Wednesday, November 30, 2011

St. Andrew's Day Sermon -- John 1:35-42a

November 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked to Jesus as He walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus…. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.”

First. That is a claim that many want. It is what they strive for. This makes itself clear in many ways. Competitions drive people. There is a quest for the brass ring, the trophy, the blue ribbon. Of course, the competition doesn’t have to be on the athletic field. It can be the race for the corner office, the next stripe on the uniform sleeve, even the bishop’s chair. Or it can be as juvenile and inane as the Internet comment board posters with their one-word message: “first.”

First. That is a claim that Andrew had. He is the first of Jesus’ disciples. You heard how that happened: “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked to Jesus as He walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” This is earliest days of Jesus’ public ministry. He had received baptism from John in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit’s descent upon Him and the Father’s Voice from heaven declared that Jesus was the Beloved Son, the Anointed One. And now John had one more action to fulfill: to direct his listeners, his followers to Jesus. That he does by pointing to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” and sending them after Him.

So Andrew goes: “The two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus.” And Jesus notices this: “Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where He was staying, and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.” There it is. Andrew is first.

But is he really first? Can he actually be first? Andrew is the first to follow Jesus. Yet that means that Andrew is not first, but is second. He is not the leader, but the follower. He is not the teacher, but the student. He is not the Christ, but the disciple. That was meant to be for Andrew. His calling was not to be first, but to be second. Even among those who would follow Jesus, Andrew would not be first. Note how he is identified in John’s Gospel that you heard today: “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus.” Andrew’s identity is not only wrapped up with being a follower of Jesus, but being connected to Simon Peter, his brother.

Being second is Andrew’s place. He is under authority. That is what it means to be a disciple. Under Jesus’ authority, power is given to him. This is what we remember and celebrate on this day. Andrew’s role is as a follower, a student, a disciple, but also an apostle. He is sent with delegated authority like the prophets of old. He stands in a long line of “seconds” whom the Lord has called to do His bidding. Andrew is one who carries authority for the benefit of others like Ezekiel did: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from My mouth, you shall give them warning from Me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”

The authority given to Andrew is what he exercised for the benefit of those who were also called to be followers of Jesus. His work began with bringing his own brother to Jesus, as well as Greek people to Jesus on Palm Sunday. Those who were called to be “thirds” and “fourths” and “fifths” by him who were “second” received the same knowledge of Jesus. They got to know who the Messiah is, who the Lamb of God is. They were delivered from the way of death to the way of life. They were taken from a type of life where the goal was to be “first,” to be autonomous and supreme, making their own law to being disciples, followers, people under a rule. This being under the authority of Jesus is what brings salvation.

So it is for you. You are not “first” in your lives. No, you also are under a rule. You have a Lord, a Master. He is benevolent toward you, but He still is superior. Not being first means putting your old self to death. For Andrew, following Jesus would lead to his martyrdom, literally being put to death by crucifixion. But all who follow Jesus take up His cross and put their old selves to death with Him. You have died with Jesus in baptism and have risen with Him to new life. Every day, you put that old self—the old will with its rebellious desire to be its own master—to death by contrition and repentance. And every day, you are raised again to follow in the way that your Master has instituted for you. So you take your place as followers, as those who are always to be second to the First One, Jesus Christ.

As people who have been made disciples of Jesus, who have been given to know Him as the Messiah and the Lamb of God, you cannot be “first”. You cannot be self-governing or autonomous. Any attempt to be so is rebellion and sin. It is what happens when you walk away from the rule and way of life that Jesus has set for you. Every time that occurs, you must return in humility and penitence to be restored. But that is also what Jesus has appointed “seconds” to do. It is the authority that Jesus gave to Andrew and to others who possess the same role and place as he did. So you benefit again from the order that Jesus has established for you.

