Sunday, November 20, 2016

What are we watching for?


"Watch, therefore, because you know neither the day nor the hour."  Matthew 25:13

AS the church year comes to a close we turn our thoughts to the end of all things:  the end of the world, the end of our lives, and by the mercies of God, the end of wilderness wanderings for Christ Lutheran Church; but by virtue of our baptism into the Lord's death and resurrection, every ending also provides a new beginning.  Many times we don't want the present to end, and we fear what lies ahead, but we need not fear because the Good Shepherd is with us, and He will continue to lead us in the paths of righteousness until we dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

Five years ago a glorious chapter in the life of Christ Lutheran Church came to an end when we laid our aged mother to rest and embarked on an uncertain future.  It was a time of sorrow, but also relief because we had nothing left to give.  Likewise our time in the wilderness was mixed with joy and sorrow.  It was a time of rest from the responsibilities that had consumed us for ten previous years, but also a time of limited liberty, when we were painfully restricted in what we could do.  To be sure, we did what was most important.  "This do in remembrance of me," and by this Manna in the wilderness, this Bread come down from heaven, our hearts were gladdened, our souls were nourished, and not one has been lost, but we had no outlet for our faith and our joy; no opportunity for special celebrations, personal fellowship or for the Christian works of mercy that ware so vital to the Christian congregation.

Yet as today is the Last Sunday of the old Liturgical Year, next week is the First Sunday of the New, and we pray that God who is our help in ages past, will be our hope for years to come.

Whatever our time or locale, the word of Jesus in today's gospel is always appropriate, always in force:  "Watch therefore, because you know neither the day nor the hour," but what does the Lord mean when He says "Watch?"  Is this simply a mental process or is there something else we are supposed to do?  And, what exactly is it we are watching for?

If you were listening to today's Scripture lessons on Moody Radio (which I sincerely hope you never do) you would learn how the recent Jihadist massacre in Paris is predicted in the Book of Revelation, and you would be instructed to stay tuned to CNN for the further unfolding of international events, but the Lutheran religion specifically rejects that interpretation of the Bible!  Rejected, because St. paul teaches us that when the Lord returns it will be  a complete surprise, as unpredictable as a thief who comes in the night.  Besides this, international affairs tell us nothing about what we are most interested in; what we need the most:  the Holy Spirit the holy Christian church, communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting that is ours in Christ.

What exactly is it are we to watch for?  In a word, the end; not the end of human existence.  People are eternal.  You are eternal, and after this life ends there is another, either in joyous gladness with Christ, or in weeping and gnashing of teeth without Him, but this world as we know it will come to an end.  The One who came here to save us will come again to Judge us.  Then the sea will give up her dead, and all the graves will be opened.  Then every thought you ever thought, every intention you ever intended, every word you ever spoke, and every action you ever took will be revealed, and you will be judged.

It won't be a pretty day!  There won't be any Starbucks coffee there, and no one will be texting.

Only one thing will matter then:  the forgiveness of sins; the very thing we obtain in the church, every Sunday of our lives!

How exactly do we watch?  You're doing it now!  The gifts received in this Divine Service are the oil that keep your lamps lit, that keep your light burning bright until the Bridegroom comes to escort the Bride to His Father's house in festal procession.  You are that Bride!

The Word Of God chanted into your ears keeps you sober and alert.  While the world is fast asleep in a comfortable coma, bereft of all that is Divine, without moral compass, and unable to distinguish the right hand from the left, you are anointed with the oil of gladness.  You have the Light of Life, the Spirit of God, the mind of Christ, a delightful destiny, and a bright future beyond human telling, but you have a present joy as well, because what we "do" in this Divine Service is both a foretaste and an installment of the end.  In Holy Communion two things happen.  First, our sins are neutralized and Satan's head is crushed by the Body of Christ we eat and the blood of Christ we drink.  Secondly, we are filled with the Light of Christ, given a vision of heaven and a foretaste of the Feast to come, all given tenderly to us here and now in order to cleanse, fortify, comfort and shield us until we arrive at our Father's house, where Jesus has gone before to prepare a place for you.

