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On Evening Prayer in Advent

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

 

Jesus Christ is the light of the world.

The Light no darkness can overcome.

Stay with us Lord for it is evening.

And the day is almost over.

Let Your light scatter the darkness,

and illumine Your Church.

Joyous Light of glory!  Of the immortal Father,

heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.

And thus the service of light begins Evening Prayer.  I’m probably going to loose any remaining “confessional” cred I ever had by saying that I like Evening Prayer more than Vespers.  Yes, I know Vespers is older.  Yes I know, Evening Prayer is the “new thing” and therefore should be despised.  But I contend that it is a beautiful new thing.  The symbolism is profound.  And for me, Evening Prayer is the service evokes very fond memories not just of student-led chapel services at the seminary but even the “Bach at the Sem” services at which I worked running the sound board in the new Chapel of Sts Timothy and Titus.  I remember fondly singing Evening Prayer on Monday afternoons a cappella with “the whole house” after house tea at Westfield House, and privately in the church at my first parish before I went home to my family, on vulture’s row on my ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf, on the “lido deck” of my second ship after listening to the BBC during the opening months of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in the chapels of the medical aid stations all around Kuwait.  I think I even attempted to lead it at the chapel at Bethesda Naval Hospital, once.

Evening Prayer was, for me, the singular worthwhile contribution of the entire Lutheran Book of Worship project.  I learned it almost untouched from its LBW roots in the LCMS successor, Lutheran Worship.  I remember reading amidst effusive praise of Father Neuhaus in the wake of his death that long after he had become a priest in the Roman communion, there gathered weekly at his apartment in NYC a group of folks who sang Evening Prayer together out of the LBW.

I lament that the daily offices (Matins, Vespers, Compline) are not so well known among us Lutherans and I, quite frankly, resent having to make apology for using them.  I lament our families don’t use them in their homes.  I lament that our congregations don’t know them or at least don’t know them well enough to be comfortable using them.  And just in case someone thinks those services died with the monasteries, there was a never an English Lutheran  service book printed in the US that did not have at least Matins and Vespers.  When Lutheran congregations were having all those half-masses, they could have been singing Matins and they would have been the better for it too.

A parishioner likened liturgies to dance steps.  This one is worth learning.

When it’s done well, the service is truly beautiful and it always seems appropriate all the more so at Advent.

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Advent Evening Prayer 1

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Waiting with Prayer  Isaiah 64:1-9  CPR, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 02 Sermon for Advent Evening Prayer 1.mp3

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence.  (vv. 1-13)

This morning we gathered in God’s presence on the First Sunday in Advent.  With the start of Advent we start a new Church Year and at the same time, we prepare for the celebration of the festival of the incarnation—the coming of Christ on that first Christmas Day.  This morning in the Gospel, we heard the account of our Lord’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  This is how the Church begins things each year.  We stand between our Lord’s first coming and wait for His second coming at the end of time.  We wait and live by faith, not by sight.  Our faith is nourished and made certain as we remember our Lord Jesus, who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in order to remove our unrighteousness through His atoning death and resurrection.

The faithful who came before us in the days of the prophet Isaiah also lived by faith as they waited for the Lord’s Messiah.  Their faithfulness is praised in the Book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).  “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb 1:1-2a).  The words of God spoken to the Lord’s Church through the prophets are also spoken to us.  They speak to us about the Son of God; indeed, the words they speak are pregnant with Christ Himself.

In Isaiah 64, the prophet Isaiah gives us an inspired prayer.  It is a prayer of great comfort expressing the longings of God’s people during the disastrous years when the Babylonian armies conquered Israel.  They destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and those not slaughtered in the siege were taken away in chains to Babylon.  But this prayer is not limited to those dark days.  It is also the prayer of the Church of all times whenever she is surrounded by God’s enemies and when all appears hopeless.  It is our prayer.  With Isaiah we pray as we await our Lord and live by faith.

“Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down” (v. 1).  A deist cannot pray such a prayer.  He wouldn’t.  But we are not deists.  We believe in a God who has not left us on our own while He watches dispassionately detached from a distance.  In difficult times, it may seem that God has forgotten us.  Nevertheless, in faith we pray and wait and pray.  We pray Isaiah’s advent prayer, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” and rescue us from our enemies.  It is a prayer of longing for God’s presence among us.  The first three verses of this prayer end with the same refrain.  “That the mountains might quake at your presence” (v. 1)  “To make Your name known to Your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence” (v. 2).  “The mountains quaked at Your presence” (v. 3).  It is a frightening thing to ask almighty God to come down in judgment.  If even the mountains quake and melt, how much worse will it be for sinners?  Thus the Book of Hebrews rightly explains, “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

Nevertheless, we pray these words knowing full well the consequences.  What a vivid picture Isaiah gives us.  We have seen wildfires so hot that dry bushes simply explode.  When fire heats water, it turns to vapor and vanishes into the air.  And so it is with those who oppress us.  We want them to go away like a mist and leave us in peace.  God did this in the past with Pharaoh at the Red Sea, at Mount Sinai, at Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal, and throughout Israel’s history.  But we don’t merely pray for the destruction of our enemies by fire.  We pray, Come down “to make Your name known to Your adversaries” and cause the nations to “tremble at Your presence!” (v. 2).  Where the Lord’s name is, there He is.  In His presence the mountains tremble.  The word Isaiah uses for tremble literally means “to flow.”  It is thus a picture of rock turning to liquid and flowing away, and it describes how the presence of God will change the rock-hard hearts of the ungodly.  Smugness and arrogance melt into fear.  Such is the way of God’s judgment, the way of the Law.  Our prayer is that this God would save us from our enemies, but also that all nations, including ours, will repent and call on the name of the Lord for forgiveness.

It is often said, “Be careful what you pray for.”  It is a dangerous thing to ask God to come down in judgment on all nations, for He will judge us too.  So the focus of Isaiah’s prayer turns from Israel’s enemies to the Church herself, to the enemy within us.  As God’s people come into the Lord’s presence, their sins are made manifest and prayer becomes a confession of sin and plea for forgiveness.  So we pray with Isaiah and Israel:

You who met Him, who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember You in Your ways.

Behold, You were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time and we shall be saved?

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  (vv. 5-6)

Israel’s prayer is our prayer.  “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”  “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (vv. 3, 1).  The unexpected has happened.  At the birth of Jesus, the heavens were truly rent.  The glory of the Lord ripped open the heavens in the presence of the shepherds.  The shepherds did not melt away like molten rock, but were told by the angel, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).  The manner in which God came down was wonderfully unexpected in that He came down in the flesh of a baby boy.  Through the miracle of the incarnation, this Child, true God and true man, came to bring salvation and peace to all people.  Of this the Lord’s heavenly army of angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Lk 2:14).  When the Church gathers in the Lord’s presence to worship, she sings the Gloria in Excelsis, a hymn of peace that first sounded forth when the skies of Bethlehem were torn open.  During the season of Advent, the Church does not sing the Gloria.  We wait until Christmas Day.  In a real sense, we await with the Old Testament Church.  It is, of course, true that we live after the birth of Christ.  Nevertheless, we pray with and as those who went before us; we live and wait and pray by faith, not by sight.  Since the Lord’s ascension, we live in a time of hearing and not seeing.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).  We hear what they heard.  We listen to God’s Word from the prophet Isaiah.  Their prayer for deliverance from God’s enemies and for forgiveness of sins is our prayer.  Despite all our righteousness being as filthy rags, we pray then the great “nevertheless” of the Gospel.  “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are the work of Your hand.  Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.  Behold, please look, we are all your people” (vv. 8-9),  We dare ask God to look upon us for we are His people, His children.

Israel’s prayer is our prayer.  “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence.”  Did God answer Isaiah’s prayer?  Yes.  Babylon was destroyed by her enemies. Her great walls and palaces were put to flame.  The Lord brought a remnant home to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.  But the full answer to this prayer happened many years later when blood and water flowed from the Eternal Rock (Jn 19:34; Isa 26:4).  The moment Jesus gave up His spirit, the heavens were rent, and the mountains quaked.  “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.  The tombs also were opened.”  (Mt 27:51-52).  God answered the prayer and came down for us.  Amen.

