Third Sunday in Advent (Matthew 11:2-6)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) + December 16, 2018

Text: Matthew 11:2-6

God sends His messengers to point us to the true signs of Christ’s imminent kingdom.

For about the last 40 years, Americans have been very skeptical of what their government is doing.  This was epitomized in the 1974 Privacy Act after the Watergate scandal, which sought to make government dealings available to the public.  When it comes to man, sometimes force is necessary to get them to explain what they’re doing.

But not so with the Lord.  In Amos 3:7, He says: “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”  Some accuse God of being secretive or double-minded, of withholding information from humanity. But this is not true!  God created humanity for fellowship and oneness with Himself, and even since our parents sinned, God has been working tirelessly to reveal His will to us in spite of our deaf ears and blind eyes.

When it comes to His work of taking our sins away and restoring eternal fellowship with man, God does nothing without telling His will to men.  Whether they listen is another matter.

He told His people ahead of time what He was going to do.  From Malachi 3 and 4: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”  He sent that forerunner of the Christ in John the Baptist.

“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.” The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  (Isaiah 40:1-5)

But to those who turn away from Him and hate His Word, the Bible will forever remain a closed book.  For them, this earlier Word through Isaiah is true: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”  That’s how it was with Herod, who locked John up in prison.  John had preached against him taking his living brother, Philip’s wife.  John was God’s messenger to Herod to repent of his evil ways for the Kingdom of Heaven had come.  But Herod and his new wife, Herodias, refused to listen.  Rather than continue to be made to feel guilty by John, he locked him up in prison. (Matt. 14:3)

God continues to send His messengers far and near, who make His will known.  This is what St. Paul teaches in the Epistle lesson: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”  These servants of God today are pastors, called by Christian congregations to preach the Word of the Lord and administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution.  Pastors take a sacred vow in the presence of God and the congregation to preach nothing more or less than Scripture says.  They also vow that they will bring that Word to bear in evangelical (Gospel-centered) spiritual care for God’s flock. This means they are to call those who are sinning to repentance and to pronounce the Lord’s forgiveness to all who repent.

Congregations, for their part also have a sacred duty to hear the Word of the Lord spoken by their called pastor.  They do not “hire” a pastor to simply put on a pleasant feel-good show on Sunday and feed them intriguing spiritual nuggets in Bible study.  Christians have this right to call a man of God so that He will be the Lord’s instrument to keep watch over their souls–rebuke them when they err, instruct them in true doctrine, guide them in living holy lives, and strengthen and keep them in the true faith (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Peter 5:2-3).

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

Now, John, the man of God, had a problem, because His preaching and wound him up in prison.  That led him to have some doubts if he had preached the right message.  If this is the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world and bring about God’s Kingdom, why am I rotting in this jail cell?  He’s not alone in his doubts.  Other men of God have doubts when their hearers rear up because of what they preach.

For my part, I’ve had my doubts in my call at this congregation.  When I came, several long-time members–people who had been part of calling me to shepherd this part of the Lord’s flock–bugged out of my spiritual care and the support of Bethlehem because they did not agree with the Scriptural doctrine of the Lutheran church.  But when 6 households up and leave, including several council members, in the first year of my arrival, it led me to have serious doubts.  Did I say something wrong?  Was I not whimsical enough in the way I taught the faith?  It was a very rough first year, and during VBS week of 2017, I was facing 6 of them tell me they were never coming back because I didn’t pick or let them sing their favorite ditties.  If even the forerunner to Christ had doubts, you can imagine how doubts must plague pastors today.

But Christ, my Lord has helped His servant see the truth, just as He did for John.

“Jesus answered [John’s disciples], ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”

Jesus could have given him a simple “yes,” but He chose to do more.  He points John to the signs of His Kingdom.  These were signs that could only mean that Jesus was the Christ, God Himself come down to usher in the new covenant.  The signs were external, visible (yet spiritual discerned) confirmation that John’s ministry was right where it needed to be–even if it meant being in a jail cell and soon execution.  John, in spite of what it looked like, was fulfilling his ministry.

Jesus’ way of pointing to spiritual signs continues to be true today, because the ongoing task of God’s messengers is to point to the signs of Christ’s imminent Kingdom.  The Christian faith is assaulted by intellectual attacks: our children are made to feel backwards and closed-minded by their teachers and peers for their moral convictions, we are worn down by voices who urge us to shake off what they call an unreasonable faith.  Some are forcefully attacked at gunpoint, with threats of death, and others have their reputation and livelihood destroyed.  The Church cries out, “Are you the One who is to come? Or are the secuarlists right?  Have we been lied to by the Bible and our pastors?”

Jesus is here to point you to the signs of His Kingdom.  It is not a kingdom like this world, with borders, and an army to fight reproaches.  Rather, you are blessed because you are poor in spirit and have believed the good news preached to you.  Your spiritual eyes and ears, which you know are plagued by sin, have been opened to see and hear Jesus in the Scriptures, see His Body and Blood in the Sacrament, hear His voice from heaven announcing that you have peace with God and have eternal salvation.  You, who were dead in your trespasses, God has made you alive with Christ, and you will most certainly be raised to life when He comes again.

Incidentally, the Lord Jesus has also given answer for Bethlehem.  He pointed me to (and continues to remind me) what signs prove that His kingdom has come among us: the Word of God is preached and taught in its truth and purity here, sinners are brought to repentance and believe the precious word of forgiveness that He has placed on His servant’s lips, adults and children are baptized and publicly confess this Scriptural faith, and every age from infants baptized to elderly laid to rest acknowledge that God has worked all of this.

May Jesus Christ, John the Baptist’s Lord and yours, fill you with joy and conviction that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming among us and will continue to come so long as His Gospel is preached.  For His holy Apostle Paul has said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.” (Rom. 1:16) Bessed is the one who is not offended by Him. Amen.

Advent 2 Midweek

Advent 2 Midweek “For unto us a Son is Given”: The Answer of Samuel

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

The devil loved barrenness. In Genesis 3:15, after the devil had tempted Eve, and she and Adam fell into sin, the Lord said to the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed


; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The devil knew that one day a Seed of the woman would come and defeat him. So the devil was very glad whenever a woman could not conceive. He took it as an opportunity to gloat, as if there were a possibility that God’s promise wouldn’t be fulfilled.

Last week with Sarah, and next week with Elizabeth, we don’t hear the devil’s gloating. But this week we have Peninnah. Peninnah was the wife of Elkanah. Peninnah’s womb was fruitful; she has multiple sons and daughters. Elkanah also had a wife named Hannah, whom he loved, in spite of the fact she could bear him no children. The Lord had closed Hannah’s womb.

From time to time, Elkanah would go with his family to Shiloh where the tabernacle was set up, and it’s likely that he went for the appointed feasts. During these feasts, the Israelites offered peace offerings. The priests would burn certain parts of the animals on the altar, and the Lord gave a portion of the meat from the peace offerings to the priests. But most of the meat was given back to the one who brought the offering. And it was now holy meat to be eaten as a sacred meal from the Lord. The peace offerings were an Old Testament anticipation of the Lord’s Supper.

