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You Have Kept the Good Wine Until Now

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John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2

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

    The Apostle John writes his Gospel in such a way that there is often a twofold meaning in his words. On the one hand, John will narrate the true, literal words and actions of Jesus. But on the other hand, he will often do this in such a way as to emphasize a deeper point about Christ and His redeeming work. That is the case with today’s Gospel.  There is the straightforward, explicit meaning; but there is also a deeper, implicit meaning which shows us the ongoing significance of Christ’s miracle and how it still continues in the church.

    We know the story well, how the wine ran out at this wedding feast, how at His mother’s prodding, Jesus was moved to help out, how the servants filled six stone jars with water which Jesus then miraculously changed to wine, how when the new wine was taken to the master of the feast, he was pleased but also bothered that it wasn’t served first; for it was better than any of the other wines.

    So, what are we supposed to learn from this?  Well clearly we learn that Jesus is truly God. For no mere man can change one substance into another without doing something to it along the way.  Water gets turned into wine every year in vineyards and wineries throughout the world, as rainwater produces grapes and juice and fermentation makes the wine.  But here Jesus compresses all of that power of His creation into this one moment.  It is as we sang a moment ago: Jesus is “God in flesh made manifest.” This miracle reveals Jesus to be the divine Lord of the elements of creation, who cares even about the little things, like beverages at weddings feasts.

    We also clearly learn in this Gospel that Christ approves of marriage and honors it. For if He didn’t uphold marriage, He wouldn’t have sanctioned it here with His presence.  Especially in our current cultural context–where marriage is being redefined into nothingness, where people behave as if they’re free to join themselves together sexually without God first giving them to each other, where people cast marriage aside when it no longer fits their plans for self-fulfillment–with the casualties of the sexual revolution piling up all around us, we must constantly be reminded that matrimony is a holy thing, established by God Himself before sin ever entered the world. The Lord is the One who joins together a man and a woman and makes them to be husband and wife. Therefore, the marriage relationship should be held in the highest regard.

    Consider, after all, how the Lord has given two commandments that uphold this holy estate. In the 6th Commandment, the Lord seeks to protect marriage from adultery and to maintain the faithful unity of husband and wife. And in the 4th Commandment, He establishes the marital relationship as the foundation of the family and commands that the husband and wife be honored by their children.  We must learn, then, from our Lord’s presence at the wedding feast of Cana how He fully approves of married life.  Those who are single should honor God and this institution by remaining chaste. And those who are married should treat their spouse as a gift from the Lord Himself.

    And last of all, we clearly see from this Gospel that alcohol is not inherently sinful.  Alcohol can definitely be misused for self-indulgent purposes that unleash the sinful nature; drunkenness is clearly a sin.  Nevertheless, all of those who would call the good gifts of God’s creation evil must reckon with the fact that Jesus here produced about 150 gallons, the equivalent of more than 700 bottles, of vintage wine for the people to enjoy. We do better simply to follow the words of St. Paul in I Timothy: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because the word of God and prayer make it holy.”

    All of this is the straightforward meaning of today’s Gospel. And yet John clues us in that there is still much more for the church to grasp in this account.  For John calls this miracle a “sign.” And signs point beyond themselves to something else, to a larger reality. This changing of water into wine, then, is a sign of something much greater.

    We begin to perceive what that something greater is in the very opening words of this passage: “on the third day.”  In this way the believer is told right from the start that the events at Cana are directly connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus, who rose from the grave “on the third day.” This sign points us to Christ’s greater work of overcoming the consuming power of the grave and restoring all of creation to its original newness and abundance.

    When Jesus was told by His mother that the wine ran out at the wedding banquet, Jesus responded to her with these strange words: “What does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” When Jesus refers to His “hour” in John’s Gospel, it is always a reference to His impending crucifixion. So why would Jesus make that connection?  What would running out of wine have to do with the cross?

    Part of the connection is revealed in the word used here to say that the wine failed and ran short.  It’s the very same word in Greek that is used in Romans 3, where St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The reason that the things of this creation fail us and run short is because we ourselves have failed and come up short in keeping God’s Law and living according to it. This has not only brought mortal judgment on us; it has brought a curse on all things. Even the blessings of God’s good creation are temporary.  Sooner or later all of our stuff will fail us.  The Scriptures say that the world in its present form is in bondage to decay and is passing away.

    So, when the wine ran out, that drew attention to the hour of Christ’s suffering and dying in order to redeem His sapped and fallen creation. Jesus reminds His mother that if she is going to appeal to him for a miracle, she must also deal with the cross, where He will break the curse of decay and death forever. Already here, then, Jesus was beginning to bring about the redemption of creation, which would come to fulfillment on Good Friday and Easter. For He was reversing the draining force of sin so that there was bounty and joy once again.

    In order for this creation to be made new again, the curse on it had to be removed.  And that curse was broken through the flesh of Christ sacrificed on Calvary.  Galatians 3 declares, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”  Jesus took the curse into Himself so that by His death sin’s draining domination over us and over creation would be undone.  All that saps the life out of this fallen world He has subdued and destroyed by His holy cross.

    The fact that this miracle occurs on the third day not only points forward to the resurrection, but also points back to the 3rd day of creation when God brought forth the fruit-bearing plants from the earth.  Jesus performs this sign with the fruit of the vine in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah’s kingdom.  It is written in Amos, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when . . . sweet wine will drip from the mountains and flow from the hills.” No running short there! And Isaiah foretold a day when the Lord would swallow up death forever. Of that day he said this, “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.” In this miracle, then, we begin to see the very kingdom of God and the new creation breaking in, which will be revealed in all its glory on the Last Day.

    The six water pots were filled to the brim. For the fullness of time has come.  Jesus fulfills all that was written in Moses and the Prophets.  Out of the water of the Old Testament promises we draw the finest wine of Jesus Himself.  The number six points us to the day of man’s creation in the beginning.  And it points us to the day of our recreation on the sixth day, Good Friday.  The water and the wine in this miracle, then, are signs of the water and the blood which flowed from Jesus’ side and which flow to us now in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  The six jars were used for ritual washing.  Likewise, the Scriptures say that Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration, and that the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin.  Our Lord renewed the gifts of creation at Cana’s wedding feast, and now He renews us through His sacramental gifts in water and wine, so that we might be restored to the sweetness of life with God.  