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Gospel for Advent 1

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I have noted below that Mark 11 is the traditional Gospel for Advent 1 but that is not really accurate.  The traditional Gospel is actually Matthew’s account of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-9).  This is in contrast to the three year lectionary which has Matthew’s account of Jesus preaching about no one knowing the day or the hour of the Son of Man’s return (Mt 24:36-44), Mark’s account of signs of the end and the fig tree (Mk 13:24-37), and Luke’s account of the same (Lk 21:25-36) in years A, B, and C respectively.  The LCMS chose to give the option of the triumphal entry reading from each of the Synoptics as RCL reading.  But why?  Why does the triumphal entry reading mean so much for Advent and why should we choose to use it over the RCL?  Because Advent is not about preparing for Christmas; it’s about proclaiming the arrival (“He comes!”) of the one who was born to go to the cross for us.

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Sermon for Advent 1

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Mark 11:1-11  Traditional Gospel for Advent 1

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 01 Sermon for Advent 1.mp3

Behold the Lord comes. Gentle and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He rides into Jerusalem not to make war on sinners but to save them.  The coming of Jesus is the center of our faith, not just that He came once, a long time ago, but that He is coming again, to finally redeem the world and bring all things to completion.  Behold, the Lord comes.

The highlight of the Gospel reading for today is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  But it comes after this long setup about the donkey.  In the village there will be a colt.  Untie it and bring it.  If anybody asks…  All of this setup takes several lines.  There’s one verse about the shouts of hosanna and one brief note that the Lord entered Jerusalem and went to the temple and that’s it.  It’s almost as if we’re supposed to be more impressed about how Jesus got His ride than where He entered.  That would be a mistake.  But we should note that Jesus entry into Jerusalem was planned and He knew the plan.  When Jesus shows up in Jerusalem, He is not finding Himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was part of the divine plan of God to redeem His people from sin death and the power of the devil, a plan we learned last week which was crafted from before the foundations of the world.  Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday so long ago because He was fulfilling the plan of God to save sinners, you and me.  Behold, the Lord comes.

But today is not Palm Sunday.  Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new church year, the season prior to the twelve days of Christmas which start on the 25th of December.  I have for years said that the season of Advent is a season of preparation for the celebration of Christmas.  Unfortunately, even in the Church, people hear preparation and they think decorate and make all the arrangements necessary for the feast.  Except that’s not what Advent is for.  Advent is about preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Lord in glory.  Stir up You power, O Lord, and come!  That’s what we prayed.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly!  Behold, the Lord comes to save!  Hosanna!  Lord, save us!  Hosanna in the highest!

Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing full well He’d walk out Friday heading to His place of execution.  In our homes and at church we need to separate the message of the Gospel from what have become the Christmas traditions.  Here we have two Sundays of Advent proper before the building is decorated for Christmas.  After that it’s tinsel and garland and I sometimes wonder if message of the cross gets lost amidst the lights and the garland.  Instead of faith we are preoccupied with nostalgia.  Today there is enough schmaltz around Christmas that detracts from the message of the Gospel, that Jesus came to be crucified for sinners.  The Palm Sunday account won’t allow us to do as much.  Behold, the Lord comes to save!  Hosanna in the highest!

And so Jesus the “Beggar King” rides into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey without saddle or any other trappings.  He rides in fulfillment of the Zechariah’s prophecy.  Jesus enters without armor or weapon in purest humility.  The Messiah comes in lowliness just as it was foretold.  And yet hidden in the weakness of the Beggar King is God’s own power to rescue sinners.  Luther: “This king is and shall be called sin’s devourer and death’s strangler, this is Jesus who’s sacrificial death in the place of sinners goes to the very root of sin and wipes it out.  By His death He knocks death’s teeth out; He eviscerates the devil and rescues those who believe on Him from sin and death, conducting them to be among the angels where eternal life and blessedness are.”  He rides to stand in the place of punishment for little Isaac Robert today as well as for all of you.  (Klug, 27)  Jesus comes on a donkey and not a steed with pomp and power because He comes not to make war on sinners but to save you.  He comes not to threaten us, nor to drive us or crush us but to help us bear our burden.  (Lenker, 19)

Do not be like the ones who saw Him enter Jerusalem but did not believe.  The King comes. You do not seek Him; He seeks you.  “Wise men still seek Him,” my eye.  They cannot.  Baptism comes from Him; not from you.  You do not find Him; He finds you.  For preachers come from Him, not from you; their sermons come from Him, not from you; your faith comes from Him, not from you; and where He does not come; you remain outside; and where there is no Gospel, there is no God for you, only sin and death and damnation…”  “Therefore do not ask where to begin to be godly; there is no beginning except where the King enters and is proclaimed!” (Lenker, 27)  Behold, the Lord comes to save!  Hosanna in the highest!

