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How Do We Watch for Jesus’ Return?

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[Jesus said:] “In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that He is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake” (Mark 13:24-37).

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

“Prepare.” “Keep watch.” These are the words of Advent because Advent is a season of preparation. They are also the words of our Gospel Reading, where Jesus repeatedly calls upon His disciples to “watch.” In fact, the command to watch or an activity related to watching is referenced in each of the five verses that close this reading (verses 33-37). Obviously, Jesus desires for us to watch.

The question, however, is “How do we watch for the return of Jesus?”

To put flesh on this activity of watching, Jesus tells a parable. A master leaves his home and puts his servants in charge, “each with his work.” No one knows when he’ll be back. It is not the duty of the master to tell when he will return, but it is the duty of the doorkeeper to be watching. It is the duty of the faithful servant to be about His assigned task. The owner will be back, and they better be ready for his return, whenever that might be.

So, what are they supposed to do in the meantime? Before he leaves, the man gives his servants authority. It’s specific authority. He gives them authority to do the work he’s given them to do. If they continue in what he’s given them to do, they don’t need to fear his return.

That’s the gist of the parable. The Church on earth is like the household. Jesus has gone away, ascended into heaven, but He’s coming back. His people should be ready for His return. In the meantime, what should they be doing?

They should be doing what Jesus has given them the authority to do.

So what has Jesus given you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, authority to do? Let’s look at what Scripture has to say.

In John 1:12-13, we read: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the [authority] to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Jesus gives you the authority to be His child—something you could not do on your own, any more than you could make yourself a child of your earthly parents—you had be born or adopted by them. Jesus has made you a beloved child by His sacrifice on the cross to redeem you. You have been born again, by water and Spirit. You have been adopted as a child of God, an heir of God and fellow heir with Christ. This, of course, takes place when you are baptized in the name of the Triune God. And as a child of God, you continue to be absolved by the Lord’s Word of Holy Absolution.

Then there’s Hebrews 13:10: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no [authority] to eat.” The text is speaking of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross, offering His body and shedding His blood. Once again, this declares to you that you have this authority by Jesus to be forgiven, to no longer be guilty for sin. And given the reference to eating in the text, one can’t help but think of the Lord’s Supper. You have the authority to join Him in Holy Communion, to receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Not everyone has that right, but He gives that authority to you as His beloved child.

Do you see your “work” so far? Do you see what the Lord has given you to do until He returns? First and foremost, He gives you the authority to be forgiven! Daily, He desires that you repent of your sin and rejoice in the forgiveness He has won for you by His suffering and death on the cross. That is how you are prepared for His return in glory. Be forgiven: your work is really no work at all because Jesus has done all the work by His life, death, and resurrection.

Having been given much, we have much to give. This brings us to another use of the world “authority.” Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20). Now that Jesus has spoken forgiveness to us, He gives us the authority to tell others. Therefore, as a Church we rejoice to teach all that He has commanded—His Word. We delight to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. By that Word which we are privileged to proclaim, the Lord gives authority to others to be His children.

That’s the authority that Jesus gives to the Church. It’s sometimes called the Office of the Keys. It means that Jesus gives us the authority and the “peculiar church power…to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Let’s be clear: we are merely His instruments. It is He who does the work of forgiving.

Be forgiven and share that Word of forgiveness with others. That is what the Lord has given you to do until He returns. Now, do you have other responsibilities as well? Sure, because the Lord gives you other stations and other authorities. This takes us back to vocations again. If you’re a parent, God gives you the authority to train your children. If you’re an employee, He gives you the authority to serve your employer. If you’re a student, He gives you the authority to study the subject and respect your teacher. As a church member, you have the authority and privilege of supporting the proclamation of the Gospel which prepares for Jesus’ return. The Lord has graciously given you various vocations in which He would have you serve your neighbor and in so doing, do it unto Him as well. Having been forgiven and made His child, this is what the Lord would have you to do until He returns.

There is a beauty to this divine design.

Have you ever noticed how you gain a deeper appreciation for people when you are asked to do their work? Imagine you were asked by someone to do the things he or she does. He works at a grocery store, bagging groceries, keeping the shelves stocked. She works in accounts receivable, calling customers to work out repayment schedules. He works as a power lineman, out in storms and blizzards, making sure the electricity continues flowing to your house. She tries to raise four children under 10 in a time of on-line learning. He drives one of the millions of trucks that gets your food from farm to market, logging hard miles on the road in all kinds of conditions, separated for hours even days from his loved one. She cares for her father who has the beginnings of dementia.

If you were to work like these people work, you would discover things about them and the way in which they do their work. It may be how she sets priorities based on the needs of her children. When guiding four children in on-line learning, she has realized that not every child learns the same way. She must adapt for the learning style of each child. And the experience most assuredly gives her a greater appreciation for the dedication and care of her children’s teachers.

Or it may be that you will discover how the woman in collections shows concern. When calling to collect, she tries to empathize with each customer. She knows her work is essential to the financial welfare of the hospital, but still she wants to treat her customer with dignity and respect. In this case, when you do her work, you discover her compassion for people and how emotionally draining it can be to constantly deal with people experiencing financial difficulties.

When you do the work of others, you begin to learn their loves and priorities, their values and sacrifices, the subtle joys of service, and the humble delight in a job well-done. Though in one way, the person is far from you, in another way, that person is closer than he or she was before. When we enter deeper into a person’s service, we grow deeper in our relationship with that person.

  Jesus calls us to watch for His coming by serving in His Kingdom. He does this because He knows the power of His love. When we serve others with His love, we are drawn closer to Him. We discover the mysterious ways of His Kingdom and learn a greater appreciation for the incredible power of His self-sacrificial love.

Christians engaged in the work of Jesus discover how He loves the unlovable. He does not find those people who fit His qualifications and bring them into God’s Kingdom. No, He finds that which is unlovable and loves it into life. This is what He did with me and you. We are not worthy to be members of His Kingdom, but through His death, He forgives our sins, and through His resurrection and the bestowing of the Spirit, He empowers us for service. We need not limit the vision of His Kingdom we think qualify. Instead, we bring the Kingdom to people who do not. By doing that, we are daily reminded of the love of Jesus which brought us into His Kingdom.

Christians engaged in the work of Jesus discover His priorities. Worldly success is not the way of Jesus. He does not seek glory or to get ahead. Instead, He seeks out those who have been left behind. Seeking the lost, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, encouraging the weak, lifting the humble, these are the priorities of Jesus as He extends His Kingdom of grace to all.

Because our Master has gone away and we await His return, it is easy at times to be discouraged. It looks like the Church is failing. We watch more and more people turn away from God. But this is God’s Kingdom, not ours. Jesus does not call us to fix it. He simply calls us to serve in it. And to serve our neighbor day to day as we have opportunity. Jesus promises someday He will return and bring about the fullness of God’s reign. Until then, we live in humble, hopeful service.

To watch and wait for Jesus is not to spend our time trying to figure out the signs of the end and predict His return. No. To watch and wait is to be immersed in the work of the Master, to receive His gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life through His means of grace—Word and Sacrament. To watch and to wait is to engage in faithful service and find ourselves being drawn closer to the heart of Jesus as we share His love with His world.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Remember the Whole Way That the Lord Has Led You

“The Gathering of the Manna” by James Tissot

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

Forty years earlier, Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt toward  the Promised Land. Now they are camped, looking across the Jordan River to the land that God had promised to their forefathers. Not able to go into the Promised Land himself, Moses recounts what had happened during the wilderness wandering and he prepares them for the new land they will now receive. “And 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” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

Forty years it had taken them to make the 300-mile-long journey, an average movement of about 100 feet per day. Obviously, there had been a few bumps in the road along the way. The people ran out of water more than once, which the Lord had provided miraculously. They ran out of food and complained until the Lord sent manna falling from the sky. This went on for forty years. Forty years of living in tents in the wilderness. Forty years in which the Lord had made sure that their clothes didn’t wear out and their feet didn’t swell. Forty years in which they had constantly complained. Forty years in which they had rebelled against God’s authority and the leaders He had placed over them. Forty years where they suffered needlessly for their stubborn rebelliousness and idolatry—fiery serpents and scorpions, earthquakes and plagues, consuming fire from heaven.

It didn’t have to be like that. In the first year, the Lord had brought them to the brink of the Promised Land and was ready to send them in to conquer Canaan. Their spies affirmed the fruitful bounty of the land. But they refused to enter Canaan and take possession of the land promised to them. Though the Lord assured them that He had given their enemies into their hand, that He Himself would fight on their behalf, they were too frightened, did not believe the Lord, and refused to go. And so He led the 2.5 million Israelites on the not-so-scenic route, wandering in the wilderness for forty years.

The Lord says that He did it so “that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” The Lord knew that, once they reached the Promised Land and had all its abundance, they’d be likely to forget that it was all a gift from Him. So in preparation for the Promised Land, He humbled them. He put them in a situation where they said, “We cannot survive out here on our own. We need the Lord to keep us alive.”

So He did: and to remind them that He is the One who sustains life from day to day, He provided just enough manna for them to live from day to day. The Lord kept it up, too: the manna didn’t stop falling until they entered the Promised Land. Thus they learned from the humbling and the testing that the Lord would provide for them all things. And perhaps that trust would come easier for sinners in the wilderness than in the Promised Land. It’s easy to turn wealth and abundance into idols that make you think you don’t need God. Poverty and need can have the effect of making you see your need for the Lord’s mercy.

The purpose of God’s testing was to lead Israel to trust Him more fully. The reason He provided such miraculous physical blessings was to show His people that they needed and that He could provide far more than physical blessings. With His Word, the Lord could meet all their physical needs as well as the still greater needs of their souls. Without God’s Word, physical blessings by themselves will never be enough. Food alone won’t give life. Life has deeper dimensions that only God can satisfy. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

There was more to it, too: it was a matter of discipline. Moses declares, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.” Some of the discipline in the wilderness was punishment. There’s no hiding the fact that they were in the wilderness for forty years because the generation of adults that came out of Egypt refused to believe that God would give them the Promised Land, but instead gave in to the god of fear and believed that they’d be slaughtered by those in Canaan. Because they doubted God and refused to enter the land He gave, the Lord declared that none of the Israelites would enter until that generation died off.

 But not all of it was punishment. Discipline also means training: and once again, the Lord was training His people to trust in Him. As He provided food and deliverance from danger in the wilderness, so He would give them victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land.

One more thing about those forty years: they had a starting point. The Israelites weren’t always in the wilderness. They’d spent 400 years in Egypt as slaves. But the Lord rescued them from that slavery—rescued them wondrously, miraculously, and dramatically. The wilderness might not be the greatest place to be, but it’s a far better situation than slavery and death. That’s especially true since it wasn’t their destination. The wilderness was just the time between the slavery and the Promised Land. Throughout those years, the Lord would humble them, test them, and discipline them. He would also provide for them, protect them, and give them the Promised Land full of every good thing. Because of this, they were to “remember the whole way that the Lord [their] God [had] led [them].”

It’s no coincidence that Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. As Israel was baptized through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus was baptized and went straight to His temptation for forty days. He did perfectly what the people of Israel utterly failed to do. Where the people sinned against God again and again, Jesus remained perfectly sinless and obedient. Where they needed to be humbled, He was perfectly humble. Where Israel panicked because there was momentarily no food, Jesus fasted and trusted. In fact, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to prove He is the Son of God, Jesus quoted this Old Testament lesson: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Always humble, He met every test and remained the disciplined Son.

Why did He do so? He wasn’t just re-enacting wilderness life to see what it might have been like for His ancestors. He did this to redeem them—and to redeem you, too. He lived that perfect life to credit you with His perfect obedience. Then He went to the cross; and on the cross, His Father punished Him with the judgment for the sin of the world—yours included. He was crucified for our sins, then raised up again on the third day. That is why He came, what He came to do.

All of this frames your life on earth; and, actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day tomorrow. I pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, though I’m guessing for many of you, it’s not going to be the Norman Rockwell kind of holiday with lots of extended family that you’re used to. COVID lockdown, mask mandates, and social gathering restrictions will probably put a damper on the festivities. You may also have all sort of other issues tugging at the corner of your mind or elbowing their way front and center.

There’s a reason for this: you’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the wilderness. You’re not in the Promised Land—not yet! You’re still in the land of fiery serpents and scorpions, of thirst and hunger—or cancer and COVID, fear and anger, bad decisions and troubled relationships, depression or substance abuse. That’s what living in the wilderness is like, and the troubles you face will be used by the devil to leave you thankless and hopeless and doubting God. But you have so much to be thankful for!

There’s first article stuff—the daily bread that the Lord provides for you—like clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, family, and all your goods. It’s easy to take for granted, but the poorest in our nation still have more than much of the rest of the world. You have much because the Lord gives it to you and because the Lord sustains it from day to day. For this, you should truly give thanks—not just once a year, but daily, and likely far more than you do.

But there’s still more to be thankful for. The Lord also gives you those other strange gifts that He gave Israel in the wilderness: namely, the humbling, the testing, and the discipline. Life in this wilderness is a rocky road. You will hurt, you will lack, you will sin, you’ll stumble and fall and fail. And you’ll wonder why the Lord chooses to do things this way.

The best answer we can give from Scripture is that you’re His children. The setbacks and troubles that you face are a consequence of being a sinner in a sinful world, but their effects are not random acts of fate. The Lord has made you His children—His sons, He says, in order to assure you that you are His heirs. As you make your way through this wilderness, remember that you’re in the wilderness, and that’s already a step up: once you were enslaved in sin, dead, and headed for hell. But the Lord brought you up out of your “Egypt” through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism, all for the sake of Christ who died for you. For those apart from Christ, this world is the beginning of hell. But you’ve already been rescued, redeemed by the blood of Christ: this wilderness is on the way to the Promised Land of heaven.

So the Lord, who has made you His children, disciplines you as a father disciplines his sons. That’s not an enjoyable thing: the book of Hebrews tells us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). In fact, Hebrews also tells us, in the mystery of the Incarnation, that “Although [Jesus] was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). So it is for you. When you lack—be it food or peace or health—He uses that for good, to discipline you to cast your cares upon Him and trust in Him. He tests you, because sinners like you and me need constant testing, constant redirection, back to repentance and trust in Him.

The Lord is treating you like beloved children. If He did not, you would be God-forsaken, left to yourself—perhaps with a nice life, but with no hope. Troubles in your life would not be used for a father’s discipline, but only as punishment for your sin. So where you are so humbled, disciplined, and tested, God will use these things also for your good. Where you have been tested, you can be God’s instrument and a strong advocate for those who are tested like you. Where the affliction overwhelms you as something greater than you can bear, know that Christ has borne it for you. If such things continue to point you back to Christ and guard against falling in love with the wilderness, then that focus back on the cross is a blessing indeed and something to give thanks for.

And always remember this: you’re in the wilderness. The Lord has led you out of the slavery of sin and death thus far, and you have a destination. The Promised Land of Heaven is yours, where you have the certain hope of eternal life free from all sin and struggle, where God will wipe every tear from your eyes.

A blessed Thanksgiving Day to you all; and rejoice, my friends. The Lord is treating you as His beloved children, because you are His beloved children.

Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you. He has led you out of death to life, out of sin to righteousness, out of hell to the Promised Land of Heaven. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Dirty Diapers, Sheep and Goats

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The text for today is Matthew 25:31-46.

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

It was 3:00 a.m. A piercing scream woke me. I thought it was the fire alarm, until I realized it was my own sweet baby daughter. Through the fog of my interrupted sleep I somehow realized that I was not equipped with the physical ability to nurse the famished little girl, especially at such an ungodly hour.

So I nudged Aimee, who never has been as light a sleeper as I am. “She’s awake,” I said. Her response came so quickly I can only imagine that she had been rehearsing it every day while she’d been taking it easy in the hospital. “What’s your point?” Always the patient one, I said calmly and quite rationally: “She’s hungry. I can’t feed her. I don’t have the right equipment.”

Again, it was like she had it all planned out. “Well, she probably also has a dirty diaper and the last time I noticed you still had hands and feet. Why don’t you walk in there and change her? Then you can bring her to me.”

What should I say next? I was fully awake by now, and the ramifications of this one decision hit me like a ton of bricks. If I got up now to change the baby’s diaper, I would set a precedent that could actually apply for the next ten years or so, depending upon how many more children we had. But I did not know how to answer. I have to admit I felt a little taken advantage of. Relaxing in that hospital bed, she obviously had more time to think this all out than I had. So I got up to change the baby—a smile on my lips, a song in my heart. Or something like that…

Now to be honest, this was not the first time I was ever up at 3:00 a.m. But it’s a lot different to still be up at 3:00 a.m., as opposed to be awakened from a sound sleep at 3:00 a.m. Obviously the two women in my life at that point were somehow conspiring together. The aromatic odor that met me as I stumbled into the baby’s room suggested my wife had been right about at least one thing. I fumbled around for a bit and finally got her diaper changed. Then I brought our fresh smelling little girl into her mother for feeding. Of course, she got to snuggle her and tell her what a good girl she was. It all seemed a bit unfair.

Now, I’m not looking for pity or praise. Everyone who has changed a baby in the middle of the night has those same stories. I was this little girl’s father. It was my responsibility. And so, I did it. Then why do I tell this story? What does getting up at 3:00 a.m. to change a dirty diaper have to do with sheep and goat besides the rank odor?

Because it teaches you everything you need to know about good works.

You see… it’s not the grand, impressive works of the rich and the powerful that God commends, but the simple, humble works of the Christian who is simply going about the work of his or her vocation and in the course of their vocation also feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and visits the sick—the sort of things that for the most part generally go unnoticed by others.

This is a wonderful text by which to learn of the doctrine of vocation. God gives us our vocation, that is, our place in society, in the family, in the Church, in order to serve other people. Vocation is how God takes care of creation and people until Christ returns in glory. It is how God feeds the poor, welcomes strangers, clothes the naked, comforts the sick, and visits the prisoner.

What’s more, God values each vocation equally. Whatever station in life to which God has called you has been made holy by God and set apart to be used to provide for the needs of your neighbor. Christians recognize the fact that all we are and have is given to us by God for the express purpose of taking care of others in this world as we look forward to the day we will share in Christ’s glory. But the doctrine of vocation extends not only to Christians; it covers unbelievers as well. In our text both the sheep and the goats tended to the needs of others.

God uses even the vocations and works of unbelievers to care for people. Even unbelievers get up in the middle of the night to change their children’s diapers. (Otherwise it would be really easy to tell the sheep from the goats… the goats would be the ones with the smelliest children.) Even unbelievers visit the sick and the imprisoned. Even unbelievers clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Unbelievers are quite often very nice people. In fact, many unbelievers would put you and me to shame with their good manners, kindness, and generosity.

Which brings us to a complaint often uttered by those outside the church and often used by inactive members as the reason they don’t go to church: Church is full of hypocrites. People talk about love and goodwill and all that, but when you actually look at the pews you see that they are full of people who don’t begin to live up to the high ideals that people expect.

Maybe the Church is a little bit disappointing because you expect people here to be different than in the world. You expect everyone to be happy and generous and willing to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. And then when you take a good, hard look you discover that not everyone is happy, that many people are stingy in their giving, a number of them are unnecessarily critical in their speech, and very few make sacrifices without complaining.

Welcome to the real world. Actually, welcome to the real Church here on earth, where people are at the same time saint and sinner. Welcome to this congregation, full of real people with all their failings and frustrations and sins and shortcomings. You will only get disappointed and discouraged if you expect anything of people inside the Church that you don’t find outside the Church.         

In the Church you do not necessarily find people that are very different on the outside than people who are in the world. In the Church, however, you do find a God that is different from the god of this world. That is what those who don’t come to church because of the hypocrites are completely missing.

You don’t come here to this place to be around good people. You can go down to the local bar or the ball game for that. You come to the Church because here is the only place where you can find a God who is good—a God who comes in ordinary everyday ways through ordinary everyday people to serve His people, giving them faith and guarding and keeping them in that faith unto eternal life.

You see… even Jesus had a unique vocation. The Son of God was called to bear the sins of the world upon His shoulders, to obey God’s will perfectly in our place, and to suffer shame upon the cross as a perfect substitute for you and me. God, wisely, has not placed such a vocation on you or me. It is a calling that only He could fulfill and accomplish on our behalf.

In His vocation as Messiah, our Lord used certain means, namely His own human body, the cross, and the empty tomb to set us free from sin and death, and give us the promise of our own resurrection and eternal life in the glory of heaven.

Of course, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit also have vocations. In the Creed we ascribe to the Father our creation and preservation; and to the Holy Spirit our calling and keeping in the one true faith. Just like the Son, the Father and the Spirit do these things through means. Through means of the vocations of our parents God created us. And through means of the vocations of not only our parents but everyone from farmers to the President of the United States, God continues to preserve our lives in this world.

The Holy Spirit also uses means to accomplish His vocation in our lives. We call these the “means of grace,” since through them He brings to us the love and forgiveness of God. The Word, through which He speaks God’s love and forgiveness into our ears. Baptism, through which He pours God’s love and forgiveness over our heads and into our hearts. And Holy Communion, through which He puts God’s love and forgiveness into our mouths.

Through these means of grace, God guards and keeps His people in the one true faith unto life everlasting. In these means of grace, God is forgiving our sins, making us His children, strengthening us in faith, and keeping us in that faith unto life everlasting. So that we may know His love and forgiveness, God has established a place where we can know for certain that we are receiving the means through which God is for us and serves us. That place is the Church.

Here in the Church you will find that people are pretty much the same as what you will find in the world. But only here, in the Church, can you find a God that is completely different from the god of this world. The god of this world focuses upon you and tells you only about where you have failed or gives you a false confidence that you are succeeding. The one true God uses the means of grace to tell you about how He loves you, how He fulfilled the Law for you, how He died and rose again for you, how He rules over all things in this world for you, how He washes you clean of sin, how He feeds you His very body and blood.  

So you see, the Church is not about how people act; it is about how God acts. Here, in worship your vocation is simply to be a hearer, a receiver of what God promises through Word and Sacrament. Here in the Church, God serves you through the voice and body of His called and ordained servant—another common, ordinary sinner just like you, who has been given the vocation of pastor.

And when God serves us by the means of grace, He fills up our hearts and minds with what He has done for us in Christ, rather than what we do ourselves. Jesus, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the message of the means of grace. And so much does the Holy Spirit fill our minds with Jesus’ work for us, that we forget the good works God enables us to do as we go about our vocations in this world.

Which brings us back to the sheep and the goats. Notice that they are separated before there is any accounting of good works. Nor does the King note anything negative about the sheep—nor anything positive about the goats. It’s not a case of having done both good and bad, with the one outweighing the other. In fact, they could have been doing pretty much the same things. The difference between those on the right and those on the left is faith and unbelief.

The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In other words, when we live by faith in the Savior, God sees only the good that we do. All of our sins have been washed away in the blood of Christ. As for the damned, even their best deeds amount to only so many “filthy rags.” None grew out of holy motives because none came from holy hearts. So the difference between the sheep and the goats is not a matter of their outward works, but God-given faith.

Through His means of grace, the Holy Spirit has created faith in the hearts of the sheep and that faith has so filled up their hearts with Jesus that they are caught off-guard when the King commends them for their good works. “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?” The Christian regards his own works as so insignificant that they aren’t even worth mentioning when compared to what Jesus has done for us. And that is certainly true. But through these insignificant works we serve Jesus by serving others.

In Christ, all the sinful works of the Christian have been forgiven and cast away as far as the east is from the west and God remembers them no more. The only thing remaining is our good works, washed clean and made holy in the blood of Christ. It is these works that testify on our behalf in the judgment.

Contrast this with the unbelievers. Having rejected the Word of Life, their hearts are filled with themselves. Oh, God still uses their works to serve the people of this world, but it is those very works that fill up their heart and drive the Holy Spirit out. And so they say, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” “Look, Lord,” they are saying, “I’ve been a good person.” And so they may have been. But it is faith that fills the heart with Jesus and justifies the sinner. And it is faith that they lack, so their sins are unforgiven. God doesn’t see their good but only their wickedness. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment.”

So in the end it is not by works that we will be judged—the sanctified works of the sheep are simply the evidence of the faith that God has created and nourished within us. As we live in this world, it may not look on the outside like we are any different than the people of the world—we hold the same kinds of vocations—but it is what God has declared us to be that makes the difference.

Through His Holy Word and Baptism, God has recreated us and bound us to Christ, giving us faith and hope in Him. Through Holy Communion, He feeds and nourishes that faith and gives us constantly the forgiveness of sins—which we need, for even the good works of God’s people are still stained by sin in this world.

The time is coming when we will be completely free of sin and all our works will be perfect, but only in Christ, only because of what He has done. In the meantime, we live by faith and in that day when this life is finished and our vocations have run their course, by the grace and mercy of our almighty God, we shall be gathered to His right hand in glory and hear Him speak those gracious words: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Even today, you hear the basis for this wonderful promise of eternal life with the Father. It is not your good works, but the Lord’s work of righteousness credited to you by grace through faith in Christ that saves you. Solely for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sent With Peace: Sermon for the Installation of Rev. Phillip Booe

“Christ Appearing to His Disciples after the Resurrection” by William Blake

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:19-23).

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

To say it had been a few stressful days would be a huge understatement. Jesus had been arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, and buried on Friday. Saturday, they’d been in lockdown, no doubt observing the most isolated, sorrowful Sabbath of their lives. That morning Mary Magdalene had run back from the tomb exclaiming, “I have seen the Lord.” The other women also saw Jesus and added their testimony. The apostles, however, remained skeptical. Confused and apprehensive, they gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.

But there was one whom the locked doors did not keep out—Jesus. We don’t know much about His resurrected body, but we know He left a sealed tomb with even the grave cloths still intact and that He appeared inside a locked room.

Jesus hailed the disciples with the typical Hebrew greeting: “Peace be with you!” But on the lips of the risen Savior, it was more than a casual wish. He brought them the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that would sustain them through all earthly troubles, the peace of forgiveness and life. Jesus showed them His resurrected body that still bore the marks of the nails and the spear of the crucifixion to erase their last doubts. The disciples rejoiced. It was the Lord, alive!

Having discipled them carefully for three years, having finished His saving work of suffering, dying, and rising, Jesus, again, spoke peace to them and authorized them to carry on His work by bestowing on them His Spirit.

As the Holy Spirit once hovered over the dark empty chaos at the dawn of creation to bring light and order into the universe (Genesis 1:1-3), as God the Father breathed His divine Spirit into the nostrils of Adam on the sixth day, creating a living soul from inanimate dust (Genesis 2:7), so also on the first Easter evening, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fresh from the grave, brought life and immortality to light by breathing out the Spirit upon His chosen disciples to equip them to continue His work on earth—preaching repentance and faith.

So abjectly ruined is humankind since the fall into sin that people are unable to come to faith under their own volition. “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:1). Therefore in the work of evangelizing, preaching, teaching, catechizing, comforting, warning, consoling, and equipping Christians for daily life, the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit is essential. Only the Holy Spirit can accomplish the ministry, and He does that through His called and ordained servants like you, Pastor Booe.

That’s not exactly correct. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through you as a person, but through the means you’ve been given by Jesus for the blessing of His Church and for the benefit of all the world. The ministry of Christ’s Gospel is always a ministry of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is at work in the Word and sacraments and is given through these means of grace.

Even in this passage, where Jesus breathes on them, it is His Word that gives the Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23). That is the essence of ministry—forgiving penitent sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

That’s especially important to note in our day. People have a lot of different ideas of what a pastor’s job is. For many, pastors are irrelevant in our secular age. For others, pastors are nice to have on call to apply religious bandages to some of the bumps and bruises of life but otherwise not much needed. Even among deeply spiritual and religious people, pastors are variously understood as chief executive officers, religious activity directors, conflict managers, or motivational speakers.

Each of these roles comes with its own job description, of course. No wonder then that we find a lot of churches confused over what to expect from their pastors. No wonder we find pastors and church leaders frequently in conflict. In fact, it’s no wonder that every year many clergy are leaving the pastoral ministry, chewed up by dysfunctional congregations, discouraged by failure to meet their own unrealistic expectations. Should we be surprised? When you hand someone a job-description so wide-ranging and complicated that it’s unmanageable—or so nebulous and undefined that it can apparently be changed on whim—wouldn’t that deplete and discourage the best of men?

So what is a pastor’s job? How do you carry out the work of forgiving and retaining sins? A good place to start is the vows that you, Pastor Booe, will be making in a few minutes as you are installed as pastor here at St. John. In addition to confessing the canonical Scriptures to be the inspired and infallible Word of God, and affirming your subscription to the Lutheran Confessions because they are in accord with the Word of God, you will be asked to make these promises:   

Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?

Will you faithfully instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?

Finally, will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life? Will you be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions? And will you be constant in prayer for those under your pastoral care?

To be certain this is not an exhaustive list, but it is safe to say that if a task doesn’t fit under one of these categories, you may need to rethink doing it.

Members of St. John, you also will be making promises that will help your new pastor to carry on the work that Christ has given to the Church:

Will you receive him, show him the love, honor, and obedience in the Lord that you owe to the shepherd and teacher placed over you by your Lord Jesus Christ, and will you support him by your gifts and pray for him always that in his labors he may retain a cheerful spirit and that his ministry among you may be abundantly blessed?

Will you honor and uphold your pastor as he serves Christ in all his God-pleasing responsibilities? Will you aid him as he cares for his family? Will you be diligent to “put the best construction on everything,” recognizing that “love covers a multitude of sins”?  

The promises that both pastor and congregation make are simple to understand but impossible to keep on your own power. That’s why you all will make the promises with the words, “I/we will, with the help of God.” That’s why we will be praying for the Holy Spirit to grant grace to pastor and congregation through this ministry of Word and Sacrament. That’s why Pastor Booe will be installed as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Booe, I know you’ve been told this many times, but it’s always good to be reminded. You must rely on the Holy Spirit for the work of this ministry. It is beyond the ability of any fallen man—even one as gifted and talented as you—to carry out this ministry on your own power. You’ll end up burned out in the ministry very quickly if you don’t remember this one central truth: By your own power or strength you can do absolutely nothing as a servant of Christ and steward of His mysteries. Rather, in Christ’s Church the Holy Spirit does everything. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther puts it this way:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.[i]

From beginning to end, the life of the Christian is a gift of God’s Spirit. Since the fall of Adam every human from birth is spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God. That’s why it always takes the Spirit’s power for anyone to come to faith and trust in Jesus. Through means of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit calls us to faith. Having enlightened us with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, He also shares His holiness and keeps us in the one true faith.

And He has chosen to call you, Pastor Booe, at this time, here at this congregation. What a privilege! You get to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and to administer His life-giving sacraments. You get to be the hands that hold the infant over the font and pour the water, who speaks the Word that makes him a child of God. You get to be the ear that hears confession and the voice that speaks the forgiveness of God to the penitent sinner in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. You get to hand deliver the very and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith. You get to be the one through whom God binds one man and one woman in holy matrimony for life. You get to be the feet that travel to bring the Church to the patient at the hospital, the resident at the nursing home, or the person who is homebound. You get to be the one who comforts the dying and mourning with the hope of Christ’s resurrection and the promise the Holy Spirit will raise all believers to eternal life.

And members of St. John Lutheran Church, you get to receive these blessings. You get to support this work. You get to work with and beside Pastor Booe, as he oversees this flock to which the Lord has called him.

By our Lord’s own mandate, He has so arranged it in His Church that we grow, are fed, nourished, guarded, and protected not out of the weakness and ineptitude of our ministers but rather by the tools Christ has entrusted into their hands. The Gospel and sacraments are filled to the brim with the energy and life of God’s own Spirit. The actual words that originated from the mouth of Jesus are the instruments and tools of the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith. Jesus has entrusted into your pastor’s all too human and very flawed mouth and hands the Gospel and the sacraments by which the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify His Church on earth.

So, go in the peace of the Lord. The ministry is safely in the hands of the Holy Spirit. Serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Luther, M. (1991). Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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Seek the Lord While He May Be Found: Sermon for the Funeral of Carl Holmgren

“Wheat Field in Rain” by Vincent Van Gogh

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:6-11).

Tammy, Kari, family and friends of Carl:

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

“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near,” our text begins. The problem is that none of us has the natural ability to seek the Lord. In fact, left to ourselves, none of us wants to seek the Lord. Like Adam and Eve after the fall into sin, we run away, we hide from Him. By nature, we are enemies of God. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. We want nothing to do with a holy God. But it is this very Gospel invitation that enables to seek the Lord.

We confess in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

God can be found by humans only as long as He makes Himself known, that is, whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and heard. In the Gospel, the Lord comes near. Through the means of grace—God’s Word and sacraments—the Holy Spirit invites us to seek the Lord and call upon Him in faith.

The Lord is a God of extreme patience and grace. He urges sinners to turn away from their wicked ways and to turn to Him. He pledges to have mercy on the sinner and to pardon him freely. These words hold out the bright jewel of forgiveness for the grimy, stained hands of every sinner to grasp. What a comfort! God looks tenderly upon sinners and, because of Christ, He forgives them.

The death of a loved one, without fail, triggers every emotion in the human existence in very short order. For people of faith, the question also arises concerning the eternal welfare of the departed. And too often, our thinking becomes fretting in light of what we knew or thought we knew. It is difficult for us, in such a time as this, to reflect and focus our concerns with what God knows.

Our Lord spoke to His people through Isaiah the prophet and had to remind them that He operates in ways that we cannot always understand, and He points out the arrogance of man in presuming to know all things. We don’t like to admit it when we don’t know the answer. It pesters us to no end when we are confronted with things that are beyond our limited human comprehension. We find it difficult to place the knowledge of all things with God alone and leave it in His hands.

But there is much we do know, from which our Lord would have us receive strength and comfort, especially in times like this. We know, according to the Scriptures, that it is the Lord alone who searches the heart and the Lord alone who has the power to save. We know that the Lord does not wish that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. We know that God works through His Word. And we know He has promised that His Word does not go out into the ears of His hearers in vain.

God makes contact with sinners through His Word. The Word comes from God, who authors it and sends it across time and space to the sinner. God assures us in this text that His Word is effective and powerful.

Through His prophet, God also tells us how His Word works. Clearly and simply, God presents a striking comparison. His Word comes down from Him like rain and snow from heaven. Any gardener knows that when rain and snow come down, they water the ground and make it bud and flourish. When God’s Word comes to sinners, it works in the same way. God’s Word works when and where He pleases, simply by His grace.

The free gift of eternal salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is just that—a free gift. And the Lord has told us in His Word how it is that He gives us this saving faith. He tells us in Titus, chapter 3, that He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

This washing He granted Carl when he was baptized at Zion Lutheran Church in Hardwick, for our Lord declares that as many of us as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. This blessed gift our Lord gave to Carl and buried him in the death of his Savior Jesus. In his Baptism, Carl was buried in the death of Christ with the promise that He would raise him again.

Our Lord never forgot or reneged on His promise to Carl, and Carl was brought up in the faith that was once delivered to the saints. He confessed his Christian faith publicly in the words of the Creeds, in which he stated his belief in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ his Lord, and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. He further acknowledged God’s gift to him in one Baptism for the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

A little over two years ago, I started going to Falls Landing twice a month for chapel services. That’s when I met Carl. I could tell right away that he was a friendly man. I found out that we had many things in common. He had been in the grocery business for many years; for a couple of years I was overnight grocery support manager at Walmart. He was also a Viking fan, a lover of music and fishing. And I could tell his family was his greatest joy. The last couple of times I saw him, Carl was excited about a planned trip to see his family in Washington.

More importantly, we talked about Jesus. Carl told me that he was a Christian, but it had been a long time since he had been a member of a church. A lifelong lover of music, Carl was always eager to pick most of the hymns that we would sing that day. You’ve just heard two of them that seemed to be among his favorites: Just as I Am and Amazing Grace.

After a couple of months of getting to know Carl better, I asked him if he would like to have a church home. I told him I realized he may never be able to make it to the church building, but I said that we would love to keep bringing the Church to him. After a short period of instruction, we welcomed Carl as a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Pipestone through reaffirmation of faith.  

With his fellow saints at Falls Landing, Carl confessed the Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Carl confessed his sins and received Christ’s absolution. Carl received Jesus’ very body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins. Carl heard Christ’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. The COVID lockdown has prevented me from visiting Carl, but I tried to keep in touch, sending him monthly newsletters and copies of my sermons each week.

God promises that His Word does not return to Him empty, even when we can’t measure the results with our limited human minds and sinful hearts. Sometimes it takes root and flourishes continuously. Other times in takes root for a season and then the busyness of the world choke it out, or the troubles and trial seem to dry it up. But His Word does bear fruit.

The Lord Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, is the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. He came to His people to redeem them. Our heavenly Father sent Jesus, His only Son, and through His passion, crucifixion, and glorious resurrection, Christ reconciled the whole world, Carl included, to Himself. He bought him back from sin and the power of the grave not with gold or silver, but with His own precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Through the power of Christ’s death, He has forever destroyed death, and all the dead will be raised on the final day.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and died for Carl’s sins, as well as the sins of every person here. Though the wages of sin is death, as we are grimly reminded today, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. He died for you. He died for me. And He died for Carl. He paid the price for all of our transgressions, and He gives the promise of everlasting life to all who would believe in Him.

May you continue to find comfort and hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ until the day you are reunited with Carl and all who have died in the faith, in the presence of our Lord. In the Name of our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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