Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Truth is Not Changed...

We are the product of intelligent design.
- or -
We are not the product of intelligent design.
** ** ** **
One of the above statements must be true.
- and -
Truth is not changed by your theory or mine.

Re-read and consider these statements carefully. These brief deductive statements open the book I’m currently reading, titled The Cave Painting: A Parable of Science, by Roddy M. Bullock. The first part of the book is a dramatic novel about a scientist who discovers a remarkable underground cave painting, and promotes it as an example of how unguided natural processes can give rise to beautiful and complex features, in the absence of any human role. The book follows the story of a young girl who remains unconvinced that this “apparent painting” has no painter—and sets out to prove that it was no mere accident. Of course the story is a parable for the modern debate over evolution and intelligent design. The latter half of the book gives the scientific references to quotes and points of discussion in the parable, and shows their parallel in the real scientific debate over the origin of life.

The statements above in italics (especially that “Truth is not changed by your theory or mine”) are particularly insightful today, where even the suggestion of knowing “the Truth” is openly ridiculed or “pooh-poohed.” “Truth is relative!”, we hear. “That’s your truth, this is my truth!”, people opine. Or people assume that “truth,” like beauty, “is in the eye of the beholder” (Bullock, 306). But all of these notions about truth are not only unsatisfactory, they are illogical.

Truth is not changed by your theory or mine. Bullock illustrates this simple “truth” by an example of a courtroom trial. The actual events of what happened on the scene of an automobile accident are a matter of real, historical occurrence. And no matter what versions of the event are argued by the prosecution or defense, and regardless of which side best persuades the jury—the underlying facts of the case remain unchanged.

Likewise, “the cause of our human origins is, of course, an actual, objective, historical happening. The happening was either a completely natural, chance process, or it was guided (at least in part) by intelligence. There is no other option, and the truth of our actual origin is unchanged by what anyone thinks about it.” (Bullock, 306). This is to say that you can’t have it both ways. Two contradicting and mutually exclusive ideas cannot be true at the same time.

When it comes to seeking after “the Truth,” we do well to remember that it is not changed by our theories or opinions. Sometimes the Truth may have uncomfortable implications, or require us to change tightly held ideas that cannot be reconciled with the Truth. And if it is true that Almighty God created this universe and all life, then we should expect to see “tell-tale” signs that life is no accident, but was intelligently designed! I can think of dozens of examples (observable by science) of God’s “fingerprints” in creation…have you considered them too? (Psalm 19)

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Merit or Inherit?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Matthew 25, Jesus describing His return for the Final Judgment. Only a short time before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, He is prophesying about the end of time. Confident of His coming victory over sin and death on the cross, Jesus looks to the Final Judgment, where He will be exalted on His throne of glory, seated at the right hand of God the Father in power. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Drawing close to the end of the church year, themes of Jesus’ return and the judgment prevail. For some, these Scriptures are frightening, and put us in mind of our mortality. For others they raise fears about how we’ll face the Final Judgment and how we’ll come through it. For still others, ignorance means bliss, and we pretend not to think about these things, but carry on business as usual, as if Jesus hadn’t warned us that the end will come, and unexpectedly at that. But my hope is that you’ll all be able to welcome that coming judgment, praying for it in the words of the ancient Christian communion liturgy: “Maranatha! Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor. 16:22). We anticipate and pray for Jesus return, “Come, Lord Jesus!” even as He comes to us in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. For a day is appointed for His return, when surrounded by all His angels in glory, all nations will be gathered before His throne for judgment.

Jesus makes it clear that all people will be gathered for judgment—there’s no escaping it, whether a person would believe in God or not, he must face the judgment. How a person believes will make the ultimate difference about how they’ll come through that judgment. Jesus will separate believers and unbelievers like a shepherd would separate sheep from goats. He places the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on His left. The sheep and goats might graze together, much like the parable of the wheat and the tares (or weeds), where believers and unbelievers coexist in this world. But at the judgment, they’ll be permanently separated.