Remembering Andrew on this day, we can laud and praise Jesus for having such a faithful follower. We give thanks for what Jesus has accomplished through him and others like him: Jesus’ mighty governance and protection of His holy Church, in which the blessed apostles and evangelists proclaimed His divine and saving Gospel. Even now, our remembrance of Andrew, his identity, is wrapped up not in himself, but with whom he is connected. But that is how it is meant to be, for all of us who are gathered to remember Andrew recognize him and ourselves not as “firsts” but as “seconds”. He found the Messiah and brought his brother to Him. And so, the most important part of the Gospel Reading for this St. Andrew’s Day is the statement about the all the “seconds”—John the Baptizer, the apostle, his brother, and us: “they followed Jesus.”

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

LSB Advent 1B Sermon -- Mark 11:1-10

November 27, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’”

“Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance.” The words of the first Collect of Advent have been prayed for centuries by the faithful. There is the call for action, not of their doing, but from the Lord. The desire is for His power to be stirred up again, the power that was used in days of old for the blessing of His people. It is needed because of the perils that sin has caused in humanity. Deliverance is required, a deliverance that only the Lord can provide.

This theme of the First Sunday in Advent is found throughout the readings this morning. What the Collect of the Day pleads for is the same petition made by the Lord’s people throughout history. In today’s psalm and today’s Old Testament Reading that both address the same period in Israel’s history, the faithful call for action. You heard the psalmist’s cry: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Your might and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” Why does the psalmist pray this way? What was happening? The northern areas of Israel had been overrun. The Assyrian Empire was in the process of making these descendants of Jacob their serfs and slaves.

But what was taking place in northern Israel was not simply a matter of happenstance, the natural ebb and flow of political and military power. No, it was a direct punishment of Israel’s unfaithfulness, their sin of idolatry. The Lord’s anger rose up against this abandonment of the Covenant. This is what the psalmist identifies: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will You be angry with Your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.” There is only one remedy to this: a restoration of the people to the Lord’s grace and favor. And so the psalmist and the people pray: “Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!”

The same theme of needed restoration, needed powerful action from the Lord is found in Isaiah’s prophecy. Speaking from the future perspective of the exiled people in Babylon, the prophet summarizes their desire: “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! When You did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked at Your presence.” The call is for divine action for the people in exile.

But that call for divine action is accompanied by the people’s recognition of the problem. They know what has brought them to this condition: “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember You in Your ways. Behold, You were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been in a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon Your name, who rouses himself to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” The realization of what their sin has brought brings out these statements from the exiled people. Instead of having the Lord’s face shine on them, it has been hidden from them. Their idolatry, false belief, and complacency have led to this.

In both cases, the people need action. They need the Lord to stir up His power and come. They need Him to rescue them from the threatening perils of their sins and to save them by His mighty deliverance. But this is not only a 6th Century BC problem. It is a situation that you find yourselves in. You are not immune from sin. You are not some greater condition than the Israelites. No, you are of the same mold. Your unrighteous actions—everything that violates the Divine Law—have become a stain on you. You fade away, swept into death because of your transgressions. You have the habit of speaking well of God or praying to Him when matters are good, but doubting whether He is with you when ill befalls you. As you are like the people of old, you offer the same prayers: “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all Your people.” “Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” Or as the Collect put it: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come….”

The Lord has answered that prayer before. It was answered in the appearance of the Messiah, the fulfillment of ancient promises about salvation. Promises were made about the ending of all exiles: the exile of Israel in Assyria, the exile of Judah in Babylon and Persia, the exile of humanity from Paradise. The anger of the Lord would not burn forever. In its place would be His everlasting compassion and favor shown to those who fear, love, and trust in Him. The Lord’s face would shine again on His people. That was done with the arrival of the Christ to bring deliverance and restoration.

