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Come And See. St. Bartholomew (Altar Guild Service) 2016. John 1:43-51

October 18, 2016 Leave a comment

Jacobs-Ladder.jpgSt. Bartholomew, Apostle (transferred)/ Altar Guild Opening Service

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. John 1:43-51

August 25, 2016

“Come and See”

 

Iesu Iuva

 

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  John 1:45

 

“Wait a minute.  Cut!  I’d like to interject…”  Philip and Nathanael (his mother calls him Bartholomew) swivel their black-bearded faces in the direction of the voice, which belongs to a gray-haired man walking toward them, dressed in a jacked with leather elbows and a bow tie.  He speaks with a slight east coast accent, and as he talks he gestures with a pipe.

 

“I understand what you’re trying to do with this scene,” he says to Philip.  “You want to tell a compelling story.  I get it.  But if it’s going to speak to people two thousand years from now, you’re going to have to revise the script.  You sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical power and you’re going to lose your audience.”

 

Philip stares at the man, who goes on: “The thing about Moses.  ‘Moses wrote about Him in the Law.’  Reputable scholarship stopped believing Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy in the 19th century.  Until relatively recently everyone agreed that these books were cut-and-pasted together from different sources by editors a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived.  Everybody that’s educated knows this today, even the partially educated.  So let’s try it again without Moses this time.”  The bow tied man sits in a canvas chair and puts on sunglasses.

 

Philip keeps staring at him and finally utters, “Who are you?”

 

“I’m chair of New Testament at a top-tier divinity school in New England.” Then, in response to Philip’s blank stare, he says, “A scribe, of sorts.  Okay, take two.”

 

Philip turns back to Nathanael.  “So, like I was saying, ‘we have found the man who has been written about in the Law and the Prophets’—whoever wrote them—Jesus of Nazareth…”

 

“Cut!” the professor yells again.  “Another thing: you really can’t say that Jesus is the one written about in the Law and the Prophets.  The early New Testament community interpreted the Law and the Prophets as foretelling Jesus.  Then they wrote the Gospels to show Jesus as the fulfillment of those passages.  But to say the Law and the Prophets spoke about Jesus is a stretch, at best.  Leaves us open to the charge of anti-semitism, too.  Try it again.  Take three.”

 

Philip stands there for a minute trying to figure out what to say.  Then he looks at Nathanael and says, slowly, “We have found the man who isn’t really written about in the Law and the Prophets, probably.  But there is a community of people who think that the Law and the Prophets wrote about Him.  Or at least they want us to think that.  It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”

 

“Cut!” the professor cries again.  “You can’t say it like that!  When you say it that way it sounds like a scam!”

 

What’s amazing is that so many people let themselves be scammed for so long.  The professor in the story isn’t based on a real person, but he is doing what leading bible scholars have done for at least a hundred years.  They have taught and written that the Bible is a literary construction made by men to advance certain beliefs, and then creatively interpreted by men to advance certain beliefs.  But as far as being historically reliable and telling us about things that actually happened?  The Bible doesn’t do that, they say.  That’s not its point.

 

Did this conversation between Jesus, Nathanael, and Philip actually happen?  We really can’t know, they say.  The idea that the Bible is verbally inspirited by God, and therefore not only the final authority for truth about religious matters, but also true when it speaks about geography, history, or anything else—that has been regarded as “fundamentalism” by scholars for a long time—despite the fact that the authority and clarity of the Scriptures was foundational for the protestant reformation.  And these scholars taught the ministers in mainline protestant churches—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, some Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—since before I was born.  This skeptical approach to the Bible has become normal in the Catholic Church too.

 

But laypeople in these churches don’t look at the Bible this way, right?  The pastors don’t preach this way, do they?  I don’t think they do, generally.  It doesn’t work very well for preaching to have the professor bursting in every few verses to correct the Bible.  But if this is the way you have been taught to view the Scripture during your training for the pastoral office, it is going to affect how you carry out the work of that office.  If the Bible isn’t to be taken literally when it says Moses wrote the Penteteuch, or when it says that Jesus had a conversation with Nathanael, why should it be taken literally when Jesus forbids divorce in it, or when it says it’s immoral to have sex when you’re not married?  So is it a surprise that the mainline protestant churches have approved homosexual “marriage” as pleasing to God?  If the Bible was put together by human beings to teach what they wanted to teach, why can’t we just put a new spin on it to teach what we think is right now?

 

And this affects more than simply Christian morality.  It attacks the Gospel itself.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1); the healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (Matthew 9).  The result of treating the Scriptures as human productions is often revision of the Law of God; but the end result of revising God’s law is that pastors begin to preach to people that they, after all, are not sinners in need of saving.  Perhaps we are in a general way—none of us love people as we should.  But never in such a way that the specific forms our lovelessness takes are condemned; never in such a way that the sins that our time and place seeks to excuse are made to stand before the unchangeable judgment of the unchanging God.  And so the churches, instead of proclaiming the Son of God incarnate and crucified to reconcile sinners to God, by degrees remove the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2:21).  God’s grace in freely remitting sins for the sake of the bloody death of His Son on a cross is only necessary for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and cannot raise themselves.  It’s not necessary for those who have committed no grievous sins because there are no longer any grievous sins to commit.

 

And what have the laypeople done in response to this perversion of God’s Word in the mainline churches?  Did they walk out when their pastors and teachers revised the ten commandments?  Some did.  Most didn’t care.  They’d gotten used to re-interpreting the Bible when it said things they didn’t agree with a long time ago.  When it forbade women from being ordained.  When it forbade divorce.  When it forbade intercommunion between those who were not united in the one faith and doctrine of Christ.  When it forbade Christians to participate in the religious rites of secret societies.  And so on, all the way back to the time of the Reformation, when people found the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood in the bread are present in and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper an offense to reason.

 

But what does all this have to do with the altar guild?  In the reading, Nathaniel (who is probably, but not certainly, Bartholomew the apostle, whose feast day was yesterday) expresses skepticism at what he hears from Philip—that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Moses and the Prophets.  He considers it unlikely that anything good could come from Nazareth.  But Philip says, “Come and see.”  Pretty confident, Philip is.  He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael about whether or not Nazareth is a dump.  He invites him to come and see for himself whether Jesus is the one Moses and the Prophets talked about.

 

When we talk about Jesus to people who don’t believe in Him, say He is the Savior of the World, and our Savior, they will very likely be skeptical.  What do we do then?  Sure, you can debate with them if you’re equipped to do so.  That has its place.  But in the end, answering their objections won’t bring them to Jesus.  The Holy Spirit must bring them.  And that happens when they “come and see” Jesus.

 

But where do you go if you want to “come and see” Jesus?  He is at the right hand of the Father, where we see Him no longer (John 16).  Yet He promised that as His Church goes into the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He commanded: and lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20)  If anyone wants to come and see Jesus, we direct them to follow us to the place where His Word is being taught and His sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper are being administered.  We say, “Come to church with me and see.”

 

And what will they see there?  We hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, they will see Jesus, true God from eternity, who became human to live among us and fulfill the Law of God that we are unable to keep.  Who became sin for us, bearing our offenses on the cross, and was raised from the dead for our justification.  We hope that, being made to see Jesus by faith, they will also learn to see His presence with His Church in the Word and Sacraments, and learn to see the little congregation of sinners gathered around them as the community that has been declared righteous by God and adopted as His heirs.

 

But none of that is what they will see right away.  What they will see is an altar with a cross above it.  They will see a pulpit and a lectern and candles.  They will see some stuff under a sheet in the middle of the altar.  They will see pews, bulletins, hymnals, some men dressed in suits handing them pieces of paper and passing a plate.  They will see a guy up front in a white robe with a piece of colored cloth around his neck.  And the more years go by, the less familiar and comprehensible these sights will be.

 

And this is where you come in.  Can you make people see Jesus by putting oil in the candles, arranging the fair linen just so, ironing the alb?  No.  Neither can I.  A person sees Jesus, believes that He is the Son of God and our Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

 

But by care and diligence in your work you can give a witness to what we confess.  In fact you will give a witness one way or the other.  By adorning the altar and chancel with care and beauty and precision you can testify to your faith and the faith of the church that “God Himself is present” in this place.  By being careful, diligent, and scrupulous in your cleaning of the sacred vessels you can testify to our own members to the reality that Jesus has truly given us His sacred body and his redeeming blood in the wafers and wine.  And as members of the altar guild you can be leaven in the congregation, instructing your brothers and sisters how in the Divine Service Christ Himself is present in flesh and blood, opening heaven to us each week, letting down Jacob’s ladder into this Nazareth called Joliet, where people wonder if there is anything good.  You can say, Yes, Jesus visits Joliet; He visits us at 8 am and 10:45 each week.  He speaks to us His good news that raises us up from sin and despair; He renews our souls with His crucified flesh and blood, and as He does so He brings with Him the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

 

And by that witness the church will be edified and perhaps visitors will come and say, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.  Or at least if He isn’t, I am convinced that the people who care for the altar believe that He is.”

 

May God bless you and strengthen you, then, in your holy work this year, as you continue to make the sanctuary a place where we are proud to invite people to “come and see” our Lord Jesus.

 

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

You Strike Them, But They Feel It Not. Day of Supplication and Prayer, 2016.

