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A Thief in the Night

I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:1-13

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

We heard it last week from St. Peter.  We hear it again today from St. Paul.  “The day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night.”  Our Lord Himself says the same thing in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I am coming as a thief.”  That’s an odd sort of image to associate with our Savior Jesus.  But there is something for us to learn from the fact that our Lord comes to us like a bandit, a criminal.  

Thievery is something we would more readily associate with the devil.  For Satan is indeed the thief and swindler of humanity.  He came to us in the garden like a con-man, flattering with his tongue, smooth-talking.  He told our first parents that they were missing out on a great deal that God was keeping to Himself.  If they would just eat of the forbidden fruit, then they would be like God themselves.  Turning them from God’s words to his own deceitful words, the devil robbed them blind.  He stole away their humanity and pilfered the glory in which they were created.  

That’s why you sons of Adam and daughters of Eve find yourselves in your present fallen state.  We are now less than human, a disordered version of what we were created to be.  We can sometimes feel that in our very souls, that things just aren’t right.  Instead of being fully human creatures under our good Creator, and honoring Him above all things, we would rather be like God, running our own lives, doing things our own way, following our own ideas.  The result for us is the same as it was for Adam, a less than human existence too often marked by anger and disrespect and lusts and jealousies and petty grudges and gossip and selfishness.  The human race has been mugged by the serpent and left to die.

However, just as God often punishes one thief by another thief in this world, so that the robber ends up losing what he stole, so also God punishes the devil by sending His Son as a thief.  The Son of God became man for that very purpose, to steal and snatch back our lost humanity from the evil one and to restore us to fellowship with God again.  

Just think of how our Lord entered into this world.  It wasn’t with great fanfare.  Instead, He came like a thief–quietly, hidden in the shadows, with nobody but some shepherds noticing His arrival.  Jesus came on the scene under cover, secretly, like a holy burglar, to win back for you what the devil stole away.  

By becoming human, by taking on your body and soul, Jesus cleansed your humanity with His divine holiness.  God has greatly exalted you by becoming not an angel or any other creature but a human person, your blood brother.  He partook fully of your humanity so that in Him you might become truly human again.  

Jesus was born like a thief, and He also died like a thief.  For He was crucified between two robbers.  And in fact that’s what He was.  Not only did He come to rob the devil of his victory over you, He accomplished that by robbing you of your sin.  He stole away from you every uncleanness, every damnable failure to love, along with every hurtful and evil thing that has been done to you.  He robbed you of it all, took it as His own, and demolished it in His cross.  It was by death that Satan stole away man’s glory; and so it is by the death of Christ and His resurrection to life again that the glory of man is recaptured and that your humanity is restored.  

And today’s Epistle reminds us that there’s one last thing our Lord is going to do like a thief.  He’s going to come back to this world suddenly and unexpectedly.  A robber doesn’t announce when he’s coming.  He tries to catch people unawares.  In fact Jesus once said, “If the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.  Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”  

Jesus is coming back to bring judgment on the unbelieving world.  We don’t know when it’s going to be, but He has said, “Surely, I am coming soon.”  We are given to watch for Christ’s return and to be looking out for it as much as if we were on the lookout for a thief who was coming to our house.  We are to be prepared for Jesus’ arrival so that it will a day of joy and not of fear.

Be on guard, then, against being lulled into a sense of complacency while you wait for that Day.  This is what Paul speaks of in the Epistle, “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman.  And they shall not escape.”  Beware of that worldly way of thinking which lives for the moment without a view to Jesus’ return. For that is precisely the attitude of the five foolish virgins in the Gospel.  They thought they had their bases covered.  They had a little oil in their lamps.  Why overdo it?  Everything’s going to be fine.  Why should I be preoccupied with the coming of the Lord?  I’ve got other priorities in life.”  

The lamps in the parable are the Word of Christ.  For the Psalmist says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet.”  The oil in the lamps is the Holy Spirit, who creates and sustains the flame of faith in Christ.  To be like the foolish is to fail to give proper attention to Christ’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit.  It is to avoid the Lord’s preaching and the Lord’s Supper, or merely to go through the motions.  When these instruments of the Holy Spirit are neglected, the flame of faith is in danger of going out.  The foolish thought they had their spiritual life all together.  But they were not prepared for a delay; they weren’t ready to watch for the long haul.  And then the call finally comes at midnight; time has run out.  And the foolish are left in a panic, scrambling to get oil, banging on a locked door saying “Lord, Lord, open to us!” and hearing those awful words, “I do not know you.”

Remember that you know neither when Christ is returning, nor when the day of your own death is coming.  Therefore, the Psalmist prays, “Lord make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am.  My age is as nothing before you; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor,” a dark mist.  

But now Christ has enlightened you with the gift of His Spirit in the waters of baptism.  That’s why Paul says in the epistle, “You, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.  You are all sons of light and sons of the day.”  For you have been united with Christ, who is the Son of light.  Therefore, “let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.”  

That is the way of the five wise virgins.  Those who are wise act as if there is nothing so important as the arrival of the bridegroom.  As they tend faithfully to their daily callings and enjoy the good gifts of creation, they do so always with a sense that that is secondary to Christ and His return.  That’s what they’re really living for and watching for.  And so they don’t want to cut it close when it comes to the oil in their lamps.  They “devote themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

The wise probably seemed way over-prepared, lugging around those extra jars of oil along with their lamps.  But in the end their wisdom was vindicated as they joined in the bridegroom’s procession and entered into the wedding hall.  So also Christians may appear to be overdoing it, going to divine service each week, meditating on God’s Word, praying and watching for Christ’s return, when they could be doing other things.  But in the end, such wisdom will be vindicated, when our Bridegroom returns to bring us into the new heavens and the new earth in which there is no more sorrow or crying or pain or death, but only perfect joy in God’s presence.  So take to heart the beautiful promise which the apostle speaks to you who believe: “God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”

Fellow believers, God has granted you to be among those who are wise.  For the Holy Spirit has made you wise unto salvation through Gospel of Christ the crucified.  “Assuredly,” the Lord says, “I know you in your baptism.  I have forgiven you and redeemed you and claimed you as my own.  I give you freely of My Word and Spirit, so that you may endure in the faith and watch to the very end.  I give you a very real foretaste of the wedding feast in My holy supper.  I am truly  here for you to forgive and sustain you.”  And so the Gospel cry rings out again in this place today, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming!  Wake, awake!  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar!”