    You must learn to see and believe, then, that the miracle of Cana still goes on; the wedding banquet continues.  The heavenly groom, Jesus Christ, comes in the Divine Service to His churchly bride to comfort you with His love.  By water and the Word He has made you His own.  And in Holy Communion you become one with Christ as He gives you His life and all that He is.  He who showed Himself to be Lord of the elements at Cana now shows Himself to be Lord of the elements on the altar.  He causes His blood and body to be present under the wine and the bread, and through this miracle He recreates you in Himself.  These elements of creation won’t fail you; for they deliver to you the Lord Himself who will never fail you or leave you.  His grace doesn’t run out; there is always enough and more.  That is why the Scriptures say, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

    Know, then, that the Lord here is giving you a vintage sign:  at Cana, at Calvary, and on the altar–a sign of His glory, glory revealed in His love for you.  As always, He has saved the choice wine for last.  He has given His best; and it is all for you.  Come, then, in faith to His table, that you may partake in the great wedding feast when He returns.  For it is written in Revelation 19, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”

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

This is Jesus, the King of the Jews

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Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany

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

    Sometimes you’ll hear detractors of Christianity say that Christians merely took over a pagan winter solstice holiday when they established Christmas.  These detractors will suggest that the older and more authentic religion is the pagan one, and Christians are just copycats who made stuff up about Jesus.  But that is most certainly not the case.  

    In the days of the early church it was a common belief that great people died on the same date that they had been conceived in the womb and given life.  Most believed that Jesus died on March 25th, the date of the Passover of that year.  And so if that’s his conception date, then his birthday would be December 25th.  And thus we have the date of Christmas.  

    However, there were some who believed that the date of the Passover was April 6th the year that Jesus died.  9 months after that would place His birth on January 6th.  To this day Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate their Christmas on what we observe as Epiphany [or sometimes on January 7].  And so we have the 12 days of Christmas, stretching between these dates.  And in a very real sense, even in our tradition, January 6th is the Gentile Christmas.  For it is the first time that non-Jews are given to see the Messiah Jesus, who is their Savior and our Savior, too.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask.  It’s important to note that these Wise Men, these Magi, were almost certainly not worshipers of the true God prior to this time.  They weren’t kings themselves, despite what the old hymn says.  They were likely assistants to a king, counselors, advisers.  And their title as Magi would suggest that the “wisdom” they offered to the king came at least in part from occult magic, astrology, the seeking of power and knowledge from various sources other than the Word of God–“reading the tea leaves” so to speak, reading the stars, and other pagan things.

    Of course, they would have had written wisdom, too, and among that wisdom was probably some portions of the Old Testament Scriptures.  For remember where these Magi came from, from the East, from Babylon and Persia east of Israel–the place where the Israelites had been carried away captive as exiles centuries earlier.  Several of those Israelite captives became counselors to the king, Wise Men of sorts–people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who wouldn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, or Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den for continuing to pray to the Lord against the official edict.  And those Jewish Wise Men would certainly have brought with them not only the practice of their faith but scrolls containing the words of Moses and the prophets.  

    The Jews returned to Israel a few decades later.  But the Gentile Magi surely would have retained copies of those words over the years, such as this prophecy in Numbers 24, “A Star shall come out of Jacob, a [royal] Scepter shall rise out of Israel...”  Now the Magi probably only understood that to be about the birth of an important earthly king.  But when the special star or heavenly body appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, God by His grace still used their imperfect and muddled wisdom to lead them to seek out Him who is Wisdom in the flesh, the King of the Jews, Christ our Lord.  

    And that’s one of the first points that we should take out of this Gospel today–by the grace of God, He draws even people like this to Himself: semi-pagan astrologers and Magi, people who are enmeshed in false belief and false religion, and He calls them away from that to the Truth.  He draws Gentiles like us who fall so easily into superstitious thinking, who are more enthralled with the notion of ghosts and aliens than with divine service–we who are tempted to look for guidance and happiness in all sorts of things other than God’s words revealed and given to us in Scripture, who love to get enmeshed in mystical and spiritual speculation, who wonder if there really is something to fortune tellers and palm readers and those people who claim to channel deceased loved ones.  Even people like us, with our muddled hearts and brains, God yet draws to Himself through His Word, in spite of ourselves, because of His grace and mercy, the very grace and mercy that caused the Lord to become flesh in the first place to redeem and save us, to lead us into all truth.  This manifestation, this epiphany of Jesus to the Wise Men, then, is good news for us, for it shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of Simeon’s words, “a Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the Glory of God’s people Israel.”

    You can tell that the Magi were thinking in terms of an earthly king, because the first place they go in Israel is to the capital city, to Jerusalem.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That’s where they expect to find Him.  But the Messiah King is not one who comes surrounded by the finery and the glories of the capital.  He comes rather in the lowliness of the humble village of Bethlehem, the “house of bread.”  For Jesus has come to be for us the Bread of Life.

    Our fallen nature thinks God is to be found in places of power, that true religion is about that which brings health and wealth and success and happy feelings.  But that’s not where Jesus is at.  Herod has all that.  Jesus, on the other hand, ends up having to flee from Herod’s murderous scheme, carted by Joseph and Mary to exile in Egypt for a time, living an ordinary and common life for us.  The life of the true King is marked from the beginning by suffering and the cross.  That’s where Jesus is, not surrounded by earthly glory, but robed in humility for us.  True religion in this world is also marked by this humility of Jesus.

