Sermons, Uncategorized

Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance

4x5 original
“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Luca Giordano

Click here to listen to this sermon.

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7-8a).

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

The world gets ready for this season on one level, Christians on another. The world gets ready for just one great big blockbuster of a day on Christmas, kind of an annual consumer feeding frenzy, indulging itself in stuff and more stuff. Then when it’s over, it’s over. And all that’s left of Christmas on December 26 is a credit card hangover, a big pile of wrapping paper, and trips to the store for returns and after-Christmas sales.

Not so in the Church. For us, when Christmas comes, it stays. It lingers on through Epiphany, the Gentiles’ Christmas, and all the way clear through till Lent. We continue to ponder the great glad news that God has become man to redeem all humankind out from under the iron grip of death and hell. And we will sing our Christmas praises well into January and beyond. We make Christmas last.

But let’s not rush it. Christmas hasn’t yet begun. We’re still in Advent. We’re still getting ready. Yet our readiness is much more than just sending cards and decorating our homes, baking Christmas goodies and going to parties. It is a readiness of the heart that God desires at His coming. That’s why in our collect for today we pray: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son.”

In our text, God gives us exactly that: a ready heart, through the prophet of Advent—John the Baptist. He is the very prophet whom the Lord appointed to clear the way for His coming. And believe me, He cleared the way.

Nothing mealymouthed about John, and no tiptoeing around for him. “You brood of vipers!” he shouted to the crowd coming out for baptism. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

The people coming out to hear John’s message and be baptized by him, sense the coming judgment but are like sheep without a shepherd. They don’t know how to escape the wrath to come. John points the way: produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The fruits of faith show the genuineness of repentance.

John marched right in where angels feared to tread and laid it on the line to all who heard him: “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In other words, “Straighten up! Judgment is coming!” Being the physical children of Abraham is no guarantee that you will escape the axe and fire of judgment. All the dead wood will be cut out and thrown into the fire.

Now that’s a little unsettling if we have the ears to hear it. And it should be. For the sad truth is, you and I don’t bear the good fruit our Lord expects. We’re barren trees! We’re dead wood! We don’t love God with all our heart and soul and strength, much less love our neighbor as ourselves. Despite our best efforts, there are those we have hurt and those we have failed to help. Our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin. There is nothing good within us, in our sinful nature. We are indeed poor miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s wrath and condemnation.

That’s how preparing the way for the Lord’s coming begins, when you and I are laid low by the hammer blows of God’s Law, when we are brought to know the seriousness of our sinful condition, and the eternal consequences of remaining in that sin—God’s righteous wrath. Only then can we be lifted up and comforted by the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, His Son.

The way of the Lord is the way of repentance, you see. That is, it calls for change—a change of heart and mind. A change, which only God can work within us by the power of His Spirit working through His Word. That’s what we need this Advent season: a change so that we repent, clean out our lives, littered with shame and death, so that they might be filled with the life of Jesus Christ instead.

Not that such a change comes easy, mind you. It means the death of the habits of the sinful heart. And such habits always die hard. It’s always much easier to love and serve ourselves than it is to love and serve God and our neighbor for Jesus’ sake. It always comes naturally to the sinful heart to lash out with anger when we’re hurt, to return evil for evil, to repay injury with injury. It is much easier to cut down other people than to love them and build them up. It’s easier for the sinful heart to curse and swear, to lie and deceive by God’s name, than to pray, praise, and give Him thanks.

That’s why the way of the Lord leads first to the cross before it leads to joy. That’s why the Christian life is a life of constant repentance, a continuing vigil for change in mind and heart. First, we confess our sins, then God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). First the cross and then the crown. Such is the way, the road, we walk.

And that road often takes some unexpected twists and turns. It might take us through some rocky terrain and rugged territory, places we would rather not go. The road of faith may lead us out even into desert lands, where it seems we walk alone all by ourselves. But we are not alone even there. The very God who washed away our sins and gave us life will not abandon us in those desert times. He who gave up His life for us on His cross and shed His blood to wash our robes and make them white will never let us go. “My sheep know Me,” says Jesus, “and I know them. And they follow Me. And I will give them eternal life. And no man will ever snatch them out of My hand” (see John 10:1-15).