This morning, you heard of that arrival. The focus was not on the Christ’s birth—that will be the theme four weeks from now. Instead, the focus was on the Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the beginning of the series of events that led to His death and resurrection. That is where the Lord’s face would again shine on His people, even as it was turned against Christ in His crucifixion. As He bore the sins and iniquities of the world, Jesus had His Father’s face hidden from Him: the awe-full statement He makes testifies to it, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Yet, this ends not in death alone, but in being raised from it. That is how the Messiah fulfills His role, how He brings the power from heaven above to rescue humanity from the threatening perils of sin and save them.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the people recognize Him as that answer to their plight. His identity as the Messiah is confirmed by their actions. The prophecy of a King coming from the Lord riding on a colt is fulfilled: “And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

The jubilant praises from the people reveal what was happening for them. They had asked for deliverance; now they were shouting the words that make that request to heaven above: “Hosanna in the highest!” They had desired action from the God of hosts; now they see Jesus’ appearance as precisely that: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” They wanted restoration of their place, a return from exile, a lifting of oppression; now they see that beginning with Jesus’ arrival: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” The Lord had stirred up His power and come to deliver them.

This is what you also see in Jesus’ appearance. This is what you believe that He has accomplished for you. His death and resurrection have become the source of your salvation. That is “the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” which the apostle Paul mentions in his writing to the Corinthian believers. The testimony about Jesus given on Palm Sunday is the same testimony that you give about Him. He has brought you out of Satan’s domain to be His own. He has delivered you from the curse of eternal death. He has bestowed life to you. It is the fulfillment of promises made to humanity from the primordial days. By this, God reveals His character to you: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

But you still await more from the Lord. He has given you promises of action that have yet to take place. The Advent Season carries the theme of reflecting on the Old Testament people’s waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. But it also carries the theme of expectation for Jesus’ return. That has been promise made to you. It has been so since the first generation of New Testament believers. Even Paul writes to the Corinthian believers: “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Like the Old Testament believers, you also are waiting for the Christ’s appearance—not a first appearance, but His glorious return.

You know that something great awaits you that you do not yet possess. You have been redeemed from sin; yet you still anger the Lord by transgressing His Law. You have been delivered from eternal death; yet you still see the Lord’s people leave this earthly life and you yourself will also. You have been rescued from bondage to Satan; yet you, the Lord’s people, fall victim to deception and temptation. Even now, the Lord’s people live in exile. You are not yet where you are destined to be. You are not yet in full possession of what has been attained for you by Christ’s death and resurrection. So you live in expectation and desire for what is yet to come.

This is why the ancient prayers are contemporary. Even today, they are the petitions that you offer. “Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” Your desire is for the full measure of salvation, the undoing of all that opposes the Lord’s will and the revelation of the Lord’s perfection. You await the day when you no longer have to say: “Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.” You anticipate the day when the Christ will come with His angels, when He rends the heavens and comes down. Then you also can join in the worship of Jesus with your own hands, seeing Him with your own eyes, and speaking with all His faithful: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

Your expectations and desires are what your faith in the Lord’s actions and promises creates. It comes from trust in His identity and character: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides You, who acts for those who wait for Him.” So wait for Him during this Advent Season—not only this four-week timeframe, but all the days that will lead up to His return. He is faithful and will sustain you until His return. As you wait, make the first Collect of Advent your own: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance.”

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

LSB Harvest Festival (Thanksgiving) Sermon -- Luke 12:13-21

November 23, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Jesus’ parable stands as a warning about placing one’s trust in the earthly possessions. It is given in response to a man who wanted Jesus to serve as a probate judge in an estate matter. You heard abut this man: Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” The man wanted a divine statement directed at his brother, a commandment from Jesus that would lead to receiving property and wealth. The request seems reasonable enough. But note how Jesus answers the man: “But He said to him, ‘Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And He said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”

What is at the heart of Jesus’ statement? Why does He respond so? Jesus’ emphatic teaching and preaching is on what He will provide, something more than an earthly inheritance. He wants all who follow Him to know that He is the source of earthly blessing. But more importantly, Jesus wants them to trust in Him for forgiveness, life, and salvation. There is more to be given by Jesus than house, home, wife, children, land, animals, and all that you own. Even those who recognize the fullness of Divine Providence but do not see what He gives in the spiritual realm will ultimately be poor.

