Monday, November 26, 2007

The Great Santa Debate

Here's a little pre-Advent conversation starter for you. Any and all feedback would be most appreciated.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine told her young son the truth about Santa Claus.
From the reaction of some of her family members, you would’ve thought she had decided to stop feeding him. Some exclaimed, “You’re stealing his childhood!” It became a real controversy.
Now, I have to say that I have nothing against St. Nick. I grew up leaving him milk and cookies, too.
But I have to wonder what’s going on when people are more concerned about their children believing in Santa than they are about their children believing in Jesus. Are we as passionate about the Baby in the manger as we are about the plump elf in the red suit? If not, what has gone wrong?
Please don’t take this as another anti-Santa tirade. It’s not. I just hope that, as parents, we think about what happens when our kids grow up and learn the truth about Mr. Claus. Will they then question the truth of the other Christmas story we’ve told them too--the one with the angels and shepherds the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay?

If you ask my friend’s son what Christmas is all about, he will tell you with no hesitation, “It’s Jesus’ birthday.”

Is there any other answer you’d rather hear?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

There Is Peace In Giving Thanks

In 1636, amid the darkness of the Thirty Years' War, a German pastor, Martin Rinckart, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year—an average of fifteen a day. His parish was ravaged by war, death, and economic disaster. In the heart of that darkness, with the cries of fear outside his window, he sat down and wrote this table grace for his children: 'Now thank we all our God / With heart and hands and voices/ Who wondrous things had done/ In whom His world rejoices. /Who, from our mother's arms/Hath led us on our way/ With countless gifts of love/ And still is ours today.'" Here was a man who knew thanksgiving comes from love of God, not from outward circumstances.
That’s what can trip us up at this time of national Thanksgiving. There may be some of us here tonight who are having a pretty hard time giving thanks. Certain realities in your life may have you feeling less than thankful. If that’s true for you, you’re not alone. After hearing your story, most people would probably agree that you don’t have much reason for gratitude this November 22nd. And then there are people like Martin Rinckart, who find reasons to thank God in the middle of an unimaginable experience. If you’re wondering if you could ever be like that faithful pastor, please listen carefully to the following words written by the apostle Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Are there things in your life that make you anxious? Stressed-out? Lift them up to God in prayer and give thanks. That’s Paul’s message. And notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, lift your requests to God and don’t forget to say thank you when he gives you what you want. Again, Paul says: lift your requests to God, tell him about everything that’s troubling you, and give thanks at the same time. Give thanks before you lift up your concerns. Give thanks while you lift up your concerns. Give thanks after you lift up your concerns. And then what?
Then “the peace that transcends all understanding will guard your heart and minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace that goes beyond understanding is a gift that comes in the midst of our need. It doesn’t remove every care and solve every problem; rather, it guards our hearts and minds in Christ; It keeps you pointed at and plugged into Jesus, so that your problems do not overwhelm you.
In other words, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that being a Christian means that life will never be hard. Believing Him means that joy and peace are available to you even when life is hard. It is possible to give thanks while we lift our concerns to the Lord. Sometimes we’d rather hide our hurt, bury our anger, pretend we’re not afraid or cling to our worry, than open ourselves to the healing touch of Jesus. By nature we resist it. But if we know Jesus at all, we know we have reason to give thanks. Eternal thanks. And through even the tiniest act of thanksgiving, the Holy Spirit can begin to break down our resistance by putting Jesus in focus.
Christian author Henri Nouwen put a real face on human resistance when he described an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center. He writes: “She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.”
Giving thanks reminds us that we are nothing apart from God. Giving thanks loosens the grip of our clenched fist, so that we might let go of ourselves and receive the fullness of Christ and his blessings.
Is your clenched fist clinging to guilt over a long ago sin? As you give thanks to God, you are reminded of the awesome magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Your sin pales in comparison to his self-giving love. Let your coin of guilt fall at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and see which is bigger.
Is your clenched fist clinging to bitterness because you have been wronged by someone? There is no undeserved suffering that Jesus cannot identify with. In my suffering, I may get a glimpse of the cross of Jesus. For that, if nothing else, I can give thanks. Let your coin of bitterness fall at the foot of Jesus’ cross—the cross that makes forgiveness possible.
Is your clenched fist clinging to possessions or people or the desire for future security? Anxiety about the possibility of losing someone or something leads us to cling even more tightly—but that tends to make things worse, not better. The more we give thanks for God’s faithfulness in the past, the more we come to trust in God’s future faithfulness. By reflecting on God’s past guidance and help, you may be able to drop your coin of worry at the foot of the cross, where real and lasting security was purchased for you.
And if there is something going on that is preventing you from giving any type of thanks to God, then lift your clenched fists to Him and ask Him to pry them open for you. Rejoicing and peace will not be out of your reach forever.
When you consider that the Son of God allowed himself to be rejected, battered, and killed for you--for your eternal well-being—is there anything more appropriate than thankfulness? When you remember that the same Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven to secure your eternal future, what else is there but overwhelming gratitude? Living in that gratitude and thankfulness then makes us who we are meant to be.

