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“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains may 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!”
YOU SEE WHAT THE PROPHET IS ASKING FOR DON’T YOU? ‘There’s trouble, ‘trouble in River City,’ and Isaiah is imploring God to ‘come down’ and straighten things out. He wants God to ‘come down’ from ‘the heavens’ to set things right, to straighten things out.
Ever prayed a prayer like that? “Come down and straighten things out down here, God.” “Come down and put the fear of God in the terrorists and the drug dealers and the sex traffickers and the crooked politicians – that they may tremble at Your presence and repent and turn and stop.”
Or maybe for you, it’s much more personal than that. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, and heal my disease, cure my friend from her cancer, fix my marriage, get my kid off drugs, get my children to go back to church.”
There’s a sense of desperation in the prophet’s prayer. And maybe you have the same sense in yours. The prophet is asking God to do something DRAMATIC. Let them know that YOU SEE what they’re doing and that they’re not going to get away with it. Make them “TREMBLE AT YOUR PRESENCE.”
YOU SEE WHAT THE PROPHET IS ASKING FOR DON’T YOU? He’s asking for God to put the FEAR OF GOD into those evil and wicked people. And it’s not as if God is above doing that. God can preach with ‘fire and brimstone’ like nobody’s business.
In the days of Moses, God came down onto Mount Sinai and the mountain quaked and there was fire and thick clouds and loud trumpets and all the people were filled with fear and said, “We’ll do whatever you say.” That’s what the ‘fear of God’ does to a person.
And there was that time when the prophet Elijah prayed a prayer just like this one, (or maybe it was this one), and God came down from heaven in a bolt of fire that exploded the altar and everyone got the ‘fear of God’ put in them.
That’s what Isaiah’s asking for here. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…” Set something on fire, boil some water, shake the mountains. That’ll change people. That’ll fix things.
Isn’t that what we prayed for in our Collect for this first Sunday in Advent? “Stir up Your POWER, O Lord, AND COME, that we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your MIGHTY deliverance…”
Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. But have you noticed that as we identify all those TARGETS for the Lord to COME DOWN ON, with His POWER and MIGHTY DELIVERANCE, it’s been ‘THEM,’ or ‘HIM’ or ‘HER, or ‘THOSE PEOPLE’?
• Not once have we identified ourselves as the target for God to drop His 30 megaton guided missile on.
• Not once have we identified ourselves as coconspirators in the mess that we are praying for God to REND THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN and fix.
But that’s just what the prophet does in this prayer. He catches us all with our finger pointed at the evil and wicked people OUT THERE and bends it back around until we’re pointing at ourselves.
“Behold you were angry, and WE sinned; and in OUR sins WE have been a long time, and shall WE be saved? They’re all ‘1st person pronouns.’ Not a ‘2nd person or 3rd person pronoun’ in the bunch. “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.”
YOU SEE WHAT THE PROPHET IS ASKING DON’T YOU? He’s asking God to “rend the heavens and come down” and put the fear of God into those evil doers and wicked people – and he’s painted a big, red, X right onto our own chest.
It’s only when we understand that the prophet is sending the coordinates for a divine missile strike up to God, and the coordinates he signals are the hearts of GOD’S OWN PEOPLE, that we can begin to understand what the prophet is asking for here.
I’d like to respond to all of this in three ways.
First, positively. What is most certainly true about the human predicament and dilemma is that there is most certainly no way out of it apart from the Lord God Himself coming down from heaven to make things right. The prophet is not asking God to give His people three points or five biblical principles or even 10 Laws, that if they will only follow them, it will fix their lives or their marriages or their children or this world.
“We have all become like one who is unclean…” It’s like grilling a great filet mignon perfectly and as you cut it open its done just the way you like it but then you see that there’s a worm in it. “And all or righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” There’s something rotten on the INSIDE that makes all of our best efforts to save ourselves a ridiculous delusion.
The Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazi’s for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. From his prison cell in Buchenwald, he wrote a series of letters that are some of the most poignant meditations on our utter dependence upon the Lord to rescue and deliver us. In one of his prison letters, Bonhoeffer writes this, “a prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
“We are completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” The season of Advent is all about focusing our thoughts, our prayers, our hope on the One who comes down from heaven to “open the door of freedom from the outside.” “Stir up Your POWER, O Lord, AND COME, that we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your MIGHTY deliverance…”
We cannot open the door from inside. As much as we may see the problem as MY FAULT that I have caused because of my sinful insistence that my way were wiser than God’s ways, I cannot escape them or overcome them.