During these feasts, Elkanah gave portions to Peninnah and her sons and daughters. “But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:5).

It was during these feasts that Peninnah provoked Hannah and made her weep bitterly. Peninnah proved to be a rival, an adversary, tormenting Hannah because the Lord had closed her womb. Hannah wept, and refused to eat. No doubt Hannah felt the personal hardship of being barren. But as a faithful woman who trusted the Lord’s promises, she’s not just thinking of herself. She thought of the Seed of Promise who is to come for all people and end the gloating of God’s enemies.

Yet there’s Peninnah mocking: I have children and you don’t. Poor barren little Hannah! All she wants is a child, but she’s a fruitless tree, a dead end of descendants. Under these taunts are the taunts of Satan himself against all of God’s people: “You wait for the promised Savior, but he’s never coming.  Has He said He would never leave or forsake you?  Look at how things are?  You call this promised answered?  I’m the prince of this world, and no one can overthrow me. You’re destined to live under me in my kingdom, and serve me in everlasting unrighteousness, guilt, and cursing.”

Hannah weeps, and we weep with her. We feel our bodily malfunction—the parts that fail to function as God first created them, the lives cut short, our own waning strength.  We see the devil’s offspring everywhere in the form of those who hate Jesus.  This is what our eyes see and our ears hear, but we do not see our Lord fighting back. We cry out with David in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” We cry out with Moses in Psalm 90, “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” Like Hannah, we pour out our hearts before the Lord!

After everyone else had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose and prayed to the Lord in the bitterness of her soul. She prayed, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son” Literally what it says in Hebrew is “a seed of men.” Hannah asks for a seed, and it’s not a stretch to hear her praying for the Seed, the promised One, who as Hannah says, will “appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever” (1 Sam. 1:22).

It wasn’t the Lord’s will at that time to send the Promised Seed. Nevertheless, He gave Hannah a son in order to show that he does not make his promises in vain. “And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.” (1 Sam. 1:20). The name Samuel in Hebrew means, “One who is heard by God” or “God heard.” Hannah named her son Samuel because he was an answer to prayer. God heard, and He sent a seed.

This was a great comfort to Hannah, not only because the Lord opened her womb, but because he confirmed His promise. Hannah’s comfort is our comfort because we have longed with her for the promised Seed. And we have even greater comfort than Hannah’s because we know that promise was fulfilled.

For centuries God’s people prayed in distress under the weight of sin and death, “Return, O Lord! How long?” For centuries the devilish Peninnah mocked God’s people. And then the fullness of time came (Gal. 4:4). The womb was Mary’s womb, and the child’s name Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” (Matt. 1:21) because He would save His people from their sins. Jesus is the true Samuel. He is the one for whom Hannah and all the faithful prayed, and it is of Jesus that we say, “I have asked him from the Lord” and He has heard us.

Much to the chagrin of the devil, God’s promise proved true. Jesus came and fulfilled that ancient curse against the serpent. The devil opened wide his mouth to destroy Jesus with false accusation and bitter death. Yet it was on the cross that Jesus crushed the ancient serpent’s head with his heel.  After Satan, whose name means “accuser” spoke bitter, discouraging, and tempting lies to men, Jesus answered for them once for all!  Peninnah has been silenced forever, and in our ear, Jesus speaks peace: “Your sins are forgiven. The ruler of this world is cast out.  You shall not die, but you shall live. The children of the desolate one are more than her who is married.”[1] Take heart! God’s promised Seed has come in answer to your heartfelt cries!

We are a people at peace in the word of the Lord that He gives us.  But the voice that is no longer heard is the accusing voice of the devil.  Together with all of the blessings Jesus gives, He also gives us a holy and peaceful silence. Jesus makes the devil shut up.  In John 8, a woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus, and the Pharisees say, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”  Jesus silences them by saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Finally, one by one they leave, and Jesus says, “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”

In the same way, Jesus answers for and silences all of Satan’s accusation. When Jesus gave himself for us, he showed his promise to be true and the devil’s taunts to be lies. The devil may still rant, but because of what Jesus has done we can tell him, “Silence”  “Submit yourselves to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)  He must be quiet, and let you come to the house of God and eat the double portion of Christ’s sacrifice in peace. And then at the end, the devil will go down bound hand and foot to hell, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

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

[1] Matt. 9:2; John 12:31; Psalm 118:17; Isaiah 54:1

Second Sunday in Advent (Luke 21:25-36)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Second Sunday in Advent (Populus Zion) + December 9, 2018

Text: Luke 21:25-36

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

In these Last Days, Jesus gives us the signs to look for to know that His return is near.  And let’s check them off:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places… they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:6-12)

All of these things are happening this very moment.  It’s not just in the minds of the aged; the world really is worse than it has ever been.  Criminals are more brazen and more grotesque.  Children can’t play in their front yard because of perverts and human traffickers.  Terrorists are willing to commit more heinous acts in the name of their idea of god, or just to get attention.  This isn’t only because fewer people are going to church.  There is an increasing wickedness on the rise in the world, and we are witnesses or (and sometimes participants in) it.

But it’s important that our response is guided by our Lord, not by nostalgia.  Jesus doesn’t tell us simply to wring our hands and lament the loss of the “good old days.”  No, He tells us: “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”  Those two words are a warning to us about what might happen in the face of times like this.  Dissipation is the evaporation of faith, as if our faith in Christ were a cloud that is here one minute and blows away the next.  The other, drunkenness, describes our joining in with those around us in an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”[1] attitude.  If things are getting rough, let’s just indulge in escapism and find distractions to take our minds off how bad things really are.

No, rather than follow the world in its downward spiral, Jesus tells us: “But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  What sets us apart from the world as it’s going down the toilet is our faith.  Stay awake!  Don’t just go on autopilot with everyone around us, with a startled reaction that this world is beyond repair.  Don’t resign yourselves to the way things are and light a joint with the rest of the ignorant.  Instead, be at prayer that you would have the strength to escape these terrible conditions and faithless times.

These Last Days aren’t simply about weeding out the weak from the strong; they are a time for separating those who put their hope in the Lord and take Him at His Word and those who ultimately reject Him.  As things get worse in the world, the people of God look to Him for strength and deliverance.

The world, twisted and getting worse as it is, is a sign that we should be ever getting ready for His coming.  Free yourselves of the myth that God wouldn’t possibly let it get worse than we can handle.  This is the old saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  That might be how your tame, blue-eyed Jesus on the wall works, but it’s not how the true God does.  Here Jesus is not telling us to pray that none of these things would happen, but that we would have strength to escape them.