    Now it’s interesting to note in this story the difference between the Gentile wise men and the Jewish priests and scribes.  On the one hand, the Jews who possessed the Scriptures in their fullness and knew the prophecies of the Messiah were greatly troubled at the thought that the Messiah was born.  It says here that King Herod and all Jerusalem were shaken by this news.  Why would that be?  You would think they might be glad, joyful.  You would think that they would want to personally escort the wise men to Bethlehem so that they could see for themselves.  Instead, they’re more concerned about how this might upset their lives and the political structure.  Instead, they quote the Scripture they know so well and stay home.  

    In many ways, they represent a good chunk of American Christianity.  Some of the most “spiritual” people I know are ones who love to go off on this or that religious or moral topic, but who rarely if ever see the need to come to divine service.  Far too many people think that if you just learn enough facts of the Bible, or learn enough morality from the Bible, then you will have God as well.  You can stay at home with your private spirituality and forsake the presence of Christ in the flesh in His gathered Church.  But such people are sorely deceived.  They are not Christian.  We, too, must guard against priding ourselves on our Bible knowledge and instruction rather than glorying in the One whom the Bible is all about, our Savior Jesus.  We must be careful not to let the Word of God simply become window-dressing in our lives lest we stop praying and meditating upon it.  

    The Magi are our example here.  They receive the Word of God properly, in such a way that they are moved to seek out Christ in the flesh.  The Magi rely on the written Word, but they are not content with the Bible for its own sake.  They cling to it for the sake of Christ to whom it leads them.  That is always the purpose of the Word, to lead us to the Word made flesh, Jesus.  He is there for us, too, concretely and tangibly in the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, no less so than He was for these Wise Men.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That title, “the King of the Jews” might well spark some connections and meditation in your hearts and minds.  It’s actually a title that only shows up in two places in the Gospel–here at the beginning of Jesus’ life, and later at the end of Jesus’ life.  The two situations are parallel.  King Herod was envious and tried to protect His power when Jesus was born, seeking to have Him killed; He ordered the deaths of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem.  So also in the Passion narrative we hear of how the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate knew that the Jews had handed Jesus over to him because of envy.  They, too, wanted to protect their position and power.  In both cases it’s the Gentiles who see Jesus more clearly as He is.  Pilate finds no fault in Him, and Pilate’s wife even calls Jesus a just Man.  But in the end, Pilate caves to the pressure, and in fulfillment of God’s will, perhaps to mock the Jewish leaders, He places over our Lord’s head the inscription “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  

    So near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we are given a crystal clear answer to the Magi’s question near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  He is there, the humble Child, God in the flesh, the light of God's love broken into the darkness of our sinful world, revealed in lowliness for us.  And above all, He is there on the cross, with the inscription over his head declaring, “This is Jesus, the King of Jews.”  He is the King who is given gold for His royal nature but who chooses to wear the crown of thorns.  He is the King who is given incense, used at the time of prayer and sacrifice, who answers our prayers by being the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  He is the King who is given myrrh, a spice used for Jesus’ burial in the grave, which He would conquer in His victorious resurrection.  This Jesus, the King of the Jews, has come to redeem all people–wise men from the east, Roman conquerors from the west, Jew and Gentile, you and me.  Behold your King.

    God grant that His Word would continually accomplish its purpose of leading you to the Word made flesh, that with the Magi we might come and kneel before Jesus week by week as he gives His gifts to us, His true body and blood offered up for the forgiveness of our sins.  For just as the Wise Men returned home by a different path, walking along a new way, so God gives you also to return to your heavenly home by a different path than the old ways of this world.  We return home by Christ Himself, who is the Way.  Arise and shine, for your light has come.

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

Thomas the Twin

Eve of St. Thomas
December 20

John 11:1-16
John 14:1-16

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    If Advent is the pregnancy before the delivery at Christmas, then we’ve just about come full term.  In only a few days the celebration of our Lord’s birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary will take place.  In talking about our Lord’s nativity, it would be blasphemous, of course, for me to say that Jesus had a twin.  For Jesus alone is the holy Son of God who took on our flesh and blood to redeem us from sin and death.  There is none other like Jesus.  And yet, on this Eve of St. Thomas, I would suggest to you that there is a sense in which we can speak of our Lord having a twin.  The life of Thomas teaches us of that.

    Most of us know St. Thomas only as doubting Thomas.  He was the one who wouldn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus was raised from the dead.  He said the only way he would believe was if he touched the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and put his hand to Jesus’ side where the spear had pierced Him.  He just wasn’t going to be hurt further after he had seen his Lord dead by believing what he thought was some desperate tale about a resurrection.

    And so we usually think of Thomas only as a skeptic and a doubter.  But the fact of the matter is that he could also show great loyalty and devotion.  We heard an example of that in today’s first reading.  Word had just come to Jesus that one His friends, Lazarus, was deathly ill in Bethany.  In the course of events Jesus told His disciples that they were going to Bethany to see Lazarus.

    But the disciples balked at this idea.  For Bethany was in Judea, and it was only a short time before that the religious leaders in Judea had tried to stone Jesus and kill him.  Jesus had made the claim to them not only that He existed before Abraham but that He Himself was the Lord God, the great I AM.  The Jews took this to be blasphemy and desired to stone Him.  But He hid Himself from them and eluded them.  Therefore, to go back to Judea would be to risk life and limb, both for Jesus and His disciples.

    But after their discussion, Thomas said these words, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”  Despite the risk, Thomas was willing to go with Jesus.  Even in the face of death, Thomas did not want to depart from Jesus’ side.  Though Thomas, like the rest of the disciples, would not be so bold later on, His courage and faithfulness here is to be praised.

    The name Thomas literally means “twin.”  In fact sometimes he was called “Didymus” which is the Greek word for “twin.”  This is a good name for him to have.  For it is a fitting description of all who would be disciples of Jesus.  Remember, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”  This is precisely what Jesus calls us to do, to be like Him and to have twin lives that look just like His, dying with Him in order that we may live with Him.  Jesus said, “If any one would come after Me, He must deny himself and take up His cross and follow Me.”  To be a Christian is to be Christ’s twin, to be crucified with Him, which means to drown the old Adam with all sins and evil lusts, to repent.  It is to lay down your life for others in your daily callings and to be willing to suffer.