This is Paul’s great confession to the Romans. “But I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul’s thoughts and prayers and only hope is that someone would rend the heavens and come down and open the door from the outside – which is precisely what God has promised to do. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:23-25)
That leads to my second response which is negative. Isaiah prays for God to come down from heaven and fix things with a demonstration of His mighty power – “that the mountains might quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…” And maybe that’s also what we were thinking of when we prayed, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come down…”
We’re always tempted to think that ‘signs and wonders’ of God’s mighty power will cause people to repent and turn from their sin and believe in the Lord and walk in His ways. After 911 and other national disasters, they say that lots of people went to church, but in less than two months, things were right back to where they had been. Some take these as God’s warning to repent and turn and believe in the Lord Jesus. But then when things returned to normal again, its’ right back to the same old same old.
In fact, this is not the way that God answers Isaiah’s prayer or ours. In our gospel reading, we heard the Palm Sunday account of Jesus entering Jerusalem. This is how the almighty God comes down out of heaven to open the prison door and set you free – not in a fiery, earth quaking demonstration of His nuclear power that makes sinners quake in our boots and repent in the fear of the Lord. But He comes down from heaven in such a humble and lowly way – on a donkey, with the sound a hammer sticking nails that pierce His hands and feet, the sound of a ‘still, small voice,’ that prays, NOT for God to rend the heavens and come down – but, “Father, forgive them.”
For the truth is, it’s not God’s power that changes people and turns them from their sin to repent and receive His forgiveness that SETS THEM FREE to love and serve Him. It’s His love for us that makes that kind of change in us. His coming down from heaven, born of the virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried – for me, for my sins, for my guilt, for my forgiveness.
That God came down from heaven in such meekness and humility to open the prison door to set ME free, (1st person, singular pronoun), that I may be His own and live in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness;” that He has killed the worm in me by drowning it in His holy, precious blood in my Baptism, that’s what moves a sinner like ME to repent and turn from his sinful ways.
This is the Advent that we are continually being reminded of in every sermon that is preached and every baptism that is administered and Lord Supper that is served. Your God has rend the heaven come down to you with His Word of promise and life, and His Body and His Blood given and shed for you, and His death and His resurrection, not in demonstrations of power, but hidden in these lowly means of grace – to open the prison door and set you free.
And then lastly, the third response to Isaiah’s prayer is positive. For the day will come when the Lord does indeed “rend the heavens and come down” in all of the power and glory that is rightfully His. And every eye will see Him and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that this Jesus, who come to rescue this fallen world on a donkey, and by the cross and through the grave itself – is indeed the One who has rescued us from the threatening peril of our sins and saved us by His mighty deliverance.
Until then, we continue to pray, “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, we are your people.”
In the beginning, God created the world by His word, “let there be,” “and there was.” That’s the kind of power that God’s Word is. Whatever is says it does.
On the FIRST DAY, God said, “let there be light” and then He SEPARATED the darkness from the light and He called the ‘light’ day and the ‘darkness’ He called ‘night.’ And there was evening and there was morning the FIRST DAY.
At the end of the SIXTH DAY, “God saw everything that He made, and behold, it was very good.” And then we come to the SEVENTH DAY. “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…”
The SEVENTH DAY of the world should have been the LAST DAY – the ETERNAL DAY, in which EVERYTHING THAT GOD MADE, RESTED in the ‘REST OF GOD,’ as in, “come to Me… and you will find REST for your soul.”
But as we all know, Adam and Eve didn’t ‘REST’ in ‘God’s rest.’ They listened to a voice that said, ‘You’re restless aren’t you? You want to be like God, don’t you? You won’t ever find ‘rest’ for your soul until you’re like God, will you? Come to me, and you will find REST for your soul.”
And Adam and Eve looked inside themselves and examined their hearts according to the serpents word, and sure enough, what do you know, they were ‘restless’ weren’t they? As they left the Garden they began their quest to “find rest for their souls” APART FROM GOD. And all humanity followed them.
And so what should have been the LAST DAY, wasn’t, because the almighty God will not be denied His joy or put up with our ignorance and faithlessness forever. He prepared a Kingdom from the FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD, and if He has to make all things new again, He will do it. Another LAST DAY would be needed.
Just as sin entered the world THROUGH ONE MAN, so set in motion His PLAN to make all things new again THROUGH ONE MAN. Through ONE MAN, God planned to bring His restless men and women into HIS REST in the “the kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world.”