This is what Jesus teaches with the parable that is a warning against covetousness. He gives an example of a man who has benefited much from the good weather, good soil, and good climate that the Lord provides: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” The man is going to enjoy the fruits of creation that have been made his. He exults in what he has: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

But in that statement something is revealed about his faith, what he trusts in. Where does he say the confidence for his soul is found? Hear again the man’s words: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” That is the confession of faith, a creed that the man makes. His faith is in what has been stored up, all the crops filling his new barns. Now his soul can rest secure. Or that is what he thinks.

But Jesus’ statement of judgment about that man shows his folly: “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” The man had put his trust in what had been given to his soul—earthly things. But now the One who has given him all earthly things and who has given him that soul requires it of him. And the man has no fear, love, or trust in Him. His possessions had become his god. He had laid up plenty of treasure for himself, but had no eternal wealth provided by God. On that day when his soul is demanded of him, no barn full of wheat will avail him anything.

Jesus wants His hearers to learn that they must have possession of what He gives in order to have wealth for eternity. It is a similar lesson taught to the ancient Hebrews by Moses. As the Exodus people were about to enter Canaan, the land flowing in milk and honey that the Lord was entrusting to them, they were told about how they should consider what was given to them. When that land would bring forth its fruits, the people were to recognize what the Lord had bestowed to them. It would be done by a thank-offering: “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there.”

But note what the people were to learn from this: “And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” Their worship would be centered on what they stated about the Lord: “We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The reason why they had anything good was due to the Lord’s actions done for them. Even the annual harvests were to teach them this dependence on Him and drive them away from trust in their possessions. Each harvest in the Promised Land would remind them of their deliverance from slavery and the covenant promises made to them by the Lord. Their identity as the Lord’s Covenant People who had salvation given to them would be confirmed. That is how they would become rich toward God.

The same is true for you. Like the Hebrews of old, you have received deliverance from the Lord. He attains it by His actions: His obedience, His sacrificial death, His resurrection. His “mighty hand and outstretched arm” has gained a place for you in His kingdom. It is given to you, as He calls you to be His own people. He grants you the wealth of the heavenly realm. His righteousness is given to you. His life is made to be yours. It is planted in you by the Holy Spirit who comes to you through the Gospel. It is what the psalmist described: “Praise is due to You, O God, in Zion, and to You shall vows be performed. O You who hears prayer, to You shall all flesh come. When iniquities prevail against me, You atone for our transgressions. Blessed is the one You choose and bring near, to dwell in Your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, the holiness of Your temple! By awesome deeds You answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation.”

There will be a harvest drawn from this righteousness planted in you, as the apostle writes: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” What the apostle describes is not a life that finds trust and reliance in earthly goods. It is not a covetousness life that seeks to acquire more and more stuff, never content with the current level of possessions. Rather, it is a life formed in the recognition that whatever you have has been given to you and that trust in the Giver and not the gift is required.

You do not kick up your heels and feel secure because the barns, houses, or storage sheds are full. Your life is not one of hoarding everything and believing that you are set for life. No, you look forward to what the Lord continues to give you here on earth. And you have your minds set on what will be yours for eternity. In the meantime, you look to the interests of others with what earthly possessions have been entrusted to you: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.” So you exult in what has been given you: a place in the household of God the Father and the opportunity to use the gifts of His creation as instruments of His generosity.

What is given to you as temporal blessings allow you to reflect that same graciousness to your neighbors: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” That is quite the difference from the man in Jesus’ parable! Your soul doesn’t dwell secure by putting fear, love, and trust in earthly things. Instead, your soul dwells secure because of Christ’s work for you.

