Sermons, Uncategorized

The Lamb Will Be Their Shepherd

FB_IMG_1557613509486Click here to listen to this sermon

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 7:17).

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

Each year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Fittingly, all our readings today give us insight to the relationship we have with Jesus as sheep and Shepherd and the benefits of that relationship.

Our Gospel takes place during the Feast of Dedication, also called Hanukkah, the Jewish national holiday celebrating the purification of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus in December 165 B.C. Jesus was walking in the temple area near Solomon’s colonnade. It offered some protection from the winter’s cold. The Jewish religious leaders encircled Jesus and asked Him point blank: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Sad to say, they didn’t really want to know the truth. What Jesus had already told them, what He had done, and the way He lived in His Father’s name were clear evidence that He is the Christ. But they did not want to believe. Similarly, today, many people claim to want to know exactly who Jesus is, yet they ignore His own words and ways. “You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you are not among My sheep.” Those who are not among God’s chosen flock turn deaf ears and blinded eyes to Jesus.

In contrast to such unbelievers, Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. He knows them and they follow Him. The relationship between Jesus and His followers is intimate, personal. And because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the relationship is eternal. He gives His sheep eternal life. They will not perish forever. No one can snatch them out of His hand.

What words of comfort for you and me! We are secure forever with Christ Jesus. Our security is locked up with the Father in heaven. No one can take us from Jesus’ hands because that would mean seizing us from God the Father’s hands. And no one can do that. What is true of the Son also is true of the Father.

Jesus’ words are clear. He is from God. He is the Son of God. He is God. He is the Christ. “I and the Father are one,” he concludes.

It’s not enough to gather from His words only that He and the Father think alike or have a harmonious relationship or treat His sheep alike. Jesus is speaking of being one essence with the Father, of being God. And that’s exactly how Jesus’ enemies understand Him. To them, Jesus’ words sounded like blasphemy, so they pick up stones to carry out the penalty described in Leviticus for blasphemers. Their hatred and anger cannot be contained. They are ready to ignore the legal need for a trial. They are ready to carry out capital punishment even though they know by law that only the Roman government has that authority.

But no one will take Jesus’ life. He will lay it down of His own accord when the time is right. And He will raise it again. He will give His sheep eternal life, and they will never perish, and no enemy will snatch them out of His hand.

Jesus, in our Gospel, warns of enemies from outside of the Church; Paul, in our First Reading, warns of those from within—false prophets, fierce wolves. He encourages the undershepherds of Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.

Paul understands that a preacher must answer to God for the message he preaches or fails to preach. By saying, “I am innocent of the blood of all,” he is expressing his confidence that no one will go to eternal death because Paul has failed to preach the truth to him.

God’s will is that all men turn in “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” All the teaching of the Bible and all true preaching centers in this. To alter any of God’s Law or God’s Gospel is to misrepresent God’s will. To say more or to say less than God’s Word says can make a pastor guilty of someone’s blood, make him the cause of someone’s eternal damnation.

Shepherds feed and lead the flock. Pastors feed and lead the Church of God. The Holy Spirit has made them overseers, supervisors, for that purpose. As undershepherds, pastors are to guard themselves and the whole congregation. Paul uses the picture of a flock because he is thinking of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep, the God who bought the Church “with His own blood.”

That is a striking expression, so striking that some copyists and editors and commentators have tried to change it. That’s unfortunate. The phrase, “God’s blood,” reminds us that when God became man, He did not stop being God. As the God-Man He is not two persons but one person. What the Man did God was doing. What belongs to the Man belongs to God. When Jesus’ blood was shed, God’s blood was shed. When God bought the Church, He did it with His own blood.

The savage wolves of whom Paul speaks are false prophets of the same kind Jesus warns about in Matthew 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” No church anywhere at anytime can be complacent about the possibility of false teachers. Wolves kill sheep. False teachers kill souls. That is why we take our doctrine and practices so seriously. Though some misunderstand it as mean-spirited or intolerant or arrogant, it is actually most loving—a matter of eternal life and death.

False prophets generally do not come from outside but arise from within. They do not oppose the truth in a straightforward way and say that it is false. Rather, they distort it. They use the right words but twist and pervert them. Such lies and distortions must be opposed and exposed with the truth of God’s Word.

Who can keep the pastors faithful in their work and protect the Church from the savage wolves? Only God. How will God do that? Through the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The Word proclaims God’s grace, imparts God’s grace, and keeps us in God’s grace. That Word will make us grow to Christian maturity and gives us a share of the blessings that God has for His saints.

Paul knows that he will not always be there to help the Ephesians, but God with His Word will help them as He has even while Paul is there building them up in the eternal inheritance the Lord Jesus has prepared for them by His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. So He does today in God’s Word written through the prophets and Christ’s apostles and spoken by His undershepherds, His called and ordained servants. Listen to Him!

In our Gospel, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Then He promises: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” In Revelation, St. John gives us a sneak peek at the eternal life in the new heaven and earth where the Lamb will be the Shepherd forever.

