Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Judgment of Joy and Consolation

(Sistine Chapel - Last Judgment, Michelangelo)

A common question I receive is the following “Pastor, what about the End Times?” or “What do you think about the Book of Revelation?”  With the coming of the New Millennium, coupled with financial and economic woes, and so many troubles in the world, many folks have a great deal of curiosity about what is to come.

In recent years a number of television shows, movies, and books have come out with misleading teachings about the end times (including the “Left Behind” series of books).  The bottom line is that people want to know the end of the story!  The Holy Scriptures tell us everything we need to know.  We confess the story every times we meet for worship, “And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end…I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.”  Those words of course, are the words of the Nicene Creed, which summarizes the teachings of the Scriptures.

Christians have no need to worry about the Last Day but should be comforted as we await the “blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who have Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:13-14). 

There is a danger in going to the extreme in two different directions as we await the Last Day when all will be brought to completion.  There is either a feverish preoccupation  with the “signs of the times” and constant speculation, or on the other end, a spiritual laziness that cares little or nothing for the imminent return of Christ.  Neither view is helpful.  The church ought not therefore engage itself in constant speculations regarding signs of the times.  

How then, should Christians think and act regarding the end times?  Christians should devote themselves to hearing the Word of God – repentance, faith, and holy living.  They should continue in their various “callings” in life, as a spouse or grandparents, single, married, or widowed.  They should remain diligent and faithful employees or employers and confess the name of Christ in their daily lives.  Now is the time to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).  And such a life is to be lived with full awareness of what hour it is, “for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11).  Also repeatedly taught by Jesus and the apostles is the truth that the exact hour of Christ’s coming remains hidden in the secret counsels of God (Matt. 24:36). 

The best way to be prepared is simply to receive the gifts of the risen Christ – holy baptism, the forgiveness of sins in His Supper, to hear and believe the preached Word of God.  God Himself prepares you with everything that you need for the days ahead.  Our Lord does not expect anything from you which you have not first received yourself!  Therefore, rejoice and be glad!  Christ’s coming is a source of comfort and joy for the Christian.  It is the day we pray for and long to see.

It is important to note that during the month of November (the final part of the Church Year) that our readings focus on the Final Judgment and End Times.  These readings curiously enough anticipate the coming of our Lord in His birth - that the Lord is comes as a child in Bethlehem to a young virgin mother.  He will be the hope of Israel and will bring with Him a new creation. 

John’s vision in the book of Revelation can bring to mind terrible visions of war, disaster, persecution, and global destruction.  It challenges the reader with symbols and hidden meanings.  We should therefore ask ourselves, “is this a book of terror or is it a book of comfort?”  The golden thread that runs through Revelation is Christ, the slain and arisen Lamb, with His Church in worship on earth and in heaven.  This final book of the Bible explores and explains the final testimony of the ascended Lord before His return in judgment.  Instead of being just about a great showdown, Revelation stresses how Christ gives Christians power in weakness.  Christ reveals to His people glorious visions of the world to come amid the present suffering.  He promises the ultimate defeat of Satan and eternal life with God in Christ Jesus.

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity and Holy Baptism of Luther James

"And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt. 22:11-14).

When folks asked Mrs Larson and I when she pregnant what we were having, we would usually respond by saying that we were going to have a sinner.  And it happened.  We will never have to teach our boy how to hit his sister.  I will never have to teach him to disobey his mother.  I will never have to teach him how to become angry or feel hatred toward his own parents, but no doubt someday he perhaps will.

We don’t have to teach our children how to sin.  They quite naturally do that on their own.  King David sings in Psalm 51 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.  And whats worse, my son’s father is first among sinners.  St. Paul writes in Romans chapters 5 that sin entered the world through one man and was passed down to me.  Luther James, comes from a long line of sinner fathers.  And he inherited a terminal disease which we all bear in our bodies.  And the penalty for sin remains the same as it did for Adam and Eve our first parents.  The day in which you eat of it you shall surely die.  Our boy will work by the sweat of his brow, he will toil, and he will die someday because of his own sin.  That is the fate of sinners, despite all our hospitals, doctors, world class medicine.  Despite our medicare, Medicaid, Obama care, you name it.  Sin will get us all in the end.    