Yet, you do not dwell idly secure. You are called to an active life of faith, working for other’s benefit, just as Jesus did for you. Your submission to the Lord’s will which flows from your confession of the Gospel of Christ will keep you from falling into the error of the man in the parable. That is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in you. Unlike that foolish man, you will be rich in the treasures that Jesus has prepared for you and has laid up for you to receive when your soul is demanded of you. You will go to the place that He has chosen to be yours for all eternity. But until that time, be what you have prayed for this evening: stewards of the Almighty God’s creation who receive His gifts in humble thankfulness and who share His bounty with those in need.

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Proper 29A Sermon -- Matthew 25:31-46

November 20, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

The past two Sundays, you have heard Jesus tell parables about His return. Now, on the Last Sunday of the Church Year, you hear Him give a detailed description of what will happen at the Last Day. No parable this time; just a straightforward depiction of events. So what does Jesus say about His arrival on the Last Day? He tells you about His appearance, about His actions, and about His declarations.

Jesus’ description of the Last Day begins with a statement about His appearance: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.” This is no arrival of an unimportant individual! No, this is an appearance that rivals and surpasses all the pomp and circumstance of any earthly ruler. Jesus comes with an entourage. But it is not men and women in bespoke suits and sunglasses. Jesus doesn’t have a crowd of adoring people. Instead, He brings His own divine glory with Him. His entourage is the heavenly hosts, the army of angels, the corps of celestial beings. His seat is a throne that overlooks the entire creation.

This appearance of Jesus stands in stark contrast to how you first encountered Him: wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. This time, you do not see Him riding a donkey colt into Jerusalem. There are no mocking regalia—crown of thorns, purple cape, and scepter of reed. Instead, the full authority that Jesus possesses is on full display. This is the end that the apostle Paul described: “when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” At that point, Jesus stands over the entirety of creation: “Before Him will be gathered all the nations….”

So what will Jesus do on that day? He tells you about His actions: “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Jesus’ work on the Last Day is to perform the great sorting, the judging of all individuals. Before that day, all people are intermingled. Jesus Himself told you about that in His parables: weeds and wheat mixed together, only to be separated at the harvest time; bad fish and good fish caught in the same net, only to be divided when the boats reached the shore. But the day will come when there is no longer any mixing of people. Standing over all humanity, Jesus moves them from one side to the other: “He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.” On that day, all is revealed about mankind, just as Jesus’ glory is fully displayed. There is no neutral position, no sitting out the game. Nor is there any hiding or disguising.

Then come the declarations from Jesus’ mouth. Two statements are made by Him concerning the people, pronouncements that are 180 degrees different from each other: “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.’ … Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” As it was in the two parables of Jesus—about the wise and foolish maidens and about the servants with the talents—two outcomes are brought about on the Last Day: one with eternal benefits, the other with eternal loss.

So what determines the outcome? It is what Jesus decides. But that decision is not rendered for the first time on that Last Day. No, that decision has been years in the making. Consider what Jesus says about the people after He sorts them. He calls those on His right “you who are blessed by My Father”. He states that they had a fate set for them from eternity: “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” What Jesus grants to those on His right is nothing new, but as old as creation itself. Before any of them existed, what they were to receive had been set. It was all part of the divine will from before time began.

But note what else Jesus says about those on His right. He mentions that their involvement in the eternal plan had effects in their earthly lives: “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, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.” The actions of those who are blessed by the Father have a particular character; they reflect His character. They are consistent with what He Himself did for them: “I Myself will be the shepherd of My sheep, and I Myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” The actions of compassion that the Lord did for His people culminated in His sending His Son to be the Redeemer of mankind by being the substitute for Adam and his descendants: “For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

That same characteristic of graciousness is what drove the actions of the blessed ones. Yet, note what they say about them: “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’” The questions show surprise and unawareness. When did they see Jesus in need? When had they helped Jesus? But His answer explains what happened: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of My brothers, you did it to Me.’”

