Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sermon on Psalm 65 and Luke 12:13-21, for Thanksgiving, "Reaping a Richness Toward God"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The parable of the rich fool and Psalm 65 portray two contrasting views of people who have an abundance of possessions, or who take in an abundant harvest. Jesus warns the young man to whom He tells the parable, that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. Life is not measured by how much we have. Rather, as Jesus teaches, what matters is that we be found rich toward God. Since Thanksgiving is also harvest-themed, let’s consider and reflect today how we might reap or bring in a harvest of richness toward God.

In the parable of the rich fool, we’re told that “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” It’s significant that it was the land, and not especially his hard labor that produced the rich crop. This is a subtle reminder that God had provided his bounty, which is always at God’s own pleasure. Farmers know best that they aren’t in control of the rain or the sun, or the seasons or the pestilences, that might threaten or nourish their crops. They do all that they can do, and then they have to leave the rest up to God. And sometimes even the best crops are destroyed by natural disasters. But the farmer in our parable never learned those lessons. He didn’t receive the blessings of an unusually large harvest as a gift from God’s hand, for which he should be thankful. Rather he started a conversation that began and ended with himself, and made plans for that bounty that started and ended with himself. And when he met his unexpected end, he found that his full storehouses were no comfort when he was found poor toward God. His poverty was not external—he had an abundance of possessions—but His poverty was internal. He was not rich toward God.

Now contrast David in Psalm 65. He opens by saying that praise is rightfully owed to God, and that we pay our vows to Him. Vows in the Old Testament were different expressions of thanks and trust in God. It could be a public act of worship or praise, together with a thank offering; to either ask God’s blessing for something, or to give thanks for God’s fulfilled promises. It was a visible show of joy and trust in God (TLSB, 908). David says that this is the right way to respond to God, and then he names several reasons for praising God. Because He answers prayer, because He forgives us when our sins mount up against us, because God meets us with His presence in the courts of His house, and satisfies us with His goodness.

Then David pours out a beautiful psalm of praise to God for His mighty deeds, and how from the heights of the mountains to the roaring of the seas, He shows His power and strength. And pretty soon the whole of creation is joining in with David’s Psalm of praise to God. In verse 8 the morning and evening shout for joy—one might think of the beauty of each unique sunrise and sunset, as it shouts for joy to the Lord. Verse 9 and following picture the rain like a vertical river, the “river of God” that comes down from heaven and waters the earth to make the grain grow, filling the fields, softening the ground to make it fertile for all plants and vegetables. An abundant harvest, fields filled with crops are a sign of God’s blessing, and the hills and pastures are clothed with joy. In verse 11, the meadows and valleys clothed with flocks and grain shout and sing together for joy. All of creation sings a thankful hymn to God for blessing the earth with so much.

And the rich fool was deaf to this beautiful hymn that his land was singing. When he reaped the abundant harvest, he missed all the joy, he missed the song of thanksgiving, because his thoughts were tied up with himself and how this was his opportunity to sit back, eat, drink, and be merry. But David’s attitude was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. His song of praise and thanksgiving rightfully began with thanking God for who He is. For God’s access to us in prayer, in His holy house, and in His mercy in dealing so graciously with our sins. And this gave David the ears to hear and join in creation’s glad song of thanksgiving and praise to God for all the earthly blessings that came also. Seeing the hand of God, the Giver, made all the difference of bringing in a harvest of richness toward God—of storing up the heavenly treasure of knowing God rightly.

Our lives can fluctuate through years of plenty, and years of want, just like the seasons of harvest may change from year to year. But if we hear Jesus’ warning that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, we will know better than to mistake material prosperity for richness toward God. And conversely, we’ll know better than to mistake material hardship for poverty toward God. Maybe this has been a year of blessing for you, and maybe it has been a year of hardship. But reaping true richness toward God is not merely a matter of our external circumstances. Rather, we learn that in richness or in poverty, in sickness or in health, God calls us to a right relationship with Him. This is where we find richness toward God, regardless of our external circumstances.

To be rich toward God is to store up treasures in heaven, by receiving the most important gifts God has to give. The gifts of His kingdom and His righteousness. These are the gifts that make for a harvest of richness toward God. These are the blessings that we can reap toward God, and become spiritually rich. And these blessings pour down freely and abundantly from the hand of God. These blessings don’t fluctuate with the seasons or the weather, or external wealth or poverty. But the blessings of God’s kingdom are stable and reliable as His own promises. And they can come to us rain or shine, in our gloom or in our joy, and in our hardship or our plenty. And when God promises, He cannot lie. When we turn to Him, He promises salvation (Is. 45:22). It’s not our hard work or effort, but the goodness of God’s gifts that overflow to the blessing of this spiritual harvest, the gifts of God’s kingdom.