Jesus is our best example of God’s will for us, so consider how He faced His hour of trial: When He was on the Mount of Olives and facing His passion and death, He prayed to His Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”  He knew full well that it was necessary for Him to endure the cross, or our salvation would be null and void.  But even still, He prayed.  And that’s what He commands His followers to do at times like this.

We are facing the end of the world, and whether or not we are witnesses to the last generation to be born on earth, Jesus commands us to pray, to continue meditating on His Word, and to endure these trials knowing that by them, God’s will is done.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 18), Jesus tells the parable of a widow “to the effect that [we] ought always pray and not lose heart.”  The widow implores an unrighteous judge for justice, but the message of the parable is that we not lose faith in God, for “will He delay long over [his elect who cry to Him]?” (Luke 18:1-8).  But about the end of the world, He says, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”

Our faith continues looking to God, even while the world is crashing down around us.  No matter whether times are prosperous or it’s the day before Jesus’ return, the faithful are still praying: “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”  Faith is what enables us to say Amen to that prayer, because it means that we trust God is actively bringing His good and gracious will to bear on earth as it is in heaven, and even as this world passes away, our Father in heaven has not changed or lost His hold on world history or our lives.  Why?  Because the bedrock of our salvation is God’s faithfulness—“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Himself up for us all, how will He not with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Our Lord calls us to continued meditation on His Word. David might have seemed like a dull fellow because He wrote Psalm 119, but in times of deepest distress is when we need God’s Word to guide us the most.  “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your Word…Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will keep it to the end…The Lord is my portion, I promise to keep your words” (Psalm 119:9, 33, 57).  That’s because meditation on the will of God is how we don’t get swept away with our own ideas or those of the unbelieving world.  Jesus calls each of us to remember how weak we are—“the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) If only we believed what that means, we would be blessed because we would humbly seek God’s will in His holy Word all the time, because that’s where the Spirit speaks to us!

Perhaps the most difficult part of these last days is that our God calls us to suffer.  From our Lord’s example, we learn there’s nothing wrong with praying to be spared the cup of suffering if there is another way.  Nevertheless, we children of God need to realize that sometimes His will is for us to suffer.  Consider the spiritual teaching of James: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) Who among us would choose trials?  Nevertheless, God sends them as means of refining and firming up our faith. He sends them with the reward of becoming steadfast in Christ, and steadfast in our faith.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:32

Advent 1 Midweek

Advent 1 Midweek “For unto us a Son is Given” : The Laughter of Isaac

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Joshua reminded the Israelites, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods” (Joshua 24:24). This was back when Abraham was called Abram, before he knew the one true God. But the Lord said to Abram in Genesis 12, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Abram went as the Lord had told him. He was seventy-five years old, his wife Sarai was sixty-five years old, and this childless couple left father and fatherland simply on God’s Word and promise.

Sometime later, the Word of the Lord came to Abram in Genesis 15: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abram understood that the Lord was talking about the offspring whom He had promised. But Abram said, “O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (who was the chief slave in his house). But to the aging Abram God replied, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” The Lord brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” And then comes one of the most famous lines of the Old Testament: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)  This is how God interacts with us: through faith.

Well, time passed. It had been twenty-four years since the Lord had first promised an offspring to Abram.  In that time, some things had gone well—his flocks and herds had grown so large that he had to separate from his nephew Lot, and Abram was able to rescue Lot when he got mixed up with the Sodomites.  But Sarai had gotten desperate for God’s promise to come true.  She ordered her servant Hagar to make offspring for her.  Although she may have had noble intentions, this did not come from God.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord again appeared to him and said, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham” – which means “father of many” – “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations…. As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name” – which means “princess.” “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

How did Abraham respond to this? “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” Sarah had the same response in the reading we heard a little bit ago. “Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’”

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

The Lord made a great promise, and Abraham and Sarah both laughed. The Lord’s promises are supposed to bring laughter, but a certain kind of laughter. The Lord’s promises are intended to give a laughter of joy, to a merry heat that rests secure by faith. One translation of the ancient hymn, Phos Hilaron, is called “O Laughing Light”[1] because God’s promises evoke a free and joyful spirit in all who believe.  His promises are a cause for celebration! They take away fear of the days to come, and make for a light and cheerful spirit.

Yet sometimes even God’s chosen people respond to his promises not with a laughter of joy, but with a laughter of unbelief.  This is the laugher Jesus encountered when He went to Jairus’ house after his daughter had died, and He said, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” It says, “And they laughed at Him.” (Mark 5:39-40)  On a human level this doubt is understandable. For twenty-four years, Abraham had been hearing the same promise of an offspring, and as those years went on it seemed less and less likely—according to the rules of human procreation—that the promise would ever be fulfilled, at least not with Sarah. The way of women had ceased for Sarah, and they were both older than many people live in our days. Abraham believed the Word of the Lord; he trusted the promise. But when he heard that his ninety-year-old, barren wife would conceive the child, that promise flew in the face of everything he knew and experienced. And he laughed, not because the promise seemed joyful, but because the promise seemed unbelievable.

Jesus says to us, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Yet the world seems to be going from bad to worse. St. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” And you laugh, because your sinful flesh seems the same as it’s ever been: the same desires, the same doubts, the same sinful acts. “Yes, I am coming quickly,” Jesus promises in Revelation 22. Two thousand years have passed, and false prophets say we should start interpreting these words allegorically.  We hear his promise, and instead of saying, “Amen,” we find it much easier to chuckle.

On a human level the doubt is understandable. But it’s not justifiable before God. The proper response to His promises is a laughter of joy and faith, not a laughter of doubt and unbelief. The Lord scolds us for faithless laughter, just as he scolded Sarah. And we fear the Lord with Sarah, knowing we deserve much worse than a scolding. With all of God’s people we pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

And the Lord does help our unbelief. He helps our unbelief by keeping His promises and giving us the Holy Spirit. The Lord visited Sarah just as he had said. She conceived and gave birth to a son. Abraham named his son Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “he laughs.” And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me.” Now Abraham and Sarah laugh with a godly laughter, the laughter of joy, because God has fulfilled His promise and confirmed His Word to all future generations, even to us.

The Lord has confirmed that He keeps His promise in an even greater way. When the fullness of time had come, the Lord came in flesh himself in fulfillment of his ancient and trustworthy promise to Adam and Eve. (Gen. 3:15) Jesus is the greater offspring of Abraham, the true Isaac, son of promise. Jesus is like Isaac because he lives up to Isaac’s name: he laughs. He laughs at the devil and sin and death. He threw himself headlong into them, and though He suffered He treated them like a joke. And that laughter He gives to those who believe in Him, and we sing, “Their might a joke, a mere façade. God is with us and we with God. Our vict’ry cannot fail.” (“O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe” LSB 666:3)

Jesus, like Isaac, brings the laughter of joy to God’s people. His death on the cross reckons you blameless and holy before God. He rose from the dead so that you can laugh at death rather than fear it. Jesus has given you a joyful laughter by proving true to his promises, so that even if He seems slow in coming, you can rejoice, certain that everything He says holds true. He kept His promise and came in the manger. He will keep His promise and come again in glory. On that day, yet another of the Lord’s promises will be fulfilled: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21) Amen.

