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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving Sermon, 2014 “We Praise You, O God.”
For our sermon today, we will be singing through the hymn, “We Praise You, O God.”  To follow along, turn to hymn 785 in your hymnal.

The story behind this hymn isn’t that inspiring or moving.  In fact, it goes like this: There was an organist who loved this tune but disliked the accompanying words, so he approached Julia Cory, an author in the early 1900’s, to pen new lyrics to the tune.  Simple as that.  Yet when you begin exploring the words of the hymn, you quickly realize that though the hymn’s origins are simple, the hymn itself is quite profound.
In the first verse, right away we encounter our Redeemer, Creator.  This is not some far off god that we singing our praise to, but the one true God that has revealed Himself to us in a very personal way.  He has even given to us His holy name!  Long ago, at various times and in various ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.  To them God revealed Himself as our Creator.  He has revealed Himself as Yahweh.
Not only did he form the heavens and the earth, but as our creator, God made us and all creatures; He has given us our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all our senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all we have. He richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support this body and life.  He defends us against all danger and guards and protects us from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of our own. For all this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  It is His Son that saved us from our sins.  As our Redeemer Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is our Lord, who has redeemed us, lost and condemned people, purchased and won us from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.  It is God as our Creator, Redeemer that we kneel before to give thanks, and it is His holy name that we bless and sing praises to.
Let us now sing the first verse of our hymn.

We praise You, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
    In grateful devotion our tribute we bring.
We lay it before You, we kneel and adore You;
    We bless Your holy name, glad praises we sing.

In the second verse, we worship our God with confidence, knowing that He has been faithful to our fathers.  We have seen Him deliver His people Israel from the bonds of slavery and the land of Egypt.  We have seen His ever enduring patience and mercy as His people strayed from His Word.  We have seen Him guide them in the way of righteousness and through persecution and oppression.  We have seen that He too has delivered us from the bonds of sin and the land of death, and His ever enduring patience and mercy as we stray from His Word, and Him guiding us in the way of righteousness and through persecution and oppression.
In the days of old, God let His Spirit rest upon judges, prophets, priests, and kings.  In that way He led His people Israel and protected them from all harm and danger as well as corrected them when they went astray.  In the latter days, God has spoken to us through His Son.  Christ has revealed the Father’s Will to us.  For God our Father has plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future.  When Christ ascended, He sent to us His Holy Spirit, the great comforter, so that the Spirit of God rests upon all of us.  With the assurance of the Holy Spirit, we know that though trials and tempests come, we are secure in God’s hands and nothing can pluck us from it.
So we are able to face what comes our way, knowing that Christ has not abandoned us.  Instead, Christ comes to us through our suffering, and it is while we suffer that His power is made known.  It is in our suffering that God is glorified, not by the suffering itself, but by what God does through our suffering.  In our suffering the Spirit is at work, comforting us, guiding us, strengthening us.  He is building us up and conforming us to Christ.  He creates life out of death.  This is the power of the Spirit, and for that we are thankful. 
And when that day comes, when the perils of this life overwhelm and overtake our bodies of flesh, we know that we are not forgotten.  For when we live in Christ, we die in Christ.  Whether in life or death, we are His because Christ is the victor over death and the grave.  We are not forsaken in death, but instead ushered by Christ to the throne room of God where we will dwell securely in His presence.  On that day our struggles will be over and our battle won.  On that day we will have everlasting peace.  So we worship God as our guide in life and in death.
Let us now sing the second verse of our hymn.

We worship You, God of our fathers, we bless You;
    Through trial and tempest our guide You have been.
When perils o’ertake us, You will not forsake us,
    And with Your help, O Lord, our struggles we win.