The Lord will come like a thief in the night.  Let us watch and be ready that we may rejoice in that day.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit 

Mocking and Longsuffering

2 Peter 3:3-14

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the path that sinners take, nor sit in the seat of mockers.”  One of the defining characteristics of the ungodly is that they are mockers.  They revel in making fun of stuff.  They delight in tearing down the good gifts of God and His teaching and the things that make for order and peace in our lives, and they do little to build up what is good and right.  This is the way of a good deal of today’s comedy and entertainment, mocking and scoffing and doing parodies of people and institutions, and then walking away and blaming others for the rubble that remains.  Hidden beneath the mockery is an unbelieving heart.  

Now that’s not to say that all mocking is wrong.  Some mockery actually flows from faith.  In the Old Testament the prophet Elijah famously mocked the prophets of Baal as they danced around their altar and called on their god to send down fire on their sacrifice.  Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.  Maybe he’s on the toilet!”  Idolatry in all its forms is to be mocked, along with the foolishness of those who oppose God’s ways.  Psalm 2 speaks of how, when God looks down at all the scheming and politicking of the rulers of this world, as if they’re the ones in control, the Lord laughs at them and scorns them.

But in particular, the Scriptures warn us to be prepared to be on the receiving end of ridicule because of who we are as the people of God.  You’re going to have a hard time being a Christian in this world if you’re going to be all worried about what people say about you, if you’re trying to remain popular with the secular and pagan folks who are all around you.  

 Peter reminds us in today’s Epistle that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, saying things like, “You actually believe that accounts in the Bible like the flood are historically accurate?  You actually think that what the Bible says about sexuality and sin and repentance still applies to today?  You actually profess faith in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead?  I mean, come on, it’s been 2000 years now.  Where is He?  Aren’t your beliefs just a little backward and superstitious?  You only cling to all that because you’re weak-minded.  And by the way what do you think you’re doing gathering for church in a pandemic?”  Notice Peter states that they say all this because they walk “according to their own lusts.”  Their way of life is to follow their own desires and appetites and wisdom.  The notion of a God who might one day judge them doesn’t fit in very well with the way they want to live.  And so they deal with that by scoffing at the Christian faith, mocking it and making fun of it as stupid and ignorant.

But Peter goes on to point out that they do this by willfully forgetting the truth.  They purposely ignore reality in order to justify themselves.  That is why those who object to Christian teaching are becoming increasingly bold and condescending in their speech–it takes a lot of passion and effort to fight against what you know deep down is true.  St. Paul speaks in Romans 1 about how the unrighteous “suppress the truth” that is clearly evident in creation.  Unbelief pushes the truth down and out of the mind so that people can rationalize the way they think and act.

All of this is not unlike how it was in the days before the flood.  Genesis 6 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”   And so the flood came.  But before that it took Noah many years  to build the ark.  In the meantime the Scriptures say he was a “preacher of righteousness,” warning people of the coming judgment.  But no one paid attention.  They surely mocked him for his building project.  We heard it in the Gospel last week, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married . . . until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”  Peter reminds us that there is another judgment coming, this time not by water but by fire.

So even though you may be growing weary in trying to live like a Christian, even if you’re tired of being made to feel like an outsider, resist the temptation to just give in, to go along with the mindset of the culture, to adopt its self-indulgent way of living, to compromise your beliefs because that’s what you’ve got to do to get by or to get ahead.  The daily barrage can entice us all to believe the lies, to question or just give up on God’s Word.

Peter here offers you some encouragement.  He reminds you first of all that the Lord’s delay is not a sign that He’s forgotten about you or that the promise of His return is empty.  Rather, it’s a sign of His great mercy.  He is patient and longsuffering with us sinners, not wanting anyone to perish eternally.  He gives us all time to repent.  It is written that the Lord is “slow to anger.”  He’s not like us, with a short fuse when things don’t go our way.  He’s not looking for a reason to let us have it.  Rather, He is “abounding in steadfast love,” wanting all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  So if you hear someone ridiculing a belief in the second coming, or if you find yourself beginning to question it, remember that in the Lord’s delay we see His patient mercy.  The only reason the world continues on each day is because of His love for fallen human beings.

Our Lord is longsuffering toward us because He suffered long for us.  And that suffering included being mocked and ridiculed Himself.  Think of Jesus being slapped around before the Sanhedrin, blindfolded and told to prophesy as to who hit Him.  Think of Him being dressed up as a king complete with a crown of thorns and being offered mock praise.  Think of Him on the cross, being taunted with chants of how He should come down if He really was the Messiah.  On Good Friday Jesus was treated as a fool in order to deliver us from our foolishness and vindicate us who believe in Him and deliver us from judgment.  The sentence has been served for you.  Jesus took your punishment completely.  It is finished.  And since it’s all been accomplished and taken care of, that means that the Lord can wait, and so can we.  There is no hurry.  For God’s wrath has already been appeased.  Your redemption is won in Christ through the blood that He shed. You are safe and forgiven and put right with God.  You have nothing to fear.

And here’s another thing to remember: what seems like a dreadfully long time to us is just a blink of an eye to the Lord.  One day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day to Him.  We must always be careful to look at things from His eternal perspective and be patient, even as He is.

Still, there will come a point when the time of mercy, when the opportunity for repentance will end.  “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” suddenly and unexpectedly on the world, as did the flood.  On that last day it is written here that the whole universe will be incinerated and will pass away with a great noise–the real big bang.  The elements of this sin-cursed old creation will melt and fully degrade and expire to make way for the new creation to come.  Specifically, Peter says that the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.  All of our greatest works and achievements, all that human hands have made will be consumed–the great pyramids, skyscrapers and stadiums, computers and technological gadgets, the things and the property that we worked so hard to make payments on–all of it, evaporated, gone.