The people in the great crowd which John sees before the throne of God in heaven are coming out of “the great tribulation.” That crowd represents the whole Church as if it is already triumphant, as if it is already complete, as it will be at the resurrection at the End.

The crowd of saints comes out of the great tribulation victorious because they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Because of the redeeming death of Jesus Christ, the crowd of people stands pure and holy in the presence of God. With sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, and covered now with the righteousness of the Lamb, they share in the victory of the Lamb before the heavenly Father. They stand before the throne of God and “worship Him day and night” (Revelation 7:15).

The one who sits upon the throne “will shelter them in His presence,” literally, “spread His tent over them, the same word used in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, He “tented” among God’s people. It could be that, in using this word, God is condescending to our human understanding of existence and manner of speaking. But more likely, the word is used to direct attention to the fact that God’s people, raised from the dead will live intimately in the flesh with God in the new heaven and new earth, and in a familial, intimate way, He will dwell with us in a manner that can be experienced also with the human senses. And because God will tent among His saints in heaven, “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (Revelation 7:16). All our greatest needs will be taken care of!

As we reflect on what John saw and heard, we can’t help but be comforted with this thought: God always keeps His promises. John sees the final end of God’s promises concerning His people at rest in the presence of God and the Lamb, never again to be pained by the harshness of life we formerly experienced it in our earthly existence. In our new life with God, the Lamb “will be [our] Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17).

This relationship between God and His people, as pictured by His being our Shepherd, was revealed so beautifully in the 23rd Psalm. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord promised His people that like a shepherd He would look after them in order to rescue them and care for them. In order to carry out this Word, God then promised to provide His people with a shepherd. The promised shepherd would be His servant, born in Bethlehem from the seed of David. In the verses, preceding our Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd.

Now in our text, John sees and hears the final outcome of these promises. The Shepherd of the Lord has been provided. By His death and resurrection, the servant David has rescued God’s people. As their Good Shepherd He tends the flock, caring for them and leading them through the great tribulation to “springs of living waters—eternal life—already now on earth, then in heaven with God, and finally forever in the new heaven and new earth.

A final truth describes the rest and the peace of the crowd of saints before God’s throne in heaven: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Tears and laments are part of the experience and character of the faithful people of God while on earth. Tears are shed over one’s sins and the sins of others, over the ruin and sufferings experienced by others, over one’s own afflictions, when confronted with God’s anger, when alone and in sorrow, at death, and at other times of sadness.

In this life the shedding of tears is as much—at times even more—the experience of Christians as are joy and laughter. But it is the gift of God’s grace to turn the weeping and sorrow into joy, for He has promised a day when “the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). John now sees the complete and final fulfillment of this promise of God. The final word describing the peace and joy of the saints before God in heaven says it all: “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Lord is your Good Shepherd. You hear His voice through His Word and follow Him. He feeds you on the green pasture of His Supper, His own body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. No one will ever snatch you out of His hand. The Lamb will be your Shepherd forever. 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.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Keys of Death & Hades, Life & Heaven

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“Fear not, I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).

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

In our First Reading, an angel of the Lord opens the doors of the prison that hold all the apostles, not with the guards’ keys, but miraculously. In fact, the guards aren’t even disturbed. When the religious officials arrive, they find the jail fully secure, but completely empty. The Gospel has free course in spite of prison doors. God’s saving purposes are not frustrated by locks.

In our Gospel, the apostles are gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews and what they might do to them. But there is one whom the locked doors did not keep out—the resurrected Jesus. We don’t know much about Jesus’ resurrected body, but we do know He left a sealed tomb with even the grave clothes still intact and that He appeared inside a locked room without use of door or key.

But as miraculous and supernatural as these incidents are, they are not the most astounding actions or miraculous openings in our readings for today.

In our Second Reading, John tells us of one Lord’s day during the time he was on the island of Patmos. He was in the Spirit when he heard a loud voice speak to him. Turning around, he saw some amazing sights: seven golden lampstands and one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.

When John saw the risen and ascended Christ in all His glory, he fell down before Him as dead. John could no more stand before the heavenly Christ than he could touch the sun. Indeed, he could no more stand before the glorified Christ than Moses could stand before God and see His face at Mt. Sinai—unless given special grace and permission. No sinful mortal can stand before the exalted Son of Man because of the corruption of sin and God’s own holiness and glory.

John’s falling down as dead is like the action of every faithful proclaimer of the Word as he falls down in repentance before the Word that comes to him. Something good for us pastors to remember: Every ministry of the Word should begin with the repentance of the minister and Christ’s forgiveness of his sin.

Jesus gave John the grace and permission to stand up before Him. Placing His right hand on John, Jesus told John, “Stop being afraid.” This Word of gracious comfort empowered Christ’s servant to stand up in His presence.

The Lord Christ identified Himself as “the First and Last.” Like “the Alpha and Omega,” “the First and the Last” also denotes the eternalness of God and Christ, an eternalness of Christ in relationship to His Bride, the Church. In using this title, Jesus assured John that, as the Eternal One, He is his Savior; therefore, John should not be afraid.