September 15, 2016 Leave a comment

the-prophet-jeremiah-michaelangeloDay of Supplication and Prayer

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Jeremiah 5:3 [Revelation 1:9-20]

September 14, 2016

“You strike them, but they feel it not.”

 

[Outline borrowed from Walther’s “Busstagpredigt” in Brosamen]

[The sermon was long—about 28 minutes.  But it wasn’t as long as this manuscript; part of it was in outline form and I fleshed it out.]

 

Iesu Iuva

 

Dear Christians: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

What is a day of supplication and prayer, or a day of humiliation and prayer?  It is a service set apart for public confession and repentance, and for prayer for God to help us in our distress.  The prophet Joel called for such a day in the reading we just heard: Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly, gather the people…between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.”  (Joel 2:15, 17)

 

Joel called this “solemn assembly” in response to a calamity that was coming on the people of Israel—a plague of locusts which would cause a massive famine.  And so many people would say, “This is not something for the Church to be doing in the 21st century.  People don’t want to have a public service to mourn their sins and pray for God to spare them.  That kind of thing doesn’t help get members—it drives people away.”

 

The people who say or think that are at least partly right.  It’s true that what we’re doing here today definitely doesn’t appeal to many people who are looking for a church.  It hasn’t for some time.  The day of supplication and prayer or humiliation and prayer is not something new in the Lutheran Church.  If you look in the old red hymnal you’ll find it there.  Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve met any Missouri Synod Lutherans who can remember their church having such a service.  Even though they had annual services of repentance and prayer in Germany into the 20th century, I don’t know how common they were in America.

 

However, there was at least one Lutheran Church that had this kind of service each year at least until around 1880—Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis Missouri.  This was the church pastored by C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri.  And to prepare to preach to you on this day I read a sermon that He preached in his congregation in 1863.

 

His text for the sermon was Jeremiah 5:3, which says: O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?  You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction.  They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.

 

As I preach to you on the basis of this word of God I will be following the theme and outline of Dr. Walther’s sermon, which he preached at the height of the civil war.  Because although we think the world has changed so much since 1863, or 800 B.C., when Joel lived, certain things have not changed very much at all.

 

The Triune God still rules the earth.  And He is not an “idle spectator” of what goes on here.  Just as in the Bible, He looks from where He sits enthroned…on all the inhabitants of the earth…and observes all their deeds.  (Psalm 33:14-15)  And just as in the Scripture, God punishes and chastens nations and groups of people in His wrath—not only in eternity, but also in this life.  That is what the verse from Jeremiah is talking about, only the people that God punished in Jeremiah’s day did not feel his punishment, did not repent and turn to God.  Walther preached to his congregation in 1863 that the same thing was happening to the people of America, and what was true in Walther’s day is still true in ours.

 

Theme: Jeremiah’s two-fold lamentation applies to us and to our congregation.

+ The lamentation “You strike them down.”

+The lamentation, “They do not feel it.”

 

++

 

  1. How we know it’s God that has stuck both our country and our congregation; how we know it’s because of our sins

Walther preached in 1863 that God had struck America down in His wrath.  The civil war, which had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives at that point, was God’s anger being poured out on the United States because of its sin and rebellion.

 

This is not a kind of sermon I have ever heard preached in my lifetime, except maybe by the Westboro Baptist Church when it holds up signs outside the funerals of soldiers saying, “God hates America.”

 

We don’t hear these sermons anymore, but they are all over the Bible.  Did God stop punishing nations?  He didn’t.  We still confess that we deserve God’s “temporal” or “present” punishment.  Temporal punishment refers to wars, natural disasters, famines, plagues—events that bring death and suffering to nations and communities.

 

What Walther preached in 1863 is true today.  God has punished our country in our lifetime.  When the twin towers exploded and fell to the ground, killing thousands—God struck us.  When the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal in the United States, and in the 45 years since 60 million of our babies were murdered—God struck us.  As we watch the American family collapse and children grow up missing a parent or with parents never married, we are watching God’s hand strike our country.  Even if these things haven’t happened to you, they affect you.

 

But how do we know God is responsible for these things?  Don’t they happen because of people’s sin, or because of natural forces and laws?

 

The Scripture tells us that God is in control over everything.  He doesn’t cause sin, but no sinner can do the evil in his heart unless God permits it.  Jesus tells us that a sparrow doesn’t fall from the sky without the Father in heaven.  More specifically, we hear from the prophet Amos, “Does evil befall a city unless the Lord has done it?”  (Amos 3:6)

 

Jesus does tell us to be careful about making judgments about a person when something bad happens to them.  When a tower fell on some people in Jerusalem and killed them, Jesus said, Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no: but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  (Luke 13:5)  Jesus says—that didn’t happen to them because they were worse sinners than everyone else.  Nevertheless, it happened because they were sinners.  So the Christian response to any tragedy is to recognize God’s hand in it, and to allow it to cause us to repent.

 

But God has not only struck our country.  He has also struck our church.  Can anyone say otherwise?

 

Is it an accident that our church has declined since the seventies?  Is it an accident that, during my time here at least, St. Peter has been racked by division?  And the closure of the school—do we think God didn’t know how to keep it open, even in a bad neighborhood, even in a time of people falling away from the Church?  Is God bound by the rules of sociology?  Is He only able to save those who seem likely to us to accept the Gospel?  Is it too hard for Him to work in the hearts of people that belong to different ethnic groups, socio-economic groups?  He oHe And our recent hugely expensive repairs?  Is all this an accident?

 

No, God has struck us with His rod.

  1. Why has God struck America and St. Peter?

 

There are things that God doesn’t reveal to us.  His secret judgment on individuals and nations is not something we are given to know—whom He has predestined to salvation.  And if we aren’t prophets we can’t say that God has decided to give the United States of America over to destruction for this or that reason.  Whether He has or not, He alone knows.  He may yet grant America time to repent.

 

What we can acknowledge, when God strikes us, is the sins that are obvious in us that we know provoke His anger.  And if we are not certain, we can search the Scriptures, asking Him to enlighten us.  We can examine ourselves in the light of His Word.

 

When Walther preached in 1863, he pointed out how God had for decades blessed America, seeking to lead it to repentance and the knowledge of Him by His kindness.  He opened wells of prosperity, blessed her with civil and religious freedom, and made her a refuge for the downtrodden of the world.  But instead of acknowledging God as the giver of these gifts, the country boasted of its own enlightened intelligence, its strength, its wealth, and gave God’s glory to itself.  And so, in time, God let his anger fall on the United States, and sent the pale horse of war and its rider, with death and hell following after.

 

The situation is much the same today.  America has enjoyed incredible wealth and prosperity since the Second World War.  Even during the two great wars that ravaged the populations of Europe, American casualties were light in comparison.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union we became the world’s hegemon.  Even today most of the nations of the world dance to the tune played by the United States.  But the power, wealth, and prestige God gave to the United States was not paralleled by an increase in godliness and the knowledge of God.  Instead, despite a bump in church attendance after World War 2, Americans began to throw off moral restraint.  Divorce became common.  Fornication became normal.  In the name of equality and sexual liberation we justified the murder of the unborn.  Then, after the major challenger to our power in the world collapsed, we were shaken awake.  Somehow a handful of Islamic fanatics living in caves in Afghanistan succeeded in flying jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, claiming thousands of lives.  It became apparent that wealth and immense power was not enough to make the world into a liberal democratic Garden of Eden.  There was another power in the world with which we had to reckon.

 

It was a wake-up call.  And for a few months, maybe a few years Americans were shaken.  But not enough to turn to God, to listen to His Word, to trust Him above our billions, our stealth bombers, our assurance that “freedom” was the answer to all the problems of the world.  Not enough to repent of allowing our children to be dissected in the womb and then tossed into medical waste dumpsters.  And in a few years America became worse than it was before.  We not only didn’t turn back to God, but went on to embrace an evil that history has never seen before—the attempt to make homosexual relationships equal to the union of a man and woman in one flesh.

 

Since that time God does not seem to be striking us anymore, at least not with death and devastation.  Perhaps that is because, as Romans 1 suggests, God has given us up and is reserving us for utter and final destruction.  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men…Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them (Romans 1:26-27, 32).

 

And what about our congregation?  Why has God struck us?  That last verse from Romans—though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die—doesn’t apply just to sodomy.  Paul lists other sins: evil, covetousness, malice…envy…strife, deceit…they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful…disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless…(Romans 1:29-31)  Those vices that are common to the corrupt, sinful flesh, have not been absent among us, and they are sufficient to provoke God’s anger and sentence of death.  When we tolerate such sins in the Church and allow them to be practiced without rebuke, we should not imagine that God will allow them to go without His discipline.

 

But we have a much larger problem at St. Peter.  For many years, during the long ministry of  Erdmann Frenk and his son, God blessed St. Peter with many members.  3 services on Sunday were full.  Sunday school filled the entire gym with kids, as I’ve heard.  On Palm Sunday forty or fifty kids were confirmed each year for decades.

 

Then suddenly God took Erdmann to his reward.  Five years, to the distress of the congregation, He took Martin too.  And then, by all accounts, the congregation began to decline.  And during that thirty years of decline from 1975 until about 2005, much of the congregation forgot—if they ever knew—the pure doctrine of God’s Word.

 

People forgot the ten commandments.  They forgot that God commands us to gladly hear and learn His Word.  People stopped coming to church at all, or came inconsistently.  They forgot about the sixth commandment and remaining chaste until marriage.  They forgot about the fourth commandment and the obligation of parents to teach their children God’s Word.