[1] It’s not a stretch to see “hilaron” is the root for “hilarious” and refers to this free spirit (2 Cor. 9:7 translates it cheerful)

First Sunday of Advent (Matthew 21:1-9)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

First Sunday of Advent + December 2, 2018

Text: Matthew 21:1-9

By coming into Jerusalem, Jesus sets a precedent.  On the one hand, He shows what kind of King He is going to be.  On the other, He shows what His subjects can expect.

Contrast this with what people were hoping Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem meant.  They were weary from diseases, left empty by death, harassed by demons and false shepherds, and they were children of Abraham living under foreign rule.  They longed for relief because God had promised them this land, He had promise them salvation.  But what most of them were hoping for was not what Jesus had come to bring.

But Jesus is no Caesar Augustus (reigned 27 BC—14 AD), here to establish the Pax Romana.  He does not come to bring peace on the earth, but a sword which will divide even members of the same family.[1]  If you’re looking for a king who will rule over a geographical location, look elsewhere, because He says, “My kingdom is not of this world.”[2]  But if you want rest, He is your King.  If you’re looking for rest from the enemies of guilt and death, this is the King you’ve been waiting for!

“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

So often we think we know our needs so well, but God sees better than we do.  The people gathered that Palm Sunday didn’t need a rehash of the Kingdom under David.  While their was outward peace, there was turmoil and sin always waiting at the door.  God saw their need and ours that this was David’s Son who came, “not to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).  He rides into Jerusalem on a beast of burden, to serve a broken world full of sinners in their greatest need: One who can take away the sins of the world and lift the shroud of death that haunts all people.

This service He does in humility: A King mounted on a donkey, God dwelling in human weakness, a Man laying down His life to save.[3]  He served their greatest need in humility and weakness.  Who would have thought that Jesus could save by hanging on a cross?  They taunted Him as He hung there saying that He ought to save himself and the two criminals with him.[4]  But it was exactly under this weakness, this humble service, that He established His Kingdom.  He was crowned with thorns and anointed with a bloody death.  Because of such a coronation, God raised His righteous King from the dead to reign triumphant over His enemies.  He trampled Satan under His feet, overturned the curse of death, and removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.[5]

All this was Jesus’ first Advent.  His first coming was in weakness, but His Second coming will be with power.  Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.  Every eye will see Him coming on the clouds of heaven, separating the righteous from the wicked.  The trouble was the people on Palm Sunday were a little ahead of schedule if they thought Jesus was already establishing His Kingdom in visible power.

But then where does that leave us?  We who follow Jesus are in the same place He was then.  We are found in weakness.  Though we are children of God, we lose our health or robbed of our property. We are slandered and taken advantage of.  Compared to other people who seem to transcend barriers of gender and human limitation, we are conscience bound as servants of our Creator.  It is not our share to have power, glory, and success now, but to endure disgrace, disappointment, and shame even while we live under our King, risen and ascended.

This life as a Christian is not much to look at.  You could try to sugar-coat it, call it victorious, but there comes a point where that notion sounds ridiculous.  Are you going to go to someone in the ICU and tell them they’re living the victorious life?  Of course not!  This life is nice at times, but death is always on the horizon.  The Christian life is lived by faith, not by sight.  Now is the time for people to be saved by God’s work, not one’s wise decision—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[6]  So, if a person believes in Jesus today, it’s not because he saw a powerful miracle or claimed he saw an angel, or was instantly healed of his disease.  A person comes to know Jesus by hearing His voice and believing what He says.

The next time Jesus comes, nobody is going to mistake His coming.  You won’t miss it because you were off Facebook that week, or cut the cord on your cable service.  This will be His Second Advent, where He comes with power. As a man of war, He will execute judgement upon His enemies, and gather His faithful into His courts to enjoy eternal peace, power, and rest from all enemies.

Where does that leave us?  Just as we now follow Him in weakness, we will be with Him in power.  St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.” (1 Cor. 15:42-43)  The difference between our King’s first Advent and His second will turn everything around, because His Kingdom will be revealed in all its power and authority.  Justice will be done by the God who knows the hearts of all.  The proud and powerful will never again take advantage of the weak, and every lie will be clearly seen in the light of God’s truth.

So, today, we welcome our King who has come in weakness and gained for Himself a glorious Kingdom—one where even we belong because in it we find the very healing and hope we need.  But we also look forward to when we will “meet the Lord in the air”[7] and sing our Hosanna’s to our Christ who comes in glory.

And no better place do we see these two realities than in the Lord’s Supper.  Think about what we sing in the Sanctus: From Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth (angel armies), the whole earth is full of His glory”—We praise our almighty and glorious King who is over all.  “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.”—we welcome our King who came in the weakness of flesh and blood.  And yet, the same Jesus, glorious almighty God and humble servant for our salvation, is who serves us at this altar.

Israel of God, this is the King whom you have—One who is humble and lowly, and yet also almighty and powerful to save from every evil of body and soul.  Though you can’t see heaven’s halberd in His hand, He has died for you and He fights for you so that you will live under Him in His Kingdom forever. Amen.

[1] Matthew 10:34-36

[2] John 18:36

[3] John 15:13

[4] Luke 23:35-39

[5] Psalm 103:12

[6] John 20:29

[7] 1 Thessalonians 4:17

Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 25, 2018

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

            We can all agree that being prepared is important.  If you are prepared for something, it will be easier to meet when it comes.  This is true of things we know when to expect, like Christmas, bills, school assignments, or retirement.  But it’s also true of things we don’t have a date on, like natural disasters and when the car will break down.

            Despite how important it is, preparing for the future is often shuffled to the bottom of priorities. released a study indicating that 36% of American workers have absolutely nothing saved for retirement.[1]  We all know that earthquakes and floods can and do happen, but how many of us actually have stores of water and food for these events?

            In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, our Lord is talking about preparation.  We may not have a date on it, but we know—because God’s Word is true—that Christ will return.  Even tomorrow is not promised to any of us, but the Lord’s coming in glory is.  His coming will be like a “thief in the night”[2] but for those who are prepared, this will not be a shock.  In order to prepare us, so that we will not be caught off guard, Jesus tells this parable: 

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

After nation has risen against nation, famines, earthquakes, great tribulation, false prophets, and frightful signs in the heavens,[3] the return of Christ will be a relief for the God’s people.  At last our Savior has come! They will shout, “This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”[4]

But then comes the shock: not everyone who is waiting for the Lord enters into the Marriage Feast!  Haven’t all ten been prepared?  All have dressed themselves for their Bridegroom’s return.   They all have their lamps handy.  They even all fell asleep in waiting for the Bridegroom.  So why are five wise and five foolish?

