Sunday, November 23, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Isaiah 65:17-25
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and everything that fills them, and it was good. And, when God created man, and woman out of man, He declared the work of His Word and His hands to be very good. But then, quite literally, all hell broke loose. Or, to be more accurate, hell was invited in. Hell was welcomed into God’s paradise by the man and the woman that He had made. He gave them the freedom to choose against Him, if they so desired, and, despite all the beauty, all the love, and all the grace they enjoyed from the LORD, Satan convinced them that God was holding out on them. And so, they took the bait. And, they took the bite. And, their eyes were opened, and they knew both good and evil. However, the evil they came to know was not from God, but it was what came out of their hearts and out of their mouths now that they knew a will other than the LORD’s will – their own will. They were ashamed at their created nakedness. They were afraid of their loving Creator and God. They knew that He was just and true, but they resented Him for it. Anger began to grow. They began to die.
The LORD knew that this would happen, and He created the world and the men in it anyway. Why? Because, it was good. Because it was very good. And, because it was worth it. And so, when things went the way He always knew that things would, the LORD set about to doing what He always knew He would do. He began the work of creating a new creation. He began to make all things new: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” You see, I think too often we imagine the new creation to be something in the future, something far off, something that is yet to come. However, your LORD would have you believe, trust, and see with the eyes and ears of faith that the new creation has already begun, and that it is even now happening, even as it is yet to be fulfilled. For, the new creation began with Jesus’ death when He proclaimed “It,” that is, the work of making all things new, “is finished.” And yet, still, the new creation began to break forth into this fallen and broken world and create it anew when Jesus rose again from the dead. And, the new creation will be fulfilled and revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns again in glory. Yes, for that day the faithful await patiently, longingly, and faithfully – the day when souls and bodies will be reunited and glorified, the day when we will live with our LORD and our God in His new creation forever, where there is no weeping or sorrow, no suffering or disease, and no death, but a fulfillment, a completion, and a joy that we can scarcely begin to imagine. Then the LORD will be our God, and we will be His people, just as it was meant to be in the beginning.
Yet, even before Christ, the faithful walked in the new creation through faith in the LORD’s Word of promise. The faithful could be glad and rejoice in Jerusalem as a joy, even amidst weeping and cries of distress. And so, too, do you walk in the new creation, though you do not see it with your eyes, for you believe and trust in the Lord’s Word of promise fulfilled in Jesus. Even now the veil is being lifted off the new creation ushered in by Jesus, which will not be fully revealed until the day of our Bridegroom’s return when every eye will see Him and every tongue will confess Him to be the Lord to the glory of God the Father.
The beautiful Gospel promise of restoration, recreation, and renewal proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah is rooted and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The wolf of the Father’s wrath against our sin is sated in the sacrificial death of the Lamb Jesus Christ, His Son. In Jesus, the wolf and the lamb graze together and lie down together in peace, just as the angels proclaimed at His birth: “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”
But, your enemy, Satan, wants you to not believe this. Therefore, he lies to you and he deceives you so that you focus only upon the tears and the cries of distress, violence, wars, terrorism, and death in this world. These trials are the result of sin, having their origin not in the LORD. And yet, it is the LORD who permits them to befall you. He permits you to suffer trial and tribulation so that you do not put your trust in the things of this world, which are passing away, but that you trust in Him and in His Word. Satan would have you believe that there is no God, or that, if there is, He is either impotent to help you or He simply doesn’t care to. Satan would have you believe that things merely continue on as they always have and that your lot in life is merely what you see with your eyes and hear with your ears unassisted by faith. Satan would have you believe that there is no reason for hope, for yourself or for anyone else, and that you should, therefore, put your fear, love, and trust in the material things of this world and life, and in human things and human institutions, for these are all that there are.