Jesus’ statements show what the faith of the blessed ones leads to. Their identity as the righteous people of God had been granted to them. It is a gift. What Jesus accomplished as their substitute is credited to them. It is theirs, as Jesus feeds them the bread of life, gives them the water of eternal life, welcomes them into His household, clothes them with His righteousness, heals their disease of sin, and delivers them from prison of Satan’s oppression.

The same holds true for you. You are made righteous by having the merits of Jesus’ death and resurrection applied to you. You are given what He earned. In fact, you are given a new life and identity. It is not passive, but is full of action. That new life includes the works that are summarized by Jesus in His statements about those blessed by His Father. You are the ones who feed Jesus, quench Jesus, welcome Jesus, clothe Jesus, visit Jesus, and come to Jesus. It is done every time that you do the same to those who are in the Father’s household—your fellow believers. You are a family, brothers and sisters of Jesus. The way you treat the little ones among you is how you treat your Older Brother who also happens to be the Judge of the living and the dead: “As you did it to one of the least of My brothers, you did it to Me.” He is the One who will declare those whose faith and actions are righteous: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

But all that is lacking in those whom Jesus places on His left. Remember what He says to them: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Why is such condemnation spoken against them? Jesus tells them: For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, 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.” The judgment is leveled against them, revealing what they did not do, what their actions failed to accomplish. And when they ask about when they had ever offended Jesus, He tells them: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” Their treatment of the brothers and sisters of Jesus showed what they believed about Him. As they failed to show any concern for those who are of the Father’s household, so they also failed to show any concern about the Judge of the living and the dead.

The condemnation that Jesus speaks against the cursed ones is what He will declare to those who persecute His Church, who despise His Word and the preaching of it, who would rather have none of His people around and nothing of His will come to fulfillment. Those who abuse Jesus’ disciples will receive their just rewards. The curse spoken against their sins will not be lifted by the One who could do so.

But you must also think with some sober thought about what Jesus says of those who end up on His left. The statement that Jesus makes should be jarring: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” What had they not done? They had not fed, quenched, welcomed, clothed, visited, or come to the disciples of Jesus. There was mistreatment of those who belonged to Jesus. And that is similar to what the Lord God said about some sheep, some who belonged to the people of Israel: “Behold, I, I Myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue My flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.” A warning is given about “sheep-on-sheep crime” committed within the household of God. The mistreatment of Jesus’ disciples, even if done by Jesus’ disciples, is noted, recorded, and acted against.

So you also should consider what you do. How are you treating even the least of Jesus’ brothers? If it is not the way that He intends, then the time for correction is now, so that it will not be judged against at the Last Day. Your fellow believers are brothers and sisters of Jesus. As you behave toward them—whether good or ill—so you behave toward your Older Brother who is the Judge of the living and the dead. And that deserves your utmost attention.

This end of the Church Year brings the reminder that the Last Day will indeed arrive. What Jesus describes will come to pass. So now is the time to repent of what you have done contrary to His will. Now is the time to recognize that you have not been perfect in obedience. Now is the time to note that the blessed and righteous status that you possess has not been achieved by you, but has been given to you. Even the imperfect acts of compassion that you participate in are part of the identity that has been granted to you. They are not a record that you can stick in Jesus’ face, to brag about all your works that you did to Him. They are only what you did as you were regenerated and renewed by Him to reflect His divine character.

Yet, this is what Jesus Himself will praise and commend when He returns and gathers all His people to Himself and sets them on His right hand. Like all the others who will hear the welcome into life everlasting, you will not know all your acts of obedience, all your good works that you have done to Jesus. But that’s the way it’s meant to be, so that you have no pride in yourself, but only fear, love, and trust in Him. Direct your attention to what Jesus has done for you. Put your old self to death and rise in the newness of life that is given through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Act on the new will and desire that faith in Jesus gives to you. Then on the Last Day, as you see His appearance, experience His actions, and hear His statements, you who are “blessed by the Father” will have your place in the “kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

LSB Proper 27A Sermon (All Saints Sunday) -- Matthew 25:1-13

November 6, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“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.”

