Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr

Today we remember and give thanks for Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr.  Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria at the beginning of the second century A.D. and an early Christian martyr. Near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98–117), Ignatius was arrested, taken in chains to Rome, and eventually thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. On the way to Rome, he wrote letters to the Christians at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and also to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. In the letters, which are beautifully pastoral in tone, Ignatius warned against certain heresies (false teachings). He also repeatedly stressed the full humanity and deity of Christ, the reality of Christ’s bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the bishop, and the unity of the Church found in her bishops. Ignatius was the first to use the word catholic to describe the universality of the Church. His Christ-centeredness, his courage in the face of martyrdom, and his zeal for the truth over against false doctrine are a lasting legacy to the Church.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, we praise Your name for Ignatius of Antioch, pastor and martyr.  He offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts so that he might present to You the pure bread of sacrifice.  Accept the willing tribute of all that we are and all that we have, and give us a portion in the pure and unspotted offering of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity - Eph 4:1-6

                                                                                                Trinity 17
                                                                                                Eph 4:1-6

            “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.”  This saying captures a reality of life. We do indeed choose our friends.  We decide which people we like – the people with whom we want to spend time.  We meet people with whom we “just click” – our personalities and interests fit with each other and we enjoy being around them.  These are people with whom we choose to be friends.
            On the other hand, you have no choice in the members of your family.  You are simply born into a family.  Your father and mother are the ones who created you. They are your parents, and you have no say in the matter.  Likewise, any siblings you have – any brothers and sisters – are your siblings because your parents created them too. And beyond the immediate family, your grandparents, aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins are your family because of the connections of blood and marriage.  These connections of family are facts of life.  They are realities in which you have no choice.
            The amazing thing about families is that children produced by the same parents and raised in the same house can be so very different in their personalities.  Within this diversity it can be the case that members of the family don’t always get along all that well.  And of course as you consider the extended family, the potential for this simply grows.  Family members may have characteristics and habits that rub each other the wrong way and create tensions. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are still family.
            In our epistle lesson this morning, the apostle Paul addresses the fact that the same thing is true in the Church.  Now of course, for many of us, our family and Church are one and the same.  And if personality characteristics and habits can create problems among people who grow up in the same family, it’s not surprising that they also exist within the larger group of the Church.
            Paul had experience dealing with many different congregations.  He ministered for extended periods of time in settings such as Antioch, Corinth and Ephesus.  He kept in touch with congregations through his letters.  He knew that the Church was a collection of sinners – forgiven sinners to be sure in whom the Spirit is at work.  Yet in the struggle against sin, there were times when Christians failed and wronged one another. And beyond that, Paul knew from firsthand experience that sometimes the personalities of Christians just didn’t mesh all that well. Sometimes the issue was not sin, but just that Christians annoyed each other.
            And so Paul begins our text by saying: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The apostle urges that Christians live in a way that is worthy – that matches – the calling we have received.
            He gives a description of what this looks like when he says that it is a life marked by humility and gentleness.  To live in humility is to put the needs of other before ourselves, rather than thinking only of what I want and what is easiest for me. To live in gentleness is to speak and act in kind ways, rather than reacting brusquely by doing and saying whatever comes to mind even if it harsh and likely to offend.
            Paul says it means being patient with one another.  And then he explains what this involves, it is “bearing with one another in love.”  You can just as easily translate the Greek here as “putting up with one another in love.” Christians will sin against one another.  Christians will rub each other the wrong way.  We will not always have personalities that are a perfect fit with one another.  Yet the apostle says that are to put up with one another in love.  Love is to cause us to forgive.  Love is to cause us to overlook and ignore the source of these tensions. And finally, Paul says that we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The Spirit worked unity of our life in Christ is maintained as we live in peace with one another.
            Paul says that this life is “worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  The apostle talks about how we are to live with one another as Christians.  But he reminds us that the source of this life is not found in us.  Instead, it is based in the God’s gracious calling – our election and predestination by God in Christ. Paul begins this letter by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
            God called you.  He chose you.  He elected you from eternity in Christ. This is the ultimate demonstration of his grace. Before you could do a thing, God chose you in Christ to receive salvation.  As Paul goes on to say, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”  It was God’s grace that sent our Lord Jesus Christ to die as the sacrifice for our sin.  It was God’s grace to call you to faith through his Spirit.  It is God’s gift from beginning to end.  As Paul says in the second chapter of this letter, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
            You didn’t choose your family.  And you didn’t choose the Church. God chose you.  He did it because of his great love.  Paul tells us, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ.” 
            Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given you forgiveness and hope.  He has applied the forgiveness won by Christ to you when he sanctified you by the washing of water with the Word in Holy Baptism.  God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his right hand.  Because you have been joined to Christ through faith and baptism, Paul says that God has made us alive together in Christ – that he has raised up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.
            Now through this gracious work – through his calling – God has united us together.  The apostle emphasizes in our text the many ways God has joined us together when he writes, “There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
            God has done this for you in Christ through the Spirit.  He has graciously called you to this salvation that we have in the Church. And so Paul says in our text, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” 
            Because God has done this for us and joined us together in this way, we now seek to walk in a manner worth of this calling.  Christ humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us, and so now as those who are in Christ we humble ourselves as we serve and help others in the church.  We seek to put the needs of others before ourselves, just as Christ put our needs before himself.  We live with gentleness towards others as we show care and compassion, knowing that God has treated us this way in Christ.
            And we as live in the Church we show patience, bearing with one another in love.  There are times that we have to put up with one another in love.  We are still fallen people.  We struggle with sin.  We sin against one another.  But because of Jesus Christ we do not look to take offense or to hold on to a grudge.  Instead, Paul says later in this chapter, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”  The forgiveness that God has given us in Christ is the forgiveness that we pass on to one another.
            God called you to be in his Church, just as he has called all those who sit around you this morning – and that includes the members of your own family.  He has called people with many different personalities.  Some you might not choose to be your friends in the world. But it is God who has called us of us together in Christ. He has united us as one body through the work of his Spirit. And so now as we live together in the Church, we do so “with patience, bearing with one another in love eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” 
            We overlook the shortcomings of others, and choose not to focus on those things they do and say that annoy us.  We put up with one another in love.  We do this because of Christ. For Paul says in the next chapter, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
            These are all things that we do as we live with one another in the Church.  We are humble and kind.  We are patient and bear with one another in love. We seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit on the bond of peace.  But this life of faith is always the response - it is the life prompted by what God has done for in Christ.  It is a response to God’s gracious saving election that he carried out in Christ before the foundation of the world.  And so as Paul exhorts, we seek to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.





