A Pakistani Christian was recently sentenced to death for blasphemy against Muhammad.
Pakistani Christians routinely have their property confiscated or destroyed, are imprisoned or sentenced to death on the basis of Pakistan’s blasphemy law which makes it a crime to say anything negative about Muhammad or the Quran.
I’m grateful for the freedom of speech in the United States we still have, where I am allowed to publicly say and preach that Muhammad is a false prophet and that the Quran comes from the devil.
However, Pakistani Christians cannot say such things without the very real risk of death or imprisonment.
And even if they don’t say them, it is easy for them to be prosecuted under the law on the basis of false witness. This can happen when people want to take their land or property, or it can happen simply because people resent the presence of Christians in Pakistan. No doubt in a country where Christians are a despised minority, their presence in the country itself is a walking affront to people who think that Pakistanis should be Muslim.
We are seeing this kind of resentment against Christians just beginning in the United States, although here we are not an affront to Muslims but to “tolerance”; the fact that there are still Christians who haven’t been shamed into agreeing that homosexuality is okay or at least being silent in public provokes more and more people. When pressure is ratcheted up and you don’t deny the faith, it just makes some folks madder, even if you say nothing, because even if you say nothing, the fact that you haven’t given in is a testimony to their condemnation. The fact that you suffer and don’t give in makes them feel even more threatened that maybe what you confess about God’s wrath and judgment is true. That’s what the New Testament is talking about in verses like these:
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:27-30)
4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:4-10)
At any rate, even though we can see the seeds of this resentment starting to sprout in the US, we still have lots of legal protection. In Pakistan the Christians have few advocates and almost no defense. If they’re hated just for existing, or someone covets their property, all they have to do is get a couple of people together to say that they heard this or that Christian say Muhammad is a fake prophet.
YORBA LINDA — Walk into Mark Hanson’s church and nobody will greet you. The guys hanging around the foyer might even make fun of what you’re wearing, or your haircut. A sign over the entrance reads, “Grab a seat in the back and shut up. Nobody cares what you think.”
Welcome to Jerk Church.
“You know these guys,” says Hanson, the pastor and founder. “They sit with their arms folded the whole time, leave during the altar call, criticize the pastor, snort when other people state their opinions and never create lasting bonds of friendship. Their wives are always really stressed. Bingo — that’s my mission field.”
Two years ago, Hanson noticed a “growing population of total jerks” in his community that nobody was reaching with the gospel.
“They’re like white noise, filler — they’re everywhere but nobody sees them,” Hanson says. “They are trapped in their own jerk-dom. My heart went out to them.”
Hanson left a position at a larger church to plant a church aimed at this population. He played around with names like “Church for Guys,” but ended up going straight to the heart of the matter.
“I want pure jerks — the guy who cuts in and out of traffic on the highway, the guy who knows everything at the party, the guy who’s upset about politics, the guy who doesn’t know when to stick a sock in it,” Hanson says. “That’s my tribe.”
Attendance spiked when Hanson informed local churches that he was looking for “grumpy husbands and skeptics.” Some churches started recommending certain guys switch congregations. Others gave their men a choice: marriage counseling or six months attending Jerk Church. Most men chose the latter.
Hanson has designed sermons and church literature to “shut guys up before they can start.”
A prominent, attractive display in the foyer showcases every major objection to Christianity ever conceived, and invites men to read the original works before “ranting.”
“It demonstrates that I’m not afraid of their little arguments,” Hanson says. “They come in thinking their opinions are original. When they realize they are thousands of years old, they get real quiet. Nothing shuts up a jerk like being exposed as a follower.”
Hanson also knew the men would complain about everything, so he prepared answers in advance. When guys grouse about the volume of the music, too loud or too soft, Hanson tells them, “Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re getting old and your brain can’t handle it anymore.”
When they say the seats are uncomfortable, he invites them to “lose the extra 35-pound hog carcass you’re carrying around your midsection.”
On a recent Sunday, Hanson greeted them from the pulpit with, “Look at this roomful of former hotshots who became grumpy old men. Why are you here? Did your recliners break? Is your wife sick of you, big man? Or did you just lose your fishing pole and you’re too poor to buy a new one?”