The Church Year draws to a close during these next three weeks. As Jesus’ followers reach the culmination of the ecclesiastical calendar, they focus their attention on the culmination of their faith and discipleship. For the next three Sundays, the Church will hear parables of Jesus that speak about His return that ushers in the close of this age and initiates the life of the world to come.

Jesus tells you that the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a wedding feast that will take place. You have already heard Jesus tell a wedding feast parable, a story about a king who holds a banquet for his son who is married. But today, Jesus uses the wedding feast motif in a different way: He does not talk about those who are simply invited to attend, but those who are invited to participate in the bridal party. Ten maidens have been selected to be the welcoming party for the groom who will arrive at the wedding hall. That is their privileged status, to take part in the festive day.

But Jesus tells you something significant about those who have been selected: “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.” This will be a problem for some of those invited to take part in the wedding events. All ten of the maidens had been chosen to fulfill a particular role: to be the escorts of the groom. To fulfill that role which had been bestowed to them, they needed their lamps and oil. But what had five of the maidens forgotten to do? “They took no oil with them.”

Jesus’ parable depicts how the folly of the five maidens cost them dearly: “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 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.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.”

When the groom arrived, what happened to those foolish maidens who had brought no oil for their lamps? They were unable to fulfill the role that had been assigned to them. They were a complete failure. The groom’s arrival that should have been a time of great joy and delight for them—as it was for the five wise maidens who had brought flasks of oil with them—became a time of great sorrow and doom: “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’” They are left outside, abandoned to their folly.

Jesus’ parable is a statement about the Last Day. He teaches about the two aspects that it will have for those who had been invited to be affiliated with Him and to be part of the new age that He will inaugurate. Like the ten maidens, those in the Church on earth have been selected for a particular role. You have been chosen to be in the number of those who will be eternally present with the Risen Lord, just like the saints who have gone before you. You have been called by Jesus for this. You have been given a lamp, denoting your baptismal identity, and you have been provided oil for it, the faith that is created through receiving Jesus’ Gospel in all its forms: attached to water, spoken by ministers, found in the dialogue of believers, connected to bread and wine. Your assigned role is to be brought with Jesus into His eternal wedding feast, when He arrives to judge the living and the dead. So you should anticipate and welcome that day when your Lord will return.

But are you savvy about this? Are you wise, being prepared for when Jesus will come and bring His redemptive work to its culmination? Or have you wandered into folly? In today’s readings, you heard the Prophet Amos speak to Israelites, those who had been invited to participate in the Divine Covenant. But they had abandoned that identity, acting in opposition to the Lord and His ways. Their unfaithfulness led the Lord to say to them: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The Lord’s words of judgment are spoken against those who had wandered into the folly of unbelief and unfaithfulness.

But what is even more astonishing about the Israelites in Amos’ time was that they thought that nothing was wrong with them. Their foolishness had deluded them into thinking that all was fine, that all would be well. They desired the Day of the Lord to come, even though it would bring sorrow and doom for them as the groom’s arrival in Jesus’ parable did for the foolish maidens. So Amos warns them: “Woe to you who desire the Day of the Lord! Why would you have the Day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the Day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” Amos’ description of the Last Day is so for those who are not faithful to the Lord. It is the same eternally negative aspect of Jesus’ return that the foolish maidens experience.