Nostalgia, sentiment, wistful remembrance of Christmas past are not faith; they are not of the Gospel.  Jesus, come to save sinners, His cross, His death as the blood payment for your sin, His coming into the flesh just for this purpose.  This is the Gospel.  This is the Good News for you.  Jesus, the One who rides to save, He is God’s Christ.  “Hosanna!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Behold He comes.  He comes to save you even now.  Amen.

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So, I’m not normally a huge fan of the HuffPost

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

but I ran across this article through a colleague on Facebook.  It’s nice to see that some Evangelicals are talking this way too.  By the way, this fellow is not alone.  A great resource on the net for any serious Christian is the White Horse Inn http://www.whitehorseinn.org/.  And of course don’t forget about our very own Issues Etc. http://issuesetc.org/.

Luther is quoted as having said, “An ambitious pastor is a pestilence on the church.”  I’m glad to see that Tim Suttle is in agreement.

Sentimentality and pragmatism are the one-two punch which has the American Church on the ropes, while a generation of church leaders acquiesces to the demands of our consumer culture. The demands are simple: tell me something that will make me feel better (sentimentality for the churchgoer), and tell me something that will work (pragmatism for the church leader). Yet it is not clear how either one of those are part of what it means to be the church.

Full post is here.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-suttle/how-to-shrink-your-church_b_1095841.html

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Preaching and the “using” of resources

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve just finished crunching the audio and posting the text of the Last Sunday of the Church Year.  I do save my sermons on the computer as well as post them here.  By my count, I preached some 68 sermons this Church Year.  That’s right, better than one a week and I had three Sundays off this year.

People who come to this blog regularly may have noticed that I have recently used some material from a preaching resource, Concordia Pulpit Resources, for the last couple sermons.  For two of these sermons, I borrowed quite a bit, extensively, shall we say.  This brings up the debate among preachers, and perhaps listeners, about not just the ethics of using such resources but whether by doing so, the preacher is somehow not being all he can be for his people.  There are essentially two camps with a good bit of middle ground between them.  The first extreme is that a good preacher would never use someone else’s sermon and, of course, will never reuse an old sermon.  The other extreme is the preacher who says, there’s nothing new under the sun; why reinvent the wheel?  (See what I did there?)

Over the years, I have found myself sympathetic to both camps.  The Lord called me to preach to this flock, not Luther (or Walther, or Chrysostom, or Osteen).   I should be preaching to them, not any of them.  There is truth to this and it should serve as a corrective for any pastor who is tempted to be lazy.  This approach, however, ignores some very stark realities.  First, preaching has to happen every Sunday, and more so during the festival half of the Church Year.  Every Sunday.  While I have often been tempted to get into the pulpit and announce that there will be no sermon this week so that next week’s sermon will be more “special,” I haven’t.  And so every Sunday there’s a sermon.  Talk to the people who write regularly like a newspaper columnist.  They write 500 words or so, half as much as a sermon, sometimes a third as much and they don’t do it every week, they take long breaks and publish merely 30-40 columns a year.

Secondly, I am not under the delusion that I am God’s greatest gift to the Church.  Jesus is God’s greatest gift.  Preachers are there to extol this gift.  Anything I can say about Jesus has likely been said before and perhaps even better than I could say it.  They don’t call me “golden-mouthed” like the did John Chrysotom.  If I can find someone who has a better grasp of the text, or someone who has said something better than I ever could, I owe it to my hearers to let them hear it.  This is part of what it means to be a part of the Church, we all learn from the preachers who have come before us even as they did.

Thirdly, and this is a strong corollary to my second point, I am merely human with finite resources.  There are some weeks when the choice is I can either preach a not so good sermon, or I can use a sermon that is far better than anything I could have come up with that week.  It’s often as simple as that.  It’s usually far more complicated.

