Thursday, May 28, 2015

Do you love Jesus? It's okay to take a few minutes before you answer


IN some of our fine, dear, favorite hymns, as well as in many of the modern baubles of spiritual cotton candy that go by the name of children's songs, we hear one repeated refrain. That refrain is that we love Jesus. We sing it without thinking, and teach our children to sing it without thinking. So if I were to go around asking you, "Do you love Jesus?" you would probably answer "Yes," although you wouldn't really think about what it meant. Well, let's suppose that I ask it again, this time in the form of a leading question, "Do you really love Jesus?" Now you have to think about it. This is Pastor; he wants me to answer in the affirmative, I don't want to upset him, but within I have my doubts. Then suppose I ask you a third time, the way Jesus asked Peter. "Simon, do you love me?" Peter was sad, we are told, because Jesus asked him the third time. Now you stand in Peter's place, I’m asking you the third time. You realize that you cannot be glib. In fact, you probably feel trapped. A "Yes" answer sounds presumptuous, while a "No" sounds apathetic and ungrateful. You probably really do appreciate what Jesus did for you. Is that loving Him?

I did not ask that to put you on the spot. The question is no easier for me than it is for you. How do you love Someone who doesn't need anything? What could you possibly sacrifice for Jesus that would help Him in any way? He does have some words for us on the subject. For example in Matthew 25, in the sermon about the sheep and the goats, He told us, "Whatever you have done for the least of my brethren, you have done it for me." So this is how Jesus wants to be loved, in His people. Isn't that what He told Peter as well? Once Peter had affirmed that he loved the Lord, did not Jesus point away from Himself, back to the sheep? Jesus did not tell Peter: "Say your prayers …give your offerings… sing your hymns … make your pledge…" No, He said, "Feed my sheep." He directed Peter to the household of faith, for that is where one finds Jesus' brothers. He directed Peter to the Word that would feed him first, then his flock. Peter was affirming his love in spite of what happened in the High Priest's courtyard. Peter had to first feed on the word, nourish his own soul, then he could feed the flock of Christ. So the Lord told Martha that her sister had chosen the better part. Jesus must first serve us before we can serve Him. But Jesus did not mean that the Bible class should last forever. Sooner or later He expected Mary to at least help with the dishes. 

Martha was not a bad example. Once Jesus gives you His love, you can then love people.
 There is a test for our love for Jesus. It is the perpetual encounter between the Haves and the Have Nots. Very seldom will they be so dramatic as the Good Samaritan, but they all make the same point. Where is our love, really? Some people say we could remove the trouble by changing the uneven distribution, but Jesus constantly refused to do anything like that. Indeed, He assured us that in heaven the eternal glory is quite uneven. No, when the Haves meet the Have Nots, the trouble is not on the outside. Rather, it is heart trouble. When Haves meet the Have Nots, something moves us to help them. Nevertheless, we often refuse. Eventually we reach the state where we are not inclined to help, but no one begins there. We begin with a conscious effort to close our heart. Eventually we can silence our conscience. The more we practice this, the easier it gets. But God demands love from us for His sake. We are here to channel His divine love to our neighbors. We have received bleeding charity, without which we would be lost forever. As we meet our neighbors, God wants to love them through us.

The Church through the ages has a very poor record of showing this kind of love. I say that in spite of all the charitable institutions she has established among us, all well-intentioned, all probably doing good things as we speak. Moreover, by being part of the group that established the institutions, we have participated in a good enterprise, but is that loving Jesus? These institutions have been far more successful at taking money from the Haves than at getting it to the Have Nots. In our time another demon has emerged, in which the Church joins political efforts at taking goods away from one person to give to another. That is not love. Jesus never told us, "Give his money to the poor." Such political actions are definitely not loving Jesus. One does not need a pure heart and a right spirit to do political things. We could show higher love by distributing the hope that is in us, the forgiveness and confidence that we have because Jesus loved us. There at least we have no question marks. We can be absolutely confident that Jesus loves us.

One thing love does not do: stay home. Love does not wall off its personality in a little corner. It gets involved with the world around it, not all the time of course, no one could keep that up, but in a regular way, and with devotion. Love does not pass up opportunities to join a neighborhood improvement group, to send a student back to college with Christian assurance, to be patient during labor-management negotiations, or to visit with the grieving. The city over which Jesus wept was filled with people who were so self-satisfied that other peoples' misery bounced off. It was filled with Have Nots who cursed God for not making them Haves.

Look at those tears! Look at the Perfect Redeemer shedding them! From eternity He was a Have, as He enjoyed the glory of the Father, but He humbled Himself to become a Have Not for our sakes. That same Son of God became obedient unto death. Was there anything that He lacked? Only this - that our souls might be in heaven with Him. Spiritually we were all Have Nots. The Incarnate Savior gave His own flesh and blood to cleanse us from sin, and to make us Haves with Him in the world to come. He did not hold back His own flesh and blood. That is love. His resurrection proves that He did not die for Himself, but for all of us. We cannot love until He cleanses us and feeds us. Do we love Jesus? We do because He acts out love itself.

Sometimes His love has to be tough because we have a tendency to harden our hearts. He has to step in and chase out the money changers every so often. He does that to make us instruments of His mercy. So Peter could feed his sheep, Martha could make dinner, the Good Samaritan took care of the mugging victim, we can also be the agents of His mercy. St. John calls that loving Him in deed and in truth. AMEN.

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, May 25, 2015

Our actions define our religion


U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Barry R. Hirayama
This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of
that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S.federal government, the image is in
the public domain.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves ... If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to  keep oneself unstained from the world.  James 1:22ff.

TODAY is Rogate Sunday, a day especially dedicated to prayer.  That is what the word Rogate means, but both today's Collect and today's Epistle lesson work together to remind us that true religion is more than prayer; that it involves a life that is lived in accordance with the faith we believe.  St. James is so adamant about the matter that he declares any exercise of religion short of this ideal to be "worthless," and in another place he states that, "faith without works is dead."

Now in the logical order of things "hearing" God's word must come first, for unless we are first "born anew by the Word of truth" (James 1:18) we remain dead to the things of God.  We are but earthly creatures.  Dust.  Nothing more.

Yet baptism is not the end of the Christian experience, but the beginning.  Unless we are then catechized so that we learn to be conversant in God's Word, Christian doctrine, churchly practice and self-control ... we can never walk the walk that James insists is essential to the baptized child of God.

Yes, first we must hear the word of God because faith comes by hearing, and without faith it is impossible to please God.  That was the problem with the Israelites we encounter in today's Old Testament lesson.  They did not want to hear Moses, which means they did not want to hear God.  "Whoever hears you, hears me," says Jesus, and, "whoever rejects you, rejects me, and whoever rejects me, rejects the one who sent me."  So we must first be hearers of the Word by attending the church's worship and submitting to her instruction.