The path you walk might seem rugged at times and very steep, the pathway long and hard, but it is the path of the Lord’s own coming. As we just sang in our sermon, the voice of John, the Lord’s prophet, cries out to one and all: “Then cleansed by ev’ry Christian breast and furnished for so great a Guest. Yea, let us each our hearts prepare for Christ to come and enter there.”

So let’s stir up our hearts this Advent season. It’s time for a change, a new way. Let’s lift up the valleys of our deep despair, bring down the mountain peaks of our lofty pride, and straighten out our crooked ways.

“How is this done? What does this mean?” you ask.

What this means for you I cannot tell. It means different things for different people, depending on who they are and where they are in life. You can tell that from John’s instructions to those who heard his preaching. For tax collectors, the way of the Lord meant to be fair and honest; for soldiers, it meant to be content and not take what didn’t belong to them. For everyone, it meant generosity and mercy, giving food and clothing to those who had none, for Jesus’ sake.

Notice that John suggests fruits of repentance which bring benefits to other people. But they are not the results of plans and programs. Many of them are what are often known today as “random acts of kindness.” Most are just simple acts of service performed in the regular daily activities of your vocations, your current calling or station in life. What this means for you I can’t say.

But how is this done? That I can most certainly tell you: by the grace of God, that’s how—through His means of grace. In His Word and Sacraments, the Son of God, who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, will change your hearts and make them new. He who left the Father’s throne in lowly meekness to be cradled in a cattle trough and wrapped in swaddling clothes is closer to you in His Word than your little child with his arms wrapped around your neck.

In Holy Baptism, God, the Holy Trinity receives you into communion or fellowship with Himself. Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues you from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit works faith and so creates in you new spiritual life with the power to overcome sin. By Baptism you have been made to share in Christ’s death and resurrection. As He has buried your sin, so you can and must daily overcome and bury it. And as He is risen from the dead and lives, so you too can and must daily live a new life in Him, bearing fruits in keeping with repentance.

Then, there’s confession and absolution. As you confess your sins and receive the absolution spoken by the pastor you may receive it as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it your sins are forgiven before God in heaven.

In the Lord’s Supper, you receive the forgiveness of sins which Christ’s body and blood have won for you on the cross. Together with forgiveness, God gives all other blessings as well, that is, “life and salvation.” In this sacrament Christ gives victory over sin and hell and the strength for new life in Him. As Christians partake of this sacrament together, you make a solemn public confession of Christ and of unity in the truth of His Gospel.

As you receive these means of grace, the Lord Jesus will sweep the cobwebs out of your hearts and make them fit for His coming. He will straighten up the crooked paths by which you have wandered far away from our Father’s house and bring you home again. He will tear down your stubborn pride and melt your hardened hearts to enfold you in His love. He will lift you up out of the pits of your despair and grief to comfort you with the presence of His Holy Spirit and restore to you the joy of His salvation. He will enable you to bear fruits in keeping with repentance.

So get ready. Get ready for Christmas most certainly, but above all else prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ. Let this holy Advent season be your comfort and your joy as deep within takes root the reality that Christ has actually come in the flesh and will come again at the end of time. But He comes this very day in His Gospel and Sacrament to make you new and whole and free.

So prepare the way for His coming. Let this be your constant Advent prayer: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.” And let these words bring you comfort and peace: 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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A Not-So-Sentimental Journey

Jesus procession in the streets of Jerusalem
“Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot

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And as [Jesus] rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. As He was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:35-38).

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

Have you ever felt like you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or like you know where you are but can’t figure out how you got there? So it seems today? Everything is out of whack.

It’s December, and it’s Advent, the preparation for Christmas. We expect to be transported to Bethlehem, to a manger, surrounded by animals. Instead, our Gospel takes us to Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey.