Friday, October 11, 2019

Commemoration of Philip the Deacon

Today we remember and give thanks for Philip the Deacon.  Philip, also called the Evangelist  (Acts 21:8), was one of the seven men appointed to assist in the work of the twelve Apostles and of the rapidly growing early church by overseeing the distribution of food to the poor (6:1–6). Following the martyrdom of Stephen, Philip proclaimed the Gospel in Samaria and led Simon the Sorcerer to become a believer in Christ (8:4–13). He was also instrumental in bringing about the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26–39), through whom Philip became indirectly responsible for bringing the Good News of Jesus to the people on the continent of Africa. In the town of Caesarea he was host for several days to the Apostle Paul, who stopped there on his last journey to Jerusalem (21:8–15).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and everlasting God, we give thanks to You for Your servant Philip the Deacon.  You called him to preach the Gospel to the peoples of Samaria and Ethiopia.  Raise up in this and every land messengers of Your kingdom, that Your Church may proclaim the immeasurable riches of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Commemoration of Abraham, Patriarch

Today we remember and give thanks for Abraham, Patriarch.  Abraham (known early in his life as Abram) was called by God to become the father of a great nation (Genesis 12). At the age of 75 and in obedience to God’s command, he, his wife Sarah, and his nephew Lot moved southwest from the town of Haran to the land of Canaan. There God established a covenant with Abraham (15:18), promising the land of Canaan to his descendants. At the age of 100 Abraham and Sarah were finally blessed with Isaac, the son long promised to them by God. Abraham demonstrated supreme obedience when God commanded him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. God spared the young man’s life only at the last moment and provided a ram as a substitute offering (22:1–19). Abraham died at the age of 175 and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah, which he had purchased earlier as a burial site for Sarah. He is especially honored as the first of the three great Old Testament Patriarchs—and for his “righteousness before God through faith” (Romans 4:1–12).