The blessings that David sung about in Psalm 65 come home to us in Christ Jesus. Through Him we have full access to God our Father in prayer. Scripture tells us that we can draw near to God’s throne of grace because of what Jesus’ sacrifice and intercession for us. Jesus has opened the way for us. He also is the One who atoned for our transgressions or sins. When David’s and our sins rise against us, there is no other remedy, but the blood of Jesus that covers over all our sins. These realities make the life of the believer a joyful one—they draw us into the house of the Lord, into God’s presence, with desire and with gladness—not fear or dread. The reality that Jesus has repaired our relationship with God makes the believer tune into and join in with creation’s song of praise. We hear and see the mountain heights of Maui and the vast Pacific Ocean as a little glimpse of God’s power. We hear and see the beauty of the sunset and dawn give praise to God. We experience the rain showers as a faithful sign of God’s blessing to earth. And we see grocery aisles overflowing with food and plenty, and Thanksgiving tables spread with love and generosity, as also signs of God’s blessings to us. Join in those glad hymns of praises, and sing back to Him the wonders of all that He has done, for great is His power and name! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "What sort of people?"

“To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” Amen. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard Bible passages warning and preparing us for the Final Judgment, the day of Jesus’ return. 2 Peter 3, faces the same concern, and explains Jesus’ patience in waiting for as many as possible to reach repentance and turn from sin. Then Peter makes a statement that fits well with our text today. Since we know Jesus is going to return, and that the end of the world is coming, “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11b-12a). It’s not really a question, but more of a conclusion about what sort of people we ought to be. To live lives of holiness and godliness as we wait for the day of God. Looking at the great judgment at the end of times, in today’s reading, we should come to the same conclusion, and live accordingly.

What sort of people ought you to be in Christ Jesus? Well, our reading sharply contrasts a life of charity, compassion, help for the needy, and a life that neglects all of these things. The sheep who are called into their inheritance cared for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The goats who are sent into eternal fire did none of these things. Faithful Lutherans will wonder if this means we’re saved by good works. But read more closely. The place of the sheep in the Father’s kingdom and inheritance was determined for them before the world’s foundations were laid. Long before they had a chance to do any works good or bad. Rather than salvation being the consequence of their good works—their good works were the consequence or fruit of their salvation. They live out this life because these are the people they are in Christ Jesus. They did these works spontaneously, lovingly, and unselfconsciously, with no thought to their “score” or any reward. They were simply attentive to the needs of their neighbors, and helped them.

Many preachers, myself included, have said before that we serve Christ when we serve our neighbor. But the surprising point in the parable, is that the sheep didn’t even realize they were doing this. They weren’t serving their neighbor because they saw Christ looking over their shoulder, but simply because the neighbor needed their help. The people that are helped are called “my brothers” by Jesus—indicating that these are particularly Christians who need help—in our own midst. This doesn’t mean that Christian charity stops with only helping other Christians—but it certainly should begin there, and not overlook them. Indeed, Jesus clearly taught that any person is “my neighbor”—and may have some claim on my help when in need.

How are the needy helped? Certainly half-formed ideas and wishes won’t help, but only real action helps. Real action shows that faith is real, not just empty words or thoughts, as James 2:14–17 reads, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James shows, just like Jesus, that good works are the fruit of faith. Faith is the cause, and giving the things needed for the body, or translating faith into action, is the effect. James doesn’t reverse cause and effect, Jesus doesn’t reverse cause and effect, and the Apostle Paul doesn’t either. So it’s completely consistent to believe as Paul wrote in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” and at the same time Ephesians 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Faith is the only thing that saves us, but faith is naturally followed by good works. Since faith and works are cause and effect, if we see no works, we can reasonably conclude that there is no faith. When Jesus sees that the goats have done nothing, it is because they never had faith.

God doesn’t need our good works to put us into His good favor. Our good works can’t do that. Good works are never something to boast about before God, which is why the sheep never produced their personal scorecards, and were so surprised that God kept track of things they never even remembered doing or connected to serving Jesus. God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does! The hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned—these all need our good works. They need us to help them, to care about them, to welcome them and visit them. The reason the sheep help others is because they see and recognize their neighbor’s genuine need—not because sheep are in it for a reward.

Perhaps one of the greatest things that needs to be corrected among us, if we are to be the people that God desires, is to repent of our own selfishness, or our blindness to the needs of others. We need to have hearts softened with compassion for the needy. These are basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing, and human love and dignity. It is a sinful and broken world that we live in, where people are sick and imprisoned, where people don’t have their basic needs met. Problems may be better, worse, or just different in some neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, or even countries. But the world is everywhere filled to overflowing with need. And for us to have a heart of compassion to see that need wherever it is around us, and to meet those needs for the sake of our neighbor—this is the Christian thing to do.

There are many different ways that Christians organize together to meet needs, or respond to them individually in our own circumstances. But whatever our part in responding, we help to bring the Light of Jesus Christ into this dark world. And while physical needs such as food and clothing is part of the mission, bringing “good news to the poor” was the heart of Jesus’ mission and ours as well. Physical and spiritual needs go hand in hand. Missionaries have often said that it’s hard for people to sit and listen to God’s Word on an empty stomach. But after stomachs are filled, the even greater need is to be filled with God’s Word. We can and should be ready to help with both physical and spiritual needs.