In the final verse we move from individual to corporate worship.  We sing out with voices united as the whole Christian Church on earth praises our God as one.  Further, we have discussed how God was faithful to our fathers, but now we turn to our fathers themselves.  We recognize that the Church on earth is not alone in its praise, but that when we sing we are joining in a heavenly song that has been sung since the beginning of time.  Not only are we worshiping with all the angels and arch angels, but with all the company of heaven.  We worship with all the saints who have gone on before just as we worship with the saints that are with us now.  The Holy Christian Church is not bound by time and space, and thus our worship is everlasting and eternal.  We worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit with the whole Christian Church, both in heaven and on earth.
We have moved from the past to the present, now let us move from the present to the future, the reason for our salvation.  God, our Creator, Redeemer, has made everything out of love, and He has sent His only Son to reconcile us to Himself, so that we one day will enjoy His creation the way it was meant to be.  On the Last Day, Christ will come and we will be raised with all the dead, and the faithful found in Christ will rise to eternal life.  We will have glorified bodies; without fear, without sickness, without sin.  God will spread His presence over all creation and we will dwell securely with Him forever and ever.  This is the reason for our hope, this is the reason for our praise, and this is the reason for our Thanksgiving.
Let us now sing the final verse of our hymn.

With voices united our praises we offer
    And gladly our songs of thanksgiving we raise.
With You, Lord, beside us, Your strong arm will guide us.
    To You, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Caught Up"