Foyer conversation is argumentative. When guys aren’t poking holes in each others’ theories they stand around waiting for someone to say something so they can critique it. Now and then someone storms off to the restroom while the others snort and mock him.
Water baptism services are far from normal. A man named Darrell was baptized recently. Hanson prodded him to give his testimony.
“I’m doing this to shut up my mother-in-law,” Darrell said.
“Anything else, you wuss?” Hanson said.
“Nah, just do it,” Darrell said.
Darrell came up from the water looking annoyed, snatched a towel from someone’s hands and exited the tank. Amid a smattering of applause one man yelled, “Loser!”
“You’re the loser!” Darrell yelled back.
A cautious sense of camaraderie has emerged among the men. If a guy acts up during the service, other guys muscle him into a “time out” room which Hanson has labeled “Nursing Mothers” to humiliate them.
“I don’t need ushers. The guys patrol themselves,” Hanson says. “They know when to make each other feel like a big baby.”
Hanson fills the church schedule with events that don’t actually exist.
“Men’s breakfast at 7 a.m. on Saturday? No guy in our church would attend that,” he says. “I announce it just so they feel good about skipping something.”
Services often don’t end in prayer. Rather, Hanson just says, “I’m done. I’m not even praying for you guys today. Get out of here. Go on.”
“I want them to know I love them, but not so much that I’m a sucker,” he says. “My life would actually be more pleasant without them. I don’t hide that.”
The church web site reaches out to wives of jerks and offers a script for them to read to their husbands: “Honey, you’re a jerk. Nobody can stand to be around you. But I have a place for you …”
Jerk Church strictly enforces a “No wives” policy.
“Having a wife around gives them an audience for their stupid, critical observations,” says Hanson. “I want plain, unadulterated jerks with no place to hide and no one to listen to them.”
In their heart of hearts he says jerks just want someone to push back.
“They know they’re not right all the time. They want someone to let them know why,” Hanson says.
Guys admit they attend because Hanson “gets” them.
“He knows I’m a cantankerous, moody old b****** but he loves me anyway,” says one man shrugging. “Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll go from jerk to recovering jerk. Don’t tell my wife.”
My Dear Wormwood,
You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the local church? Do you realize that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the city looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.
The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time thinking about what it rejects—but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how groveling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which the platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray bestir yourself and send this fool on the round of the city churches as soon as possible. Your record up to date has not given us much satisfaction.
The two churches nearest to him, I have looked up in the office. Both have certain claims. At the first of these the Pastor is a man who has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for a supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his people with his unbelief, and not vice versa. He has undermined many a soul’s Christianity. His conduct of the services is also admirable. In order to spare the laity all “difficulties” he has deserted both the lectionary and the appointed psalms and now, without noticing it, revolves endlessly round the little treadmill of his fifteen favourite psalms and twenty favourite lessons. We are thus safe from the danger that any truth not already familiar to him and to his flock should ever reach them through Scripture. But perhaps your patient is not quite silly enough for this church—or not yet?
At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of this world are equally “under judgment.” We, of course, see the connecting link, which is Hatred. The man cannot bring himself to preach anything which is not calculated to shock, grieve, puzzle, or humiliate his parishioners and their friends. A sermon which such people could accept would be to him as insipid as a poem which they could scan. There is also a promising streak of dishonesty in him; we are teaching him to say “The teaching of the Church is” when he really means “I’m almost sure I read recently in C. S. Lewis or someone of that sort.” But I must warn you that he has one fatal defect. He really believes. And this may yet mar all.
But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between , say, Hooker’s [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Hooker ] doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Christian Church might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.
Your affectionate uncle,
CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1976. pp. 81-84
I’ve noticed a strange thing in the time I’ve been in the ministry that I didn’t notice before. Maybe you’ve noticed it too.
Kids believe in ghosts and spirits much more than they did when I was a kid. People pretended to believe in ghosts when I was a kid, but I don’t think that many people really believed in them. Certainly not that you could communicate with them. We believed in demons—at least, Christian kids did—but it was kind of an esoteric thing. I played with a Ouija board once, but I was just messing around. And there was also this superstition that if you went into a dark room and looked at a mirror and said, “Bloody Mary” a certain number of times you would see a demon or a spirit.