We can visit the sick and pray with them, showing love and concern. A young person in our congregation might grow up to be a surgeon or a nurse, or a person who works to bring healing to those who are sick or injured. You may be a volunteer for a soup kitchen, to help feed the hungry, or donate goods through our church to the Food Pantry. You may be the warm and welcoming face who greets a stranger and makes them feel at home. We’re not called to live in our own personal comfort zone, isolated from the needs of others. And we cannot just delegate the “job” of helping the needy to someone else. However, it is a good and helpful thing for the body of Christ to organize in responding to human needs, and maximizing the gifts of different individuals. But God may put before any one of us an unexpected opportunity to help one of the least of Christ’s brothers. Help doesn’t automatically equate with “money”—which is often our first thought. The needs that were met are hunger and thirst and clothing, but also meeting the emotional needs of welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned. All this is to say that we all may help in various ways and as various needs present themselves to us. But the compassion that turns into action unites all of these examples.

Now if we’ve already agreed that saving faith is the cause that drives the effect of Christian good works or charity; and if we’ve already shown that the sheep were chosen by God before the foundation of the world—then how does one have such saving faith, or such an identity that they live out these works? Saving faith is not just checking a box that says, “Yes, I believe in Jesus”, and then checking out. It means that we trust Jesus and have a living relationship with Him, as disciple to teacher. He calls on our life, and we follow. The faith of the church in Christ is like the lifelong commitment between a husband and wife—not like the momentary commitment of checking a box on a voting ballot for your favorite candidate—who may or may not be a your favorite candidate in the next election, and with whom you probably have no relationship or interaction. And notice again that God elects us. He chooses us, as this passage tells, from before the foundation of the world.

The question that always troubles us, is what about those He didn’t choose? Did He choose them for destruction? This question can never be answered fully on this side of eternity, because the Bible just doesn’t reveal the full answer to us. But we can pick up some hints, for example in the fact that the eternal fire where Jesus sends the “goats” is not a place that was prepared initially for them, but for the devil and his angels. This, coupled with Old and New Testament passages that tell us God desires the salvation of all people, even that the wicked turn from their way and live, show us that God didn’t intend for their eternal punishment, though some will still find that fate. And the blame lies with them. But what we can say with certainty, is that God chose believers from before the foundation of the world. We are who we are, and live according to Christ’s example, because it is Christ living in us, and working in and through the gifts He has given. Sheep are not self-made creatures—they are who they are in Christ because it’s in their spiritual DNA, if you will. God gives you your identity. And that is entirely by grace, His undeserved act of rescuing us in Christ Jesus, and making us His own.

What sort of people do these things? Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or imprisoned? The answer? The sheep of Christ’s flock do these things. They are the lambs who follow the voice of their Good Shepherd and do His will. Those who have repented of their way, their sin and selfishness, and have turned to God that they might live. Those who have put aside trusting in themselves, and trust fully in their Shepherd, Jesus. Forgiven lambs, washed white as wool in the blood of the Lamb. The people who do these things are shaped in the image of Christ by water and word, by daily renewal in Christ Jesus. Your identity is new in Him, and there is a Christ-shaped life to be lived, and there are needy neighbors all around you. Help them as Christ commands, for whatever you do for the least of these His brothers, you do for Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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1.      In Matthew 25:31-32, is Jesus’ Second Coming a public or secret event? Matthew 24:30-31; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

2.      Are the sheep and the goats separated in the judgment before or after their works have been examined? What does this tell us about whether their works were the cause or effect of their salvation? When was their salvation determined? Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 1:4-5; 2:8-10. Why does living faith always bear fruit? John 15

3.      What sort of works showed evidence of faith in the life of the sheep? Who was helped by them? Where do we see the signs of need around us? How can we respond? What should warm our compassion to the plight of the needy?

4.      What surprised the sheep when Jesus invited them into the kingdom? What did they not realize about the works they did or the people they helped? Where was their focus when doing these things?

5.      What surprised the goats when Jesus told them to depart into the eternal fire? What weren’t they expecting, and what did they neglect to do?

6.      When helping the needy, why are warm wishes not sufficient? What is needed instead? James 2:14-17.

7.      Pray that the life of Christ and His gifts would be revealed in your life, and that God would give you the opportunities, the willingness, and the action to take in serving your needy neighbors in love. Christian care for the needy should happen in both body (physical needs) and soul (spiritual needs). The two are complementary, not mutually exclusive. What was the greatest gift Jesus had to give to the poor? Luke 4:18; 6:20; cf. Acts 3:6.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30, for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, "Banking on the Master"

“To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” Amen. Last week, this week, and next, we’re in Matthew chapter 25, a series of three parables that all focus on Jesus’ second coming, and our readiness. Last week we heard about the five wise and five foolish virgins, and how those who were wise were well supplied with God’s free gifts, and were ready for Jesus’ return. This week we have the parable of the ten talents; a lesson in stewardship and how we use God’s gifts until Jesus returns. Next week shows the final judgment and God’s sorting out of the sheep from the goats. Each lesson shows a different aspect of why some pass through the judgment of God into His blessing and glory, and others fall under the judgment and go to their eternal punishment.

In the parable today, the master who leaves on a long journey, and entrusts his possessions to three servants—represents Jesus, who has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven, until He returns to earth to judge the living and the dead. Jesus, or the master, gives some very large sums of money to each of the servants, each according to their ability. A talent was a unit of measure, that varied somewhat, but was approximately 75 pounds. And in this parable its 75 pounds of silver, so we’re not talking about just a couple of coins, but sizeable sums of money. The Bible tells us in Romans 12:6, that God gives us our differing gifts according to the grace given to us, and that we are to put them to use. Ephesians 4:7 tells us that our gifts come “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” God is very generous in His giving, but we don’t all have the same gifts as everyone else. Everyone has different gifts. But we’re not to grow jealous or complain, but be thankful for what we have, and even what someone else has, and to be content to use whatever God has given us. God doesn’t call us to answer for what someone else has been given, but for what He has given to us. And God also promises in the parable to give more to those who show themselves responsible with what they are given.

