares of life—the Gospel is truly effective at doing what God sends it for.  The Holy Spirit continues to “call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church…and keep it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

In this, we ought to be encouraged that God’s purpose is fulfilled—that He would bring the blessing of salvation to all the families of the earth who receive Him.  There’s much to do in reaching out with God’s Word in our various callings—pastors must preach faithfully, parents must catechize their children, Christian citizens must exercise their conscience as a witness against ungodliness around them, we must be ready to share this hope we have within us when friends and neighbors ask us.  Yet, the Church feebly struggles. Earlier in Revelation 7, we’re pictured as this great army in companies of 12,000, but we march together like kindergartners. Tugging, lagging behind, hitting each other, wandering, and throwing tantrums. But the miracle in this—the grace to us—is that God’s Kingdom still comes in spite of that.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

As the Lord does in other prophetic writings, He asks a question to get us thinking before He explains.  This great countless multitude, who is gathered around the Throne of God, and singing full-voice to God their Savior—who are they and where did they come from?  Like cliffhanger in a TV show that flashes forward after a plane crash, you’re left wondering how did things go from the world as we know it, to seeing this countless throng of the saved?

Some of it is known to us, how the Lord saves through increasing persecution, hearts growing cold, wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes.  Some of it will be worse still, as Jesus warns, “Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matt. 24:21-22)  But the blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might belong to God because He gathered His elect, He kept them in body and soul to join in this heavenly court!  Neither by our willpower, nor our ingenuity, nor as our proof of our dedication do we arrive safely across the Jordan.  Neither by how many good works we’ve done, nor by how much we’ve studied, nor our offering dollars do we have the privilege to stand among this throng.  All glory belongs to God alone, and to the Lamb who adorns us with all the righteousness needed to be welcome in God’s house and recipients of this blessed rest!

Now in words that can only be appreciated after we have felt the sharp pangs of our earthly pilgrimage, does the elder speak these consoling verses:

“Therefore they are before the throne of God, 

and serve him day and night in his temple; 

and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 

 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; 

the sun shall not strike them, 

nor any scorching heat. 

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, 

and he will guide them to springs of living water, 

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Paradise at last restored, but this time better.  This time we will be innocent, after we have known guilt.  We will serve Him, after we have wandered and denied Him. We will be sheltered after having been exposed.  We will be satisfied, after we have hungered and thirsted. And then, we will not be naked in this new creation, because we will be clothed by God after we had been covered with shame.  But the Day is coming when all those things will pass away, and this is what we will enjoy forever.

What we need now is that foretaste, that preview of the good things to come.  That’s what we have in the Divine Service and in His Word. It’s our sanctuary from this wearisome life.  When we are here, first thing our Lord assures us of His peace by forgiving our sins. He puts His Word on our lips, and then feeds us with His Word and we respond with singing.  After the sermon, we acknowledge our present life, giving of the things of this life to carry out God’s work on earth and bringing him our cares and needs in prayer. Then, before dismissing us to those burdens, our Lord invites us to table with Him, with angels and archangels, and all the saints at rest.

An ancient name for the Divine Service is the “Mass” (although this name is usually only used by Roman Catholics now).  It comes from the Latin, missa, which means dismissal, named for the prayer at the conclusion of the service. The point is this is a service which comes to an end, one which we are dismissed in peace.  But, we look forward to that Day we will no longer have to leave the Lord’s immediate presence. In the meantime, having had this foretaste, we are prepared by the Lord for all the tribulations of this present age, with the steadfastness we need to endure to the end. 

This is the hope toward which we press in Christ our Lord.  Amen.