Thus, St. Paul exhorts you to be watchful. For, you are not in darkness any longer, but you are “children of light, children of the day.” You “are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Therefore, Paul warns you, “Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” Moreover, St. Paul exhorts you to clothe yourself in the Lord and His righteousness as a breastplate and helmet. For, we are at war, and our only defense is Christ and His Word and Sacraments. These sustain us as we wait and watch for the Bridegroom’s coming. In these, we are well prepared for His coming at any day, at any hour, in darkness or in light. “For God has not destined us 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.” St. Paul exhorts you to remember this Word of truth and to “encourage one another and build one another up” with it.
Likewise, Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is an exhortation to watchfulness. Jesus warns the faithful to not become comfortable and secure in this world and life, which are passing away, but to remain sober and vigilant, always watching as you wait for His return. However, Jesus’ parable gets to the heart of what you put your trust in, and what is the source of your comfort, while you watch and wait. All ten virgins had their lamps, but only five had enough oil to last throughout the Bridegroom’s delay. You see, the five foolish virgins were comfortable and secure that they had enough oil. So, what did they put their faith and trust in? What was the source of their comfort and security? It wasn’t the oil, or they surely would have brought more with them. No, the five foolish virgins put their faith and their trust in their own reason. They reasoned the probability of the Bridegroom’s return, they gambled, attempting to get by with as little oil as necessary.
It is the oil that is of utmost importance in the parable. It seems clear that the oil is a symbol of faith and trust. However, it would be wrong to focus upon the amount of oil, or the amount of faith, that the virgins had, for, if there is oil or faith at all, of any amount, the lamp of the soul burns brightly. Rather, what matters is the attitude the virgins have toward their oil and their faith and, ultimately, towards the Bridegroom Himself. For, if they recognize that the oil of faith is of utmost value and importance, then they will take care to not run out. However, if they place their faith and trust in something else, then they will become careless with the oil, and with their faith, and will allow themselves to become precariously low, or to run out altogether. Therefore, it is important to have the oil of your faith replenished, and you must take caution to not let it run low or be depleted altogether.
So, how does a faithful virgin keep up her stock of oil? How does a faithful Christian replenish and maintain their faith? The answer is the same as was given by St. Paul: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” That is to say, hear the Word of the LORD and receive His Blessed Sacraments. Permit Him to fill you with the oil of His Holy Spirit that He may sanctify and keep you in faith so long as He may tarry. Indeed, you must think of the Church as the inn under whose care the Good Samaritan Jesus has given you to provide and care for you until His return. He has paid dearly for you and for your care in His own holy, innocent shed blood. All you have to do is receive, believe, and trust in Him and His gifts, and you are well-prepared for His return on any day, at any hour, whether you are awake or sleeping.
Dearly beloved, herein we finish the course of another year lived in the LORD’s grace. And, as we look forward to the beginning of another year next Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, let us commit ourselves to cherishing and maintaining the blessed oil of faith the LORD has filled the lamps of our souls with. Let us devote ourselves to His Word and to His life-giving and faith-sustaining Sacraments. Let us hunger and thirst always for His righteousness and refuse to settle for what we can scrape by with. And, let us see with the eyes and the ears of faith the new creation, which is already present, and which is gradually being unveiled. For, already now the wolf and the lamb graze and lie down together, for God is well pleased with you, just as you are, through faith in His Son Jesus, with whom He is fully pleased.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Peter 3:3-14; Daniel 7:9-14
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The temptation for us is to become myopic and shortsighted. What I mean is that, we humans are prone to getting caught up in the tyranny of the urgent and the cares, the worries, and the anxieties of our day. Whatever pressing travail afflicts us, we permit it to become all encompassing, overwhelming, and mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually crippling. While our natural, God-given response should be to either fight or to flee, too often we merely roll over and play dead and do nothing at all. Either way, our Enemy wins because he gets us to shirk our vocations and our God-given responsibilities when we fear losing all the transient and temporal things that we try to acquire and to hold on to so desperately, trying to convince ourselves that they really will last and not fade away.