They forgot the Apostles’ Creed, particularly the third article, which teaches that the Holy Spirit alone is able to bring a person to faith in Christ and preserve them in it, and that He does that through the preaching, hearing and reading of His Word.  They were offended to hear that much of what is taught by famous preachers and popular Christian books is antithetical to Christ’s teaching, in particular when they say that salvation comes as a result of the decision of a human will.  And they forgot that when the Holy Spirit brings a person to faith in Christ, He also brings them to the Holy Christian Church.  They forgot that the Church is not just a gathering of people who feel comfortable with each other, tied together by blood or likemindedness, but it is the congregation of those who hear, believe and confess only God’s pure word.

 

They forgot about the Office of the Keys, that God has given the church the authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant, and as a result they forgot to practice church discipline and were offended that I started offering private absolution and exhorting people to make use of it.  Finally, they forgot about the Sacrament of the Altar, and that since we receive not only bread and wine but also the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus in our mouths at the altar, we have no authority either to replace the bread and wine with some other element, nor to give Christ’s body and blood to those whose faith we don’t know, or who have confessed another doctrine than Christ’s by becoming a member of a Church that deviates from His teaching.

 

And when it became clear that many people in the congregation had forgotten the teaching of God’s Word that this congregation had confessed and stood for in the past, did the congregation repent?  No.  Things went on just as before.  Most people did not take the opportunity to learn what they had forgotten.  They chose to go on eating donuts in the gym during bible class. Some became irritated when other services were held during the week.  Even tonight, when everyone who is here regularly heard me ask for everyone who is worried about the future of St. Peter to join with us tonight in confessing our sins and praying for God’s help for our congregation, ninety percent of the people who attend on Sunday declined.

 

God blessed St. Peter for many years under the ministry of the Frenks; but those blessings did not result in ongoing fruit in the lives of many of the people who were served by them.  Many have forgotten what those men taught and are not zealous to learn it again, nor to do everything in their power to ensure that it continues to be taught and proclaimed here to another generation.

 

We can’t know for sure if that is the reason why God’s rod has struck us.  Yet the fact that we have been knocked down by His blows should move us to recognize these things and ask for grace.

 

++

Walther preached to his congregation that the worst part of Jeremiah’s lament is not that God had struck the country; the worst thing is the second part:  “they do not feel it” or “they refused to take correction.”  Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the crippling of many more, despite all the souls that had been snatched suddenly and cast into hell, and the others whose faith had been snuffed out by the passions elicited by the war, America did not “feel” God’s punishment.  They felt the pain of lost business, lost loved ones, lost limbs, lost property.  But they did not feel the reality that it was God who had struck them down, who was angry with them.  They saw only the enemy government as the cause of the evils they were experiencing.

 

Our country hasn’t changed.  Faced with crippling national debt, moral chaos, polarization between “red” and “blue” America that approaches the animosity between the North and South prior to the civil war, Americans almost unilaterally agree that the instability in our country is caused by bad politics.  We continue to be confident that prosperity and happiness would come to our country if it weren’t for the left controlling the media and universities, or bitter gun-toting Bible-thumping hillbillies wanting to oppress people.  And any problems not caused by bad politics are just a matter of researching and applying the right technique or the right program.  There are very few people who would take seriously any suggestion that the reason the United States seems to be teetering on the brink of economic collapse or social disruption is because God is against us.  God has struck the nation, but the nation does not feel it; it refuses to receive correction.  It has made its face as hard as rock and refuses to repent.

 

Dear God!  How awful it is to think that same hardness is present in our church!  And yet how else can we explain it?  Everyone sees the congregation on the brink of death.  Yet people continue to tell themselves and each other: “Well, the bad neighborhood we’re in drives people away.  Besides, this is happening to all the churches and schools all over the Synod.  And what can we do?  The young people like the informality of the non-denominational churches—their parking lots are always full.  And, you know, there are all these activities on Sunday that there didn’t used to be, and people often have to work then.”  And so on.  Not that these things aren’t real—clearly they are!

 

But they are all ways of evading the reality that God has done this.  We are on the point of death because God has struck us.  God made a dry scrub brush in the middle of the desert burn without going out until Moses came over to see what was going on.  Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee; He commanded a storm to be still.  In the reading from Revelation He appeared to John on the isle of Patmos with a voice like a trumpet, like the sound of many waters.  His eyes were like fire, and His face like the sun in its full strength, and out of His mouth came a double-edged sword.  He was walking among the candlesticks—that is, the Churches.  The sound of His voice and the terrifying beauty of His appearance are the reflections of His glory that He put on in His resurrection.  All the fullness of God dwells in His body (Colossians 2); He has ascended to sit on the throne of God, from which He reigns over the earth.  But He is in the midst of the churches, including ours.  The sword of His mouth had the power to cut open the kingdom of the antichrist through the preaching and teaching of one monk in a backwater German university.  It had the power to convert this congregation from a heterodox bunch of German immigrants who didn’t know what “Lutheran” meant into a congregation that confessed the Bible as God’s inerrant word  and the Book of Concord as a faithful exposition of the Word of God.  It has the power to drive out Satan from a person’s heart, to pierce our hearts of stone so that they become hearts of flesh.  This Lord Jesus is more than powerful enough to preserve this congregation in the midst of a bad neighborhood and in the midst of rising irreligiosity among young people.

 

But He has not done this.  Instead He has struck us.  He has permitted division and contention to weary the congregation; He has sent us huge building repairs we don’t know how to pay; he has allowed children and young families to disappear from the Church.  But we don’t feel it.  We haven’t taken correction.  We see no need to interrupt our routines.  I have heard people express the thought that they have heard everything I preach to them a long time ago.  “We know this already,” our actions seem to say.  It’s the furthest thing from most of our members’ minds that God is striking us with His rod, that He is displeased with us.

 

But you are here tonight.  So maybe I’m talking to the wrong people.  But no; how often we tell ourselves that because we are doing better than others we have no further need of repentance and growth!  But that is what just about everyone tells themselves.  “Well, sure, I don’t give ten percent of my income, and I don’t go to bible class, but I do go to church just about every week.”  “Well, sure, I don’t go to church every week, but I go a lot more than most people do; most people I know don’t go to church at all.”

 

That’s not the standard.  You no longer need to repent when you are fully in the image of Christ.  But if you have not yet shared in His sufferings completely and become like Him in His death (Philippians 3:9-10), if you have not already obtained this and become perfect (Phil 3:12), you are still in need of repentance and of pressing on to make it [perfection in Christ] your own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [pressing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3: 12-14).  We also have often been negligent in hearing, reading, and growing in the knowledge of Christ’s Word.

 

Even more, we are also immature in Christ, and lack the love that would drive us on to ensure that we not only learn His Word, but teach it to others.  To proclaim the Gospel to people who don’t believe, to seek out the people who learned the Word of God but fell away, to struggle to ensure that God’s Word is kept pure in the congregation—all of this results in opposition and hostility, both from people and from the devil.  So we often keep quiet.  Or we start to proclaim the Gospel to others and then fall back when it becomes difficult.  This, too, is sin that provokes God’s anger.  And when we become comfortable with failing to confess, teach, and witness to God’s Word, the sloth and lethargy can kill our spiritual life just as well as outright rebellion against God’s Word.

  1. Results of not repenting.

 

Walther told his congregation that their sin was that the spirit of the world had made inroads into the congregation.  Instead of praying and wrestling for the salvation of their neighbors during the war, many of the congregation had adopted the thinking of the world.  Instead of seeing the civil war as God’s judgment on the country, many of these German immigrants, who opposed slavery, had allowed their thinking to be directed by the atheistic philosophy fed to them in the newspapers.  They saw the war as birthpangs of a utopia that would arise when “equality” reigned in the land.

 

This should sound familiar to us.  How little America has changed in 150 years, despite appearances!  The media was advancing a philosophy that was—unbeknownst to many American citizens—essentially opposed to the teaching of Scripture.  The religious hope it preached was “equality”—the same hope that in recent years has brought us homosexual “marriage”, transgender bathrooms, the execution of police officers.

 

“Equality” doesn’t sound like an evil philosophy.  It sounds right and good—who would be opposed to people being treated equally?  Doesn’t God want that?

 

But that’s just the point.  When our minds are directed by the spirit of the world and by our own reasoning, moral or otherwise, we are easily led away from God.  Walther told his congregation that by not being directed by God’s inerrant word, they had been led away from Christ.  Instead of praying for their neighbors, seeking their salvation, telling them the truth, they confirmed their neighbors in their error and were caught in it themselves.  God, of course, made all human beings from one man.  We are all equally God’s creation, all equally subject to God’s Law and judgment, all equal participants in the sin of the first man.  And we have all been equally redeemed by the death of God’s Son in order that we may all have a share in eternal life.

 

Yet God also created people unequal.  Some are smarter than others; some are born with more wealth.  Some are born into Christian homes.  Men have been appointed by God the head of their wives and their families; He has also given them leadership in the Church, while to women He has given the ability to bear, birth, and nurse children, and to influence children, husbands and other men not by authority but by nurture, gentleness, and submission.  God gave rulers and judges the authority to bear the sword in His name and the authority to rule and punish, and He commands those under their authority to be subject to them.  In the church, God has given the authority to preach His Word and administer the sacraments only to those He has called.  So “equality” sounds like a noble, moral cause.  Yet when in the name of “equality” or any other noble idea people oppose God’s Word and His order, they are not being led by Christ’s Spirit but by the spirit of the world.