Times have changed. I’ve met a lot of kids who not only believe in ghosts but claim to have seen them, or communicated with them.
And demons are much less esoteric. A few months ago a bunch of pastors were up in Wisconsin listening to Dr. John Kleinig talk about the ministry of deliverance from demons, about the increase in overt demonic oppression encountered by pastors in Australia (and the United States).
But what seems to me the strangest of all is the prayer to the dead engaged in by lifelong American Lutherans who are sixty or seventy or eighty years old.
The reason this is so strange is because, typically, Lutherans who are above age 50 or so hate everything that smacks of Catholicism. Yet I frequently hear parishioners speak of dead loved ones as if they continue to communicate with each other. The loved one is spoken to in prayer, and sometimes speaks back by phenomena in the physical world—lights flickering, changes in the weather.
This less rationalistic take on the souls of the dead is I think quite different from what pastors a generation ago encountered. In his Church Postil sermon for Epiphany, Luther has an eye-opening digression where he talks about the souls of the dead and what to make of spirits claiming to be the souls of dead loved ones, as well as spirits that haunt houses or cause strange noises. This would probably have been a section of the postil where in previous generations we would have simply assumed that Luther lived in a more superstitious age, and these things just don’t apply to us. But if you have experienced your parishioners praying to dead relatives or communicating, supposedly, with ghosts, then this section of the sermon will be enlightening.
This openness toward communication with the dead has some positive implications. It means that the rationalism that controlled so much of our thinking is mostly dead. People are able to conceptualize the ongoing existence of souls whose body has died. They are able to think of invisible spirits continuing to exist without being utterly divorced from us. This is positive. It means that when we speak of the communion of saints we will not meet the same wall of resistance. If people think dead loved ones can be spoken to, it means that they are not closed to the idea that the angels and the holy, departed souls are present with us together with Jesus. And it also means that the Calvinist notion that Jesus and the saints are somehow locked away in another plane of existence called heaven no longer has a death grip on people.
But unfortunately the superstition about the dead that I keep encountering has a lot of negative ramifications as well.
I succeeded in writing my sermon out this week before Saturday. However, it was 12 pages long. Then subsequent drafts were also too long and I ended up preaching from an outline, and the sermon was still too long. Other than that I was kind of happy with it. Here’s the written manuscript, 1st draft, followed by the mostly complete final outline.
Ad Te Levavi—First Sunday in Advent
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 21:1-9
December 2, 2012
Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth.
Your Zion strews before you green boughs and fairest palms
And I too will adore you with joyous songs and psalms.
My heart shall bloom forever For you with praises new
And from Your name will never withhold the honor due.
Zion is the name of the hill on which the temple in Jerusalem was built. Because the temple was so important to the people of Israel, so beloved, they often called the whole city after the name of the temple mount—Zion. And from there the prophets would sometimes call all of God’s people by the name. “The daughter of Zion” is God’s term of endearment for His people. It’s as though He is saying, “the dear child born to me from my dwelling on earth.” The whole reason God called Abraham away from his father’s house and then brought the people of Israel out of slavery and planted them in the land of Canaan was because He wanted to have a people for His own.
Ever since sin came into the world, God has wanted to have human beings back in His presence. But people did not want Him. Even among the people He claimed as His own and taught His ways, the same painful story repeated itself—His people turned away and became just like the nations around them. They were supposed to be a light that would turn the world to Him; instead the light was darkened and the people of God became like the world. And that meant nothing else than that they too were enemies of God. God could not dwell with them without either having His holy name blasphemed, without His people bearing false witness to the world, representing Him falsely. Read more…
St. Peter Lutheran Church
1 Timothy 2:1-6
November 22, 2012
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:3-4.
God is our Savior. He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
What a happy description of God that is for anyone who needs saving! St. Paul does not tell Timothy that God is the skeptical critic of the Church, or the all-powerful, provoked judge of the Church. He is “God our Savior.”