Furthermore, Jesus identified Himself as “the Living One,” a title used in the Old Testament to contrast the true God with all the idols, which are dead and thus have no existence. Jesus Christ was dead but now lives forever. Because of His death and resurrection, Jesus says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Some translations say, “death and the grave,” but “death and Hades” more accurately renders the Greek. In Roman culture, Hades was commonly thought of as the realm of the dead. Having “the keys of Death and Hades” is nothing less than holding the power to release people from the realm of the dead. Christ alone, who has conquered death, has this authority.

Jesus has the keys. He has the keys of Death and Hades. In Matthew 16:19, He declared to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This is big stuff. Jesus has the keys—the keys to heaven and death and Hades: you couldn’t escape the prison of your gracv, but Jesus unlocks the door and delivers you from your cell—and there is no power that can stop Him. Furthermore, He has unlocked the gates of heaven for you. You are delivered from death and hell to life and heaven.

Where does this take place? This is what ties it to our Gospel lesson for the day, where the risen Jesus suddenly appears to the disciples who are gathered in the locked room for fear of the Jews. Jesus hails the disciples with the typical Hebrew greeting: “Peace be with you!” But on the lips of the risen Savior, it is much more than a casual wish. He brings them the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that will sustain them through all earthly troubles.

The disciples react in their fear as if they are seeing a ghost. But Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the marks of the crucifixion, to which Jesus points to erase their last doubts. The disciples rejoice! It is the Lord Jesus, alive!

Jesus again speaks peace to them and commissions them to carry on His work: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you. And when He says this, He breathes on them, and repeats the gift of the keys to the disciples gathered in the locked room: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Where does this great unlocking of doors happen? The keys are turned with the forgiveness of sins. This is what we call the “Office of the Keys.”

“The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism).

Repentance is really a two-step process: first, recognizing the reality of our sin; and second, turning to God in faith for His mercy.

Someone who does not believe he is a sinner cannot be repentant—what’s to repent of if you are not doing something wrong? So, the first step to repentance can only happen after the Law does its accusing work. People have to hear what God’s Word says so they can recognize themselves and experience contrition over sin. The flesh, the world, and the devil spend all their time whispering, “What you are doing isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all!” Our consciences are assaulted and dulled every day by our own sinful desires. Only the Law of God can cut us to our hearts, bring us to our knees, and show us where we are wrong (usually, that is almost everywhere). Once that message gets through and we know we are slaves to sin, the first part of repentance is accomplished.

But it is not enough just to know and believe we are sinners. If we stop there, we despair, knowing that our sin separates us from God. And trying to get out of sin by our own power will also lead us to despair, because we cannot stop sinning no matter how much we want to.

So, the second part of repentance is faith: believing God’s promise that in Christ we are forgiven and have new life, namely at turning away from sin rather than to it. In particular, it means that we turn with God’s help from the specific sins of which the Law convicted us. That turning goes beyond inward resolve and really wanting to do better. Repentance includes mortifying our flesh and physically, mentally, and spiritually laboring to leave the sins that plague us.

“Repent!” sounds like a harsh message, and it is harsh. Hearing what God’s Word has to say about our favorite vices makes us angry, ashamed, and afraid. But it also makes us see that there is only one way out: Jesus. That’s why the call to repentance is one of love. It is the call God put in the mouths of His prophets and apostles so that His people could be saved. It is the call of Jesus Himself, whose love for us was so great that He took on our flesh and lived among us. He did not come to give us the message we wanted to hear (you know, the one about how you are really pretty good, especially compared to that other person). He told us the truth that we needed to hear: we are perverse, we are lost, we are dead, we must be made new, and He is the one who makes all things new.

Repentance is not some theological abstraction. For Lutherans, repentance occurs in the very concrete practice of Confession and Absolution. Our pastors do not leave us hanging. The second part of repentance is also theirs to administer. They show us our sins from the Law, and they show us our Savior in the Gospel.

Our pastors convict us with God’s Word and then forgive our sins in Christ’s place and by His command. They may do this corporately in the Divine Service, and they particularly do it in private Confession and Absolution. There is no real comfort in going home and crying into our pillows about how sorry we are. Our pastors are there to restart our crushed hearts with Jesus’ words of ultimate love: I forgive you all your sins. Those words do not just comfort us, but they effectively change us, so that even in our daily lives we grow more into the likeness of Jesus.

You can fake an apology, but you cannot fake repentance. Repentance is not just devout-sounding moaning about what rotten sinners we are, but it is leaving the life of sin we love so much. It means the slanderer keeping her zingers to herself, the lecher cancelling his Internet, the glutton by-passing the buffet, and the impious spending Sunday morning at church instead of the lake. It is change, and it hurts. Only the Holy Spirit could accomplish this work in us, because if there is one thing sinners do not like, it is giving up sin.

Sin dies hard, so hard that it took the Son of God with it to the grave (albeit briefly). And the sin in us kills us day after day. This why the Christian life is one of repentance. Repentance is not a one-time thing, because sin is not a one-time thing. We sin daily and hourly. Everything we do is tainted by sin. So every day in a Christian’s life is also characterized by repentance. In our personal prayers; in our worship together; in our private confession and receiving Absolution; and in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we are repenting constantly. We are always seeing our sin and throwing ourselves at God’s mercy, who spared not His Son to save us. With His help, we turn away from sin again and again and again.