When we carry our little children to baptize them, we carry them toward burial.  Leave a kid in the kiddie pool unattended and you get the picture.  Water kills, water drowns, water purifies, but water also saves.  Think Noah’s ark.  Think about the Red Sea – think about the water from the rock in the wilderness.  Think about the water that flowed from Christ side at his death.  St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 6 “We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into DEATH in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  What does this mean.  It means that the Old Adam in us should by daily sorrow and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  That’s what the Bible says.  Hear the first words of Jesus in all four Gospels.  Repent and be baptized everyone of you FOR the forgiveness of sin.  Jesus calls out in Mark chapter 16 “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”  As Jesus ascends into heaven he leaves his disciples with these words “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 

A criticism of us Lutherans is that we make too big a deal about baptism.  But Jesus seems rather obsessed with Baptism and he doesn’t really ever stop talking about it.  And so I think we should follow his lead on this.

Kristina and I have made a habit of always speaking to our children in the womb.  Our children know our voices, they trust us, and love us.  All parents know that this is true.  And indeed if they can respond to the voice of sinful parents, How much more do they respond to the voice of their Father in heaven, in both faith and love toward Him.  God is not waiting up in heaven for Luther James to make a decision whether or not to follow him.  God has decided for Luther and has made up his mind.  He has claimed him as his own.  He has been drowned in the waters of holy baptism, and has come out a saint on the other side.  But as Luther writes in the Large Catechism, the devil is a good swimmer.  Therefore Christian children are taught the virtues of repentance, and faith, and holy living.  They are taught to mortify the flesh, and struggle against their sinful desires and passions.  They believe in Jesus after all. 

The warning in the Gospel text today is clear.  The one who is silent and not dressed in the wedding garment is cast into the utter darkness.  He is bound hand and foot and cast into hell.  In that place there is a weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen.  The meaning is this:

God does not wink at our sins.  He doesn’t smile and look the other way.  We cannot hold on to our sins, and become comfortable with ourselves, and approach the Lord’s Table again and again.  The man who was cast into the darkness was not dressed with the righteousness of Christ.  He trusted in Himself and not the baptismal robe of God’s holiness.  It takes humility and helplessness to let someone else dress you.  It takes a certain desperation to let another person wash you and give you a bath.  But this is precisely the shape of the Christian life.  There is no room for pride and self-help here.  God does not help those who help themselves.  The Gospel is only for the helpless, and the weak, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

Jesus said “I did not come to call the righteous but only sinners to repentance.”  The man cast into hell was comfortable with his own sins – he wasn’t bothered by them.  He was not terrified of them, he did not struggle against his sin, he thought he could show up at the wedding feast, as himself.  Sort of like those church signs, “Come as you are.”

He thought he could show up for church and the Lord’s Supper while refusing to truly repent of his own sins.  This Gospel teaching today is important. 

It means God cannot be mocked.  As Scripture plainly says “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”   

In confirmation class I often ask our confirmands, which statement is better.  To say “I was baptized” or to say “I am baptized.”  Thanks be God, they get it right.  You see baptism is never something in the rear view mirror.  It’s a present reality.  In fact your foreheads are still wet and dripping in his name.  Your hearts are still sprinkled with his blood and he has washed you clean.  Put on your wedding garment.  Let Christ dress you to the nines in His love.  Remember that you are baptized and that promise is with you just as much now, than the day your mother carried you to the font.   

Repent and be baptized everyone of you. Put on Christ.  Be helpless.  Let yourself be desperate and weak.  Receive good gifts from God.  And join the wedding feast.    

Although it should have been you, it was Christ after all who was bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness.  Don’t forget it was he who took your place in hell that you might receive a place in heaven.  The Father raised him on the third day because death could not hold him.  Hell has been ransacked and the goal posts have been torn down.  Sin, death, and the devil have been destroyed.  And now we can scorn and laugh at the devil and dance on our own graves.  
Rejoice and be glad Christian.  You are baptized.  You are friends of God and sit with him as the guest of honor.  Enter the feast prepared for you since the foundation of the world.  Come the Passover Lamb and been sacrificed.  Death has passed over us.  And most importantly our children have been saved.
In Jesus name.

Homily for St. James of Jerusalem 2012

The epistle of James in the Bible will make any Lutheran squirm in their seats.  For St. James opens up his letter with these words “For what good is it, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them “Go in peace, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works is dead.

It is as though he has the words of Jesus in mind when he says that a tree that does not bear fruit must be cut down and thrown into the fire.  It is Jesus who says to ‘let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’  We are called to be the light of the world.  A city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.  It is Jesus who calls you to be the salt of the earth. 