His almighty power is not separate from His tender-hearted, bottomless love. He loves us with all His strength, which is limitless. As His strength is awesome, so His love is compassionate, patient, and gentle. He is not quick to become angry, but patient. Nor does He hold on to His anger forever. He is all-powerful; He is just. But Scripture does not say “God is power,” and it does not say, “God is justice.” It says, “God is love.” God who is love, and who is almighty, is our Savior. No one and nothing in the universe is able to interfere or stop God from saving His Church.
The word “Savior” implies helplessness. That is what we Christians were and still are. We were conceived in sin, helplessly held captive by death and Satan, God’s enemies, subject to punishment. But there is a Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as the ransom that set us free from sin. By His blood shed for us, the man Christ Jesus made us free and saved us. Yet we remain today completely dependent on God our Savior. He who baptized us into Christ and made us free through His blood must also keep us in Christ through faith. We cannot do it. We remain those who are, in ourselves, powerless against the sin that still lives in our flesh. God our Savior, by His love and His power, has to deliver us from the sin which still lives in our flesh. He has to do this so that we do not wrestle with sin alone, but daily return to Baptism where His death on the cross took away our sins. He has to save us, finally, by raising us from the dead in bodies that no longer are in the image of Adam, prone to sin, but in the image of the Son of God, over whom death has no dominion.
But He has promised us that He will do these things. That’s why St. Paul calls Him “God our Savior.” He has done it all and will do it all.
Since God is our Savior, you and I are free to give thanks for everything. God gave us the whole creation when He created Adam, to enjoy. And when Adam sinned and lost the right to enjoy God’s gifts, God redeemed us through the suffering of His Son and made us His sons and heirs. The whole creation belongs to the man Christ Jesus, and He gives it all to His brothers who are baptized into Him, reborn in Him as sons of God. That’s you.
Today we each have all kinds of earthly blessings for which to give thanks. The catechism teaches our children to say: I believe in God the Father Almighty. What does this mean?
So we have our personal blessings, earthly and spiritual, for which we should be grateful, though we often are not. Or we find fault with them. Or we treat them as if they are not gifts from God but accidents. Or perhaps we think that we have gotten them for ourselves, independent of God our Savior.
But in Christ, we have far more than just what God has given us individually to enjoy and care for, to watch over and pray for.
You are in Christ. You were baptized into Him, taken out of Adam and born anew in Christ. And this was not your doing. Jesus did it.
You are in Christ and all that is Christ’s is yours. Nothing is held back. Today the altar is open to you, and God our Savior gives you the flesh and blood of His only Son to eat and drink that you may have life instead of death. What will the holy God not give you when He freely gives you the life of His Son?
All that is Christ’s is yours. What belongs to Jesus?
The whole universe. Eternal honor and glory and joy. The right to sit at the Father’s side, above all the holy angels who never sinned, to live forever in the new heavens and earth in which there is no weeping or pain, sin or death.
What belongs to Jesus? All people. Because God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. So God became man and took as his own all the sins of men, and all the grief and suffering of all people. So Jesus took upon Himself all people and was baptized for their sins in the Jordan, sweat drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane, and came under the wrath of God on the cross.
Even now, at the right hand of God, Jesus carries all people upon Himself. The guilt and grief and sin of all men He carries as His own. He rules the world to bring all men to repentance. He intercedes with the Father for His church and for the unbelieving as though He were them. He stands with them.
In Christ, that is yours too, this work to see all men be saved, this love that takes on the sins and suffering of other people.
That is why Paul urges Timothy as the most important thing for the church in Ephesus, after receiving God’s salvation through the Word and Sacrament, that prayers be made for all men.
Jesus prays for all men. As His church, His priests, we join in Jesus’ work of gathering all men to Himself.
We do that through making supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings—not only for ourselves, but for all people.
Not only for ourselves or for our Church, but for the whole world and every person.
Jesus prays for all who are in any need. He makes “supplications” or requests. So together in worship and privately in our homes, we join with Jesus in His work, since all that He has is ours. We don’t only ask for blessings for ourselves, but for anyone we see in need. Personally we are called to pray for those in our families, with whom we work, for our church, its pastor and leaders, and particularly for those who are in need of bodily or spiritual blessings. But we also pray for the whole world—for those in authority. We don’t stand apart from the world, because Jesus desires the blessing on earth and in heaven of every person, every nation, whether enemy or friend.