To all who hear, we declare God’s Law and Gospel. We speak truth that we’re born in sin, that the wages of sin is death; and we declare the Good News that Christ has died for our sins and Christ is risen. When someone says, “I like my sin, so I’m not going to repent,” we tell them what the Word says: as long as they hold onto that sin, they still have it. That sin is retained, bound to them—the gates of heaven are shut, the gates of hell wide open. And when someone repents and trusts in Christ for forgiveness, we tell them what the Word says then, too: that Jesus has taken away that sin, that they are set free for eternal life. The gates of hell are shut for them, the gates of heaven wide open.

It’s all about the forgiveness Jesus has won by His death and resurrection and gives to you. In fact, forgiveness takes His death and resurrection and gives it to you. That is also why we always return to speak of Christ and His forgiveness here, for only forgiveness locks hell and opens heaven for you—for only Christ and His forgiveness give life. Rejoice in Jesus’ forgiveness for your well-being. That’s what He told the disciples to proclaim in our Gospel lesson, and that is what prepares you for His return in glory on the Last Day.

Of this you can be sure. You will see that glory on the Last Day, and on that day you will rejoice. Your Savior holds the keys to death and Hades, eternal life and heaven. He has shut hell for you and flung wide the gates of heaven by His death and resurrection. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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

 

 

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Last Enemy Is Destroyed: Sermon for the Funeral of Veva Mae Baden

Veva BadenClick here to listen to this sermon. 

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20–26).

Randy, Rhonda, other family members and friends of Veva:

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

This weekend we observed the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The “war to end all wars,” it was optimistically, if not naively dubbed. At first idealistic, the term has become quite ironic. In the 100 years since the Armistice was declared with Germany on the 11th hour of the 11th month, our own country has fought in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, and is still involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems that the moment one would-be dictator is deposed, another takes his place on the world’s stage. Another war begins in the futile attempt to end all wars.

But there’s a much deadlier war going on. A spiritual war that has been going on for centuries—ever since the fall into sin in the Garden of Eden. It’s the battle of the Seed of the woman and seed of the serpent. Good vs evil. God vs Satan. And the toll that it has taken is enormous. Thousands of years with 100% casualty rates. For as we know, the wages of sin is death. And all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All have followed the path of Adam: From the dust of the ground you came, in the ground to dust you shall return.

The fact that death is our spiritual enemy has immense significance for us Christians, especially on a day like this. Sometimes at funerals, one hears comments such as these: “We shouldn’t be sad; we should only rejoice. God blessed her with many years. Her suffering is over. This is a victory celebration.” To be sure, there is a sense in which this is true. But death, the last enemy and sign of sin’s universal dominion over fallen humanity, will not be swallowed up until the Last Day, and Christians are free to grieve at the death of their loved ones.

Even the 90 years that God granted Veva to serve her family and community, to share her joy of music by teaching piano and playing in church are a drop in the bucket compared to our Creator’s plan for us. God never intended the pain of separation and the heartache that attends death. That sharp pain of grief can be an entirely appropriate manifestation of the biblical understanding that death has not yet been fully overcome. And so, Christians may and should mourn at funerals—but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

But there’s Good News on the battle front!

The fight is over. The battle won. Christ is risen. Death is defeated.

Oh, I know, it doesn’t look that way on a day like today. The evidence suggests otherwise. The flowers in the nave. Veva’s mortal remains lie in the casket before us—one of the latest casualties in the conflict of the ages. In less than an hour, we will be committing her body to rest in the ground. But God’s Word clearly declares that death has been defeated!

That victory was won about the 9th hour of the Friday we Christians call Good. In the darkness, when Jesus drew His last breath and shouted, “It is finished!” Again, it didn’t look victorious at all, but that was the end of death’s reign. The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the Law. Jesus fulfilled the Law. Jesus absorbed the power of sin by becoming sin. Jesus took the sting of death into His own flesh. The Law is fulfilled. Sin is judged. Death lies defeated.

Easter is not the victory. Good Friday is. Jesus’ death is the decisive victory when death swallowed up life and lost. But without the resurrection, the victory remains hidden. Without the resurrection, we wouldn’t know Jesus from Adam. But Christ is risen, the firstfruits of the dead. He unbarred the gates. He broke the chains. He threw open the prison doors. The stone is rolled away. The burial clothes are folded neatly. The tomb is empty. Jesus has risen.

Every harvest has firstfruits. The first strawberries of spring. The first tomato of summer. The first wheat and corn and soybeans of the harvest. Firstfruits mean more to come. Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. He’s the first of the dead to rise. But there’s more to come. Many more.

For Christ, the resurrection took place almost 20 centuries ago. For those who have believe in Him, the resurrection will take place when He returns in glory on Judgment Day. The first sheaf was from a grave outside Jerusalem on the first Easter morning nearly two thousand years ago. The harvest will be from graves all over the world when our risen Lord will appear on clouds of glory, and His own will rise from their graves and will be caught up to meet with Him in the air.

“As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” When Adam fell, humanity fell. When Adam sinned, humanity became a sinner. Death came into this world through one man, Adam. His death was the death of us all. His sin is our sin and our captivity.

That is why Christ had to come as man. That is why the Word had to become flesh to dwell among us. Humanity needed a new head. A new Adam. A second Adam who was like the first and not like the first. Like us in every way except for sin. A sinless Adam who would do what the first Adam did not do and what we in Adam cannot do.

When Christ died, humanity died. When Christ rose, humanity rose in Him. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

The battle is won, but the war is not yet over. There are still border skirmishes, pockets of resistance, enemy soldiers lurking. Even after the Armistice was declared, the battles continued as generals tried to take more territory before their troops were withdrawn. We still get sick, still have accidents, still grow old, and we all die. We are born of Adam, children of Adam. We are conceived and born with Adam’s inherited sin. Birth is one hundred percent fatal. Everyone enters this world with an expiration date.

But Christ has conquered death on behalf of fallen humanity. Christ is humanity’s new head, a humanity that is destined to rise on the Last Day. That doesn’t mean that all rise to eternal life. It does mean that all rise. Those, like Veva, who trust in Christ and His merits rise to eternal life. Those who trust in themselves and their works rise to eternal condemnation. But all rise. All humanity is caught up in the victory of Jesus and no one is left behind.

What Christ has won for all, He gives in Holy Baptism. Through the water and Word, Veva was adopted into the family of God, made a co-heir with Christ of all the treasures of His kingdom, including forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Baptism, she was declared by God dead to sin but alive to God in Christ. She was buried with Christ in His death and raised to new life in His resurrection.

What happened with Jesus in His death and resurrection is now made yours in Baptism. You are dead and you are alive. Dead in Adam and alive in Jesus. Jesus’ victory over death and sin and the Law are yours. God has granted it in His name. The last enemy has been conquered!

How pitiful it is when Christians talk as though Jesus was nothing more than a crutch to lean on. How pitiful it is when Christians live in cowering fear of death and the grave in full view of Jesus’ open and empty tomb. How pitiful it is when we act as though our puny hold on this life is all there is and all there will ever be. Jesus’ resurrection proves that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you!

Christ is risen, the firstfruits of the harvest of the resurrection!

“Firstfruits” means more to come. A future. A destiny. A hope. For Veva. For you. Though you die, yet in Christ you live. And living and trusting in Christ, you never die forever. There is now and there is not yet. Now we live by faith in the Son of God. Now we live trusting God’s promise of life in Jesus. Now we live believing that we no longer live, but Christ lives in us.

But there’s a coming day, a great day, a glory day, when we will see with resurrected eyes what we must now believe and take God at His Word. The end, the Last Day, when every temporal rule and authority and power will be destroyed, when every dead will rise, and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.

“He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.” Christ has enemies. The war still rages on. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh still tempt us, causing us to doubt, to disbelieve, to wander from the flock. We forget the open, empty tomb and live in servile fear of death. We bargain with false religions and quack cures trying to cheat death. We live in denial, as though death were an illusion. We forget the promises God has made for us in Jesus Christ.

The victory is won, the outcome is guaranteed, but war rages on. It is not a war against flesh and blood. It is not a war fought with bullets and bombs. It is not a war fought by power and might. It is not a war that we fight, but one that Christ fights seated at the right hand of the Father. He is restless to put all His enemies under His foot along with the head of the serpent. And He fights that battle with the Word of His mouth and the fiery breath of His Spirit. That’s how this war is fought. Word and Spirit. Word and Sacrament. Baptism. Body. Blood. Forgiveness. Holy Church. Holy Ministry. That’s how the Son of God fights His war against every rule and power and authority. And that’s why it’s important for you to come to the place where He promises to give these things—the Church!

At the end of World War II, there were Japanese soldiers on isolated islands in the Pacific who did know the war was over. They did not realize they had been defeated. They were still fighting a war that had ended years before. Someone had to tell them, and it wasn’t always safe. They were at war.

That’s what you and I do in the world. We tell the people we meet that the fight over sin and death is over. The battle is won. That’s why we gather here in the Lamb’s foreign embassy, the Church to hear it again, over and over and over again. To be reminded, that this fallen world and this broken life is not all there is. To be encouraged to stay strong and ready to the end. The best is yet to come.

The last enemy, death, is destroyed. Christ is risen! The grave has lost its sting! On the Last Day, all the dead will rise, and Christ will bring Veva, Gordon, you, your loved ones, and all who die in the faith to be with Him forever in the new heaven and the new earth. Amen!

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. 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 based upon an Easter sermon by William C. Cwirla.

 

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Everything in Common

WordItOut-word-cloud-2920610Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).

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

Here’s the plan. Everyone here start selling your property. Cash out your bank accounts and withdraw the funds from your IRAs and 401ks. Put your house and land on the market. And then bring in the proceeds and put it in the offering. I’ll make sure that it gets distributed to everyone who needs it. How’s that sound?