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Pentecost 23 
 Focus: As we enter advent, we not only remember Christ’s birth, but we look forward to His return.  While we wait it is easy to get caught up in the world and lose sight of His return, or to get caught up in a false understanding of His return.  Instead, we should be caught up in Christ and stand firm in His word so that we will be ready for His return. 
Function: That the hearers are not caught up in the world or a false understanding, but are caught up in Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
It doesn’t take much to figure out it’s that time of the year again.  Just walk into Walmart and the shelves are stocked with Christmas merchandise.  Commercials are asking if you’ve started your shopping yet.  Catalogues arrive by the dozens in the mail.  The next gotta-have gadgets and gizmos are being released.  Lights are being strung on houses and trees.  Parties are being planned and travel arrangements made.  All that’s keeping the Christmas season at bay is Thanksgiving Day, but we know soon as it has passed the flood gates will open wide.  Excitement buzzes all around, and there truly is much to be excited about.  In just two short weeks the church itself will be preparing for the advent of our King.
            During advent, we join in the expectant hope of the Old Testament prophets as they wait for God’s salvation.  Yet what they waited for in darkness, we see in marvelous light.  They anticipated things to come, we remember things that are here.  While they did not know what God’s salvation would look like, we know that Christ was born in human flesh to ransom the world from our sin.  On the cross, He broke our bonds to sin and death and when He rose He established His Kingdom here on earth.  However, during advent we do not only remember Christ’s advent, but we look forward to His second advent, His second coming.  On that day He will finish what He had started and the fullness of His kingdom will be realized.
            But until that time are caught in is tension between the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom and its consummation, that is, when all things will be made new.  While we live under Christ in His kingdom now, most days it doesn’t feel like it.  We live in a world corrupted by sin.  Although Satan, our accuser, has been conquered and cast out of heaven, he still walks freely on earth, prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  He afflicts us and oppresses us.  He does everything he can to tempt us to sin against Christ our Savior and our Father in heaven, and though we are no longer condemned by our sin, its effects still way heavily upon us.  Even our own sinful flesh betrays us.  We all experience the hurt, pain, and sorrow caused by sin, and in the end, we will all eventually die.  So we eagerly wait for Christ’s return when this cycle of death and destruction will finally end once and for all.
            Yet while we wait, it is easy to get distracted.  Often Christians make one of two mistakes.  Either they lose sight of Christ’s return and they get caught up in worldly things, or they worry about Christ’s return and get caught up false theology.  Paul addresses both of these concerns in his letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul begins chapter four with an encouragement to lead a godly life.  Though the Thessalonians accepted the Gospel in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, Paul feared for their sake because his ministry there was cut short.  Opposition to the Word of God was strong and caused Paul to flee, leaving behind this infant congregation who, while he was there, was growing in the Word each and every day, and whose faith was an encouragement to all the world.  Paul feared, however, that the opposition and cultural influences would grow too strong for the congregation and would choke out their faith.  So Paul sent this letter urging them to withstand the sexually immoral and idolatrous culture and walk in a way that pleases God all the more, for God has called us to a life of holiness.  Paul writes, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you…But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”  Paul instructed them to remain holy for this is the work that God has given them to do, and to remain watchful for Christ’s return, for it would come like a thief in the night.
            Paul’s words apply to us too.  Today we see many churches caving in to persecution and cultural pressure.  We see them compromising the Word of God, tolerating sin as if it is not sin at all.  We see churches bending to the will of political agendas.  We see individual Christians, even ourselves, easing our stance on things like abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, even going as far as to say that there is salvation apart from Christ.  But all of this is clearly against God’s Word and will for our lives.  We should not get caught up in the world but stand strong in the testimony of our faith and be mindful of that day when the Lord returns, for Paul warns both the Thessalonians and us that God will take vengeance upon those who do not heed His Word.
            Now concerning that day Paul also did not want the Thessalonians to misunderstand and be caught up in false theology about Christ’s return.  Paul tells them, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  You see, the Thessalonians were afraid that all those who had died in the faith while waiting on the Lord’s return would miss out on the promise, that is that the dead would stay dead and not receive everlasting life and blessedness in the presence of the Father and of Christ.  They did not fully understand the promise that the Gospel offered and believed that Christ’s kingdom would simply be an earthly kingdom that extended forever.
            We too see misunderstandings of Christ’s return in our day.  One of the best and most obvious examples of this is the belief in a rapture.  Some believe, even based off our text to the Thessalonians, that one day Christ will come back, resurrect the faithful, and secretly rapture His Church, that is snatch them out of this world and take them away with Him to heaven, leaving the unfaithful here on earth to endure seven years of tribulation.  This is the stuff of the Left Behind books and movies.  They falsely assert that after the tribulation Christ will visibly return for the whole world to see and He will separate those who repented from those who did not.  Not only is this theology not supported in Scripture, it ultimately goes against what is clearly witnessed to in Scripture and we must not get caught up in it.
The clear witness of Scripture states, as confessed in the creeds, that there is ONE return of Christ and ONE resurrection of the dead.  When Christ returns, as Paul says, He will bring with Him the souls of all of those who have died in the faith.  When God created us, He created us as a unified body and soul.  God never intended for death to be part of creation, but allowed death to enter when Adam and Eve sinned.  He took pity on Adam and Eve in their fallen state.   He did not desire His creation to live apart from Him forever.  So He removed them from the garden and barred them from eating of the truth of life, for if they had eaten it they would have lived in the fallen state, apart from God, forever.  So God let death enter into creation so that our sinful flesh may pass away and our soul to be brought to be with Him in heaven.
            Heaven, however, was not meant to be our permanent estate.  God had made creation and it was good, it was very good.  Sin entered through the weakness of our flesh and the temptation of the devil.  When Christ returns, not only will He conquer Satan and bind Him forever, but He will bring with Him all the souls of those who have died in the faith.  At His command He will raise their bodies of dust, transforming them into new bodies in which there is no weakness of sin, and for those still alive at Christ’s return, their flesh will also be transformed into bodies of glory and we will all be caught up together with Christ. And He will descend and make all things new for the full realization of His eternal kingdom here on earth.
            This is the comfort that Paul is sharing with the Thessalonians and the words that he tells them to share for mutual encouragement.  He does not want them to be ignorant, but to know that all those who have died in the faith, all those who have died while waiting upon the Lord are not excluded from everlasting life, but Christ will bring their souls with Him and they will be resurrected and will be inheritors of Christ’s everlasting kingdom along with all the faithful.
            That means, dear brothers and sisters, that death cannot hold you down, but Christ has defeated death for your sake.  When we live, we are in Christ, and when we die, we are in Christ. So whether we live or we die, we are Christ’s.  He is our God and our Savior, and He knows each of us by name, so we will not be forgotten whether in life or in death.  One day He will return, and this pronouncement will resonate through all creation as it is made new and we are given new, glorious bodies to dwell with God the Father and the Lamb who was slain forever and ever.
So as we wait don’t get caught up in the world and lose sight of Christ’s return, and don’t get caught up in a false understanding of His return, but be caught up in Christ and firm in His word, knowing that our salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  Thereby we will be ready for His return.  For Christ has died!  Christ has risen!  Christ will come again!

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

“A Church United”

Revelation 7:2-17, All Saints Day
Focus: The vision of the Church Militant and Church Triumphant presented in this text is one of the most beautiful and comforting in all of Scripture.  It gives hope and inspires perseverance for the saints who are going through the great tribulation and are tempted to be disheartened.  While Revelation is rightly called a book of judgment, this scene shows that Revelation was written for the encouragement of the saints and to ease troubled minds. Function: That the listeners are inspired by the words of John to live confidently amidst the great tribulation. Structure: Verse-by-Verse

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The book of Revelation has not only captured the imagination of Hollywood, but has captivated the minds and imaginations of the church throughout history.  Much has been debated over the centuries as theologians have explored the mysteries of John’s letter.  Questions concerning the millennial reign of Christ and the great tribulation have plagued the church since its birth, and more recently the development of rapture theology in the 1700’s has complicated things further.
Problems occur when we look at Revelation as the starting point for our theology, and use the prophecy to decipher the people and events in our world.  Using Revelation as a guide to interpret history is not only misguided, it’s a bad idea and misses the point of the book completely.  Revelation was never meant to be the basis for doctrine, instead it was written to encourage the saints and give them comfort.  It is the story of salvation in condensed form, played out poetically in the symbolism of John’s vision.  To understand Revelation, you must keep in mind the testimony of the rest of Scripture.
When you read John’s words, you begin to see a pattern emerge: Seven Seals; Seven Trumpets; Seven Bowls, all bearing God’s wrath.  Each repetition is a retelling of the story through different lenses.  The tellings are not a fixed time, but are representative of the conditions, circumstances, and contexts that all humans have faced throughout history.  Through these visions, John is witnessing the human experience from the fall of Adam and Eve through the return of Christ and even beyond.
Thus, each generation has seen the words of Revelation reflected in their own time since it was written.  Even today we see ISIS and the rise of terrorism, civil unrest in Africa, global financial crises.  We hear reports of Ebola and other diseases; of devastating earthquakes and tornados and hurricanes and tsunamis and floods and droughts and famines.  Often, these things leave us troubled and afraid of what is going to happen next.  For the unbeliever, and for those who don’t completely rely on God, John’s visions trouble their conscious and works at bringing them to repentance and faith in Christ before He returns.  But for those who cast every care on God the message is completely different.
In the midst of affliction and terror, John witnesses something that gives him comfort and assurance.  In contrast to the chaos of the world, John looks and sees another angel ascending from the place of God’s activity.  The angel called out to the others who were given power over creation for judgment.  “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”  God had sent this angel to preserve His servants, His saints, through all the evils they would face.  Many great and terrible things are headed their way, but they stand ready and steadfast because God has sealed them.  He has marked them and made them His own.  They are now under His authority, protection, and care.  There is nothing and no one that can pluck the saints from God’s hand, for this seal is founded on His eternal and unshakable word.  But just who are these saints that are sealed?
John declares, “And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.”  Who are the 144,000?  While this number is used nowhere else in scripture, we can infer its meaning with confidence.  Keeping in mind that the terrors that John had witnessed were an expression of the whole human condition since the fall, this number too is also a representative of a whole.  In the testimony of Scripture, the number 12 most often represents God’s people.  In its most complete sense, there were twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament and twelve apostles in the New.  12 times 12 is 144.  This is the COMPLETE Israel, the true Israel by faith, the Holy Christian Church that stands ready to do God’s will.
So we know where the 144 comes from, but what about the 1,000?  The number 10 is a number of completeness, and the number 3 is a number of perfection.  So what happens when you multiply 10 three times, 10 by 10 by 10?  In this case, the number 1,000 represents a perfect completion.  We see this number reflected in the Old Testament when 1,000 men from each tribe of ancient Israel were selected to represent the whole nation in battle.  This connotation also carries over to our text as we see the saints arranged to engage the enemy.  And what happens when you multiply 144 with 1,000?  The 144,000 becomes an emphatic representation of the whole Christian church on earth at any given time.  The Church Militant, ready to carry out God’s marching orders.  These saints aren’t just the faithful on the last day, but the number includes all the saints, from beginning to end, during their life on earth.  Past, present, future.  Right now, this means you and me, but we are not alone in our struggle.  There have been many who have waged this war before us, and there will be many who will wage it after.  We are numbered among the 144,000.
So how do we know that we are numbered?  We know because God has given to us His Holy Spirit who guards and protects us, who daily and richly forgives our sins and keeps us firm in the faith.  Through the proclamation of the Gospel, the waters of baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, we can hear, see, feel, and taste that we belong to God and are known by Him.  We are reminded that Christ has taken away our sin and died in our place so that we are free from God’s judgment and wrath.  We do not have to fear His wrath for we know that we are His.  This confidence is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  Because of Him, we can even stare death in the face, our final enemy, because we know that we are still the Lord’s even in our death.
With is, John’s gaze is shifted from the battle front to a new scene, one that fills him with much comfort.  He is once again looking at the throne room, where now “a great multitude that no one could number” was standing before the throne.  They are clothed in white robes, waving palm branches in victory and triumph.  They are “crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!””  What a contrast to the saints on earth.  While the saints are numbered as the 144,000, this crowd was so large that it couldn’t even be counted.  Among them were ones from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  While the saints on earth were aligned for battle, these were already singing a victory song, praising God and the Lamb.
The scene was so powerful that John was rendered speechless.  Knowing what he was thinking, an elder gave voice to John’s words: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  John was eager to know, so the elder answered his own question: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”  These were the saints that were sealed on earth, who are now being carried through death to the throne room of God.  Their righteousness has been made complete through the blood of the Lamb.  For them, the battle is over, the war is won.  These are the saints who have gone before us.  Among them are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses and the prophets; Kind David and Daniel; the apostles; the Church fathers; the reformers….grandpa and grandma, mom and dad, brother and sister, son and daughter.  These are the Church Triumphant.
The scene of the Church Militant, those who stand ready for battle, couldn’t be complete without this scene of the Church Triumphant, all those saints who have come through the battle and now, finally, are at rest.  Together they are the most beautiful, most powerful portrayal of the Universal Church in all of Scripture.  Together, we are one, connected by Christ, the lamb who was slain.  Today, on All Saints Day, we remember those who have died in the Lord.  While we struggle with the emptiness that death has left in our lives, we take comfort knowing that they have passed safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
And on the other side of death they have found comfort in the arms of Christ.  They are before the throne of God, and He is with them forever.  They deal with no more sin, no more danger, no more pain, no more evil, for there is nothing but God and His goodness.  God gives them every good thing, there is no need or suffering before His throne.  For God is their comforter and protector.  He shepherds them day and night as they eagerly wait for the resurrection and the bliss beyond.  What joy this is!  What assurance we have in the God of all comfort!  Though we may face all kinds of evil now, we know that our final resting place is with God, and in His presence we will lack nothing, nor will we suffer from sorrow or pain or any evil ever again!
So let your voices ring out with all the saints who have gone before and with all those yet to come and with all the company of heaven as we declare: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.  Amen.