I typically wade through the text and wrestle with it beginning on the Monday of the week.  I have been participating in text study group with some other Lutheran pastors at the local ELCA Lutheran college.  Sometimes ideas will crystallize out of that process.  Other times, I’m stymied maybe by a particularly hard saying of Jesus, “to him who has more will be given and to him who has little even what he has will be taken away,” or maybe by a text from the OT that is beyond my educational limits.

The strict camp would have me believe that every thought used from someone else is pilfered.  It’s not.  After all, when I gather up ideas like this, I’m still editing and providing context and enhancing understanding for my people.  That’s my job and they are the better for it.

The ethical question is simple in my mind.  If you knowingly borrow something, attribution is appropriate, maybe not orally in the sermon, but definitely in the written text.  I say not necessarily orally because then the sermon sounds like a rabbi quoting the rabbis.  And if you quote something famous, oral attribution is necessary.  But usually we are formed by our fathers in the faith in such a way that even the language we use is typical of their language.  That’s actually a good thing.  I don’t think they mind non-attribution if its for the sake of the Gospel

Maybe one day, somebody will quote me, to their kids or their congregation.  I won’t be upset if they forget who they learned it from as long as it points to Jesus.

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Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 62 Sermon for Last Sunday.mp3

 Note:  This sermon too, was inspired by many ideas from Rev. Dr. Schmitt as published in the Concordia Pulpit Resources volume for this quarter.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In 2006, scientists gazed into the heaves.  A spacecraft was returning from a seven-year mission and brought with it particles of dust from a comet.  Having gazed into the heavens, the scientists now gazed through microscopes at the dust of heaven, hoping to discover within this material clues to the meaning of life.

Before scientists became the final court of meaning, however, artists were busy gazing into the heavens, creating paintings of a different court and a different day: the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to earth and reveal for all people the meaning of life.

Taking a quick glance through paintings of the last judgment, one discovers a common theme.  The heavens are torn apart as Christ descends on a throne and the earth is breaking apart as the dead rise from their graves.  While the paintings are usually too busy, with many human bodies mixed together with many angels an many demons, one factor is fairly consistent.  If you look closely, if you stare at the face of just one human being, you’ll find on that face the look of discovery.  People look as if they’re waking from sleep and only beginning to discover the deeper meaning of the world, of their Lord, and of the life and that once surrounded them.

Today we will look closely at Matthew’s Gospel, and in it experience for ourselves some of that Last Day’s sense of discovery, because in this parable of the last day, Jesus reveals the mysteries of eternal life.

In the parable, Jesus speaks to His disciples about the end, and yet his words talk about the beginning.  Notice how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven.  He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34).  In contrast, as Jesus speaks to the wicked, He does NOT say, “Inherit the punishment prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Instead, He says, “Depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41).

God never prepared hell for His human creatures.  No, from the very beginning, God’s intentions were always that humanity would live in eternal fellowship and blessedness with Him.  Now one was ever predestined to hell.  All were created to live with God and rejoice with Him in His creation.  Those who go to hell go there by their own choosing, for they have rejected Jesus and God’s original design for all people in Him.

While some might feel that this parable is about the end of the world, it does not offer us a picture of the world ending at all.  Instead, Jesus offers us a discovery of the world, as God intended it.  God’s original desire was for all humanity to live in relationship with Him, as the day when  Christ returns will be the day when God’s dreams for His creation finally and fully come true.

People often misunderstand Christianity.  They think it’s all about escaping this world in order to live in the next.  They stand at a distance from this world wanting to escape physical existence so that they can go on, as disembodied souls, to eternal life with God.  Yet that is not was is plainly taught in the Scriptures and it is not what we believe, teach and confess.  Every time we confess the faith, we confess the resurrected body, and we declare our confidence in the “life of the world to come.”

The mission of Jesus Christ was to being all people into God’s kingdom.  Although we had turned away from God, rejecting His authority over us and falling into sin in the Garden of Eden, God the Father turned toward us, still claiming us as His own.  Out of His great love, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to restore the rule of His kingdom.

Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, our new life with God begins.  In Him, there will be a new creation, and we will be raised to live in the world as God originally designed it to be.  Until that time, we live as stewards.  We care for this world as those who have discovered in Jesus what God intended His creation to be.  We trust in, we live in and we long for God’s new creation in Him.

As Jesus speaks with His disciples about the end, notice how he opens their eyes to the rule of God in Him.  As one listens closely to the text, one discovers the fullness of God in Jesus.  He appears first as the Son of Man, that great figure from the prophet Daniel who has now finished God’s word and is therefore seated on His throne.  Then, He appears as a shepherd, with all the nations as His flock, now separating sheep from goats.  Soon the shepherd becomes King who is also the Son of God, the Father.  His rule extends over all nations and throughout all time.  This King, however, is hidden in the suffering of this world, just as Jesus would soon be hidden in the events of His suffering and death.  Jesus claims all who follow Him in faith as members of His family and, until that Last Day, He is known among them by His Word.

While some might feel this parable puts Jesus at a distance, descending from heaven at the end of time, it actually reveals Him as very close to us—even today.

He is the Lord of all nations.  God the Father has chosen Him to rule over all things and to bring to fulfillment His desire to save all people.  For this reason, He has fulfilled prophecy.  He came in our midst to bring about the forgiving, saving rule of God in His life, death, and resurrection.  Though He ascended into heaven, Jesus continues to speak among us now through His Word, claiming as His family all who trust in Him and shepherding them like a flock, until that day when He returns to divide those who trust in Him for righteousness from those who do not and to give to the faithful the long-standing desire of God, namely the gift of eternal life.  Jesus has not left us on our own in this world, but rather He comes to us in His Word both read and preached and continues to rule in our midst, proclaiming to you the forgiveness of sins and this everlasting gift of eternal life in Him.

This parable is the last of Jesus’ sermons in Matthew but if you listen closely, you’ll hear how it takes you back to the first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.  There, in the blessings of Jesus, we see the people God has called His own in this world.  Though they are without any spiritual resources, rejected, persecuted, mourning, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, they are God’s own people and they receive the promise of His everlasting blessing.

Now, at the end of His ministry, Jesus reveals again a people, “blessed by my Father.”  These people have already been made righteous in God’s sight by faith in Jesus and now they are found  yet again among those suffering in this world.  Only this time, they are sharing God’s mercy with those who suffer.  Their merciful acts of faith come as a shock to them when Jesus reveals these good works.  In an even more amazing revelation, Jesus unveils His hidden presence among those “my brothers,” who were hungering and thirsting, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in this world.

When you look at the paintings of the last judgment, the faces of the people are filled with wonder and awe.  Artists have captured their discovery of the majesty of Christ when He returns to rule.  Yet Christ paints an even more astounding picture in this parable.  For you, who have been made righteous by faith in Christ Jesus, there will be an even more astounding wonder on that day.  God will reveal the good that you have done and His presence in your life now in ways that exceed your understanding.

Like the righteous in this parable, God’s people will never know the depth and extent of the good works they have done during their lifetime.  On that Last Day, however, the Lord will reveal His good works of mercy performed through their lives in this world.  In addition, he will also reveal that he was present in those hidden moments of ministry, graciously receiving from our hands the mercy we didn’t even know we were giving.

In 1304, Giotto di Bondone began working on a series of frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.  At the very back of the chapel is the largest scene, the Last Judgment.  It is a fresco, which means that Giotto and his assistants painted it on wet plaster.  By necessity, the painting was done quickly, but the image they produced was eternal.  Christ returns in judgment.  The scene covers the whole wall, with those raised to eternal life on the Christ’s right and those raised to eternal punishment on Christ’s left.  At the bottom of the image, underneath the cross, is the doorway by which worshippers would return to this world.  The last image worshippers see as they enter back into the world is Christ returning in glory.  Imagine what that would be like.

Although we have no such painting over our doors here as we walk out of the church, we do have this Gospel.  Our Lord gives us a picture of the Last Judgment to shape our life in this world today.  As you walk through the door, opened by the cross, you enter God’s world with deeper understanding.  You see things differently—the creation of this world, your Lord, even your life of service in His kingdom.  Assured of your salvation, you now rejoice in these hidden blessings of God, this vision of life, present and eternal.  Go then blessed by God.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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