Jesus’ description of the judgment raises the question, “What is the role of works in the judgment?” Since we all must face the judgment, it’s of great concern to know the role of good works is in our salvation. As you know, this was at the heart of the Reformation. Throughout our history, Lutherans have been accused of not teaching the importance of works, because we’ve so greatly emphasized salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So do we need to revise our thinking somewhat, to factor good works in, so that we at least partly merit our salvation by good works? Before any conclusions, let’s examine Jesus’ words closely.

When King Jesus calls to the sheep on His right hand, He speaks these words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me ” (Matt. 25:34-36). Jesus declares them “blessed by my Father” and He acknowledges their works of charity, generosity, hospitality, and compassion. But Jesus’ announcement is a great surprise to them! Call it the “surprise of the blessed.” The blessed who’ve done these things don’t even remember doing them! They say, “Lord, when did we do these things?” The blessed are forgetful of their own good works! It’s as if they did them without even thinking about it. Without any thought of reward or repayment. That’s to say they did them selflessly. And of greater surprise to the blessed is the fact that their good works and charity were done in service to Jesus Himself! Their surprise is: “Lord, when did we do these things, to you?” “The King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

Martin Luther said the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of love, motivates our desire to help the “least of these.” He wrote: “As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones.” Christ in His needy ones. This is part of the beautiful surprise for the blessed, that as they served and cared for the least of these, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—they did it all for Christ. Jesus Christ is found in His needy ones. Those calling for our mercy and help provide us an opportunity to serve Jesus. Jesus who sought us when we were spiritually starved and parched with thirst. Jesus who helped us when we were strangers to God, naked of the righteousness that avails before God. Sick and imprisoned in our trespasses and sins. He came to us and freed us. And now we must render love and support to Christ in His needy ones.

As Jesus completes His judgment, there remains another surprise; call it the “surprise of the cursed.” Jesus speaks to the goats on His left: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt. 25:41-43). Those whom Jesus has declared cursed show equal surprise about their works. Like the blessed, they don’t ever remember being given opportunities to serve Jesus. But their forgetfulness isn’t of what they’ve done for Him, but of what they’ve left undone. “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:44-46).

The cursed had overlooked Christ in His needy ones. Selfishly, and seeing no profit to themselves, they displayed an uncaring, indifferent attitude to the needy. Inhospitable, greedy, cold toward the need presented to them. Like the rich man who let Lazarus suffer in humility at his doorstep, with dogs licking his wounds. We too should recognize our selfishness, and the times when we pass by opportunity to show charity to Christ in His needy ones, to put our faith into practice. We can recognize the good that we’ve left undone, and confess this as sin too. How often are we attuned to the need of our neighbor? Often we’re blindly unaware of who’s in need, right beside us. Lord help us to open our eyes to other people’s needs.

But now that we’ve seen how the Final Judgment plays out, we return to our original question, of “What is the role good works play in the judgment?” It seems at first glance that the blessed are saved by their works. The title of my sermon: “Merit or Inherit?” gets at this question. Do we merit or earn salvation, as a payment for our good works? Or rather, do we inherit salvation, as a son or daughter receives the inheritance from a dead parent? Well, don’t take my word for it, listen again to what Jesus said: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Inherit! Jesus’ invitation to the blessed is to inherit the kingdom! It reminds us of the beatitudes, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Inheritance doesn’t come because we’ve earned it, or as wages for what we have done (Rom. 4), but inheritance is a privilege of sonship, whether natural born or adopted. The very word inheritance speaks loads of grace, not of obligation, not of wages, or due for what we have earned. And we’re heirs with Christ, and have the Spirit of adoption as sons (Rom. 8:14-17). We inherit eternal life. We do not merit it. That inheritance is passed along to us sons and daughters of God, His will being sealed through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What else in this passage speaks of the fact that eternal life is given by grace, and not by works? The fact that this kingdom was prepared from the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4-5 clarifies this—namely that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5). Before we were even alive, before the foundations of the world were even laid in creation, God had already chosen and predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. Ages before our first breath, before we’d done a single act of good or evil, He’d already chosen us, and prepared a kingdom for us to inherit. Pure gift.