Neither was Israel happy with the sacrament-like food that the Lord provided when He gave them the Manna from heaven, but in rejecting it they were, likewise rejecting God's salvation which was fulfilled in Christ who is the True Bread from Heaven; who gave His own flesh and blood on the cross to right all that was wrong, and who gives us the same in holy communion to right all that is wrong in us, so we must also be doers of the word.  "This do in remembrance of  me."

In contrast to hard-hearted Israel, today's gospel shows us the Lord's disciples in a better light.  After three intense years of catechism they came to understand their Lord and His teaching; to understand that by their faith in Him, they too become sons of God, beloved of the Father with direct access to Him.  They heard, they believed and that night they received their First Holy Communion which prepared them to be doers of the word beginning on Pentecost.

We must be like them, so we pray in the Rogate Collect:  grant that we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding accomplish them.  Let us remember both parts of that prayer well, "by your merciful guidance" and "accomplish them."

To live a godly life today is like trying to stay cool at the equator.  Everything conspires against you, so we pray without ceasing that God would mercifully guide us in the paths of righteousness, that He would strengthen, encourage and fortify us to overcome all obstacles and to display true religion in our lives.

What is this true religion?  James' epistle is a catalogue of Christian virtue, one you should read and study often, but today he reduces it to three matters:  that Christ's holy people should learn to bridle their tongues, show mercy to the helpless, and keep themselves unstained from the world.

James has much to say about controlling the tongue.  He compares it to a spark that can set the whole world on fire.  Haven't we all found that to be true?  How fervently do we wish that we could turn back the hands of time, that we could take back that utterance that rocked our world; but one of the first lessons recruits learn in the police academy is that there are two things you can never recall:  the bullet that comes out of your gun, and the word that comes out of your mouth.

Then there is the matter of showing mercy to all who suffer want.  In James' society those were the widows and orphans.  There was no safety net for them.  When a beloved husband and father died, the bereaved could expect a life of sorrow and struggle.  James does not have social activism in mind here, but rather that God's people should see to the needs of those about them, especially those who are of the household of faith.  This is why an integral part of the Eucharist from its earliest practice was not only to bring bread and wine for use in the Sacrament, but the generous bringing of extra gifts as well, which were blessed and distributed to the poor and the sick after the mass had ended.  To be sure, holy communion could not be conceived of in the primitive church apart from the visitation of the widows and the orphans that followed, and that James reminds his hearers to observe.

There is one last item for us today:  that we should keep ourselves "unstained" from the world, not just the obvious sins that culture glorifies and normalizes, but the hetero and homo sexual sins which are all the rage today, greed, the love of pleasure, pride, envy, and the desire to get something for nothing.  There are those invisible sins as well:  trusting in fate rather than the mercy of God, and calling on "good thoughts" and "good juju," instead of praying with knowledge and confidence to the Father who loves us in the  name of the Son who reconciles us to Him.

So we pray on the Rogate Sunday, and in the days to follow, "...grant that we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding accomplish them; through Jesus Christ, our Lord..."  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Does your slowness to amend your life bother you?


Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, who writes God's Law on human hearts.  He urges us to love God, gladly obey His will, and identify with God's work.  The raw material He has to start with is sinners who hate what God loves and love what God despises.  Talk about a thankless job!  The Holy Spirit has to change human nature.

If I am going to love God, who hates and condemns sin, then I have to stand with Him and join in His judgment upon all that I have stood for.  I have to hate my pride, my accomplishments, my honor, my achievements, for these are all mixed with sin.  How can anyone turn on himself like that?  Philosophers have suggested that we separate the higher nature from the lower, so that the noble part of man judges the grosser part.  That's no good, because it leaves the higher part unjudged.  It is not just the flesh that is sinful.  We all have sins of the intellect, good done for ulterior motives, ruthless zeal for what we think is God's house.  Do you think the devil gives up that easily?   If he can't make you proud of your works, he will make you proud of your humility, or your patience, or even your faith.  Consider John Calvin as he governed both church and state in Geneva.  Nobody knew the Scriptures better than he, no one could be more fair and impartial as he ruled according to the ordinances of the Old Testament.  He tried t0 sit in God's seat, serving God by punishing sinners.  Only God can punish sinners.  What Calvin succeeded in doing was becoming a tyrant.  Now we may not have the opportunity to be corrupted so spectacularly, but do we become little Caesars in our own spheres?  Do pastors burden their congregations with demands for tithes and donated labor?  That is pure legalism.  Do parents tyrannize their children with house rules they couldn't keep themselves?  Do bosses interfere in their employees' private lives?  Does an elderly family member constantly complain, "All I want is..." followed by something impossible to do at the moment?  We may never get in God's seat, but it's relatively easy to get in the devil's seat.  It's even easier if you have good intentions.

So what can we do about this?  If all of our striving just leads to another level of judgment, each one higher than the one before it, how can we escape?  The answer is that God came down to our level.  First Jesus came to take our place under judgment, to suffer and die to make atonement for us, to rise again after He had suffered the ultimate evil.  Then came the second descent, God gave the Holy Spirit to live inside of us, to become one with our own souls, by whose power we can judge ourselves with all the sobriety and objectivity of divine judgment.  By His grace we do not judge ourselves as men, but as children of God.  We admit that we are sinners, not just our flesh but any higher nature that we might have as well.  The Spirit does that by the Law, then He comforts us by the Gospel, for Jesus has borne all the anger of divine hatred of sin, for He has made peace with God for us.

Still, do you think the devil will be satisfied with that?  He knows he can't undo the atonement, but he can fix his attack on us, at the point where we need to trust Jesus.  He tries to steal our souls by getting us to think that we have lost our faith.

Satan is a Hebrew word that means "accuser."  That is very descriptive.  His most damaging work is to make us think that we don't have faith.  He starts by whispering that we have been slow to reform our lives.  No doubt he has some hard evidence to work with there, but he puts a devilish spin on it.  He says, You have no intention of taking up your cross and following Jesus, so stop being a hypocrite and live like a child of hell.  He lies, my friends, he lies.  While it is true that human nature will never find much joy in carrying a cross, having a human nature does not make you a hypocrite.  Jesus had a human nature, was He a hypocrite?  Do you think Stephen wanted to be stoned, Paul wanted to be beheaded?   Those great saints had the same human nature we have.  While they had great courage for which we admire them, be sure they did not get a thrill out of being killed.  Satan will use people to make you doubt -- an impatient spouse, an over-protective parent, an employer whose criticism goes beyond the vocational to become a personal attack.  Don't be deceived by it, and watch so that you don't become Satan's instrument in deceiving somebody else.  Love may demand that we point out mistakes, but it does not require us to call names.