We make prayers for the prosperity of people who don’t appear to be in need too. God is our Savior. He is for us—not because we are good, but because of His mercy and love. Now we are in Christ, and our neighbor’s problems are ours. Our neighbor’s poverty becomes our poverty. Our neighbor’s wealth is our wealth. We rejoice for those who do well as though it was us who received the blessing. We weep for those who suffer as though we were suffering.
Not that this comes naturally to us. It doesn’t, because our sinful flesh is selfish. But Christ has given us Himself—not only His blessings, but the gift of sharing in His work. The Church remains on earth to bring blessing and salvation to the world. We are here to pray for the world’s salvation and also to uphold all in authority—earthly governments, earthly rulers. Unbelievers can’t pray for themselves.
When people sin, we make intercessions for them. That is what Jesus does when we sin. He does not damn us but prays for us. When our brothers in the Church sin, we should weep as though it were our own. And the holiness and strong faith of brothers in the Church is not just for them, but we have all in common in Christ, because we are one body.
Finally, Paul tells us “give thanks for all men.” Jesus rejoices and gives thanks over the lost sheep, and so do the angels. They rejoiced for the shepherds when Jesus was born, as though it was their own blessing. So we are given to give thanks for the blessings others experience—Christians or non-Christians, enemies or friends.
In this way, we not only live a peaceful and quiet life in that we don’t bother anyone outside the Church, but we are serving them in the best possible way constantly—bringing them before God for blessing in prayer. When God brings people near to you, He does it so that you can pray for them and bring them blessing.
God desires the salvation of all men. Our congregation’s work of bringing the Gospel to our neighbors rests on our prayers for all men, because when we pray for them we are wishing them good.
Therefore today, don’t simply give thanks for your own blessings, but for the blessings given to your brothers and sisters in the church, and for the blessings God gives to those outside. And know that all of your blessings are not only yours, but Christ would make them available through you to everyone, just as He did not see His righteousness and joy as His own, but came to earth to serve us and make us partakers in them.
Let us rejoice and give thanks in this bounteous God who comes to feed us richly in His body and blood. Amen.
The grace of our Lord…
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Revelation 7:9-17 (St. Matthew 5:1-12)
November 4, 2012
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In heaven, a multitude which no one could number, from every tribe, language, nation, and people, around the throne of God and the Lamb. These are the saints, the holy assembly, the church built by Jesus to live forever.
They are dressed in long flowing white robes; they have palm branches in their hands. And they shout with loud voices, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”
The palm branches remind us of the Palm Sunday liturgy. When I was a child they had us lead the procession into God’s house carrying palm branches, just as there was a crowd to welcome Jesus to Jerusalem as the Messiah, the promised King. And above all there were children in this crowd, praising the King of the Jews, Jesus. He rode into Jerusalem on a carpet made of their clothes which they spread out before Him in the road, accompanied by waving palms and loud shouts of “Hosanna!” The palm branches are symbols of victory. “Hosanna” is a cry of praise which means “Save us!” It says that the king is the deliverer and savior.
The Gospel of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem is also the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the church year.
What the people cried out on Palm Sunday; what we sang as small children. In heaven the saints sing the same thing to Jesus.
There is a difference, though. The crowd on Palm Sunday did not really understand what they were saying and doing, did they? They were all like children. They shouted, “Hosanna! Save us!” “You are the Messiah! Save us!”
But they didn’t know what they were asking. When Jesus began to fulfill their request, then all these crowds were confounded. Some may have been in the same crowds a few days later that shouted “Crucify him!” Others just stood there and watched the spectacle of Jesus who had ridden into the city and been greeted as Messiah now led out of the city as a cursed and condemned man carrying a cross.
Hosanna! Save us! So Jesus did; He did not drive out the godless, immoral Romans—not in the way they thought. He didn’t solve take away hunger and poverty and sickness—not in the way they thought. He drove out demons and death. He united people from every nation and language and tribe. He made people full and rich, and healed them in the same way that He was full and rich even though He hungered for forty days in the wilderness and even though He had no place to lay his head.