We should pause and reflect on the incredible generosity of Jesus, that He entrusts His people, His church, with these gifts in the first place. It’s an incredibly trusting thing to do. The imagery is similar to the idea of a wealthy businessman who owns a successful company, and divides up the capital between three of his children, and puts full trust in them to manage it faithfully while he’s gone. It’s a great weight of responsibility, but it also shows the love and trust he has. So also, when God has blessed us with His gifts in Christ Jesus, this reflects God’s great trust and love for us. But notice that His evaluation of the servants is not based on how successful they were, in the amount of profit they produced, but simply their faithfulness to put what was His to good use. In the same way for us, God charges us with faithfulness to Him, but He’s in charge of the results.

Now what might those gifts be? What are the “talents”? If I asked you which of God’s gifts should not be counted, might that help you to answer? Everything that God has given to us, gifts great and small, are blessings and gifts from His hand. We each separately enjoy different measures of God’s gifts of creation, such as our natural intellect and abilities, material possessions like money, home, or a job. Our health, our creativity, our family, etc. Any of these can be put to good use, or they can be wasted and squandered. We also as Christians enjoy even greater gifts; spiritual gifts that Jesus entrusts to His church. Forgiveness of sins, God’s Word, or gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some may have the gift of teaching, or administration, or encouraging, or generosity, or cheerfulness. Any and all of these gifts have their usefulness and place in God’s kingdom. No gift is so small that we should despise it or think ourselves unworthy or of no good to anyone. No one should think that they have no gifts, or nothing with which they can serve Christ and His needy ones. In next week’s text, we’ll hear about the simple act of giving a drink of water to the thirsty. Or visiting the sick and the poor and the imprisoned. Some people may be confined to a nursing home bed, but devote themselves fervently to prayer, and accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, that go unseen.

What is different about the two servants who were rewarded, and the third servant who was punished and cast into the outer darkness? The first two eagerly received their talents, and they banked on their master. The master entrusted them with these gifts, and they trusted in the master and His gift, and put it to work right away. They risked putting them to use, and the investment paid off. Why should we be bold and confident to put our gifts to use? Why should we trust God to bless the outcome of putting to work what He has given to us? Because we can bank on our master. We can be assured that His gifts are good and that they will flourish when put to use, not left idle. God promises us that His Word is powerful and effective, and will not return to Him empty. Just consider God’s Word—if we put it to use, hearing and living it in our lives, speaking it to others, examining our lives in its light and receiving the blessings it gives to us in Jesus—we will see how powerful and effective God’s Word is! If we put our creativity or artistry, or the voice God gave us, or our sympathy for the needs of others, or the gift for encouraging others and building them up—if we put these gifts to use, we should not be surprised to see God bless them. If our gifts seem small or few in number, or underdeveloped—put them to use! Show yourself faithful in a little, and God promises that He will entrust you with more.

The difference between the first two servants and the third servant, was that he didn’t bank on his master at all. He despised the gift, as shown in his indifferent words: “Here, you have what is yours.” It’s as though he never even wanted the gift and was glad to give it back. Didn’t put it to use, didn’t do anything with it but bury it and hide it away. The master called this servant wicked and lazy, for doing nothing—not even leaving the money with bankers to earn interest. Just buried it in a hole where it profited nothing and no one, least of all the third servant. The lazy servant gives the excuse that he feared his master, because He was a hard man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he scattered no seed. He pictures the master like Ebenezer Scrooge, or someone who can squeeze blood out of turnips. But is this a fair picture of the master? When the master repeats these words back to the servant, as a question, is He admitting this is who He is, or is He putting the servant to his lie, by showing that he would have actually done something with the talent if he really believed the master was so hard? In either case, the punishment for the lazy and worthless servant is swift and severe.

This part of the parable raises an important question about how we perceive God. Do we encounter God as a generous and trusting master, who wants what’s good for His servants, blesses them richly, and returns to give even greater blessings if we’re faithful? Or do we encounter God as a hard taskmaster who takes away the little that we were given, because we buried it and did nothing with it? Step back with me to look at another Bible passage that has intrigued me for the past few months. I think it relates to how we perceive or encounter God. In Psalm 18:25–26, we read: “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.” There are three positive qualities—the merciful, the blameless, and the pure—and to those who reflect these characteristics, God shows Himself to be merciful, blameless, and pure Himself. But to the one negative quality—the crooked—God makes Himself seem tortuous.