What about the cursed, who go to eternal punishment, you ask? Where they also marked for destruction for eternity? What did Jesus say to the cursed? He said, “Depart…into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” A pastor I recently heard interviewed, said that the fact that the eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels, and not prepared by purpose for human souls, reflects something about the heart of God. As God declares elsewhere, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezek. 18:23). God does not desire or delight in the punishment of the wicked, and hell was intended for the devil and his angels, not humans. But humans will go there by virtue of their rejection of God. So Jesus warns us in advance.

Also, when we look at what marks the sheep from the goats, it’s the presence or absence of good works. It’s not a matter of fine gradations and counting up how many good works one has, or weighing them in the scale against our sins. To understand the role of works in the judgment, we might remember the words of the hymn writer: “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing; and by its fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living” (LSB 555:9). Good works are the evidence or proof of faith, and the fruit by which faith is known. Even our good works were planned out before us by God (Eph. 2:10). So yes, our good works accompany us to heaven, and God does recognize or acknowledge them. But all that we receive is pure gift and inheritance. Our works are acceptable to God because He’s cleansed them of sin through Jesus Christ, our King and Shepherd.

His love in us was and is the source of any and every good that we do in this life, in service to our neighbor, in aid to Christ in His needy ones. Good works do not save, but they provide evidence of the love of Christ in us. The absence of good works proves the lack of faith, in the case of the unbeliever. The blessed do not keep tally of their good works, but are forgetful of them, serving others with the selflessness of Christ living in them. And most of all, when we “have done all that [we] were commanded, [we’ll] say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10) From first to last, ”Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). We have earned and deserved nothing, but Jesus’ death and resurrection has sealed our inheritance, His love predestined us before the world began, and even our good works were prepared and performed through us by His love. So “Come, you blessed by my Father, Inherit!” Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sermon on Revelation 21:5, 21:9-22:5, for All Saints Day

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s reading, we experience the visual feast that God revealed to John. The vision of the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. We peer into the future in this text that is overflowing with vivid and colorful images that express the vibrancy of heaven. Heaven will not be dull or drab or boring, as so many wrongly assume, but will be a paradise greater than Adam and Eve knew in Eden. In Revelation we encounter a spectacular vision of the new heavens and new earth, and all the images of this paradise spill over each other like a sparkling, tumbling, rushing waterfall, pouring over the reader with cool, life-giving freshness. Much like a glimpse into a kaleidoscope provides a rush of colors and moving images faster than the eye can take them all in, the glimpse of heaven that John sees is rich and full-textured, but beyond what words can fully capture.

Nevertheless, we must try to capture some of it, and make sense of the flood of images in the whole book of Revelation. We need an anchor point to tie it all together. That anchor point is the throne of God. All of the visions should be understood in light of God and the Lamb, who are seated on this heavenly throne, and from it rule over all the events in time and eternity. God and the Lamb, Father and Son, who both bear the title “the Alpha and the Omega” which means the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Sharing this and other divine titles, and together receiving worship on the throne of God—it’s unmistakable that the Father and the Son are fully and truly equal and united as One True God.

God addresses John from the throne, describing what he is seeing: “Behold, I am making all things new!” The heavenly vision unfolds, displaying God’s new creation, beginning with the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Not the earthly city of Jerusalem, in its present state or even in a rebuilt and re-modified earthly state. Rather, it descends out of heaven from God, a new creation! “Behold,” God says, “I am making all things new!” A city unlike any other human city, brilliantly illuminated with the glory of God, sparkling like a precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. Walls of jasper, foundations of 12 precious stones, and 12 gates made with giant single pearls; the streets and the city are made of pure, transparent gold. Yet the book of Revelation is not the first place this glorious city appears. In part it’s depicted in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, and other prophets, and yet as we mentally tour this future city, we see things that draw us back all the way to the beginning of creation, in the book of Genesis.