Therefore, since that is what is going to happen, how should we be conducting ourselves?  Should we be setting our hearts on the stuff of this world, or the status and power that comes with being honored by others and not mocked by them?  Why be completely wrapped up in what doesn’t last?  This is no time for complacency and spiritual laziness.  Rather, says Peter, since the last day is fast approaching, conduct yourselves in holiness and godliness and love toward others.  Look for and live for the day of His return.

The Epistle draws this all together when it says, “According to His promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”   We await our bodily resurrection in that place which our Lord Jesus is preparing for us, a real, tangible world in which righteousness dwells, for He, the Righteous One is there.  No more will there be stomach-turning news reports.  No more will we have to deal with our own frustrating fallen nature.  For all things will be made permanently right and good and new in that Day.  All scoffing will be done, all mockers cast out, and there will be only perfect praise and reveling in God’s glory.

And even now, the Scriptures say, you are already new in Christ, for you have been baptized into Him who is immortal and incorruptible.  You have been saved from judgment through water.  Just as Noah and His family and the animals entered in through the side of the ark, so also you have found refuge in the side of Christ, from which the blood and the water flowed for your cleansing and your redemption.  You are the ones the Gospel speaks of who are at the Jesus’ right hand.  To you He will say, “Come, you blessed of My Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  

Let us then pray daily for our Lord’s return.  Let us look for His coming, especially as He comes to us hiddenly even now in the holy supper.  Our Lord says in Revelation, “Surely I am coming quickly.”  We say with all the saints who have gone before us, “Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Thy Kingdom Come

Luke 17:20-30

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

We don’t think in terms of kingdoms much any more since we’ve long dispensed with the idea of kings.  But we do certainly think in terms of government and politics and power, don’t we.  In the aftermath of the recent elections, that’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds.  Who will be in charge?  Who will govern?  Who will have the power?  

So when the Pharisees ask about when the kingdom of God is going to come, what they’re really asking is “When is God going to show that He’s in charge?  When will we see His power?  When will He be the one who governs us as King?”  And this question is understandable from ones who were living under the domination of the Roman Empire, under the governorship of Pontius Pilate.  The Pharisees wanted some visible sign of God’s kingdom and God’s reign.

But Jesus reminds both them and us that the kingdom of God in this world is not about politics and worldly power.  It’s not something you can necessarily see on a map or in government.  Instead, Romans 14 says, the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  It is the Lord Jesus graciously ruling our hearts through His Word.  Until the Last Day, the kingdom of God is a hidden reality, perceived by faith, not with the eyes but with the ears.  For it is written, “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.”  

So Jesus’ first point here is that we shouldn’t think of the kingdom of God as only a future thing, when God’s power will become visible to our eyes.  When we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, we’re not only praying for Jesus to come again in glory at the end of the age.  We’re asking for His kingdom to come among us right now.  And how does that happen?  The Catechism confesses, “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”  So the kingdom of God has, in fact, already arrived.  It’s a present reality.  Jesus says, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’  For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

The kingdom of God was already among the Pharisees, for Christ the King was among them.  And He is the kingdom of God Himself in the flesh.  Hidden beneath and within His true humanity, all the fullness of God dwells, and the entire content of the kingdom is present with all of its blessings.  So wherever the flesh-and-blood Christ is–wherever He is speaking His words to His people and giving us His forgiveness and life–there is the kingdom of God.  Even though Christ is unseen to our eyes, all who are joined to Him through faith have entrance already here on earth into the heavenly kingdom of God.

The old Adam in us, though, doesn’t like to think of the kingdom in those terms.  Our fallen nature prefers to have something that it can see and experience rather than simply trusting in the Word of God.  In that way we are very much like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.  Moses was gone for a long time on the mountain, 40 days, not visible to them.  The people grew impatient.  That’s how it with us, too, isn’t it?  We grow impatient, waiting for the Lord to come through for us, waiting for some sign of His power and His help.  And that’s when we can be sorely tempted to turn away from Him and follow the ways of the world, to go after worldly ideologies and practices that promise to give us the power or the pleasure which we seek right now.  Having just come out of pagan Egypt, the Israelites were familiar with idols like the golden calf.  It brought them immediate gratification.  A golden calf was a fertility symbol.  When the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play, you can imagine what that involved.  Aaron gave the people what they wanted; he would have been much more likely to win election than Moses.

The golden calf event was written down for our warning and our learning.  When Moses came down from the mountain and saw the idolatry and the immorality, he became hot with anger.  Moses ground the calf to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink it.  In the same way all the modern idols of our day will be crushed in the end, and those who serve them will be forced to absorb the judgment for such false worship.  All who trust not in God-given words but in worldly spirituality and power will be brought to ruin with those idols which they serve.

Let us repent, then.  For just as Moses came down the mountain unexpectedly to judge Israel, so the Lord will come down unexpectedly on the Last Day to judge the fallen world.  Those who rely only on what they can see and observe will have no idea what is about to come upon them.  For as they look around, they will think that, for the most part, all is well.  Sure there may be violence and corruption like in the days of Noah.  Sure there may be self-indulgence and immorality like in the days of Lot, whose home city of Sodom inspired the name for a perverted sexual act.  But people will still be eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building and getting married just like usual.  However, as it was in the days of Noah, when the flood suddenly deluged the world, and as it was in the days of Lot, when the Lord suddenly consumed Sodom with fire, so it will be when the Son of Man is revealed.  Those who care only about visible power and glory will then be granted their wish.  They will see the power and wrath of a holy God in all its fury.