It’s has to do with the oil.  The five wise had oil to last the wait, but the foolish only brought enough for the moment.

But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’

It seems that the wise are coldhearted toward their companions.  How can this be an example of charity?  The virgins have oil and they are not willing to share!

The real trouble is they are not able to share because the oil is living faith, and each must have his own.  Verse 1 in Greek makes a special point that that each has her own lamp.  To be sure, Christians are commanded to share material things with those in need, but faith is something that one person cannot give to another.  As Martin Luther began one of his sermons,

The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me.[5]

The reality is that each of us must be prepared with his or her own faith.  Faith is a gift from God, but it is one that each needs to have and treasure above all else in this life.

            Jesus tells this parable to His disciples.  He speaks to those in His Church, not to those outside.  The ten virgins stand for the whole of all who consider themselves Christians.  Enough has been said by the Lord to those who reject His Word for themselves—Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists.  But Jesus is our Lord and He has every right to our attention.

            It is also fitting that He has our attention now, because the time is coming when we will all grow drowsy and sleep.  None of us can escape death (which the Lord calls sleep more than once).[6] He tells us that the sleep of death will come to us all before His return.  As the Apostle Paul says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[7]

             The virgins are decked out for the Bridegroom’s return.  No doubt they are all beautifully clad and full of anticipation.  As Psalm 45 foretells, “All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her.”[8]  The Church, the Bride of Christ is waiting eagerly for His return.

            But it turns out for all their preparations, the foolish virgin companions have run out of oil.  They would have been fine if the Lord had come back immediately, but He delayed in returning. 

Now, this has a lot to say to us as Lutherans, who move heaven and earth to get our children baptized, but then never bring them to church again.  It speaks to parents who could care less about the Divine Service until 7th grade hits, and suddenly their junior high student must be confirmed.  Pastor Mark Surburg calls confirmation the “magic talisman of the Lutheran Church,” that parents and children go to great lengths for a moment in time, but neglect training in godliness for the rest of life’s journey.

            The Lord also warns everyone who would trust in virgin garments.  Even though you rarely miss a Sunday at Church, and though you gave generously in the offering plate, and though you sponsored every one of the pew Bibles, none of this will win you the Bridegroom’s eye.  The Apostle to the Hebrews and St. Paul both agree, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” and “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[9]

            The wise virgins know this, but the foolish virgins, like the goats from last week, think they can make an appeal to seniority and that their dedication counts for something.  Once fed at the rich table of Law and Gospel preaching and the comfort of the Sacraments, they leave to subsist on scraps at their friend’s non-denom church.  They move to college, get divorced, or lose their job and decide that church they were at is what’s wrong with their life.  They marry an unbeliever and think they’ll save him by sitting next to him on the couch.

            Empty lamps with the flame burning out is what all of us become unless we are regularly filled by the Lord.  If the Lord brought us to heaven immediately, we might be fine.  But He doesn’t.  He tarries, and the journey of life is long.  “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Be prepared for the whole span of your life.

            When it comes to preparing for things like retirement or an upcoming trip, the emphasis is on our work and our decisions.  If we don’t save or we don’t pack, we’ll be sorry.  But when it comes to being a wise virgin, the Lord prepares you. He gives you a heart of wisdom to number your days,[10] so that you see your desperate need for the gifts He freely gives.  We come to the Lord like an empty vessel, needing to be filled.  He gladly does this!  He is filling you right here in the Divine Service.  In faith, you hear His Word, receive His forgiveness, and taste His Body and Blood.  He fills you in Bible study, so that as you spend time meditating on His Word, He fills you with eternal riches.

In being filled, you sometimes might miss out on sleep, or watching a football game, or your kids might not be the basketball star you wish they could be.  But the wise virgins know that what her Bridegroom gives—and still has laid up in eternity—far outshines anything on this earth.  Unless He comes before, you will grow drowsy and your earthly life will ebb to a close.  You will be with Him until that final trumpet sounds and all the virgins rise.  Those wise, prepared virgins will rejoice and sing in the words of Psalm 45:

    Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.

The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;

                you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.

                  Therefore God, your God, has anointed you

with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;

And “with joy and gladness they will be led along as they enter the palace of the King.”[11] Amen.


[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:2 (Epistle reading)

[3] An overview of Matthew 24

[4] Isaiah 25:9

[5] Sermon for Invocabit Sunday (1st Sunday in Lent), March 9, 1522

[6] Let us not laugh at Him like those at Jairus’ house or be ignorant like the disciples at Lazarus’ death  (Matthew 9:24; John 11:11-15)

[7] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[8] Psalm 45:13-14

[9] Hebrews 11:6, Romans 14:23

[10] Psalm 90:12

[11] Psalm 45:6-7, 15

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

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 18, 2018

Baptism of Nathan L. Vasquez

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

It’s no myth from the past or a method of keeping people in line.  Every person will appear before the judgment seat of Christ.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)

But that brings up the question, what will people be judged by? 

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

And to those bound for hell, He says,

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

This sounds like they will be judged by their works, and that those works are the basis for whether someone placed on the right (going to heaven) or the left (going to hell).

But if that’s the case, this would seem to contradict the rest of Scripture which says, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Mal. 4) and “by works of the Law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16) and the King’s own words to the sinful woman: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)

If we’re to believe that He will judge us by our works, a performance-based review, who tips the scales?  How would anyone know if they had worked their way over to the right side of the King?  If you go down that road too far, you’ll wind up in the ditch on either side.  On one side of the road is pride, where you’re sure that all your hard work for God must amount to some kind of reward.  This is the ditch that we see Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr in heaven simply because of all the good they appeared to do.

Then there’s the other ditch which is filled with despair.  How could I ever hope to measure up in God’s sight?  I’ve got such a load of sin that I could never make it up to Him!  I couldn’t possibly hope to do enough good to be called “a saint.”  Incidentally, this is also the ditch people wind up in when they think the Church will fall down the minute they walk through the door.

If our eternal destination depended on how well we measured up against God’s standards, then no one could be saved—not Mother Teresa, not Saint Paul, not you or me.  Even King David himself prays, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:2)

Listen to these words again:

And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food…

The key is in what He says before the works: Inherit kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.  I know some of you in the congregation have worked all your life, but I don’t know any person who has worked since the foundation of the world.  I also don’t know how many inheritances have to be worked for—unless you have a sadistic relative.  No, an inheritance is something that is bequeathed to you after someone dies.  So now put those two together—works and inheritance.  The only one who has been working to prepare from the foundation of the world is the Son of God, who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…and was made man.” (Nicene Creed).  He is also the one who died, and who made us His heirs—“This is my Blood of the New Testament which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20) 

So Christ has worked and Christ has died, and the sheep receive what He earned and what He willed them to receive.  It is true—“by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But what about the works?  After all the King says they have done all these marvelous things—fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned.  But the righteous seem to have a memory block and can’t remember doing all that.  That’s because this is what faith is.  Faith receives the perfect, righteous life of Jesus.  Through faith in the Perfect Man, the faithful are counted as perfect, acceptable in God’s sight.  That’s why it’s such a shock on that day, because they are not judged only by their deeds; they are judged on the deeds of Jesus Christ and receive a perfect passing grade.