When people think of us, do they think of Jesus?  When we speak do we speak the words of Jesus?  Do our lives bear witness to Him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light?  It is important to observe Saint days in the Lutheran Church calendar.  Article 21 in the Augsburg Confession states “Our Lutheran Churches teach that the remembrance of the saints is to be commended in order that we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling.”

St. James of Jerusalem (also known as James the Just) is referred to by St. Paul as “The Lord’s brother.”  Some believe that James was actually a son of Joseph and Mary, and therefore a biological brother of Jesus.  But throughout much of the history of the church, it can be interpreted that the word ‘brother’ is understood as “cousin” and perhaps James might be the son of a sister of Mary or Joseph.

I hold to the view that James is Jesus’ biological brother.  Although I suppose it doesn’t so much matter.  For there is a bond among us that goes deeper than our immediate family.  And therefore perhaps it makes little difference whether James was brother or not.  There is a bond that goes deeper than our family name.  It is the bond of peace, in which Christ calls us, he calls us friends.  He calls us family.  For Christ is our truest of all brothers.            

When the Lord appeared to James on the other side of the grave, He called him from unbelief. And James was willing to let it go – willing to be given to by the Lord. In that moment James went from being a foster brother of Jesus to being His servant and His apostle. 

St. James was a sinner.  His friends knew some gossip about him, just as others have some inside information on you.  Perhaps it’s not all true, but most of it probably is.  We are all hypocrites when exposed before God.  And this, in a way is good, because only sinners can actually become saints.  We cannot stand in His presence for a moment if our brother Jesus does not stand in our place for us – with his righteous life and holiness.

Saint James urges us in tonight’s reading to be steadfast in our faith, particularly under trial, that we too will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.  St. James was violently stoned to death as he sang a hymn to His brother and Lord.  Let us too press on in our trials knowing that we belong to the family of God, being assured by His Word that we will never be tested beyond that which we can withstand.

After all, just like James, we have a big brother, who stands by our side.  A blood brother – who laid down his life that we might live.  A brother who became weak that we might forever be strong.  A brother whose already defended us from all the evil bullies on the playground.  Like James, our older Brother has showed for us a way of serving each other in love – a love that endures all – all the world’s unpleasantness and indeed hell itself.  All so that us spiritual orphans – we lost children – can find our home.  And rejoice with all the family of God.       

Birth from Above

Birth from Above...
Pastor Larson
Last Sunday morning I filled the baptismal font with warm water and lit the Paschal candle.  Mrs. Larson meanwhile was at home getting our children ready and making sure there were no wrinkles in Luther’s baptismal gown.  This morning another child would be accepted by God and brought to the waters of heavenly birth. 

“When Jesus was baptized he went up for the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).  The Father was pleased because the Son was fulfilling the work that was given to him to do, to take the sins of the world upon Himself and triumph over sin, death, and the devil by His glorious Resurrection.  At Jesus’ Ascension he blessed his disciples and gave them this command “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

You see when we are baptized we are baptized into Christ, joined to him and pray His prayer “Our Father…”  And just like the baptism of our Lord the heavens are opened up,  the Holy Spirit comes to rest on us all our lives, and our Father in heaven speaks these words to you “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”  The heavens are opened to you and God speaks to you words of love and tender mercy.       

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) wrote the following of Baptism: ”Great indeed is the Baptism which is offered you. It is a ransom to captives; the remission of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy seal indissoluble; the chariot to heaven; the luxury of paradise; a procuring of the kingdom; the gift of adoption!”

If you have strayed from your baptism and have been beset by sin, repent!  Climb back into the ark of the holy Christian Church, leave behind your old self and return to the gift given to you in your baptism.  It is just as valid today!  And what do you receive in baptism?  The Bible (God’s Word) says it works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death, and the devil, and gives eternal life to all who believe this. 

Martin Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism that we should think of our baptisms every day when we wake up, make the sign of the cross, and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  In the morning and evening Mrs. Larson and I mark the sign of the cross upon the forehead and heart of our children and bless them by reminding them of their baptisms.  Prayers are best kept simple and no more detailed proclamation is required that this “Thank you Lord for giving me the gift of Holy Baptism.  Thank you for sending your Son to die for my sins that the heavens should be opened to me and that I would be declared well pleasing to you.  Amen.”