He put the Word out, announcing His plans. In ‘days of old’ He broadcast His PLANS to ALL NATIONS, in many and various ways by the prophets. One of my own favorites is the word broadcast by the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 29:11 – “I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11).
But now in these LAST DAYS, He has broadcast His PLANS through His Son, “Come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
In the ‘OLDEN DAYS’ God came with the gentle, humble, tenderness of a shepherd with his sheep. “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out… 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… I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.”
The Shepherd brings His sheep into “their own land,” and sets an eternal shepherd over them, who is, “my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord will be their God.”
And when the ‘OLDEN DAYS’ were over, “and the time had fully come, the ‘LAST DAYS’ began. And “Now in these last days,’ THE MAN through whom the plans of God would be accomplished has made the grand announcement in person – “I am the good shepherd.”
All of God’s PLANS for your welfare, to give you a future and a hope, are accomplished in this man. From His ridiculous, cross-shaped throne, the judgment of God against all the rebellion and restlessness of mankind was carried upon the King Himself – FOR THE KING HIMSELF IS THE MAN OF GOD. He suffered the punishment for all mankind, from the first sinner to the last, in our place, on our behalf, without any merit or worthiness in us – by grace alone. Why? Because this was His plan “from the foundation of the world.”
In Christ and Him crucified, we see NO REST, NO GLORY, NO PEACE. In Him, we see Adam and Eve and the end of all THEIR PLANS to find rest for their souls apart from the REST OF GOD.
But then, BEHOLD, the 3rd day, LET THERE BE LIGHT. And the light shattered the darkness and now in HIM – THIS ONE MAN, we see “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
As He is about to ascend to His Father, He sends His apostles into the whole world THAT HE CREATED IN THE BEGINNING, with the same message as that of the prophets of old. “I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11).
And this holy message is still being broadcast to the ends of the earth. And it will continue to be broadcast until it reaches every nook and cranny, every tribe and nation and language and people with the GOOD NEWS – In Jesus Christ, you will find rest for your soul.
But THESE LAST DAYS will not last forever. There is a LAST DAY – no one knows when it will be – not ever THE MAN. So, “today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Ps.95:6) And repeated by the apostles, “today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3:7,15; 4:7).
For “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne and before him will be gathered all the nations.”
At His Great Commission, His Word went out to ends of the earth through His witnesses in every age – the called and ordained to their congregations and missions, the mother and father to their children, the friend to his friend, the co-worker to her co-workers.
The voice of the Shepherd Himself, speaking through each one – going out to the stray, the injured, the weak, the lost sheep with His gracious call, “…come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“I, I MYSELF, have taken all of your sin and that restlessness in your soul upon myself. And I, I MYSELF have given you my yoke of forgiveness and life and salvation – and you will find rest for your souls. “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
And some would and some wouldn’t. Who knows why? And some will and some won’t. Some were too proud and some too ashamed. Some said ‘not now, maybe later’ – AND LATER CAME TODAY. And some said, ‘this is amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
On the LAST DAY “…he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.”
To those on His right, He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
It’s an ‘inheritance,’ not a ‘reward,’ not ‘wages due’ – ‘inheritance,’ pure gift, wonderful surprise.
Only AFTER He has already separated them and pronounced the blessing upon them and brought them into His kingdom, does He commend them for their good works. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was as 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 sheep are confused and actually challenge their Judge. They think He’s being TOO GRACIOUS. “When did we see a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
They’re not saying they didn’t do these things. They just never realized that what they did for “the least of these” they were actually doing for Him.
In these LAST DAYS, our Lord is always hidden from us – hidden under His Word and Sacraments THROUGH WHICH HE GIVES US HIS LOVE – hidden in our neighbor THROUGH WHOM WE GIVE HIM OUR LOVE.
Only faith can see that. Only faith SEES the Lord hidden in the neighbor. But on the LAST DAY, faith is over – and everything is revealed and “every eye will see Him.”
And then will we realize that He was present among us all along. In our ‘weak faith’ when we did not see, He was present among us – hidden in the stranger and the naked and the sick and the prisoner. Hidden in the one who told us about Jesus and His rest for our soul.
“And the King will answer them, ‘truly I say to you as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.’
The goats are also surprised to hear the King’s judgment. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And for all of the same reasons that the FAITHFUL were commended, these are condemned.
And in their surprise, they say, “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick and did not minister to you?” If they had known it was Jesus they would have waited on Him hand and foot. But it really doesn’t take any faith to do that. And it doesn’t take any love to ‘not serve’ your neighbor either. Without faith they were truly blind.