    However, you are also given to be Christ’s twin not only in His death but also in His resurrection.  For through your baptism into His body and your faith in His name, you now share in His risen identity.  You are little Christ’s before the throne of heaven, brothers and sisters of Christ bearing His very image before the Father.  You are as pure and holy as Jesus Himself by His grace.  Sharing His identity and image, you also share in His life.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  Jesus is the firstborn twin who leads the way for you second born twins out of the womb of death into new and everlasting life.

    This is the way about which Thomas asked in the second reading.  Jesus said,  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”  Jesus has prepared a place for you in the Father’s house by His cross and empty tomb.  And Jesus alone is the doorway into that house.  Participating in His cross and empty tomb by faith, counting yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, you are given entry to your heavenly home.  

    Thomas would certainly participate in Jesus’ cross.  According to tradition Thomas went on a missionary journey to preach the Gospel in India.  There is to this day a Christian community in India that claims descent from Christians first converted by the preaching of Thomas.  

    The tradition states that Thomas suffered a martyr’s death, and that he was speared to death for what he preached.  What a wonderful irony that is!  For even as Thomas wouldn’t believe until he had touched the spear mark in Jesus’ side, so it was a spear that Thomas would take in His own body for the name of Jesus.  Because of His faith in Christ the very symbol that is now identified with Thomas is a spear.  He truly was Christ’s twin.  He shared in Christ’s death, and He will also share in Christ’s resurrection, even as He now dwells according to his soul with Christ His Savior in heaven.

    So it is also for you.  Like Thomas, you have been marked as Christ’s twin.  You have received the sign of the holy cross both on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.  Wearing the sign of His death, you shall also wear the crown of life which He has won for you.

    This is the sure hope that Christmas brings to you.  God has come in the flesh for you.  And as Thomas would later see and believe, God is raised in the flesh for you. Our Lord became just like you, so that you might become just like Him.  Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have believed.  

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

St. Lucia Points Us to Christ

Revelation 7:9-17                                                    
Matthew 19:23-30

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    St. Lucia was born in Sicily in the year 283 A.D. to rich parents, members of the nobility.  However, her father died when she was still very small, and so she and her mother Eutychia were left alone.  Eutychia taught and raised her in the faith, and Lucia was a very devout and pious young woman.  In fact even though they still had much wealth, she desired to devote all her worldly goods to the service of the poor.  Her mother, though, did not permit her to do this.  

    But then something occurred that changed her mother’s mind.  Eutychia had been suffering for several years from a hemorrhage, a chronic flow of blood.  Lucia prayed for her mother’s healing.  Evidently, her prayer was answered.  Her mother was restored to health; the hemorrhage stopped.  In response to this wonderful gift of healing from God, Eutychia allowed Lucia to have her wish and to distribute the vast majority of her share of the family wealth to the poor.null

    There was just one problem.  Lucia had been betrothed to a deceitful young man who was not a Christian.  He loved Lucia’s riches more than her.  When she gave away her wealth, he was furious.  His greediness moved him to get revenge.  He went to the governor of Sicily and  exposed the fact to him that Lucia was a Christian.  This was during the year 303 when Christianity was still illegal and Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the church was taking place.  All that someone had to do was denounce a person publicly to the authorities, and that person would be arrested.  If they didn’t deny or recant their faith by cursing Christ and offering incense to Caesar, then they could be killed.

    Lucia did not recant or deny her faith in Christ even under this threat.  As a result she was tortured, her eyes were put out, and she was executed, perhaps having been burned at the stake.  Her martyr’s death immediately made her famous in Sicily, and the story of her life and death, with some embellishments, lives on to this day.  

    Particularly in Sweden, Lucia is remembered on December 13th by having one of the daughters of the house dress in a white robe with a crown of lighted candles and go singing from room to room early in the morning while it is still dark to awaken the other family members and to offer them cakes of saffron bread.  There are several reasons for this tradition.  First of all, Lucia is said to have once brought bread to needy people who were living in a cave.  This gift also reminds us of Lucia’s faith that Jesus is the Bread of Life.

    The other aspects of this tradition are also important.  The white robe is a reminder of the holiness of the saints who have died in Christ, and indeed of all those buried with Christ in baptism.  It is written of Christians in the book of Revelation, “These are they who come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” Jesus Christ.  St. Lucia’s holiness arose not from her own goodness or her virginity but from the cleansing forgiveness of Christ.  

    The crown of candles is also significant for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it indicates that even when Lucia no longer had her eyes, she still had the light of Christ to walk by.  She could yet “see” by faith, far better than any of her persecutors could ever see.  Though physically blind, she had better vision than any unbeliever.  For she was enlightened with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as we say in the catechism.  Furthermore, the fact that these candles are worn as a crown is a reminder of the crown of glory that all believers shall inherit through Christ in heaven.  Though her life in this world ended in darkness and death, her eternal existence is one of light and life, even as it is for all the faithful.  Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.  He who follows me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.”  

    Jesus entered our world of darkness by literally becoming one of us.  He was born at midnight in the cold that He might warm us with the light of His presence.  It is fitting that Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25th when the days are just beginning to grow lighter again. For He is the Light who wins out over the powers of darkness.  Though Jesus suffered on the cross under a dark shroud as the sacrifice for our sin, on the third day He came forth from the gloom of death in resurrection light.  He is the Sun of righteousness who has risen with healing in His wings, as we heard this past Sunday, and through faith in Him, Romans 8 says, we too are conquerors, victors over death and the devil.  

    St. Lucia bore witness to that fact in her life and in her death.  In fact the word “martyr” literally means “witness.”  In giving away much of her goods and wealth to help the poor, she bore witness to the love of Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich.  She bore witness to a belief in God as the Creator who can and will provide for all of our daily needs.  And in death she bore witness to God as the Recreator, who is more powerful than death.  She testified that she loved the Lord and His salvation even more than life itself in this world.  Like Abraham, she was looking for a better country, a heavenly one.  She knew that the only way to have life in the world to come is to lay down your life in the world that is.