Does your slowness to amend your life bother you?  The Holy Spirit in your soul is the One who is bothering you.  Because He is there you know your sin to be sin, know that perfection is far off.  Those who have rejected the cross of Jesus are never in doubt; they are always certain that they are righteous, always obsessed with their own spirituality, never troubled by a sense of sin.  So, if  your soul thirsts for the streams of grace, you can be sure God has not given up on you.  Listen to the Apostle:  the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God.  It isn't anything sensational.  You have this deep desire to learn from Jesus.

Someone may ask, isn't this the conscience, something everybody has?  This is not just the conscience.  That also comes from God, but it only teaches the Law.  Conscience makes you feel guilty, it condemns, but never comforts.  If something inside you is telling you good news, calling you a child of God in spite of your nature, be sure that is the Holy Spirit.  You can reinforce His voice by constantly studying God's Word, and boost it by Confession and Communion.  It dries up if you do not drink from the Fountain of Life.  But it is God's own witness, His judgment from within, assuring you that He loves you and wants to help you.

There is no way to avoid doubt, any more than one can avoid temptation.  Don't let doubt lead you to despair.  Doubt is evidence that we are not complacent, nor self-righteous, nor ignorant of our sin.  Doubt is an occasion for prayer.  Doubt is an occasion for seeking God's truth in the Bible.  Through the Holy Spirit's counsel God meets your doubts with peaceful reassurance.  He bears witness with your spirit that Jesus has rescued you.  He assures you that you are His subject in the kingdom of grace.  He judges you from within, calling you a child of God, destined to share the inheritance of Christ.  Amen.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Friday, May 22, 2015

With burning zeal, Jesus still drives the robbers from His House of Prayer


THERE are three occasions recorded for us in the Gospels when our Lord became angry. The first was when He came to heal the daughter of the president of the congregation. They told Him she was dead, but He disagreed, and they laughed at Him. The second time was when the mothers were bringing children to see Him, but His disciples tried to keep them away. Our text presents the third time, when He entered the courts of the Lord's house and found how commercial it had become. He not only became angry, He chased the salesmen out. The two Scriptures that He quoted were directed at the wicked situation He saw. Isaiah 56 said God's house would be a house of prayer for the nations. Jeremiah 7 accused the false scribes of turning the temple into a den of robbers.

That was the Second Temple, a building made of stones. It is gone. But every Christian heart is also a temple, a mystical temple, so it ought to be a house of prayer, a place of spiritual sacrifice, decorated with patience and wisdom, prudence and courage, sincerity and honesty. The doors of our hearts should always be open to those who come seeking sanctuary. The light of God's Word should brighten every corner, while the incense of prayer ascends without ceasing.

God created our hearts. We owe this to Him. None of us deserves to be the dwelling place of the Infinite. Yet by God's grace that is what we are. Jesus was the Third Temple. He said He would raise it in three days. He was speaking of His body, crucified but now risen and indeed ascended. But we are His body, His mystical body, so now He speaks of us as His temple of living stones. He gives us this purely out of love. In a similar way we love our pets who cannot begin to understand us. He loves us even though we could never understand such love.

What was this churchly trade? During the Exile the Jews became an urban ethnic group. They had lost their farms in Israel, and had to turn to commerce in the urban centers of the Middle East. As a result, they had no livestock which they needed for offerings at the major festivals. So the merchants of Jerusalem made a thriving business selling animals to those who wanted to worship. They were making the temple user friendly. And not just the temple. The economy of the whole city would boom at the festivals. This was a major wave of business. Almost everyone was happy because of it. Not Jesus. He was furious. When He was twelve He had sought out the temple because people were reading God's Word there. This time He saw none of that. Instead, merchants were bickering over the price of a goat. Is it any wonder He chased them out?

The merchants were polluting the Second Temple. How have we treated the mystical temple? What kind of dwelling place does God find in the depths of our personalities? Have we not, from the time we were children, harbored thieves in God's house of prayer? Have we not let them in one by one, drawn by our inclination to love ourselves above all? First comes the little pre-school thief, who says "I want this…I want that." Then comes the schoolboy who says "I need this … I need that." The first evidence that they live inside us is that we are grabbers and takers from the time we learn to talk. These thieves have a mother, Madam Security, who always worries about tomorrow, and her sister Nag, who never shuts up. We get older. We meet rich Uncle Playboy, or perhaps his poor brother, Drudgery. Then we discover the other side of the family. There is Aunt Glitter, and Uncle Sportsfan, and Miss Ecstasy - who isn't really a relative. In time we reach the patriarch himself, Father Pride, whose chief lesson is that you have to make yourself an important person.

No one has all these thieves, but everyone has some. And once they come in, there's no way to get rid of them. The economies of our bodies and minds becomes as dependent on them as that of Jerusalem depended on the temple sales. And if we're really honest, we admit that we don't really want them to leave. God must be very vain and jealous to want us to put these demons out of our hearts. True, we admit they are pretty rotten company, but we can't bring ourselves to dump them out. Can't we worship God in His place and indulge our amusing guests the rest of the time? God says NO. He is never vain, but He certainly is jealous. He will not allow us to tell Him where His place is. As long as we harbor those thieves, we are putting something else in His place. Our whole life is His place.

But let's take a closer look. Is Jesus holding a whip? Remember, He came into this world not to beat, but to be beaten, not to lay cruel hands on us, but to lay Himself in our cruel hands. It was not anger that made God incarnate, it was love. So how does He cleanse the mystical temple? Not with the whip, not with the sword, but with His own blood. So He draws all the thieves out of our hearts so they may be houses of prayer. He draws them upon Himself, because His is the one human heart they can never corrupt. They curse Him, they insult Him, they torment Him, even as He reigns from the cross we see all the little robbers grimacing at the dying Jesus. But then, as He rises from the dead, they have no defense.

Jesus had to act alone in this because no one else was worthy. But He has overcome that condition. He joined Himself to us in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, cleanses His mystical temples even as He is uncorrupt. It does not matter how old you were - Baptism isn't about what we say. It depends on God's Word, and on water which we use in His name. Our Baptism is eternal, but we have to live in time, therefore we have the experience of being cleansed, yet inviting the thieves back in. God cleanses us again by Absolution, the special assurance the pastor gives you that all of your imperfections you have brought in cannot haunt you for all eternity. Be sure that the Absolution the pastor speaks has full power to cleanse you. The Father loves you, Jesus is your High Priest who sympathizes with you in your struggle against temptation, and the Holy Spirit continues to make you His temple. We all know what it means to pollute that temple. So draw near with a true heart on the Lord's Day, bow before His altar, hear the words of forgiveness from the sacred liturgy, and receive the nourishment of the Holy Eucharist. That is how Jesus cleanses the mystical temple, each temple, which we call by our own names. AMEN.