I puzzled over this. God does not change in Himself—as the Scriptures tell us in various places. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. So how can God seem merciful, blameless, and pure to some people, and yet seem tortuous to others? Aside from the question of how best to translate that last word, why would God appear differently to different people? The passage itself is telling us that it’s the way that God responds to our dealings with Him or others. God won’t ever be found as a friend to the corrupt, the wicked, or lazy. To them, He will appear hard or as an enemy. Not because God in Himself is that way or desires to be anyone’s enemy, but as He openly tells us, He desires the wicked to turn from their way and live. And the qualities of being merciful, blameless, or pure, are all qualities that don’t naturally arise from inside ourselves and who we are, but they reflect the working of God’s gifts in and through us. But the way that we live and orient ourselves toward or away from God will reflect itself in the way that we see God—whether as generous, loving, and giving, or stingy, angry, and unyielding. And if we see the latter, it’s again, not because we are seeing God as He actually is, but rather we’re seeing a reflection of our own sin. God is resisting our sin. Why does He do that? That if at all possible we may come to repentance, and turn away from sin.

Back to the parable—we should know and trust that God is the generous and merciful master. He has amply shown this to us in the generosity of His giving, and most of all, in giving us Jesus Christ His own Son. When it comes to “banking”—God has invested a wonderful lot in us, by giving up Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Other parables even show God’s generosity as extravagant —the feast for the lost son returned home, or the cancellation of an unthinkably large debt of 10,000 talents, in the parable of the unforgiving servant. God’s forgiveness is abundant and overflowing. He’s not stingy or short of blessings to pour down on us—but He does not tolerate hoarding or burying His gifts, and not putting them to use. It’s unthinkable to Him that His mercy would not produce mercy in us, or that we would despise His gifts so much that we would be eager to get rid of them, for fear of His demands. If this is how we see God, it’s because we completely misunderstand who He is in His generosity and love, and we have despised His grace.

But to know who God is, and to bear a little reflection of Him, when He welcomes us into His eternal joy, is to know Jesus Christ. To be given the praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant”—is to know Jesus, our master, who is truly the Good and Faithful servant, who did all of His Father’s will. All the way to giving Himself up and dying for us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). His extravagant and generous love gave up everything to make us rich. Rich in grace, and in the fullness of salvation. To bear a little reflection of Him, and to be called “good and faithful” is because His grace has worked itself in and through our lives. “A disciple is not above His teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24). And we can bank on that master, we can bank on Jesus to know that what He wants for us is to bless us and bring us into His joy. Christ, who once offered Himself to bear the sins of many, “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” Hebrews 9:28. Wait eagerly for Him, and bank on His coming! In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Sermon Talking Points

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Listen to audio at:


  1. Who is the man going away on the journey in Matthew 25:14-30? What is so remarkable when we consider that Jesus has entrusted to us His possessions? What promises accompany His gifts, that show they will flourish and bear fruit? Isaiah 55:10-11; Mark 4:26-29.
  2. How are God’s gifts measured according to our ability? Ephesians 4:7-8; Romans 12:6. Should this lead us to jealousy, or to complain that we are gifted differently than someone else? Whose gifts are we responsible for?
  3. What gifts and possessions has God given to you, and how are you using them? What gifts have you neglected to use, and what prevented you?
  4. How are the first two servants rewarded? Why is it a blessing to be given greater responsibility?
  5. How did the third servant perceive God? Was his perception accurate? How do our actions and attitude toward God and others shape how we perceive God? Psalm 18:25-26; 1 Samuel 2:30; 15:23. In Psalm 18:26, does God present Himself as contrary to the corrupt because He is that way in Himself, or because He is responding to their character? Cf. Isaiah 28:21. In this verse, what does it mean that God is stirred up to a “strange” or “alien” work? What instead comes naturally to Him?
  6. In Matthew 25:25, the servant sounds like he never even wanted the talent, and is glad to give it back. Why will this attitude and behavior never be rewarded? What was the minimum he should have done? What was his punishment?
  7. The commendation “good and faithful servant” is also a gift. Why does it perfectly describe Jesus Christ?  Why does God delight in commending Christians, as “little christs” for using the gifts and talents He has blessed them with? 2 Corinthians 10:12, 18; Hebrews 11:1-2.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Meet the Bridegroom!"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today’s parable of the ten virgins calls the church to be ready for Christ’s second coming. The church is pictured as ten pure, young women invited to a wedding feast, and waiting with lamps for the Bridegroom and (it’s implied) the Bride to arrive for the feast to begin. Wedding celebrations are famous for delays, then as much as today. With all the preparations and joy, no one notices the time; the couple and the guests celebrating and savoring the moment. Though Jesus doesn’t describe the wedding customs, it may be that He had in mind a Middle Eastern custom of the bride and groom going on a long, slow, winding parade through the streets of town as everyone celebrated with them, before returning to the home for the wedding feast with the invited guests. In any case, the ten virgins were invited and waiting, and all fell asleep because the delay was so great.

This is a parable about preparation and readiness, about waiting and Christ’s coming again, as the Bridegroom who ushers His church into the eternal, heavenly wedding feast. We especially don’t want to miss the meaning of this parable, because the foolish virgins were left out of the feast, while the wise were ready and welcomed in. If we have ears to hear the parable, we will want to know whether we are ready and prepared, or not. And if we’re not ready, it’s a call to readiness; a call to fill our flasks with oil and watch because we do not know the day or the hour. And the climax of the parable is the coming of the Bridegroom and the ushering in of the celebration and the guests who are ready.