You heard our text, didn’t you? Isn’t that what the Church in its early days did? “They had everything in common.” The “owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” It worked wonderfully: “There was not a needy person among them.” Why shouldn’t we be doing the same?

Oh, I can see it by the looks on your faces. You know there’s something wrong with this plan. But what is it?

It’s not that it’s a form of socialism (though socialism has its own problems). The Bible does not put forward any economic system over another. It’s not just that your pastor would be the one who collects and distributes all the money as he sees fit. (Though that certainly has the potential for abuse, or even worse: developing into a cult.) No, there is a bigger problem with this plan: It is misusing scripture. It would be making this passage prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Let me explain the difference: Prescriptive texts prescribe—they tell you what you should be doing. So for instance, when the Lord says, “You shall not kill,” it’s prescriptive: He’s telling you what you should be doing, namely preserving life. Likewise, He tells you to repent, “Take and eat,” love your neighbor, etc. Those are prescriptive texts. On the other hand, descriptive texts simply describe things that happened without telling you to do anything. Some examples would be texts that tell that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish or that Jesus walked to Jerusalem. You don’t have to be swallowed by a great fish or walk to Jerusalem to be a Christian: these are simply things that happened.

Sometimes, people confuse the two and turn descriptions into laws. For instance, I’ve heard that since David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, we should include dance in worship. Or, since the apostles spoke in tongues on Pentecost, we must speak in tongues, too. Or since Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, we should have foot washing in our Maundy Thursday service. But this is bad interpretation: this is turning descriptions into commandments.

Our text is another example. It’s descriptive: it tells us what the first Christians did, how they handled their resources. But it isn’t prescriptive: there’s no command in the text that you must do the same thing to be a Christian. You don’t have to sell everything and give it to me to be a forgiven child of God.

So why is this text here—why is this description included? The answer may be unexpected, but also unsurprising: this description is here to point to Christ.

“There was not a needy person among them,” says our text; and while it doesn’t show up in the English, there’s a link in the language that points us back to Deuteronomy 15:4-5: “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.”

Back at Moses’ time, the Lord declared to the Israelites that there would be no needy people among them in the Promised Land if they were careful to obey all His commands. You know what happened: they failed to keep His commands and rebelled against Him. In consequence, there was poverty, hunger, invasion, and death. They were needy because they rejected the Lord who provides.

In Acts 4, the first Christians are in Jerusalem, the heart of the Promised Land. They have not carefully obeyed all of God’s commands, either—they’re sinful, and don’t deserve the Lord’s blessing. They would be lost and condemned, but they trust in Christ who has just died for their sins and risen again. For the sake of Jesus, God blesses them because He sees them as forgiven, He sees them as His beloved children who have kept His commands. Therefore, He fulfills His promise: there are no poor among them, because the Lord has blessed them.

First and foremost, He has blessed them with salvation in Christ. By means of the Word, great grace is upon them all. Next, He blesses them with what they need for this life. How? As He often does, He uses people to accomplish His will.  He uses Christians to share with each other so that there is no needy among them.

In other words: in Deuteronomy 15, the Lord declared that there would be no needy among His people when He blessed them. In Acts 4, the fact that there is no needy among them is an announcement that God has blessed them, He has blessed them with redemption in Christ. The fact that there are no needy among them is an announcement that the Messiah has come and saved His people.

We do not read of class conflict, of social cliques, in the Jerusalem church. What we find is people who are “of one heart and soul.” They have “everything in common.” The church’s unity expressed itself in a willingness to share. This was not a regulation of the apostles. The right to hold property and have personal possessions had not been abolished. But no one took the attitude of “what’s mine is mine.” Voluntarily, they used what they had to supply for the needs of others.

What held all these people together was their one faith; they were “those who believed.” Faith is the inner and essential bond of union in the Church. The communion of saints is such by faith alone. Mere outward connection with a church body does not constitute true membership, although it may lead to that. This is a spiritual state in the soul and not a matter of outward arrangement. Although faith, of course, produces many visible results, for those who believe will show their faith in many ways, and all these manifestations are valuable, but valuable only as evidences of the inner state, the precious saving faith itself.

So the first believers share what they have with one another. Thankful for grace and trusting that God will provide, they have everything in common. Like other signs in the days of the apostles, this bit of utopia won’t last long. Two verses after our text, we read of Ananias and Sapphira, who sell some property, say they are giving it all to Church, but secretly withhold some for themselves, and are struck dead. In the next chapter, some of the Greek believers complain that their widows are being neglected in favor of the Hebrews in the daily distribution.

And persecution is just around the corner. Those who have rejected the blessings of Jesus will come after His people. Rather than share and provide, they will take and confiscate. They’ll drive the believers out of Jerusalem: they’ll all be starved nearly to death before the Romans break down the walls and finish the job.

So there you go: the lesson of this text is not that you have to sell everything you have and give it to me. Rather, the charity of these first Christians is announcement that God has blessed His people by sending the Savior.