Strangely enough, the traditional Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is the same as that of Palm Sunday—Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It seems, in a way, wrong. Out of place. Say what you will about Christ’s coming at the end of time, but Advent’s all about preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. Children everywhere are already rehearsing for Christmas programs, getting ready to reenact the story of Mary, with Child, riding on a donkey into Bethlehem to give birth. And instead, we’re saddled with a story about Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem to His death.

But maybe there’s something we can learn—something that, like Mary, we can take with us and ponder in our hearts. Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). For this reason, our Lord came from heaven. For this reason, the Son of God became the Son of Mary. The story that gives Christmas its meaning and lasting value.

The peace and joy of Bethlehem’s cradle is won for us at Jerusalem’s cross.

Indeed, Christmas seems, for so many, to be a holiday about nothing. Or else, about the things of this world. Many, I think, have completely lost their bearings. Imagine going to someone’s house for Christmas. Watch as everyone unwraps present after present. The next one bigger and better than the one before.

At first you might be a little jealous—maybe more than a little jealous. But as the day wears on, you start to get this feeling that something just isn’t quite right. Something is missing. Or more precisely, someone is missing. For all the gifts and celebration, there is nothing to it. No substance. There is no Christ and no Mass. No mention of our Lord’s birth and no celebration of His birth in the church service. It’s hollow and leaves you feeling empty inside. Or, at least, it should.

In our society, Christmas has become a largely secular, worldly affair. We celebrate Christmas, and we even fight for the right to say “Merry Christmas” at places like Wal-Mart, but we rarely talk about why Christmas is merry. The absence of Christ has left for many a big hold, an emptiness that needs to be filled. And so many folks try to fill the void with manmade traditions, songs, and stories.

Rather than tell the story of Christ, the world tells countless other stories. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “The Little Match Girl,” How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Nutcracker, “The Night Before Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life, A Miracle on 34th Street, Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and Elf.

The world has its own hymnal as well, with Christmas “hymns” ranging from Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” to Bing’s “White Christmas.” Nat King Cole sings about chestnuts roasting in “The Christmas Song.” Gene Autry can still be heard singing of the advent of Santa Claus, coming down Santa Claus Lane. Mariah Carey assures us of her love, because “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

I like a lot of those stories, enjoy a couple of those songs. But if that’s all there is, we don’t have much to celebrate. Just not a lot there. No wonder Christmas tends to fall flat.

But if we’re to be honest, even for us Christians, Christmas often falls flat. Perhaps we should blame the angels for raising our expectations. “It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold: ‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,” (LSB 366:1). A beautiful song and a beautiful sentiment. But whatever did the angels mean by singing, “Peace on the earth”?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much peace on earth, nor, for that matter, good will to men. So many folks become cynical. Do you remember that old Coca Cola commercial in which young people joined in chorus to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”? The hippies of the sixties really thought that with a good attitude and few folk songs, peace was just around the corner. Silly, but we still pray for peace. And for two thousand years, we’ve had nothing but wars and rumors of wars.

Again and again, the angels said, “Don’t be afraid.” Yet we live in what seems to be an age of anxiety; a low-level fear lurks just below the surface. Some of us have relatives or neighbors serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some fret over global warming; others worry the President is a war-monger, fascist, crony capitalist, globalist or communist (depending upon who is in office and which party you belong). Social media is listening in on all our conversation, shaping our opinions, and blocking our free speech. What if Iran or North Korea gets nuclear weapons? And, God forbid, actually use them? A while back, Stephen Hawking said that the human races should already be planning for life on another planet in preparation for the time when our own planet will become uninhabitable. Peace on earth? I don’t think so. Doom seems, if not imminent, inevitable.

And so, at Christmas, when peace on earth seems unattainable on a large, global scale, we attempt it on a smaller scale, at home with family and friends. Many folks, even Christian folks, will say that Christmas at its heart is about friends and family. And this side of heaven, the family is about the best gift there is. But families, too, can be turned into idols. Indeed, many Christians don’t even go to church on Christmas because they want to be with their families.

And even at home, there is not always peace. Throw in anxieties over work, your children’s struggles at school, ailing parents, a chronic medical condition, a dispute with the in-laws, the loss of a loved one, or broken relationship, and there’s a lot of strife and sadness. Some of this of our own making—bad choices we’ve made, people we’ve hurt, relationships we’ve damaged. Our families are a mess, and often, we’re part of the problem.

Where, then, is peace to be found? Nowhere else than in the Christ Child. Not in some Precious Moments Christ Child, but in the Child who was born to die. A real-world Savior for a world with real problems. The Babe of Bethlehem who would set His sights on Jerusalem. The One whose birth was lit by a star and whose death would be met with darkness.

And so at our Lord’s birth, the angels sang, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.” But there is still another song to sing, and we sing it as Jesus is riding on a donkey into Jerusalem: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38).

Peace in heaven? What do we mean by that? There’s always peace in heaven. Heaven is the place where angels ride upon the clouds, strumming along on their harps, isn’t it? Heaven is where we escape the evils of this world.

Well, there’s more to it. Peace in heaven is not just a description; it’s good news. There’s peace in heaven because God is at peace with us.

We have to ask: “How could God be at peace with us? How could He be at peace with a world that is constantly at war? How could He be at peace with a world that disregards Him, ignores Him, and takes His blessings for granted? How could He be at peace with a world that blatantly disregards His will? How could He be at peace with a world that has taken the celebration of the birth of His Son and turned it into just another time to eat, drink, and be merry? How could He be at peace with me, a sinner?”

If we are to recover Christmas, we must, I think, recover Advent. Advent is a season of preparation—not simply of our homes, meals, and presents, but a time of preparation for our hearts. A time of assessment and acknowledgment and a time to recognize why our Lord came in the first place. A time to recognize why that Infant Child, born to be King, would one day receive a crown of thorns. A time for repentance.

“Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding! ‘Christ is near,’ we hear it say. ‘Cast away the works of darkness, All you children of the day!’” (LSB 345:1).

“Cast away the works of darkness.” Look at your lives, and turn once more from sin. Think about your lives. Your hopes. Your dreams. What are you looking forward to? Are your hearts set merely on the things of this world? On new cars and new homes? On toys and vacations? On a stable financial future? What are your goals? Are they the goals that God would have for you? Are you thinking of the life to come, or are you setting your sights only on the things of this world? Are you putting your time and money in things to please yourself, or are you giving a generous portion to the Church, and thereby investing in eternity?

The season of Advent is one of assessment. It’s a time to remember that the things of this world are indeed already passing away, a time to set our hearts, once more upon things above. A time to look at the Child who came to die, a time to crucify our sinful passions.

And so we sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” And we recognize that He comes to die for our sins. We remember that we have been baptized into the name of the Lord. Returning to our Baptism, we renounce, once more, the devil, all His works, and all His sinful ways. We don’t simply cry out against all the evils of this world, but we repent of the evils of our heart. We recognize the troubles we have caused, the damage we have done, the friends we have hurt, and the responsibilities we have not met.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, and we who also bear His name now also take up our crosses and follow Him.

Yes, Advent is a time for repentance, a time of sadness over sin. But it also a time of hope. For if we are sinners, we have Savior. And if the end is near, so also, in Christ, is there a new beginning. If we have made a mess with our lives, Christ has come to make things right. And He will come again.

For the world, Christmas is a big game of pretend—of creating an idyllic world that does not exist. But for us, Christmas is life itself. Therefore, in this season of Advent, let us prepare our hearts once more for our Lord’s coming. Let us cast away the works of darkness and be adorned with every good work and with acts of charity and generosity. Let us forgive as we have been forgiven. And let us embrace the Child who came to embrace us. And let is offer up our lives as gifts to the One who came to offer up His life as His gift of salvation for us all. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 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.

 

This sermon is an adaptation of a sermon by Peter J. Scaer in Concordia Pulpit Supply, Volume 20, Part 1, pp 13-15.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Ready for the Master’s Return

Teachings_of_Jesus_32_of_40._the_faithful_and_wise_steward._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_BibleClick here to listen to this sermon.