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, You promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, You led him to the land of Canaan, and You sealed Your covenant with him by the shedding of blood.  May we see in Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, the promise of the new covenant of Your Holy Church, sealed with Jesus’ blood on the cross and given to us now in the cup of the new testament; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 7:11-17

                                                                                                Trinity 16
                                                                                                Lk 7:11-17

            On Monday I was at Barnes-Jewish hospital in St. Louis for Barb Faries’ surgery.  Out of habit I parked in the south parking garage – the first one you come to after getting off I-64.  I didn’t realize that Barb’s room was on the north end Barnes-Jewish complex.  The very helpful lady at information desk gave me a map, and used a highlighter to draw the route that I needed to take get to the other end of the hospital and Barb’s room.
            As I made the walk, I was again struck by what a massive complex the hospital is.  The size of it all is truly impressive.  More impressive still was the sea of doctors that I passed by as I made the walk.  They were not all the same. They were, of course, at different stages in their training and careers. But if they are at Barnes-Jewish it’s a safe bet that they are really good.
            The level of expertise present at Barnes-Jewish, the technical capabilities present there, and the specialization is remarkable.  This is a hospital that has its own Neuro ICU – an intensive care unit dedicated to people who have had brain surgery and issues.  It has an entire floor dedicated to Neuro patients who are recovering from brain surgery.  Its Siteman Cancer Center is ranked among the top ten in the nation.  We are blessed to live within easy driving distance of such a tremendous resource.
            But as I walked through the hospital I was also struck by the fact that while this tremendous facility and those who work there can win battles, they are always destined to lose the war. I am thankful for the remarkable battles they can win – such as removing Amy’s brain tumor. But no matter how big the hospital is; no matter how smart and talented the doctors are; no matter how sophisticated the technology is, they will always lose the war.  Ultimately, death always wins.  The hospitals and doctors are fighting a losing war. They can bring relief. They can win battles. They can buy time. But they can’t win.  Death always wins.  Death always gets the last word and renders the hospital and all of its doctors and technology impotent.
            Because of the blessings of modern medicine, we treat death as a surprise. Our life expectancy is longer than people in any previous century. In fact, we are living so long that this produces it own problems of how to care for the ever growing number of elderly individuals.  We see how procedures and medication resolve issues that used to be life threatening. And so when someone who isn’t truly elderly dies, we are surprised. Because after all, someone like that isn’t supposed to die.
            Those who lived in the first century world had no such illusions.  Death was an ever present reality.  We see an example of this in our Gospel lesson this morning.  We learn that Jesus and his disciples were accompanied by a great crowd as he went to a town called Nain, which was located southwest of the Sea of Galilee.
            As he drew near to the gate of the town, he met a large funeral procession.  Luke tells us that “a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”  The woman’s husband had already died.  She had only one son. And now he had died too.  In those two deaths she had not lost merely these two loved ones. She had also lost everyone who could provide for her.  Even in a world where death was common, this was still an obvious tragedy.  And so it’s not surprising that a sizable group of people were accompanying the widow as she went out of the village to bury her son.
            Luke tells us that when the Lord saw the widow he had compassion on her.  We are reminded that as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ lived in the midst of this fallen world – in the midst of our world.  He encountered firsthand the pain and suffering that sin and death produce.  And as the loving God, he had compassion on those who were suffering.  He had compassion on this poor widow and said to her, “Do not weep.”
            Now on its own, that seems like a strange thing to say. Actually, it seems completely inappropriate. Who tells a grieving mother about to bury her only son not to weep? But in this case Jesus does, because his compassion it not just a feeling.  It is accompanied by the power to address the cause of the grief.
            Next Jesus did something completely unexpected – something that was shocking.  He came up and touched the bier on which the dead body was being carried. The bearers stood still, surely because they were shocked.  After all, the act of touching the funeral bier would make a person unclean.
            But Jesus didn’t just touch it.  He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise,” and the dead man sat up and began to speak.  Jesus’ word had returned the son to life, and then our Lord gave him to his mother. Then Luke tells us: “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”
            The crowd was fearful because they knew that they were in the presence of God’s powerful work.  They glorified God because clearly, Jesus was a great prophet.  Just as the mighty prophet Elijah raised the dead son in our Old Testament lesson, so Jesus had raised this son. They saw in Jesus that God was visiting his people to help them.
            They were correct in ways they could not understand. At the naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied about what God was doing in Christ as he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”
            Jesus Christ was God visiting his people.  He had come to bring the reign of God. He had come to overcome sin and death.  When Jesus encountered this widow, he had compassion on her. He told her not to weep. And then he removed the cause of her weeping by raising her son from the dead.
            As we listen to our text, perhaps we think: Well that’s great for her, but what about me?  After all, I still have cancer, or diabetes, or depression.  I am still living as a fallen person in a fallen world on a journey that can only end in death. Is this really what it looks like when a great prophet has arisen among us and God has visited his people?
            We are not the first ones to wonder this.  Immediately after text our Luke tells us that the disciples of John the Baptist reported all these things to him. John had gone forth as the prophet sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord.  He had prepared the way for Jesus.  Yet now, because he had spoken the truth, he sat in King Herod Antipas’ prison.  John sent two of his disciples to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  If Jesus was the coming One; if in Jesus God had visited his people, why was John sitting in prison?
            Jesus told the disciples: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Using language of Isaiah that described God’s end time salvation, Jesus declared that yes, he was the One. But he also cautioned: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            Jesus was the great end time prophet.  In him God had visited his people.  But here’s the thing about God’s prophets.  They were frequently rejected, and even killed.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had come into this world to be rejected and killed. He had come to be numbered with the transgressors – with you and me.  He had come to be the suffering Servant who received God’s judgment in our place.  He had come to fulfill all that God had said through the prophets.  Jesus told his disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 
And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
            Jesus did rise on the third day as he defeated death.  For forty days the risen Lord was with his disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then he ascended into heaven.  He was exalted to the right hand of God.  As the exalted Lord he has poured forth his Spirit. And he has promised that he will return on the Last Day.
            This wasn’t how John the Baptist expected things to work.  It’s probably not how we want things to work.  Like John the Baptist in prison, we find that God has visited his people.  However, it has not yet provided the complete and final salvation we desire.  And so Jesus says to us, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
            In Jesus, God has visited his people.  He has visited us. By his visitation he has freed us from sin.  By his visitation he has conquered death.  Our Lord still has compassion on us.  He has called us to faith through his word and baptism.  He has washed away our sins and we have shared in his death through baptism.  He has given us his Spirit to comfort us and sustain us in faith.
            For now, this does not mean that the struggle against sin has ended.  It does not mean that the health issues have ended.  It does not mean that death has ended.  But because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection everything has changed.  We may lose in battles against sin.  We may lose the battle against illness as sin brings death. But because of Jesus Christ we have already won the war.
            Because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, in repentance we have forgiveness. We confess our sin and believe in Jesus the risen Lord.  We turn in faith to the promises God has made about our baptism. And in doing so we know that through Christ we are saints. We are God’s children and because of Jesus that will not change.
            And because of Jesus’ resurrection we know that we already share in the victory over death.  Yes, our body may die. But to live is Christ, and to die is gain – to die is to depart and be with Christ. Our body may die but because of Jesus’ resurrection the New Testament refers to death as “sleep.”  Because of Jesus it is no more threatening than a nap.
            The war has been won.  It was won on Easter when God raised Jesus from the dead and defeated death forever. And so we live in faith and confidence knowing that our ascended Lord will return on the Last Day.  He will return in glory to raise us up and give us a share in his resurrection.  The Lord who raised the widow’s son at Nain will raise us in bodies that will never die again.  So we live now in the peace of knowing that God has visited his people, even as we pray, “Come Lord Jesus.”


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sermon for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels - Rev 12:7-12

                                                                                    St. Michael and All Angels
                                                                                    Rev 12:7-12

            Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  It is the day in the church year when we consider these spiritual beings created by God.  This is a good and helpful thing, because when treated apart from the guidance of God’s Word, the topic of angels brings out all kinds of goofy stuff. 
            It is not uncommon for people to talk about those who die “becoming an angel.”  Angels are treated as mediators who provide spiritual guidance and help. So, you can find books like Michael: Communicating with the Archangel for Guidance and Protection, and, The Angel Code: Your Interactive Guide to Angelic Communication. 
            In TV shows and movies, angels take on bizarre roles that have no relation to Scripture.  In the 2010 movie “Legion” God has lost faith in mankind and has sent his angels to destroy us.  There is however a baby about to be born who will save humanity.  So the angel Michael disobeys God as he protects the mother and child from Gabriel who is sent to kill them.
            Even within the Christian church we find practices related to angels that have no biblical basis.  So in the Roman Catholic church there is a specific prayer directed to St. Michael the Archangel. Last year when news about sexual abuse scandals were coming out, various parts of that church had parishes say this prayer after Mass as part of the response to the spiritual crisis.
            In our text this morning we hear a dramatic account from a dramatic source – the Book of Revelation.  The first verses of our text begin by saying: Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world--he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
            Now this is great stuff!  It is the kind of thing that Hollywood really could get into and produce some amazing visual effects.  But here, as always in Scripture, the angels aren’t the main thing. They are important, and today is their day, but they can never be the main thing. 
            The main thing has just been described in the first part of the chapter.  And it is something that reminds us that we are in the unique setting of Revelation where so much is symbolic and meant to make an impression on the reader.  John describes a great sign that appeared in heaven – a pregnant woman in the agony of childbirth. Then there appeared another sign in heaven, a red dragon who wants to consume the woman’s child.  However, we are told, “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.” 
            It becomes clear that the woman is the virgin Mary, and that the child is Jesus Christ.  In the most compressed form possible we have reference to the saving work of Jesus in his death, resurrection and ascension.  It is as the crucified and risen One that that Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of the throne of God.
            The war in heaven described in our text is a result of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for your sins.  We learn this in our text when John says, “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’”
            From the Old Testament books of Job and Zechariah we learn that Satan had been able to appear before God and raise accusations against God’s people.  He was able to accuse them of their sins before God. But now that Jesus has offered himself as the sacrifice – as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – this is no longer possible.  Satan has no ability to accuse you before God because the blood of the Lamb has paid the price for your every sin.  Because of Christ, in God’s eyes you are holy.
            This fact is described in our text as a war in heaven.  Michael and his angels fight against the dragon – against Satan and his angels, and kick them out. Satan and his angels are cast down to earth.  No longer can Satan appear before God and accuse you as a sinner.
            It is an awesome scene – this war between the angelic and demonic forces.  We confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” Angels are part of that creation – spiritual creatures made by God to carry out his will.  They are powerful creatures – not cute cherubs whose cheek you want to pinch.
            However, you are more important to God than the angels. You were created in the image of God.  They weren’t.  And the ultimate proof of this is that God sent his Son into the world in the incarnation.  The Son of God became man, without ceasing to be God.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit, he took on a human nature and was born of the virgin Mary.  He did this to redeem humanity.  He did this to free us from sin and death.  By his resurrection he has redeemed our bodies for eternal life with God in the new creation.       
            Angels were God’s servants as the Son of God, Jesus Christ, carried out this work for you.  They announced that the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, would be born. They announced the incarnation to Mary and Joseph. They ministered to Jesus after he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  And they were there at the empty tomb on Easter morning to announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their work continued in the Book of Acts as they served to assist the church in sharing the Gospel. We believe that God continues to use angels as his instruments to help and protect his Church.
            God’s angels have been his servants, playing their specific role as the Father has carried out the work of salvation in Christ.  But the work of the angels can only be understood in relation to Christ.  They are the “support team” as it were.  They are never the focus. They should never be the focus.  It is only Jesus Christ and his saving work that has caused Satan no longer to be able to accuse you.  Any ideas about praying to angels or communicating with angels misses the point altogether.  It is because of Jesus that we now have access to God.  It is because of Jesus that we can pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.
            And in fact, we learn in our text that the angels are told to rejoice about you.  In our text the voice announces that Satan, the accuser has been thrown down.  He says that believers  “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”  And then the command is given:  “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!” The angels are told to rejoice about your salvation. You matter to God more than the angels.  In the incarnation he sent his Son of suffer and die for you.  He has redeemed your humanity so that in the resurrection on the Last Day you can again live as you were meant to be.  Angels are God’s servants whose work is to help and serve in carrying out God’s will to make this happen.
            It is a blessing to know that angels are powerful spiritual creatures used by God to carry out his will for us. But there is also another side to this, because it means that Satan and his angels are also powerful spiritual creatures. However, they are completely opposed to us. 
            Our text ends with the statement, “‘But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’” And at the end of this chapter we learn that the dragon went to make war “on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”
            Our text alerts us to the reality of the spiritual threat we face. With good reason the apostle Peter warned, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  It would be much easier if Satan showed up looking like a dragon as in the book of Revelation.  But as our text says, he is the deceiver of the whole world.  He is the one whom St. Paul tells us “disguises himself as an angel of light.”
            Satan can no longer appear before God and accuse you of your sins because of Christ.  So now he seeks to keep people away from Christ.  He seeks to draw believers away from Christ.  He uses every distraction available - the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions- to draw people towards the world and away from Christ.  He uses every intellectual and cultural trend that minimizes and rejects Christ.
            Because this is so, we must cling to Jesus Christ in faith all the more firmly.  We must pay attention to the one thing that Satan wants us to ignore: Christ’s Means of Grace.  For it is through these gifts of Christ that his gives us forgiveness and strengthens faith.  We listen to his Word. We turn in faith to our baptism.  We confess our sins and receive absolution. And in particular, we come to receive the Sacrament of the Altar.  Here the ascended Lord is bodily present with us.  Here he provides the assurance of our resurrection for he has promised, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day.”  And here we join together with St. Michael, and the angels and all the company of heaven as we sing praise to the incarnate Lord who died and rose again.




Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Mark's thoughts: Saying what God says

In what is most likely the first letter written by the apostle Paul, and also the first book written of what would become the New Testament, the apostle tells the Thessalonians:
For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1Thessalonians 1:8-10)

In this brief statement Paul makes several explicit claims.  First, he says that there is a living and true God, and that all of the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman world in Thessalonica are mere idols.  They are not the living and true God, and so they really are nothing more than statues and images. Second, he says that God raised Jesus his Son from the dead and that the Thessalonians now await his return from heaven.  Paul points them to Son of God who died, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven.   Third, the apostle says that Jesus is the One who delivers us from the wrath to come on the Last Day.

It is a brief and compressed statement about what God has done in his Son Jesus Christ, but we know what Paul had told the Thessalonians from the reminder he gave to the Corinthians:For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).  Paul had told them that Jesus died for our sins. It was their sins that threatened them with receiving God’s wrath on the Last Day.  Yet by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection they were now delivered from this wrath.  Paul, of course, explains elsewhere in great detail that all people sin and so deserve God’s judgment (Romans 1:18-3:20), but receive justification through faith in Jesus Christ who was the sacrifice for sin (Romans 3:21-26).

These are basic and essential biblical truths revealed by God first in the saving action of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then in the proclamation of his Word.  Paul says later in the 1 Thessalonians: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (2:13). The apostle left no doubt about the source or authority of the Gospel he declared.  It was the Word of God.

We must never lose sight of the fact that God has revealed his will in Holy Scripture. What God says in his Word is true, even if people don’t want to hear it. The rejection of the authority of God’s inspired and inerrant Word has caused the other major Lutheran church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to ordain women as pastors, to enter into full fellowship with church bodies that deny the biblical teaching about Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar , and to accept homosexuality. Once begun, this process affects all areas of theology as a church seeks to keep in step with the culture.  Ultimately, it must strike the very heart of Gospel.

In August the ELCA adopted, “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment: A policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” While the statement affirms that the ELCA believes in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others, it also included language that calls into question why this is even needed. The document states:
The Lutheran tradition offers other reasons for caution about our claims to know. Luther said that no human could know another person’s relationship with God. What that person says or does gives us clues, but, ultimately, we cannot see into someone else’s heart (Luther, Bondage of the Will). Similarly, Luther insisted that we cannot know the inner workings of God. God has revealed God’s attitude toward us, overall purpose, and character, but the inner workings of God remain hidden. Hence, we must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion or the individual human beings who practice it. (632-641)
It is true that no one can look into another’s heart.  It is also true that while God has revealed much to us in Scripture, we can in no way claim to understand the inner workings of God and his will.  However, it does not follow from this that “we must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion or the individual human beings who practice it.”

The apostle Paul, the authorized representative of Jesus Christ, had no doubt about God’s judgments regarding other religions and those who practice them.  He said that those who follow other religions did not know the living and true God.  He said that apart from faith in Jesus Christ they remained in their sins and would receive the wrath of God’s judgment on the Last Day.  The exclusive claims about Christ may offend other religions and the world, but it was Jesus who said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Likewise, the apostle Peter said about Jesus: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). 

The continuing challenge for the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod will be to listen to God’s authoritative Word, and then to say what it says.  This will offend the world, and will even offend many people who identify themselves as Christians.  But it is only in this way that we can remain faithful to our Lord and secure in his truth which grants forgiveness and salvation.