Notice that all ten women are identical in every way—they had accepted the invitation to the banquet, they brought their lamps, they all fell asleep during the wait. They differed only in one respect. The wise brought extra oil with them, anticipating a possible delay; and so were ready, while the foolish, who had no extra oil, were not. The Christian church is filled with people attracted by the promise of heaven, the wedding feast, and who want to be there, but not all will enter. Christ’s delay in coming is a challenge to every Christian. Will you continue to believe and wait? Will you watch and pray? Every believer is overcome at times by spiritual sleep—we might remember Jesus’ admonishing the disciples who prayed with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night of His betrayal. As they continued to fall asleep, He urged them to pray, saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” All Christians suffer from the same weakness in the flesh that fights against our spirit. But it was not falling asleep that kept any of them out of the feast—as they all awoke when the cry came, “Here is the Bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!

What kept them out of the feast was that the foolish ran out of oil, and left to get more when the Bridegroom finally arrived. Our preparation, our readiness for Jesus’ return, is not something we can borrow from someone else, as we learn in the parable, but we all have to be ready ourselves. They are dreadful words that the foolish virgins hear, when they come back too late, and find the door to the feast has already been closed. They cry out “Lord, Lord, open to us!” and they hear the reply, “Truly, I say to you, I don’t know you.” No guest ever wants to hear these words and miss out on the wedding feast. And if we have ears to hear the parable, and watch and get ready accordingly, we will never have to. One of the hardest lessons of Jesus’ parable is that the kingdom of heaven has a door, and that the door will one day be closed. In a related passage, in Luke 13:24-25, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” After the master shuts the door, no one else will get in.

In both passages, and also in a related passage in Matthew 7, the Lord answers those who are shut out, “I don’t know you.” His knowing them is key to who gets in. In our parable, it’s apparently because they were not waiting and ready when He arrived, that He does not know them. In Luke 13 they claim to know of Him, but it does not sound like a personal knowledge or relationship, and He says they are workers of evil. In Matthew 7 those who are shut out are also described as workers of lawlessness, and those who did not do the will of our Father in heaven, though they claimed to do miracles in Jesus’ name. These, and yet another parallel passage in Luke 12 all show us the need to be ready to serve the Lord and do His will, and be ready at any time for His coming. Readiness includes a personal faith and trust in Jesus; you can’t get in on someone else’s “coattails.” Readiness means doing the will of our Father, as John 6:40 says: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Putting all these passages together, we understand that Jesus doesn’t know those who don’t know and believe in Him. He also doesn’t know those who claim His name but are workers of evil and ignore His Father’s will.

None of us wants to be found in this situation, and none of us wants to be shut out of the wedding feast. The joy of the celebration is too great to miss, and the invitation to the banquet is freely given to all who would receive it, as so many of Jesus’ other parables teach us. And there is a Way for us to enter into the banquet—and that Way and that Door is Jesus. The readiness for the banquet, having oil in our lamps, is not difficult or out of reach, but God has made His gifts of salvation freely available and accessible to all. The foolish virgins are sent off to the dealers to buy oil, which they are able to do—even after midnight—so accessibility was never the problem. It was neglect to be ready. And what is the cost of God’s gifts? Isaiah 55 tells us what the gifts of salvation cost to us, in the language of the marketplace: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” What does it cost to buy God’s gifts? They’re free! Without money, without price! They’re rich and satisfying gifts.  

You see, there is no reason that anyone should lack the gifts of salvation that God so freely gives. The Way and the Door to enter the banquet is Jesus Christ, and He has already paid the price for our admission in full. He paid the price on the cross, where Scripture tells us Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25), so that He could cleanse the church and make her His own Bride. Jesus’ death on the cross is our forgiveness, our cleansing, our washing clean from the works of our weak flesh, and it is the renewal and life that gives us a willing spirit. We should remember Jesus’ promise that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). Jesus knows those who believe in Him, and He will not let them go. 2 Timothy 2:19 echoes this: “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” We are Jesus’ sheep if we hear His voice and follow Him. He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him.

The way that we find out if we are among the chosen few, the wise; those who are known by Jesus and will be welcomed into the banquet—cannot be by looking to ourselves, or navel-gazing at our works or our faith. Though a watchful checking of our oil and of our flame may warn us of the signs of unreadiness, the signs of the weak flesh, or of oil running low. Is our faith weak or in doubt? Is our love lacking? Have we faltered in our hope and expectation of Jesus? God’s Law calls us to examination and finds us empty. But looking further inside ourselves is of no value, as we are not the source of the oil, but depend on an outside supply. The way that we know our place, and to whom we belong, and the way we know Him who knows us, is to look to Jesus. It’s to be known by Him (Galatians 4:9a). The way to have oil is to turn to Him. It’s to have our eyes focused on Jesus, the Living Water, the endless source of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39). With eyes fixed on Him, we are recipients, not self-producers, of the oil we need. With eyes fixed on Jesus we individually know and believe in the Bridegroom who is coming to bring us into His eternal celebration. And with oil supplied, with His free gifts of salvation poured into every watching and waiting heart, we’ll have lamps aglow and ready for His coming.