 

So Walther concluded by telling his congregation that this worldliness was like a worm gnawing through the core of the congregation.  If the congregation did not repent and return to the unerring Word of God, he said, it might retain the external form of a right-believing congregation, but it would be a hollow shell.  They would have the name of being alive and yet be dead.

 

The same words apply to us.  Our congregation has learned to think of “church” in a very worldly way.  It has forgotten that the life of the church is God’s Word; it has come to believe that a bare minimum of Christian doctrine is enough of God’s Word because, while it may be necessary for us to keep the name doctrine, God’s Word is not the power that keeps the Church alive.  It has forgotten that a limited Word of God is not God’s Word at all.  If it is God’s Word, then He will not allow it to be edited, limited, shortened, boiled down to what we think is essential.  We have forgotten that a church that has to submit to cultural expectations of what it ought to be in order to attract people is not Christ’s Church.  Christ doesn’t lead His church to a tasteful modern building in the suburbs with a full parking lot unless it is on the way to Golgotha.  We have forgotten that a personal piety that is merely formal and traditional is dead.  A piety that says, “I will go to church on Sunday morning for an hour.  But no one can demand anything more than that of me” is not a living Christianity.  A Christian believes in Christ and follows Christ.  If tradition says, “You only have to learn the catechism when you’re fourteen and then you’re done,” and Christ says, “No, I want you to learn more,” a Christian gladly receives what His Lord is giving.  If tradition says, “Lutherans don’t do private confession,” and it turns out tradition is wrong—and moreover, that there is a gift to be received there from Jesus, namely the forgiveness of sins—a Christian forsakes tradition and goes to receive from Jesus.

 

The worm has eaten deeply into the core of our congregation.  We do retain the form of a confessional Lutheran congregation; we require our pastors to swear that they believe and will teach according to those confessions.  Our congregation’s constitution says that the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions is an unalterable article; if we want to change our confession of faith, we will have to disband as a congregation first.  Yet few remember what those confessions even are; few remember what they say, and few are willing to be taught.

 

We are already, largely, a shell.  Whether the spiritual life that remains among us will endure at all depends on God alone, as it always has.  And whether God will expel the worms and cause what remains to thrive in this place—that too depends only on God.

 

But to think that He will preserve our congregation without repentance is a false hope.

 

  1. How we should repent.

Ninety percent of those who attend each week are not here tonight.  You cannot cause them to repent.  You can pray for them and speak God’s Word to them when the opportunity presents itself.  But everyone else’s repentance is finally in the hands of God.

 

Repentance in the congregation can only happen if individuals repent.  Each one of us needs to examine our lives in the light of God’s Word, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten us where we ourselves have failed to hear the Word and to bear the fruit of repentance.  How have I been part of the reason for God striking St. Peter?

 

Then we can begin to help one another see our faults, and be willing to accept this exhortation and rebuke from one another.  It is unpleasant to think about this if you have experienced criticism from people in the Church, particularly if it was harsh or unloving, but it is possible that many times that criticism was actually the voice of God rebuking you, calling you to repentance.

 

And if in the course of this self-examination you are overcome by grief or a sense of the greatness of your sin and guilt, an awareness that you contributed to the suffering and decline of this congregation, take to yourself God’s certain promise of grace and forgiveness that He gives to repentant sinners.  He never says that He will cast off the person with a broken heart, a contrite spirit, who is broken over his sins.  Rather, God says, “If we walk in the light…the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin…If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteus.  He is the propitiation for our sins.” ( 1 John 1-2)  Take your grief to God in confession and comfort yourself with His promise of absolution.  Or still better, confess your sin privately to me and the Lord will speak His absolution to you through me.  And if that is too difficult, confess to someone else who will declare God’s pardon to you.

 

  1. Result of repentance.

Repentance is never pleasant at the time, but God always follows it with great comfort and great blessings.

 

Repentance will undo the devil’s work at St. Peter, and turn God’s judgment and punishment into healing.  The pain will be turned into joy.

 

It may not result in everything we desire.  It may not result in St. Peter  being renewed and flourishing again, or even remaining here another generation.

 

But it will be a work of God in us that will endure.  The fruit of repentance may be refreshment for other sinners in need of repentance who are being stricken by God and do not feel it.  It may be something else.  But it will certainly be this—a greater love for the treasure of Christ’s word, an ear more open to the voice of Jesus, followed by a heart more open to Him and others and more full.  Finally, its fruit will be eternal life, when we who have been gathered together in Him here will be gathered together again in Him with the great congregation at the wedding feast, the feast of victory, the feast of joy, when there will be no more need for repentance and when the Lord Himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

  1. Acknowledging God as the giver of repentance.

But this gift of repentance and the consolation and exceedingly great joy that follows from it is a gift that can only be given by God.  Therefore we bow our knees before Him tonight to confess our sins, to receive His absolution that unchains us from all our sins, and to call on Him to grant His mighty power to work repentance in our congregation and in its members who have fallen away, as well as to many others who have never known our Lord who was stricken by God for our offenses and felt the anguish of those stripes to deliver us from the bonds of our sins.

 

The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Walther, Sermon on the Annual Day of Repentance. Jeremiah 5:3

September 13, 2016 Leave a comment

cfw-walther-3C. F. W. Walther, Sermon “On the Annual Day of Repentance”, Brosamen p. 270-278.

Condensed translation by Pastor Karl Hess,

St. Peter Lutheran Church, Joliet, IL.

September 13, 2016

 

Prayer [omitted]

[Introduction]

Hearers, guilty together with me and yet dearly purchased by Christ!

 

The most terrifying punishment which God has ever allowed to happen to a land and people is without doubt the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans…

 

…Outside the city stormed the foe.  Inside was the uproar of fanatical parties which, in wild fury, rent each other even in the face of external foes…hunger, pestilence…thousands of unburied corpses inside and outside the city gates filled the air with pestilence…A mother killed her own baby and prepared it as a last meal; the soldiers killed people in the search for gold.  1.5 million died.  Land laid waste.

 

…Fulfilled word of Jesus…”There will be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world…and if these day’s weren’t shortened, no one would be saved.”

 

…But this was not the worst thing.  The worst thing was this: they didn’t recognize that God’s wrath had come upon them, and they didn’t confess their sins and repent.  If they had, the wrathful rod of God would have turned into His fatherly rod, and He would have snatched their soul like a brand from the fire.

 

But the Jews didn’t see God in it; they saw it only as the work of the Romans. (p.272) They didn’t want to see that it was God who worked through the Romans like an avenging angel.  In the midst of the punishment they thought they were still God’s elect people and that their cause was righteous…and believed that at last God would give them victory, even without repentance and conversion.  No exhortation and no chastening through men helped.  Nor did warning-signs, which were visible in the heavens, nor did offers of peace on the part of the Romans.  The people were hardened until all mercy with God and men came to an end, and the blinded people were thrown into the open doors of death and hell.

 

Oh dear brothers, I wish to God I could call out on this day of repentance and say, “Praise God!  It’s not like this with our land and people!  We recognize God’s punishing hand and repent!”  But if I said that I would be a false prophet….

 

It’s true that not all true Christians have left America like they did Jerusalem for Pella.  I don’t doubt that there are still thousands of believing children of God among our people.  But, my loves, not only has the state of Jerusalem for the most part repeated itself in our land, but also most of the present virgins still here now appear to have fallen asleep, so that they still don’t see the true condition of our nation and people, as He pictures it in the divine Word.  Thus they themselves stand in great danger to their souls.

 

In order that we may envision that condition, this hour has been consecrated.

 

Verse: Jeremiah 5:3

(p. 273)  Lord, your eyes look for faith.  You strike them, but they feel it not; you plague them, but they do not amend.  They have a countenance harder than a rock, and will not be converted.[1]

 

With these words, my loves, the holy prophet Jeremiah describes the state of the Jewish people shortly before the destruction of the first temple before the beginning of the Babylonian captivity.  In these words is also described the present condition of our people.  And that it is then also that I, to the awakening of true contrition in us all, mean now to show you.  Namely:

 

[Theme]

That the prophet’s twofold complaint, “You strike them, but they feel it not,” also applies to our people:

1. The lament: “You strike them,” and

 2. The lament: “But they feel it not.”

I.

That the first part applies to our people no one can deny unless he is an atheist and no longer believes in a God in heaven, and has silenced the loud voice within all men that says “There is one God!”

 

It’s true that pestilence and famine comes as a consequence of failure of harvest from God, and that it is easier to see that these national disasters are not by means of men.  But even if godless people alone were the mediate cause of all wars, the final cause for these [wars] is always God, who uses them as the rod of His discipline and punishment.

 

God is not only the Creator, but the ruler of the world…He isn’t an idle spectator who lets the world do whatever it wants.  Jesus explains that not one sparrow falls from the sky without the will of the Father…and all the hairs on our heads are numbered.

 

“The Lord looks down from heaven and sees all the children of men…He marks all their deeds.”  Psalm 33

 

God is not the cause of sin, but without His will no sinner can move or control heart, tongue, hand nor foot…. (p. 274) ”Whatever, therefore, the sinner would like to do, he can do nothing except fulfill what God has resolved.”