    So it is also for you, especially in this Advent tide as you set your hearts on the coming of the Lord.  You may not be called to be a martyr, but you are given to testify to Christ in word and deed and to take up your cross and follow Him.  Jesus said, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Baptized into Christ, you are given to live the pattern of His life–humility before glory, death before resurrection, crucifying your old Adam that Christ may be pre-eminent and that His life may show forth in and through you.  

    This life of repentance and faith is not easy.  It is truly a narrow road on which you are called to run.  But along this road, Hebrews says, you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses–Abraham and Joseph and Moses, Gideon and David and Samuel, prophets and apostles, saints and martyrs like Lucia.  And above all, you are upheld by Him who laid this path and ran it for you, Jesus.  Consider Him, Hebrews says, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Your road will end up where Christ’s ended up, for you are in Him.  What is now only a candle in the darkness will soon be the dawning of the everlasting Day of resurrection at Jesus’ return.  Let that joy set before you give you endurance in the faith.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

St. Nicholas Points Us to Christ

St. Nicholas Day
December 6, 2017
1 John 4:7-14
Luke 18:15-17

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    One of the complaints that Christians often voice at this time of year is that Christmas has become too commercialized and too secularized.  It’s actually become a big deal just for a public official or business to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.”  Far too many people observe the holy day of the Christ mass without any acknowledgment of the Christ at all.  Everything’s about parties and presents and family time without any meditation on the main focus of Christmas, namely, the incarnation of our Lord, His taking on of our flesh to save us.  Santa Claus gets more attention than Jesus.

    Perhaps, however, this problem can begin to be corrected by understanding where the legend of Santa Claus comes from and the actual historical basis of who he is.  Most of us have heard of Santa Claus referred to as St. Nick or St. Nicholas.  And in fact that’s where the name comes from–Santa is the word for Saint and Claus is a shortened form in Dutch of the word Nicholas.  Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.

     Now Santa Claus has become the stuff of fairy tales and has been influenced in many ways by pagan notions.  (And I think we devote way too much effort trying to convince the children that the fairy tale is real.)  But St. Nicholas was an actual person who lived in the early 300's A.D.  Since December 6th is the day on which Nicholas is recognized in the church, we will focus a bit on his life this evening and meditate on what it has to teach us about Christ and Christmas.null

    Nicholas was born into a wealthy family in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey.  Having become a Christian, Nicholas chose not to pursue a life of riches but instead devoted himself to the church.  He eventually became bishop of a city called Myra.  Myra was a decadent and corrupt city, and Nicholas became well known for transforming it by his pious hard work and preaching of the Word of Christ.  

    St. Nicholas was also known for his love for those in need, such as poor widows and orphaned children.  As bishop he saw to it that the church worked to care for the needy.  Perhaps his giving of gifts, especially to impoverished children, is part of what formed the Santa Claus tradition.

    And there is one story in particular about Nicholas that stands out above the rest and is the most famous.  There was a very poor man in the city of Myra who had three daughters.  This man did not have any money to provide his daughters with suitable dowries necessary for them to get married.  Without being able to marry, it was likely that their aging father would not be able to keep them from being sold into slavery or prostitution.  Nicholas was deeply troubled about this, and he decided to help.  But he chose to do so in a way that wouldn’t draw attention to himself.  Evidently taking from his own resources, Nicholas prepared three bags of gold.  On three successive nights St. Nicholas went to this man’s house and threw a bag of gold into one of the open windows–one bag of gold each night for each of the three daughters, sufficient to provide each of them with the necessary dowry.  Later on when this story was told in colder regions, Nicholas was portrayed dropping the bags of gold down the chimney.  Still to this day three golden bags or golden spheres are the sign of a pawnbroker, in remembrance of how Nicholas bought these three daughters out of hock, you might say, redeeming and rescuing them from the fate that awaited them.

    There are many more accounts of Nicholas helping others, too.  For instance, once there were three men who were falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to death.  But Nicholas stepped in and spoke in their defense and was able to secure their release and give them their lives back.  

    It’s interesting that in all the stories of St. Nicholas that I’ve seen, the number three keeps popping up–three daughters without dowries, three falsely accused men, three sailors whom he rescued from drowning.  And this is fitting.  For Nicholas was one who was a defender of the Trinitarian faith, someone who proclaimed belief in the one and only true God who is threefold, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

    In fact, it is almost certain that St. Nicholas was one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicea which defended and confirmed the teaching that Jesus is both true God and true man.  It is from this council in 325 A.D. that we get the Nicene Creed which we confess here each week.  A certain false preacher named Arius was teaching that Jesus was not of the same substance as the Father, that the Son of God was a created being, god-like but not true God.  The Council of Nicea roundly rejected that heresy and reaffirmed the Scriptural position that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human in one undivided person, true God from all eternity.  In fact, there is a story that at the Nicene Council Nicholas became so upset with Arius’s heresy that he slapped him in the face.  The main way to get on the naughty list with St. Nicholas, it seems, is to believe or proclaim false teaching.

    This is how we should remember St. Nicholas, as a defender of the Christian faith, faith in Christ the Son of God as the only Savior from sin and death and the devil.  Nicholas preached Jesus, baptized people into Jesus’ body, absolved people of their sins in Jesus’ name, fed them with the life-giving body and blood of Jesus.  That’s the real St. Nicholas.  He wasn’t a Santa Claus taking attention away from Jesus.  He was a preacher drawing everyone’s attention to Jesus.  He wasn’t one making a list and checking it twice to see who was naughty and who was nice.  For he knew that his people were both sinners and saints at the same time and that all desperately needed Christ’s forgiveness and mercy.  

    By God’s grace the love of Christ was shown forth both in St. Nicholas’ preaching and also in his life.  We give attention to the generous deeds of Nicholas because that ultimately draws our attention to the infinitely generous love that he himself first received from God.  It was that love of God that was working through Nicholas in his life.  

