THE WORD OF HIS GRACE
FAREWELL (August 17, 2008: after 30 years of service to God through his shepherding of the Lord's congregation at Christ Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, Pastor Gross exhorts us to continue to look only to the Word of God for all our needs.)
Our text finds the Apostle Paul saying farewell to the elders of the Church of Ephesus. He had worked with that congregation for over a year on what we call his "third missionary journey." They had survived the Artemis riots. There had been some dissensions, but the time to part had come. Paul was going to Jerusalem. Did he think the Lord would return before he got there? Possibly. In any event, he knew there was personal peril in Jerusalem, but he was determined to go there, and to see James and the other apostles. He was not looking back, but ahead. That makes sense, because ahead is where we all have to go. This morning I do not want to tell a history of my ministry here. It is far more important to preach the Law and the Gospel, to feed the souls that seek spiritual nourishment here, and to commend all of you to the grace of God.
The Fall has left mankind totally blind, so that in spite of the light of truth that abounds in the world, no one can see it. All are in darkness, except where divine revelation enlightens those who are called to be forgiven, and to mediate that forgiveness to the rest of the world. Divine revelation must not be ambiguous. We mean Word and Sacrament, the Holy Scriptures by which all doctrine is tested, the Rule of Faith by which all Scripture is interpreted, and the proper dividing of the Law and the Gospel, by which souls are fed. Those outside the light need to be brought into it. Those in the light need to be built up, nourished by the Holy Spirit, and growing in holiness. The difference is as we come into the world we are separated from God. His revelation re-establishes the relationship with Him that He intended from the beginning. For many years He tried to call His wayward creatures to Himself directly, but after the incident with the Tower of Babel, He chose one man, the patriarch of a chosen ethnic group, which would be the mediating ethnic group. All families of the earth would be blessed through the Seed of Abraham. He still loved everyone, but salvation history had turned a corner. He would bless others through Abraham. Then He narrowed the group Ishmael was cast out, Esau sold his birthright, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi had issues that caused Jacob to pass them by and place the promise upon Judah. Of the sons of David, the promise came to Solomon, and thus to the royal line of Judah. After the Exile, the line of Zerubbabel led the Righteous Remnant through whom God would bless the world. The Remnant shrank from generation to generation until it was one man, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God. Like Isaac, He was born according to promise, conceived in a miraculous way, and offered up by His Father as a sacrifice. He would serve us all not by His teaching, for that was merely incidental to His work, but by making atonement for sins. He died to make that atonement, but death could not hold Him. So the Righteous Remnant was not destroyed. Sin was defeated. The relationship between God and man was open once again.
Forgiveness is the key. Once a man is forgiven, he is a new creation. All the rest follows from forgiveness: faith, final vindication, sanctification, and a role in mediating salvation, all come first from forgiveness. All consume the divine love, but one who is forgiven also produces it. So we come here before the Lord, every week, on the day God first created the light, on the day the Light of the World arose from death, on the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, the Lord's Day - with an event for each Person of the Holy Trinity to remember - we gather to seek forgiveness. Yes, we gather for other reasons as well, but the first reason is to seek His forgiveness. Every other blessing follows from that one.
Here God places His name upon us. As a minister, it has been my privilege to speak to this congregation the words Moses commanded 3500 years ago, directing his brother Aaron and his sons, the high priests, to bless all Israel. Our liturgy concludes with that ancient blessing. It also depends on forgiveness, because the sacrifice of the Lamb of God puts away our sin, and prepares us to be blessed. The Word of God and the Holy Eucharist which we receive make the forgiveness accessible for us, bring life and salvation even to the worst of sinners. Then, as the service is about to end, the blessing recounts for us all that God has done for us.
"The Lord bless thee and keep thee" … in Hebrew it is only three words, three is the number of God, emphasizing His presence and His love. The second person singular emphasizes that this is for each member, not just for a collective congregation.
"The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee"… in Hebrew this verse is five words, five is the number of books in the Torah, it makes us grateful for intellectual blessings, but it is also the number of pain, affliction, sorrow, the number of the wounds of Jesus. God here reassures us that even though the rush of events has brought darkness and confusion, His face still shines. That should remind us of our Lord's Transfiguration, a glimpse of the King in His beauty, but we also have some Law here. The light of God's face is not so friendly in Psalm 90. Our iniquities rise up before the Lord. Our secret sins are made manifest by the light of His face, but that light is a friendly light. As He sees us He is gracious.
"The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace"… here the Hebrew has seven words, four plus three, man plus God, and therefore the number of judgment, for when man comes before God He stands to be evaluated. Yet it is just at that critical point that God's countenance is lifted up. That is a very intense picture, of God's opening His eyes very wide and smiling as if seeing you was a wonderful surprise. Yes, when He judges us, the last word is shalom, because the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, the peace He won for us is ours.
My dear friends, it is this I wish you never to forget. My relationship with you has been wonderful, and I assure you that I will always treasure it, but a better memory still is that I could proclaim the Gospel and administer the sacraments among you. So you must consider of first importance not the man, but the office, the work, the ministry that continues to another generation. And the capstone of that ministry is the liberating and enlightening Word of gGace. Thanks to His forgiveness, you have that inheritance with the saints. Through Holy Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper, you are heirs of eternal life. Sinner-saints, you and I are alike in being sinner-saints, always needing the Law and the Gospel, even as the elders of Ephesus long ago. And like the elders of Ephesus, we can be certain that God's grace will continue to abound among us. AMEN.
~ Reverend Lloyd E. Gross
AMEN, Brother. ~GG