Having said all that, though, there is a danger in becoming too attached to the things that you are free to hold on to. Possessions so easily become idols that we must hold on to and can’t part with, even when it means ignoring those in need. In one of Aimee and my morning devotions this week, we read Hebrews 10:32-34, which says in part to early believers:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Already at the time of that writing, zeal is fading among Christians and the writer tells them to stir up one another to do good works. In the early days, they were willing to endure suffering—and rather than just give things away, they accepted the plundering of their property joyfully. Why? Because they knew they had a better possession, an abiding one. They knew the value of the salvation won by Christ. It is the same salvation that Christ bestows upon you.

Therefore, you are set free to be God’s instruments, to give what you have to those in need. And while you are in no way required to sell everything you have, a lack of charity to neighbors and offerings to God is a warning signal—an indication that your possessions may have become your gods. Face it: greed, covetousness, and a lack of compassion come easy to self-centered sinners like you and me, turning the daily bread God gives us into idols that seem more precious than the forgiveness Christ has won.

A natural response is along the lines of, “Well, how much should I give?” or “How much do I have to give?” or “How much do I get to keep?” These are all questions that call for a Law answer, a command about generosity. But you don’t give to others because you have to as a Christian; you do so because you are free to. You do so because you know that you have a better possession and an abiding one. For the sake of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is yours.

So I cannot tell you how much to give: I can tell you how much we need to meet our annual budget, but not how much of that is on you. Rather, I urge you to examine yourself for sins like greed or fear that would keep you from giving to others. I would bid you to confess them, lest those sins become unforgiven obstacles that eventually lead you to forsake the Lord. And as one forgiven, I would urge you to meditate upon the gift of life that God has given you. As you do so, I would predict that your motivation towards giving grows—not because you have to change, but because you have been changed.

For you have a better possession and an abiding one. You have unfailing grace and life all for the sake of Jesus Christ who was crucified for your sins and raised for your salvation. See, there’s one more bit of good news in how those first Christians shared when the Lord blessed them: it’s a foretaste of eternal life. It’s a preview of the restoration of Paradise.

Here, there is a poverty of life, health, joy, happiness—all because of sin. But when you are raised from the dead, all such poverty will be gone: the Lord “will wipe every tear from [your] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). All poverties will be vanquished, and all that is left is abundance: and abundance of every good gift from God.

That’s your hope, all for the sake of Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins and raised for your justification. Whatever your amount of daily bread, you are not needy for salvation, because the Lord showers it upon you by His Word and Sacrament. Great grace is upon you, and so you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

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Christ Is Risen! He Is Not Here; He Is Here!

He is risen!He is not here...Click here to listen to this sermon.

“And [the angel] said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you’” (Mark 16:6–7).

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah! Amen.

St. Mark brings us a puzzling picture in our text. Did you notice how his resurrection account is different from the other Gospel writers in a significant way? What is different? There is no Jesus. There is no sighting of Him. St. Mark reports to us that people are talking about Jesus’ resurrection, but there still is no Jesus.

This is troubling. It sounds like a myth in its infant stages. Could it be? If we do not see Jesus with our own eyes, did He really rise from the dead?

You can see where this might lead, can’t you? When one questions Jesus’ resurrection, then the crucifixion must be questioned. If the crucifixion is questioned, then His virgin birth and righteous life must be questioned. If His birth and life are questioned, then His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit must be questioned. The whole life of Jesus, from conception to ascension, all fits together as one message. When one part is removed, the whole thing comes falling down like a house of cards. When one doubts the resurrection, then one doubts God and His promises to us throughout the Old and the New Testament.

In God’s holy Word, we hear His promises of the Seed of the woman Who would crush the serpent’s head, the Prophet greater than Moses, the King more powerful than David, the Priest in the order of Melchizedek, the Savior of Israel, the substitute sacrificial Lamb provided by God to take away the sin of the world, the Kinsman-Redeemer who would pay the debt of His people and take them to be His Bride, the Servant who would suffer the afflictions of the people in their stead.

Throughout all these promises, the consistent message is that God Himself will take our place—not just any lamb, not just any redeemer, or not just any mere human will do. It must be God Himself, given in exchange for our sins. The life of the God-man must be given in exchange for the life of all humanity. These are the promises the Church has heard ever since sin entered the world.

The Lamb of God is sacrificed once for all people, and in His resurrection, He proclaims His victory over death. The resurrection is the “I told you so!” of the Gospel message. It is a moment of glory for our Lord.

Still, everything hinges on this outcome of the life and death of Jesus. It all goes hand-in-hand. Jesus saved us through the humility of His conception, life, suffering, and death. His cross saved us. Without His cross, His resurrection would be meaningless. We would still be in our sins. Without His resurrection, His cross would have been meaningless. He would just be another martyr who died for a cause in which He believed… but not a Savior, not a Redeemer, not the first-fruits of the resurrection for all who would believe in Him.

We need to remember that on the Last Day all people will rise from the dead, not only believers. Believers and unbelievers will rise from the dead. Murderers, sex offenders, liars, and nice people will all rise from the dead. Hitler, Stalin, Gandhi and Mother Teresa will rise from the dead. Those who believed in Jesus Christ as their Savior will be taken to live with Him forever in heaven. Those who denied Christ will be sent to everlasting condemnation in hell.