Money, possessions, reputation, career, spouse, children – these we clamor to amass, to keep, to protect, and to hold on to at all costs. We permit our lives, our value, and the measure of our success or failure to be judged by these fleeting things. Of course this is idolatry and a violation of the First Commandment, as we continually place our fear, our love, and our trust in created things in place of the Creator of all things. And, when we are reminded of this, we may nod our heads and say, “Yeah, I know,” and wish that things could be different, never really believing that they will be and thus never really trying, ho-hum. However, such idolatry is not a victimless sin. We’re not only hurting God – if such a thing were possible – but we are hurting other people: our brothers and our sisters in Christ, our family and our friends, our neighbors. We are hurting them, a violation of the Fifth Commandment, by not helping and befriending them in their bodily needs. You see, when we are so worried and anxious for ourselves, we are literally incurvatus in se, that is, curved in on ourselves. This means that we cannot be looking outward towards others and their needs because we are too consumed with looking inward to our own real or perceived needs, wants, and desires exacerbated by anxiety, worry, and stress from clamoring to amass, to keep, to protect, and to hold on to whatever at all costs. Such idolatry is ultimately selfishness and a worship of the self. In Jesus’ parable today, it is precisely self-centered idolatry that makes for the difference between the sheep and the goats.
You see, the sheep were already sheep before the sorting, and the goats were already goats. It’s not like the Shepherd made them or judged them to be sheep or goats at the moment of the sorting, but he knows them by sheepish and goatish fruits they bear. Sheep do sheepy things, and goats do not, just the way a healthy tree bears good fruit and a diseased tree does not. And, the fruits the Shepherd is looking for are works of kindness, charity, mercy, and love towards others: feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty to drink, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. You can only serve your neighbor in these ways if you are looking outward instead of continually inward to your self.
Consequently, the sheep, that is, faithful believers, were not even aware that they were serving their Lord, for they were simply doing the things they were given to do. As I said earlier, sheep do sheepy things. And so, it’s not that they were always conscious and aware, and certainly not keeping tallies and records, of their good works, but they produced these works much like fruit, the way an apple tree produces apples, or the way a grapevine produces grapes. The sheep do the things that they do, the things for which the Lord commends them and blesses them, precisely because they are sheep and not goats. Therefore, we must direct our attention and our meditation, not to the works themselves, but rather to what it means to be a sheep, and how one becomes a sheep in the first place.
The truth is, we were all once goats. And the truth is, we often still exhibit goatish behavior and do goatish things. And, if we focus only, or primarily, upon our behavior, our works, then we will likely despair believing that, deep down, we truly are goats and not sheep. The goatish things that we do not want to do, that is what we continually find ourselves doing, while the sheepy things we want to do, those things we do not do. Yet, even more likely, we will not despair our being goats, but we will pump ourselves with pride and convince ourselves that we are sheep, or at least that we are more sheepy than all the obvious goats we see all around us. No, we must not focus only, or even primarily, upon our behavior and our works – that is the way of the Law. Instead, we must focus upon our Lord’s behavior and His works, His humility and selflessness, His obedience and faith and His trust, His love and forgiveness, His death and resurrection for all us goats. In His suffering, death, and resurrection, our Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has raised us from goatish death to new and eternal sheepish life. Behold, He makes all things new. He even makes the lame walk and the deaf hear. He makes goats to be sheep. Thanks be to God!
Your Lord Jesus teaches you that becoming a sheep is like being born. It is not something you do or decide, but it is something that happens to you, wholly apart from your will, your work, or your reason. Jesus also teaches that becoming a sheep is like having the wind blow upon you. You cannot make the wind to blow upon anymore than you can stop it from blowing upon you. That, Jesus teaches, is precisely the way the Holy Spirit of God works, creating faith and making sheep out of goats when and where He pleases.