    After all, just consider his deeds.  Nicholas sacrifices and gives of his own resources to save the three daughters.  Is that not what Jesus did for us?  He sacrificed and gave Himself for us to rescue us from being eternally violated by death and the devil.  He redeemed us not with bags of gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  So it is that we are now worthy and prepared to be His holy bride.

    Likewise, Nicholas stood in to defend those facing death, risking his own name and reputation.  Is that not what Jesus did and still does for us?  He stood between us and eternal death on the cross and thereby kept us from having to suffer that most capital of all punishments.  Furthermore, the Scriptures say that even now Jesus is standing before the Father as our advocate, speaking in our defense, responding to every charge laid against us with the merits of His own blood and righteousness.  Through Him we are set free to be people of God.

    The same love of Christ that was at work in St. Nicholas is at work also in you.  For in your baptism you were crucified with Christ; and you no longer live, but Christ lives in you and through you.  The Lord is working in you so that His boundless love which has been shown to you might spill over to others, in the giving of yourself, in the giving of gifts–not so that you can feel good about yourself or draw attention to yourself, but giving that is anonymous and entirely for the good of others, like a bag of gold through an open window at night.  That’s why I think it is a fine tradition for someone who gives an anonymous gift to say that it’s from Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.  For such a gift is given in a spirit that reflects the love of Christ as Nicholas did, and ultimately it seeks to give glory not to ourselves but to God who is the true Giver of every good and perfect gift.  

    Indeed every present that we give is a sign of that Greatest Gift of all, the Christ child in the manger–given to us almost anonymously, noticed only by shepherds on that night, recognized and received only by few throughout His life.  But hidden within the wrapping of His lowly humanity dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily full of grace and mercy.  Jesus is Love in the flesh for you.  There is no greater present than that.  That is the ultimate gift St. Nicholas sought to give.

    So is there such a person as Santa Claus?  Of course there is.  If you don’t believe in the existence of St. Nicholas, you might as well not believe in the existence of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or the wise men.  Sure you’re not going to find him sliding down your chimney.  But he is with us whenever we gather for divine service.  For in Christ’s presence dwell angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all the saints and believers who have gone before us.  Thank God that St. Nicholas lives.  He lives forever because, just like you, he was baptized and believed in Jesus, who was born, and died, and rose for us all.  

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Together With the Bridegroom

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Matthew 25:1-13
Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 27)

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

    Why do you want to go to heaven?  Seriously.  You might say, “Well, obviously, I don’t want to go to hell, so heaven is clearly the better option.”  But what is it about heaven that makes you want to go there and to be there?  Far too many aren’t really sure about how to answer that.  There is this notion that it will be good and happy.  So that’s nice.  On the other hand, there’s also this notion that it may not be as exciting as some of the things we enjoy on this earth.  “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.”  Or as another song sings, “In heaven there is no beer,” so you better have your fun now while you’re still here.  Even if songs like that are meant to be lighthearted and a little bit tongue-in-cheek, they do provide a helpful way to do a little spiritual self-diagnosis.  Whatever it is that makes you want to put off heaven or especially the second coming of Jesus, whatever it is that you think you’d enjoy more or that would make you want to tell God to wait a little bit–that’s an idol in your heart and a false god in your life.

    But still, what’s going to make heaven so great?  Actually, the Bible never really talks about “going to heaven” as the primary goal of the Christian.  To be sure, God’s Word clearly teaches that the souls of those who die in the faith go to be with the Lord.  But there is still much more that God has prepared and planned.  The truth of Scripture is expressed in the Creed, when we say that we look for the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”  Our real hope is tangible, fleshly, and focused on the Last Day.  On that final day, we won’t be going to heaven, heaven will be coming to us.  With the return of Christ, heaven and earth will be rejoined and all creation will be made new through Him.  What we set our hearts on is bodily resurrection.

    It is as the Old Testament reading said, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth  . . .  No more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. . .  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  Notice there that eternity is described in physical terms, a new creation.  It will be a world where no family is ever gathered around a coffin again, a world where even in the animal kingdom there will be no more blood-red teeth or claws.  God’s plan for this creation will not be delayed forever.  It will become what He intended it to be in the beginning: a world without fear, without sin, without death. null

    But is even that really our ultimate goal, simply to have a pleasant place to exist for eternity?  No, this is what truly makes the life of the world to come so good–and this is what we often forget–that there we will be in communion with God Himself, living forever in the overflow of His lovingkindness.   It is written in Revelation, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men. . .  God Himself will be with them and be their God.”  Why do we want to have our share in the resurrection of the body to eternal life?  To be with Jesus, that’s why.  Being together with Him, sharing in the life of our Redeemer makes all the difference.  Only through Him is anything truly good and right.  Just beholding the glory of God face to face will far surpass any earthly experience.  In Him is perfect peace and contentment and gladness.  If your idea of heaven isn’t centered in life with Christ, if it’s primarily about a place that fulfills all your own personal pleasures and dreams, you’re missing the point.  What makes eternal life to be real life is the presence of your Creator and Savior and Lord.

      So it’s no wonder, then, that the final prayer in the Bible and the constant prayer of the church is “Come, Lord Jesus!”  That is our faith’s greatest desire, to be with Him, in an even greater way than we desire to be with loved ones for the holidays that we haven’t seen for a long time.  When the sorrows and the fears of this world press hard against us, and we don’t know if we can hold up much longer, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When change and decay in all around we see, and it seems as if the very foundations are being shaken, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When we feel the devastating effects of our own sinful flesh, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly to deliver us!”  Or as the Psalmist prayed, “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2)

    By faith we long for that Day, but we know that it will not be a day of joy for everyone. There are those who are unprepared for it, who really don’t welcome it.  Many would see Jesus’ return as an unwelcome disturbance of their plans, who love this world and don’t want to let go of it.  For them that Day will come like a thief in the night bringing sudden destruction, and there will be no escape. To meet that day without faith in the Savior and love for being with Him is to meet it as the Day of Doom.

    What makes the wise virgins truly wise in this parable is that nothing was more important to them than being with the Bridegroom.  Everything else was secondary.  It was all about Him.  For the foolish, being with the Bridegroom was just another thing to squeeze in with the other priorities of life, if possible.  And so the wise were well prepared, while the foolish were unprepared.

    Having faith in the Savior and wanting to be with Him is the main point of today’s Gospel parable.  Those who were wise staked everything on Him.  The lamp’s flame represents faith.  The lamp itself is the Word of God, as Psalm 119 says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet.”  The oil in the lamp is the Holy Spirit who works through the Word and the Sacraments to create faith in Christ and keep the flame of faith burning brightly.  Because the foolish virgins gave little attention to the Word of God and the Sacraments, their flames went out.  And they ended up being shut of the wedding feast, shut out of life in the new creation forever, even hearing the Lord say those awful words, “I do not know you.”  That’s a description of hell right there–hearing Jesus say that He doesn’t know you and that you can’t be with Him; all that’s left is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    The five foolish ones did not endure in the faith to the end. They thought the bare minimum was enough; but tragically, it wasn’t.  It didn’t have to be that way.  For God eagerly and gladly supplies everything necessary–oil in abundance, free of charge, no strings attached, all paid for and provided by Christ.  After all, there is not one soul for whom God’s Son did not shed His blood.  There is not one human life whose sins were not atoned for on Golgotha’s wood.  There is not one human being whose death wasn’t destroyed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  All of you are forgiven and redeemed entirely for the sake of Christ.  

    Your heavenly Father longs to be with you.  Much more than our desire for God is His desire for us.  That’s really the whole point of being at church, isn’t it?–to be with God and He with you, concretely, tangibly, in the flesh.  He delights in you through Jesus and wants you to be with Him.  Christ shares in your humanity so that you may share in His divine glory.  By His external, preached Word, God keeps you in the faith, lamps burning brightly all the way through to the end.

    To the foolish it may seem unnecessary and even silly to have so much oil, but in other matters this is exactly how the world would expect you to behave.  When taking an SAT test, you bring extra pencils just in case.  When going on a big cruise or a trip, you make sure that you arrive at the airport early.  Young brides-to-be will spend countless hours shopping for dresses, trying on make-up, consulting with their hairstylist, deciding on menus and flowers preparing for a wedding.  Doesn’t it make perfect sense then to be even better prepared for the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom?  
    
    The extra oil of the wise is a reminder that faith never thinks in the way of having the bare minimum, any more than you would want to spend the least amount of time possible with someone you love.  Why wouldn’t you want to receive communion every week?  Being with Christ in divine service and being with Christ in eternity go together, and the cause of joy is the same in both cases–His presence, His mercy.  This is what makes the wise so single-minded:  You know that the One who is coming is the true, heavenly Groom who is perfect love in the flesh, the One who “gave Himself up for His beloved church, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water and the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, . . . holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).   

    We eagerly watch for the Last Day, for when St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he told them that God did not destine them for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we might live with Him.  That holds true for you too who believe and are baptized.  You are not destined for wrath, but for life with Christ.  The Introit proclaims, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads . . . and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  And Christ declares in the Old Testament reading, “I will joy in My people.”  That’s heaven, the Lord rejoicing in you.  Anyone who thinks that’s going to be boring, or that something else might be more important or exciting simply doesn’t have a clue.  The Lord’s passion and desire for you is that you may live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

    “Behold the Bridegroom is coming; go out to meet Him!”  Go out with the brightly burning lamps of faith in the present darkness of this world.  Be filled by the Holy Spirit with Jesus’ words and body and blood.  Possess these life-giving gifts in abundance from the Lord.  And as you go out to meet Jesus here in divine service week by week, then it will be no surprise at all but a most natural and joyous thing when you go out to meet Him on the Last Day.

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

The Kingdom Prepared For You

Matthew 25:31-46
Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (Trinity 26)

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

    Why should you do good works?  There are two very simple reasons: God has commanded them, and your neighbor is served by them.  You shouldn’t do good works, though, as if God needed your service.  He’s perfectly fine and complete without anything that you do.  In fact, any good that you have the ability to do came from Him in the first place, right?  What a foolish thing it is, then, to try to shove your good works into His face thinking that you can earn your way into heaven, as if He somehow owes you for what you’ve done.  The Lord doesn’t owe anyone anything.  

    God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.  All you have to do is look around for two seconds to see that this world is full of need that is to be met with works of love–and not just charity, but the ordinary, day to day fulfilling of your callings.  Today’s Gospel reading shows us where our good works are to be directed–not up to God as if to earn a merit badge, but down and out toward your neighbor, even toward “the least of these My brethren.”

    All that is needed for heaven is faith–the empty hands of faith that receive the works of Jesus for you and that cling to Him and His cross alone.  But then, with hands filled with the mercy and goodness of Christ, all that is needed for the neighbor is love which passes along Christ’s mercy and serves the neighbor in need.  And those two things are connected and go together.  Faith in Christ gives birth to deeds of love.null

    Though faith is unseen, and love often goes unnoticed, all will be revealed for what it is on the Last Day.  When Jesus comes in glory with all His angels, He will judge both the living and the dead.  And His judgment will reveal who are the sheep and who are the goats, who are the believers and who are the unbelievers.  What is now hidden will be uncovered.  That’s actually what the word “apocalypse” means, the uncovering.  The private will be made public.  Everyone, on the Last Day, will be revealed for who they are: either a sheep of Jesus’ flock or a goat.  Everyone will be seen for how they stand in God’s sight, the faithful or the faithless.  And it will be a day no one can avoid.  “All nations” will be gathered.  Everyone.  No one left out.    

    Your life as a baptized believer prior to the Last Day is hidden before the world.  Colossians 3 says, “You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  That passage also describes the end, too:  “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  And Romans 8 says that “the entire creation groans and eagerly waits for the sons of God to be revealed.”  So that’s a good way to think about what’s going to happen on the Last Day–it will be a revelation, the curtains and the covers will be pulled back; everyone and everything will be seen for what it is.