So the message of Easter is not so much about our resurrection, but the resurrection of Jesus. Just as the crucifixion is not merely about the death of just anybody, so the resurrection is not just about any resurrection. After all, other people were crucified throughout history, and Lazarus and others rose from the dead. So what makes Easter different? What makes Good Friday different? What makes St. Mark’s report of the resurrection different?

St. Mark’s Gospel provides us with the testimony of the angel and the fulfillment of the promises of God’s Word. It shows the reality of our daily lives. We could easily be substituted for the women at the tomb. In St. Mark’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Sounds peaceful, doesn’t it? Don’t we sometimes wish we were there that glorious Easter morning? It would be so exciting, wouldn’t it?

But you have to wonder, is St. Mark’s recording of this Easter really so different? Could it be a picture of unbelief? Did these three women doubt the Word of God? Did they believe Jesus when He proclaimed His resurrection? Is this a foretaste or prophecy of Thomas, the one who doubted that Jesus was alive?

We love to pick on Thomas because he effectively said, “Prove it!”  But we seem to leave out these three women, who were also among the many doubters. Yes, even in the midst of Jesus’ closest circle of believers, even among those few brave women who stood near during Jesus’ crucifixion while most of His chosen apostles cowered in fear, there were doubters. Remember… the three women went to the tomb to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They weren’t planning on seeing Him. They did not expect He was going to rise from the dead.

Did they doubt the Word of God? Had they forgotten the prophecies from Scripture? Did they not believe Jesus when He proclaimed His own resurrection? I mean, it’s one thing not to understand Jesus meant His own body when He told the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” It’s entirely another to miss Jesus’ transparent warning only a week earlier as they traveled up to Jerusalem: “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.

Those of us who live two thousand years later can easily look down on Thomas, the three women. It still bugs us, because they were there and saw Jesus. They saw Him perform miracles and heard Him preach in the temple. It seems that they should have had an advantage that we don’t have.

But let me ask you this: If you saw Jesus today, would you believe He is God? Would you think this man, who is performing miracles and preaching, is the same God who created the world and made the first man out of the dust?

Did Jesus look like God when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the sweat oozed out of His pores mixed with His precious blood? Did Jesus look like God when He was stripped, beaten, and mocked? Did Jesus appear to be God as He hung on the cross? Did He seem like God to when He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

No, He didn’t look like God. The truth be told, He even looked less than human at times didn’t He? Or, at least He was certainly treated less than humanely.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on them! It’s very likely, at least for the sake of friendship, that we, too, would have taken spices with us to the tomb early on the first day of the week, because we believed that a lifeless body was to be found in the tomb, for which we wanted to show our last respects.

To trust our Lord’s words when He spoke of a kingdom that would never end, or how He would go away and then return, or that He truly was the resurrection and the life goes against all reason and common sense, doesn’t it?

That is the point. It is not about reason and common sense. It is about God’s promises throughout history. The resurrection becomes the proclamation of the fulfillment of God’s promises. It is the very evidence we have that Christ has conquered death and paid the price for our sin. Yet whether it is the young man in white robes of Easter morning speaking to the three women or you and I reading God’s Word, our faith must grasp what we hear and trust it.

But even faith in the Gospel is the work of God. The Holy Spirit must even create the very faith that grasps the Word of the Gospel, for we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him. Only faith is able to confess that Jesus is true God and true man. Only faith can confess that Jesus’ conception was that of the Holy Spirit. Only through faith is one able to look at the body of Jesus on the cross and proclaim that the glory of God is in this death, for God is the one who died for our sins. Only God could reveal to us these teachings, and only faith can accept them and then give thanks for them.

The resurrection is also a matter of trusting God’s Word, whether it is the word of the young man in the tomb or St. Mark’s recording of that incident. We must repent of our unbelief when we second-guess God and His Word. We are in the same circumstances as the three women and Thomas. St. Mark’s account of the resurrection is no different from what we know in our lives. Some things can’t be proved. They just have to be accepted by faith.

Yet we might think back and cry out, “But they were there and eventually saw Jesus. That had to help. It had to make a difference to have Him there with you, to hear His voice and hold His body.” Yes, that is true. Our Lord knows you need His physical presence as well. His grace, mercy, and forgiveness come to us where He said He would be present—in His Word and Sacraments.

What this means is that every time we gather for worship it is Easter. Every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, it is Easter. In the Divine Service, God Himself is present, not because He is the Creator and all-powerful God, but rather because in the humility of bread and wine and the spoken Word He proclaims Himself to have risen from the dead. The very work of the crucifixion, the payment for sins, comes to us through this Holy Meal. Here, He appears to you in this Easter celebration, in His Word, and in His very body and blood. Through faith in His Word, we receive Him into our presence and enjoy the forgiveness of sins.

So, as you approach the altar today, let the words of the young man in white robes ring in your ears: “There you will see Him, just as He told you” (Mark 16:7). You can be certain that you will too. For God’s promises are true. And because the risen and ascended Christ is here in His Word and Body and Blood, 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.