[Jesus said:] “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 rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (Mark 13:34-35).

 

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

The last Sundays of the Church Year bring eschatology, the study of the last things, into focus with the lectionary’s emphasis on death, the final judgment, and the promise of the new heaven and the new earth. These Sundays bring us to the conclusion of the Nicene Creed, “And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” We have said those words so often, but what do they mean?

Truth be told, we are often more concerned about the judgment that comes from other human beings. We fret about how others will evaluate us. Sometimes it has to do with lesser things like how we dress or the way that our lawn looks. Sometimes it is wondering whether so-and-so will like or accept us. Other times it might be more profound worries like an employee who is anxious over an annual performance review or a student taking an entrance exam that may determine which academic paths are opened or closed to him.

The stresses and strains of this life seem enough to keep us preoccupied with the here and now. The judgment which will come at the end seems distant and abstract, far removed from all the things that call the worth of our lives into question right now. So, we may ask the question not with skepticism, but with honesty, what does the return of the Lord Jesus in judgment mean for me now in the face of all the real-life verdicts that I have to face?

The answer to that question is found in God’s Word appointed to be read in the churches on these last Sundays of the Church Year. These are the Sundays of the end times. They point us to the sober reality that life will not always go on as usual. These gray and increasingly winter-like days of November bear all the signs of death. The dazzling red and gold leaves of autumn give way to brown and barren branches. So also in the Church Year these November Sundays have the chill of death. The year hastens to a close and with it the reminder that our lives hasten on as well. The Scripture readings appointed for these Sundays, therefore, are a wakeup call, a reminder to be always ready for the Master’s return.

This is especially true of the readings today from Mark 13. Jesus says learn from the fig tree. When it begins to blossom, you know that summer is at hand. Wake up to the reality that the Son of Man is at the gate.

Jesus speaks of cosmic signs. The sun will be darkened and the moon will not share its beams. Stars tumble from the skies and the heavenly powers are shaken when the Son of Man comes on the clouds with power and great glory. He dispatches His holy angels to gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown and so they reap the elect from north and south, from east and west. None that belong to Jesus will be lost. That great cloud of witnesses will be complete; they will forever be with Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith. He endured the cross, triumphed over death by dying, and now He is seated at the Father’s right hand. It is this Jesus who is near the gate, standing at the door.

Of course, Jesus spoke these words just after He had entered through the gate on Palm Sunday. He was in Jerusalem moving ever closer to Calvary where sun and moon would be darkened (at least for a few hours), and the powers of heaven shaken as the sinless Son of God endures all that our sin deserved—God’s wrath and death itself. You see Judgment Day really does begin on Good Friday, for it is there that Jesus is judged with our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous!

Indeed, the generation that Jesus spoke to would not pass away until these things had taken place. The time of God’s visitation was upon them. They would see the Son of Man scorned and blasphemed. They would see Him handed over to wicked men, sentenced and spit upon, beaten and bloody. They would see Him suffering and dying. They would hear Him cry out in His dying breath, “It is finished.” God is finished with sin in Jesus, for Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world in His own body pinned to a Roman cross. With His blood, He drains away the pollutant of your unbelief.

It is this Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead. The last days are not “out there” in the future somewhere. You are in them now. The Church has been living in the last days ever since Good Friday. To live in the last days is to live on the threshold between time and eternity.

How close we are, we do not know. Life can be and is deceptive. It is easy to think that life just meanders on, that the comfortable routines we have established for ourselves will continue uninterrupted. We can so easily be lulled into the fleshly security of the man in Jesus’ parable who surveyed his overflowing barns and concluded that his soul could be at rest for he had enough to supply his needs for years to come. Jesus calls this man a fool, for the abundance of his riches blinded him to the fact that his soul would be required of him that very night.

Jesus shows us how the things by which we evaluate our lives are transient and deceptive. Wealth and health are not permanent. There is a Judge who is standing at the door. He is not removed in some far distant realm of the future. He is near. One day—a day that is hidden from His creation—He will come on clouds and every eye will see Him and every tongue confess either in eternal joy or perpetual shame, that He is Lord. Faith is not preoccupied with futile attempts to calculate when. Faith lives by the promises that Jesus makes right now. “Heaven and earth,” Jesus says, “will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”

For your faith’s sake, Jesus warns you of things to come, even things here now, because you will be tempted to drift away from the faith, to fall away in persecution, to doubt God’s love when suffering, and to doubt that He will return. Jesus doesn’t say when He will return. He just promises that He will and that you must be ready. It is not the duty of the master to tell his servants exactly when he will return, but it is the duty of the doorkeeper to be watching. The master may return at any hour. The doorkeeper must always be ready for the master’s return.

Jesus calls you to a lifetime of watching and remaining faithful in your holy vocation. Each of us is given the authority to work until His return. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, an heir of the kingdom of God, you are part of the royal priesthood, living as Gospel people in your ordinary vocations. Your greatest work is faith, which is really a work of God, done through His Word. That highlights the importance of remaining in the Word of God. Despite the temptations of false teachers, tribulations because of faith, or suffering in a sinful, futile world, the Church does not receive or declare the Word in vain. Christ’s authority assures us that His words remain forever.

Be ready for the Master’s return. You must not be found asleep. Therefore, repent. If desire or sophistry turned you to accept false as true, return to the pure Word. If you are too fearful to bear a cross, confess your faintheartedness. If troubles seem greater than Christ’s sufficiency, confess your unbelief. And if urgency to hear Christ’s Word and receive His very body and blood are forgotten after the Saturday late movie, or in anticipation of this Sunday’s sporting event or family gathering, confess your failure to watch and be ready.

Christ exhorts: “Be on guard! Be alert!” Don’t immerse yourself in the things of this world and thus lose your own soul. Always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, your ears attuned to His Word. For in this way, you will ready for the Master’s return, whenever that may be!

This means that even though we always live as those who are walking under the shadow of death, you can live in confidence and peace. The believer in Jesus Christ does not have to fret about the final judgment, living in uncertainty and fear. Why? Because you have already heard God’s final verdict ahead of time. God let it slip out early. It is no longer a secret. It is called the absolution. God says, “I forgive you all your sin.” It is as sure and certain here on earth as it is in heaven!

A Lutheran pastor of the last century once said that a Christian should go to the Lord’s Supper as though he were going to his death, and that a Christian may then go to his death as though he were going to the Lord’s Supper. When we go to the Lord’s Supper, St. Paul tells us we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. When we go to our death, we will confess that Jesus’ death for our sins is our confidence. His blood is our righteousness and the forgiveness of our sins is the promise of an open heaven. Werner Elert once said the, “Day of Judgment… is just as close to us as the Judge is.”[i]

Faith rejoices to receive this Lord ever-near; unbelief is terrified. So again Elert, “Some live in the light of the Last Day, others in its shadow.”[ii] It is my privilege as God’s called and ordained servant to proclaim that the One who comes at the End is the Lord who came in the flesh to be our Brother and Savior. He came so those broken by their sin might live, not in the long shadows of the Last Day, but in the brilliance of the light of the face of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Go in the peace and joy of the Lord. Live each day in confidence and hope, exercising yourself in the faith that works through love. You are ready for the Master’s return. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for 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.

 

This sermon is adaptation of an essay by John T. Pless on Craft of Preaching.

 

[i]  Werner Elert, The Last Things, trans. Martin Bertram (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 28.

[ii] Elert, 28.

 

 

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It’s Hard to Bow Down with a Full Belly

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“The Healing of the Ten Lepers” by James I Tissot

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“Then one of [the lepers], when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:15-18).

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

It’s hard to bow down with a full belly. Pregnant women coming to the communion rail know this. Middle-aged men trying to pick up a scrap of paper from the floor know this. And on days like tomorrow (today), with Thanksgiving dinners, there will be a lot more people who experience this firsthand.