Now lastly, it sounds like those on the King’s left, the goats, are judged by their works—“Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”  And it’s true.  The goats, the wicked, are those who refused the way of faith and chose the way of works.  They tested God by saying, I’m sure there will be an exemption for people like me.  Surely God would let the decent people go to heaven.  But because they refused Christ, they are judged exactly by their works, and found wanting. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that’s what they find out by the time it’s too late.  But to you who hear the Word today, believe the rest of the verse: “and are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)

But the works are mentioned for a reason.  When the Lord talks about works, he doesn’t let His people off with a free behavior pass to do whatever they please.  Scripture speaks very strongly against the idea that faith exists in a vacuum.  Works are the fruit of a heart that actually has faith.   The Apostle James, not being up on Lutheran lingo says, “So faith alone, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)  And he’s right.  If we claim to be Christians, but it makes no difference in how we order our life, then we have a faith problem. 

Jesus endured His bloody suffering and death because our sin went to our heart.  The heart is where our will is ruled, and that’s where all actual sin comes from.  But because Christ’s sacrifice in which we believe starts in the heart, the heart must change.  Today, we witnessed the power and promise of God for Nathan, because St. Paul writes, “He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-6)  While everyone who believes in Jesus has this power, Baptism confirms God’s work to make us new people.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)  Through Baptism, God answers this call by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit who mightily works to crucify our old self and the wickedness in our heart, and raises us with Christ to walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4).

So yes, as far as good works, Christ-like, sacrificial, loving works toward God and our neighbor—God does expect those because He puts them in our new heart.  And whatever still rears its ugly, evil head, He forgives.  But on the Last Day, we will be judged on account of our faith—whether we believe in Jesus from the heart or whether we choose a do-it-yourself alternative.  Out of His boundless mercy, and according to His wonderful promises, may we be found on the King’s right hand.  Amen.

Works are also the fruit of faith, the visible evidence of the difference between the saints and the wicked.

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 11, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

Waiting is hard.  I don’t know anyone who is perfectly patient about rising above their present troubles.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could always do what the Apostle to the Hebrews admonishes us to do: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:2 NIV)  Would that we had such undivided devotion to our Lord and the unshakable kingdom He has prepared for us.  But the reality is, we get impatient waiting on God’s timing when He doesn’t work on the schedule we’re so convinced is right and reasonable.

How true this is also of the Church as a whole.  After the Ascension of Christ, believers were in eager expectation that Jesus’ return was right around the corner.  Apostles were martyred—that’s okay; Jesus is coming back soon.  They had all things in common and nobody lacked within the tight-knit Christian community (Acts 2:44-45).  Doctrinal controversies came—circumcision and early Gnosticism,[1] but the Apostles were present to clear up the confusion.  When the Galatians had false teachers come to them, they got a personal letter from the Apostle Paul himself!  Take heart, brothers, this is only for a short time; the Lord is at hand!

Then the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and, the believers remembered His words like those in Matthew 24.  This is happening just like Jesus said!  Surely, Jesus will return is in a few years!  Then over twenty years pass, and the last apostle, John, dies of old age.  Now we’re starting to get worried.  By the time the generation of the resurrection eye-witnesses fell asleep, waiting started to get real hard.

Over the next two hundred years, persecution and martyrdom were commonplace.  Compromisers got off scot free, and false teaching was rampant at times.  Then the public church came in 312 AD.  By now people were pretty sure that the Lord’s return wasn’t immediately around the corner.  The down side of this is that the Church began to get complacent.  When Christians received public approval, when they built large buildings, and the Church became an institution with earthly property and influence, there came with it the temptation to get comfortable with this life.  Now, that is a big generalization, and certainly not true of every Christian, but it’s a lot easier to be in it for the long haul when you can look at church buildings, bishops, and large assemblies as affirmation of what the Church is.  The church is the hierarchy under the pope, the church is the building, the church is how many believers we can count, the church is long-standing tradition!

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

It had been all of 40 days since Moses went up on the mountain.  They had seen the smoke and the thunder, and been terrified by the peals of trumpets and the threat that no creature must touch Mount Sinai.[2]  But I mean, it’s been over a month now, and we don’t know what happened to this Moses fellow.  In their impatience, they took matters into their own hands.  You know what would really help this group stay together?  A cast image!  Every great nation has its idols, and that really brings unity.  We’re the people the Lord has brought out of Egypt, so let’s make a god[3] to go before us!

Now at this point, we know that what the Israelites did, and asked Aaron to do was clearly idolatry and against the plain command of God.  But there’s something to this request of the people: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.”  The word there in Hebrew is asah which means to manufacture (in contrast, God is the only one who can create banah out of nothing).  It’s the work of human hands, a creation by a creature.[4]  The people were asking for something tangible that they could put their trust in, and they wanted that something to be what their hands built.

In Romans 1, St. Paul explains what sin does in the heart of man:

21 Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things… 25 they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

They worshiped and served the creation over the Creator.  The creation for them became more significant, more worthy than the Word of the Creator.  That’s what happened when Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was beautiful, good for food, and desirable for wisdom.[5]  Those attributes of a created thing became a higher pursuit than fidelity to God and His command.

As all things in the Scripture are written for our learning, what’s the lesson from the incident of the Golden Calf?  Of course, don’t copy pagan worship practices, making an idol and ask it to save you, as if you could treat a crucifix like a lucky charm.  But more to the point for us: We are waiting, have been waiting, and likely will continue to have to wait for the Lord’s return.  In our waiting, the Church collectively and as individual souls, need to be watchful that we don’t start worshipping the Church instead of our Lord, or the things that serve the Church at the expense of our devotion to the Word of the Lord.

How much different the Church today would be if all of us actually believed that Jesus’ return was imminent!  We might actually take His Word seriously and not have our hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness (Luke 21:34).  We would have a much clearer focus of what the Church is, and what she is to be busy doing as she waits.

“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19): We would be more interested in sinners who repent and believe than if they’re the kind of sinners we want to sit next to in the pew.  But there’s a world of difference between the law-based weeding out that ICE does and the soul care that happens in the Kingdom of Heaven.  What makes the difference in God’s eyes between someone who is “deported” versus a citizen of heaven is whether they hear the Word of the Lord, confess their sins, and believe that only Jesus is able to save their sorry self.

“Preach the Word in season and out of season…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2)  Have you ever thought about why pastors give sermons?  It’s not the same as a stump speech from a politician, or a keynote address from an expert in the field.  What happens from the pulpit is God’s Word being applied to His people—both Law and Gospel.  A wise homiletics professor told his students to preach every sermon like it’s the last your people will ever hear.  While the Lord’s return may not be next week, your death might come before next Sunday.  And for your part, listen to the servant the Lord has sent you.