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Got Zeal?


There is one thing for which we should all be grateful.  We live in a world of death, yet God grants to us the Spirit of Life.  Not all the dams of the TVA, not all the power stations of the country's largest electric companies, not even all the batteries of all the cars on the nation's highways could furnish the power that comes from the Holy Spirit.  Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, an annual festival since the time of Moses, the old Jewish Feast of Weeks which was given a new meaning when 3000 people of Jerusalem were baptized that day at the preaching of Peter.  Today, however, we want to go back a short time before Pentecost, to a prediction Jesus made at the time of His Ascension.

When Jesus left this earth He did not give his disciples any earthly honor, land, or resources.  He did not set up a trust fund for His Church.  He charged them with a sacred duty - You shall be witnesses to me …to the uttermost parts of the earth.  That was parallel to what the Prophets had done in the past.  They knew what happened to the Prophets.  They had been close to God's own Son, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  They knew what happened to Him.  They were now the custodians of an unpopular message.  Left to themselves they would accomplish very little, but there were other considerations.  Within the past year or so, Peter had walked on the surface of the Sea of Galilee. Y ou don't forget something like that.  When he looked down at the waves it seemed impossible.  The Lord had steadied him on the sea.  Could He not send him help from heaven now?

Jesus knew how uncertain His disciples were.  He promised them they would not be on their own.  Ten days later they learned what it was all about.  They heard the wind, they saw the small flames as visible signs of the Holy Spirit.  That is one reason why we call Him Spirit of life and fire.  Our hymn lyrics reflect this thought.  Martin Luther calls Him "Thou holy Fire, Comfort true."  The medieval hymn, veni creator spiritus, calls Him "Thou Fount of life, Thou Fire of love, the soul's Anointing from above."  We have the hymn of the Twelfth Century master of devotional life, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote the hymn O Jesus King most wonderful.  He calls Jesus "Thou Fount of life and fire."  Don't worry about St. Bernard's getting the persons of the Trinity mixed up.  After all, Jesus is the Fount of the Holy Spirit.  Either of them could equally be called the source of life and fire.  There is another objection here, namely that in our experience life and fire do not combine very well.  In our fallen world fire tends to destroy life, but it also purifies, and genuine godly life requires purification.  Nothing purifies like the Holy Spirit.  He is the real God, whether anyone acknowledges Him or not.

So how does that fire help us?  Ask yourself this: are you determined to conform your life to Christ?  Are you glad of it?  Have you lost some zeal for God's house?  Are you failing in your policy of containment as far as personal sin is concerned?  Do you pray as often as you should?  Are you so different from the world that one actually notices it?  Or do you blend in?  If these questions bring up problems, the Holy Spirit is the solution.  Without His help these personal problems can become family problems, business problems, even national crises, but we are not without Him.  Just as God the Father is always creating, always sustaining, and always abounding in the blessings of Providence, just as the Son who redeemed us is always interceding for us, so the Holy Spirit continually turns us to Jesus, regenerates and enlightens us.  Without the Holy Spirit we could not keep our faith for so long as an hour, but if your fire is burning low, He has the matches to kindle it.

On that first Pentecost Peter hit the people as hard as he could with the Law.  He said You have taken the Messiah by wicked hands and crucified Him.  That was the right thing to say.  Yes, Peter did hurt their feelings.  They needed that.  People who feel good about themselves are not moved to repent.  The Spirit used the Law to make the men of Jerusalem fear God's punishment, so they asked Peter What shall we do?  They were totally prepared to do whatever Peter told them, so when he said to repent and be baptized, 3000 of them did, and thus received the Holy Spirit.

The Church has the same message for you today.  The message that comes through in Mel Gibson's film is the same, that you by your sins have crucified the Messiah.  You might be outwardly respectable.  You might be virtuous at heart.  But deeper still within you there is sin, which merits God's anger.  That sin must be forgiven, cleansed by the blood of Jesus, forgiven by divine grace.  The holy name which millions shout in blasphemy every hour is the only name under heaven whereby we must be saved, and only the Holy Spirit can bring you to Him.  By the fire of repentance He prepares you for the cleansing.  He joins you to Christ in the washing of regeneration, then He lays on you the holy cross, even as He keeps the fire of faith alive.  Holy Baptism is not the end of the Spirit's work.  It is a corner that you turn with Him, but you still need Him for the daily repentance which Baptism sets in motion.

Finally, the Holy Spirit made Peter bold.  On Good Friday he had denied Jesus because he feared men.  On Pentecost he told a huge crowd that they were murderers.  Was he nervous about doing that?  St. Luke doesn't say, but it would have been very natural.  For us as well, to bear the cross is to face opposition.  Like the apostles, we are the custodians of a very unpopular message, a politically incorrect message.  People do not want to hear that the blood of Jesus alone can make them good and right.  They resist that word.  We would live in peace with everyone if we could, but we cannot because this is the devil's world. But the Holy Spirit wants this world for Jesus.  He gave the apostles languages they had never studied. That doesn't mean he always works that way, but He does assure you of your election in Christ.  He does make you confident that Jesus has conquered sin and death. He does make you happy to be witnessing to Him who made you spiritually alive.  When it comes to spreading the fire of love, He has made you His match, not to be consumed by the blaze, but to be purified and warmed by the Spirit's presence.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, May 18, 2015

Intellect and Praise Must Work Together in Worship

John 16:5-15

REMEMBER the Generation Gap?  That was what happened when the GI generation came face to face with its children, the Boomers.  These generations had such different personalities.  Granted there was one in between, the "Silent" generation born between 1925 and 1942.  It had the values of the GIs, but the temperament of the Boomers, but the main confrontation did not involve these.  It was between a materialistic, outer-directed, very gregarious older generation, and an inner directed, easily-distracted, self-motivated younger set.  These younger people grew up as Christians in the church.  The older set had provided a lot for them, but it had not provided what the Boomers wanted most of all; uplifting flexibly-structured spiritual snacks, so the youth turned to other things.  The older Boomers turned to Yoga, drugs, psychics, cults, and "life-management techniques."  Ten years later the younger Boomers turned to pop evangelicalism.  What did the GIs make of this?  At first they thought the weird things were just toys that the Boomers would outgrow, but they were distressed at how the younger generation passed up the toys that the older ones had made for them: the youth choirs, the organizations to learn parliamentary procedure - such as Walther League, the guilds of acolytes and junior chancel ladies that dealt with the worship infrastructure, the high school Bible classes.  These were all too much like school for the Boomers.  They wanted something that would make them feel good, so they turned to paganism and false prophets who gave them what they wanted.