The waiting may be long, or it may be short. We do not know the day or the hour. But we know Him for whom we wait, and we prepare for the long haul, if He should be delayed. Remember that His seeming delay is a sign of His grace, as 2 Peter 3:9 tells us: “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.” The Lord Jesus doesn’t want anyone to miss out on the celebration, but there will be a day when the door is closed, and many will not be ready. Even to the last hour of our life we can receive His invitation. Now is the day of salvation. Don’t be the one who dares to see how long you can drive on empty. Don’t decline God’s freely supplied gifts, and neglect the preparation He has called us to. Freely receive His gifts, hear His Word and promises that constantly teach us about Jesus and make us ready. Live daily in the washing of regeneration and renewal that baptism provides us—being washed as pure virgins in Jesus’ forgiveness. Come at His invitation to the foretaste of the feast to come, in the Supper of His body and His blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Be strengthened and renewed there in your confession as you proclaim His death until He comes. He is our Life and our supply, and with ready hearts we can rejoice and meet our heavenly Bridegroom with joy, to come into His everlasting feast. Do you know that some of the last words of Scripture are these? “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17) And Jesus says to us: “Surely I am coming soon.” And the church replies: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20b)

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Read Matthew 25:1-13. What is the key message of this parable? What is the urgency of the parable, and how are we instructed to respond? Read Luke 12:35-48. How many similarities do you see in this parable(s)? Does it help your understanding of Matthew 25? How?
  2. Who is the bridegroom? Ephesians 5:23ff. What is the reason for His delay? 2 Peter 3:1-13, esp. vs. 9.
  3. The actions of the wise and foolish are identical in every way, even falling asleep during the wait; but differ only in one thing. What is it? How did that make the wise ready and prepared, even when they were awakened, and the foolish were not?
  4. Why could the wise not share their oil? What lesson does this teach us, in relation to our individual preparation for Jesus’ return? What are believers able to share with one another and what cannot be shared?
  5. The parable teaches that the kingdom of God has a door, and that the door will one day be shut. What (or who) is that door? John 10:7-9. When will it close? Matthew 25:10; Luke 13:22-30.
  6. Jesus “knows” the wise virgins who are ready and enter the banquet, but says, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you” to the foolish virgins who are shut out. What is the reason for this difference? 2 Timothy 2:19; Matthew 7:21-23. How are the gifts of salvation available? At great cost? Hard to obtain? Isaiah 55
  7. What is the joy of entering the wedding celebration? Who is the center of the celebration? Who is the unmentioned bride? Ephesians 5:23ff. Describe the goodness of being known by Jesus. John 10:14-15; 2 Timothy 2:19; Galatians 4:9a. Is this a reflection of our having deserved something or of the greatness of God’s Love?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17, for All Saints' Day, "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb"

To the saints who are in Maui, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our reading from Revelation chapter 7 is the vision Jesus showed to St. John, of what heaven was like. Chapter 7 is divided into two sections—today’s section about the “great multitude that no one could number” is part 2, and part 1 is the famous roll call of the 144,000. Scene 1 watches the angels guarding 144,000 of those on earth, who have been sealed by God to protect them from harm. The number 144,000 symbolizes the complete number of believers. Scene 2 moves up to the throne of God in heaven, and views a countless number of saints, having passed through the great tribulation, and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.

As the scene moves from earth to the scene of heaven—it’s a transition from the place where danger and suffering still exist, to the place of God’s presence and eternal peace. We sometimes call believers still living on earth “the church militant,” to refer to Christians engaged in a spiritual struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against the devil and his spiritual powers of darkness. We live in that church militant, complete with all the scars of spiritual battle—grief and losses, signs of persecution and distress. Last week, Reformation Sunday, sings the song of the saints on earth—clinging strongly to Jesus Christ, our Mighty Fortress, against all the assaults of the devil, who would try to deceive us and take away God’s Word. This week, All Saints’ Day, moves us with Revelation chapter 7 to the scene of the heavenly worship around the throne of God, and saints gathered in glory. We call it “the church triumphant.” Saints in heaven, around the throne of God in victory. Holding palm branches and wearing white robes, celebrating what God has done for them, and praising Him with an everlasting song: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!

Witnessing the scene of heaven may fill us with longing and hope—but also what a beautiful gift to be able to listen in to the songs of heaven, and to join them! To have the chorus of heavenly triumph cascade down from God’s throne to our ears on earth, to be taken up and sung on our lips as well. The hymn of praise in our liturgy, “This is the Feast”, comes right out of this chapter and several other heavenly worship songs in Revelation. Do you ever think about the fact that when Christians gather in God’s presence to worship, that we are joined in heaven by all the saints who have died and gone before us, and all the angels who worship around God’s throne forever? Heaven and earth are brought together in great anthems of praise that are lifted to our God and to the Lamb who was slain. That Lamb of God is Jesus Christ, who takes away the sin of the world. He, as God become man, bridges heaven and earth and makes us all His One body, the church. Saints triumphant stand on the other side of glory, while we feebly struggle with suffering and the cross. But we “all are one, within His grand design,” as in the words of our hymn (LSB 677).