From the Gospel today: “If they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” (Matt. 24:26)  If we truly believed that the Lord’s return was imminent, we wouldn’t take doctrine and Bible study so lightly.  It’s a matter of spiritual life and spiritual death which Christ you follow.  When you are confirmed in the apostolic faith, you can be sure that you have the real Christ because He is the one who speaks from the Scriptures.  If ever you are tempted to leave the Church where this true Christ is proclaimed because you are turned off by outward fluff like music, I beg of you consider the health of your soul!

So it’s clear that we sin and put our trust in the wrong things just as much as our forefathers.  Holy and mighty God, have mercy upon us sinners!  We truly deserve to have You sweep us away and give Your kingdom to others.  But that’s where the other part of the story of the Golden Calf applies to us: Moses interceded (vv. 11-14).  He implored God to not give the people what they deserved for their disobedience and foolishness.  And that is what Jesus Christ does for you and me.  St. John, the Apostle who died in old age penned these words for us before He entered glory:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)

We have an intercessor better than Moses, one who has offered Himself on behalf of our sins.  While many make take advantage of God’s grace and take His patience for granted, may we believe and appreciate the wrath of God which Jesus has saved us from.  The reason God is so gracious to us today is because the blood of Jesus is so powerful.  Brothers and sisters, let the Spirit move you to greater devotion to your Lord.  When you are called out for something that is not God-pleasing in your life, repent immediately; don’t put it off to tomorrow.  When you are offered forgiveness, run, don’t walk to the altar of the Lord.  What we believe is no trifling game, and the Lord truly is coming soon.  Against all that our slothful, proud, and arrogant flesh tells us, live each day as if tomorrow you will face the Judgment Throne of Christ.  Now, in terms of the readings, you will have to wait till next Sunday to hear that Gospel.  In the meantime, go in the peace which Christ has purchased for you, and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless until the coming of our Lord.  He who calls you is faithful and He will surely do it.  Amen.

[1] 1 John 5:4-12, Heb. 10:19-25

[2] Exodus 19:10-15

[3] The name for God in Hebrew is Elohim, a plural.  It’s possible that the people weren’t asking for multiple gods, just a single god after the manner of pagan worship.

[4] Isaiah 44:9-17

[5] Genesis 3:6

All Saints Day (observed) (Revelation 7:9-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

All Saints Day (observed) + November 4, 2018

Text: Revelation 7:9-14

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.”

All Saints is a holiday in the true sense of the word—a holy day—because it commemorates what God calls holy, distinct from that which God calls profane.  God separates us from the multitude of unbelievers.  “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:15) and from today’s Epistle: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1)  For now though, it doesn’t look like it.  It looks like Christians and Muslims and Jews and dogs and cats all die the same.  Their flesh lies rotting in a box, or incinerated at 1500 *F.  But even though that flesh has perished, the Last Day will reveal quite the distinction.

In God’s eyes there is a difference as significant as the first day when He separated light from darkness.[1]  Jesus says, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)  But this difference is on hold until the Last Day.  For now, the Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:28) and “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

This future has not come.  But don’t be foolish like the people who say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4)  So, they lump Christians together with other religions and look down their noses and think, ‘Isn’t that quaint! They comfort themselves with some bright hope of an afterlife. Whatever helps you sleep at night!’  But because they do not believe, they don’t understand that no Word of God ever fails.  The Lord Jesus did not get lost in the clouds on His way back, nor did God sleep through the day and hour of His Son’s return.

At God’s appointed time, this hum-drum cycle of days and years and seasons will suddenly end.  Creation will come unraveled and then the Lord will return for His people and to mete out judgments against His enemies.  None of this was fabricated in some pious person’s imagination; this the Word of the Lord and the Church says, “Thanks be to God” for this.[2]

From an earthly perspective, death is death.  It’s all the same.  Your body wears out and you die.  It’s sad and painful when someone dies, and eyes are filled with many tears.  But death in God’s sight continues to be life: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26).  It is deliverance, as the faithful pray, “but deliver us from evil.”  God even goes to the point of saying in Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (v. 15)

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 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.

So God has turned death into life and a precious deliverance.  Also from God’s perspective, what we now live in is a tribulation, even though unspiritual eyes will just ask why you’re making such a big deal of your religion.  We may call it ordinary life, but God calls it a pilgrimage.  Many say that whatever faith you are is just a matter of opinion, but God says it makes the difference between eternal life and eternal death.

We live in both realities—before God and before man.  We have eyes of faith and eyes like the rest of mankind.  We have hearts that belong to Jesus, but we also have hearts which can be enticed by God’s enemies.  This is what calls for perseverance among the saints.  It would be great if the Lord took the baptized immediately to paradise, but in His wisdom, He leaves us “to struggle, [while] they in glory shine.”[3]  Perhaps that’s the hardest part of being a Christian, that we don’t always have tangible confirmation of our trust.

But we are not alone while we wait with longing hearts.  The Apostle to the Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…[and] we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” (Hebrews 11:1, 12:1)  We are called to a hope that we cannot now see, but one which is precious, eternal, and certain.

As we live straddling these two worlds, we have fleeting moments where the beatific vision is clearer, like when we read a favorite passage in God’s Word, or hear an inspiring song.  Yet something surpasses the elation of personal spiritual highs, when the faithful are called together in assembly.  In that gathering, heaven does touch earth.  Here in the Divine Service, we are gathered in the Name of the Lord, and He is among us.  That’s also why it’s here that we remember and receive the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper brings us the closest to our heavenly reality that we can share in this side of glory.  That’s because it brings the heavenly reality in the Flesh.  Most of the Christian life happens in the heart and is unseen.  When we try to share our faith with others, if they don’t have the Holy Spirit, our words fall flat and it’s like we’re speaking a foreign language.  If we share our Christian faith with another believer, it’s a beautiful thing and there’s a special connection with fellow believers on this earth.  At the same time, we long for something tangible in our fellowship with God.

This He gladly and freely gives us in His Supper.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8)  In this place, it is the Lord Jesus who personally invites us to His Table to feed us with His Body and His Blood.  His Body, once broken and now risen victorious over death, is on your tongue.  His blood, once poured out for your sins now flows eternally to give life to you under the shadow of death (as the Scripture says, “the life is in the blood,” Lev. 17:14)—and it is this very blood on your lips.

