Sermons, Uncategorized

A Song for the Summertime

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“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing! Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name! For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100).

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

You’ve surely heard of how early Christians were tortured and threatened. Those threats posed a temptation for them to give up on Christ. You may know stories of personal rejection and humiliation that others less famous faced because of their faith, which created painful pressure for them too. Today there are folks like Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop; Baronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers; and Kimberly Davis, the former county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, each of whom have been harassed and taken to court numerous times due to their refusal to participate in recognizing same-sex marriages that go again their consciences because of their Christian faith. And there’s a good chance that you and I are going to experience some of that same kind of opposition ourselves.

But there are other forces that can tempt and pull us away from God’s Word, our worship, and our Savior. Sometimes our pressures are all the more seductive because they aren’t evil in and of themselves. One of them is with us right now. It’s called summertime.

A friend of ours, the ancient psalm writer, has a news flash for all of us today. Even in the midst of summertime distractions, it’s always time for thanksgiving and praise. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” (Exodus 100:1-2).

This day calls for a song that’s bold, loud, and immediate! This day calls for you to gather with others and to sing in the assembly of God’s people. This day calls for you to invite others to sing too.

If the words of this psalm sound a little too bright and cheery, don’t get the idea that God is ignorant of the pulls that might keep you from praising Him strongly. The other Scripture readings you just heard today are honest about the pressures believers face. To be sure, you can always find reasons not to sing

The writer of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, reminds us that the burdens and seeming senselessness of life can wear you down (2:18-26). Here is man who “had  it all,” if ever there was one: wisdom, women, wealth. Solomon was a renaissance man long before the renaissance: philosopher and theologian, poet and patron of the arts, architect and builder, scientist and statesman, lover and king, tycoon and teacher. But none of these accomplishments brought him satisfaction or meaning, causing Solomon to write: “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).  

Solomon’s words, “I hated life,” brings to mind Christ’s statement, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Solomon describes himself as a weary embittered worldling. Christ speaks of the man of faith who overcomes this dying, sinful world by clinging to that which is eternal. Yet the two are not so far apart as they might at first appear. The person whose heart is filled with despair and hatred of his earthly life is often ripe for the good news of Christ and His victorious love.

Four times in this short section, King Solomon uses the term “vanity.” Solomon is emphasizing that without God all human effort in meaningless. Reliance to human effort leads to despair. Initially, Solomon’s achievements brought him some happiness (Ecclesiastes 2:10). But as he gives them more thought, he becomes agitated and despondent.

As if obsessed with the thought, the Teacher repeats the fact that the wealth of an industrious man often falls into the hands of a good-for-nothing. It’s one of the things that make life so unfair. Not only does a person struggle and sweat for a lifetime, but he goes down to the grave without any guarantee that what he leaves behind will be appreciated or used wisely. Solomon’s question, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart?” fits right in with these thoughts.

To complete the picture, Solomon describes the workingman’s daytime efforts and nighttime restlessness. What he describes is not an overly pessimistic view of work but life as it is actually lived. Though written centuries ago by a Jewish king, it could have been written yesterday by an American businessman.

Having examined wisdom, foolishness, pleasure, achievements, and everything else under the sun, Solomon found it all wanting, meaningless, vanity.

The drive to get the most out of life’s wealth can also turn you from God (Luke 12:17-21). A most serious temptation is to become attached to money and worldly possessions. In our Gospel, Jesus takes the opportunity to warn against greed and covetousness when someone from the crowd makes this request of Him: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus refuses to be drawn into this dispute between brothers, just as He did not intervene when Martha wanted His support to get her sister’s help in our Gospel from a couple of weeks ago. Rather, Jesus uses this request to warn against the underlying problem: greed.

So easily people imagine that the worth of life is measured by the abundance of possessions. Both rich and poor can easily fall into this trap. No wonder the author of Proverbs prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (30:8-9). Disciples of Jesus need to be especially on guard against this sin of greed and covetousness.

To illustrate His point, Jesus tells a parable. A rich man had an abundance of possessions. His barns quickly became too small to hold all the grain his fields produced. He had larger ones built. He had no worries about the future as he looked forward to a retirement filled with leisure and good time.

But the rich man had not taken one important thing into consideration—God and His judgment! He thought he was all prepared for the future, but he forgot about eternity. He was unprepared when God’s summons came. Far from being wise, he was an utter fool. For the sake of earthly gain, he forfeited his soul.

Obsession with money can crowd God’s ways out of our hearts. That is why Jesus warns so sternly against covetousness. Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “This is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure [Luke 12:16-21] and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God” (LC 1 7-8).

Jesus underlines the danger of being rich in earthly things but poor toward God. In a consumer culture, the dangers of covetousness are often downplayed; in fact, some make greed a virtue. In love for us, however, Jesus warns us against the self-destructive nature of covetousness and gives us new hearts, which He, the very source of life and goodness, fills with joyful satisfaction through the Gospel.

To be rich toward God is to believe that God is the Giver of all things, including life and salvation. To show that one believes is to share with others the gifts God gives. This is the consistent teaching of Jesus in His various words about possessions. Behind it is the Gospel of grace: forgiveness is bestowed as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ. Yet a time of accountability will come when God will ask whether His free gift of forgiveness was appropriated through faith or was abused by the arrogant assumption that God’s gifts were personal possessions earned by one’s own efforts and therefore at one’s disposal to hoard or waste foolishly.

For the sinner, God’s gifts are easily corrupted and exploited for pleasure, rather than being used for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God. Such is the subtle seduction of summertime. Even innocent things, such as summer travel, visits with loved ones, and the desire to get away from work routines, can keep you from thanksgiving and praise of the Lord. Think of your own life, how easily such things can begin to overwhelm, even dominate your calendar, until you find you have little time for worship and the study and hearing of God’s Word.

Yes, if you and I look at ourselves, our life, our pulls and pressures, it’s easy to rationalize and justify neglecting intense and continual praise of the Lord. The old psalm writer moves all of that aside. He explains that the Lord Himself is your reason to praise. He tells you who He is: Yahweh, the God of the psalmist and the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord of all the earth, the one who created the times and seasons for our comfort and pleasure, who gives you the summer sunshine, the family and friends you like to gather with, who made all those beautiful places you visit these lazy days. And this great Creator we know, for He Himself came into this world and share it with us!

The Lord of the earth made you, He knows you, and He provides for all your needs in this life (Psalm 100:3; Jeremiah 1:5). The time away to rest and recharge, those friends and family you’re enjoying this summer, and the means to pay for your trip are all gifts from Him. The protection as you travel through the air or on busy highways is by His hand.

Like a shepherd, He also sacrifices for you and redeems you (Psalm 100:3; John  10:11-15). We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. He is our Shepherd, our Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, only to take it up again. Every blessing—including all these of summer—is a result of our being reconciled to God by the cross of Jesus. And, of course, the reconciliation of the cross brings endless summer!

Our distracted life in the summertime in this affluent land is a real faith test, isn’t it? Like all tests, it carries with it the risk that we could stumble and fall. And sometimes we do. But our steadfast Lord is faithful even when we are faithless. He forgives us and renews us. And under God, it can be one of those tests that is almost like doing spiritual push-ups. In other words, it can be a hurdle that makes us stronger and more devoted than we were before. God gives us grace to come into His presence often—whether at home or away on vacation, to crawl into the words of Psalm 100, to make them our own, and to shout our praise to the Lord, whose mercy and kindness never ends!

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing! Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name! For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100).

For His 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.

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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.