As St. John watched this great heavenly scene, he is told that these people dressed in white, “are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” What great tribulation? Back in Matthew chapter 24, Jesus was teaching about the end times, just before He was going to die on the cross. It was there that He mentions this great tribulation. He said, “For there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And 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.” Jesus describes the great tribulation as the worst crisis of suffering that the world has ever experienced; and so great—in fact—that  if God does not intervene to cut those days short, no one will be saved. But for the sake of the “elect”, God cuts those days short. So here’s a little “election week” reminder—the “elect” are the people of God’s choosing! Saints are God’s chosen people, not from any works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy. God’s elect endure the great tribulation, but they come out of it into the glory of heaven, with robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.

We have no way of knowing directly when this “great tribulation” that Jesus describes will happen. It does, however, immediately precede Jesus’ second coming, which Jesus says will happen at a day and hour that only God the Father knows. There are some warning signs, though. There will be false prophets and false christs who come to perform signs and wonders to deceive the elect, God’s chosen, if possible. These are already common today. We are warned not to fall for them. Jesus then says the sun, moon, and stars will be darkened, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then Jesus will arrive in power and glory to the sound of the trumpet blast, and attended by His angels.

            So flash back to the scene in heaven, from Revelation 7. The saints singing in heaven are “the ones coming out of the great tribulation,” and who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It’s a puzzling image at first, that robes washed in the blood of the Lamb would come out white, instead of red. What kind of wash cycle is that? But we only have to jump back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah 1, to discover the meaning. Isaiah 1:18 reads, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Here we learn that God proposes to wash our sins away, and cleanse us so that we are white as snow. God removes the most stubborn stains of our sin, and presents us clean again. The only thing the Isaiah passage doesn’t tell us, is what God’s “cleansing agent” is—what gets the cleaning done. That’s answered in our reading—the blood of the Lamb cleanses us from sin. Hebrews 9:14 echoes this, telling us that the blood of Jesus purifies our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God. Ephesians 5:26-27 tells us that Jesus cleanses the church by the washing of water with the Word, so that He can “present the church  to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such things, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

            Whichever image you are looking at—whether the white robes in Revelation, or the church as a bride free of spot, wrinkle, or blemish in Ephesians, or the washing white as snow in Isaiah—the message is the same. Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, and His offering Himself up for the church, is how we are cleansed, forgiven, and made holy. And a “saint” is nothing other than a “holy one”—made holy by the blood of Jesus. That’s why I addressed you as the saints living in Maui; the faithful in Christ Jesus. Just as Paul addressed living Christians as saints, in Ephesus or Corinth, or wherever he spoke to fellow believers. Your status as saints has everything to do with Jesus and His blood, washing you free and clear of any sin or blot.

Guilt and the uncleanness of sin may run deep—it may cling desperately to your conscience—but confess your sins to Jesus and experience the One who is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus and the washing of water with the Word, cleanses even the deepest fiber of our being, with the forgiveness of sins. This is the way that Jesus makes us pure and holy, to stand before the Holy God as saints who’ve been delivered out of the great tribulation. And He delivers to us in baptism the gift of a clean conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).

            And with our sins forgiven, we look forward to the sheltering presence of God, who dwells forever with those who serve Him. We look forward to the day when hunger, thirst, or heat will no longer afflict us—but we will revel in the presence of our God. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Jesus, our Good Shepherd knows our needs and well provides them. He knows the heavy toll that living in a sin-broken and dying world has taken on us. He lived it Himself. He knew the full pain and evil of sin first hand. And He is there to wipe away every tear from our eyes. I’ve often thought this was one of the most tender images of God in the Bible—and it runs contrary to so many false ideas that people carry about God. God desires to be near us for our good and for our healing. He desires to lift our burdens and carry them, as Jesus did at the cross. And God desires to comfort those who mourn and to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

            So we find ourselves back in worship—made holy in the presence of God, the Holy One—forgiven and cleansed by Jesus’ blood. And as the vision of heaven recedes, our song of praise still continues, as we lift our voices in a sacrifice of praise in our hymns and songs in worship, and we go forth to our daily lives to make them a holy offering to God. The rhythm and cycle of our Christian life courses back and forth from our workaday life and the refreshment of weekly worship, where the song is every renewed:  Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”


Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Read Ephesians 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:2. How does Paul address the Christians in these two churches?
  2. What are the two parts of the vision John has in Revelation 7? Who are the first group of people he sees, in 7:1-8? Where are they? Who are the second group, in 9-17, and where are they?
  3. In the liturgy, the song “This is the Feast” comes from Revelation 5:12-13; 7:12; and 19:5-9. What are the saints and angels singing about in heaven? How does this invite us into the song of heaven?
  4. What is the “great tribulation” that the saints have been delivered out of? Matthew 24:21-31. What signs will occur during this tribulation? Which signs do we see today? Which don’t we see happening yet?
  5. Who chooses “the elect?” John 15:16. What does God do for the elect, in the tribulation? Matthew 24:22.
  6. What does it mean that the saints washing their robes in the blood of the Lamb has made them white? Revelation 7:14; Isaiah 1:18; Ephesians 5:26-27. How does God make us saints?
  7. How does God treat the deep stains and blemishes of sin? How does He remove their guilt? Ephesians 5:26-27; 1 Peter 3:21; 1 John 1:9-10; Hebrews 9:14.
  8. What is God’s comfort for those who have mourners and suffered in this life? Revelation 7:15-17; Matthew 5:3-12.
  9. How does the song of worship continue through our lives? How is the Christian life a rhythm or cycle?