Therefore in the words of St. Paul, be sober and alert, "for you are all children of light, children of the day.  We are not of the night or of the darkness, so then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober ... for God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we might live with Him.  Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing."  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

When death is not death...


Deadfalls and Snares is a book in the public
domain about trapping animals by Arthur Robert
Harding, who is deceased and has not approved the use
of this book cover alongside this material.  It is being
used only as a reference to illustrate how death comes
upon us unexpectedly and rather unwillingly.  Unlike
these animals, however, we as people have hope.
MARTIN LUTHER'S hymn Mitten wir im Leben sind says it all:  In the very midst of life snares of death surround us.  In Luther's view, no matter your age, you are a walking corpse.  Luther preferred the term "maggot sack" to describe his earthly body.  Every day was another step closer to the grave where the maggots would eat his flesh.  Every step closer to the grave is also a step closer to resurrection from the grave.  For the Christian, the grave is little more than a bed.  You close your eyes in temporal death, and the next thing you know, you live.  You are a new creation, made whole in Jesus Christ the firstborn from the dead.

Two women are tangled in the snares of death.  One alive and the other dead -- both in need of the touch of Jesus.  The hymn agrees, Thou only, LORD, thou only.

The woman alive suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years.  Twelve years is enough time to be hopeless about a cure.  She decides one option remains.  If I only touch His garment, I will be made well.  How did she know that merely touching Jesus' tunic would cure her illness?  Somehow, somewhere, she heard of Jesus and believed He could heal her ailment.

She wasn't sure what to expect.  She wasn't certain how He would react.  Maybe she should just talk to Him; stop Him on the street and simply ask Him, Have mercy on me!  The word on the street spoke of others who simply approached Jesus and asked:  a leper, a centurion for his servant, Peter's mother-in-law, two demon-possessed men, a paralytic and many others  (Matthew 8-9), but no, it was too risky to talk to Him, too embarrassing to publicly describe her problem.  She'd keep to her plan, just a touch, and in the crowded streets with all the bumping and pushing, He would never know, and if He did, then what had she to lose?  Her way shows that no matter how you approach our Lord, He is able to help.  Jesus knows exactly what she wants.  She need not ask.  He turns to her after she touches His garment and says take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.  Yes, always and only it is Spirit inspired faith that breaks the snares.  Faith led her to touch His garment.  Faith in Christ, the Divine Healer of every disease, both in body and in soul, is her hope as the snares of death surround her.

Clearly Jesus welcomed her interruption as He walked to the ruler's house.  God's only-begotten Son became Man in order to be the perfect interruption for sinners caught in the snares of death that surround us.

Jesus is our only hope when facing death.  The first words out of Christ's mouth when He arrives at the ruler's house dispense with the snares of death surrounding the death scene.  And when Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, He said, "Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping."  Who would tell mourners at a funeral to leave because the girl whom they mourn is not dead?  Only Jesus could say such a thing and mean it.  The mourners laughed at Him, but Jesus gets the last laugh.

He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.  Here we see a preview of Judgment Day when Jesus will speak to His beloved children who have fallen asleep in the sleep of death and speak them awake.  This incident and all other instances of resurrection in Holy Scripture make fools laugh.  There is no way that something as dead as a ruler's daughter or as dead as Lazarus, can stand up and live, but they do live:  one with the grasp of a hand, and the other with a word spoken from outside the tomb.

Saint Paul prays for and exhorts the Colossians to [Give] thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  Both women in the Gospel reading are qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  Both will live again in the resurrection.  Both are partakers of the inheritance promised for them from the foundation of the world.  This is their hope because of Jesus Christ.  Paul's prayer and exhortation are for you also!

Though the snares of death surround you, the prayers of you who the Father has qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light -- whether they are for big or small or even impossible things -- are no bother to Our Lord.  Don't pull this Mid-West pious Lutheran gambit.  Don't try to protect God from your feelings.  Don't act all shy and self-conscious.  That is an insult to God.  Prayer is an act of intimacy.  To hold back, to holdout on God, is an indication that you don't trust Him.  If you won't bring all your cares and concerns to God, it means that you think He will laugh at you or won't care or will think you are foolish. Either that or you don't think He has the power to answer.  God desires that you open your heart to Him in prayer, to lay yourself vulnerable.