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit a broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, as he fed them. Many years before, in October, 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean.For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark...ten feet long.
But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie's own words, "Cherry," that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, "read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off."
Now this is still Captian Rickenbacker talking..."Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don't know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food...if I could catch it."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Parts of it were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice…and Captain Eddie made it.
And he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset...on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida could see an old man walking...white-haired, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls while he remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle...
Jesus Christ has saved you through his self-sacrifice. What walk of giving will thankfulness lead you to take? What “thank you” do you have for the One which, on a day long past, gave himself without a struggle?
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Church and Chicken Little

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 25—28

The Disney version of Chicken Little was released in 2005. The movie told the story of Chicken Little’ dilemma—how do you get others to listen to you when you’ve warned them of doom and gloom and then nothing happens? Chicken Little’s word didn’t mean much after that—so when the aliens show up (remember, this is the Disney version), no one is convinced that he’s telling the truth—until it’s too late.
We have reached a point in our church year where traditionally we talk about the end of the world. At the end of the church year, we talk about the end times. Makes sense. But I have to admit that when I see these kind of Bible passages, I wonder, “Are people going to listen to this? Does anyone really buy into the idea that this world is going to have an endpoint? When it comes to end times stuff, has the Church’s message become like Chicken Little?
I’m afraid so. At least in the eyes of unbelievers, warnings of the end inspire more eye-rolling than anything else. When preachers insist that Jesus is definitely coming back in our lifetime because of things like tsunamis or hurricanes or wildfires or situations in Iraq or Pakistan, the Church’s message becomes a Chicken Little message. A generation comes and goes, the end does not come, and since it was a Christian predicting this or that date, a skeptical world thinks that all Christians are convinced that the sky is falling. Since it hasn’t yet, the real Christian message—the message that centers on Jesus Christ—is dismissed. Christians are painted as half-wits and wacko fundamentalists, and the saving Word of Christ crucified never has a chance to be heard.
That’s bad enough. But within the believing Church there is still a part of us that wants to dismiss “fire and brimstone” preaching with a wink and a chuckle. There is a part of us that has fallen in love with life in this world, even though we publicly confess in our creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Or we might take the stance that it’s just easier not to think about it. That would be nice, but it would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because Jesus spent so much time teaching about the signs of the end and what it all means for us who follow him.
So what did Jesus teach? We have big chunk of it in today’s Gospel lesson. He wasn’t fooling around when he told his disciples about the end of Jerusalem. This is graphically described in verses 20—24. Many people who heard his words were still living when the city (including the Temple) was completely destroyed in 70 A.D. What sets Jesus apart from Chicken Little prophets is that His predictions actually happen, for His Word is truth.