However, for those who repent and believe, for us who walk as yet by faith and not by sight, the Last Day is not a day for us to dread but to eagerly anticipate.  For our judgment day has already taken place on the holy cross of our Lord Jesus.  There God poured out on Him all the fury of hell.  The full judgment for our sin that stood against us pummeled Him as He hung there.  He received it all in our place, as our stand-in.  Moses foreshadowed that in the Old Testament reading.  God was about to destroy Israel because of their faithlessness and rebellion.  But Moses spoke up and interceded on their behalf.  He got in between Israel and God’s wrath and saved them from a fiery judgment.  Our Lord Jesus did that in the ultimate way for us at Calvary, out of immeasurable love for us.  That’s why Jesus said in the Gospel that “He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”  His love compelled Him to do it in order to redeem us from our idols and purchase us as His own and win for us the entire forgiveness of all our sins.  Your judgment day is in the past, Good Friday.  It’s over and done with and finished.  Just as the Lord provided deliverance for His people Noah and Lot, so also He has provided eternal deliverance for you in His Son.

The kingdom of God comes to you only in the king who wears a thorny crown.  And notice that in the cross the kingdom cannot be seen but must be believed.  All one can see is a bloody execution.  No one can literally view the eternal triumph over sin and death and the devil which took place there.  It must be trusted on the basis of the words of the Lord who declares it to be so–words spoken into your ears and poured onto you with the water and fed into you under the bread and wine.  By faith in those words, we receive the kingdom of God as it comes to us.  For through those things Christ Himself is among us.  In the end the kingdom of God will be revealed in all its glory.  But for now it remains hidden under the cross.  The church lives under a veil, until the fullness of time comes.

So believe the words of God spoken into your ears.  Looking at yourselves, you may see nothing but sin and sickness and trouble.  But listening to the Lord, you hear of the hidden reality that you are His chosen, righteous people and royal inheritors of eternal life.  Looking at the church, you may see nothing but imperfection and struggles and disunity.  But listening to and trusting in the Lord’s words, you hear of the hidden reality that the church is His holy bride, and even the very gates of hell shall not prevail against her.  That is why we say in the creed not “I see,” but, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.”

The kingdoms of the world are in turmoil and always will be; it’s a never ending battle.  Things are never settled; there’s always the next election, the next threat, the next conflict.  But take heart, for in Christ the victory has been won.  You are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  In Him you have peace and certainty about who you are and where you are going.  As it was with Noah and His family, you have been placed in the ark of this Church.  And when the waters subside on the day of our Lord’s return, you will enter into a new and imperishable creation, the everlasting kingdom of God unveiled in all its majesty.  And you will always be with the Lord.  “Therefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Death, Our Enemy and Our Salvation

Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul writes that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  We should be on guard against goofy new age spiritualities which try to portray death as a good thing, just another step in the journey, and other such nonsense.  Death is the enemy.  God did not create us to die.  It’s our fall into sin that brought the curse of death.  It is a destruction of the life and the body God made.

However, Jesus has brought a new reality to our death.  Though it remains the enemy, now that Jesus has embraced our death by His cross, there is something good about it as well.  A church father named Ambrose once said, “We should have a daily familiarity with death, even a daily desire for death.” What he meant was not that we should be morbid or suicidal—that we should look for ways to die, or be careless with our health, or simply give up on life.  No, what Ambrose meant is like the words of St. Paul in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

In other words, we should not be so tied to the things of this life, to living in the here and now, that we think death is the worst thing that could happen to us.  Instead, we should always remember that in Christ death is a deliverance for us—a deliverance from the ravages of sin, a deliverance from being run by our passions, a deliverance from all sorrow, grief, and heartache.  What’s good about death is that our sinful nature will be finally and forever gone from us, and so also will all of the effects of sin’s curse as we await the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.

This is what the cross of Jesus has done for us–by it He has turned our enemy, death, against itself into something that works good for us in the end.  For in Him, death is now the doorway to life.  So let us be careful to get this right.  Death is not just an escape from the harsh realities of this world.  Much more it is an escape to the comfort of life in God’s presence.  You often hear at funerals people say how the deceased “is in a better place.”  And that’s fine–though I’m not a fan of cliches like that, since most non-Christians say things like that too.  I’d rather say something like the deceased is with a better Person, with the Redeemer Jesus.  He’s the One who makes heaven what it is. A heaven without Jesus at the center is just a fairy tale.  That’s how St. Paul could speak of being hard pressed between wanting to live and wanting to die, for his desire was to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

Today’s reading from Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of what we are escaping to, in contrast to where we are now.  It is written that those who have died trusting in the Lord will live with the Lord.  He who sits on the throne will dwell among them.  They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not scorch them; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  No more sorrow or crying or pain.  No more isolation or distancing or worrying about a hug spreading a contagion–just perfect rest and contentment.

That is what we must learn to long for and set our hearts on.  And that vision should govern how we live now.  When it does, then our eyes will not be captivated by what we desire that really doesn’t last that long.  And our minds will not controlled by how much or how little we have.  And our hearts will not be lusting after whatever feeds our appetites.  Instead, when we live with the vision of Revelation, with the mindset of Paul, then we will live for others and for the things of the world to come.  And then we will live fearing nothing, except losing life with God and the kingdom of heaven.

God saves us from death through the death of Jesus.  His death is so good, so strong, so effective that it converts and transforms our death to be like His.  We are baptized into Christ’s death, and so we are also baptized into His life and resurrection.  Death no longer gets the last word, because we are in Him who conquered death and the grave.  So even though death still causes us to mourn–for it is still the enemy that tears away our loved ones from us–yet we do not mourn as those who have no hope.  We also rejoice at the death of those who are in Christ.  We celebrate their victory.  We look forward in hope to their resurrection.  Those who worship Jesus are not gone forever.  They have just gone before us.  So death is no longer something to be avoided at all costs, for the Son of God Himself did not think of it as being beneath His dignity; nor did He seek to escape it.  Like our Lord, then, we also can embrace it when it comes.  For He is the One who brings good out of evil, joy out of pain, life out of death.

The saints know this.  And when I refer to saints, I am referring to all Christians.  A saint simply means “a holy one,” one who has been forgiven and made holy in Christ.  Saints are not only those who have died who are with the Lord, but also us who are still alive, who believe in the Lord.  All Saints Day refers to the saints in heaven and the saints on earth, all Christians Day.

However, usually when we talk about the saints, we do mean those who have died, and especially those whose lives were illustrations of God’s grace and who gave us an example of faith to follow.  In particular there are two kinds of heroes of the faith whom we usually refer to as saints. The first are those who were put to death because of what they believed and taught, because they clung to their Lord more than to this life.  These we call “martyrs,” a word which literally means “witnesses.”  The second group are those who were not put to death, but who still suffered ridicule or persecution for righteousness’ sake.  These we call “confessors” because they confessed the faith. Like the martyrs, the confessors also suffered much for the Faith. The martyrs gave testimony by how they died, and what they died for; while the confessors gave testimony by how they lived and what they lived for. The martyrs witnessed to the Faith with their blood; the confessors witnessed to the Faith with the purity and steadfastness of their confession. And so, because of their blood, the martyrs are commemorated with the color red; and because of their pure confession and steadfastness, the confessors are commemorated with the color white, as we have on the altar today.

Yet the colors red and white are both the same in the end, aren’t they.  For what does it say of the saints in Revelation? “These are the ones who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Do you see the colors? Red makes everything white.  Robes are made white because they’ve been washed in red blood.  But not just any red blood. It must be the red blood of the Lamb of God Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed to take away the sin of the world; the same Lamb of God who will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.

That is what the martyrs and confessors and indeed all Christians have in common—the red blood of the Lamb which makes them, which makes you white and pure, cleansed from all sin, before God our Father.  So it is this blood of Christ, poured over you in Holy Baptism and poured into you in the Lord’s Supper; it is this blood, which was shed and poured out for the salvation of all men, and even the whole creation; it is this blood that binds all saints together in the one true faith, and which gives us courage to follow in the train of those who have gone before us.  The red blood clothes us in white, as it is written in Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”  The Lamb’s wool, his robe of righteousness, covers us.

That is how we are blessed, according to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.  We are blessed because we are wrapped up in Him who is the fulfillment of all of these beatitudes.  For wasn’t Jesus poor in spirit—by giving His riches to take on the poverty of our sin and death? Didn’t He mourn—especially when He wept over His people who turned away from Him?  Isn’t He the meekest of all men, and did He not continually hunger and thirst after true righteousness?  Isn’t He the very definition of mercifulness and purity in heart? Is He not the peacemaker, who reconciles God and man in Himself? And finally, of all men who ever lived, wasn’t He the most persecuted and reviled for the sake of righteousness?

To be blessed, then, is to live in Christ by faith, to have your life look like Christ’s–to be poor and humble in spirit, to mourn the sad state of this world, to be merciful even to those who don’t deserve it, to be persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, and ultimately to die.  Even death is a blessing now in Christ.  For through Him, yours is the kingdom of heaven.  

And that kingdom of heaven is here now for you in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  For Christ is here with you and for you with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  And so by partaking of the supper, you are with Him.  And to be with Him is heaven on earth, for we are gathered with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  

So, fellow saints of God, let us endure in the faith in this time of tribulation.  For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.  Let us embrace death in Christ, that we may also embrace His life forever.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to John Fenton)

The Word of Christ Conquers the Lie

John 8:31-36

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Truth is powerful.  For it liberates you from the slavery of sin.  It releases you from the ignorance of unbelief.  It protects you from the traps and the schemes of the devil, who is the father of lies.

 However, truth is also dangerous.  For since it is so powerful, evil cannot tolerate it.  Evil wars against the truth and is always trying to corrupt it.  Darkness hates the light and can’t exist where it shines brightly.  And so it does everything in its power to snuff it out.  Wherever the truth is spoken, evil is right there to stir up trouble, to fuss and shout and make it seem as if the truth-tellers are the problem.  The more clearly the truth is spoken, the louder evil will shriek.  

Just consider how things are today.  If you say that unborn children are fully human persons who deserve to be protected by law, if you say that there are only two genders, male and female, and you can’t change your creation and go from one to the other, if you speak the common sense truth that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman, and above all, if you say that the only way to enter eternal life is through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, well then you’re attacked as being hateful or unloving or bigoted.  The famous author George Orwell once remarked, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  Truth is powerful and good, but there is always warfare against it in this fallen world.

And that includes not only the evil that is outside of us in our truth-denying society, but also the evil that is within us, in our old Adam.  We may well nod our head in agreement when we hear “the truth will make you free,” but the closer someone gets to the truth of our sin, the louder we protest and deflect blame, don’t we?  The Psalmist puts it rather clearly when he says, “All mankind are liars.”  We all are skilled at the art of shading and spinning the truth to our advantage, of trying to make our sin seem respectable, of distorting and twisting the truth to justify ourselves and rationalize the way we are.  That’s why an essential element of being a Christian is repentance, coming to terms with the truth and honestly acknowledging that we are by nature enslaved to the Lie, focused on what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.  What we desperately need is to be released from the power of sin and death and the devil.  

The truth which sets you free is more than just information that is factually correct, that you can just download into your brain in a confirmation class.  Truth is a person, Jesus Himself.  For He said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”  Our Lord Jesus is the embodiment of Truth; He is eternal and ultimate reality, the One in whom this whole universe holds together, as Colossians 1 says.  He has come into the world to destroy the father of lies forever and to rescue you from the deadly power of sin.  When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, He said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.”  All Pilate could do was to cynically respond, “What is truth?”  Truth incarnate was standing before him, but the Lie had a hold of Pilate, who loved his power and position.  

On that Good Friday the Truth appeared to be overwhelmed by the Lie; the darkness seemed to have snuffed out the Light.  But as He died, Jesus spoke the truth that not even death nor the devil could conquer.  Jesus said simply and clearly, “It is finished.”  By His suffering and death, all had been fulfilled and completed and accomplished.  Everything necessary to undo the curse and defeat the Lie had been done.  Even though it didn’t seem like it, the Truth had won the day.  Victory was assured.  The resurrection was a foregone conclusion.  For Jesus had crushed the serpent’s head and had taken away your deadly sin.  That is the truth that liberates you and makes you free.  It is finished; it is all accomplished for you in Jesus.

Mortal combat between the truth of Christ and the lies of the evil one still continues.  And for long periods of time, it may seem as if the Lie is winning.  In the 1400's there was a man named Jan Hus who lived in Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic.  Jan Hus spoke the truth of God’s Word against the false teaching in the church of his day.  At the Council of Constance, he was condemned by the church as a heretic and burned at the stake.  The truth seemed to have lost.  However, before he died, Hus made this prophetic statement.  The name “Hus” means “goose” in the Bohemian language, and he said, “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan to whom you will be forced to listen.”  Almost exactly 100 years later, Martin Luther, the trumpeter swan, posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  

What is of special note is that one of Jan Hus’s fiercest opponents, a man named Johannes Zacharias, was buried in front of the altar in the Augstinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany.  And it was on that very spot that Martin Luther laid face down when he made his vows as a monk.  How wonderfully ironic that it was on the grave of Jan Hus’s mortal enemy that Luther would begin his journey that led to the Reformation of the church, including some of the very truths that Hus had preached.  Let us be encouraged by this, that the Truth of Christ will always win out.  In spiritually dark times like we’re living in now, we may not see or experience that victory.  But it is assured; for the crucified One is risen!  Let us then boldly confess the truth of our Christian faith, regardless of the cost, knowing that it will never be in vain.  The Truth of Christ will always have the last word.

Martin Luther had no way of knowing whether or not he would end up being executed like Hus.  In 1517 Luther set forth 95 theses for debate which told the truth about the corruption in the Church of his day.  And like any whistleblower working for powerful bosses, his life would be turned upside down after that point.  In 1521 Luther was called before the Emperor himself to recant his teaching or face punishment.  After faltering on the first day of his questioning, Luther returned to make his famous speech in reply, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted.  My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  May God help me.”  And then as the room erupted into noisy jeers and cheers by the gathered crowd, including some shouting “To the fire with him!” Luther spoke these words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”  It was only by the grace of God and the skillful maneuvering of Luther’s prince, Frederick of Saxony, that he was able to escape with his life.  

The matters in dispute during the Reformation were of the utmost importance.  For they had to do with the Gospel and God’s grace.  Can the forgiveness of sins be sold as a commodity based on the authority of a pope rather than the Word of God?  Can forgiveness and eternal life be earned by good works?  How does faith fit into the picture?  What is grace?  Martin Luther and the other reformers returned simply to telling the truth of Scripture: The Law of God is good, and we must obey His commandments.  But we dare never place our faith in how well we’re keeping the Law, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.  Therefore, our faith is entirely in Jesus and what He has done for us.  We cannot justify ourselves; rather we are justified, declared righteous, freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  We are saved through faith in Him alone, apart from the deeds of the Law.  Salvation cannot be bought, either with money, or even with good deeds and good intentions.  For it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  You have been saved by grace alone.

In teaching this, the Lutheran reformers were not teaching anything new.  It was all there in Scripture.  And it had been taught by the fathers of the Church throughout the Church’s history.  That’s one of the things Lutherans emphasized over and over again.  They were being the true catholics, for they were simply restoring the teaching of the truth of Christ that had been corrupted and suppressed through the centuries.  They weren’t inventing anything or making stuff up.  That’s why they kept the liturgy and everything else that belonged to the Church that didn’t contradict the Word of God.  The Reformation was about a return to the eternal truth of Holy Scripture.  The truth can be denied and suppressed, but in the end it is unconquerable.

That’s the beautiful thing about the truth.  Unlike a lie, you don’t have to invent it, and you don’t have to “manage” it.  It just is.  Once you know the truth, you simply repeat it and proclaim it and say “Amen” to it.  By contrast, the lie requires a good memory to recall what you made up.  And it requires an army of lies to back up the original lie.  Eventually, the tangled web ensnares the liar, and he is caught.  So it is that Satan was trapped in his own deceit and ensnared by the death he brought into the world.  For through the death of Jesus, the deceiver was undone and his work destroyed.  The lie cannot suppress the truth forever.  For Truth in the flesh is risen from the dead.

This is why Reformation Day is a great celebration for us, for it is centered in this unconquerable and everlasting truth of Jesus.  Our Lutheran ancestors in the faith courageously spoke the truth to power.  And as a result, many things changed.  The authority of God’s Word was restored to its rightful place, being heard in the language of the people, and the preaching of the pure Gospel rang out again as the delivery of God’s free grace in Christ.  Though some things have changed for the better in Roman Catholicism, sadly the same underlying poison of false teaching remains–indulgences, rewards for good works, ungodly superstition is still in place.  The Pope is still engaging in his shenanigans, even bowing to the world in his endorsement of same sex civil unions.

So as much as there is for us to celebrate this day, the Reformation must continue if it is to mean anything–and that must happen within Lutheranism, too.  For much of Lutheranism today is a sad parody of what Luther taught.  Lutheran churches don’t always speak the truth confidently and boldly before the world but are too often conformed to the lies of this world.  And so the best and greatest thing that Lutherans can do still to this day is to stubbornly cling to the truth, to preach the fullness of God’s Law that exposes our fallen condition, to announce with gladness that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), to proclaim without fear that He is the exclusive Truth, the only way to the Father and to eternal life, that by His wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5).  We have no new truths to offer; for the truth of Christ is both ancient and eternal.  We cling to the promise of God that the Church, in her confession of this truth, will even withstand the gates of hell.  It is as we just sang regarding the devil, “One little Word can fell him,” namely the Word of Jesus.

So hear again what Jesus says, and take it to heart this Reformation weekend, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

Spiritual Warfare

Ephesians 6:10-18, Trinity 21

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

We are in the midst of a war.  And it’s much more than just a political or a cultural battle.  Those things are important, but they are side skirmishes in a much larger and more consequential war.  Many people may not even be aware that this battle is taking place, but St. Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle that it’s very real, and it’s been going on since the fall of man.  It is written, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness . . .”  The enemies that we Christians fight are largely hidden and unseen.  For our adversary is the devil and the host of other fallen angels we call demons, each of whom has his own power in this dark world in which they war against Christ and Christ’s people.  The fight is for our eternal destiny.  It’s a battle for human souls.  

This is important to remember, because if we’re fighting the wrong enemy, true victory won’t be achieved.  Very often Christians are deceived into thinking the struggle is primarily this-worldly, that it’s a political or a social or a behavioral thing.  If we would just pass the right laws or change people’s outward conduct or stop climate change or get rid of the bad guys, then everything would be fine.  But that’s just a game of whack-a-mole, where you deal with one problem and another one inevitably arises to take its place.  Earthly weapons and power, human strength gets you nowhere in this war.  For this is not a natural but a supernatural battle.  It will only be won by using the spiritual defenses and weapons that the Lord has provided us.

St. Paul writes, “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.”  Our strength as Christians does not come from within but from the One who died and rose again for us. Do you remember the story of Gideon in the Old Testament?  The children just had it in Sunday School last week.  At the time of Gideon, Israel was oppressed by a powerful enemy called the Midianites.  At God’s direction Gideon gathered an army of tens of thousands to defeat the Midianites.  But God told him that his army was too big, that the people would think they had won a victory by their own strength.  So the Lord had Gideon reduce his army down to a mere three hundred men.  And by the Lord’s design, Gideon’s men deceived the Midianites into turning their weapons on each other, and Israel won a great victory over the princes of Midian.  In this way God made it clear that it was only by His power that Israel could triumph.  So we also pray with the Psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your Name be the glory.”  God makes the weak powerful and the powerful weak.  “Be strong in the Lord and the power of His might.”

To help us to do this, St. Paul issues instructions like a commander to an army.  “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  First, put on the belt of truth, Paul says.  God would have you to be defensed against Satan’s trickery by being girded up and encompassed with the saving truth of Christ and His Word.  Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  And He also said, “If you continue in My Word, then you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  The devil attacks with the lie that the Scriptural account of creation isn’t true and can’t be trusted, that we need to correct it with evolutionary science.  He battles with false declarations that all religious beliefs are equally valid, that you can achieve eternal life by your own goodness and spirituality.  He ambushes you with empty promises that the way to happiness is to follow your own will rather than God’s will.  The devil is the father of all the lies that fill this fallen world.  And so only by continuing in and dwelling upon the truth of Christ’s Word are you set free–free from the power and deception of the devil, free from the bondage of sin.  Keep coming to church each week.  Keep having your daily devotions.  And in that way keep the bombardments of the world at bay.

After the belt of truth, Paul speaks of the breastplate of righteousness.  The very heart of our lives as Christians is protected by the impenetrable holiness of Christ.  Galatians 3 says, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” like a bulletproof vest.  Those of you who are fans of the “Lord of the Rings” books and movies remember how young Frodo was once violently  stabbed by monstrous creature in battle, but he lived because, beneath his clothing he was wearing an impervious garment of mithril given to him as a gift.  Frodo survived uninjured.  In a similar but much greater way, the perfect life and death and resurrection of Jesus in whom we trust covers us and defends us.  Just as a breastplate would guard the heart and lungs and other vital organs of a soldier, so also the breastplate of Christ’s blood and righteousness makes our heart invulnerable against Satan.

St. Paul then speaks about your feet being fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.  Believing in the good news that peace has been made between us and God the Father through His Son Jesus, we are prepared to go out with willing feet into the battle, demonstrating the character and courage of a warrior of God.  Just as a soldier’s shoes made him ready to fight on the rocky terrain, so also the Gospel of peace and reconciliation with God prepares us to do His will in this struggle earnestly and willingly.

The Epistle continues, “Above all, take the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.”  The image that Paul probably has in mind here is a particular type of long, thin Roman shield that went from head to toe.  Historians say that it was covered in such a way that it was an excellent defense even against arrows whose tips has been dipped in tar and set aflame.  In the same way a Christian’s faith in Christ and reliance on God’s promises shields him from all the fiery temptations of the devil–not just temptations to immorality, but the temptation to false belief and doubt.  When the devil seeks to lead you away from Christ, when he tries to convince you you’re not really saved or a Christian, raise the shield of faith in Jesus.  Remember that you are baptized into Christ.  Taking refuge in the Lord, the devil’s arrows can’t touch you. With the shield of faith, the soldier of God can stand his ground.

St. Paul goes on, “Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  Notice now that Paul shifts from the defensive to the offensive.  After referring to the helmet of Christ–which saves us from the fatal blow, which gives us the mind of Christ–he then speaks of the primary weapon of attack that Christians have in this spiritual battle, the holy Scriptures.  This is the sword that runs the devil through.  Consider, after all, how Jesus dealt with Satan’s temptations in the wilderness.  You know that to every test Jesus responded, “It is written . . .”  And the devil was defeated; there was nothing more he could say or do.  Living in this victory of Christ over the evil one, we also are to arm ourselves with the words of God and study them and meditate on them.  Then we will be skilled swordsmen able to tear the devil to shreds; then we will be more than conquerors through Christ, whose Word is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul wrapped up his battle instructions with the admonition to pray always.  We dare never forget that the army of the church marches on its knees, humbling itself before the Lord in prayer in order one day to be lifted up with Christ.

And indeed, through Christ we will be lifted up in triumph over our enemy.  For the outcome of victory has already been attained for us on the cross.  Jesus took everything Satan could throw at Him, and yet Jesus was not defeated.  Our Lord had no belt to gird Himself but only soldiers casting lots for His clothing.  He had no breastplate to protect Him from the spear in His side.  He had no shield to guard Him from the flaming arrows of suffering that the evil one threw at Him.  Instead of a helmet He wore a crown of thorns.  And yet what seemed like the worst sort of defeat turned out to be a glorious triumph, a sneak attack destroying the devil’s stronghold of sin and death from the inside out.  Just as Gideon caused the Midianites to turn their weapons against themselves, so our Lord turned the devil’s weapon of death against him to crush him and defeat him.  Having taken the devil’s worst in our place, Jesus rose from the dead in great victory Easter morning, assuring us that our sins have been forgiven, and that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  That same Lord Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us, hearing the prayers we offer on behalf of ourselves and one another, answering them for our eternal good.

So remember, brothers and sisters of Christ, we are truly in a spiritual war with eternal significance.   It will not end until the end of your days.  But Christ the Conqueror goes before you.  “Therefore, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.  Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Many are Called, But Few are Chosen

Matthew 22:1-14

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

The verse at the end of today’s Gospel is a difficult one to understand.  Our Lord says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  What does that mean?  To begin with, it clearly means that a relatively small number, only a minority of people are saved and enter into eternal life.  Jesus says the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “Enter by the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

One of the most difficult questions in theology is this: why are some saved and not others?  We were just discussing this in Bible class last Sunday.  If God’s grace is for everyone (and it is), and we’re saved by His choosing and His grace alone as Scripture teaches, why is it that only few end up entering into eternal life?  Some try to resolve this problem by saying flat out that God predestines some to heaven and He predestines others to hell.  But that would make God the reason that people are damned and separated from Him.  That’s clearly not Scriptural.  Others say that the reason a person goes to heaven or to hell is because of their choices.  Those who are saved made a decision for Jesus.  But that’s not right either.  Jesus says in John 15, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”  It’s His commitment to us that saves us, not the other way around.  The Bible teaches that if a person is saved, it’s entirely God’s working in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  All glory and credit for the fact that you’re a Christian belongs to Him.  And if a person is condemned to hell, it’s entirely because of their working, their stubborn rebellion against God, their refusal to listen to His Word.  All the blame belongs to man.

Though this may be beyond our full comprehension, one thing is clear from Scripture: God has prepared salvation for all; “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life.”  We see even in today’s Gospel that in the end the invitation basically goes out to everyone.  It is written, “those servants went out . . . and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good.”

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who prepared a great feast in honor of the wedding of His Son.  Jesus Christ and His bride, the church, are to be joined in a holy and divine marriage, the only marriage that will last into eternity.  Earthly marriage vows are always made with the statement, “until death parts us.”  But not even death can separate Christ from His beloved church, His chosen people.

In fact it was by death that the “engagement” took place, you might say.  Only by the cross of Christ was this marriage made possible.  Jesus came to a world doomed to be destroyed; He came to people condemned to eternal death, and He rescued them.  He took the sins of all people on Himself, everything in us which causes hurt and lust and jealousy and death, and He overcame it all for us in His death and resurrection.  That act of limitless love is the reason for this wedding feast.  It is finished; it is done; it’s time to celebrate.  God says, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fatted cattle are killed, and all things are now ready.”

The Lord offers salvation to all mankind.  “The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the highways and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.”  Those who were not worthy were the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah.  Time and again our Lord and His disciples proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God.  Many were called but few gladly received the Word and believed it.  Now the Gospel invitation continues to go out to the ends of the earth, even to far away Gentile lands like the United States.  The Gospel is able to save all who hear it, as Saint Paul says in Romans chapter one: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

God’s call to salvation is a serious and urgent call.  The king in Jesus’ parable sent the first delegation to invite the guests to come. He sent a second delegation, and made the invitation even more pressing.  “But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them.”  The king became furious and sent his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city.  It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been warned.  It is written in Ezekiel, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from evil his way and live.”  2 Peter says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  1 Timothy says, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

There is no way that God is the reason why those who refuse the call of grace are condemned. The reason lies in fallen human beings.  As it was in the Gospel, people still too often prefer the profits and pleasures and people of this world over the wedding feast.  Some even go so far as to show open hostility toward Christ and His servants.

There was one who showed an outward compliance to the call of grace, but he did not come to the feast rightly.  When the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment.  And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.

These words, I think, are especially for us who are here at divine service today, and who might therefore be tempted to be proud of who we are spiritually.  The man without the wedding garment stands for all those who come before God not trusting in Christ but wearing the filthy rags of their own supposed righteousness.  Those who despise God and show their contempt for Him by clothing themselves in their own goodness will find themselves bounced into outer darkness forever, where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This is an entirely unnecessary outcome.  For God freely supplies the clothing.  He covers us with the perfection of His Son. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  God clothes us with Christ in our baptism.  He wraps us up in His righteousness.  Christ is our white wedding garment, his seamless and spotless robe is our covering.  Jesus’ death is yours.  Jesus’ life is yours.  His perfect keeping of the Law is yours.  God gives it all to you for free in Holy Baptism.  Better than any expensive clothing, we have the apparel of Christ. And we dare not come to the Lord’s feast dressed in anything less than that.  To do otherwise is to reject His rich grace and His kingly love.

So if someone is cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, it is their own fault, not God’s fault.  They have rejected the call of grace.  On the other hand, those who are saved take no credit for their salvation.  Those invited and chosen were no better than the others were.  They were unfit to dine at the king’s table and needed a wedding garment.  They did nothing to help plan the banquet, much less to prepare the feast.  They did not invite themselves or make some conscious choice.  They were simply drawn in by the power of the invitation and the joy of what had been prepared for them.  There is no merit or worthiness that these guests could boast of.  That’s how it is in the kingdom of heaven.  It’s solely the mercy of the host that gives us our place at the table.

Those who are saved are saved by God’s grace alone, unassisted and unmerited by man.  It is written that even before the creation of the earth, God had planned the salvation of man.  Saint Paul proclaims in Ephesians 1: “God chose us in [Jesus] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.”

God is the prime mover who makes us alive in Christ, who gives hearts of faith by His Holy Spirit.  It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. That’s tremendously comforting news; for it means that our salvation is not founded on the shifting sands of our actions and our choices, but on the solid rock of His actions and His choosing of us, even before we could do anything.

“Many are called, but few are chosen.”  We are reminded by these words to be on guard that we do not resist God’s grace and frustrate His merciful designs.  Let us, rather, pay attention to the wedding feast by believing in and clinging to Christ and His Word, by heeding His invitation to come to the feast at the altar, the Supper of His body and blood.  The one who is worthy is the one who has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  By that Word of grace, we then go out into the world to live as His children, loving and serving our neighbor wherever God puts us.  “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  Thanks be to God that He has chosen you to be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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