“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘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.” And the judgment that was pronounced upon Jesus on the cross is now pronounced upon them – for they would have none of His cross.
He paid the price for their sins but they would have none of it because they “said that they had no sin – and deceived themselves.” Or they thought they could atone for it on their own sins. And so because they would not receive the Lord when He came to them in LEAST OF ALL, HIS BROTHERS – they will have no Jesus at all.
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” One the FIRST DAY, He SEPARATED the light from the darkness. So He will do again ON THE LAST DAY.
I’ll close with these words from letter to the Hebrews:
“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” Although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:1-6)
“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”
Parables can be tricky things to interpret. Knowing how to accurately translate a parable from ‘earthly story’ to ‘heavenly meaning’ is not easy to do correctly. For example, what are we supposed to do with these “TALENTS” that this man distributes to his servants? What do the ‘TALENTS’ stand for? In Jesus’ day, ‘TALENTS’ were measures of silver. One “TALENT” was lots of silver. Is that what this is about then – the unequal distribution of ‘silver’ or ‘wealth’? Or are we to interpret a ‘TALENT’ as abilities and skills.
And what are we to make of the fact the man gives his property to his servants, “each according to his ability”? How are we supposed to find ourselves in this story and apply it to our lives? Are some given more or less money, more or less abilities and skills, more or less opportunities than others because they’re more or less ABILITY to handle them properly? And, which one am I?
So, I’m telling right now, the only two details in this parable that I’m confident in identifying, is that the “man” is our Lord, Jesus Christ. And “his servants” are His followers, His disciples – you and me. And the “it” is the Last Day when Jesus appears again to judge the living and the dead. Continue reading
We’ve been taking this guided journey through the life of our Lord – St. Matthew our guide. We took a detour the last two Sundays for Reformation and All Saints, which was fine, but now it’s time to get back on the bus again.
This morning we come to the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel – and this is where the tour will end. We’ll make three stops in this chapter over the next three weeks, which will bring us to the end of the Church Year when we’ll start all over again, St. Mark taking over for St. Matthew as our guide.
That’s what the church year is all about – a carefully guided journey through the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ from the promise of His coming into the world – to RECONCILE ALL THINGS TO GOD – to His coming again to judge the living and the dead.
Jesus Christ is coming again – NOT to suffer and die on the cross for your sins and mine again – “for the death He died He died to sin, once for all…” (Rom. 6:10). THAT’S HISTORY and there’s no more atoning for your sin that still needs to be done.
Jesus Christ is coming again – NOT to teach us something new or do a few more miracles so that you might stop doubting and believe that He is who He says He is – “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) You don’t get more WORD OR MIRACLES than you’ve already got in the Bible.
Nor is He coming again to take the believers and give the unbelievers a second chance to repent and believe. He’s not coming again to wipe out all of the unbelievers and give all the believers a time to enjoy this place without those nasty ‘bad people’ always spoiling things.
Jesus Christ is coming again – to declare the FINAL JUDGMENT on every human being ever created from the first man to the last – which therefore includes you and me.
And from what we’ve heard during this journey that we’ve been on, the declaration of God’s judgment will sound something like this,
• either “Woe to you,” or “blessed are you;”
• either “I know your name,” or “I don’t know you;”
• either “come to Me,” or “depart from Me.”
To some, the door will be opened. To others, it will be closed.
In other words, there will be a great SEPARATION on the LAST DAY. Continue reading
On this Sunday every year, we read the names of all those who were members of this congregation when they died. Some we never knew. Some we knew quite well. Some were fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and friends. All of them, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Time has passed and the anguish of the grave has faded. Death has lost the terrible sting that it once had. And we give thanks to God for that.
But the question is, why do we do this? Why do we name our dead before the Lord? Why do we place flowers at the foot of altar with the names of our loved ones on our lips and in our hearts?
We name our LIVING before the Lord in our prayers asking for the Lord’s care for them. But we certainly don’t need to do that for the dead. We do not pray FOR THE DEAD as some do, because simply put, they don’t need our prayers. Their bodies are in the grave awaiting the resurrection of all flesh. And their souls are in heaven and they are ‘with the Lord.’ THE DEAD DO NOT NEED OUR PRAYERS.
So why do we do this? What are we doing when we call out the names of those who have died in the faith and speak their names in our hearts as we do on this day?
The answer is, we are counting the spoils of our Lord’s victory over death and the devil. For Christ our Lord has gone to war with devil to set the captives free. And has won the victory – and the spoils of His victory are those whom we have named.
They were captives to the devil and prisoners of their own sin just as much as we are right now. It was the same daily battle between the good that they willed to do but didn’t and the evil that they hated but did for them as it is for us.
But now they’re FREE. Not because they managed to escape. But because Jesus Christ has set them free and brought them into His Father’s House “to live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.” (Small Catechism – 2nd Article)
So we name our dead to mock the devil and to praise our mighty Lord, the ‘warrior Lord,’ the Lord, God of Sabbaoth. These whom we have named are the holy plunder of God. And this is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia.
Jesus put it like this. “When a strong man fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils.” (Luke 11:21-22).
The devil is a strong man. As we sung last Sunday, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected.” The devil held every man and woman and child captive to sin, death and his dark power over them.
“But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be. The Lord of Hosts is He – Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.” The strong man has been overpowered by the stronger man – the God/Man – Jesus Christ. “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed – Alleluia.”
In his Revelation, St. John sees the holy plunder that Christ has taken from the devil and describes it like this, “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”
Even though this GREAT MULTITUDE of captives set free cannot be numbered, still we can single out a few who we know by name. *There is George and Jim, Brendan and Franklin, Elizabeth and Cordula, and Tom and Betty and Eva and Frank and there is Bonnie, still just getting settled into her eternal life.
*[There is Walter and Harry. And there is Carlotta, still just getting settled into her eternal life with God.]
They’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising the Lamb of God who brought them out of this ‘great tribulation’ and into that “marvelous light.”
They are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb clothed in white robes.”
This is much more than just a ‘fashion statement.’ In the beginning, the man and the woman stood naked before God and felt no shame. Where there is no sin there is no shame, and we see God “as He is,” and He sees me ‘just as I am’. And it’s all “very good.”
But then we sinned. O how could we have sinned against our loving Creator who made us with His own hands and gave us His own breath and put us in PARADISE and said – “welcome home.”
But we did, we ALL did. And we feel so guilty and so ashamed of ourselves. “Look what He did for us and all that He gave us. How could we?” And in our guilt and shame we couldn’t bear to let Him see us bare. AND HE COULDN’T STAND THE SIGHT OF US EITHER. But neither was He content to just let bygones be bygones.
“So the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:22). Have you ever noticed that NO SOONER DOES MAN SIN THAN BLOOD IS SHED. But it’s not THE SINNER who bleeds – it’s an innocent animal.
I know that the ‘official record’ doesn’t say what kind of animal it was that God killed to make those “garments of skins” to clothe those guilty sinners, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it was a lamb.
Jesus Christ, is the INNOCENT Lamb of God, who took on human skin,
• so that He might be slaughtered and cloth guilty men and women with HIS SKIN,
• so we might not hide from God like Adam tried to do,
• so He might present His holy bride “to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph.5:27)
So we are not honoring these men and women whom we have named because they were perfect or good or even nice. This is no place for funeral parlor talk. “He was always such a good man.” “She was the perfect wife.” “He never did anything wrong.”
We can be honest. They were sinners just like we are. But in their baptism, God the Father ROBED them in God the Son. And God the Holy Spirit kept them ROBED in Christ until He called them into His heaven where the baptismal ROBES that could only ever be seen by faith, are now seen by John.
They are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb clothed in white robes.”
“And with palm branches in their hands, they were crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!’”
In his Gospel, St. John catches the little details that the other gospels miss. The Palm Sunday account is recorded in all four gospels, but its only John who reports that as Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…” (John 12:13).
They are welcoming Jesus as they would welcome a savior king, whom they hope has come TO DEFEND AND PROTECT THEM AND DELIVER THEM FROM THEIR ENEMY.
Now, in his revelation, the same John sees the crowds in heaven, still holding onto those palm branches. But now, praising the one who CAME IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, and who, by His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, HAS conquered their great enemy and set them free.
All the Company of Heaven
“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.”
The prophet Isaiah once found himself before the throne of God and he couldn’t bear it. “Woe is me! For I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Is.6:4-5)
But now, John sees the angels, the elders and the four living creatures which stand for men and women from all four corners of the world, standing before the King, the Lord of hosts, singing His praise, every lip sterilized by that which comes from the altar – hot coals for Isaiah lips – bread and wine for yours.
And what wonderful speech comes from those sanctified lips. ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
In just a few moments, we will take our place in that multitude – or they will take a place with us – I’m never quite sure if we ascend to heaven or if heaven descends to us in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Whichever it is, we will join our sanctified lips with the ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to laud and magnify’ the glorious name of this God around whose throne we gather.
This is the celebration of ALL SAINTS. “ALL” means ‘all’ – the saints in heaven and the saints on earth – ALL one, holy Christian and Apostolic Church – the living and the dead separated only by the silky thin veil of time and space.
“O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
And so we name those who died in this one, true faith, before the Lord, not because we believe that they were so good that they were worthy of such honor. But because this is what God has promised to all the faithful in Christ in His Word, and we believe that the Word of God is most certainly true.
Listen to the Word of God through the apostle Paul to the saints in Colossae:
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14.)
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus]. (Col. 2:13-15)
As we name our dead before the Lord today, we should also be reminded that this is our destiny too. We will all one day die. And if, by God’s grace, we persevere in this ‘one, true faith,’ our name will one day appear on this list.
We too will be called out of this great tribulation and into His marvelous light. We will come before the Lamb on His throne, clothed in the white robes we received in our baptism, one of that great multitude praising the Name that is above every name.
“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them by day nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“No more climbing ladders.” That’s been the ‘Hymn of the Day’ at my house for the past two weeks now. It gets sung to a number of tunes, all of them could easily handle trumpet and trombone parts.
The patriarch Jacob saw a ladder with its feet firmly planted on the earth and the top propped against the edge of heaven itself, and the angels of God effortlessly ascending and descending on it. But angels lack the flesh and bones as you see that I have, which significantly reduces the risks involved.
I’ve had about all the attention I want for my ladder failure and I’m more than ready to redirect the attention to someone else – take for example, the rich, young man who came to Jesus with his question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here’s a ‘ladder climber’ if there ever was one. He’d been climbing this ladder all his life trying to get to heaven, and yet he knew he had not climbed high enough.
Jesus patiently tells this man what he needed to do to climb higher – the end that he might once and for all renounce all ladder climbing to get to heaven. “Keep the 10 Commandments,” Jesus tells him. The man replied that he had already climbed those 10 rungs already. “What more must I do?” Jesus replied, “sell all you have and give to the poor and come, take up your cross and follow me.” And at that the man lost his footing and fell, and great was his fall.
Who is this man? Who is this man who believes that he must “climb, climb up sunshine mountain” to get to that place where “heavenly breezes blow” and “faces all aglow”?
I am. And so are you. And so was Martin Luther. Luther was possessed by the same question as the rich, young man, “What must I do to have eternal life?” And the church in Luther’s day answered by giving him a ladder to climb. It was called the ‘sacrament of penance.’ Which Luther climbed and climbed and climbed.
But no matter how high he climbed, he was never convinced that he climbed high enough. He wrote, “My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak and troubled I became.”
And the thought of NOT climbing high enough terrified him. “I was more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created,” he wrote.
It was only when the same Lord who answered the rich, young man, answer Luther. Not a voice in his head or a feeling in his heart or a sign in the sky, but a “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul, who was also quite the ‘ladder climber,’ and who also had taken a terrible fall from the deep heights to which he had climbed.
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. FOR BY WORKS OF THE LAW NO HUMAN BEING WILL BE JUSTIFIED IN HIS SIGHT. Since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
Which means that if you’re trying to climb UP to heaven on the ladder of GOD’S LAW, you’re actually NOT going UP at all – but DOWN.
“BUT NOW, the righteousness of God has been revealed APART FROM THE LAW…”
“But now…” Some of the best news you’ll ever hear is announced by those two little words. “But now…” Just when you thought you had it all figured out that the way to heaven was to climb the ladder higher and higher, God knocks the legs right out from us and says, “NO MORE CLIMBING LADDERS!” “I hate it when you try to climb the ladder to get to Me.”
WHICH IS NOT TO SAY THAT THERE IS NO MORE NEED FOR LADDERS, WITH THEIR FEET FIRMLY PLANTED ON THIS EARTH AND THE TOP LEANING AGAINST HEAVEN. It’s just that the ladder is not one that we must climb to get to God. It’s the ladder that God climbs down to get to us.
All of the PLOTS AND SCHEMES OF FALLEN MAN to get to God by climbing UP to Him are answered with a resounding NO. God has His own plot, written before the foundation of the world, wherein He comes down the ladder to get to us.
“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried…” “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… BUT NOW… are justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 3:23-24)
NO MORE CLIMBING LADDERS.
Holy Baptism is no longer where we come to receive the grace that enables and equips us to climb the ladder up to God. It’s the ladder on which God comes down to us and gives us His Triune Name and RESURRECTS us with Christ, and takes us out this world and brings us into heaven – even now, but not yet.
Confession is no longer the place where we get our assignment of what we must do to be assured that the blessed absolution is FOR ME. It’s the place, whether publicly before the whole congregation or privately with the pastor, where we confess our sins of omission and commission. And based solely on what my Lord and my God has done for me – I hear that word spoken over me that was spoken over me in my baptism, as from God Himself, “I forgive you all of your sins.”
And Holy Communion is no longer the place where a “bloodless sacrifice” is offered UP to God to appease His anger for our sins, but the very body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior, COME DOWN from heaven to YOU for the forgiveness of all of your sins and the strength to take up your cross and follow Him.
We come to the Sacrament of the Altar, not as climbers who are required to climb this rung. We come as beggars come to their merciful and gracious Lord – with hands held out and mouths opened to receive this life-giving food “AS A GIFT, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
This is the heart and soul of the gospel. “Christ has entered, once for all, into the holy places,” that we so desperately want to enter. And “by means of His own blood, has secured an eternal redemption” FOR US. (Hebrews 9:12)
The great “BUT NOW…” of the gospel is that the “The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
This is the great “BUT NOW…” that moved Luther to quit climbing the ladder. “Now I felt as though I had been born again, and I believed that I had entered Paradise through widely opened doors… As violently as I had formerly hated the expression, ‘the righteousness of God,’ so now I was as violently compelled to embrace the new conception of grace, and thus, for me, the expression of the Apostle really opened the Gates of Paradise.”
By faith alone, “the Son has set us free” from THE LOVELESS LADDER CLIMBING to get to God. And what a relief it is, and what peace that gives. He has set us free to live with both feet firmly planted on the ground – where we strive to walk HORIZONTALLY – to love our neighbor – NOT AS ‘GOOD WORKS’ TO PLEASE GOD – that’s ‘ladder climbing’ again and so, so selfish – but in genuine love for our neighbor – as servants of the living God, WHO LOVES OUR NEIGHBOR THROUGH US.
By faith alone, “the Son has set us free” to TAKE GREAT RISKS and walk with Abraham, who “BY FAITH… obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, NOT KNOWING WHERE HE WAS GOING.” (Heb. 11:8)
Knowing that you have already entered Paradise by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone, we are set free from all of the angst and fear of God’s judgment against us. Listen to Luther:
“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? BY NO MEANS. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”
Does the Lutheran Reformation still have something to say to us 500 years later? It most certainly does.
After being convicted for his role in the Watergate Conspiracy, Charles Colson was introduced to Jesus Christ while in prison and later reported that even while he was in prison, he was never so free. After his release, Colson founded an organization called “Prison Fellowship” that worked to bring the gospel to prisoners that they too might know of that freedom that transcends even life in prison.
He wrote of the time he visited a prison in Brazil that had been so corrupt that the government closed it down. It was reopened again and operation turned over to an independent group that was given free rein to employ the gospel.
Colson reported how surprised he was to find the inmates smiling and pleasant – especially the murderer who had the keys to the front door. “Where ever I walked,” he said, “I found men at peace.” “How could this be and what was the reason for this extraordinary change,” he asked.
He got his answer when his guide, one of the inmates, escorted him to the notorious punishment cell that had once been used for torturing inmates. “Today,” the guide told Colson, “this cell holds just one inmate.”
As they reached the end of the long, concrete corridor and the guide put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, “are you sure you want to go it?” “Of course,” replied Colson, “I’ve been in insolation cells all over the world.”
Slowly, the guide opened the steel door, and Colson writes, “I saw the prisoner in the cell: A crucifix, beautifully carved by the inmates – the prisoner Jesus, hanging on the cross.” The guide whispered, “He’s doing time for us all.”
“For God has presented Him to be a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”
“By his stripes, we are healed… Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.”
The Reformation was not principally a negative movement away from the Roman Church and its corruption. It was a positive movement towards the Word of God and the eternal gospel it proclaims to all who have ears to hear.
In fact, none of the relevance of the Reformation has faded in the least over 500 years. And that’s because men and women are no different today than they have always been – sinners with the same questions – like:
• ‘What will happen to me when I die and how can I be sure?’
• ‘Is my standing before God based on a process of becoming holy and only completed in purgatory, or is righteousness and holiness a pure gift of God, imputed by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone?
The Reformation was not a mere reaction to the historical situation 500 years ago. It speaks clearly and powerfully to sinners five centuries later. Even today, when many may no longer be tormented with issues of guilt before a divine Judge – because they have nearly dismissed the idea of a God who cares one way of the other – if He exists at all.
And yet they are nonetheless saddled with heavy burdens and pressures, piled on by a culture that bombards us with messages that THE MORE beautiful and productive we are, THE MORE loved we will be – which is really just another ladder to climb.
Even here, Luther points our present day to the gospel, with its refreshing good news that sets us free. In the last thesis of his HEIDELBERG DISPUTATION, Luther states: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” Rather than seeking that which is ‘beautiful,’ God MAKES US beautiful in His sight. SINNERS LIKE YOU AND ME ARE NOT LOVED BECAUSE WE ARE ATTRACTIVE. WE ARE BEAUTIFUL BECAUSE WE ARE LOVED by God.
NO MORE CLIMBING LADDERS.
The 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation is no time for ‘boasting’ – either in Martin Luther or the brave and courageous men and women who have stood for the pure gospel at great cost to themselves. This kind of boasting “is excluded. By what kind of law? By the law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” So today as we celebrate this 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:31)
The text for our consideration this morning is the 27th Psalm – entitled, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Since we haven’t heard this text yet this morning, let’s read it together from your hymnal, turn to page 27. Let’s read it responsively – I’ll read the odd verses, you read the even.
1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.
4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.
5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.
6 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me!
8 You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
9 Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!
10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.
11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
12 Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
13 I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.
It seemed good to me to set aside the assigned texts for today to consider how we ought to think about and respond to the recent, tragic events that have occurred. The ‘natural disasters’ from three hurricanes in September were responsible for 102 death and massive destruction and property loss and the ‘unnatural, man-made disaster’ of mass murder and bloodshed responsible for 59 deaths and 507 injured.
How are the baptized to think about these things and respond to them in ways formed and shaped by faith in the one, true God whom we confess is the creator and ruler and redeemer and the savior of this world? How do we find, not only comfort for ourselves in the “day of trouble” when it comes, but also the ‘defiant hope’ to that is able to, as Paul says, to “comfort others with the comfort that we have received from God”? (2 Cor.1:4)
The 27th Psalm is one of a great number of Psalms that gives us direction to our thoughts and even the words to use that we often have a hard time finding on our own in “the day of trouble.” It also shows us how the children of God respond ‘in faith’ “when evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh.” (vs.2)
In his, “day of trouble,” the first move that the Psalmist makes is to his Lord. “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Of whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (vs.1)
It may seem so simple that we may miss the significance of this, but in “the day of trouble” the faithful turn to God and to His Word for their help and comfort and guidance. This, in itself, is what distinguishes the one who lives by faith in the one true God and the one who does not. The faithful turn to their Lord, in whom they trust can and will keep them safe and deliver them. Continue reading
“When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’”
A little background would be helpful. We are now into the 21st chapter of Matthew’s gospel which opened with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The first thing that Jesus did when He entered the city was go straight to the Temple.
“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)
From there, Jesus returned to the village of Bethany where He had begun the day. The next day, He returned to the city and went back to the Temple and began to teach the people. “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’”
You can’t just go into someone else’s house and start rearranging the furniture and kicking people out like that. “By what authority…” Or as we would probably have put it, ‘what gives you the right?’
It’s not the first time they have asked Him this question. Continue reading
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” Finish the sentence. This is now the third Sunday in a row that we’ve been trying to finish that sentence. First it was a question of “greatness,” “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus turned every answer of ours upside down, comparing the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven to one who is childlike toward God.
Last Sunday it was the question of boundaries. “How often must I forgive my neighbor when he sins against me? As many as seven times.” And Jesus pushed the boundaries out seventy times farther than would ever have imagined.
Now, this morning, the question has to do with the relationship between ‘input’ and ‘outcome’ in this Kingdom of Heaven. What’s the PAYOFF for what I DO? ‘The more I DO and the harder I work, the more I GET and the greater the reward. That’s what it’s like in the Kingdom of this world. Is this what the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like?
Peter and the disciples had just heard Jesus tell a “rich, young man” to “sell all his possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It’s all sounds very quid pro quo. The more EARTHLY POSSESSIONS you get rid of – the more HEAVENLY TREASURE you gain. Continue reading