    In some ways we’re already getting a taste of the ugly side of that with all the recent media-fed scandals involving politicians and celebrities and actors.  It seems no one is as good they would like to appear.  And we have to admit that if everything were reported about our lives, if every thought, word, and deed were made known before all, we would not look so good ourselves.  The old Adam in a Harvey Weinstein or a Kevin Spacey or a Roy Moore or an Al Franken is fundamentally the same that inhabits each one of us, and gives birth to our particular sins.  The only difference is that their old Adam was more fully unleashed by power and fame and wealth.  Our only hope of being able to stand unashamed on the Last Day, then, is if our sinful nature has already been dealt with before then.  And it has!  That’s what the cross is all about.  That’s what your baptism is all about.  It is written in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life . . . For we know that our old self [the old Adam] was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”  We have been crucified with Christ by water and the Word; our sin has been answered for and done away with.  And so there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:1).

    That’s the first thing that will be revealed and uncovered on the Last Day.  Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats.  Sheep on His right.  Goats on His left.   To the sheep:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.”   To the goats:  “Depart from me, you who are cursed.”   To the sheep:  “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”  To the goats:  “Depart … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    Notice that the separation of the sheep from the goats comes before any talk of their works. The sheep are not at the Lord’s right hand because of the works they have done, but because of who and what they are in Christ by His grace.  All this had been prepared long before their works, from the very foundation of the world, it says.  Salvation is by God’s election and doing, not ours, as Ephesians 1 says, “(The Father) chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”

    On the Last Day, once the sheep and goats are divided up, then their works will be judged and evaluated by the Lord.  And the works of the sheep give evidence of the fact that they are indeed the blessed children of God through faith in Jesus.  The Last Day judgment simply makes that fact plain.  Works are counted as good before the Lord only when they flow from faith in Jesus.  No work is good in God’s sight without faith in Jesus, for it is written, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).  And it is also written, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).  You see, not only does Jesus’ blood cleanse us, it cleanses our works, too, and makes them holy.  Such good works provide evidence of our faith in Jesus.

    And yet even that will not be fully revealed until the Last Day. This is a very important point.  Even this evidence of our faith, the evidence of good works, is something that finally only Jesus the Judge can see right now as we live before Judgment Day.  So, while we live before the Last Day, we should not look to ourselves and our good works as proof that we are sheep.  It is a dangerous thing to look to yourself for the assurance that you are saved.  After all, unbelievers do humanly good works and acts of charity, too.  It’s faith in Jesus that makes all the difference.  Always, remember, the life of the believer is hidden and creation eagerly awaits the revelation of who God’s people are!

    So, in the meantime, Christians live in this world side by side with unbelievers.  And most of the time you can’t tell a huge difference, especially if you only look at what they do in the world.  There is no “Christian” way to deliver the mail, fix a flat tire, or plow a field.  You would hope Christians would be more ethical and hard-working and loving; but pagans can be ethical and hard-working and loving, too–though the ultimate motivation for that will be different.  The difference is internal, and it is the difference between faith in Jesus or unbelief in Jesus.  On the Last Day, Jesus, who judges the heart, will reveal the faith or the unbelief.   And the only works that will be judged good before Jesus are the ones that flow from faith in Him.

    Faith in Jesus is a divine work in us.  It transforms us and gives us a new birth brought about by the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel.  Faith in Jesus slays the old Adam and gives us the life of Christ, making us new people in heart, spirit, and mind.  Such faith by its very nature is active in good works.  Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done.  Before the question is even asked, faith is already doing them.  Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwells within us through faith, shows love to the neighbor in word and deed.  

    In fact, good works come so naturally to faith that the Christian most often does them without even recognizing them.  Notice that the sheep are surprised to find out that the food and drink they served to the hungry and thirsty was actually a meal served to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  That the sick neighbor they helped was actually Jesus Himself hidden in that neighbor.  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.”  Plus, they likely forgot all the instances where they did these things in the first place.  It's just what they did.

    Good works are done best when we become forgetful of having done them. Our works become a problem when we want to drag them with us into heaven, when we’ve got the score sheets and the tabulations, as if they are a bargaining chip to use in a salvation poker game.  No, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is all that is needed for heaven.  All our good works are to be left down here, for our neighbor in need.  In our neighbor who is sick or hungry or in prison, we learn to see Jesus, who fasted for us, who was arrested and afflicted and stripped of his clothing for us to fully redeem us.  The eyes of our faith are always and fully on Christ the crucified, whose works alone save us.  Living in that faith, we see Jesus also in our neighbor and show our love for Him by loving them.

    On the Last Day our faith will give way to sight.  We will see Jesus as He is, the crucified and risen Savior of the world.  To Him every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the everlasting joy of the sheep, to the everlasting shame of the goats.  On the Last Day, it will be revealed who you are.  But, of course, you don’t have to wait until the Last Day to know.  After all, the Son of Man and Judge of all, Jesus comes here every Sunday in the divine service as His Word is proclaimed.  And He speaks His Word to you, saying, “All your sin is forgiven!  I put my Name on you in your Baptism!  You are my sheep.  Have no fear little flock.  I am your Good Shepherd.  I laid down my life for you.  I was raised from the dead.  And I live and reign to give you life and peace and joy forever.

    Jesus and His cross is always the dividing line between the sheep and the goats.  The same Jesus who was crucified between a believing sheep and an unbelieving goat on Good Friday feeds you with His own body and blood at the foot of the cross, setting you apart here from the unbelieving world.  He joins Himself to you so that you will live eternally with Him in His kingdom, the one prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  And even the good works you do were prepared for you by the Lord.  For Ephesians 2 says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  Do you see?  It’s all God’s grace; it’s all what He has done for you and given to you in His Son Jesus.

    Every divine service is a little judgment day where Jesus judges you to be forgiven.  Every week He is here with all His holy angels as we gather around His altar to receive His gifts of grace.  On the Last Day you surely will hear Him declare:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Brent Kuhlman for some of the above)

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