Hosanna! Save us! They were asking, “Sacrifice yourself for us! Spill your blood for us! uffer and die for us!”
They did not realize that is what they were saying. But the saints in heaven know. They shout “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” They are looking at the lamb who was slain, who died like the Passover lamb so that His blood might paint the doors of our houses (Exodus 14); they see the Lamb who makes atonement by His death for our desecration of God’s Holy Name, and Whose blood cleanses us (Leviticus 14: 10, 13-14) from the leprosy and uncleanness of our flesh so that we may come near to God. His blood which was poured out on the altar (Leviticus 8:30) is also taken from the altar of God and sprinkled on us so that our robes are white and we may enter God’s presence as priests. The saints in heaven see the reality. What we ask for when we say “Hosanna!”—the saints in heaven see clearly what the crowd in Jerusalem did not see, and what we see only darkly. They see that “save us, forgive us,” means, “shed your blood for us”. And they see the Lamb who was slain, and can say not “save us!” but “He who sits on the throne and the lamb who was slain have saved us.”
Yet when Jesus answered the prayer of the people in Jerusalem, they drew back. They stood back from His suffering. To have stood with Jesus would have meant to die with Him. The priests plotted His death because they wanted their teaching and authority to stand. Some of the people of Jerusalem shouted for his crucifixion because He did not come to pat them on the back for their goodness and put the Gentiles under their feet and the riches of the earth in their hands. Judas sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus was worth less to him than a little sum of money. But Pilate condemned Jesus rather than have the trouble that would have come from doing justice and declaring Him innocent. And Peter denied Jesus; Jesus was worth less to him than his honor and his life. And the rest of Jesus’ disciples ran away, except for John and Mary and a few women. And they did not die with Jesus. All they could do was watch.
Why did everyone run away or desert Jesus, or at best just watch? Because they wanted to keep their lives; they loved their lives more than Jesus.
We cry “Save us” to Jesus too, and we do it in the presence of the angels and the saints in heaven. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest!” We sing it every week or nearly every week. And Jesus comes with life and salvation, giving us His body and blood, forgiving our sins, purifying us.
But are we really different from the Palm Sunday crowds, and the disciples, who backed away from Jesus when He answered their cry for salvation? They wanted to save their own lives.
And don’t we do the same? We eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood. But when Jesus answers our cry “Save us! Hosanna!” He not only gives us His body and blood, but the tribulation that came to Him comes to us. And when the tribulation comes, don’t you back away?
When the tribulation is that you must trust that Jesus has washed you with His blood even though you are poor and helpless and God does not make you rich and prosperous? Or when the tribulation is that you must suffer wrongdoing from someone and forgive them, pray for them, love them, not speak evil of them? When the tribulation is that you must put to death the desires of your flesh—don’t we often do as Jerusalem did? We said, “Hosanna! Save us!” But then when Jesus gives us His body and blood and saves us—and when tribulation comes and our earthly safety or happiness is threatened—we turn away from Jesus and trust other things to be our savior. We prefer our life and preserving it to Jesus and His cross.
How can we be saints then? How can we stand among the angels—even more, before the throne of God and the Lamb who was slain—and sing His praises when our hearts continue to shout “Blessing and glory to God—and some to me also”?
That was the question that Luther agonized over, and some of us do too.
No one can be a saint who wants to continue in his sin and who wants to go on justifying himself and saving himself. That is what the priests in Jesus’ day did. And the tax collectors and prostitutes and idol worshippers who did not want to give up their theft and adultery and false gods could not be saved, because they already had their gods and saviors. The rich young man would not follow Jesus’ instructions for eternal life because what he loved most of all was his great riches.
But then what about those who want Jesus’ salvation but fall into sin—repeatedly turning away from Jesus and warming their hands at the fire, making ourselves comfortable instead of bearing the cross?
The saints who come out of the great tribulation wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the lamb.