That’s why we must pay attention to what Jesus says next. He speaks vividly about the laws of nature being shaken as God begins to withdraw his patience from the human race. This will be more than the wars and natural disasters that are already plaguing God’s creation. The sun, moon, and stars will be affected as the universe begins to come unglued. We already know that the moon exerts gravitational force upon the earth, and that it controls the tides on the coasts. So imagine if the moon was thrown off its orbit! It sounds like science fiction! How long can the Church proclaim such things before no one listens anymore--before the Church’s message is taken no more seriously than Chicken Little? And yet, and yet, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts through his Word and convinces us that Jesus is the Son of God; is our Savior from sin and hell; is our Lord; is our teacher of the truth: and this is what he says about the end of this world. So he means it when he says that entire nations will be shaking in fear. He means it when he says that people will be fainting with fear and intense apprehension He means it when he says the heavenly bodies will be shaken, and he means it when he says that He, the Son of Man, will be seen coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And there is the good news in all this apocalyptic chaos: These fearsome signs signal the visible return of Christ. Those who are alive at this time in history, who have been waiting for Jesus with faith in their hearts, are told: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
What will that feel like for the faithful? The prophet Malachi says: “..for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.”
“Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The redemption that Jesus talks about here is not redemption from hell. You already have been purchased by Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. You have already been bought by His blood. You have already been adopted in baptism.
The redemption that will be drawing near is release from the consequences of sin that remain with us. Think of it this way: You now have the forgiveness of sins. You now are the recipient of God’s undeserved kindness and the gift of faith. You now have the promise of heavenly life that never ends. You have these things already through Christ Jesus who comes to us and is present with us today. But we still wait for the perfection that will only come when our souls are delivered from this world. In the meantime—in the between-time—we deal with the consequences of sin—of our own sin and the sinful choices of others. Those consequences include, but are hardly limited to, sickness and disease; mental, emotional, physical and spiritual struggle; the pain of broken relationships and families; and finally, death and its ripple effects of grief and loneliness. We are conceived and born in sin, and our bodies must return to dust.
But be certain; be convinced, my Christian friends, that your redemption from these things is drawing near. The same Jesus who was crucified and died for your sins and rose again to conquer your death will return on a cloud as your Redeemer. Now, redeemer is one of those words we need to unpack for a minute. A redeemer is a person who rescues another by paying a ransom. The ransom Jesus paid for your sin was his own precious blood and his innocent suffering and death, and with that ransom payment your account is credited for heaven. When Jesus descends to earth amidst this world’s last violent gasps, he will redeem you from the power of sin’s consequences. That means no more sadness. No more brokenness. No more suffering. No more isolation. No more pain. No more hatred. No more death.
Until that great day, the Church will continue to broadcast the Bible’s simple invitation: Repent. Change. Turn around. Come close to God. Feel terror at your sins. Mourn the wrong you’ve done. Give up your self-reliant ideas. Your sins are forgiven thanks to the sacrifice made by Jesus, the Son of God. Heaven is yours, thanks to his rising from the dead on Easter Day. Trust in his actions. Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And if the sea roars and tosses and the heavenly bodies shake, and you see Jesus coming down on a cloud; you can stand with your head raised to the sky, welcoming your Redeemer.

May the prayer of God’s faithful always be: Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Take Off Your Sandals

Take off your sandals, for the place that you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3: 5