Amos’ warnings are directed, even now, to those who have been invited to be beneficiaries of the Divine Covenant but are not participating in it. His words are spoken to all of you who have been baptized and made part of the Heavenly Father’s household, but who are not living according to His family’s customs and rules. They are declared to you who do not recognize your sin that needs to be forgiven and do not seek out the absolution that Jesus’ Gospel brings. The word of judgment is given for you who are not diligent in receiving the salvation that is delivered to you through the means of grace. Or to rephrase it in a way similar to Jesus’ parable: the warning is stated for you who have lamps, but no oil.

But Amos’ warnings are not the only words spoken about the Day of the Lord. This morning, you have also heard something good about the Last Day. You have heard a second statement about what will occur. Not that you have heard a different account of what will happen, but have heard about the other, positive aspect of Jesus’ return. The Apostle Paul writes to a group of believers about that day: “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” His description of the Last Day is for the Lord’s faithful people.

Paul’s statement of encouragement and gladness is directed, even now, to those who have been invited to be beneficiaries of the Divine Covenant and are participating in it. His words are spoken to all of you who have been baptized and made part of the Heavenly Father’s household and are striving to be obedient and devout children. They are declared to you who recognize your guilt and failures and seek out the absolution that Jesus’ Gospel brings. The word of promise is given to you who are diligent in receiving the salvation that is delivered to you through the means of grace. Or to rephrase it in a way similar to Jesus’ parable: the assurance of eternal joy is stated for you who have been given lamps by Jesus and who are supplied with the oil needed to let them burn.

Jesus’ parable is about being prepared for His return. That is why He says after His parable ends: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Though you have many promises and declarations made about Jesus’ return, you have one aspect of it that you do not know: when it will take place. Your Lord wants you to be ready for His arrival, but since you have no knowledge of when it will be, you must always be prepared. Your role as a participant in the life of the world to come has been assigned to you. If you desire to fulfill that role, you must have what is necessary to do so. You need to have the supply of oil for the lamp. You need the Gospel that brings the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus acquired for you by His dying and rising to life again. That is what allows you to live as faithful people in this life, preparing you to live in the life of the world to come.

So what should you do? Paying no attention to what Jesus says or trying to time when Jesus will return and running out to the oil dealers at the last moment are certainly not the right actions. That was the foolish action of the five maidens in Jesus’ parable. Living as people who are totally unconcerned with doing what is just and right, believing that what is done in this life doesn’t matter a whit, since you’ve been baptized and have your name on a parish register is also not the right action. No, those are the foolish actions of the Israelites who had Amos’ prophetic words spoken against them. Such actions will lead to Jesus’ return being “darkness and not light.”

What should be done is to be regular in receiving Jesus’ gifts delivered through the Gospel. Jesus has called you to be recipients of His benefits, and He has assigned dealers of oil to be among you—His stewards of the mysteries, His ministers of Word and Sacrament. Not only does He put those dealers there, He gives them the instructions to fill the flasks without cost and price. Jesus gives you a constant, gratuitous supply of what you need. You come here to receive it. You say, “Fill the flask.” And it is so. You are forgiven. You are sent out into the world for another week of living as the Lord’s people. Then you come back again for the flask to be filled. And this is done over and over again, so that you will be prepared for Jesus’ return.

As you participate this way as the Lord’s faithful people, you are ready for your role that He has given to you. You will be among those who will rise and “will always be with the Lord.” You will be in the company of all the wise maidens, “those who were ready” and who “went in with [the bridegroom] to the marriage feast”. You will be united with all the saints, all the holy people of God, those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and have received the crown of life that Jesus has won for them. For you, that day will not be “darkness . . . and gloom with no brightness in it.” Instead, it will be the time when “all who seek [the Lord] rejoice and be glad in [Him].”

Prepared by Jesus to participate fully in the role that He has given to you, then you can pray the petition of the faithful that was asked this morning: “Lord God, heavenly Father, send forth Your Son to lead home His Bride, the Church, that with all the company of the redeemed we may finally enter into His wedding feast.” That is the desire of those who have been made wise unto salvation, including you who have received the Gospel of Jesus again this day.

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