 

Therefore the prophet Amos cries (3:6): “Is there also disaster in the city, and the Lord hasn’t done it?”  and in the prophet Isaiah the Lord Himself says, “I make the light and create the darkness; I give peace and create evil.  I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

 

If we want to know the reason for war and bloodshed, we must lift our thoughts up higher, because no people on earth could terrify another with war were it not, as Daniel says, “Concluded in the council of the watchers, and deliberated on in the discussions of the holy ones.”[2] That is, in the council of the Triune God…Thus in Holy Scripture it is said of God that He is a “true man of war”[3], who “governs the wars in all the world, who breaks the bow, shatters spears, and burns the chariots with fire”…[4]  Also that He visits the peoples’ sin and falling away with war and bloodshed…The prophets threatened His covenant people over and over and finally really punished them with bloody wars, for instance through Nebuchadnezzar, God’s chosen instrument…

 

So it’s clear without a doubt that “You strike them” applies to our people at this time.

 

For a long line of years God rained streams of love on our land and people.  He made it a place of refuge for the poor and oppressed of all nations, and opened thousands of wells of wealth here, gifted us with all the blessings of religious and civil freedom; in short He made this place an earthly paradise, “so that our America stood as a wonder before the eyes of all nations.”

 

He wanted to lead our people to repentance through the riches of His kindness.  But what has happened?  Our people, like Nebuchadnezzar, didn’t give God the glory for these benefits…Our people have propagated the idolatry of themselves, their freedom, their might, their wealth.  Instead of being led to God, we fell from God more and more and said to gold nuggets, “My consolation!”  Open atheism, false oaths, despising of the Word of God and desecration of the Sabbath, disobedience to parents and uproar (p. 275) against authority, murder, unchastity, deceit of all kinds, usury, bribery, false witness, unrighteous judgment—all these have become such everyday horrors that nobody is surprised or appalled by them—horrors which, unpunished by men, now already for long years have cried loudly to heaven for vengeance.

 

Thus God finally decided no longer to look on with His despised, mocked patience; thus He has finally allowed the fulfillment of John’s vision to go forth, who in his Revelation wrote: “And behold, I saw a pale horse, and he who sat on it, whose name was called death, and hell followed after him.”[5]  A terrifying war has broken out, such as has been seldom seen in the world before.  Already hundreds of thousands have fallen…and only God knows how many departed in the midst of their sins and were cast into hell.  Thousands and thousands have turned into weeping widows and orphans, or lie groaning in camps of pain…or live as cripples throughout the land.  Thousands of peaceful homes, yes, whole cities and villages have been transformed into soot and ashes and their formerly blooming…fields into wastes.  Thousands upon thousands of formerly peaceful neighbors have been transformed into bitter foes, who mortally hate each other.  In whole great swathes of land families which once lived in golden peace surrender themselves in fear to murderous raids in the stillness of the night.  And, what is most terrifying of all, thousands upon thousands have lost the little spark of faith and love which had been lit in their hearts in the torrential flood of the passions of war.

 

In His wrath, God has punished sin with sin.  With every further day of wartime, the last sensation of love, morals, discipline, respectability, and domestic happiness dies away in ever more hearts, and the hosts of war, returning home, will deluge the land with still greater hosts of new sins.

 

O the great, O the fearful wrath of God!

 

Still, my loves, this is only one side of the picture of the present condition of our people and our land.  Still another, disproportionately more terrifying, our text shows us, when it not only says, “You strike them,” but rather also, “But they feel it not”; not only: “you plague them,” but also: “But they do not amend themselves.  They have a countenance harder than a rock, and will not be converted.”  Let us then direct our gaze now also on this still darker side.

II.

My loves, if our people had allowed this nearly two-year long distress of war to serve for the purpose for which God sent it to us, then we would have to kiss the bloody rod with tears of joy today, the rod wherewith God has struck us and our people, and with which He still is striking us.  And we would have to thank Him for it.

 

But what is actually happening?  Can we say, “Lord, you strike them and they feel it?”

 

Businessman feels the loss of business…propertied class feels the devaluation of property.  Taxpayers feel the burden of increased taxes. Soldiers in the field feel the hardness of their service.  Father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter and friend feel the pain of fallen loved ones, destruction of their hometowns, fields, the insecurity of their lives.  Servants of mammon, greedy and usurers feel how their speculations of ever greater riches have been crossed out, halted, and ended.  The poor feel how even their barest needs have increased in price.

 

But all of this is not the feeling which the Prophet meant when He said, “You strike them, but they don’t feel it.”

 

He means here the feeling that God is the one who strikes, that this striking is the punishment of our sins, that it is God’s wrath which has come over this Sodomitical land, that these are finally God’s judgments wherewith God in His burning wrath, unto the lowest hell, visits our people’s forgetting of God and godlessness.

 

But where is this feeling?  There is still nothing of this feeling to be observed among our people.  Much more is the old security in sin still ever present, the old pride, the old idolatry in ourselves and our works.

 

As the only reason for all this misfortune that has come upon us, our people regards the foe that is fighting against us; himself justified and blessed.  Therefore only his opponent is execrated and cursed.  But he sees nothing of God’s sword of vengeance [lifted up] over him.  If one bears witness frankly and freely to our people that God is punishing our sins with this war, the answer would be like the answer of those inhabitants of Sodom, of whom it says that when they were informed of God’s judgment “It was laughable to them.”  Yes, not only will people be blind and deaf to this, but still more will declare you to be a traitor to the nation, a desecrator and slanderer of the majesty of the people.  And as against Stephen, who spoke against Jerusalem and the temple, people will pick up stones to throw at you as if against people who are not worthy of having the earth sustain them.

 

So then, in truth, the prophet Jeremiah has described the condition of our people when he writes: “You strike them, but they feel it not; you plague them, but they do not amend their ways.  They have a face harder than a rock, and do not want to be converted.”

 

But now, my listeners, what is our condition?  Must we not also admit to our own shame that even among us the majority have not recognized and felt from the beginning on in this war the punishment of our sins, the wrath and judgment of God over our people?  Where are our tears of repentance over our joint guilt in the common misery?  Where are our daily prayers, supplications, wrestlings, and struggle with God for contrition and grace for us and our unfortunate people?  Haven’t we rather cheered those who in this war saw nothing besides the birth pangs, full of hope, of a new age of perfect freedom and equality?  Haven’t we gotten our opinions about this war from the godless, atheistic newspapers instead of taking them from the unerring Word of God?  Instead of looking to the Lord of all Lords, whose fierceness against our fallen people has been awakened, and who alone, above all, “carries out such desolations on earth”[6], have we not looked to men, and thus nurtured hatred of foes and party-anger within ourselves—indeed, even helped to increase this fire from the netherworld into a bright flame in others?  Have we not taken part in the universal confidence of our people in its own might and intelligence and in its deification of men?  That we have faithfully stood by the authority God has set over us, that was right; but have we not at the same time committed ourselves to the plans of those partisans which puff themselves up hypocritically with their loyalty as long as the government serves their purposes, but which cast away the mask when it appears to want to pursue another course?  Those partisans which intend nothing else than to overthrow everything, and to bring about those conditions in which equality, mob rule, and impudence count for freedom?

 

Oh, how many have fallen into this whirlpool, of whom one frankly expected something completely different!  Truly, twenty years ago such things would not have been possible in our congregation.

 

Twenty years ago (1843), when we were still without our own house of God, we would have considered that fact that we as Christians must follow another way than the world.  We wanted at that time not to be condemned with the godless world.  But we have gone backward.  We have fallen.  The spirit of the world has broken in among us and has carried out terrible devastations among us.

 

Oh my brothers and sisters, it is time; it is already high time that we remember, that we rise up from our fall, that we turn back.  If we don’t want to do this, then the spirit of the world, even if he perhaps still leaves the external form of a right-believing church—still, in short he will have eaten through our core like an evil worm, and we will become an empty shell.  We will have the name of being alive while we are dead.

 

Oh, then hear me to day, in order that you hear God again!  Don’t turn away indignant from your old cure of souls (Seelsorger) who chastens you, that God Himself may not one day depart from you in the hour of your death!  For I don’t speak to you in my own name, but in the name of the Lord, the Most High, to which I have been solemnly called and sworn by you.

 

Let each one then test his previous conduct and his condition according to God’s Word with heartfelt sighs for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

 

Also, as true spiritual priests, help one another to a right knowledge of himself, and let everyone allow himself to be helped to this end.  Confess then to God your deviations from His Holy Word with remorse and a stricken heart, and comfort yourselves against your sins with the sweet promises of divine grace in Christ, given to all repentant sinners.  Let no one here wait on another.  Begin, each one, with himself, without first consulting with flesh and blood.

 

Oh, if we would do that, then the plan which Satan has in mind, to fight through this war against our salvation, and to cheat us through the same, would be foiled.  Because when God strikes, and one feels it; when God plagues, and one amends, then God repents of all the evil that He had thought to do to us; the pain will turn into medicine, the misfortune to good fortune and the bloody war itself to means of, if not temporal, still spiritual and eternal peace.

 

But because God alone can give the willing and the doing, alone can give grace and peace, temporal and eternal salvation to any individual and to whole peoples, let us, in closing, cast ourselves on our knees, and call upon God together for us and our people, for the whole Christian Church, and the whole redeemed world, as we sing the indicated hymn of prayer, no. 368: Kyrie eleison.[7]

[1] Luther’s translation.