However, while becoming a sheep is not a decision or a choice that you make, being a sheep is a considerably different thing than being a goat. Sheep do sheepy, not goatish, things. And, the sheepy things that Jesus’ sheep do are the fruit of His own love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. And, that is what Jesus’ judgment parable about the sheep and the goats is really all about: love. The works of grace, mercy, love, and compassion the faithful sheep in the parable exhibit (works they are mostly unaware that they are doing!) are the fruit of the grace, mercy, love, and compassion they themselves have received from their Lord and their Shepherd. What they give and do for others does not even remotely strike them as a work or a burden, let alone a loss or grievance of any kind. And, when it is pointed out to them, they are likely to say, “That’s just what Christians do.” Christians do the good works that they do because of what Christ has done for them and for all: They give with Christ’s gifts. They show mercy with Christ’s mercy. They love with Christ’s love. They are compassionate with Christ’s compassion. They forgive with Christ’s forgiveness.
Not so the goats. Effectively, St. Peter describes the goats in today’s Epistle Lesson saying, “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” That last part, “following their own sinful desires,” is key. You see, the scoffing is really just an attempt to justify their goatish behavior. You’ve heard it before; you’ve probably asked before: “If there were a God, why doesn’t He do something about evil and suffering in the world?” “If God is real and cares about us, why doesn’t He show Himself and destroy all doubt?” “From what I can tell, there is no God; everything evolved from molecules to man, and the origin of all things is some cosmic explosion fourteen billion years ago.” “There is no God. There is no morality. There is no truth. Whatever is true for you is true enough, so long as you don’t infringe upon anyone else’s truth.” “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This is why goats act the way they do. They do not believe. They refuse to receive. Thus, they live for themselves and they serve themselves and they worship themselves. They do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but they are god to themselves and place themselves above all things. They neither acknowledge God nor their need for Him. They do not receive from Him, thus they have nothing to give. They are what they are by nature; they are goats.
But, they tempt the Lord’s sheep to return to their goatish ways. That is why St. Peter exhorts the faithful to “be diligent to be found by [the Lord] without spot or blemish, and at peace.” Now, to be found without spot or blemish is to be found in faith, trusting in the Lord and His Word and not in your works and merit. To be found at peace is to be found content and humble in the Lord’s providence and not seeking gain or profit, particularly at the expense of others. And so, being a sheep is much less about what sheep do as it is about what sheep do not do – sheep do not do what goats do, and thus, they remain the sheep that the Lord has made them to be. And, when they do do goatish things, they return in humility, repentance, and faith to the Lord that He might forgive them and wash them anew, making them white and righteous in His blood once again.
Our Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, desires for all to join His fold. He continues to call both sheep and goats, and His Spirit is blowing where and when it pleases Him, able to turn goats into sheep. “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 reach repentance.” We must not fret and worry about, and become overwhelmed with, cares and desires, fears and anxieties. Then we become incurvatus in se, turned in on ourselves. True freedom, the freedom that Jesus Christ died to give, is realized in grace, mercy, love, and compassion towards others. Therefore, your Lord Jesus invites you to find rest in Him: rest from your striving, rest from your anxiety, rest from your fear. Jesus is the Sabbath rest of the LORD. Jesus is peace with God. In Him you lack nothing. In Him you have everything, and more, to give freely as you have freely received.
In the + Name of jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
Matthew 24:15-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Exodus 32:1-20
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The theme of these last three Sundays of the Church Year is very similar to that of the beginning of the new Church Year in Advent: The faithful are to wait and to watch for Jesus’ return. Now, the return of Jesus means many things, but primarily it means two things: Judgment and redemption. Thus, Jesus’ return will be a fearful thing for those who have rejected Him, for it will mean their judgment and condemnation. However, for you who place your faith and trust in Him, even though the world itself is passing away, there is no need for you to fear, for the coming of the Lord means your redemption is complete. Your Lord Jesus Himself says to you: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The Lord is coming. That is a promise and a fact. The Lord is coming at a day and an hour you cannot know. Therefore, you must be prepared for His coming at any time. However, this is not a new situation, indeed this has been the situation for Christians ever since Christ’s ascension into heaven, when God’s holy angels promised, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” Now, if this seems like a long time to be waiting and watching, be grateful, for “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 reach repentance.”