Why won't you trust Him?  REPENT.  Do not be afraid.  He loves you.  He loves your prayers.  He is not shocked by them.  He is your Father who shows compassion to His children (Psalm 103).

This is your hope as well because of Jesus Christ.  There is no guarantee that He will walk into your bedroom, take you by the hand, and heal you or your loved one from death.  He is not present in the way that He was then in order for you to touch His garment and live.  Nevertheless, there is hope when the snares of death surround us because of Jesus Christ.  He will wake you up from the sleep of death on Judgment Day.  He will wake you up and change your body into a body like His.  You will wake up as you wake up from a lazy afternoon nap -- refreshed, alert, and renewed.

This hope is yours now, but not yet accomplished.  The consummation of all things remains in God's hand.  In the meantime, we have a foretaste of the feast to come in the Divine Service.  Eating and drinking His true Body and true Blood prepares us for the never-ending Supper in Paradise where the lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world is face-to-face with His children, His redeemed.

There is also a connection in the touching.  Jairus asked Our Lord to lay His hands upon the girl, but instead Our Lord took her hand, as though she was laying hands on Him.  The woman with the discharge reached out her hand and grasped Our Lord's garment.

Faith is the hand that grasps grace.  The woman had faith.  She recognized that Our Lord could do what the physicians could not.  That faith saved her  The girl had faith also, but in her case, Our Lord slipped His hand under hers in order to bestow it.  She was dead, so He gave her the hand, the grasp, that grasped Him, and called her back from death.

That is how it always is with faith.  It seeks the risen, living, bodily Christ because it has been bestowed and is maintained by the Holy Spirit who always bears witness to and of Christ.  That is why we come to the Holy Supper.  We are not here to simply think about Jesus.  We are here to be touched by Him, to be healed, saved, and raised.  This touch is not a metaphor.    It is real and physical, even as He is real and physical.  He did not rise as a ghost.  He is flesh and blood, alive from the grave.  He comes to us not as an idea, but as a Body crucified and risen.

"If only His Body is placed upon my tongue, I shall be made well," says the Christian.  "Take heart, daughter.  Rise, damsel," says the Lord.  "Take, eat.  Take, drink.  Your faith has saved you."

The reality of death for a baptized Christian is that the grave is a bed, and our rest there is a nap.  The reality of illness for a baptized Christian is that full healing comes in Jesus Christ, Who will make our lowly bodies into glorious bodies.  The prayer of today's Chief Hymn is answered with an emphatic "Yes" and "Amen" in Jesus Christ.  He will not leave us to the bitter pains of death.  He comforts us in every need with the sure and certain hope of full healing and resurrection.  Believe it for Jesus' sake and pray...

Teach me to live, that I may dread
the grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may
rise glorious at the awe-full day.

~Rev. Fyler

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How can my faith in Jesus affect my community?


But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  Jeremiah 29:7

WE must never forget that the Church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of those who never go near it.  God has chosen us, selected us from eternity to do a job for Him.  There is a sorry strain that runs through the history of the Church, the tragic record of how the Church forgets why she is here.  We are the enrollers, the conscriptors, looking for names to write in the Book of Life.  The Church was never meant to be a club of like-minded people, but a sacramental society of collectors.

This does not mean we should neglect celebration, or that fellowship doesn't matter, or that we should not dedicate time to educating those who are already enrolled.  Far from it!  The Church is a Mother who nurtures her young in every way.  We don't stop caring when people are enrolled.  Every time we reach out we must also reach in, for the door works both ways, but look around.  Don't stop with the immediate neighborhood, but start with it and look at Cleveland.  There are thousands of people here who have learned the hard way that the secular city does not meet their needs.  They probably aren't thirsty for the righteousness of God, or at least they couldn't think of it in those terms, but they definitely are not satisfied with Mammon's goodies, if indeed they have any of them.  These people are not gullible.  They are wary, but they have meaningful questions.  They don't want garbage.  This world gives them enough of that. A young writer once went to a New York publisher bringing with him an excellent manuscript.  The publisher read it, then said Too bad!  You have an excellent novel.  Come back when you have some trash.  Our fellow citizens already know trash.  They don't need to get it from us.  They want real value.  And in faith, real value comes with authority.