[2] Daniel 4:17, Luther’s translation: Solches ist im Rat der Wächter beschlossen und im Gespräch der Heiligen beratschlaget…KJV: This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.

 

[3] Exodus 15:3 (Luther’s translation: Der Herr ist der rechte Kriegesmann.)

[4] Psalm 46:10 (Luther’s translation: Der den Kriegen steuert in aller Welt; der Bogen zerbricht, Spiesse zerschlaegt, und Wagen mit Feuer verbrennt.)

[5] Revelation 6:8 (Luther’s translation: Und siehe, und ich sah ein fahl Pferd, und der daraufsaß, des Name hieß Tod, und die Hölle folgte ihm nach.)

[6] Psalm 46:9 (Luther’s translation: Kommt her, und schauet die Werke des Herrn, der auf Erden solch Zerstoeren anrichtet…)

[7] i.e. the Litany.

Laying Down One’s Life. Memorial Day Address. May 30, 2016

canadian chaplain blessing dying soldier ddayMemorial Day Address

Woodlawn Cemetery, Joliet, Illinois

St. John 15:13

May 30, 2016

“Laying Down One’s Life”

 

Iesu Iuva

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

I’m grateful for the invitation to speak to you a few words from Holy Scripture on this day when we have gathered to remember and honor the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country.

 

The word of God on which we meditate this morning is the saying of Jesus Christ from John chapter 15: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (St. John 15:13)

 

Memorial Day is set apart to remember and honor the men and women of the armed forces who died while serving our country. Today you may be here to honor a loved one who made such a sacrifice. Or like me, you may not have any relatives who gave their lives in service to this country. We also honor those who served, and in doing so, offered up their lives and their bodies, though they did not die in battle.

 

As I prepared to speak to you this morning, I reflected on how few people remember what today is about. For most people Memorial Day is nothing more than a day off from work. I have to confess before you to my shame that in the past I haven’t given proper consideration to this day and the dead it honors. What a tragedy that is, that so many ignore what today is about? How easily we forget what others suffer for us so that we are free to live our lives, to raise families, to worship God in freedom!

 

This blindness is a reflection of the great brokenness that corrupts all human beings—what Christians call sin—the corruption in which all people are born, which causes us to love ourselves more than God, to love ourselves and ignore the need and suffering of other people.

 

Because of this it’s so easy for people to take for granted what those we honor today fought and died for—this nation in which we are free to speak our minds, free to worship God according to our consciences. But those who have laid down their lives for this nation, and those whose loved ones have offered themselves up for it, tend to recognize the value of our country, to understand that it is worth sacrificing for.

 

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Human beings are fallen. They are selfish. Even so, they are capable of heroism, courage. They are capable of doing great things that testify to our origin as beings created in the noble image of God. Jesus acknowledges that with His statement. Human love ascends no higher than when a person gives his life for someone else. People have done great things in the history of our time on earth. We have learned to fly and to penetrate outer space. We have built skyscrapers and cathedrals, made beautiful music and written poetry that people continue to hear and read and be moved by.

 

But the greatest thing a human being can do, surpassing these things, is give up his life for someone else.

 

The men and women we honor today have done this. They offered up their lives in service to their country and the people who live in it. They often died in pain, alone, perhaps afraid, in mud or dirt in a country far from here.

 

Why did they do it? It might have been out of simple obedience to their government or commanding officer, which is itself something to honor. It might have been loyalty to the oath they made to give their lives to protect and serve the United States of America. They might have been thinking of their families—wanting to ensure a good life for them, wanting to leave an honorable name to them. It might have been love for this nation that compelled them to sacrifice their lives, love for the ideals it represents in the world—liberty and the dignity of human beings. They might also have died out of love for their brothers in arms, wanting to do their part in battle and not let others down.

 

Whatever the reason, it was great love that was working in them to die for others. They might not have been aware of it. But it was a love so great that human beings are not able to do anything greater in this world apart from God’s intervention.

 

So we praise their bravery today. We honor, as best we can, their tremendous sacrifice—that they gave their most precious possession—their lives. We remember that they gave their lives in service to us. “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

 

Today we enjoy basic freedoms enshrined in our constitution. We are free to speak, free to worship God as our faith dictates, free to bear arms. Not only this, but we enjoy security, safety, and order. Without these things our freedoms would mean little. We don’t live our lives under the constant threat of violence to our person or our property. We are safe. We can go to work without having to stay home to protect our property and loved ones.

 

This order and safety, however, comes at a cost in a sinful world. There are always people who are ready to use violence to take what they want. So the security we enjoy comes at a cost. There must be those who are trained and ready to defend against the violent with violence. There have to be those who fight if we are to enjoy order and safety. Safety and order are maintained with a price, and the price is the shedding of blood.

 

Christians also benefit from the safety that has been bought with the willingness of our soldiers to fight and bleed, which is why we always pray for our country and its armed forces. We benefit from the order and safety that allow us to assemble to worship, and the freedom of religion that enables us to remember and proclaim the love of Jesus Christ.

 

Jesus, the one who spoke the words of our text today, also loved and gave up His life for others. He also fought a battle and shed His blood so that others might have safety, peace, and freedom.

 

He gave His life not to give us physical safety and freedom in this life, but to give us spiritual safety and freedom so that we live in peace for eternity.

 

As we remember the soldiers who fought and died today and honor their service, we also remember that most of them would rather not have had to fight and kill. War and the suffering it causes is not something that we should enjoy; we’d be happy if there was no need for it. But because sin has made people selfish and unloving, it is necessary in this world. Sin alienates people from each other and makes warfare and violence necessary. But this same sin also alienates people from God; it makes us enemies with our Creator. This alienation brought death into this world, and it leads to the eternal separation from God in hell.

 

So Jesus, the Son of God, became a human being to fight a war in which people would be freed from sin. In His suffering on the cross, He laid down His life in order to make atonement for the guilt of our sins, to free us from death and hell, to reconcile us with God.

 

As we remember the sacrificial death of American soldiers and sailors and airmen for our good, we are pointed to the sacrificial love of God, who suffered the punishment for our sins. His sacrificial death on the cross brings us safety and peace, not for a decade or a generation, but for eternity.

 

It was a greater love than human beings are capable of that caused Him to make this sacrifice. He died not to save only His friends or his countrymen; He died to save even His enemies.

 

Many of our soldiers who gave their lives believed in this Jesus. They found comfort in His love that caused Him to die for their sins. As many of them lay dying in a foreign land for others, they died trusting this Jesus who died for them. They died with the hope that when they left this world and this life, they had a place in the kingdom that God has established, an eternal country where there is no more death, no more selfishness and evil, no crying, no more alienation from God. They died believing that they had a place in this country through Jesus’ death for them.

 

Today we give thanks to God for the gifts and blessings we have enjoyed through our nation. We thank God for those who served this country and who, out of love for it, for us, laid down their lives. We thank God for those who continue to serve the United States and risk their lives for us.

 

May we always also remember Jesus Christ, who died to establish an eternal, heavenly country, in which war will never enter, in which death is destroyed, and in which human beings see the face of God. May we also remember and believe in Him who died in service to us to give us freedom from sin and death, to give us eternal peace with God.

 

That peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Amen.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Shepherds and Hirelings. Circuit Pastor’s Meeting, Wednesday after Misericordias Domini, 2016.

peter crucifiedWednesday after Misericordias Domini

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. John 10:11-16

April 14, 2016

Hirelings and Pastors

Iesu Iuva

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

How many sermons that you’ve heard in your life can you actually remember? I heard lots of sermons and lots of preachers at seminary. I thought some of them were very good preachers, but I can’t remember what any of them said in any of their sermons. In the time I spent thinking about it, I could remember something that was said in about six sermons. Six. Out of however many hundred I’ve heard in my life—and of these I remembered maybe a sentence or a phrase, or even a couple of words.

 

But as I sat down to write, bits of two sermons immediately came to mind. They were both, I think, from sermons on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

 

One was from the pastor who confirmed me. I thought very highly of him, but I don’t remember anything he preached, except one time he told an interesting fact about shepherds, which may or may not be true.

 

He said that when a sheep would wander away too much, the shepherd would break its leg. Then he would carry it around on his shoulders until its leg healed. Then the sheep would grow attached to the shepherd from being carried around on his shoulders for so long and not wander away anymore.

 

The other sermon I remembered right away—and this one I probably remember better than any of the others I mentioned. It was preached in Marseilles, Illinois sometime in the last ten years.

 

All I remember was that the preacher said very bluntly to us, “You are the hirelings!”

 

The preacher was saying we were hirelings because we all, in various ways, run away and seek to save our own lives instead of giving them up for Christ’s holy flock, the Church.

 

It was interesting to me that both of the sermons I remembered most readily were about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and also that they were preached by men who are no longer in the office of shepherd.

 

(How I wandered, and Christ carried me on his shoulders. How the pastor’s catechesis stayed with me. And how I found the book he gave me when my conscience was troubled.  And the book said:)

 

Things like this: “Anyone who is troubled on account of his sins is a fool for not promptly taking refuge with Christ and for imagining that his evil conscience is proof that he may not come to God. No, this is what the evil conscience indicates: You should come to Jesus; He will give you a cheerful conscience, causing you to praise God with a joyful heart…For what does it mean that Christ died for you? Accordingly, when you have committed this, that, or the other sin and are perplexed about a way out of your sin, do not try to make a way yourself. Go to Him who alone knows a way—go to Christ.—It is a remarkable statement of Luther, but certainly true, that we are to find peace by wholly despairing of our own works. When a poor sinner regards himself, he does despair; when He looks at Jesus, he is made confident.” (Walther, Law and Gospel, p.111)

 

Then, one day, talking to my mother about him, she said, “You know what happened to him, right?” I did not. He had been called to another congregation across the country. A few years later he resigned when his adultery became public.

 

And the preacher of the other sermon on the Good Shepherd and hirelings now lives in another state after resigning his call at his second congregation. He has kids and a wife and, last I heard, no job. In both of his congregations he had made too many enemies; how much he was to blame I can’t say, though whenever a pastor is deposed other pastors usually form opinions. Maybe that’s because we want to assure ourselves that it was really his fault and that it will never happen to us.

 

Why do I bring these men up—to drag up their pain to make a homiletical flourish?

 

No. First to testify that the Lord worked through them, whatever may have happened to them later, whatever people say about them now.

 

Second, to remind myself and you that nobody remembers your preaching, except in very rare cases that have nothing to do with how great a pastor or preacher you are.

 

Yet you really want them to, don’t you? To remember your sermon, to think you’re a good—shepherd. Just like a hireling, as Pastor Anderson said, or rather, as the Lord said through him? Harsh or not, it was true. Admit it or don’t. I know it’s true of me.

 

And isn’t that the mark of a hireling? The hireling seeks himself, his reputation, his honor. Yet if the sheep are shepherded through you, it isn’t your skill as a writer or an orator, nor your reputation as a theologian, nor your compassionate, gentle nature, your “pastoral-ness”, nor really anything about you. All the glory belongs to the Good Shepherd, who shepherds his sheep through the office of shepherd. We always say this, but I for one seldom get it.

 

If our ministry appears successful we may rejoice in what we think we see for the sake of the Good Shepherd and His sheep. And if it appears to fail, we may rightly recognize our sins and failings by which we have deserved to be rejected as unfaithful hirelings. But at the same time we shouldn’t doubt that the Good Shepherd is quite capable of gathering His sheep with shepherds who are weak and who fall into sin. Shepherds who whether deservedly or not, are later removed from the ministry. Even shepherds who on judgment day Christ will reject as hirelings.

 

This is a great consolation when we think our labor in the Lord is in vain.

 

But by itself it’s no cause for rejoicing. Balaam’s ass spoke, and God spoke through Balaam. What good did being a prophet do Balaam? Saul prophesied too.

 

We have all sinned and sought our own profit at the expense of the Good Shepherd’s sheep. Some of you are sanctified men of whom Paul perhaps could say, like he did of Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for [the] welfare [of the Church]” (Phil. 2:20), and not what he said of most other pastors: “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 2:21) Regardless, there are plenty of times when Jesus could have said of you, “He flees” and seeks his own well-being “because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (John 10:13)

 

But Jesus doesn’t say that about you. An honest appraisal of yourself may tell you this: you care for yourself a great deal, but it’s hard to find real, unselfish love for Christ’s sheep in yourself. Wasn’t it the same with St. Peter? Jesus forgave him and sent him to feed His sheep, and then said, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21: 18) We know Peter didn’t want to die on the cross on Thursday night. But even after Jesus rose he still lacked that love for Jesus and His Church. And unless God miraculously expunged all Peter’s self-love sometime before his martyrdom, he went to the upside-down cross with his flesh still desiring something other than the glory of God and the good of Christ’s sheep. Neither you nor I nor Peter can save the sheep from the wolf by our death, but our deaths can benefit the sheep if nothing else in providing an example of faith in Christ.

 

But the Good Shepherd’s death does save the sheep from the wolf. It saves them because it silences his accusations. Christ does not accuse Peter of being a hireling. All Peter’s unfaithfulness disappears under the red blood of the Good Shepherd. Joseph’s coat of many colors became one color when it was dipped in the ram’s blood—red. Joseph wasn’t dead, but his father thought he was. And so in God’s eyes you look like the Good Shepherd who died and not like the hireling who ran away. What He sees is the blood of His Son in which you were dipped in Baptism.

 

That blood takes away condemnation from you. You are not condemned for your sins before God. The blood of Jesus speaks for you. Listen to the voice of the blood of the Good Shepherd. It pleads to God for you. You hear it speak in your own voice when you preach the Gospel. It declares you a righteous man, and also a faithful shepherd, not a hireling. If Satan or your conscience disputes that, let them argue with the blood of the Shepherd in which He drenched you in Baptism and which will soon be poured into your throat to cleanse your insides as well as your outsides.

 

Only faith in this blood of the Shepherd allows us to go on preaching and not despair over our sins or the unthankfulness of the world. We go on preaching and, despite our failures, we go on dying until our dying is perfect.

 

As long as Jesus sees fit to keep us in this office that is called after the name of the Good Shepherd, the office of pastor, we should rejoice not only that He works through us, but also in us. To believe that when He carried the cross He carried us and that when He died He saved us from the accuser. Not only to preach Him, but to believe in Him, and believing in Him, to die with Him until we are perfect.

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Humbled and Thankful. Thanksgiving Day 2015.

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Thanksgiving Day

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

November 26, 2015

“Humbled and Thankful”

Iesu Iuva

 

The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt who were cruelly abused by their masters. They had groaned in their bondage for centuries, and no one came to help them. You would think that such an experience would have been enough to teach them humility, that no further humbling would have been necessary for them. But being humble or humiliated in the eyes of men is not the same thing as humility before God. Even in the most wretched of people there is by nature an arrogance, a surging pride toward or against God. It manifests itself in unbelief, when we disregard and disbelieve and dispute God’s Word. It is a spiritual pride that holds to its own thoughts and feelings and disputes with God’s Word. It says, “How can this be?” to God’s clear Word and promise instead of saying with the mother of God, “Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

 

In the reading from Deuteronomy God is about to bring the people of Israel into the promised land of Canaan after forty years of wandering in the desert. As they are about to cross into the land that God has promised them, He tells them: “You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deut. 8:2) Even though they had been slaves, the Israelites were not humble. They had seen the plagues the Lord sent on the Egyptians; they had seen Him part the Red Sea for them and drown the hosts of Pharaoh. They had seen God descend in fire on Mount Sinai and heard His voice speak the Ten Commandments from the mountain. But these wonders were not enough to make them humble before God. When they first came to the border of the land of Canaan, and they heard that the inhabitants of the land were strong, they rebelled against the Lord and would not go in. They did not believe that God would give them the land. They said, “’Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another,’ Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’” (Numbers 14:3-4)

 

That doesn’t sound to our ears like pride; it sounds like despair. But the Israelites were being proud because they regarded their thoughts as higher than God’s Word and their weakness as greater than God’s power. They didn’t recognize that it was the Lord’s hand that had brought them out of Egypt and didn’t believe that His hand would drive out the nations before them. All they could see was the strength of the nations in the land of Canaan and their own weakness. That was pride, because they did not regard the Lord and His Word as more powerful than the might of men.

 

So God humbled them. He made the Israelites wander in the desert until the people of that generation died. Their children would go in and receive the land. And all the while they wandered around the desert they were dependent on God. He had to lead them by a pillar of cloud and fire—they had no idea where they were going. He had to feed them with manna—bread from heaven. He had to give them water in that dry and weary land. “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) As they wandered in the wilderness where there was no food, they were supposed to learn that it was not really food that sustained them, but the Lord’s Word. His Word sent the bread from heaven to them faithfully. Each morning they awoke and found bread to eat in a place where there was no bread. For forty years this great multitude of people was sustained in a desert which was unable to sustain them because the Word of the Lord said that it should be so. They were being disciplined for their unbelief and rebellion, but disciplined as children, not destroyed in God’s wrath. God was teaching them not to depend on their senses and reason and experience but on His Word.

 

Now as they are about to go into the land of promise God tells them to remember their wandering in the wilderness and what He taught them there. “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing…” (Deut. 8:7-9) They are to remember their time in the wilderness because when they come into this good land it will be easy for them to forget what really sustains them and gives them life. It will be easy for them to think that it is the good land that gives them life instead of the Word of the Lord. Then instead of “bless[ing] the Lord for the good land he has given” (Deut. 8:10), they will be unthankful or give the Lord’s praise to idols.

 

What does all this have to do with us on this day of national thanksgiving in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2015? The United States is not Israel, and America is not the land of Canaan. No, the Church is Israel, the believers in Christ from every tribe and nation scattered across the world. And our promised land is not in this world, but the new heavens and earth that Jesus will bring about when He comes again.

 

No, now is the time of our wandering in the wilderness. We live as faithful citizens of this country. We pay our taxes; we pray and work for the well-being and prosperity of our nation. But we are pilgrims here. We are looking for another country to come in which Christ reigns and all enemies—sin, suffering, death and the devil—are banished.