But that’s just from the physical aspect. I would submit to you that it’s hard to bow down spiritually with a full belly, too. What I mean is that it is easier to turn to the Lord in hard times. It’s easier to keep God and His Word as a priority  when you’re facing trials and struggles. But it’s so easy to forget the Lord and His many blessings when you are comfortable, when times are good.

Martin Luther said: “The greater God’s gifts and works, the less they are regarded.” A hungry man is more thankful for his morsel than a rich man for his overflowing table. A lonely woman in a nursing home will appreciate a visit more than a popular woman with a party thrown in her honor. A Russian who finally gets his own copy of Scripture after seventy-five years of state-imposed atheism is more thankful for his little book than we are for all the Christian books and Bible translations that overflow our shelves. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that if the constellations appeared only once in a thousand years, imagine what an exciting event it would be. But because they’re out every night, we barely give them a look.

One of the evidences of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is a gradual reversal of this twisted pattern. God wants to make us people who exhibit a thankfulness on proper proportion to the gifts and blessings we’ve received. He wants us to become a people who realize that nothing we have comes from our feeble efforts, but solely from the merciful and gracious hand of God. We must learn that the only way to come before God is empty-handed as beggars.

But that’s not easy to do, is it? It’s hard to bow down with a full belly.

What would it take to get you to beg? What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member? I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request. First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least the recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself. And second, it takes confidence that the one whom you are asking is able to fulfill that need.

And so, we turn to the ten lepers in our Gospel. They are desperate. They’re all out of options. They’re dying from a terrible contagious disease. They can’t go to work. They can’t stay home. They can’t hug their wives and kids. The Law is clear: They are unclean. They are required to stay away from everyone else except other lepers. If anyone who doesn’t have leprosy happens to wander their way, these loneliest of men are required to shout out a warning to stay away.

When Jesus comes along, the beggars shout from a distance. Not “stay away,” but “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Somehow, they’ve heard. Though they’ve been ostracized and isolated, they’ve still gotten the news of Jesus and His miraculous healing. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” This is a prayer of faith—or at least the beginning of faith. The lepers know Jesus through the wonderful stories that have been told about Him. The Word of Christ has worked faith in their hearts. Their plea for mercy is an expression of this faith. They realize that they cannot buy or barter for the blessing Jesus brings, but can only beg for it.

And Jesus, seeing them, and fully away of their miserable plight simply tells them to show themselves to the priests. It was commanded in the Law of Moses that those who supposed themselves to be cured of leprosy must present themselves to one of the priests on duty at the temple, in order that their healing might be confirmed. If it was determined they had been cured of their sickness, then they were required to bring a sacrifice. The sacrifices in the temple included the shedding of blood, looking forward to the cleansing atonement of the Messiah, who, at that very moment just happens to be on His way to Jerusalem to offer His blood as the final, once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus wants the priests to confirm that the miracle has taken place. It will confirm that Jesus is who He says He is: the merciful one who cleanses the entire sins of humanity.

As the ten obediently head to the temple, all of them are cleansed.

Can you imagine the joy that all of them felt that moment? They, who were outcasts, who had no hope, who had no future to look forward to, now had received their lives back! They could go home to friends and family. They could kiss their wives again. Play with their kids. They were cleansed!

One of them comes back—a Samaritan! The man praises God, bows down at Jesus’ feet, and worships. He has nothing to give Jesus in return for healing except his thanks. And while we usually highlight the ingratitude of the other nine at this point, this one only highlights the Lord’s mercy more. As a Samaritan, this man would not be able to enter the temple in Jerusalem. As Jesus notes, he is a “foreigner,” a term used by Jews with reference to Gentiles. In fact, this term appeared within an inscription posted on the barrier wall of the Jerusalem temple. It said: “No foreigner should enter…. Whoever does is himself responsible for the death that will follow.” It is most ironic, therefore, that this “foreigner” draws near to the living temple of God, Jesus Christ. There, his worship is received by God Himself, now incarnate.

