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)

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.  Bankrate.com 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.


[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2014/08/18/zero-retirement-savings/14070167/

[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

The Great Day When Faith Turns to Sight (Matthew 25:31-46)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 26, 2017
Text: Matthew 25:31-46

We are Christians living in the Last Days.  As such, it is our calling not to measure the frequency of wars, famines, and earthquakes, but to wait patiently for the Day of the Lord.
 
So let’s walk through this text and learn from the Lord what He would have us learn.
 

  • What this teaches us about the end times
    • “When the Son of Man comes”: He is This is unavoidable and just as certain as His coming at Christmas.  Because it’s been so long, it will catch many by surprise (“like a thief in the night,”
    • All His angels with Him: those ministering spirits, God’s army, who have served the elect to help them to this end and protected them from danger, will now at last will be the reapers who will separate out the multitude of unbelievers and gather the elect to their Lord (Matt. 13:37-43, Matt. 24:31).
      • Hebrews 1:14: Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
      • Psalm 91:11–12: For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.
      • Matthew 24:31: And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
    • The Day of Christ’s return in glory will also be the Day of Judgment (Acts 17:31).
  • It will be a day of great revelation of what was in the hearts of all
    • For now, all we can see are the works. God knows the faith for certain.  That’s why the Lord commands us not to step into the role of judgment: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:1-5)  For one person to judge another is beyond their ability.
    • On that Day, each person’s faith will be seen at last when the Lord separates believers from unbelievers. Do not judge and do not attempt to discriminate who the true believers are before then (Matt. 13:24-30).
    • Salvation will not be on the basis of those works, because the Kingdom comes as an inheritance which has been prepared for us from before the foundation of the world.
      • Inheritances are received on the basis of someone else’s labor (namely, Christ’s)
      • “Before the foundation of the world” shows the fullness of this plan that it could never be on the basis of human merit. Faith only receives what God gifts. (see also Ephesians 1:3-14)
    • The damned have it all wrong because they believed that God would be pleased with their works. They are astonished that God would find fault with all the Christian-looking things they did.  On that day, everyone who believed in a works-based salvation (Christian or other religion) will be put to shame.
  • Now that you know the end of the story, this is how to prepare:
    • Faith is the absolute most precious gift that any person may have.
      • Make every effort to build up your faith through frequent attendance in worship, studying the Scriptures, and devoting time to prayer. Faith comes and is strengthened by being in the Word (Romans 10:17, Galatians 3:5, James 1:21)
      • Avoid those things which are harmful to your faith. Namely, activities which keep you or your children from worship, books and YouTube videos which would cast doubt on the apostolic faith, and yoking yourself with someone who does not share the faith or criticizes your church.
    • Let the Holy Spirit renew your heart so that you live that faith. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned.  Welcome the downcast are love them, just as God welcomed you into His family.  When works like these come out of faith in the mercy God has shown you, it’s a beautiful thing in God’s sight.
    • Share with others what a beautiful inheritance Christ has won for all who believe in Him.

Do Not Despair, the Lord Returns! (Malachi 3:13-18)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Last Sunday of the Church Year – November 20, 2016
Text: Malachi 3:13-18
 
At first, there’s righteous anger: How could this world be so godless?  Look at what’s on TV!  Look at what’s accepted as normal now!  Don’t you hear the filthy lyrics in popular music?  Don’t you see what unchaste lives our celebrities live, and how they’re supposed to be role models for our kids?
1 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
                           as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
                              to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence![1]
 
Then, there’s righteous disgust: I don’t want to have anything to do with this horrid world!  I’m not going to watch TV at all.  I’ll put myself on a moral island in this sea of filth.  I’m only going to listen to classic music and KLOVE.
113  I hate the double-minded,
but I love your law.
        114         You are my hiding place and my shield;
I hope in your word.
        115         Depart from me, you evildoers,
that I may keep the commandments of my God.[2]
 
But occasionally for the saints, it gets to the point of what we hear in Malachi:
14 It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’
We’ve gotten mad and fought against ungodliness.  We’ve withdrawn ourselves from every appearance of evil.[3]  But now we fear it’s all for naught.  The ungodly are doing fine while the righteous are miserable.  This is a case of righteous despair.
 
Lord, we know that You knit together every person and that you create them in Your image.  We know that You love our corrupt race because you gave your Son to be the way of peace.[4]  But who has believed the call to repentance and the promise of eternal life?
Instead of living in God’s ways for His creatures, we see those very same people celebrating their evil.  God is the giver of life, but we hear people callously refer to living human beings as an inconvenience and burden.  God made marriage to be a life-long union between a man and woman, but we see spouses celebrating divorce as personal freedom and even going to the point of throwing a party about it.[5]  He made women’s bodies to bear and feed their children, but we see the world turn a woman’s body into a plaything for selfish pleasure. “Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape” (v. 15).
From a heavenly point of view, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,[6] but on earth, we weather against a storm of people moving away from God.  We have every practical reason in the world to give up on the Lord and go with the rest.  We don’t see the Lord judging all these so-called ungodly people around us.  Maybe He doesn’t really care who’s righteous or wicked.  Maybe the whole good and evil thing was just something that people came up with!  If we were truly enlightened, why not burst these old, superstitious bonds[7] of misogyny, homophobia, and prohibition?  “What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (v. 14)  Maybe if we forgot about God, we’d find “true satisfaction” in our lives!
But is there really hope in that?  We may grumble, “What is the profit” of staying faithful to God and His Word, but if we abandoned Him, what would we actually gain?  Before we even think to speak this way against God, we’ve already been deceived by the cunning of Satan.
Think about what God has promised to His children.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.” (Psalm 91:14-15)
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
From today’s Gospel: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
 
But those aren’t the blessings we’re wanting.  We want what the wicked have: peace in our families, government leaders we can be proud of, acceptance in the eyes of friends and strangers, and a lifestyle that celebrated far and wide.  We want our church to be popular (and rich wouldn’t hurt), bringing people through the doors in droves.  We long for, even lust, after the fleeting sun and passing rain that “God sends on the just and the unjust.[8]  And when it seems that the unjust, unrighteous people of this world have it better off, we grumble that God doesn’t care one way or the other.
But think of this, true children of heaven, what sort of blessings do they receive?  All of them, without exception, are of this world.  All of the rain that God sends on the righteous and wicked tapers off and dries up.  God gives earthly blessings regardless of faith, but every last one of them has an expiration date!  Sure, they’re available immediately, and that makes them appealing.  But they don’t last.  God has appointed a Day when He will judge “between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” (v. 18)
In that Great Day, it will be infinitely better to be the righteous, to be those who have “feared the Lord and esteemed His Name.”  The wicked will see all their comfort melt away.  All the good they enjoyed from God will be snatched away from them in a moment.    “Then,” in true despair, “they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’[9]  If only they had feared and trusted in the God who called to them in His Word!  But, by then, there will be a great chasm fixed[10] between the righteous and the unrighteous, between those who believed in God’s only-begotten Son and those who rejected Him.[11]
But as for the sons of God whose hearts have faith in the cleansing blood of the Lamb, they will receive all the blessings promised to them.  Their names will be found in the Lord’s “book of remembrance.”  And to His beloved, enrolled in heaven, the Chief Shepherd will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[12]  And His Kingdom shall have no end.
Do not despair, beloved in the Lord!  The Lord of Hosts will, without fail, distinguish between the righteous and the wicked and He will gather you to be His treasured possession forever and ever.  The Apostle John writes, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”[13]  Your God who made these promises to you is also able to keep you safely in the true faith.  You have received His Holy Spirit, the Comforter, Who “brings to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”[14]  When Satan and the voices around you tempt you with the idea, “It is vain to serve God.  What is the profit?”, you will be reassured of the profit that was gained by the death and resurrection of God’s own Son, and that such a treasure was made yours in Baptism.  Because of this, you are an heir of God’s eternal kingdom. Amen.
[1] Isaiah 64:1-2
[2] Psalm 119:113-115
[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:22
[4] Luke 1:79
[5] http://www.pinterest.com/explore/divorce-party/
[6] Hebrews 12:1
[7] Psalm 2:3
[8] Matthew 5:45
[9] Luke 23:30, Gospel reading
[10] Luke 16:26
[11] Matthew 10:33
[12] Matthew 25:34
[13] 1 John 4:4
[14] John 14:26