THAT WE MAY NOT BE LOST FOREVER
Rescue and preserve us that we may not be lost forever but follow You rejoicing in the way that leads to eternal life. (collect for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost)
THE prayer we pray each Sunday called the Collect, has been with the church for the greatest part of her existence, yet very few people know where it came from or why we pray it. In brief, the Collect sets the tone for each Sunday of the church year. It gathers all that God's people hope and pray for this day into one concentrated prayer, so let us take some time to think about the petition we prayed a few minutes ago.
The first thing that jumps out at us and feels like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, are the words, "that we may not be lost forever." In the Lutheran faith we preach the Law and the Gospel which are the two chief doctrines of scripture, but we major on the Gospel. It is the prevalent message of our liturgy from invocation to benediction. It is the glad assurance of God's never-ending love, the good news that keeps us coming back week after week so that wild horses could not keep us away.
But why this jolting prayer then, "that we may not be lost forever?" Is there any doubt that we will be saved? Is there any question that we are reconciled to God through Christ our Lord, or that when we close our eyes here on earth that we will open them up in the glory of heaven? If there is we might just as well fold up our tent and go home now, for uncertainty can be found anywhere, but the assurances we obtain in this holy house, good promises made to us by God who cannot lie, they are precious and rare. No, there is no question of our salvation. The Bible reassures us that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, not because we are good or brilliant people, not because we invited Jesus into our hearts or prayed a sinner's prayer, but because God is good and because His mercy endures forever.
Yet, we do have a problem, namely, the Old Adam who is corrupt through and through. He cannot be reformed or improved, but only put to death by the Law, so the church preaches the Law, even to Christians, not to take away their assurance, but because fear is the only language that the old man understands. As such, petitions as we hear in today's Collect, while painful to our new nature, serve to beat down the sin that dwells within us; to make Old Adam go back into hiding, to crawl back into the dark hole he came from, so that we might rise up each day to serve God in righteousness and purity forever.
Lest we despair, let us remember the rest of the Collect, "rescue and preserve us." We learn how this prayer is answered in today's Scripture lessons. In our Old Testament reading the Lord says, "I, myself, will rescue my sheep...I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them...and I, the LORD, will be their God..." We know that Ezekiel was not referring to King David here, because in the last verse of his famous 119th Psalm David writes, "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments." No, the Lord was not referring to the historical David but to the Son of David, to our Lord Jesus Christ, the one, true Shepherd of Israel Who shepherds Joseph like a flock. The one who God raised from the dead, who still finds lost sheep, still carries them on His shoulders, and still leads them to eternal life.
This is what we are doing at this very time, following our Lord and rejoicing in the way that leads to eternal life, but we should remember once again that such "following" and "rejoicing" as we pray for here has two parts to it. There is the faith of the heart and mind that rejoices in the things that God has prepared for those who love Him, that takes up the cross in hope each day, and single-mindedly follows Jesus. It is a faith that is with us day and night, in good times and in bad, when we feel it and when we do not. It is always there upholding us, trusting in God whatever the circumstance, because God Himself put it there and keeps it there.
However to be a Christian is not only a matter of the heart, but a matter of the body as well. Like the tax collectors and sinners in today's gospel lesson, we too must draw near to Jesus, to meet Him where He wishes to be found. It involves doing things that are done in no other venue. Where else, for example, do we openly confess that we are poor and miserable sinners and acknowledge that we deserve God's present and eternal punishment? Where else do we allow a fellow sinner to stand before us, absolve us our sins, and dare to believe that what he says on earth is binding in heaven?
Yes, being a Christian involves mind, heart, and body: good order, and pious motions such as bowing, kneeling, closing our eyes and opening our lips to receive the flesh and blood of the living Lord, so that we who are outwardly wasting away might be inwardly renewed, day by day, and prepared for the life of the world to come. Though it is incomprehensible to us now, the Lord informs us in today's gospel lesson that there is an innumerable heavenly audience watching the drama of earth unfold; an audience of saints and angels that rejoices as often as we draw near to Jesus, humbly repent our wrongs and receive the good gifts of God with faith. This is the highest form of worship there is, to trust God and to receive His good gifts in Christ, to rejoice and to follow the Good Shepherd in the way that leads to eternal life. Amen.
Rev. Dean Kavouras