With our falling, we go like Peter to Jesus for mercy. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
And He washes us in His blood. And His blood does not stain our clothes. His blood washes out our stains, our filth, our guilt.
Jesus washed us in His holy blood in Baptism. Just as the Passover blood stained the doorposts of the Israelite houses but caused the angel of death to Passover, Jesus blood was smeared over us in Baptism. We were born in uncleanness and death. But in Jesus’ flesh and blood is righteousness and life. And when He suffered, His blood was sufficient for forgiveness of the sins of all men. It paid for their sins to be forgiven. It paid for human beings to be cleansed.
That blood washed over us and all the saints in Baptism. And when we stumble and fall and turn away—as we do daily, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly—there is only one remedy—the blood which was shed for us and which drenched us in Baptism.
Whenever you hear, “Your sins are forgiven,” you are not simply hearing, “God loves you and doesn’t look at your sins anymore.” You are hearing, “The blood of Jesus was shed for you. It is poured over you. It drenches your body and your garments. And it makes God’s wrath pass over you. And on judgment day you will stand with robes whiter than any man can bleach them (Mark) as Jesus did in His transfiguration.”
The saints in heaven—that is their righteousness. That is their only righteousness. The saints in heaven are those who constantly turned not to their attempts to change, or their sorrow over their sins for salvation. They cried, “Hosanna! Save us!” and then they came near to Jesus and were washed in His blood, again and again. They went nowhere else and looked nowhere else.
That is why we can stand among them and the angels, now in the divine service and hereafter in eternity, even while we still have hearts which turn away from Jesus because we still have the sinful flesh.
We are washed in the blood of the lamb in Baptism. We return to it each day.
When we confess, we are splashed with Jesus’ blood and put on His righteousness, believing the absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.” Jesus sprinkles you with His cleansing blood that He shed for your atonement and salvation, for all the sins you could not excuse; for the heart that goes on praising itself while the Spirit of God within us praises the Father.
When we come to this altar, in the company of the saints and angels, Jesus gives us the atoning sacrifice; His body and blood—the life-giving body and blood of true man and true God. This and this alone makes us saints.
This struggle with sin, the suffering that comes from sin and death—the persecution of the ruler of this world and his servants who hate Christ—these give us trouble and great pain until we die.
But today we rejoice in those who have come out of the great tribulation. Blessed are they!
God is their shelter from heat; the Holy God spreads out His glory over them, and they are before His throne day and night—always. They see God and the Lamb. They are in the presence of the fountain of life and the fountain of eternal joy, and they never leave, but see His glory. And the glory of God and His goodness is so great that we have no words to speak of it.
That is what our brothers the saints who are at rest have. They come out of the tribulation. Instead of continually returning to Jesus by faith, and washing their robes in His blood, the Scripture says, “They Have washed.” It is finished. They sing of salvation that has been finished.
They no longer hunger and thirst for righteousness, as we do. But the lamb who was slain, who became one of his flock shepherds them to living water—where thirst is quenched forever. The saints drink of the Holy Spirit and are refreshed. The Lamb who is the shepherd makes them lie down in green pastures. They no longer weep over sin, over the misery and evil in the world, over death. God Himself wipes away all tears from their eyes. God Himself comforts them.
That is how it is for our brothers who are at rest. But they have received their rest from God and the Lamb alone. They received rest because they washed their robes in the blood of the lamb.
That is why we rejoice in the saints. What God has done for them and in them, He has done for us and He is doing in us. He washed us in the blood of His son in Baptism. He is daily putting us to death and raising us from the dead, returning us to Baptism, until the day we no longer say “Save us! Hosanna,” but “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!”
Then we shall see Jesus as He is, and we will be like Him—perfectly in His image. It will be glorious. And it already is for John and Mary and Peter. And also for Martin Luther, and our loved ones who this year died in Christ.
But you have what they have if you believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized. Because you have been washed in His blood. You are one with Him and with them. Today He comes to us; and we know that the saints are with us in Him—all of our brothers who died in Christ this past year and this past century and all the way to the beginning of the world.
Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, who gives us salvation, and victory, and clean white robes and brings us to His glorious table.
The peace of God, which passes understanding , keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria