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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

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“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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Sermons, Uncategorized

Encourage and Build One Another Up

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“Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

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

If you’ve watched any amount of religious programming on TV, you know that the majority of what many televangelists preach about is Judgment Day and the signs of the end times. They are forever exploring, interpreting, and guessing about what some of the more obscure prophecies about the future might mean, as they study the books of Daniel and Revelation and apply them to the headlines of the day, overlooking what Scripture says about “times and dates.”

God has not chosen to reveal the time when Christ will come nor the reason that He planned it for when He did. Anyone who says he knows the time contradicts Jesus’ clear words: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). Thereby he also reveals himself as a false prophet (Matthew 24:23).

If they would just listen to St. Paul in our text, those prophesy preachers would have to give it up. Perhaps they would preach about something more important, like Christ and Him crucified for our sins. Perhaps they would preach of our risen Savior who brings us eternal life. Perhaps they would preach of our ascended Lord who intercedes on our behalf, and who will one day return to judge the living and the dead. Sin and grace and Christ is what Christian preachers need to preach a whole lot more than trying to peer into a future known only by God.

When is the end of the world going to come? When is Jesus coming back? “Stop asking,” is St. Paul’s basic answer. The important thing for us to know about Jesus’ return is that He will return, and it will be sudden and unexpected, “like a thief in the night.” It’s ironic, but the by-product of so much seeking into the future is that it inevitably leads some people to say, “It can’t be now.” They come to believe in their own interpretation of the signs and convince themselves of “peace and safety.” And while they’re thinking they are safe, “sudden destruction will come on them… and they will not escape.”

Like a trap snaps shut on a mouse, the end will come upon these people. And just as a woman who is in labor pains can’t escape those pains by changing her mind about being pregnant, so they will have no chance to turn back. The Lord’s appearance will be announced in a flash and a twinkling of an eye by the voice of the archangel and a trumpet’s blast. Once this begins there can be no preparations by unbelievers to escape their ruin in God’s judgment. It will be too late.

But Christians need not obsess about Jesus’ return. St. Paul writes: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). The people who say, “Peace and safety,” are the ones in “darkness.” They really don’t know what is going on. They have a false sense of security and peace. They ignore the fact that their sins make them enemies of God. They don’t realize that their unforgiven sin must bring God’s judgment upon them.

But the Thessalonians are not in the dark about Jesus’ return, because they are “children of the light,” “children of the day.” They have learned the Gospel and are so active in spreading it that they surely are not people who know nothing or care little about the Lord’s coming. It is unthinkable that the Last Day will find them unprepared like those who live in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief.

What will that mean for those who believe? Well, St. Paul says: “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). We are different from those unbelievers who are asleep, those who are self-absorbed and self-deluded, thinking that they won’t ever have to answer God. They are not ready to meet their Creator, any more than you are ready for school or work if you’ve slept through your alarm clock and wake up an hour late. Let’s be awake and be in control of our appetites and attitudes and actions. That’s the way to be children of the day who are ready for Jesus to appear at any moment.

Paul moves on to use a different picture, that of a drunk. Sometimes people try to drink their problems away. The alcohol dulls their senses, and for a time they become totally unconcerned about those problems. Of course, that only works for the short-term and then the problems get worse. The alcohol that masked the problems initially, starts to feed the problems, and then ends up magnifying them.

In the spiritual realm there are people who have some inkling of the consequences of the Lord’s coming. They know they have a spiritual problem. But their solution is to dull their consciences with some homemade religious moonshine or with the wine of the world’s pleasures. This does not solve the problem. It only allows them to forget about it for a while. And when they finally wake up, they’ll realize that their problems are much worse than a nasty hangover.

Paul urges us to “be alert and self-controlled.” Rather than being unaware like one who is asleep, Christ wants us to be on the watch for His return in glory. Instead of being unconcerned like one who is drunk, Christ wants His followers to await His coming in full possession of their senses. The believer knows all that the Last Day means for him, and he knows it will be a great day for him. So, he is eager and always alert and ready.

But how can we be always alert and self-controlled? Satan is constantly attacking our faith with all his might, trying to make us even more sluggish, trying to get us to take our eye off the goal. We are spiritually weak and tired. We are worn out and battered and bruised and discouraged. It seems so easy for Satan to draw our minds completely away from Christ’s return! We spend our time concentrating on the journey more than on the journey’s goal. Life’s problems and pleasures, trials and treasures, sorrows and joys consume our interests.

How, then, can we keep from falling into the spiritual sleep or drunkenness? We can be alert and self-controlled by putting on our God-given armor. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

Roman soldiers of Paul’s day were well protected from the enemy’s arrows, spears, and swords only if they put on armor. The breastplate and helmet protected the most vital areas—the heart and the mind. God has provided His believers with similar protection for our hearts and minds. God gives us faith, love, and hope as our armor against the spiritual weapons that Satan and his cohorts hurl at us.   

Faith is the confidence that God will do whatever He promises. Love is faith in action, living each day as an expression of thanks to God for all He has done for us. The hope of salvation is what sustains our faith and love and encourages us to grow. Without the certain hope that we will be raised from death to live eternally in glory, our faith would be meaningless (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

How does this God-given armor help us to remain watchful for our Lord’s coming? It surrounds us with the Lord’s strength, so we can take our “stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11). It clothes us with the Lord Jesus Christ so that we “do not think about how to gratify the desires” of our sinful nature (Romans 13:14). It enables us to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). It shields us with God’s power from despairing amid “all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6). This God-given armor supplies us with all the spiritual strength we need. When we stand in the power of God, not our own, we won’t fall into the spiritual sleep of the world.

Paul adds: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11).

God did not “destine us for wrath.” It was not His will or plan that sinful men should be sent to hell and there suffer eternally the punishment of His wrath. No, God wants to rescue us from the terrible consequences of our sins. And God wants us to receive this salvation as a gift of His mercy.

All this He accomplished “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He paid the penalty we deserved for our sins when He died for us. His precious lifeblood was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus did this, Paul says, both for believers and unbelievers—those who are “alert” and those who are “asleep” in regard to Christ’s return. What a waste it would be if we were found asleep, unprepared for the Lord’s coming. Then we would lose all that Christ has won for us. Therefore let us put on the spiritual armor that God had given us.

A war rages for the soul of each man, woman, and child. Satan would love to lure the “children of light” and “day” away from God. His attacks are relentless. He uses persecution to weaken our defenses. And he causes dissension and discouragement among the members of the congregation. This is why we must “encourage one another and build one another up.”

What are some practical ways that Christians can do that? First of all, we can make sure that Satan no longer uses us to discourage one another. How often do we criticize one of our fellow Christians rather than praying for them? How often do we tear one another down, rather than build them up? How often do we bring discouragement rather than encouragement to our fellow Christians, especially those we’ve entrusted with leadership positions in our congregation?

  Encouragement comes in many ways—through notes or letters, through e-mails, private conversations, and sometimes through something as simple as a reassuring touch or pat on the back. But the only truly effective form of encouragement to stand against the devil’s schemes is to share the Word of God of with one another, corporately and privately.

Surely as members of a Christian congregation, we treasure the family of fellow believers with which God has blessed us. What a gift it is to gather for worship and to encourage one another in our faith! Together we confess our sins and receive Christ’s absolution. We study the message of Christ our Savior together. Together we sing the words of the liturgy and hymns. We pray for one another. We join in the fellowship of Christ’s very body and blood.

What a comfort this is as we go through difficult times! What a blessing to know that our brothers and sisters in Christ are with us through the trials and troubles of life! And what a comfort it is in time of bereavement to have this spiritual family! Our fellow redeemed remind us of the hope that is ours even as we lay into a grave the body of a loved one who has fallen asleep in Christ!

“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We have such a glorious comfort to share. We share the hope of our Lord’s coming. We need to remind one another of this hope, lest we fall asleep and be caught unprepared! We need to remind one another of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf. We need to encourage one another to gather frequently to receive Christ’s means of grace. For in this Word and Sacrament we continue to hear this Good News: 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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About Those Who Are Asleep

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“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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

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

We Americans don’t deal well with death. When death occurs, as it inevitably will, it is minimized as much as possible. Sometimes, this takes place as a simple, private gravesite affair. The more popular method in our culture, however, is a funeral service that doesn’t talk about death. Not quite knowing what to do with death other than run away from it, our society has turned to services that feature more comedy and light-heartedness than reverence and hope. The purpose of such services is, supposedly, to “celebrate life” and to “let the healing begin.” As eulogies recall what the person did in life, and Christ is put off to the side, death becomes the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

The prevalence of such shallowness is brought to my attention after almost every funeral I conduct. It never fails; at least one person will come up to me and remark how good it was to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified at a funeral. “That was just like funerals used to be,” they say. “I always know when I come to [this church] I’m going to hear God’s Word proclaimed.” When they talk about how meaningful and reverent the service was, I say, “That’s why I follow the service in our hymnal. It keeps me from getting in the way and leaves Christ as the center.”

There’s a reason why our funeral services are structured the way they are, and why we resist any change to them. It’s spelled out in our epistle as it begins: “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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

That determines our funeral service. We mourn, but not as those who have no hope. We hope because Christ died and is risen again.

Like many today, the Thessalonians did not know how to think or talk about death and what happens after death. With that in mind, Paul tells them what is going to happen at the return of the Lord. He has a practical, pastoral purpose for venturing into these deep waters. Some Christians in Thessalonica have died, and the others are not sure what to believe about where these people are and what has or will happen to them. They’ve mistakenly thought only those alive at Christ’s return will be saved. So, naturally they fear that their loved ones who are already dead have forfeited any share in the coming glory. For this reason, they are going around grieving like their pagan neighbors, “who have no hope.”

So, Paul corrects their error to comfort them with the truth of sound doctrine. He wants them to learn appropriate Christian grief, instead of the wild and hopeless mourning that typifies the desperation of pagan funerals. The pagans are right to despair, there can be no Christian comfort without Christian faith. Get back to the truth about Christ’s resurrection and glorious return and you won’t have to sink into the funk of depression or the errors of speculation.

Paul draws a contrast, not with natural and excessive sorrow, but between Christian hope and pagan hopelessness. Hardly could a lesson be more needed in our gnostic, neo-pagan world today. The finality of death fills the heathen with a feeling of blank despair. It is a sorrow which is unrelieved by any hope of a future reunion with their loved ones, because there is no future for the dead.

What Paul needs to do for this bunch of downtrodden believers is to re-describe the moment when God makes His new world. The only possible language is that of pictures, snapshots, and glimpses because critical parts of it are unique, yet-to-happen events. He says, in the best way he can, “It is kind of like this,” and then flashes a few slides about “those who have fallen asleep.”

To start with, he reiterates the foundation of Christian facts-of-faith. Mindful that the pagans’ understanding of death as a finality (a terminal point where the spirit that animated the person is extinguished and the worthless, cursed shell of the material body is burned), Paul says, “NO!” Death is not the end of humanity in God’s new world. The pagan thinks so, and that is why they cremate their bodies. And why not? Dead means dead, right? The person is now extinct, so burn the packaging (materialists say the same thing today).

The Thessalonian Christians started looking around and saying, “Hey, where is the coming of Christ and God’s new world because we have loved ones in their last days, and some have already died? What’s going to happen to them?”

Paul breaks in and says: “I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who are asleep.” Paul’s starting point echoes one of the earliest Christian creeds, which sums up what the Church believes: “Jesus died and rose again.”

But this creedal line, that, “Jesus died and rose again,” is not just info about the past. It reveals what will happen to those who belong to God’s Messiah. Each of them and their dearly departed were united to Jesus through Baptism. The spirits of the baptized were resurrected at the point of justification. They were once dead in trespasses and sins, but now God made their spirits alive in Christ. As for their bodies, they too have been washed by the Word of God in Baptism. What is more, their bodies were regularly united to Christ’s resurrected body and blood in Communion. If they die united to the risen Christ, they will also rise again. When Christ comes on the last day, He will bring them with Him.

So, the Christian understanding of “sleep” is not like the pagan one. For the pagan and today’s materialists, “sleep” is a mere euphemism for an obliterating death. But Paul isn’t just trying to make something bad seem a little bit better by referring to it in rosy terms. No, he is describing what death is really like for one who is dead in Christ. It is like a sleep in which a person’s body is completely unaware of anything around it, but from which his body awakens to use all its abilities and senses again. We aren’t afraid to put our heads down on our pillows at night and go to sleep. We know we’ll wake up again to a new day. That’s how death is. We need not fear putting our heads down on the pillow of death and falling asleep. Jesus will wake us up to a glorious eternal day.

This sleep applies only the body of the dead believer and not to their spirit, which is ushered at the time of death into the presence of God to be comforted by His angels and Christ Himself (Acts 7:59; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 6:9) until the day of resurrection.

Paul is not saying that Christians don’t grieve. He simply says they do not “grieve as others do.” Of course, there is sorrow at a death—one cannot part even for a short time from a loved one without some sad feelings. But because Paul does not want the Thessalonians to grieve without hope like most people, he presents  them with facts about the deaths of Christians and the Lord’s coming. At each funeral they can comfort one another with these truths.

Paul begins with the most basic fact: Jesus died but then rose again, showing His complete power over death. Paul says if you believe this, then a second point to believe goes hand in hand with it. Jesus promises that His resurrection means we also will rise from death. Therefore, we are confident that when Jesus comes, He will wake us from the sleep of death and bring us body and soul to heaven.

The resurrection of the departed saints was secured by the rising of Jesus.  God will bring them and us with Jesus upon His momentous permanent return. So, stop acting like the hopeless pagans when we should be basking in a confident assurance. Plant their bodies in the ground and let them rest in peace. Jesus endured the full horror implied in the death He suffered as the wages of sin, only to transform death for those united to Him into a good night’s sleep in a casket. At an hour we do not know their transformed bodies will be united with glorified spirits.

To describe that Day, Paul joins several pictures from the Old Testament and says that the Lord will come down from Heaven, accompanied by various dramatic signs. “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

We need not think of this happening in terms of hours or even minutes. Just as the resurrection of all the dead will taken place “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye,” so in a moment, all believers, living and resurrected, will be reunited with one another. What a joyful scene that will be for all who’ve been parted by death!

Nor will the joy simply be in the reunion of all believers. More important, we will be “caught up” by the power of God “in the clouds to meet the Lord”! And we will not have to be afraid or ashamed to stand before Him. For He is our brother. He will give us new bodies. These bodies will be the same bodies, but they will be without a sinful nature, imperfections, and weaknesses. Ours will be “imperishable” and “spiritual” bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), like that of our risen Savior Himself. What’s more, “we will always be with the Lord.” Never again will we be parted by death. Eternal joy and peace will be our lot.

Paul closes by urging the Thessalonians to talk about these facts so they might encourage one another in times of bereavement. That’s good advice for you and me, too! Do you wonder what we should say to a bereaved fellow believer at the funeral home, or at church before the funeral service, or when leaving the graveside after the committal, or a week or a month or a year after the funeral? Don’t just say, “I’m sorry!” Unbelievers can also say this in their hopeless grief. How much more comforting it is to hear again and again from the lips of fellow believers the simple facts about the dead in Christ and the coming of our Lord: Christ rose and promises us, we will rise also; death is but a sleep from which Christ Himself will wake us; at His coming all believers will be reunited to meet with Christ and live with Him forever.

For now, it is given you to grieve. But now is not forever. Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Therefore, encourage one another with these words, for 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.

Devotions & Essays, Uncategorized

What Are You Afraid Of?

A Devotional for the Pipestone County Star

What are you afraid of? I asked this question on Facebook and received a variety of good answers, including:  

Flying. Darkness. Snakes. Spiders. Thunder. Boredom. Failure. Drowning. Heights. The unknown. Getting old. Obsolescence. Loss. Commitment. Success. Tornadoes. The future. Being forgotten. Horses. Mice. Bugs. Bats. Public speaking. Sickness. Unemployment. Rejection. Losing my freedoms. COVID 19. Death.

Each of these are legitimate fears. They have the potential to do us harm, bring us suffering. But the worst part of fear is the damage it can do spiritually. Fear causes us to doubt God’s promises, which turns to idolatry. Idolatry is fearing, loving, and trusting in something or someone other than the one true God. Such fear is just misplaced. We need another fear: the fear of the Lord.

“The fear of the Lord” is a key concept throughout the Old Testament, but it is frequently misunderstood. The word fear often has a negative connotation, namely, to be frightened of something or someone. But when referring to a person of high position, it takes on the idea of standing in awe or reverence before that individual. God is our Creator, and He is our Savior. How can we ever think of God with indifference or treat Him lightly? This fear is closely related to trust because we can truly respect and reverence God only when we believe that He is everything that His Word says He is.

The fear of the Lord drives away fear. King David writes: “I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears… The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them… Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack!” (Psalm 34:4, 7, 9).

In other words, when we fear God, there is nothing else to be afraid of!

So, what are you afraid of? God’s Word has an answer for you.

Are you afraid of the unknown? Jesus encourages His disciples of all ages, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:22-24).

Afraid of the future? “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

Afraid of others? “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid” (Psalm 27:1).

Afraid of being alone? The Lord assures, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:1b-2).

Afraid of sickness and death? The Lord is with you even there. The psalmist confesses: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

Sermons, Uncategorized

Signed, Sealed, and Delivered

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan van Eyck

Click here to listen to this sermon.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
     and serve Him day and night in His temple;
     and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
     the sun shall not strike them,
     nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
     and He will guide them to springs of living water,
     and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:9-17).

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

“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression that is dubiously claimed to be an ancient Chinese curse. While phrased as a blessing, the expression ironically puts forth the idea that life is better in “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquility than in “interesting” ones, which are usually times of trouble and upheaval.

Given that understanding, I think most of us would agree that we certainly live in “interesting times.” Since the pandemic came to our country over seven months ago, we’ve found ourselves constantly navigating new territory. We watched the gas prices go down to their lowest level in decades, but there was no place for us to go. We experienced shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, Plexiglass, and bread flour. Farmers were forced to euthanize thousands of hogs and cattle because local packers were closed, eggs and milk were dumped even as supermarkets limited meat, milk, and egg purchases for each customer.

We stayed home and shut down our businesses for the longest two weeks in history. Those who have long felt undervalued and unappreciated suddenly found themselves designated as “essential workers.” Local family-owned businesses struggle under shut-down and executive orders, while giant corporations experience unprecedented sales and profits. Unemployment rates hit depression era levels. Lots of us learned more about communication technology than we ever thought we could or wanted to. Teachers and students met in virtual classrooms. Pastors preached to a camera and microphone, while pajamaed parishioners curled up on the couch and watched from home. DCEs and volunteers figured out creative ways to continue Sunday School, VBS, and youth programs.

We’ve come to know (and perhaps detest) a lot of new terms and phrases: flatten the curve, herd immunity, social distancing, Zoom, new normal, out of an abundance of caution, follow the science, unprecedented, slow the spread, when things get back to normal again, we’re all in this together apart, stay home, stay safe, and turning down the dial, just to name a few.

The pandemic and attempts to deal with it have led to suffering, death, inconvenience, and encroachment on privileges and freedoms we may have taken for granted. Families have not been able to see their loved one in person for months. Patients die in hospitals and nursing homes without the comfort of family and pastoral care. Families and communities have been unable to gather to mourn their loved one’s death and to comfort one another.

Then, there’s COVID’s collateral damage: Suicides have surged, drug and alcohol abuse has risen, domestic and child abuse have risen dramatically. As we seek to protect the most susceptible to sickness and death, our residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers are becoming more fearful, lonely, and depressed. Important healthcare appointments, even surgeries and procedures, have been postponed. Health care professionals, caregivers, daycare personnel, and teachers have had to work harder and in more difficult, perhaps dangerous, circumstances to provide even basic care.

There’s compassion fatigue and fear. Congregations are divided over approaches to opening or keeping churches closed. Folks are scared to come back to church or gather with family for holidays. Those not as concerned are accused of being unloving or uncaring. Pastors are war-weary and worn down, trying to figure out to care for God’s flock who are scattered or scared or scarred. And perhaps the worst part is that no one has any realistic idea when, if ever, it will all go back to our previous idea of normal.

In the midst of the doom and gloom that seems to hang over everything, one might look longingly to the future in hopes of better things to come. That, too, will likely leave us with fear, dread, and disappointment. Living in a world broken by sin, we should never be so foolish to expect utopian dreams to materialize. In this age, there will never be a heaven on earth. But our text for this festival celebrating God’s work in all the saints does assure us that ultimately all God’s saints are signed, sealed, and will be delivered by Christ Jesus into the new heaven and earth for eternity.

So where do we children of God turn to faith in Christ Jesus, our only Savior from sin? Where do we turn for hope, encouragement, and strength to remain faithful to the faith put in us by the Holy Spirit in Baptism? How can we imitate and follow the example of the saints in heaven described in today’s First Reading from God’s Word, who come “out of the great tribulation” and who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v 14)? How do we get where they’ve gotten?

The answer is quite simple and clear in today’s text. But it’s not easy. It’s one that can make us weary just hearing it. It’s one that we often would prefer not to know, because it’s not easy to abide by. That’s because it foretells terrible tribulation until the time God delivers us safely home to eternal life in the glory of His heaven. Yet at the same time, it gives us once again God’s faithful promise that He has done, and is doing, absolutely everything necessary to save us from the damning power and guilt of our sin and to take us safely, in faith, all the way home for eternity in the perfect glory of heaven.

That’s what God is doing in today’s text when He tells us through St. John’s revelation that Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit “have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” The Greek word for sealed means “to set a mark or seal on us in faith to serve as protection and also identification.” All those God has made His children in faith in the sin-purifying waters of Baptism, God is protecting. That—in our Baptism—is when the Holy Spirit signed us into saving faith in Christ crucified, when the sign of His cross as made over our foreheads and our hearts. He is thus identifying His believers as His dearly loved possessions, whom Christ Jesus bought with His sin-free lifeblood on Calvary’s center cross.

This saving act not only destroyed all the power of all our sin, death, and hell, but it also strikes dreadful fear in Satan. The truth be told, it also marks us as an enemy of the evil one. Satan, therefore, relentlessly and futilely seeks to prevent the Holy Spirit from delivering us safely, in faith, into the “multitude that no one could number” in heaven, those Christ Jesus Himself has robed in white.

And this ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in us, which He works through the Gospel power of God’s Word and Sacraments, is the sealing action of God in us, in faith, just as it was for all the saints who from their labors rest in the loving arms of the Lamb of God in heaven. In those arms they do not hunger, thirst, or cry from the war-weariness of the great tribulation they endured in this sinful world that we endure for the sake of Christ Jesus and His Gospel. That’s because this world still considers the sealing Gospel so offensive and terrifying, since it implies that they have sin from which they need saving.

That’s why God continues to protect and identify us as His redeemed children in faith. That’s why He continues to seal us with the assurance of His forgiving love in the Gospel promise—Christ Jesus born as one of us in Bethlehem to die in our place on Calvary’s cross. That is the ongoing and even more relentless sealing and delivering the Holy Spirit does in fulfilling His guarantee work, in which He specializes. Because the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts signed by our Savior’s cross, we have God’s guarantee in this, His presence, that we will inherit heaven. This is God’s guaranteed delivery into the glory of His heaven, when the white-robed, palm-waving saints sing our enthroned Savior’s praises. They sing well-rested and triumphant through God’s faithful delivery out of the great tribulation, where we still have tears.

In this high-definition picture revealed in today’s text, God’s Word gives us His faithful promise: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” Even as we still cry our way through the great tribulation that we all must endure in this life, He will shelter us until He takes us home to the glory of heaven.

God lives with us through faith—in a very real way in His Word and Sacraments—right here and now. This includes living with the sorrow, pain, and tears this sinful world causes God’s believers until God turns them to joy. This is His sealing and delivering of us home to heaven, as surely as He did the very same for every single saint in that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”

To sustain us and inspire us to soldier on, John gives us a glimpse of the glory that is Christ’s. How incredible to be part of that blessedness! How wonderful to be numbered with all God’s saints. By Calvary’s cross, delivered to us at the baptismal font and the Lord’s altar, God has signed and sealed us in His grace. In that grace we already now stand in faithful assurance alongside the saints triumphant, and one day we will be delivered to join them in praising God, from whom all blessings flow!

Go in the peace of the Lord, all you His saints, 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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