The man returns because he has faith. Jesus says so: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” That’s what faith does. It keeps running back to Jesus for more, because it never gets too full to bow down. Faith runs back with thanksgiving, because faith gladly says, “I had nothing to give, but Jesus was merciful to me anyway! I still have nothing to give, but Jesus will be merciful to me again!” Faith always runs back to Jesus for more. It never gets too full.

This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the other nine: Not so much that they don’t give thanks, but that they don’t come back to Jesus who has so much more to give them. They’ve got what they want most—they have their lives, health, families, and home back again. But they don’t have what they need most—forgiveness, faith, life, and salvation. They run to the temple—the dwelling place of God. They go to see the priests, not realizing that there in their very midst was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrificial system—Jesus, the great High Priest, whose very body is the Temple of the Lord’s Presence come to earth.

Then Jesus asks, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus’ question tends to emphasize the ingratitude of those who did not return to give thanks, a big part of the reason that this text is the appointed Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day. But there’s more here than just a reminder to use your good manners.

Why didn’t the nine return to give thanks? I would submit to you: Because it’s hard to bow down with a full belly. It’s hard to beg if you think you no longer have a great need. It’s hard to bow down unless you recognize the superiority of the one before who you bow. Having had their immediate needs fulfilled, the former lepers head to the priests, and then once declared “clean,” probably back to home. There is no more need to beg and bow down. They have received their lives back and they are ready to get on with living. Kiss their wives, play with their kids. To do all the good things they had been missing. Except for the most important!

The nine get what they want, but they miss what they really need. The cares and riches and pleasures of life choke out their seedling faith, long before there is any fruit to bear. The temporal gifts they have received seem so much more important than the Giver. And they ending up missing the greater eternal gifts He has to offer. It happens far too often. It can easily happen to you and me.

In a recent post, Pastor Hans Fiene wrote: “The greatest threat facing the church in America is not liberalism or Islamic terrorism or Hollywood or public schools. It’s the utter indifference and apathy of Christians who consistently prioritize money, sports, family, etc. over hearing the Word and belonging to their fellow Christians. The Gospel will remain on earth until Jesus returns, but it might not remain in your neighborhood, folks. Get back to God’s house. Wait too long and it might not be there.” Indifference leads to unbelief. Apathy leads to apostasy.

Faith, on the other hand, keeps running back to Jesus. Faith keeps running back with thanks, and faith keeps running back for more. Faith’s belly never gets too full to bow down. By faith, the Samaritan who had been a leper knows that it’s not just that he was at the mercy of God; He remains at the mercy of God. And by faith, he knows there’s no better place to be.

The way of faith, then, is ever returning, glorifying God for what He has given. And you will find that He always has more to give. Which leads to even more thanksgiving. The Lord wants this to be an endless cycle and the very joy of your life. What He wants, finally, is to give you nothing less than Himself, and He is, as Dr. Luther puts it so unforgettably, “an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good.” And so today—and every day—you gush forth constant thanksgiving for all the gifts of your Lord to you.

Thanksgiving is worship. Worship is continual repentance and faith—begging for cleansing and salvation, receiving by faith God’s good gifts in His Word and Sacrament. Offering Him thanksgiving and worship for all He has done for you. In this life, you never move beyond that. There is no greater purpose, no greater service that you can render unto the Lord. Not that God needs your thanksgiving. He doesn’t benefit from your thanking Him. You do! The more you thank God the Father through His dear Son, Jesus Christ, the more you recognize how generously and bountifully He deals with you, and the more you are motivated to share His love and mercy with others.

Chances are you are leaving here today and you’re going to fill your bellies—maybe too full to bend over, but hopefully never too full to bow down. Enjoy your time with family and friends and feast; they’re part of God’s good gifts, too. But never forget the greater gifts! Come before your Lord often to receive His mercy in Word and Sacrament. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Receive the very body and blood of your Savior Jesus Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

And then depart in peace and joy. “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.” You are forgiven of 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.