Sunday, March 13, 2016

Is approaching the altar for scrutiny making you afraid or happy?


Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.  Psalm 43:4

THE 5th Sunday in Lent is traditionally called Judica, a word which means judgment.  Its name comes from the 43rd Psalm which is the Introit we chanted  a few minutes ago, but the word judgment often confuses Christians.   In the Nicene Creed we confess that Christ will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, yet we don't exactly know what to make of it, whether we should be happy or afraid.  The question is easily answered if we remember that judgment is a double edged sword.  It can go for you or against you.  The glad message of the Christian religion is this:  that by the Lord's cross and resurrection we are vindicated from sin, delivered from death and granted victory over the vast array of enemies that conspire to bring us to ruin and further that this victory is given to us at the altar, which is the bar of God's justice.

In today's Old Testament reading we find Abraham standing before an altar, constructed of wood with his beloved son Isaac bound as the sacrifice.  The LORD instructed Abraham to do this; to slay his son there and then to set the whole affair on fire as a "burnt offering," but that is not what happened!  What happened instead is that a great judgment was handed down in favor of Abraham, Isaac and indeed of the whole sinful world, because the LORD never intended for Isaac to die that day, but He used this liturgical drama to give the world a preview of what He Himself would do "in the fullness of time," which is to offer up His beloved and only-begotten Son on the mountain called Calvary, only this time the sacrifice would not be called off!  This time there would be no ram caught in the thickets.  Instead the Son of God suffered and died on the altar of the cross as the sacrifice that expunges the sins of the world and reconciles us to our true Father.

In today's Psalm David, too, goes to the altar to seek victory over the enemies who were out to destroy him.  David was a capable and savvy man, but he knew that true strength could only be found at God's altar.  Notice how the psalm progresses.  It begins with David asking why he had to spend his days full of fear and sorrow, but it ends with a very different and better question:  why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.  May this be our prayer as well as we face the many foes, visible and invisible, that contrive to snatch us from the Father's hand.

There is another altar we must consider, without question the most important of all, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!  This is the bar of God's justice; the place where the wages of our sin were paid in full by Jesus and where the judgment "not guilty" was rendered in favor of sinners great and small.

In today's epistle lesson Jesus is cast as the High Priest whose job it was to enter the holy of holies once a year, to offer God sacrifices on behalf of the people so that they might be reconciled to their Lord and obtain the divine favor required to live each day and to live eternally with God in heaven.  Jesus did not offer the blood of bulls and goats as had been done for centuries before (those too were but liturgical dramas), but He offered Himself instead:  His own blood!  His own life in order to purify our consciences from dead works so that we might serve the Living God!

There is still one more altar we must consider; in many ways the most misunderstood of all, the one that is situated directly in front of you.  Because Lutherans in America have been so strongly influenced by Puritanism, they don't always feel comfortable locating God's blessings on the altar.  They have been taught to spiritualize the gifts of God rather than understand them as incarnate realities which can be reliably located.  Thankfully there is a new Lutheran Reformation afoot and things are beginning to change for the better.  We are now beginning to discover what our fathers in the faith always knew and believed: that Christ is not just spiritually present when His church gathers for worship, but that He is bodily present as well, residing on the altar from whence He communes with His bride, the church, and imparts every blessing of body and soul to her.

We said earlier that the altar is the bar of God's justice.  The flesh of Christ we receive here kills as well as heals.  It kills unbelief and the sins of the flesh by forgiving them, cleansing us from them,and breathing fresh life and affections into us, but other judgments are in play as well because the weekly Eucharist is also a foretaste of the things to come, when Christ will return in glory to condemn our enemies raise us up from our graves and give us new and  glorified bodies.  That will be the best day of all!  It is the day we anticipate in holy communion, but also the day we already partake in at God's altar today.

Thus the adage is true that a Christian's life is lived in a continues circuit to and from the altar, from Lord's Day to Lord's Day:  to the altar to receive every grace and blessing, from the altar to serve the Living God by serving our neighbor in the vocation God has assigned to each of us.  This is no easy task, or small task, but a divine task that takes all the spiritual strength available to us, of which there is no shortage at the altar.  May Christ, who is God's light and truth, and who is our exceeding joy, lead us there and meet us there.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

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