Saints, fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven, your inheritance is very great.  Even as we bear the tribulation of this life, our Savior stands among us and pours out the strength and perseverance which we need on our pilgrimage.  Come again—and come often—to the Table where your Risen Lord feeds your mortal body with the Bread of immortality.  Come and be renewed in what is eternal.  The world in its present form is passing away, and what now troubles you will also pass away.  But what God has worked for your life and salvation is eternal.  In this we have hope; through Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

[1] Genesis 1:4

[2] 2 Peter 1:21

[3] LSB 677, “For All the Saints,” st. 4

Reformation Sunday (Matt. 11:12-19)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Reformation Sunday + October 28, 2018

Text: Matt. 11:12-19

In the 1730’s, there began a movement in the Colonies that was later called The Great Awakening.  It came with convincing preachers, stirred spirits, changed morals, and huge revival meetings.  It transformed the religious and moral landscape of the soon-to-be American colonies.  Some even consider the religious fervor it ignited as one of the causes of the American Revolution.  It had a huge impact, but the effects eventually wore off.  By 1790, there was a Second Great Awakening, filled with a whole new round of hellfire and brimstone sermons, new converts, and more moral reform.  This too, faded away until there was a Third Great Awakening in the 1850s.

This pattern of revival and indifference is nothing new to the church on earth.  There is a tide that ebbs and flows of reform and unfaithfulness that washes through the generations of the fallen sons of men.  So, on this Reformation Sunday, we will consider the wisdom the Lord Himself teaches about the success of His Word in the hearts of mankind.

The very first big reform for the Church happened in the Exodus.  The descendants of Jacob were suffering under the yoke of slavery in Egypt.  God sent them Moses to deliver them with mighty acts of judgment against Pharaoh and Egypt’s idols.  In the very first Passover, all of Israel carefully obeyed the Lord’s instructions, and they were preserved from the final plague of death of the firstborn [Ex. 12:23].  Moses brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground, and the sons of Israel became a people for God’s treasured possession [Ex. 19:5].  The whole assembly took part in God’s rescue, as St. Paul much later wrote, “Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink”[1]  But that ideal picture of God’s people didn’t last long.  They soon succumbed to grumbling against God, rejecting His called servants [Ex. 16], and even outright pagan worship practices [Ex. 32].

This cycle of faithfulness and apostasy continued, generation after generation.  There were glimpses of a perfect company of God’s people, and then hopes would be dashed.  It even seemed that some final victory had come under the reigns of King David, and his son, Solomon.  But even their reigns came to an end in division among God’s people.[2]

            When John the Baptist finally appeared in the wilderness, a reformation of a different kind erupted.  It wasn’t different because of the participants, because they were just as sinful and stiff-necked.  It was different because of what the Lord Himself was going to do.

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

The Evangelist Matthew tells us earlier, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to [John], and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”[3]  Even the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to the big revival at the Jordan.  It appeared that all of Israel was in the process of a final reform.  John really was the Elijah to come, of whom the Prophet Malachi spoke: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”[4]

            It seemed even more like that was the case once John announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[5]  Great crowds flocked to Jesus and followed Him as He preached and healed, and countless people were forgiven of their sins, healed of their diseases, and cleansed of their leprosy. 

            Yet, even during His ministry, there was the old familiar unbelief.  It may have been that many followed Jesus, but it didn’t continue like that. That happened after the Feeding of the 5,000.  That massive crowd, after listening to Him teach more, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”[6]  To which Jesus added the still more unpalatable word: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”  And at that, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”[7]

            So, what is reformation about, if not numbers and success stories?  If it isn’t about the droves of partially, temporarily cleaned up sinners, then what?  Reformation is about what the Church has always been built on: the pure preaching of God’s Word.  Our Lord says in the Gospel,

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,      17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”[8]

Yes, there were great crowds who followed Jesus and believed in Him.  But that isn’t reformation in the Lord’s sight.  The kind of reform which God has always been after is those who listen to His Word, not those whose hearts are far from Him.  The real reformations which cause joy before God’s throne take place every time a sinner repents.[9]  That’s when His Word accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it.[10]

            This kind of reformation is based on faith, and continues by the work of the Holy Spirit, when and where it pleases God (John 3:8).  There may be a huge initial response, and the appearance of the whole world being converted, but those things will pass.  What was visible for a time will become invisible.  Yet, the reformation will continue in those who “have ears to hear” (v. 15).

Surely this is disappointing to witness, especially as we sit in naves (sanctuaries) that are far from filled to capacity.  But this doesn’t mean the purpose of the Lord is not and has not been fulfilled.  When I talk to people who haven’t been at church for a while, they ask me, how’s the attendance at church?  Stupid me, I give them numbers.  As if the attendance numbers really said anything about the Church, the creation of Holy Spirit.

The trouble is, we are so susceptible to thinking of the Church in terms of our work.  After all, the devotion is ours, our hands did the work, and we’re the ones who have spent time in and among this congregation.  I mean, I wrote this sermon.  There’s a certain comfortability with measuring the success or failure of the Church in things that can be observed and quantified.  So, if the attendance is down or the finances aren’t what we expect, it’s so easy to think that we’ve failed.  Why won’t people come to our church?  When it gets really bad, we start pointing fingers and assigning blame.  As the Lord’s servant, it’s my duty to tell you that is a losing game.  Losing not just in the sense that it might become a failed venture, but if that’s the aim of our hearts, then we are likely thinking of it as something besides Christ’s Church, a visible gathering of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Think about it this way: On the Last Day, what is the Lord going to say as He welcomes His own into glory?  “Well done, you made the church grow threefold…you got 3/5 of your grandkids to come to church…”  No, He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt. 25:21)  He calls each of us to faithfulness as servants.  God grant that our labors be done in service to Him, because He will give the increase as He sees fit.  So, for us servants, we need to stop worrying about attendance numbers and quit fretting over sustainability for individual congregations.  Because it’s His Church and His work, it might go in a direction we don’t expect—even down—and that’s fine, so long as we have been faithful servants.

What truly matters is God the Holy Spirit gathering the faithful around their Lord, and He will do that in spite of all earthly obstacles.  He will do that when and where it pleases God.  All of the praise and the success belongs not to us; it belongs to Him!

            Twelve years ago, on Reformation Sunday, a revival and reformation happened in a man who grew up knowing nothing of God and His Son.  Although several times the Word came to him, he was unmoved.  But in God’s timing, that man came to know the Lord and he confessed his faith before Trinity Lutheran Church in Bellingham, Washington.  Again, by God’s continued grace and the powerful working of His Spirit, that man stands before you as your pastor.

            This Reformation Sunday, we are privileged to witness the Word of the Lord at work in the hearts of Jerimiah and Natasha, as they will soon publicly declare their allegiance to Christ their Lord and in His continued grace, pledge their ongoing faithfulness to Him.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

“12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  The Kingdom of heaven will continue to advance in the hearts of those who receive it.  Whether it is visible for a time, or hidden from our sight, God’s will is done in every generation until our hopes are fulfilled when He comes again and makes all things new. Amen.

[1] 1 Cor. 10:1-4, emphasis added

[2] 1 Kings 1 and 12

[3] Matt. 3:5-6

[4] Mal. 4:5-6

[5] John 1:29

[6] John 6:60

[7] John 6:63, 66

[8] v. 16-19

[9] Luke 15:7

[10] Isaiah 55:10-11