 

While we are wandering, the Lord humbles us, but sustains us. He gives us life by His Word. He sustains us with the bread from heaven—Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead the third day. He gives us this life-giving bread in the preaching of His Word and in the Holy Sacrament of His Body and Blood. He gives us spiritual food in this desert and sustains us. And as He does this He is humbling us, teaching us not to regard what we can see and sense but His Word. His Word proclaims to us that Christ’s righteousness is ours, although we cannot see or sense it. It proclaims to us that the Kingdom of heaven is ours, not by our doing but by the obedience and suffering of Jesus in our place. When our numbers are small and weak, when we wonder how we will survive the next day or week in the wilderness—much less enter into the promised land—God is disciplining us, teaching us to depend on His Word to provide for us. We are learning to trust His Word that declares the kingdom of heaven is ours, that death and sin will not harm us. As we learn to trust that Word we come to recognize that everything that sustains our lives comes from that Word as well—food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, family, and everything we have.

 

Otherwise, by nature, we think the way the unbelieving world does. We sort of vaguely recognize that God exists and that He made everything, but we don’t really recognize the gifts we receive as coming from God. This makes real thanksgiving to God impossible. That was what eventually happened to the Israelites in the land of promise. They ate and were full and then forgot God, thinking that their own hand or righteousness had gotten them all the blessings they had. They forgot how they had nothing in the wilderness but the Word of the Lord faithfully provided them with bread from heaven in a place where it should have been impossible for them to live.

 

The Lord has us in the wilderness to humble us, to discipline us, to teach us to hold to His Word as our life. And yet in this wilderness He has still given us so much. We go home to plates of food and to families that love us, to homes that are warm and comfortable, in a country where despite all our sins we are still blessed with peace and order.

 

We have those things and we should give God thanks as the one who has given them out of great mercy. We should pray that He keeps giving those gifts to us and our country. But we should not depend on them as our life nor set our hearts on them as our highest joy.

 

God is able to give us life even in the absence of those things—peace and freedom, family and friends, food and drink. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) He gives us life by proclaiming Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil for us, by plunging us into His death and resurrection in Baptism. Believe that Word and claim the Kingdom of Heaven as your own, despite what you see and feel and sense. Then you will see that all the good things you receive on earth are not accidents or flukes—they are the Lord providing for you as a father.

 

Let us give thanks to the Lord for those good things we have received and are still receiving on earth. Let us also give thanks for His discipline that teaches us to believe His Word instead of our own thoughts. And let us thank the Lord our God for the good land He has promised us—the new heavens and the new earth, bought for us by Jesus’ suffering and death and sealed to us with His blood.

 

Amen.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Witnesses of Divine Love. The Martyrdom of John the Baptist–Altar Guild Service.

The Martyrdom of John the Baptist (observed)—Altar Guild Service

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Mark 6:14-29

August 27, 2015

“Witnesses of Divine Love”

Iesu Iuva

“For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” (Mark 6:18) Well, isn’t that what you get when you tell people they can’t be married? You don’t make friends that way. If it was today, Herod and Herodias would say, “We love each other,” and that would end the discussion. But God’s Law doesn’t simply ask if you love each other. It says, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:6) So-called love and passion do not make a marriage lawful.

Who loves Herod? Is it Herodias, who loves him so much she will kill anyone who gets between them? Or is it John, who speaks unpleasant words to Herod, tells him his life’s choices, his choice of a soul-mate, is wrong? John loves Herod. He loves Herod so much he goes to prison for the good of Herod’s soul. He loves him so much that they cut off John’s head and serve it to Herod on a platter.

John loved Herod. He was a witness of the Lord’s love for the sinful. He loved Herod so much that he risked his life calling him to repentance. He could have easily kept his mouth shut and said nothing to Herod about his unlawful marriage, but then he would have been unfaithful to God’s call on him to be a preacher and prophet. But instead he loved Herod and sought his soul’s salvation. In doing this he witnessed to the Lord’s love of the sinful. Despite the Lord’s anger against sinners for their disobedience, He eagerly seeks their salvation. He desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his iniquity and live (Ezekiel 18). He prophesied through Ezekiel: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so I will seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12) The Lord seeks sinners to reclaim them, even though it costs the lives of His saints.

John the Baptist is an example to us. We remember the saints because in them we see examples of a holy life. They encourage us to walk in the paths they have already walked—in the footsteps of Christ. God also has called us to be witnesses of His love for sinners. We are also to show by our lives, and, if God wills, by our deaths, how God loves and seeks lost sinners. We are not to be concerned about how much it will cost us. We are obligated to love them as our own selves and to seek their good as if it were our own.

How would you fare if you were called upon to preach repentance to Herod and Herodias? Would you be afraid? Would you look for excuses not to do it? We are called to proclaim God’s law and His Gospel to our neighbors as our calling permits. If you are not a preacher it is not through public preaching but through private counsel and admonishment. But often we fail to do it not because we are afraid for our lives but simply because we are afraid to offend people! Even in the obligation to bear witness to the love of God for sinners we see our sin.

Thanks be to God, then, for the Divine Service that we celebrate each Lord’s Day! Because in the Divine Service the Lord bears witness to His divine love for the sinful, even sinners like us who fail to reflect that love. The Lord bears witness in the Divine Service to His own love, and we also remember and proclaim His love.

The love of God for sinners is not sentimental. When John loved Herod, it didn’t take the form of syrupy-sweet talk or pats on the back. It took the form of a rebuke. It took the form of sticking to that rebuke even when Herod imprisoned him and cut off his head. And the love God proclaims for sinners is also not sentimental. It also takes the form of a death. “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” (John 3:16) That means not just that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son, but that He loved the world in this way, by giving His Son to us to be rejected, falsely accused, torn with whips, mocked, spit on, and then pierced with nails driven into the wood of the cross. God so loved the world that His Son, through whom all things were made, was crucified and hung dead on the tree.

It is because God loved the world in that way that we have peace with God, though we do not love in that way, to that degree. God so loved the world and the sinners of the world that He sent His Son not only to call us to repentance for our lawlessness but to shed His blood to make atonement for our lawlessness.

It is not a sweet and sentimental love that God has for us. It is a love that is keenly aware of what human beings are after the fall of Adam—the extent of our rebellion and hatred against God. His love has sounded that out and taken it in and atoned for it. God doesn’t love us because we are sweet and good and somehow deserving of His love. He loves us despite the fact that we deserve nothing but His anger. He has taken that anger upon Himself for us on the cross.

In the Divine Service God publishes this love with which He has loved sinners. He makes it public through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacrament of the Altar. The whole Divine Service is a public proclamation of God’s love for sinners which He showed in the death of His Son. God proclaims it through the reading of the Word, the preaching, and the Sacrament. We also remember and proclaim God’s love in Christ’s death as we hear and confess the Word, as we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26)

 

What does the Altar Guild do? Not just clean and iron and adorn. Not just that. The Altar Guild is helping in the public proclamation of Christ’s death. That is holy, isn’t it? That is sacred. People think the public proclamation of God’s love is the pastor’s job, and it is—I preach and administer the sacraments. Through those things God gives the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life to sinners. But the Altar Guild assists in proclaiming Christ. You set out the elements that become Christ’s body and blood. You help to reverently dispose of those elements that remain after the Supper is over. You clean the vessels that have held Jesus’ body and blood—the chalice, the paten, the individual cups, the purificators. You adorn the house in which Christ’s death is proclaimed. In all these things you are helping to bear witness to Christ’s death.

This is a sacred and holy responsibility. And how you carry it out matters. In the Divine Service Jesus testifies to His love for sinners which was shown in His death on the cross for us. But we also remember and proclaim His death and the shedding of His blood. It’s easy for the focus of the service to drift from that central proclamation of Christ crucified. Sermons can easily become moral lectures or a thousand other things besides proclaiming Christ dead on the cross for our sins. And the people’s focus in the service can shift. People can easily turn their attention from God’s unsentimental love for us in the death of Jesus to any number of other distractions, from patriotism and love of God and country, to family and the love of hearth and home.

The Altar Guild helps bear witness to Christ crucified. When you do inconvenient things like cleaning the individual cups and pouring out the water that is mixed with the sacred elements reverently on the earth, you bear witness that Jesus’ body and blood really are in the elements of the Lord’s Supper and that we really do commune in His flesh and blood. When you go around the chancel and altar with special reverence, you bear witness that Christ really is in this place, and that He is here to distribute the salvation won by His death. When you put special care into the arrangement of the robes and the paraments and the cleaning of the chancel, you testify to Jesus’ death. Because Jesus came to earth because we had transgressed God’s law and were under His wrath. He didn’t come to earth to do away with God’s holiness, but to atone for our unholiness. Therefore in the Divine Service the tone should be that we are in the presence of a holy God. We are there safely because He has so loved us as to give His Son into death for us. When the Altar Guild carries out their work in such a spirit, both of fear and reverence and also thankfulness for the great love shown us, you help your brothers and sisters in the congregation to hear and recognize His love.

God’s love is not the love of an uncle, who smiles indulgently at the indiscretions of his nieces and nephews. It is Divine love. God gave up none of His holiness in being reconciled to sinners like us. He perfectly upheld His holiness and righteousness in punishing sin. But in Divine mercy and love He punished our sins in Jesus. Now there is no more wrath for us, but we are accepted in Christ and may draw near to God through Him. This is what we remember and proclaim in the Divine Service—God’s love in the death of Christ. May God help us to show and witness that love by our reverence in handling the sacred linens and vessels. May He grant that our congregation may be established in the love of God shown in the death of Christ and follow the example of John the Baptist in fearlessly seeking the salvation of lost sinners!

Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

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