It’s been a busy day, a full day, lots of running around and now you’re finally at home. It’s time to kick back, relax, and part of the routine of letting yourself wind down, as simple as it sounds, is kicking off those shoes, and as my father would say, “letting those puppies breathe.”
And what I find a little intriguing is when you are invited over to someone else’s home, there’s always a little shoe protocol. Some people want you to take off your shoes in the mud room or garage—others don’t seem to care that you just walked through a mud puddle. At the places where you’re asked to remove your footwear, you can usually see why: the house is kept in wonderful condition. It looks special, and you can immediately understand why you were asked to leave your shoes behind.
It may sound weird, but the same thing is happening in Exodus 3. The burning bush incident takes place here. The Lord wanted Moses’ attention and he got it. If you know your Bible history, you know this is the start of something huge. But in the moment it is happening, all Moses knows is that he sees a burning bush that is not burning up and he goes over to investigate. Then he hears his name being spoken, and then this request: “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” On this holy ground, the Almighty God identifies himself, promises to rescue his suffering people, tells Moses, “I’ve got a job for you,” and promises to be with Moses as he does it. Moses’ life has been changed on this holy ground.
When you came to worship [today], what were your expectations? Did you come not really expecting anything to happen? Did you come because somebody else expects you to? Did you prepare for this experience? Or is this just one of many other places you go; another spot to hit on a busy social and personal calendar? Or maybe, just maybe, did you come here [today] sensing that you were approaching holy ground? Did you come hungry for the true, real, close presence of God? Did you come thirsting for living water and the fiery power of the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that this is a sacred, holy time, during which Jesus speaks to you through the words of the Bible, and during which his own body and blood enters you at the communion table, forgiving you all your sins? Is the experience of worship special, holy ground for you?
We fight an uphill battle for time spent on holy ground. So-called conventional wisdom says, “Nothing is sacred.” Entertainers and authors gain notoriety by attacking the holy things of the Christian faith. Closer to home, time spent on holy ground sometimes takes a back seat to other concerns—and, when we do make it onto holy ground we fight a mental and spiritual battle to stay plugged in and concentrate! However, none of that changes the fact that God Himself is present when His people gather to listen to His Word and be fed at His table. It’s holy ground because the Lord is here. That’s what Moses learned, and we need to re-learn it, if our time spent on holy ground is going to benefit us. And it all starts by taking off your sandals.
When you’re barefoot, you’re vulnerable. Even with socks on, it’s not the same. You’re exposed. Especially if there’s a toe peeking out there. When we approach God’s holy ground, we take off our sandals--we become vulnerable as we expose our sin and confess it before the Lord. Think about it. That’s one of the first things we do in worship. You confess, hopefully with great seriousness, that you are by nature sinful and unclean…that you have sinned against God in thought, word and deed…and you sincerely repent of the wrong that you have done. You admit the sins that peek out of your conscience. You buck the trend of human nature that places the blame on everyone and everything else and you say, in the presence of God and one another, the blame is mine. The sandals are removed, and if you mean what you say and say what you mean as you confess your sins, it’s a humbling thing. I can’t think of another place, group, or organization that asks its members to be as nakedly honest as we are when we take off our sandals in open confession together.
But rather than burn us up in his righteous fire, God tells us who He is on his holy ground. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He calls himself, “I AM WHO I AM”. He further tells us He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And He is not here to kill, but to give life. He is here to rescue us and take us to a better place. That rescue comes through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection and was transmitted to you when you were baptized in His very name; It continues to be sent to you every time you eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. That happens again when a called and ordained servant of the Word says: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It comes yet again when one believer says to another, “I forgive you.” God knows our private miseries and our suffering, and here on holy ground he promises you rescue from sin’s slavery and deliverance to a land flowing with milk and honey—not just the paradise of a future in heaven—but the joy of living in his kingdom right now—the freedom of living as a forgiven person—the confidence of living for a King who has everything under control. Here on holy ground, God not only promises, but delivers. He delivers the goods to you, bought and paid for by Jesus Christ.
There is one more way in which we stand next to Moses [today]. After the sandals are removed, and God identifies himself, and tells of the rescue he will perform, he says, “So now, go, I am sending you…” For Moses that meant being sent back to Egypt, to stand before Pharoah and to speak for God. For you, that means being sent to your homes; your places of business; your circle of friends; if you are a student or teacher, that means being sent to your school; you are being sent to each and every place where you live your life to speak for God and live out his message of rescue and deliverance. Standing next to Moses you may wonder, as he did, “Who am I, that I should go?” “Who am I, that I should represent Christ to my family and friends? Who am I that I should show Jesus to the people I work with?”
God’s response to Moses and you? “I will be with you.” It’s almost as if God is saying, “Look, it’s not about you, it’s about me. It is my desire to use you. I want to send you. I will be with you. So don’t focus on you, focus on me, and let’s go.” At another great moment of sending, God said the very same thing in Jesus: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Standing on holy ground, God says to you and me, “I will be with you as you go for me and serve me.” And Jesus will be with you, and not just in some vaguely spiritual, invisible way, but he will be with you every time you open a Bible and read his Word, or hear it, or study it. He will be with you when you remember your baptismal connection to his death and risen life. He will be with you, always setting a place for you at his table. He will be with you in the compassion and concern of a fellow believer. He will be with you in tangible ways every time you set foot on holy ground, and will stay with you as you return to living room and classroom, board room and garage, office, hospital and care facility. Soon we’ll step back into those places with feet that have stepped on holy ground, and hearts that have been changed by a gracious God. But for the few minutes that we have left, let’s leave our sandals off, just a little longer, in the presence of the great I AM, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, November 5, 2007