And so, even when you hear a Word of judgment from the Lord, like today, and the next several Sundays, the Lord’s Word of judgment is typically mixed with words of mercy and compassion. For instance, in todays Gospel lesson, Jesus mercifully provides an advance warning for the faithful to watch and to flee. The judgment that was coming was specifically upon Jerusalem and Judea, namely, the siege and destruction of that city by the Romans that would occur less than a generation later. In 66 A.D., the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus laid siege to the city until the Roman army finally invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and her temple in 70 A.D. The suffering and the horror were beyond imagination, as the Romans had prevented food, water, and fresh supplies from entering the city for more than three years while also preventing garbage and waste, and the sick and the dead, from leaving the city. Thus, when the Roman army finally entered Jerusalem in 70 A.D., they found entire families dead within their homes, the dead decaying in the street, evidence of cannibalism, and horrors beyond imagination. And, anyone who remained alive, they ran through with the sword without mercy until the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood.
However, Jesus’ words of warning concerning judgment are also filled with compassion for His people: “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.” These words of our Lord parallel those in St. Luke’s Gospel as Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of her impending judgment: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Additionally, Jesus warns the faithful of false christs and false prophets who will arise in those days to lead the faithful astray. Such figures always arise in times of stress, and, in desperation, people follow after them to their own destruction. This is true in the twenty-first century even as it was in the first. Such false prophets and false christs will often sound prophetic and inspired, perhaps they will appeal to reason and appear full of wisdom, some may even have powers of prophecy, hidden knowledge, and may perform wondrous signs and miracles. How will you know if they are true or false? You will know them by their fruits: Do their preaching, teaching, and works accord with the Holy Scriptures? If they do, then there is nothing to fear. However, if they do not, the Spirit cannot lie or contradict the Word of the LORD; therefore, you will know that they are false. Beware of them and flee from their poisonous doctrine.
The judgment upon Jerusalem and Judea was the result of their apostasy. For fifteen centuries God patiently dealt with Israel. But most of that time Israel was stiff-necked and hard hearted. After many warnings, the northern ten tribes were taken into captivity by the Assyrians. Then, after many further warnings, the southern two tribes were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. While many of the people repented and were allowed to return years later, the people soon proved to be impenitent once again. Finally the Savior came unto His own, but His own received Him not. God became a man and tried again and again to call His covenant people to repentance. Most of them refused. Even after Jesus ascended into heaven, God granted the covenant people another forty years of grace. But then the time of mercy was gone.
Interestingly, and comfortingly, Jesus says that the judgment upon Jerusalem would be tribulation “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” This means that neither the Great Flood, nor the end of the world, nor any other judgment in history was, is, or ever shall be as severe and awful as was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jesus also says that “if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” Thus, whatever tribulation you may face, you can be certain that it will not be greater than your strength to persevere in faith. St. Paul teaches the same when he writes: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The faithful, the elect of the Lord, you – you will face temptation, trial, and tribulation. That is a promise and a fact. However, do not be afraid. Your Lord Jesus will see you through it if you trust in Him. He will see you through financial problems, problems with your children, health problems, marital problems, wars and terrorism, the death of your loved ones, and through your own death if you trust in Him. He is your Good Shepherd, and He will Shepherd you through the valley of the shadow of death into His Father’s house. He has already passed that way Himself, and, in His death and resurrection, He has knocked down the gate that would keep you in suffering and death. Now that gate is an open door to eternal life. It is your life even now, through faith in Him. No one can take His gift from you. Only you can reject it.
Therefore, do not permit your Enemy Satan to make use of a good crisis. When you face trial and tribulation, suffering and death, do not be anxious and fearful, but turn evermore to your Lord and His Word. Do not listen to the voices of false prophets and false christs. While they may impress with their rhetoric and charisma, their works, power, and wealth, and their great number of followers, you will know them to be false prophets and false christs by the fruits they bear – their teachings and their works. Do they accord with God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures? Do they proclaim the Law and Gospel of the LORD? Do they proclaim Christ and Him crucified, God’s free gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation for all who believe? Make no mistake, when the Lord returns there will be no mistaking and no second-guessing of who He is, from whence He has come, or of what He has come to do. “For as the lighting comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” On that day, every eye shall Him, every tongue shall confess Him, and every knee shall bow before Him in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and God the Father will be glorified. That is a promise. That is a fact. Believe it, for Jesus’ sake and for your own sake.
Therefore, as we near the end of another Church Year in God’s grace, let us strive to be more vigilant and watchful for Jesus’ Second Advent and Parousia, His coming on the clouds as King and Judge. Let us not live like those uninformed brothers who have no knowledge, no faith, and no hope. For we have heard the Word of the Lord and have been raised from the death of sin to life in the Spirit. Therefore, as the vultures of false prophets and false christs gather around us as a corpse, let us gather like vultures around the corpse of the Son of God who died, who is risen, and who lives and reigns at the right hand of His Father in heaven, who will return at a day and an hour only the Father knows to raise our bodies from their graves to be reunited with our eternal souls and live with Him forever in His kingdom in heaven. Let us put no trust in our own merits, but let us trust in the Word and promise of our Lord fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the true temple, built without hands. He is our rock and our fortress that cannot be moved. In Him we have hope and plenteous salvation. “Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Matthew 5:1-12; 1 John 3:1-3; Revelation 7:2-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Peter writes that there are mysteries “into which the angels long to look.” What a marvelous and mysterious thought, indeed! To think that are mysteries still that even God’s holy and perfect angels long to know should give us comfort as we consider mysteries so bright that human reason and wisdom are all but blind. One of those mysteries is the subject of today’s Epistle Reading by St. John: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. […] Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” The mystery is that God loves you so that He has adopted you as His own sons and daughters in Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son. In the incarnation, the Son of God became a man. And, as a man, Jesus fulfilled God’s Law for you; He suffered and died, and He was raised and has ascended to the right hand of His Father in heaven for you. And, at a time known only to the LORD, Christ will return and raise your bodies from their graves and restore you to life that will never die, an eternal life with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the kingdom of heaven. Surely, that God would make His Son a man so that He could make men His sons is a mystery even God’s holy angels could not have anticipated!
Likewise, the Preacher to the Hebrews states: “It was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified [by the Psalmist], ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet’.” No, not until the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, when the Word of God became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us, so the Scriptures say, did the holy angels of God begin to see the unveiling of the great plan their Creator and ours had for humankind. In His Son, He has made you to be sons, and heirs, and kings with Him over heaven and earth – yes, even over the holy angels themselves!
We are granted a glimpse of this happening in our Reading from the Revelation today: “And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad,” etc. It reads like a divine roll call! And, all the while, God’s holy angels look on in amazement and great joy. In fact, the LORD has His holy angels do the sealing. God’s holy angels serve Him, and they serve you whom God loves so dearly in His Son Jesus Christ. And then, we are granted a glimpse of an even greater scene, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’!” St. John describes God’s holy angels “standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen’!” Thus, to the redemption and the sealing of humankind, of God’s children – thus, to your redemption and sealing in Jesus Christ – God’s holy angels say, “Amen! Yea verily, it is so! Amen!”
Then, in a most interesting scene, one of the twenty-four Elders encircling the throne of God and the Lamb – Elders representing the Old Testament Church of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the New Testament Church of the Twelve Apostles, and thus, the entire catholic Church of God of all times and all places – one of the Elders asks John, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” Indeed, God’s holy angels were not the only ones kept in the dark before the LORD’s time. But, now the time was ripe and the Elder was granted to see and to confess, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” These are the newborn saints of God, the LORD’s adopted children, whose sins are washed away in the blood of the Lamb Jesus Christ in the purifying waters of Holy Baptism. These saints are the Church of Jesus Christ on earth – these saints are you! – with one foot in heaven, because of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus, and with one foot in the grave, because of your sin, but always moving towards, and longing for, that day when both of your feet will stand, with palms and white robes, with the 144,000 and with the multitude no one can count of the heavenly host before the throne of God, serving Him day and night in His temple, being sheltered with His presence, hungering no more, thirsting no more, weeping no more. What the Spirit has granted us to see in the Revelation is the unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam, the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of all time and of all places on earth and in heaven. And, while we long to be amongst the multitude of saints in heaven, we take comfort and we confess even now that we are part of the sanctorum communionem, the communion of saints who inhabit heaven and earth.
And, so you see, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you are not alone – you are never alone – but God has knit you together with all faithful people of all times and of all places into one holy communion, the mystical body of His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who have died in the Lord are said to be blessed, for they have run the course of their lives in faith and they have received the promise of unspeakable joys in Christ Jesus their Lord. Therefore, you may give thanks to the LORD for them and follow their example in all virtuous and godly living, knowing that the LORD is faithful and true, and that He will keep His promises to you just as He has kept His promises for those who have gone before you. No, you are not alone – you are never alone. Indeed, even now we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses! In this Divine Service, heaven descends to you who cannot ascend to it, for the Lord is surely with you, just as He promised; and the Lord is never alone, but His saints accompany Him, for they stand in His presence with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven! “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Yet, still, as glorious and wonderful as this truth is, you must take caution not to fall into the devil’s snare and settle for something less than the Lord would give to you. For, the enemy will tempt you settle for your soul being in the presence of Jesus upon the death of the body. Now, while it is truly good that the soul is with the Lord, there is nothing at all that is good about death. Only what the LORD has created is good, and the LORD has not created death. Death is not good, but it is the final enemy. Death destroys a person, separating body from soul as was not meant to be. While it is true that, upon death, the soul of the faithful goes to be with Jesus, the soul is not the person that the LORD God created and that the Lord Jesus died to redeem. No, that person is a body and soul, and nothing less. This is why the saints in heaven long for that “yet more glorious day” when “the saints triumphant rise in bright array.” My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do not be tempted to sell out the resurrection of the body for the mere presence of the soul in heaven. No, when our Lord Jesus Christ returns, “He will transform your lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” Again, St. John exhorts you, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” Maintaining this hope, this faith, this confession, now, will keep you pure even as He is pure, until He comes.
In this way, you can find blessedness in having a poor spirit. You can find blessedness in mourning. You can find blessedness in meekness and humility. You can find blessedness in hunger and thirst for righteousness. You can find blessedness in showing mercy. You can find blessedness in purity of heart. You can find blessedness in peacemaking, even when it paid back to you with reviling and persecution and evil. For, so they did to your Lord Jesus Christ, and so also will they do to you, His body. But, remember those saints coming out of the great tribulation and filling the heavenly courts of your God and King. They have passed through the valley of the shadow of death and are in the Father’s house. And, Christ, your Shepherd, has passed through that valley before you, and He accompanies you through that valley now. Even now, He leads you beside the cool springs of the baptismal font and beckons you to return to the waters daily in repentance for the remission of your sins. Even now, He anoints you with His Holy Spirit, sealing you in His grace and forgiveness. Even now, He feeds you with His own life-giving body and blood in the presence of your Enemy. And, He promises you that He will be your Shepherd and that He will guide you to springs of living water, and that God, His Father, will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.