Peering into the furthest glimpses of the future that God gives in Revelation, we might be surprised to see things that echo back to the first creation. We find that the first and last books of the Bible have some surprising connections. Genesis: the beginning of all things, the Creation; and Revelation: the end of all things, what we call Eschatology, or the study of the end times. Creation and Eschatology are like the bookends to the Bible and all of history. Sandwiched between them is the human story of our salvation history, with glimpses of the eternity that lies beyond this present creation that is wearing old like a garment. Once the old heavens and earth pass away and are destroyed, God from His throne will be making all things new in the new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:18).

Even though the old creation will have passed away, there are still echoes of the original paradise. For example, in the vision of the glorious new city, the city has no need of light from the sun or moon, for God and the Lamb will give it light. A subtle echo to the first chapter of Genesis, where God created light and darkness on the first day, but didn’t create the sun, moon, and stars till the fourth day of creation. Where did the light came from the first three days of creation? Most often it’s suggested that God Himself was the source of the light, just as He is here (cf. Is. 60:19-20). In the New Jerusalem, God and the Lamb are the sole source of light for the city and peoples. No need for the sun or moon or any lamps. In contrast to the first creation, there will be no darkness or night! With that, the gates of the city will never be shut—there will be no threat of war, or invaders, or evildoers coming through its gates. Unlike the earthly Jerusalem that has faced millennia of invaders and warfare, the heavenly Jerusalem leaves its gates perpetually opened in peace, because there will be no threat of darkness or evil. All is made new in the light of God’s glory and the lamp of the Lamb. The nations of the earth will walk in this light of God, acting in community and harmony.

Next, there’s a river of the water of life in the New Jerusalem, flowing down the streets. And where’s the source of this river of life? Nowhere else but issuing from the throne of God and of the Lamb! Much like the river that arose in the garden of Eden and split into four different rivers that watered the first paradise. Truly a life-giving river, the prophets say it waters all the desert lands, turns salt water into fresh, bearing abundant fish and sea-life, it produces plants and lush vegetation, making all things new as it flows from God’s throne.

Yet there appears to be a contradiction between John’s vision of the new city and Ezekiel’s vision. In John’s vision, he explicitly says that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, and the source of the river is God’s throne—but in Ezekiel the temple itself is the source for this great and mighty river. So which is it? John resolves this difficulty by informing us that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem because there is no need of a temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. So it agrees with Ezekiel when the river of life flows out from the throne of God and the Lamb, the same who are the Temple of the Holy City! Further we add to this the truth that Jesus said to the Jews, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought of the earthly temple, but Jesus was speaking about the temple of His body, which they would destroy on the cross, and He would raise from death in three days (John 2:19-22). So Jesus Himself is the temple, and from Him and God’s throne flows the living water, the water of life. Add on top of that the fact that Jesus described Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well as being the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Christ makes all things new by granting eternal life from His wellspring of living water.

But why are we shown this heavenly vision, and what assurance do we have that we may arrive in that Holy City, the New Jerusalem, one day? Today we celebrate All Saints Day, which was November 1st, and we especially remember all the saints, the faithful believers who have died and gone on before us to our Lord in heaven. We remember and imitate their example of faith, trusting in the Lamb who’s seated on the throne. For we and they have been granted a new citizenship to that Holy City—a citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). Through Christ we’re fellow citizens with the saints in heaven (Eph. 2:18-20). How have we and the saints in heaven gained our citizenship? We who were once aliens and foreigners? How’ve we been welcomed into this glorious kingdom, to stand before the throne of Him who’s making all things new, for us? When St. John sees the saints gathered in heaven, worshipping before God’s throne, he notices at least two important details: 1) they’re clothed in white robes, 2) they have God’s name written on their foreheads.

Earlier in John’s vision, an angel asks him who these are clothed in white robes and from where have they come? John puts the question back to the angel, “Sir, you know.” “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!” (Rev. 7:13-14). Here’s the key to the citizenship of the saints! They’re clothed in pure robes, washed white in the blood of the Lamb! Jesus’ sacrificial blood, poured out on the cross, has cleansed and forgiven each of us, washing our sins and making them white like wool. Without this forgiveness, we cannot enter the New Jerusalem, as our reading says, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” But the Lord says: “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:18).

Our citizenship has been bought with the blood of the Lamb. And we wear His clean robe of innocence, the wedding garments that He gives to all who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church (Matt. 22:11-12). Pastor Fricke and I wear these white robes, or albs as we serve in worship as a reminder to each one of you, that believers are clothed in the clean robe of Jesus’ innocence. Washed in the blood of the Lamb, who makes all things new from His throne. In Madagascar, I visited a remote village, a Lutheran community, where all the believers wore a white robe or covering, to remind them of Christ’s righteousness that they wear, by virtue of their baptism into Jesus. His perfect innocence is ours by faith.

This brings us to the second mark of the saints’ citizenship. They had the name of God on their foreheads, that they could see God’s face and stand in His presence. They were sealed with the name of God and the Lamb, and the name of the city of God, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Rev. 3:12). How’ve believers been sealed with the name of God on their forehead? In baptism we were baptized into the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 2 Corinthians describes how we’re anointed by God, sealed, and given His Holy Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:21-22). Ephesians speaks about us hearing the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and that those who believe in Him are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Peter addressed the Pentecost crowd in Acts, telling them if they repented and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, they’d receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). All this confirms that we’re sealed with God’s name by believing and being baptized into Jesus’ name. In the sanctified, living waters that pour from God’s throne of grace, He makes all things new. Renewing, washing, cleansing by the living waters and by His precious blood, we’re sealed, anointed, baptized into His name. Forgiven and holy. Holy ones, that’s what ‘saints’ means—holy not by our works, but by His cleansing and His sacrifice.

Made a new creation in Christ Jesus, new to stand in His Kingdom, we identify a final parallel from the new heavens and earth, to the first creation. The Tree of Life, from which humanity was banished in the Garden of Eden, is restored to the saints. Here at the side of the flowing river of life, is the Tree of Life, bearing 12 crops of fruit for each month, with leaves for the healing of the nations. And the curse, the sin and death that drove Adam and Eve from the garden and the Tree of Life—the cherubim with a flaming sword guarding it—this is removed in the new heavens and new earth. Now we have full access to the Tree of Life, and God’s healing. Our access to this Tree of Life once again comes from the One who makes all things new from His throne—the Lamb who was slain on the tree of the cross (Rev. 5:6). Through that cursed tree, Jesus’ death opened to us the Tree of Life. Restoring what was lost in the garden—we’re once again able to stand and walk in the presence of God. Released from sin, no longer separated, lonely, or alienated from God, we shall see Him face to face.

Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame, flows life eternal in His name;
For all who trust and will believe, Salvation’s living fruit receive.
And of this fruit so pure and sweet, the Lord invites the world to eat,
To find within this cross of wood, the tree of life with ev’ry good. (LSB 561)

Image upon image has been layered on this wonderful vision of God and the Lamb on the throne, who are at the same time the source of light for all of heaven, the source of the river of the water of life, they’re the Temple of the New Jerusalem. The Lamb who appears as one who once was slain on the Tree of the Cross becomes our access to the Tree of Life; the one whose blood washes our heavenly robes, and marks His name on our foreheads. Let’s rejoice and sing of that eternal hope, as we gaze into eternity to see our God, who makes all things new for all His saints! Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.