These In White Robes--Who Are They?

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.””

These in white robes—who are they? Each one of us here today could name at least a few of those wearing white robes before the throne of God. Today is a day set aside to remember those who have fallen asleep in faith; to remember the example of those who now worship in the Church Triumphant. It is also a day to vigorously take hold of our identity as saints of God in the here and now. But let’s not lose sight of the picture painted in Revelation.

The images in the scene are stunning and beautiful; a true melting pot of people from around the world, gathered into one countless mass of white-robed worshippers; palm branches are being waved about, as if another Palm Sunday is breaking out, which in a better sense, it is; the Lamb is not riding into Jerusalem to bleed and suffer and die; that is past. The living Lamb here in Revelation 7 has accomplished that mission and is now ruling over all things in the realm of heaven. The Hosannas continue. On the dusty road into Jerusalem the people had shouted “Save now!” Here in heaven they sing “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”

We need to look into the picture and study the details. We need to let these images and words speak to us. We need this because we need to be reminded, again and again, that this will truly be our experience someday, and for our loved ones who have died in the Lord, it already is. Our stories turn out this way in Christ. With faith in Him, you will find out what John was trying to describe here. We must not lose sight of this picture.

We need these word pictures of heavenly beauty, worship, and comfort to be held before us again and again because life can often be so ugly. Life in a sin-polluted world can become so grotesque and so sick that in our terror and fear we forget. We forget or discount the fact that this life, so marred by sin and darkness, so twisted by bitterness and evil, so haunted by loneliness and apathy, is not all there is. We forget that day by day we come closer to singing at the Lamb’s High Feast. We forget that we are strangers here and that heaven is our home. And when we lose sight of the Lamb, what else is there but despair? What else is there but pain? Hopelessness?

That’s why we need this picture to be painted. We need to know that every single person who has been touched by the blood of the Lamb and who has washed themselves in Jesus’ shed blood by faith will inherit this heavenly life. We need to know that those who have preceded us in faith and death have received a clean robe from Christ, and now they are—before the throne of God—serving Him with perfect purpose—no longer affected by hunger, thirst, or any type of suffering—and are in joyful and total communion with God.

We also need to know that the white-robed faithful are there for no other reason than this: Jesus the Lamb paid for their sins with His blood, and they trusted in His payment. In this life we loved them and they loved us; in this life they were good to us and others; but it is not their goodness that got them to heaven. Nor will it be our goodness that gets us there. We must abandon any sense of “Well, God’s got to let me into heaven because I’ve been a good a person.” There is no such thing as good enough for heaven, if we are measuring the good we’ve done versus the sin we’ve done. The only way to appear before God’s throne in a white robe ready to sing and serve and celebrate is to depend totally and completely on the Lamb who was slain and who lives again. The only way into heaven is through faith in Jesus, crucified for your sins and raised to life to be your life forever.

This is the sum and substance of the Christian faith. This awe-inspiring picture of the saints in triumph is what it is all about. One of the boldest statements in all of Holy Scripture speaks directly to this point. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘If Christ hasn’t come back to life, your faith is nonsense and sin still has you in its power. Then those who have died as believers in Christ no longer exist. If Christ is our hope for this life only, we deserve more pity than any other people. But Christ has come back from the dead. As everyone dies because of Adam, so also everyone will be made alive because of Christ.’

These in white robes—who are they? As John said to the elder, “Sir, you know.” These are the people who lived real lives in this world; lives affected by sin, hatred, disease, hardship, persecution, and everything else that life can throw at you, and yet these people remained faithful. They trusted not in themselves but in Christ; they knew the key to heaven was not their personal goodness but the shed blood of the Lamb.

Hold onto this key through faith in Christ. Look often into this picture of the gathered multitude of saints, knowing that by God’s merciful decision, the white robe and the palm branch and His never-ending love will always be yours.

Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb! Amen.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For All the Saints

Take a moment today to remember those who have fallen asleep in Jesus--and to be reminded of your own identity as a saint of Christ.

Just a few minutes ago we sang one of the best-known hymns in the world, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The next time you really want to impress someone with Hymn trivia—I know that happens to you a lot—you can astound them with this fact: the tune or melody of “Onward Christian Soldiers” was written by Arthur Sullivan. That may not mean much to you until you hear the name of Sullivan’s writing partner: W.S. Gilbert. Yes, that Gilbert and Sullivan, creators of the Pirates of Penzance and the HMS Pinafore. If you’ve never heard of them before, put Gilbert and Sullivan in a search engine and take a look. This is what people did for fun before HDTV was invented.
Now, Sullivan wrote the music, but what we’re interested in are the words, specifically the ones we sang in the second verse: “Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.” What an interesting way to describe the Christian life. Though our walk on earth continues, let’s not forget the saints who have walked the same path and have influenced our lives so greatly by pointing us to our crucified and risen Lord Jesus.
By the way, the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers” were written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865. Can you guess the occasion for which it was written? A Christian school chapel service. It was meant to be a processional hymn, where one young person would carry a cross and the rest would follow into worship, literally “with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
You know, when people ask me what made me decide to become a pastor, there’s no quick and easy answer, but I always have to start by remembering my time in Lutheran Schools. As I look back, I can see that I was treading where the saints have trod! I was exposed to God’s Word every day of my school career. I sat in who knows how many Lutheran school chapels, and believe me, I’m not claiming to have listened to every single word—but the Word was there, and we know it always accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. In addition, my Christian teachers had an impact on my life I can hardly begin to articulate…but I learned from them and worshipped with them and I can name them all, 3rd through eighth grade, plus Lutheran High School teachers, college and seminary professors who guided, modeled, and otherwise taught me what being a Christian means. I have walked where the saints have walked, that’s for sure.
I can tell that saints have walked here in Painesville too. I hear the stories, and you know them better than I do, of people who sacrificed greatly in order to make this church a reality. People who gave of their time to evangelize this community. And let’s be honest, the saints are still among us, people who don’t draw attention to themselves but who support the gospel ministry in countless time-consuming and often thankless ways. People in whom the light of Jesus shines brightly. Some of those people have departed to be with the Lord, and today we stop to remember; to be thankful; to pledge be more like them insofar as they wanted the attention placed on Jesus Christ, the Son and God and Savior of sinners. Let’s face it: You and I are heirs of the saints who have gone before us.
Now, we Lutherans always have a tendency to shy away from such saintly language. It sounds so…oh, I’ll just go ahead and say it. It sounds so Roman Catholic. And we all know that in the Roman church you get to be a saint by being holier than the rest, even to the point of doing the miraculous, and then a church council steps in and declares you a “saint” after your death, and deep down inside we know we don’t fit the bill. And we hear the word “saints” and along with that comes images of medallions and burying statues upside down so that your house will sell. Sainthood doesn’t seem to belong to us anymore.
It’s time we took it back. It’s time we took back our identity as saints. Why? Because that’s what God calls us. That’s what he calls those whom he has chosen and adopted in Baptism and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. The apostle Paul does it on numerous occasions. He calls the members of the congregations he wrote to “saints.” Which was kind of strange, considering he was usually writing to them to tell them to get their act together. But you see, that’s the tension in which we live. We know we don’t deserve to be called saints. We don’t deserve to be called children of God. We know that when it comes to being holier than the rest, well, that’s just laughable. Except for the times when we do start to believe the hype a little bit and start comparing ourselves to others. We know that if any church council were ever to sift through the evidence of our lives, they would be able to come up with some, and maybe a lot, of stuff that would disqualify us from saintly status. Think of how fast we are to say, “I’m no saint.” We’re almost too fast, as though accepting the title of saint would force us to be more conscious of our Christianity. And what fun would that be?
Despite our warped ideas about sainthood, God considers Jesus’ cross and empty tomb and then calls us his saints. So that’s what we must be. Just as he calls ordinary bread and wine his own body and blood; Just as he calls a bit of water with his name “a washing of rebirth and renewal,” if God calls us saints, we’re saints, through Jesus Christ our Lord. If God can call the day day and night, night, then He can call us saints through the shed blood and risen life of Jesus. Are you going to tell God he’s wrong? That he’s made a mistake? “Not me, Lord, no, I’m not a saint, I’m not perfect.” God hears that kind of false modesty and says, “Hey, listen, I didn’t ask if you’ve earned it. I didn’t even ask if you wanted it. But because of my Son, I can and will say to you that in my eyes, you are a saint. You are someone for whom my Son was beaten and killed. That’s what enables me to call you a saint, if you believe He did it for you. It’s not about your perspiration. It’s about my declaration.”
The great theologians of the church have a Latin phrase just for this occasion: “Simil Justus et Peccator.” That means “Simultaneously or at the same time, Sinner and Saint.” That really nails it, don’t you think? As you are sitting there and I am standing here, we are sinners and saints at the same time. And that really captures us, because we know what we’re like when no one’s around. We know what we’re like behind closed doors, we know what we’re like when we’re not at church, and don’t assume it’s all bad! But we are not perfect, we do screw up in old comfortable ways and sometimes in creatively new ways. And through it all, God our Father stubbornly persists in calling us his saints and in the end, it is the fact that God calls us ‘saints’ thanks to Jesus’ dying and rising that will make an eternal difference for us.
Today we get a glimpse of that eternal difference—a sneak preview of heaven’s wonder—in this passage from Revelation. And there’s so much going on here but let’s just pay attention to two things today. Number one, the best thing about heaven that John notices is God himself is present. No temple is necessary. No sanctuary required. God and the Lamb, his Son, will be available, he will be there, and we with him. That’s a dream come true, don’t you think?
And number two, take a look at the people, they only appear for a brief moment in this passage, but they’re there, walking by the light of the Lamb. In fact, this holy, heavenly city was constructed for them! Without them, what purpose would it serve?
And here’s the thing that hits home with me on this All Saints Day. I know some of those people, and so do you. And with every passing year, heaven gets quite a few more citizens that you and I both know well! What we hear and read in this part of Revelation is their reality now, all because their name has been lovingly written in the Lamb’s book of Life. You might imagine those names written in blood, because it was the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, who made them eligible for heaven. He paid for their ticket and their passport. By God’s gracious choice, they are walking in His light. Thanks be to God for this picture of the saints in triumph. As you imagine the scene in your mind, see if you can pick out those special saints whose lives pointed you to Jesus, and give thanks for them, too.
My friends, we are treading where the saints have trod. In Jesus Christ our Lord, keep walking that path and pointing the way for new generations until the Church triumphant is full and the song begins and the feast is served. I can’t wait to see you there. Amen.