The older generation held to its traditions.  In themselves traditions are not bad.  If you are familiar with the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, his main character is Tevye the milkman.  He says Without tradition our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.  For us tradition has been a solid anchor, preserving God's Word and Sacraments.  The tradition is our tool for responding to God's mercy, but there is a demon in tradition.  It can become a way of token fulfillment of religious duties.  If you find that divine service is a grudging offering to get God off your back, then tradition is failing you.  The prophet Amos saw that happening in ancient Israel, and told the people Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to your instruments... Religion without compassion, without charity, without a genuine encounter with God and man no matter how traditional, is a demonic substitute for genuine worship.   Even as I say this, I don't want to join the chorus of religious commentators who have been giving tradition a verbal beating for about 50 years now.  Of course there have been places where the soil went dry, but there is no need for Orthodoxy to be dead  While the temptation of the older generation was to reduce the church to administrative machinery, it did not always yield to that.  Often the church had genuine love among the members.  The Orthodoxy was very much living.

Change in itself is not bad either.  As long as the ark of faith is anchored to the cross, the rope is rather long.  Each Christian has his own space, as long as the center is the Word made flesh, the Lamb that was slain, offered in pulpit and altar.  Once the center becomes anything else, such as increased numbers, then the rope has been cut.  The Great Commission is to baptize and teach, not to attract customers, nor to make people feel good.

How things have turned around!  Now the Boomers are the older generation, still wanting flexibility, inner-directed programming, and innovation.  The young Millennials, born since 1982, are hungry for tradition, but the question isn't who's young and who's old.  The church has to do what Jesus said.  There must be worship, there must be education for the young and the mature, there must be Christian discipline and guidance, and there must be organization.  To make things simple, the church has to think and the church has to sing.  The tradition is good at getting people to think, but not at getting them to sing.  Even if they sing on the outside, they don't always sing on the inside.  The innovators have tremendous enthusiasm, lots of song, and praise for the Lord, but they are not very discriminating.  They talk about spontaneous emotion, but usually settle for manipulated emotion.  They feel forgiven, but keep on living in sin in one way or another.

Our primary concern should be that we're going God's way.  The Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.  He brings us to repentance, He causes us to remember Jesus, He keeps shaking the church.  He will not let us go to sleep.  We must never get to the point where we cling to the ground Jesus walked on instead of the cross He died on.  The Holy Spirit gives the church her true treasure.  Best of all, He does not have to choose between thinking and singing.  God made the soul to think and the spirit to sing.  The Holy Spirit makes us think about sin and grace, then He makes us sing about it.  He makes us think about the hope of heaven, then makes us sing about it, and He connects us to the church of the past - the largest part by far.  Does He want us to be spiritual?  Careful, that world is divided, too.  We are always behind enemy lines, never more so than when we think we're holy.  The reality is the cross and the empty tomb.   Christ was handed over for our transgressions and raised again for our justification.  We must think because the situation is serious.  We must appreciate how serious our salvation is.  We must be happy about it.  We sing because the victory is real.

Once there was a spring which made people dream wonderful dreams.  People came from all over the world to drink from it.  The local owners put in motels and restaurants, card and souvenir shops, movies about the spring.  By and by the stuff around it became more important than the spring itself.  When an occasional visitor wanted to drink from the real spring, the locals didn't want to bother with it.  they called him a hopeless traditionalist because he wouldn't settle for the expensive kitsch.  Dear friends, our spring is the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  Our dippers are the Word and Sacraments.  These are the true treasures of the church.  We may have honest differences, but never lose sight of these.  They are what makes us a church.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Sunday, May 17, 2015

God Cleanses us for His Sake, Vindicates us for His Name


Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.  Psalm 51:10-12

SCRIPTURE is the church's book, given to her by God, to be used in the church, by the church and for the church.  When we speak of the church like this we don't mean the building or the membership rolls, but rather God's people at worship, the very thing we are engaged in at this time: the Lord's people, gathered on the Lord's Day to celebrate the Lord's Supper which is life now, and life forever.  It is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the glad celebration we were admitted to the day we were baptized into Christ.  And what a day that was!

As Lutherans we hold Scripture in the highest possible regard.  The Bible is the Word of God, the verbal icon of Christ, heaven's knowledge revealed in the language of men.  We are also concerned with pure doctrine, as we must be.  Over the centuries much blood has been spilled over the preservation of true doctrine, much sweat and many tears excreted so that future generations might cherish the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is the pure doctrine that illumines benighted souls, that lifts us up above the mistaken opinions and vain pursuits of the world we inhabit, and separates us from the consequences of our many and grievous sins.  It is not without reason that the church has embedded the words of David into her liturgy, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within..."

Yet many are asking today: why liturgy?  Can't we have God's word and true doctrine without liturgy?  To which we answer: the liturgy is the Word of God, the Word of God in action, the highest and best usage of Holy Scripture and of true doctrine.  For the Christian faith is not practiced in the closet, or on the beach, or in our beds, but in the liturgy of the Word and Sacrament, which takes place in the church.

Said another way, Scripture is not only a theological hand book, or encyclopedia of divine knowledge.  It is that, but not only that.  It is also a liturgical book, a book that gives us both the form and the content of what Christian worship is: how it is to be understood, conducted and believed.  The Psalm assigned for today is a perfect example of how the church uses the Bible, by embedding the words of Psalm 51 into the liturgy to be used as the opening words for the Service of the Sacrament.

You will recall that the Lutheran Rite of the Mass is divided into two equal parts: the Service of the Word which concludes with, "the peace of God which passes all understanding..." and the Service of the Sacrament which opens with the words we have before us today, "Create in me a clean heart O God..."  You might also notice that following the  "The peace of God which passes all understanding..." that the organist pauses for a noticeable time before beginning, "Create in me..."  That is done to indicate that the Service of the Word is complete, and now the Service of the Sacrament is about to commence.  That means that the words, "Create in me a clean heart O God," are not a response to the sermon, but rather they look forward to the Sacrament.

Yes, it is true that in the Eucharist we receive the remission of sins, life and salvation, but we still pray that we might approach this sublime moment, this holy union with Christ where His body and blood become one with our body and blood, with hearts that are purified and made fit by none less than God's Holy Spirit.

We pray this because like David we too are adulterers, in our minds and worse.  We too are murderers, in our minds whenever we hate our brother, or worse, and like the people of Israel, who Ezekiel takes to task, we too profane the name of God by behaving like the culture, singing from its idolatrous hymnal, confessing its deadly creeds and living out its twisted dictates in our flesh.  Repent, Christians.  Ponder your behavior, your affections, and turn away from your sins, for you have not so learned from Christ.