Does the word "authority" bother you?  No one wants to be considered "authoritarian."  Many people refuse to submit to the authority of good grammar, with the result that they speak terrible English which no one can understand.  We want to be certain that they hear the authority of Jesus, for He alone is the True Teacher of the Church.  How do we have access to His authority?  First through the Holy Scriptures, all of its parts, even the most violent of the Psalms.  Secondly, through the Book of Concord, where we have the pure and truthful interpretation of the Scriptures, preserved for many centuries in the True Visible Church.  Thirdly, we need God's deputies, the shepherds of Christ's flock, and parents who can be high priests in every home.  And there is one more deputy, one in the larger society whom Jesus calls "Caesar."  Jesus rules His kingdom of the left hand through the state and the force of the civil law, but He rules the kingdom of His right hand directly.  He never uses force in the right hand kingdom, but grants pardon and peace through the Gospel.  You and I are citizens in the one and subjects in the other.  We belong to Jesus, to His kingdom of grace which is always a monarchy, but since the kingdom of the left hand might well be a republic, we must learn to act in it the way one acts in republics.

Most of the people in our city are outside the kingdom of grace.  In Jesus' time His own people rejected Him.  Today our neighbors reject Him.  They have far fewer excuses because at least they know what Christmas and Easter are, that is they should know in spite of the commercial camouflage that covers them.  Even if they knew all the facts that would not be Christian faith.  You could recite all four gospels, you could admire Jesus for His mighty works and patient suffering, but it still would not be faith.  It becomes faith when you can say This was for me.  Shortly after that you could add This was for my friends and neighbors.  Eventually the Holy Spirit will enable you to say This was for my enemies.

The prophet Jeremiah was writing to the Jews who were in exile in Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed.  They no longer had their own nation.  In Jerusalem, church and state had been one.  Now they were aliens in a strange land.  The Prophet assured them that God knew who they were and where they were, that being Jewish would separate them from the secular society.  In the same way, our heavenly citizenship separates us from our place of exile.  Their faith made them different -- so does ours.  What Jeremiah told them applies to us in the same way -- Seek the good of the city in which you dwell.  If things go well for them, they will also go well for you.  The city is not our first allegiance.  That belongs only to the King who is coming, but that very King wants us to be productive in our present environment.  He wants us to be involved so that everything will be better -- the books, the music, the clothes, the housing, the education, all of it.  He calls us to continue to put forward what is excellent.  To be good citizens we must never be content with trash.

Remember that Christ's Kingdom is the more important one.  To recruit people for it we need to know a lot about people -- about refugees, about minorities, about other religions; to understand the world of broken homes and non-custodial parents.  While these people want very much to be part of a sacramental fellowship, they don't necessarily want to join a social club.  We want to assimilate them, but not into anything that wasn't commanded by Jesus.  We have nothing to sell, just love to give away.  Jesus does not sell us His grace.  He buys us with His blood.  Jesus had nothing to sell, and neither do we.  He bought us by His cross and resurrection.  Evangelism begins in the front yard, but eventually it reaches out to every land and language and tribe.  You can be the best of evangelists by being a good citizen.  Missionaries who work overseas are evangelists first and foremost, who need our prayers and resources to do their work.  We must concentrate on what is at hand, but without neglecting people who are far away.

Before God made the world He worked out a plan of salvation.  He did this purely out of mercy.  There was nothing in us worth saving, but God is good.  To find out how good we need to contemplate the cross of Jesus.  That's how far God was willing to reach out to save the lost.  All of us were born lost.  Many people still are, groping about in the dark.  Will they listen to us?  We might first have to earn their trust.  We can do that by being good citizens in Caesar's kingdom, and that would be impossible if we were not first subjects of the Messiah, children of heaven.  We are!  And to our real fatherland we aim to encourage immigration.  AMEN.

~ Rev.  Lloyd E. Gross