Instead the glorious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ inspires us to pursue the virtues listed in today's Epistle lesson.  In it St Peter reminds God's people to be sober-minded, to exercise self-control and to share this world's goods with those who are in need.  He reminds the clergy not to teach their own thoughts or opinions, but only the oracles of God, the full counsel of God, and to rely on His strength for the task, for no man, however talented or devoted, can rightly administer the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, we join David in praying these wonderful words:  Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me; words that the King of Glory and the Lord of Hosts answered for us on Pentecost when He sent the Helper who is above all other helpers, who is the only competent Counselor fit to teach His Bride the Church.  He is the Spirit of Truth who leads us out of self-deception and the world's duplicity, into all truth.

It is by His mighty power, and His alone, that hearts of stone are turned into new ones, clean ones brimming over with love for God and love for your neighbor.  He does all this in the Christian Church where He richly and daily forgives your sins, and the sins of all believers in Christ, where He restores the joy of salvation to you, and propels you ever forward, ever closer to your final destination:  Heaven.  Paradise.

He does all this so that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

When we need mercy, why does it seem to take so long?


Public Domain
OVER the next two months Lutheran people tend to become completely helpless.  As we think of the budget, and of elections to our congregation's boards, of Voters' Assembly and pledge cards, we become spiritually bedridden.  In our minds we are all convinced that our congregation is a good thing, but reason can and does give in to feelings, so that our human nature lies helpless under the illness of sin; which brings us to the man in the Gospel.  He had to be brought to Jesus on a bed.  He probably wanted to be brave, magnanimous, enterprising, and wise.  Who wouldn't?  Instead we are cautious, safe, choosing comfort over the adventurous.  We don't like ourselves when we do that, so afterward we regret it.  We can always blame the people who did accept the responsibility, but the distances to involvement appear as giant steps.

The paralytic's friends brought him to Jesus.  The Lord had been across the lake, preaching in Gadara.  As He returned to His house there was a big crowd waiting.  The sick man's friends didn't want to stand in line.  We are not told what distance they traveled, but rather than stand at the door they decided to cut.  They made a hole in the roof and lowered their friend's bed into Jesus' living room.  That put Jesus on the spot.  He had some unusual options:  He could cure the sin or He could cure the disease.  Those were two separate gifts, related, but separate actions.  Just being forgiven would not cure the palsy.  Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, but did not take away the civil penalty for his deeds.  He still suffered capital punishment.  Jesus could offer the paralytic eternal life, but not necessarily health in this one.  Some of those watching were definitely unfriendly.  They had not come because they needed anything, but because they were skeptical, even suspicious.  The great irony is that their chief aim in life was to vindicate the Law.  Jesus had come to do exactly that.

What did Jesus have in His power to give?  As God Incarnate He had the stewardship of miracles.  The sick man's friends had heard about that.  All Israel was buzzing with news of the Galilean Prophet with healing power.  On the other hand, forgiveness was a more difficult matter.  It was the more important gift, but it was infinitely more costly.  By forgiving the man's sins, Jesus was making a pledge.  He was committing Himself to death.  Nevertheless, Jesus gave this gift first, before answering the request of the man's friends.  Of course the sick man was a sinner, as is every son of Adam.  Apparently his conscience was bothering him, because Jesus told him to cheer up.  Then He said five words:  thy sins be forgiven thee.  How fitting that He should say it in five words, because that was the number of His wounds.  Each of these words pierced the Lord as He spoke it, as He committed Himself to covering the debts, and even as He spoke those words, the suspicious were waiting to pounce upon them, to put Him on the cross.

Let's look at it now from the sick man's perspective.  First he heard the call to cheer up.  Life had been a bummer up to this point.  For the first time in a long time he heard good news.  Then He heard Christ's absolution.  With that came the hope that his life would have a happy ending.  We begin our service that way, confessing our sins and receiving absolution as a solid foundation for all that we shall hear that day.  It was only a few minutes after that when this man heard Jesus tell him to pick up his bed.  He had been given the stewardship of healthy legs.  In the same way He gives us opportunities to grow in holiness and to do good deeds.  The paralytic was a sign for the people of Capernaum; as we are a sign for the people of Cleveland that we are forgiven, and that the Holy Spirit lives in us.

There were those present who resented the Lord's forgiveness.  they said This man is blaspheming.  So today there are many who are impatient with the Law and the Gospel, preferring programs and self-help groups.  We need to listen carefully to Jesus' question.  Which is easier to say:  "Your sins are forgiven" or "you can overcome your social problem"?  Which is easier to say:  "Jesus can make you holy" or "Jesus can make you nice"?  It is ever so tempting to neglect the real need to deal with what is called the "felt need."  People lie bedridden with spiritual palsy.  Instead of seeking to be cured, they seek out those who will make them feel good about it.  Our fellow Christians support this congregation to assure us that we will always have the  ministry of Word and Sacrament among us.  You might say they lower us into the presence of Jesus for a new outpouring of grace.   When we heard the Gospel, not only do we hear the same five words that Jesus spoke to the paralytic, we also hear of the five wounds, and of the resurrection.  The cross stands as the permanent assurance of forgiveness.  On the third day the Lord raised Himself from the bed of death, from the total palsy of the grave.  This time as He stood up once again He held the keys of the kingdom.  Let no one question His authority again.  His authority comes from Calvary.  The one who forgives our debts is the one who paid them.

The holy ministry Jesus gives us here is the same authority to forgive sins that we saw at work in Capernaum.  In Catechism we learned to call it the Office of the Keys because of the figure Jesus used in Matthew 16, where He spoke of forgiving as freeing and retaining sins as binding.  Jesus looked ahead as He spoke absolution, but the pastor today looks backward to the sacrifice that has already been made.  As long as the earth remains, the ministers of Christ are stewards of the mysteries of God.  Through our work here forgiveness is an active force, and we have access to it.  There is nothing more valuable than this.  We know that our sins are forgiven.  We are certain that the pastor's forgiveness is the same as God's.  We can count on it.  We know it to be objectively and absolutely true.  The only reason faith has any value is because it has this to attach to: the perfect sacrifice has been offered.

Can we say anything about the second gift?  When do we rise and go home?  Only at the end of our life.  That might  mean the end of your individual life, or it might mean the end of humanity on the planet.  That is a question of timing.  Either way, the road home is the way of the cross.  Jesus made a total commitment to us, the proper gift timely given.  By His grace we follow Him.  AMEN

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, May 11, 2015

Do you not yet fully understand the intensity of God's fury or the greatness of his mercy?

This is a long read.  I like to keep everything to about 5 minutes, but this will take several times longer.  This old sermon was written by Jonathan Edwards during America's Great Awakening when so many Christians realized that they had not been understanding the enormity of their sin.  Many churches today have given up telling the truth about the deadliness of sin so that people will not be scared off or offended.  That is not the purpose of the church and souls are not redeemed without offense.  Our sins are offensive. They have terrifying consequences.  In fact, it is only by God's GREAT mercy that we are not already in hell.

Have you been afraid to tell people that you love about Jesus' salvation?  If this is read and silence is still kept, there can be no claim that there is love for anyone.


-Their foot shall slide in due time- Deut. xxxii. 35

In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God's visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God's wonderful works towards them, remained (as ver. 28.) void of counsel, having no understanding in them. Under all the cultivations of heaven, they brought forth bitter and poisonous fruit; as in the two verses next preceding the text. The expression I have chosen for my text, Their foot shall slide in due time, seems to imply the following doings, relating to the punishment and destruction to which these wicked Israelites were exposed.

1. That they were always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall. This is implied in the manner of their destruction coming upon them, being represented by their foot sliding. The same is expressed, Psalm lxxiii. 18. "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction."

2. It implies, that they were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. As he that walks in slippery places is every moment liable to fall, he cannot foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next; and when he does fall, he falls at once without warning: Which is also expressed in Psalm lxxiii. 18, 19. "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction: How are they brought into desolation as in a moment!"

3. Another thing implied is, that they are liable to fall of themselves, without being thrown down by the hand of another; as he that stands or walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.

4. That the reason why they are not fallen already, and do not fall now, is only that God's appointed time is not come. For it is said, that when that due time, or appointed time comes, their foot shall slide. Then they shall be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight. God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction; as he that stands on such slippery declining ground, on the edge of a pit, he cannot stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost.

The observation from the words that I would now insist upon is this. "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God's mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment.

The truth of this observation may appear by the following considerations:

 1. There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men's hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands.- He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it. Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel, who has found means to fortify himself, and has made himself strong by the numbers of his followers. But it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defence from the power of God. Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God's enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces. They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell. What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down?

2. They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?" Luke xiii. 7. The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God's mere will, that holds it back.

3. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They do not only justly deserve to be cast down thither, but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell. John iii. 18. "He that believeth not is condemned already." So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is, John viii. 23. "Ye are from beneath." And thither be is bound; it is the place that justice, and God's word, and the sentence of his unchangeable law assign to him.

4. They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.

So that it is not because God is unmindful of their wickedness, and does not resent it, that he does not let loose his hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, though they may imagine him to be so. The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.

5. The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their souls in his possession, and under his dominion. The scripture represents them as his goods, Luke xi. 12. The devils watch them; they are ever by them at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back. If God should withdraw his hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls. The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should perrnit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.

6. There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God's restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isa. lvii. 20. For the present, God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further;" but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God's restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.

7. It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand. It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continual experience of the world in all ages, shows this is no evidence, that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world. The unseen, unthought-of ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noon-day; the sharpest sight cannot discern them. God has so many different unsearchable ways of taking wicked men out of the world and sending them to hell, that there is nothing to make it appear, that God had need to be at the expense of a miracle, or go out of the ordinary course of his providence, to destroy any wicked man at any moment. All the means that there are of sinners going out of the world, are so in God's hands, and so universally and absolutely subject to his power and determination, that it does not depend at all the less on the mere will of God, whether sinners shall at any moment go to hell, than if means were never made use of, or at all concerned in the case.

8. Natural men's prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, do not secure them a moment. To this, divine providence and universal experience do also bear testimony. There is this clear evidence that men's own wisdom is no security to them from death; that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death: but how is it in fact? Eccles. ii. 16. "How dieth the wise man? even as the fool."

9. All wicked men's pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment. Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do. Every one lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail. They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done. He does not intend to come to that place of torment; he says within himself, that he intends to take effectual care, and to order matters so for himself as not to fail.

But the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow. The greater part of those who heretofore have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, are undoubtedly gone to hell; and it was not because they were not as wise as those who are now alive: it was not because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape. If we could speak with them, and inquire of them, one by one, whether they expected, when alive, and when they used to hear about hell ever to be the subects of that misery: we doubtless, should hear one and another reply, "No, I never intended to come here: I had laid out matters otherwise in my mind; I thought I should contrive well for myself: I thought my scheme good. I intended to take effectual care; but it came upon me unexpected; I did not look for it at that time, and in that manner; it came as a thief: Death outwitted me: God's wrath was too quick for me. Oh, my cursed foolishness! I was flattering myself, and pleasing myself with vain dreams of what I would do hereafter; and when I was saying, Peace and safety, then suddenly destruction came upon me.

10. God has laid himself under no obligation, by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment. God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life, or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea and amen. But surely they have no interest in the promises of the covenant of grace who are not the children of the covenant, who do not believe in any of the promises, and have no interest in the Mediator of the covenant.

So that, whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men's earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.

So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.


The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ.--That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of, there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

You probably are not sensible of this; you find you are kept out of hell, but do not see the hand of God in it; but look at other things, as the good state of your bodily constitution, your care of your own life, and the means you use for your own preservation. But indeed these things are nothing; if God should withdraw his hand, they would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin air to hold up a person that is suspended in it.

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the creation groans with you; the creature is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the sun does not willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God's enemies. God's creatures are good, and were made for men to serve God with, and do not willingly subserve to any other purpose, and groan when they are abused to purposes so directly contrary to their nature and end. And the world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of him who hath subjected it in hope. There are black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you. The sovereign pleasure of God, for the present, stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff of the summer threshing floor.

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God's vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are constantly rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward. If God should only withdraw his hand from the flood-gate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.

The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it. Those that are gone from being in the like circumstances with you, see that it was so with them; for destruction came suddenly upon most of them; when they expected nothing of it, and while they were saying, Peace and safety: now they see, that those things on which they depended for peace and safety, were nothing but thin air and empty shadows.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment. And consider here more particularly:

1. Whose wrath it is: it is the wrath of the infinite God. If it were only the wrath of man, though it were of the most potent prince, it would be comparatively little to be regarded. The wrath of kings is very much dreaded, especially of absolute monarchs, who have the possessions and lives of their subjects wholly in their power, to be disposed of at their mere will. Prov. xx. 2. "The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion: Whoso provoketh him to anger, sinneth against his own soul." The subject that very much enrages an arbitrary prince, is liable to suffer the most extreme torments that human art can invent, or human power can inflict. But the greatest earthly potentates in their greatest majesty and strength, and when clothed in their greatest terrors, are but feeble, despicable worms of the dust, in comparison of the great and almighty Creator and King of heaven and earth. It is but little that they can do, when most enraged, and when they have exerted the utmost of their fury. All the kings of the earth, before God, are as grasshoppers; they are nothing, and less than nothing: both their love and their hatred is to be despised. The wrath of the great King of kings, is as much more terrible than theirs, as his majesty is greater. Luke xii. 4, 5. "And I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say unto you, Fear him."

2. It is the fierceness of his wrath that you are exposed to. We often read of the fury of God; as in Isaiah lix. 18. "According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay fury to his adversaries." So Isaiah lxvi. 15. "For behold, the Lord will come with fire, and wifh his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire." And in many other places. So, Rev. xix. 15, we read of "the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." The words are exceeding terrible. If it had only been said, "the wrath of God," the words would have implied that which is infinitely dreadful: but it is "the fierceness and wrath of God." The fury of God! the fierceness of Jehovah! Oh, how dreadful must that be! Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them! But it is also "the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God." As though there would be a very great manifestation of his almighty power in what the fierceness of his wrath should inflict, as though omnipotence should be as it were enraged, and exerted, as men are wont to exert their strength in the fierceness of their wrath. Oh! then, what will be the consequence! What will become of the poor worms that shall suffer it! Whose hands can be strong? And whose heart can endure? To what a dreadful, inexpressible, inconceivable depth of misery must the poor creature be sunk who shall be the subject of this!

Consider this, you that are here present, that yet remain in an unregenerate state. That God will execute the fierceness of his anger, implies, that he will inflict wrath without any pity. When God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed, and sinks down, as it were, into an infinite gloom; he will have no compassion upon you, he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God then at all stay his rough wind; he will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much in any other sense, than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires. Nothing shall be withheld, because it is so hard for you to bear. Ezek. viii. 18. "Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet I will not hear them." Now God stands ready to pity you; this is a day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy. But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare. God will have no other use to put you to, but to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel, but to be filled full of wrath. God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him, that it is said he will only "laugh and mock," Prov. i. 25, 26, &c.

How awful are those words, Isa. lxiii. 3, which are the words of the great God. "I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment." It is perhaps impossible to conceive of words that carry in them greater manifestations of these three things, vis. contempt, and hatred, and fierceness of indignation. If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot. And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you, in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets.

3. The misery you are exposed to is that which God will inflict to that end, that he might show what that wrath of Jehovah is. God hath had it on his heart to show to angels and men, both how excellent his love is, and also how terrible his wrath is. Sometimes earthly kings have a mind to show how terrible their wrath is, by the extreme punishments they would execute on those that would provoke them. Nebuchadnezzar, that mighty and haughty monarch of the Chaldean empire, was willing to show his wrath when enraged with Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego; and accordingly gave orders that the burning fiery furnace should be heated seven times hotter than it was before; doubtless, it was raised to the utmost degree of fierceness that human art could raise it. But the great God is also willing to show his wrath, and magnify his awful majesty and mighty power in the extreme sufferings of his enemies. Rom. ix. 22. "What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endure with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?" And seeing this is his design, and what he has determined, even to show how terrible the unrestrained wrath, the fury and fierceness of Jehovah is, he will do it to effect. There will be something accomplished and brought to pass that will be dreadful with a witness. When the great and angry God hath risen up and executed his awful vengeance on the poor sinner, and the wretch is actually suffering the infinite weight and power of his indignation, then will God call upon the whole universe to behold that awful majesty and mighty power that is to be seen in it. Isa. xxxiii. 12-14. "And the people shall be as the burnings of lime, as thorns cut up shall they be burnt in the fire. Hear ye that are far off, what I have done; and ye that are near, acknowledge my might. The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites," &c.

Thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state, if you continue in it; the infinite might, and majesty, and terribleness of the omnipotent God shall be magnified upon you, in the ineffable strength of your torments. You shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and when you shall be in this state of suffering, the glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and look on the awful spectacle, that they may see what the wrath and fierceness of the Almighty is; and when they have seen it, they will fall down and adore that great power and majesty. Isa. lxvi. 23, 24. "And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh."

4. It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: For "who knows the power of God's anger?"

How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in the danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be. Oh that you would consider it, whether you be young or old! There is reason to think, that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are, or in what seats they sit, or what thoughts they now have. It may be they are now at ease, and hear all these things without much disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are not the persons, promising themselves that they shall escape. If we knew that there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation, that was to be the subject of this misery, what an awful thing would it be to think of! If we knew who it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a person! How might all the rest of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But, alas! instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell? And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, even before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here, in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, quiet and secure, should be there before to-morrow morning. Those of you that finally continue in a natural condition, that shall keep out of hell longest will be there in a little time! Your damnation does not slumber; it will come swiftly, and, in all probability, very suddenly upon many of you. You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell. It is doubtless the case of some whom you have seen and known, that never deserved hell more than you, and that heretofore appeared as likely to have been now alive as you. Their case is past all hope; they are crying in extreme misery and perfect despair; but here you are in the land of the living and in the house of God, and have an opportuniry to obtain salvation. What would not those poor damned hopeless souls give for one day's opportunity such as you now enjoy!

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?

Are there not many here who have lived long in the world, and are not to this day born again? and so are aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and have done nothing ever since they have lived, but treasure up wrath against the day of wrath? Oh, sirs, your case, in an especial manner, is extremely dangerous. Your guilt and hardness of heart is extremely great. Do you not see how generally persons of your years are passed over and left, in the present remarkable and wonderful dispensation of God's mercy? You had need to consider yourselves, and awake thoroughly out of sleep. You cannot bear the fierceness and wrath of the infinite God.-And you, young men, and young women, will you neglect this precious season which you now enjoy, when so many others of your age are renouncing all youthful vanities, and flocking to Christ? You especially have now an extraordinary opportunity; but if you neglect it, it will soon be with you as with those persons who spent all the precious days of youth in sin, and are now come to such a dreadful pass in blindness and hardness. And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night? Will you be content to be the children of the devil, when so many other children in the land are converted, and are become the holy and happy children of the King of kings?

And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now harken to the loud calls of God's word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favours to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others. Men's hearts harden, and their guilt increases apace at such a day as this, if they neglect their souls; and never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart and blindness of mind. God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the greater part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on the great out-pouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles' days; the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded. If this should be the case with you, you will eternally curse this day, and will curse the day that ever you was born, to see such a season of the pouring out of God's Spirit, and will wish that you had died and gone to hell before you had seen it. Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree which brings not forth good fruit, may be hewn down and cast into the fire.

Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation: Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed."