1 Corinthians 15:20-28;
Homily for the Last Sunday of the Church Year
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “When
the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His
glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people
one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place
the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His
right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you
from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty
and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you
clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then
the righteous will answer the King, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed
You, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcome
You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit
You?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it unto one of the
least of these My brothers, you did it unto Me.’”
Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at the very end of
time and in the consummation of the age the King will come again in glory as judge to
separate the nations one from another as a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats.
That is a fact. And as I have said in these previous weeks and even before that, none of
us know exactly when – nor can we ever know the precise hour of the Last Judgment.
But this much is certain: Jesus will come back, and soon.
And when He does come, the righteous will then be set apart from the unrighteous, the
believing from the unbelieving, and in this divine division and sacred separation of sheep
from goat, the fruits of faith, good works themselves, will be a most consequential
source of evidence. And maybe that’s something that sort of bothers our Lutheran
thinking a little bit. Though it shouldn’t.
But before we get into all that, here is the first thing to observe this morning. Until
the Last Day, for the present time, that is, the sheep and the goats, they are co-mingled
and all mixed together. That is quite apparent from this final parable from our Lord,
according to St. Matthew’s gospel, which is why a separation on the Last Day is
necessary. To separate what is presently mixed. But we know this to be true as well from
experience, don’t we? The congregation of believers, the visible church on earth, exists
for the time being in the midst of the godless world, all mixed together. That has been
the case since the very beginning and it will be a reality until the very end. And maybe
the world will only become more godless in the meantime – that seems reasonable
enough to assume by taking a look around. Yet there is more to the story though than
just the indisputable fact that the church and the world stand opposed to one another.
There is clearly a distinction to be made between the visible church on earth and the
godless society which it inhabits, but the real distinction worth weighing here, the more
meaningful distinction worth acknowledging from today’s parable, is that much broader
distinction which exists beyond the borders of church walls, that distinction between the
believing sheep on the one hand and the unbelieving goats on the other. And I’m afraid
to say, that distinction is often rather blurred for us now, this side of heaven. It is not
black and white, as it were, but a shade gray.
For instance, though it is troubling to admit, there are probably, for now, there are
unbelievers in the pews of the visible Christian church, there are; just as there are true
believers outside the walls of many Christian congregations. And most unfortunate of all
perhaps, there are likely even unbelievers in the pulpits and seminary classrooms of
some churches. No man can read the heart of another man. Not here below, anyhow. We
aren’t given to know who has saving faith and who doesn’t. Only Christ can read hearts,
not the laity, not the ordained. That task belongs solely to Jesus. And that is exactly what
He will do on the Last Day – He will read the hearts of men and women, for their better
or worse. But what is more, dear friends, is the unquestionable truth that neither can any
mere mortal, any man or woman, determine his or her own fate by looking within his or
her own heart. That’s just not how it works either. And that there, if you ask me, is the
most significant takeaway from this Gospel reading and from this last Sunday of the
church year. We can’t read the hearts of others, sure – but neither can we by ourselves
determine the definite nature of our own hearts at times, at least not by looking within
with our oh-so nearsighted vision as still fallen creatures.
You see, when the average person reads this eschatological parable, this end-times
parable from Matthew’s gospel chapter twenty-five, or hears it spoken aloud, they are
usually quick to notice the obvious: the fact that the righteous sheep in the parable
respond in quite a confused way to Christ’s suggestion that they have fed Him, quenched
His thirst, welcomed, clothed, and visited Him. Right?
And most people understand this confused and uncertain response on the part of the
righteous sheep in the parable to be a result of the fact that Christ is making a very
profound point – that these things were not done unto Him directly over the course of a
life, but rather that they were done unto the least of men, the lowliest among brothers,
the average Joe, so to speak, and that they were only therethrough done unto Jesus in an
indirect way. You see, the common and sensible interpretation is that Christ is saying He
is in all men and women, to some extent, or at least He is represented in them, and so
when a Christian serves his neighbor, whomever it may be, he is really unknowingly
serving Christ. And that is absolutely correct, by the way. As I’ve said before, that is
precisely how C.S. Lewis used to put it: your neighbor is a little Christ to you – whom
you serve. Luther more or less said the same thing. So when we serve others, we serve
the Lord in them. And hence the traditional interpretation of what Christ means here is
entirely on point. The righteous serve Jesus through serving mankind, whether they
realize it or not, particularly through serving the humblest among their neighbors, per
our Lord’s specific words. So that’s all good and makes perfect sense.
But here’s where I read this text slightly differently from others. I don’t so much
believe that the righteous are confused in this parable because they do not recognize that
they were really serving Christ all along in the least of their brothers and sisters. Instead,
I believe that their confusion, uncertainty, and apparent ignorance is more so a result of
the fact that they never once actually stopped to focus on their own good works for very
long in such a way that they would even be able to remember them clearly – or would
even be able to pinpoint them as the fruits of their own faith. Throughout their holy lives,
that just wasn’t important to the righteous. That isn’t important to them. Their good
works aren’t their own concern. They aren’t preoccupied with their own righteousness.
Which is what makes them truly righteous to begin with, you know? It is not so much
that they do not remember serving Christ directly – though that is also accurate,
obviously. But it is instead that they do not really remember serving their neighbor at all,
because they do not cling to these good deeds in a showy and self-righteous way. They
do not even see these good works as their own in the least. It was merely the Holy Spirit
doing His work in and through them all throughout. So the righteous do not identify in a
kind of prideful way with the good work of feeding, quenching, welcoming, clothing,
and visiting others and Christ in them.
For the righteous, all good works are God’s works, not their own. I cannot
emphasize that enough, guys. The righteous are simply vessels for God’s righteous will
and activity – and those who are righteous recognize that. And the lack of vain self-
reflection and the absence of a conceited self-righteous emphasis on one’s own supposed
charitable deeds is what makes the righteous righteous in the first place. Their humility
makes them right and good in God’s eyes. The sheep on the Last Day are rewarded not
for their works, not even for their fruits, but for their faith and the humble absence of
self-righteousness in their hearts which is all a result of their genuine faith in God the
Father, Son, and Spirit. Because they lack that corrupt sentiment of self-congratulation
and self-praise, the righteous don’t linger on their service to one another in a desperate,
works-righteousness sort of way. They don’t trust in their own efforts for their salvation.
They only trust in the cross of Christ and in their God-given faith. And so on the Last
Day, unsurprisingly, if you ask me, the righteous will be left wondering what Christ the
King and Judge is even getting at: “Whose works are You talking about, Lord? Certainly
not mine, for all good work comes from God, from You, never from me.”
And here’s why that matters for us right now, today, before the end. I told you last
week that the fruits of your faith will be evidence of your faith on the day of judgment.
And as we hear this morning, the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats, the
believers from the unbelievers, based on this evidence. However, as I further told you a
week ago, the fruits of your faith are never your own to claim. They don’t belong to you.
They belong to God. They are godly fruits. And you are only God’s servant and
messenger – a frail vessel for His overabundant goodness and mercy. Therefore, I beg
you, dear flock: never look within for assurance of your salvation. Never look to your
own deeds. Never question your faith or the goodness of your heart because you
question the goodness of your works – or the seeming lack of good works altogether.
And furthermore, whenever you do happen to do some good, for that matter, some
sanctified deed, whatever it may be, don’t pat yourself on the back too much either. And
for the love of God, do no announce your pious efforts to the rest of the world. Let not
your left hand know what your right hand is doing – and don’t let you yourself dwell too
long on whatever good you happen to have done. Because self-righteousness and self-
congratulation and self-praise undermine all the fruits of faith; these poisons charity and
distort all loving action – and sinners will indeed be held accountable for these things on
the Last Day. Arguably nothing at all is grosser in this fallen world than self-
righteousness – than talking about how good you are and how much good you’ve
reportedly done, rather than the one true God. That is just downright disgusting. I don’t
know how else to put it. So do not look within. Because there’s only danger there.
There’s only the remaining sinful nature to be found and to be confounded by. You see,
here’s the thing: whatever good is in us is not us – it is solely the Holy Spirit working on
us and through us poor, miserable sinners.
Put simply, dear friends: do your absolute best to refrain from keeping a tally of
your good labors and virtuous endeavors. Do not obsess over whom you’ve served,
whom you’ve fed, whose thirst you’ve quenched, or whom you’ve welcomed, clothed,
or visited. Serve other people for their sake, for Christ’s sake, not for the sake of feeling
good about yourself. And certainly never be eager or overly anxious to tell another soul
about your worthy efforts. Because your salvation does not lie in those efforts. It lies
instead right here, in the baptismal font. That is where assurance is located – and that is
something worth sharing with your neighbor. Holy Baptism and its free salvation for
you. Your salvation is to be found right here – and in the words of Holy Absolution
spoken Sunday after Sunday, and in the Lord Christ’s physical body and blood
consumed from this altar rail. That is where your salvation is to be discovered – without
exception. Not within you, but outside of you. Salvation is not found here [points to
chest] but here [points to font and altar], in this place.
Looking inward only ever causes you to doubt and question the sanctifying work
of the Holy Spirit – or worse, it leads to claim His work as your own. It leads you to
plagiarize the Spirit. For those who proudly preach works-righteousness, those who
falsely accuse us Lutherans of antinomianism, of being against the law and of being
proponents of so-called cheap grace, those who earnestly focus so much on the most
superficial transgressions, social transgressions, by the way, man-made transgressions
which often aren’t really even sins at all and yet those who then leave their neighbor out
in the cold day after day and who are pent up with resentment, self-certainty, self-
congratulation, and self-praise, all those pietists and puritans wheresoever they are, all
they really have to boast about at the end of the day is a total lack of faith and trust in the
Holy Spirit. It’s true.
But all we need – all you need, beloved, is faith in God. Sola fide – “faith alone” in the
Latin. We Lutherans take that dreadfully seriously. All you need is faith. The Holy Spirit
will do the rest of the work, rest assured. Anyone who tells you otherwise is twisting
Scripture and deforming doctrine and misleading you.
Yes, the fruits of your faith will be evidence on the Last Day, but if you really and
truly believe that the Spirit works through means, through the Word and Sacraments and
through believing Christians, through their holy lives, through their witness, through
their hands and feet, without any merit or worthiness in them, then you don’t need to
waste a moment of your life or your time keeping an account of your own good works.
In fact, after you’ve done any good whatsoever, be sure to let it go and forget it forever.
Don’t cling to it in the least. For whenever you cling to it, it quickly loses its good nature
and becomes tainted by your lingering sinfulness and your iniquitous desire for acclaim
and glory from others. I know, because sadly I speak from experience. Because I am a
Again, any truly good works to be had aren’t even ours to begin with. They don’t
belong to us. So just have a simple faith instead; just have faith that God accomplishes
His will for you and through you, His passive vessel, and don’t concern yourself with the
end or with your faith’s eventual evidence. Yes, I am telling you once more not to worry
about the Last Day and the Final Judgment. You are here, are you not? You are in the
sheepfold already, within the sheepgate, you are receiving the gracious gifts of God, you
are being fed and sanctified in body and soul, you are the Shepherd’s sheep. Plain and
simple. Therefore, fret not about works. Good works will without doubt flow out of you
naturally and indeed involuntarily sometimes, for the fruits of faith always follow from
As a righteous sheep of the Good Shepherd though, you must never concern yourself
with the good you have done but on the contrary you should instead worry about all the
good that’s left undone. And there’s plenty. So concentrate on that instead.
And if you do, with a humble heart, then when Christ finally does return in His
glory you will be able to ask Him with a perfect contrite faith: “But when on earth did I
do any good, Lord? Was it not You, dear Christ, all along Who did only good and the
only good, and Who occasionally worked some small benefit for others through my
painfully weak flesh? You, Lord, hungered in the wilderness for forty days. You thirsted
on the cross. You were rejected by Your people and left unwelcomed, You were arrested
and imprisoned without a visitor in the world, and Yours were those clothes torn apart
and left to the lots – it was You Who were hung naked outside the city walls and left to
die, so that through Your death You might destroy death itself, that last enemy of all. I
have not served You a single day, but rather You have served me for a lifetime – for an
eternity even – from the very foundation of the world – and You are the One Who has
served my needful neighbor through me time and again and so often without my
knowledge or even against my fallen will. So to Your name be all the glory and never
mine. Let Your name be praised forever and ever.” Yes, these will be the words of those
proven righteous on the Last Day. These will be your modest, humble, deferential words,
dear saints. And I cannot wait to hear them myself.
In closing, Christ says in Matthew chapter six: “Thus, when you give to the
needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the
streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received
their reward.” Yes, the hypocrites already have their reward here in this brief life. The
goats have the trash of this godless world to feed on.
But on the Last Day, those goats will be without help, for they lack all faith and trust in
the Spirit. The sheep, on the other hand, those of us here in the flock, who sound no
trumpet when we do good, we seek not the approval or praise of others, especially not
the esteem of this broken world. Because we know that good only comes from God
above, never from us. It is one-directional and has only one source. And even when
some good does just so happen to happen through our meek and terribly weak hands and
feet, all the glory nevertheless belongs to God alone. For we are only His vessels, His
hands and feet here below.
As the Good Shepherd’s sheep, our reward, though, it has yet to come. The
hypocrites have their reward, but ours is still on the horizon. Our eternal reward is not
yet here. But I promise You: He is coming soon. Our reward, Christ, the everlasting
Sabbath, is coming very soon. So prepare yourself by clinging not to your own works
but to His final work, and to that God-given faith worked for you by the Spirit in your
Holy Baptism. Keep ready by returning to this place week by week. By receiving God’s
free gifts. By prayer and thanksgiving. And through these necessary things, you will
most certainly be blessed without end by the Father in heaven. All so that on the last day
of all Christ the King Himself will be able to say to you individually, His beloved sheep:
“Come now, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” In
the holy name of the coming King and Judge of all things, in the name of our precious
Lord, Jesus. Amen.
Homily for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, faith always produces its
fruits. That is a sure fact of the holy Christian life. Those fruits proper to our faith
always proceed from it. If there is saving faith, then good works, or the fruits of faith,
are sure to be found sooner or later. Those works themselves, however good they may
be, they never save us, of course – only God-given faith and Holy Baptism save. But
as we will hear next weekend in our Gospel text on the Sheep and the Goats, those
fruits suited and belonging to our faith will indeed be, on the Last Day, evidence of
our faith. So yes, good works invariably follow from faith. Whereas useless and futile
works flow out from unbelief. And that is ultimately the message of our Gospel this
morning – that is the Parable of the Talents in a nutshell.
Now friends, I beg you: do not read this lesson today as if it were an economic
instruction or some sort of defense of capitalism or the Protestant work ethic or
whatever other materialistic interpretation. That’s not what our reading is all about.
Instead, it primarily concerns faith and fruits, gifts and growth, as it were. Those who
manage the master’s property and talents—with a talent here being the equivalent of
at least $10,000 or more in today’s dollars—but anyhow, those who manage the
master’s property and talents well in our parable do so because they have faith in the
character and the graciousness of their master. But on the other hand, the one
unfaithful servant who buries his master’s talent deep in the ground does so because
he lacks all faith in his master’s magnanimous identity – in his master’s benevolence –
which is to say, he lacks faith in who his master really is. The faithless servant has no
genuine fear, love, and trust with respect to the one whom he serves, he has no bona
fide belief in his heart, which is finally made evident in that one single talent
unearthed and proven embarrassingly barren and the source of a disastrous
disappointment. He who has faith has holy works, full stop; and he who has none
works only evil and iniquity from the standpoint of eternity. That’s the message.
But here’s the thing: even the faithful servants in our lesson, their works and
fruits are not actually their own to claim. They did not begin with any talents of their
own or with any of their own property to manage, did they? No, it all belonged to the
master from the very start. It was merely on loan to them – or they were simply
stewards, so to speak, for a period of time. So whatever good they were eventually
able to do while the master was away was only made possible because of what was
first given to them freely before the master ever even left. And that, friends, is where
faith truly begins: with the full acknowledgement that nothing on earth belongs to us
or is ours to claim. Not ourselves, not our lives, not our bodies nor our souls, not our
things, not our faith, and certainly not the fruits of faith, not even our good works. All
these are but gifts from God the Father, given as good and perfect gifts from above
through God the Son, and worked in us patiently by God the Spirit.
Do you want to know what this parable is really all about? It is about what God
has given you and what you then do with what God has given you. Do you recognize,
dear flock, that everything you have and everything you’ve accomplished so far in
your life and everything that you are comes from God alone? It comes not from within
you, but from without you. God is the sole source of all beneficial and valuable things.
At the end of the day, not a solitary thing really belongs inherently to you – but it all
belongs to Him – and it is therefore owed back to Him. Now the question is: do you
accept that reality in humble faith? And does the life you live reflect that indisputable
truth? Do you give back to God what once without question came from Him? Are you
generous with you time, with your resources, with your personal talents? Do you
render unto God what is rightly His? Or… do you occasionally bury these things deep
in the figurative ground, within the pit of your own pride and the grave of your greed,
as if somehow you are going to be able to take them with you when you are someday
interred there in the earth too? You can’t, by the way. You can’t take out of this life
what you came into it lacking. You cannot carry out of this world what never
belonged to you to begin with. And those aren’t my words of counsel and warning,
but those of St. Paul himself from his first epistle to St. Timothy chapter six. As ever,
Paul pulls no punches. We came with nothing, we bring nothing, we are but beggars,
as Luther says, and we leave with nothing.
You know, one of the most despicable human sentiments in this life is
resentment or envy. When we think that others have been given more than they
deserve – or more honestly and accurately, when we think that they’ve been given
what we have deserved more. Maybe when you first heard this parable you initially
felt a little uneasy about the seeming unequal distribution of talents and
responsibilities and rewards, for that matter. Maybe it didn’t seem fair to you. Maybe
it appeared unjust that more is given to those who have in the end and then taken
away from those who already lack. After all, that is a natural response for sinful,
entitled human beings. But that wicked emotion and frustration only arises from the
wickedest notion of all: which is the thought that anything is ours in the first place –
or that we are owed anything at all other than temporal and eternal punishment. True
faith depends on an inner, spiritual as well as a bodily awareness of utter dependence
and complete vulnerability before our Creator and His grace. Every day, every breath,
every break, every meal, every rest, every love, every reward, every smile, every
moment of peace, every pleasure and profit and measure of progress, it is all a free
gift, given from a gracious heavenly hand to one entirely undeserving. So in light of
all that, let the following reality be your first thought each and every morning,
beloved: I have earned none of this, I have deserved none of this, and yet my God is
so good and so merciful that He grants it all to me nonetheless. Gratitude is the surest
antidote to envy and covetousness and jealousy and resentment. So why not give it a
shot? Embed that little spoken confession into your morning routine. We are nothing
without and apart from what God has given and made us.
Of course, it must be said here as well that God does not only give blessings in
the form of things and resources. He also gives us skills, talents, abilities. You owe
God your time and resources, your effort and tithe, to be sure, but you moreover owe
Him your unique contribution as a gifted person. Think of those who manage the
property here at Bethlehem, or who play the organ and join in the ensemble and bell
choir, who interpret my lengthy sermons, who handle the financial matters of the
church, who shepherd our youth, who offer up their time to the altar guild, who
themselves assist here at the sacred altar as acolytes and crucifers, lectors and elders,
and who fix pastor’s car, for example – you see, all these are just as much talents
which are to be rendered unto God with and through His holy church.
As such, I encourage more of you to get involved – especially those new to our
church. Every single one of you can help this congregation in some way, shape, or
form. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you have nothing to contribute. That is not
a sign of humility but of idleness and indifference. No, you have much to add to our
work here – and we desperately need you and your input. Don’t let the same few
dozen parishioners do everything forever. I very much encourage you each one of you
to get involved. And with this encouragement is an important reminder: the talented
help you offer here is not simply a selflessly philanthropic donation from you to the
church and therethrough to God, but it is rather you simply fulfilling a fundamental
responsibility you have as a recipient of the already plenteous gifts of God. Again,
everything is His. We are His. And not solely on Sundays, but every day. Don’t forget
Now to the surprise of many, I am sure, the takeaway for this twenty-fifth
Sunday after Pentecost is short and sweet and to the point: be a faithful servant and
steward of what God has given you. Be fruitful, be engaged, be openhanded and
charitable. But also, don’t ever lose sight of what this place is all about. When we
gather here together, it is not about what we do in the least, but it is instead a matter of
what God has done and continues to do for us. He has given us so much, and so many
talents at that, yet He further proceeds to give lavishly and ceaselessly and without
respect to our profound unworthiness.
The church year will come to a close a week from today. Hard to believe, but a
new year is nearly upon us. Next weekend on the last Sunday of the church year we
will be reminded once more of our Lord’s imminent return in glory to judge the earth.
However, as St. Paul implies in our epistle today, when it comes to that final return,
we believers have nothing at all to worry about. We belong to the day not the night,
we walk in the light never the darkness, we are presently perfectly prepared. And that
is because we are already here, in the one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. We
assemble weekly to receive that which strengthens our saving faith and sanctifies our
souls for judgment and readies our bodies for the life to come.
God mounted a shameful cross long ago in order that His blood willingly-shed
might cover our sinful nature and our untold transgressions. And so it has. The water
that flowed out of His pierced side bathed you clean in your baptism – what was once
scarlet is now white as now. And insofar as you repent, you remain forgiven. And the
blood that gushed out of that gash in His godly belly still fills the holy chalice right
here, a cup overflowing to quench your thirst for life everlasting. Therefore, come be
enlivened in this meal once again. Take what you need from this altar rail. Let it fill
you up. And then depart in peace to serve your Master dutifully. He will be here soon
in this divine banquet. And then He’ll be here soon, descending on the clouds in glory
as divine judge at the end of time. Or maybe, should it come first, He’ll be here soon
to carry you home when you breathe your last, to your divine resting place. Either
way and until then, let your faith be full and fruitful. So that when He comes for His
glory or for your own, you might be blessed to hear those heartening, most gladdening
words of all: “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” In the holy name of Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Homily for The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text this morning is the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s first
epistle to the church in Thessalonica.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “For
the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of
an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will
rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in
the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Dear brothers and sisters in our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, what we hear in these prominent words from St. Paul is
a description of the end of this present world – the end of earth as we know it really
and then what comes thereafter. And yet, the apostle explicitly tells us at the close of
our reading to “encourage one another with these words.” That’s the thing, friends:
the end is not something to fear, but something to look forward to. It is not something
to fret over, but something to anticipate with immense joy. It is something which itself
encourages. Our Lord will return in judgement, yes. But for those of faith, for us,
that’s good news. We are reckoned righteous for His sake. And as we heard last week,
when our Lord, the holy Lamb, does return, He will wipe away our tears and end our
pain and He will make all things new. For us that is perfection. That’s what we want.
That is what we desire – it is our deepest longing as sinner-saints to be wholly rescued
from this bitter vale of tears. But yes, to be sure, for the unbeliever though, the end of
the present world is perhaps a terror – and a terrible thing to contemplate. News of it
is received by the faithless with a tremendous deal of trepidation.
Yet it shouldn’t be that way. Instead, this news should be regarded by them
foremost as a welcomed warning. And that’s exactly what St. Paul intends here. His
words are an encouragement to us and a warning of sorts to those still lost. His is a
message of hope and of good tidings for us faithful, but it is moreover, in a less direct
way, still a message of hope and salvation through God’s freely-given-grace for all
outside these walls as well, should they only believe. And that means it is imperative
that we share this message with all who remain lost. That is our duty as Christians. It
is absolutely incumbent upon us. The unbelieving world needs the saving Christian
faith, it is their only hope, and it is our responsibility to speak it to them, and
regularly. So that’s what must be said up front. You already know it to be true – but I
am obliged to remind you often as your pastor. Because the truth is, we Christians
have gotten kind of lazy and awfully apathetic in this department over the past half
century or so.
But anyhow, let’s back up for a moment, shall we? There’s something else to
be said here for us. This current world will come to an end. True enough. It will be
destroyed, in fact. There will be a conflagration, as Sts. Peter and Paul both assure us.
Jesus will return as Judge. He said so Himself. This is certain; the Bible
straightforwardly tells us so. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together and make sense.
But what exactly will the end look like though? That is the question on the minds of
many people. And one can understand why. Maybe it’s on all our minds as of late. So
let’s begin to answer this pressing question by starting here, as usual, with a single
word: ἁρπαγησόμεθα (harpogay-sow-metha) – from the Greek verb ἁρπάζω –
meaning to seize, to snatch up, or to carry off. That’s the word Paul uses when
referring to what will happen to those still living when the Lord comes back. They
will be seized and caught up in the heavens to be united with God forever.
Now the Latin Vulgate, the primary edition and rendering of Holy Scripture from its
original languages that held sway for many, many centuries, translates this Greek
word as rapiemur (rah-pih-aye-mur), from rapio in the Latin, meaning to snatch away
or to grab, or to capture or catch – hence: “they will be caught up,” right? That’s what
Paul writes. But okay, pastor, what’s your point though? Why bring in more Greek
this Sunday and now even Latin? Well, here’s my point, friends: etymologically-
speaking, this little word in the Bible is where we English speakers get a very serious
and well-known theological term: rapture – again, from the Latin rapio.
So will there be a rapture? Yes, of course, St. Paul says so. Those still living
will be caught up with Christ and the saints in the clouds on the Last Day. They will
be raptured, so to speak. However, much of what people in America today think about
when they hear the word “rapture” is actually kind of inaccurate and confused. The
Left Behind series of books, for instance, have you ever heard of it before? I’m sure
you have. But here’s what you need to know about it: the theological thinking in that
series is, to be blunt, and honestly, to be charitable, it is downright unbiblical. The
author’s incredibly speculative understanding of the rapture has no real foundation in
God’s Word and its historical interpretation. Having said that though, this view is
also incredibly popular these days. Many evangelicals are convinced, for example, of
an initial rapture, followed by a literal seven-year tribulation, with a-specific-and-
singular-yet-so-far-undetermined-and-rather-frightening Antichrist figure, and a one-
thousand year or millennial reign of Christ prior to the Final Judgment. Yet as far as
God has revealed it to us in His holy and inspired Word, none of this speculation is
really true or certain or at least proven or even provable. And the church in her
profound wisdom for eighteen hundred years understood that fact perfectly well. She
was not blind to symbolic and figurative readings of books like St. John’s Revelation.
And neither are we.
Unfortunately though, a few short centuries ago a handful of Protestants began rather
blindly to teach something new and positively uncertain concerning the end times.
And regrettably, many people today have been led astray by these false teachings –
which is what they are, by the way: false teachings.
This matters for us this Sunday for two important reasons: firstly, because
that’s the reading for today – 1 Thessalonians 4 – arguably one of the primary
scriptural reference passages for those who teach incorrectly about the end times; and
secondly, because of what is going on in the world right now, especially in the Middle
East. This discussion is perhaps particularly pertinent in light of what has gone on
with, say, Iran in the last week or so, right? The World War 3 worries are making the
rounds once again. And to be candid with you, we do very much live in a dangerous
time. There is global concern, and rightly so. But according to some Christians in this
country who hold to a minority view called dispensational premillennialism—don’t
worry, we will get into that dense terminology in Bible Study this morning, so make
sure not to miss it!—but anyhow, some well-intentioned among the faithful who
believe this peculiar teaching argue that the modern state of Israel plays a significant
role in the one-thousand-year or millennial reign spoken of in Revelation chapter
twenty. So for these Christians—who while vocal are relatively few—Christ’s Second
Coming as Final Judge is in a way predicated on, it is based, contingent, and
dependent on a national restoration of the political state of Israel. Which is why
Christian Zionism is so prevalent among so many evangelicals and conservative
Christians. But here’s the thing; as far as we know, that understanding of the end
times is simply not scripturally substantiated in the least or even sensible. Which is to
say, it is really quite unbiblical as well.
For us traditional Christians, for us Lutherans, for our theology and for our
eschatology, from the Greek word ἔσχατον, meaning “the last thing,” with
eschatology being the study of the last things, so in other words, for our understanding
of the Second Coming and the Final Judgment, the very last things of all—modern
nations and geopolitical matters are ultimately irrelevant. And besides, as Scripture
plainly states, the holy church of Christ is the new and now only Israel in God’s eyes.
God’s chosen people are the Christian church. That’s been the reality since Jesus
Christ’s tomb was found empty two thousand years ago. The church, the body of
believers, we are God’s chosen. Those baptized into the name of the Father, the Son,
and the Holy Ghost are God’s chosen. Not modern Israelis or religious Jews or
Muslim Palestinians or Iranians or anyone else on earth, but we Christians
everywhere. Period. We as the baptized are the chosen. A Christian baptism is how
God now chooses His people, after all.
Furthermore, when our Lord does return, it will be all at once. It will not be two
separate events, with an initial rapture of the faithful, as spoken of in our reading this
morning, and then thereafter a Second Coming in judgment later on, with a tribulation
of sorts in between. Despite what some misled believers think, there will not be two
separate events at all, but one return, one Second Coming, all at once at the very end.
It is the Second Coming after all, not the third or the second and a half coming. And
when Jesus does come at the end of the age, once and for all, He will then judge all
people, without exception – which means that all who have rejected Him explicitly
will then be rejected by Him explicitly. That is what the Holy Bible teaches. And that
is what the church has believed for thousands of years. And we have got to be bold in
our proclamation of this pure doctrine of the faith, even when it is unwelcome and
evidently out of season and maybe even unpopular among those who share our
There will be a rapture, yes. But it won’t be like what you generally hear about in so
much modern theological conversation in this part of the world. It will be, according
to the Bible, an immediate thing, not a drawn-out ordeal. And the success or failure of
the modern state of Israel, or any nation, for that matter, including our own, will play
no determining role whatsoever in whether or when or how Jesus returns as judge in
His glory. That’s up to Him. Not us. It has nothing to do with our thoughts, opinions,
So in light of all that, in light of the Lutheran and historical Christian teaching
on this consequential issue, here’s my pastoral advice to you today – my sincerest
words of encouragement: don’t listen to all that noise out there. Don’t pay heed to the
fearmongers and false teachers and the end-timers who spread lies or at least loose
and lazy interpretations about the Last Day. The end will come, but nobody knows
when. Not a single solitary soul. There will be signs, for sure, but no man or woman
this side of glory will ever know the exact when. And nobody really knows what
exactly it will look like either. That is not given for us to know. And that’s okay. But
anyone who tries to convince you otherwise, who thinks they’ve got it all figured out,
is purely pulling the wool over your eyes. And honestly, they are disobeying God as
well by attempting to shape dogma and doctrine out of sheer speculation.
But here’s the most important takeaway: don’t worry so much about the end.
Don’t be like them. Don’t be consumed with what God in His infinite wisdom has
chosen not to reveal to you. Don’t brood or panic or lose any sleep over this world’s
end. We are here right now, this day, and someday the end will come – but no one on
earth knows when or how. Maybe it’ll be soon. Maybe it won’t. And you know what,
we are truly in the end times already, we have been in the end times for two millennia,
but we don’t know when the end times will finally end.
We don’t know and we can’t know. So in the meantime, how about just share the
Gospel, save whomever you can. Focus on that. And don’t spend another moment of
your brief life concerned about the specifics of the end of the world. God doesn’t want
you too. Neither do I. And your worry makes no difference anyhow. Because
obviously, worrying does not do anything at all to prepare you or anyone else for the
consummation of the age. You know that and I know that. So again, tune out all that
noise and just relax.
But how on earth can you be so calm, pastor? How can you recommend such a
light-hearted perspective? The world’s gonna end in a fiery destruction. Doesn’t that
bother you? No, dear faithful, it does not. Because it is God’s will and His will is
always good and because everyone saved in Christ is eternally secure in Him, and
when the day does come, we will all then be ushered into the new creation and the
new heavens. The end is not scary. It is sublime. And I cannot wait for it, frankly. I
am not worried or worked up one bit. Days are dark right now, I get it. I have eyes to
see and ears to hear. And yeah, look at how awful things around us seem. The world is
indeed in turmoil. I wouldn’t deny that. And don’t get me wrong, I do very much fear
for those who are still lost to this pagan world. But my worry and fear, none of that
stuff helps them in the least. All I can do is share the Gospel with them, day by day.
And if you are concerned for them, too, then do that also. Share the Word with your
unbelieving loved ones whenever you have the opportunity. But don’t bother them
with nonsense about when the world is going to end or precisely how. That is utterly
useless to them. Instead, give them the full sweetness of the Gospel, give them the
news of that forgiveness won through Christ’s beautiful bloodshed. Give them the
news that when God incarnate returns, He will bring life wherever there is death. That
is what persuades and that is what saves. Therefore, give them that – which is all they
really need at the end of the day anyways. Law and Gospel – and in that order.
And what about us though? What do we have to do in order to prepare for the
end? Well, again, stop worrying yourself. Chill out. Relax. All you need to do is keep
coming to church. Keep believing. Keep praying. Keep reading your Bible. Keep
hearing the Word preached out loud in this here place. Keep receiving the holy
sacraments of Absolution and the Lord’s Supper. Keep loving your family. Keep
making families, as a matter of fact. Great big families. Be fruitful and multiply – the
more the merrier, the more souls to save. And keep educating and catechizing your
dear children, so that they might be sanctified, too. Keep serving and growing your
church. Keep helping your neighbor.
And you know what else you really need to do? You need to enjoy your life
every now and again. As much as you can. Keep enjoying this gift of God’s green
earth and your precious life. That’s right, enjoy your life. Drink and be merry. The
wise king Solomon got it so right in the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter eight: “I
commend enjoyment,” he writes, “because a man has nothing better under the sun
than to eat, drink, and be merry.” Enjoy this life without shame. Suck the marrow out
of it as Henry David Thoreau once poetically suggested. Seize the day even. Live your
life to the fullest. Obey God, of course – that goes without saying. And that is how
you live your life to the fullest. But also, remember all the commandments – the
fullness thereof. Keep all the usual biblical commandments, naturally. Yet recall, too,
that God further commands us to rejoice, to be glad, to savor this life and His gracious
gift of creation and providence. The Son of God straight up told us time and again not
to worry, not to be anxious. So obey Him. For the love of God—and I mean that quite
literally—listen to your Lord and trust Him. Live your life without dread and angst.
Love your life deeply and intently.
That’s how you prepare for Christ’s Second Coming. By respecting Him enough in
appreciating your eternal salvation and your earthly life now, both of which are
treasures from the Heavenly Father, which are safeguarded through His Son and
worked in us and sustained by His Spirit.
According to a famous tale—an often-told although perhaps apocryphal,
unverified tale—a friend once asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew that
the world was going to end tomorrow. A question familiar to us all. And you know
what Dr. Luther supposedly said? He said in response to that grave question that he
would plant a little apple tree. That’s how he would spend his final day on this earth.
Planting a tree. Being about his business by being a good steward of what God gave
him, by not worrying, and by tending to what he loved: the earth and his neighbor.
Whatever is going on in the world right now, however devastating it may appear, and
terrifying at times, it is in God’s hands. All you can do is pray that His will be done.
Our speculations do not factor into the Last Day. And neither does any paranoia our
part. The Final Judgement is not something to be paranoid and petrified about. It is
good news. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: heaven is not the final destination,
friends. It is not the end goal. Heaven is wonderful and blissful and perfect and it is an
altogether incomparable and celestial waiting room – but note well that that is what it
is: a place where we await the Last Day. The real goal, the true end, is the new
creation, the new heavens, the New Jerusalem, all that which comes after the Final
Judgment at the end of time and after the conflagration, that fiery destruction of this
current world. Our salvation is concentrated on eternity. We’re headed forward
forever. And really, our eternity with Christ and with all the saints together begins on
the Last Day, when we will each be resurrected in body and soul. And that’s
something to look forward to with great expectation. It is not bad news but the very
So my closing advice to you is this: turn off the news. In fact, just the turn off
the television entirely, won’t you? And go read the Bible. Go outside. Go plant a tree.
Read your Bible outside – and out loud. Kiss your children. Come to church week
after week. And enjoy whatever time you have left on this planet. That’s how you
prepare for the rapture. That’s how you make yourself ready for the Last Day. By
being a good Christan on this given day – which means, in part, by rejoicing
Are you baptized, beloved? Are you here in church at this very moment? Are
you repentant of your sins? Do you desire forgiveness and the Lord’s Supper? Do you
love your neighbor? If so, then you have nothing in the world to worry about. You are
saved eternally. Take heart and rejoice in that. The only thing that really matters in the
end is already a settled matter for you now. It was decided on the cross long ago. So
you are well on your way to being fully prepared for your Lord’s glorious return. We
pray He comes quickly, of course, because the end is but a triumphant new beginning.
So come quickly, Lord Jesus. Yet in the meantime, while we are waiting here below,
don’t be anxious, brothers and sisters. That is a waste of time. Instead, spend your
time well – by sharing the Gospel and enjoying the life God has granted you. That’s
the work you have before you. And I hope you’ll take that work seriously by living
light-heartedly – which is, after all, how a good, faithful Christian ought to live:
without pretension and paranoia, without self-righteousness and self-certainty, without
the heavy burden of useless worry, and with a healthy, robust lust for life. In the holy
name of Jesus. Amen.
Homily for All Saints
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “I am
not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it
will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: into the darkness they go, the wise and
the lovely. Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. Lovers
and thinkers, into the earth with you. Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust. A
fragment of what you felt, of what you knew; a formula, a phrase remains—but the
best is lost. The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love—they
are gone. They are gone on to feed the roses. Elegant and curled is the blossom.
Fragrant is the blossom, I know. But I do not approve. More precious was the light in
your eyes than all the roses in the world. Down, down, down into the darkness of the
grave. Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; quietly they go, the
intelligent, the witty, the brave, I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, these poetic
words belong to the late, great Greenwich Village lyricist, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Despite her fiercest protestations against the grave though, she, too, fell victim to
mortal fate almost three-quarters of a century ago now. She was sainted and lowered
six feet down and green grass now covers her resting place. But her ardent words live
on. I quote them this morning because they perfectly capture my own deepest feeling
and sentiment so incredibly well. There is nothing in this life I detest more than death.
I am not resigned to die, dear friends. In my nature, I don’t approve of it at all. Not
one bit. Rather I am very much resolved not to die and never to fade away.
And yet when I do die someday, when it is my time to go, it will not be that I yielded
myself to death, but rather that my human fate as a poor miserable sinner shall have
killed me; so also to quote the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: “I will not
abdicate from life — instead, life will be wrested from me.” But even with all this
passion to live and lust for life, I, too, like all men before me, will eventually succumb
to my pitiful fate and I shall die. I don’t want to, but I will. If my Lord returns not
first, I will pass away, as will everyone I have ever loved. As will my darling girls. As
will you, dear flock. And how so many of my beloveds have already gone on to feed
the roses. And presumably yours as well.
All Saints is a feast day when we remember all who have fallen asleep in the
Lord, those known to us, along with the many unknown. We remember and
commemorate every single saint this holy day, from the dawn of time until now – but
no doubt our remembrance is strongest and our commemoration simplest for those
closest to us. We are each born, thrown naked into this broken world, and if we’re
lucky we get almost a hundred years of life during which to cherish it, with all its
strangeness and imperfection. But what was wrought in the garden from the very
beginning still haunts our fate. For us each, a loamy grave is our future reality, an
impartial destination in indiscriminate soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what is
perhaps worse than that somber fate is the fact that throughout this life we live we are
forced to watch those dearest to us pass on ahead of us. We watch the life leave from
them sometimes. We observe the zeal dissipate from their once-fervent eyes and their
characteristic color drain pale. We see six of their closest friends lower them into the
ground six feet beneath. We witness the diversity of blossoms and blooms blanket
their florescent casket and handfuls of dirt serve as a sad so long. And that hurts so
very much. How could it not? The living are always more perturbed by death than the
dead, and maybe even than by the dying.
Because it pains us immensely to have to say goodbye knowing full well that we’ll be
stuck here, left behind, on our own and well aware that most every goodbye is
demanded in the most unresolved kind of way.
Yet a voice from heaven once said: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”
And of course, the psalmist King David once sang: “Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of His saints.” But dear faithful, what could possibly be blessed and
precious about so horrid a destiny as death? Through it a soul is lost to the world and
many more are left to linger in grief, sorrow, and uncertainty. How is that a blessing?
How exactly is that precious to our God? What good is there in an unwelcome
farewell? What sweetness in something so bitter to taste? But that’s the thing,
beloved. The questioning itself reveals the problem. My curious questioning to you
this morning from this lofty pulpit reveals the trouble plainly. The only reason I so
often despise death is because I am still so unbearably weak in faith. Lord, I believe,
but help my unbelief! You know, it is entirely fair what wise men say, that funerals
are not about the dead but about the living. True enough. But death itself is not about
the living but about the dead. Yes, I miss my Big Mamma, my Abuelita, my friends
lost too soon to car wrecks and overdoses and suicides. But it isn’t about me though.
And it isn’t about you either. That’s what we have to realize, however uncomfortable
it is to realize. Those souls don’t belong to me, and neither do they belong to you –
no, they belong to God alone.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” as
St. Paul assures us. But since I cannot yet see the other side, I therefore struggle and
doubt in times of sadness and despair. I hope, but it isn’t given for me to touch and to
bear witness to the rest of the story for the time being, thus my hope occasionally
Regardless of all that though, it is nevertheless certain and definite that our dear
sainted family and friends right now rest from the labors in the Lord, in a hall of
eternal roses of every holy hue, where they speak continually with their sweet Jesus. I
cannot see it clearly here under heaven, for my eyes are far too frail, and so I do
mourn at times. I admit it. But in the depth of my baptized heart, I do know that
heaven is a fact. That hall of roses is real. And that is what I must concentrate on – not
on my own disgust at death, but on where such a disgusting destiny ultimately leads:
and that’s home. Death leads beyond itself and on home to Jesus.
This very day, our loved ones who have died in the faith rest peacefully in God
somewhere. Holy Scripture confirms it and comforts us time and again with its
sureness. And we need that sureness. We have to have that encouragement in order to
carry on. Otherwise, the compounded loss of life in this life would be too
overwhelming, much too much to bear for us fragile sinners. But there is more,
brothers and sisters. The saints do now rest in Jesus, that is true and encouraging
enough, but one of these days, they’ll be raised as well, awaked from their quiet
graves – and oh what a glorious day that shall be. We’ll all be raised. Right where we
laid to rest our grandparents and parents and partners and friends and yes, sometimes
even own children, right there – they’ll be raised from right there in that spot – from a
bed of roses by the power of a cross stained crimson.
Our Lord tells us in our gospel today to rejoice and be glad, for our reward is
great in heaven. He would know better than any, for as the multitudes in white robes
once guaranteed St. John in his vision: “Salvation belongs to the Lamb!” The Lamb
has already gone on to prepare a place for us, that is unquestionable. And one of these
days, when He at last appears again to carry us on home, we will then be exactly like
Him, for we shall then see Him as He truly is.
This John likewise recorded for our benefit and for the sake of our hope. Our
Redeemer will return and raise all us saints to new and eternal life. The Lamb will be
our shepherd, He will guide us to those springs of living water, and He will wipe away
every tear from our eyes. No more death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the
former things will have passed away – with all things made new. These promises are
made to us this feast day and will be kept until the consummation of the age. These
promises are now granted and given to the living, to bear us through this valley of the
shadow of death, this vale of tears. “Blessed are those who mourn,” our Lord
promises in declaration in His sermon on the mount, “for they shall be comforted.”
Indeed, we shall. Indeed, we are.
Every name we read today in our prayer, each one of them will be resurrected
on the Last Day. And every body and soul present in this room now will be raised
with them. Death was forever defeated on a tree of agony and angst at that place of the
skull many centuries ago. Death still hurts the living, to be sure, it hounds and haunts
us; but for the dead, death is nothing at all, thanks to the suffering of Christ and the
cruciform death of God Himself. On account of that mighty and monumental
sacrifice, death no longer has a victory of its own. It has no lasting sting anymore. It is
but a momentary aching for us this side of glory – but for the dead, it is a victory
already had. For us it stings and seems so terribly conclusive, yet in truth, it is nothing
less than a consecrated portal for the saints of every age, leading them back to the
bosom of God. For none truly die in the Lord, they only sleep for a little while. Now I
must confess, I despise and detest and hate that sleep sometimes. Because from my
petty human perspective, it seems so final, so permanent, so unlike sleep. I don’t yet
get to see the light in their eyes once again, and so I deplore that much-deserved rest
for the saints and save for it my scorn.
But the Word regardless consoles me in my doubt. Death is only temporary. Whereas
life in Christ is everlasting. It is right and just then to pity the living, not the dead in
the Lord. For they are at peace.
And thankfully, fortunately, our God is gracious and merciful with those of
little faith like myself. He grants us a glimpse of what’s next, even here, even now. In
a few moments’ time, you will each ascend these steps and kneel at this altar rail. And
when you commune here together with Jesus and with your fellow brothers and sisters
in the faith, just know that there is a much greater multitude in heaven with whom you
also feast and dine. All the saints partake of this host and this chalice along with you.
Your spouse, your parents, your children, your friends, all who died in Christ
commune with you in this place. They are up here, right next to you, participating in
and savoring this foretaste of the Lamb’s high feast. Just because you cannot see them
or feel their familiar touch does not make it any less certain and sure. It is a fact – just
believe it. It is biblical – only trust it. It is the truth – so let yourself have hope and
take heart, I urge you. Your saints are no less here today than God Himself. We don’t
remember them and commemorate the saints this feast day from a distance. Hardly.
We remember them instead while in their very midst, while communing with those
blessed and precious dead who died in the Lord, while resting for a moment with them
ourselves, shoulder to shoulder, reclining in that otherworldly hall of roses, next to our
Jesus. That is what happens at this rail, Sunday after Sunday. The finality of death and
the pain of loss are undone or at least numbed for a brief period of time while you rest
on your knees before the Body and Blood of God. You are invited to feel that relief, to
relish in that respite from your sorrow, dear friends.
You know, I loathe and abhor death but only because I am admittedly so very
weak. Nonetheless, my patient Lord forgives me that, day by day. And He keeps
reminding me that loss is merely a passing reality, a fleeting affliction. What exists in
heaven, in my Lord’s arms, is much more real and true and certain than whatever we
get to witness here below. Death, for us, is an appearance. An apparent separation. A
deeply-felt distance. But only to the senses. Never really to the heart. Never to the
mind of faith. Death hurts right now, I understand – but it won’t hurt forever. I
promise you. Death is not forever; loss is not forever; it is solely for a short time.
Someday all the saints will be raised victorious. So don’t be resigned to death, but
ready, with them, with all the saints, for what comes after. The saints above, the saints
triumphant, they fought the good fight – and we will press on, fighting it, too, under
the heavenly banner of their love and model of meekness. They kept the faith, and so
shall we, with their godly example treasured in our trying Christian hearts. With all
this we will finish the race, together. For the victor’s crown of gold and glory awaits
us each. So thanks and praise be unto the Lamb forever and ever, for salvation is
eternally His and He graciously gifts it to us, His saints – that none who belong to
Him should ever be lost for long, even to the seeming darkness and depth of the grave.
In His holy name. Amen.
Homily for the Reformation Sunday
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “They will
roast a goose now, but in a hundred years’ time they shall hear a swan singing, and they
will have no choice but to hear him out.” Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and
Savior, Jesus Christ, these few words I just spoke to you were some of the final words of
Jan Hus, a fifteenth century Czech reformer who, having taught the truth of Sola
Scriptura and having dared to criticize the blatant abuses of the Roman Catholic church in
Bohemia in his day, was condemned to death as a heretic at the Council of Constance in
the year 1415 and was thereafter burnt at the stake, a most unchristian fate. Jan’s last
name, Hus, means “goose” in the Czech language, so I’ve been told. So they literally
roasted a goose in 1415 – and about a hundred years later, give or take a year, a swan
indeed began to sing around the university town of Wittenberg, Germany. Jan Hus was
right; perhaps God revealed this truth to him at the very end of his earthly life – He must
have. But what was repressed in the fifteenth century was far too commanding and
formidable to stamp out in the sixteenth. They did not listen to the poor goose, to the
bodily detriment of St. Hus; they put him on the roast and burnt him to a crisp. But the
saintly swan who came later, they could not think to ignore.
This powerful imagery that was elicited from the tongue of a man being led to his
own funeral pyre has lasted throughout the centuries, and thanks be to God. In many
images and icons of our blessed Martin Luther, you will see a swan at his side. It is, in
many ways, his symbol – his spirit animal, if you good Christian people would be willing
to humor a loose heathen analogy. Jan Hus was burnt alive and his ashes were tossed
carelessly into the Rhine River. But Luther began on fire, he was inflamed by the Holy
Spirit from the get-go, so no church authority nor civil ruler was ever going to be able to
stop the truth from bellowing right out of his fierce German lips. They could not stifle the
great swan’s song.
And as St. John relays to us in his apocalyptic vision this morning, “there was once an
angel who flew directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell
on the earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And the angel said: ‘Fear
God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him
Who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” This angelic figure seen
long ago was none other than our bold reformer, dear Dr. Luther. It was a heavenly vision
of a future visionary in an Augustinian monk’s habit and cowl braving the forces of the
Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Augsburg for the sake of the Gospel and God’s
people. Or at least that is undoubtedly how church tradition has interpreted those
particular biblical words over past the half millennium. And so this feast day we
remember and celebrate Luther’s legacy and the legacy and future of the faith he and
others suffered to bequeath and graciously hand down to us, seemingly from on high.
What happened five hundred years ago was indeed a reformation. It began with
the church and then spread to every single facet and aspect of human life. After Christ
Himself, perhaps no other man has engendered more change in this fallen world than
Martin Luther. And change immeasurably for the better. Ours was a true reformation. A
reformation of the church catholic. However, in this day and age, five hundred years on,
there is not one single lesson, but rather two primary lessons and takeaways from this
reformation that we must not lose sight of nor forget.
Firstly, reformation itself is never quite finished. The church is admittedly never
perfect. Our doctrine may be perfect and pure, as it has been given to us in our
confessional documents—and it is perfect and pure, to be sure—but practice seldom is.
So some sense of reform must always remain a viable option, for the sake of correcting
poor and impure practice. But the second and equally important—and entirely
related—lesson is this: ours was a conservative reformation, as the sainted Missouri
Synod theologian Charles Porterfield Krauth once famously argued.
In his magisterial 1871 book The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, Krauth
writes: “The spirit of the Reformation was no destroying angel, who sat and scowled with
a malignant joy over the desolation which spread around. Instead, it was overshadowed
by the wings of that Spirit Who brooded indeed on the waste of waters and the wilderness
of chaos, but only that He might unfold the germs of life that lay hidden there, and bring
forth light and order from the darkness of the yet formless and void creation. It is vastly
more important, then, to know what the Reformation retained than what it overthrew; for
the overthrow of error, though often an indispensable prerequisite to the establishment of
truth, is not truth itself; for it may clear the foundation simply to substitute one error for
another, perhaps a greater for a less.” Good old Krauth, he always had a way with words
– and such facility with the English language. He was easily one of the finest theologians
this American synod has ever produced. And I highly recommend that book to you all.
Anyhow, for us now, we already know well what the Reformation overthrew,
don’t we? It overthrew legalism, works-righteousness, the foolish dependence on fallen
human reason and uncertain tradition over against the clear, perspicuous Word of God,
and the tyranny of the papacy and of faithless popes, of course. Naturally, the dangers of
these things have been ingrained in us from our catechesis as Lutherans, either as lifelong
members of this church body or as recent converts. And the threat of these dangers
always looms in the background, make no mistake – because the devil never takes a day
off. We have to bear that in mind continually. But friends, Krauth is right. It is just as
important in our time, if not more important now than ever before, to know and to
confess what the Reformation retained, what it kept and maintained in addition to what it
rejected and overthrew.
We must not simply align ourselves with the greater Protestant Reformation and
movement. We here celebrate the Lutheran Reformation, not every so-called Protestant
breakaway in the sixteenth century and thereafter.
In the mind of Luther and most Lutherans five hundred years ago, and most Lutherans for
several hundred years, for that matter, in their minds, the theological menace presented
by Rome and the papacy in the sixteenth century was soon surpassed and quickly
overshadowed by the unspeakable abuses, untruths, heterodoxies, and potential and
apparent heresies that were born out of the Radical Reformation. We reject Rome’s claim
to primacy. That should go without saying. Yet we just as much repudiate with a full
throat those who throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water; who, for instance,
disparage and downgrade the Means of God’s Grace, who belittle the Office of the Holy
Ministry, and who eagerly dismiss the valuable and salutary traditions of the church
catholic. Not the Catholic church but the church catholic – there is a profound distinction
between the two, and one that is incredibly consequential for us Christians in every age
and generation. We cast aside what was wrong with the church in the fifteen-hundreds –
but only what was wrong and unbiblical and unnecessary. We do not now, nor have we
ever, abandoned whatever is precious and profitable in what the church in her wisdom
practiced for several thousand years. Rather, we welcome and embrace tradition and are
proudly called traditional. And the growth we see here right now, at Bethlehem this very
morning, and that we will continue to see—mark my words—proves the indispensability
and the treasure of church tradition.
To be certain, in the Middle Ages, the church in Rome began to depart from what
was entrusted to her from the early church and from the apostles themselves. She began
to depart from Holy Scripture above all. A reformation was therefore fitting and
altogether necessary. Having said that though, Luther did not set about to create a new
church. To the day that he died, Martin Luther considered himself catholic. That’s a fact,
you can look it up. He was well aware of what the word really and truly meant, what it
always meant. Instead of creating a new denomination, Luther set about to clean and
clear the figurative threshing floor of the church of his own birth, to restore it to that
pristine state which the church herself had once inherited and enjoyed for centuries.
Luther recognized that the church desperately needed change, and with the Holy Spirit on
his side, he risked his life time and again for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of
But that change he sought, it was not a change into something new at all – hardly.
Rather it was in truth a return to the plain truth, a return to what the church previously
was, from her infancy, a return home, so to speak, a homecoming, a return to herself as
the church of all time; thus it was not a new formation but a re-formation. And again,
ours was a conservative reformation or re-formation. We conserved what was always
worthwhile in the church we inherited. That’s what it means to be conservative, by the
way – to actually conserve the good of the past, not merely to stave off the backwards
and satanic supposed progress of the future. And that is still our duty today, to conserve
the truth, that truth which has stood and will continue to stand the test of time and which
is, in fact, eternal. Luther was able to witness that truth because he stood on the shoulders
of giants, the giants of the church past, like we do presently. But the radical reformers in
his century, whose descendants are still with us today, they were never able to catch a
real clear glimpse of the truth Luther saw because they voluntarily hopped down from
those giant shoulders and ended up tripping on their own individual pride on the way
down and landed face first in the mud of enthusiasm and sectarianism.
The danger of Roman theology and practice is always out there. Works-
righteousness is forever in the air. Our inclination toward it is in our very nature as
sinners. But I submit to you that in our current theological landscape, it is not really
Roman Catholic thought and practice that is our most pressing concern. Lutherans in
America have always suffered from a bit of Romaphobia. And understandably so. When
we first came here, we did not wish to be lumped in with those loyal to the Vatican by
other Protestants. There was then a healthy reason for this fear and suspicion of Roman
association, as it were – and considering the most recent quite counter-scriptural
utterances of Pope Francis regarding sexuality and church blessings, that fearful
suspicion is still warranted to a degree.
However, the pendulum has arguably swung too far now in the other direction.
Sometimes we are overly willing to jettison, to forsake and disown useful and meaningful
practices from our own Lutheran past, from our rightful heritage as the true church on
earth founded by Jesus Christ in the first century, for the simple sake of distancing
ourselves in appearances from Rome. But in so doing, our actions are not neutral. Actions
are never neutral – every action, every bodily movement in our brief lives, articulates a
deeper meaning and teaching, whether deliberately or inadvertently and unknowingly.
So, by blindly, even unthinkingly acting to distance ourselves further and further from the
Roman church as a reactionary, reflexive, and impulsive tendency, by doing this we
invariably run the risk of bringing ourselves ever closer to those greater threats that
Luther once acknowledged and which Krauth once advised explicitly against.
By betraying the conservative nature of our reformation, we may end up siding
with those who are further from us in doctrine and practice than Rome itself. And we
have to admit that, bless her heart, that is occasionally the case in the Lutheran
Church—Missouri Synod, where some worship services constructed around the notion of
Sunday morning entertainment, along with all the questionable theology those services
subtly imply, they suffer the lack of even a trace of Lutheran distinction. And how sad
that is – that some would gladly forego their Lutheran heritage and patrimony and
identity when doing so no longer even brings young people through the doors, if it ever
once did, truth be told. But I don’t even remotely believe that that is the case here at
Bethlehem and in East Tennessee. We love tradition, we love the liturgy, we love being
Lutheran, and we sure aren’t afraid of showing it. But let us always be on guard against
the temptation toward superficial popularity and the world’s approval, because it is
present with us constantly. We are not generic Protestants. We are Lutherans. We are a
via media in the Latin, a middle way of sorts, somewhere in between the Catholic and
Protestant world out there. We are evangelical, we are the evangelicals – we literally
coined the term! – yet we are also still catholic in the most genuine sense of the word.
That is our heritage, and we ought to fight like crazy to hold onto it. Luther certainly did.
And we honor him and the Reformation he ignited by continuing to fight like crazy to
preserve what the Lutheran faith meant in 1517 and 1521 and 1530 and what it should
mean now in 2023 and beyond.
We are justified by grace through faith alone. This grace is given as a free gift
from God, worked by the power of the Holy Spirit and received through a faith in Christ
which is just as much a free gift from God. We are not justified by the law. No part of the
law ever saves us. Only Christ’s sacrifice saves – only His perfect obedience to the law
on our behalf at Calvary redeems. Scripture alone. Grace alone. Faith alone. These are
what deliver us. The Word of God is the sole source of our doctrine. It is our authority.
Not popes, not councils, not even tradition, but God’s inspired Word. These things Rome
let slip and forgot in former and foregone centuries, and we had to remind her.
Regrettably, she didn’t then listen and instead doubled down on her errors and evidently
does so to this very day.
But for us, there is more. We further believe that God works His grace through
means, through physical things, through sacraments. He saves us through Holy Baptism,
through a watery rebirth, even as infants. He forgives us through the absolution spoken
out loud by an ordained minister on Sunday morning, which means that we obviously do
not reject the dominical, divine institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry. And God
feeds us through His own Son’s body and blood. Our Lord is physically and fleshly
present with us in the Supper, without question. That is our faith. And moreover, we cling
to the liturgy, we cling to the traditions the church has held for millennia, and we
comprehend the significance of beauty in worship. The church architecture, the spires and
steeple, the organ, the stained glass, the statuary, the crucifix, the sign of the cross, the
ancient creeds, the historic lectionary and the feast days of the church year, the paraments
and vestments and colors and clericals, kneeling at the altar and our other sanctifying
gestures, our unparalleled hymnody, and the theological literature of the Western
Christian canon. These are ours.
We are not iconoclasts; we are not enthusiasts. It is okay for the house of God and our
worship to be beautiful and even sublime, every Sunday; it should be, and consciously so.
We should aim for our worship here to be the most beautiful and most edifying Christian
worship in this town, in this state, in all of Appalachia – why not? It is scriptural, after all.
Puritanism and Pietism are not – and so they have no place here whatsoever. We do not
despise the flesh nor creation, but recognize that creation is the vehicle for our salvation.
Luther understood that so well. And we Lutherans still proclaim this truth today so very
well. That is why our worship is defined by beauty – which, if you haven’t already
noticed, is something painfully absent and purposely neglected and distorted in the world
out there these days. So what a reprieve and delight it is to at least be able to see it once a
week in this sacred place. And the beauty of our services will, by the way, with the help
of God, continue to draw new believers to us, I promise you that.
You know, I feel like I have a special perspective on all this, as a convert – and a
convert from Rome, no less. I know well the theological troubles associated with the
teachings of that fold, trust me. The Holy Spirit led me out of that church, by the grace of
God, and truth be told, through Martin Luther’s own words – he and I were both led out
of that same church and into the church catholic and reformed right here. But having this
unique perspective, as a convert, I fully understand how crucial it is that we hold fast to
what actually makes us Lutheran. Again, we are not like every other church out there.
This day is not a celebration of the Protestant Reformation. It is a celebration of our
Lutheran Reformation. It is a celebration of our church, which is like no other church on
God’s green earth. So let us be sober-minded then, like Luther himself was. Let us be
ready to reform our practice where needed, yet let us also be equally concerned with
conserving and cherishing whatever in the tradition is of value. We are not radical, we are
evangelical. We are clearly not Roman Catholic, but neither are we strictly speaking
Protestant; we are instead Lutheran, that sweet scriptural spot right in between. Never
forget that, dear faithful.
Jan Hus perhaps heard the faint crooning of the swan song as he was led gravely to
his own fiery pyre. A century later, that song burst forth, a mighty chorus none could
even feign to disregard. That is our song, friends, the song of the Gospel, the song of the
truth of Holy Scripture, the song of that middle way, the song of Luther’s reformation
breakthrough and the song of the Book of Concord published over half a century later.
That’s the music of our God-given faith. We ought to never conform to the songs of this
world, neither to the songs of those with whom we are not in agreement and unity,
however seemingly popular and seductive those songs may be. Rather, let us sing our
song steadfastly, together, and loudly, until Jesus Christ Himself comes back to sing it
with us. Let us belt it out to the heavens. We are Lutherans. Therefore, let us be Lutheran.
Let everything that title means be our perpetual anthem today and tomorrow and the day
after. We are Christians, yes, of course – and we are Lutherans, too. To be Lutheran is to
be Christian and to be Christian is to be Lutheran – for being Lutheran means nothing
more and nothing less than being biblical and confessional and traditional and faithful to
Christ Himself. And thanks and praise be to God for that blessed fact. So take pride in
your faith, brothers and sisters. And be unapologetically Lutheran this day and every day.
In the most holy name of Jesus. Amen.
Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: “Render unto Caesar the things
that are Caesar’s.” Oh boy. We don’t always like to hear that, now do we? You know, the
fourth commandment also applies to our civil rulers, as much as that grieves us to admit
on occasion. And even when our overlords are no good—which is quite often, most of
the time, let’s be honest—our civil and, yes, our annual financial obedience to them is
nevertheless due. Hard to hear, yet regardless true. But let’s back up just a moment,
friends, and answer the obvious question: what exactly is going on in our gospel text
today? What precisely is the core message from our Lord that we should take away? I
mean, is He merely telling us that we should be good responsible taxpayers? Certainly
there’s much more to it than all that. So let’s find out by starting from the top.
St. Matthew informs us in our reading that the Pharisees along with their disciples
and some Herodians once set about to entangle Jesus with His own words. This is
surprising and interesting, because one would be led to think and expect that the
Pharisees would want to have nothing at all to do with the Herodians to begin with. You
see, the two factions were something like sworn enemies. The Pharisees, being hyper-
observant Jews, were all about restoring the Davidic kingdom in a geopolitical sense,
right? That’s why they anticipated a political Messiah. Whereas the Herodians, on the
other hand, who were ethnic Jews though not necessarily super faithful in their religious
observance, they were at the end of the day what we would call loyalists to Herod and his
legacy and to the prevailing status quo of the Roman Empire’s control over Judea. The
Herodians did not really want to restore the Davidic kingdom because they were pretty
much satisfied with the way things were. They were turncoats in the eyes of many Jews,
the Pharisees very much included here.
But in their impious and villainous desire to entrap Jesus with His own words, the
Pharisees and their disciples teamed up with those they considered impure and
treacherous, the collaborating Herodians, all for the sake of undermining this so-called
Messiah they had no interest in ever acknowledging.
So these two opposing religious and political groups got together and they went to
test the Lord. The conversation, as St. Matthew relays it to us, begins with an awfully
ingratiating and honey-tongued tone: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the
way of God truthfully, and that you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not
swayed by appearances.” But immediately following all that duplicitous smooth-talking
on the part of the cunning Pharisees and Herodians, the trick question comes quickly – a
trick question which, in their minds, would entangle Jesus by forcing Him either to
profane a religious ordinance by agreeing to pay a tax to an emperor who considered
himself godly and divine, as evidenced by the narcissism of his own facial inscription on
the Roman currency, which was of course a form of blatant blasphemy in the eyes of the
strict and devout Pharisees, or it would force Jesus to refuse the Roman tax ordinance
altogether, which would have been unthinkable and a form of civil disobedience to the
servile and indeed sycophantic Herodians. It was a lose-lose scenario in the mind of our
Lord’s antagonists. Jesus’s answer was either going to demonstrate loyalty to the
religious law or at least to the predominant religious sentiment against the ruling
authority or, alternatively, He would have to show fealty to the empire itself, an empire
which frequently oppressed the religiously-observant Jewish population by powerful
military presence and force. What a perfect trick question, so they thought. Someone
wasn’t going to like the answer, someone wasn’t going to be happy, no matter what Jesus
But let’s pause here just a moment for a little reflection. It is incredibly easy for us
to condemn both the Pharisees and the Herodians in our narrative. Our Lord’s enemies
had been trying to ensnare him for quite some time. And at last, they thought they had a
full proof plan to put an end to this would-be-Messiah.
Now that is despicable from our pious perspective, right? – from our advantageous
vantage point this side of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of that very true
Messiah. Yet let us stop for a second and contemplate the matter of intention. What was
really behind and beneath their spiteful and malevolent plan? Think about it. What likely
motivated our Lord’s adversaries here? Well, as far as I can tell, in a matter of words – it
was an inclination toward deceit; toward dishonesty and trickery; it was a matter of self-
serving motives; a proclivity toward pride and self-interest and an enthusiastic
willingness to destroy a good man’s reputation; and above all else, it was a readiness to
test and tempt God Himself. Which are far from wholesome intentions, clearly. But let
me ask you, dear faithful, are those qualities and characteristics specific to those two
opposing religious and political sects two thousand years ago? Or are they not equally
pervasive to this very day, ubiquitous, ever-present all over the world, and in truth, in the
very heart of every last man and woman?
Have you ever lied? To others? To yourself? To your God even? Have you ever
used manipulation to get what you want at work or at home, or heaven forbid, here amid
the congregation of the faithful? Even slight deceit – have you ever once relied on it –
and maybe even justified it to yourself after the fact, as if it were okay? Or have you
recently spoken uncharitable and even untrue things about your neighbor behind their
back? Maybe what you spoke was socially acceptable – gossip generally is these days,
sad to say. But did what you said help your neighbor, or did it harm their good name?
Have you at times cared nothing at all about the reputation of others? And have you
perhaps stooped to testing even your own God in recent memory? Have you given Him
ultimatums in your dark and desperate moments? Have you assumed that He is the one
Who serves you rather than the other way around? Now maybe you don’t do these things
on purpose, in a calculated and premeditated way like our Lord’s foes – but search your
heart – really search it. Are you always faithful? Or is your relationship with God
sometimes terribly transactional and conditional, corrupt and outright crooked?
And does that lack of fear, love, and trust—which is what it all boils down to—does it
manifest itself in how you treat others in your day-to-day existence? If you sometimes
use God to get your own way, and curve Him and His many gifts inward, upon yourself,
then it stands to reason that you’d just as well use others to do the same. Or, to be honest,
that common sense possibility works the other way around as well. If you misuse others,
you probably misuse your God now and again.
Personally, I know all this is painfully accurate in my life. I have sinned all these
sins over the course of time. I am no better than the Pharisees and Herodians at heart.
Had I been there in the first century, I may well have hollered with them: “Crucify Him!”
to Pontius Pilate’s offer to the vicious crowds. And really now, it doesn’t matter.
Speculation here doesn’t matter one bit. Because I did yell that in eternity. I absolutely
already did. Every sin I have ever sinned was a cacophonous cry out to the heavens:
Crucify Him! Every last fault of mine put my Lord and Redeemer on that cross. Every sin
secured His hands and feet with rusted nails, even and especially the socially acceptable
ones. I am no better than any other sinner who has ever lived. And in all likelihood, were
it possible, I would have been there that day in the midst of our Lord’s enemies waiting
for Jesus to get tripped up by this well-thought-out trick question, for the sake of curiosity
or even worse, for the sake of a petty laugh. That, or, at best, I would have been but a
clueless disciple, standing around with a dumbfounded look on my face, faithless in a
lack of certainty in my Lord as He faced a seemingly impossible inquiry. We are all
guilty, dear friends. We all crucified our God, if nothing else than by our lack of faith.
And we are all unworthy of what that crucifixion earned for us in eternity.
But let us return to the text. “Jesus, aware of the malice of the Pharisees and
Herodians, said, ‘Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin for the tax.’
And they brought Him a denarius, a coin. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and
inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Therefore render unto
Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’” And there it
is, guys – right there.
The perfect answer to that supposedly impossible, unanswerable trick question. Jesus
responded to their malicious inquisition by pointing to a truth that we Lutherans like to
call the doctrine of the two kingdoms. There is the left-hand kingdom, the kingdom of
power, that of the world, of earthly rulers, of civil law. And there is the right-hand
kingdom, the kingdom of God, of heavenly law. They are distinct. The one is temporary
and fleeting, the other is eternal and unchanging. The one requires gifts of money to be
given to perpetuate its earthly authority, whether for good or ill. And the other is ruled
only by the Almighty, All-benevolent, All-gracious Giver of Gifts – by the liberal hand of
the one true God Who reigns from the heavens above, Who is always merciful, and
Whose good and perfect gifts are both temporal and eternal, for both body and soul, and
Yes, Caesar’s face was on the denarius, the coin. The tax was owed to him. But
God’s own image is imprinted, impressed, and inscribed upon the souls of all men, that
immortal coin within. The gift of creation and redemption is given to all freely – and all
that is due in return is fear, love, and trust in the one Who alone creates and redeems.
Jesus understood all this. And He knew likewise that in a short span of time, His own
blood would be the required tax to cover the iniquities of a fallen and undeserving
creation. In order for that divine image to be restored in the souls of believers, Jesus
would have to be betrayed, arrested, interrogated, beaten, mocked, stripped, nailed,
suffocated, and bled out on an ugly cross. But being God Himself and wholly sinless,
there was not an ounce of malice in His benevolent heart in that moment of interaction
with the Pharisees and Herodians and before their black-hearted trickery. Knowing all
things, He answered a question from wicked and malicious men with a plain truth: render
unto the world what belongs to the world, but more importantly, render unto God what
belongs to Him. And make no mistake, dear flock, through the blood of Jesus, all saved
by His sacrifice belong to God the Father. They are His possession. We are His
possession. Therefore, all buried and resurrected by way of a baptism into the Triune
name owe themselves to God and to God alone.
In space and time, in history and the here and now, pay the tax, by all means, obey. But
with a mind toward eternity, worship God and none other. Serve Him and serve Him
single-mindedly and unwaveringly.
But the text continues: “When the Pharisees and Herodians heard what Jesus said,
they marveled. And they left Him and went away.” They marveled, yes, but their
marveling was all too brief. They would again soon scheme to get Jesus crucified
straightaway. And since all this was ordained by God the Father long before, their
schemes were ultimately successful, on the surface anyhow. Jesus, the Son of God, was
handed over and eventually executed. While that fact was a tragedy for our Lord’s poor
flesh on the cross, it is fortunate and favorable for those of us who so desperately need
the forgiveness of sins that His sole sacrifice was able to afford so many centuries ago.
So what’s the message for us today in 2023? Of course, pay your taxes. Of course,
obey your rulers, insofar as they do not transgress the clear law of God. And as Luther
tells us in the Small and Large Catechisms on the fourth commandment, don’t just obey
your sovereigns, but honor them, love and cherish them even. That’s not always easy. I
understand, trust me. I have always had a bit of a rebellious spirit myself – and to be
frank, it is has gone nowhere with the passage of thirty-three or so years. And there’s
always solid justification for rebellion and defiance, isn’t there? We can usually come up
with something or another. Our rulers fail us time and time again. But just remember that
when you do serve them, honor, love, and cherish them—which you are called to do,
however much of an annoyance or inconvenience it may be—you are really serving,
honoring, loving, and cherishing God in heaven. When you render unto Caesar what is
his, you are doing so foremost in obedience to God, Who, as St. Paul tells us in his epistle
to the Romans, establishes all authority on earth, even when that authority seems
precarious and downright unchristian. Yet here’s what is more significant for us to
remember this morning. Obey your earthly authorities for this your time on earth, but
worry much more about obeying God Who controls all timeless fate. That’s really the
takeaway from our present lesson.
As the Lord declares earlier on in St. Matthew’s gospel: “Do not fear those who kill the
body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear Him Who is able to destroy both body and soul
in Gehenna, in hell.”
Our frustrations with our worldly rulers often cause us to concentrate on the
“render unto Caesar” part of this Sunday’s text. But actually, that is entirely secondary,
beloved. That is not nearly as consequential at the end of the day. Render unto God what
is His. That’s what really matters. And you yourself belong to Him. You don’t own
yourself anymore. In fact, you never actually did. You once belonged to the prince of
darkness, to the ruler of this world, by your birth. But now you belong to God, the
heavenly King, by your rebirth. So render yourself unto Him as a living sacrifice, as St.
Paul encourages us. Fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Study His Word
constantly, come to church regularly and joyfully, and eagerly receive the body and blood
of your Lord with a repentant and worthy heart. Come here prepared, in a deliberate and
conscious manner, having weighed your own sins and their horrible consequences for the
beaten and bloodied body of God, and anticipate good godly gifts nonetheless. Whenever
you act like a Pharisee or a Herodian – which I know you do, because like me, who does
that all the time, you are still a miserable sinner – whenever you fall short of the glory of
God and sin against Him and against your neighbor, seek His forgiveness immediately.
Do not procrastinate. Seek that forgiveness purchased not with gold or silver coins but
with Christ’s holy, precious blood at Calvary, spilled out and then spoken and delivered
without cost within the security of these brick walls of Bethlehem. Let that absolution
wash you clean. Obey God above all by letting Him forgive, heal, feed, strengthen and
sanctify you through Word and Sacrament.
Caesar’s face was on the denarius, true enough. And that hasn’t changed over the
last two millennia or so. The rich men north of Richmond, as they’re latterly called, the
emperors of the current day in the swampy suburbs of D.C. and on Wall Street, they still
rule the world and they still foolishly think they are gods just like that senseless Caesar
But the true God’s image, the image of the only God, is imprinted, impressed, and
inscribed on your very soul. So render yourself unto Him more than any other. Give Him
your all, that He may make you into so much more than you could ever dream of making
yourself. Every moment of this life is simply another chance to face eternity faithfully.
To look death and the life to come straight in the eye, like a man, in good faith and with
sure knowledge of your place in it. This life here with our obedience out there in the
world lasts for a little while – and it passes with great haste, as you well know. So we
should live it dutifully and meekly, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all
godliness and honesty, as St. Paul says. However, our obedience to the Heavenly Father
lasts forever. There are eternal gains and eternal losses involved. Therefore, again,
examine your priorities daily. Take that advice home with you this morning. And render
your body, your heart, mind, and soul, your time, energy, and your resources accordingly.
That is God’s good and gracious will for you and for His holy and everlasting kingdom.
In the blessed name of Jesus. Amen.
Homily for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text is again the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Philippi.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Finally,
brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
And St Paul later proclaims: “I can do all things through Him Who strengthens me.” Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the ancient Greek philosopher
Aristotle—maybe you’ve heard of him before—he once defined human beings as being
foremost rational animals. That was his definition. His idea was that our rationality, our
capacity for reasoning and understanding, is, more than anything else, that which sets us
apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. A crab or a crow, they don’t seem to reason
quite like we humans reason, or so the thinking goes. And many throughout the ages have
bought into Aristotle’s logic here. We humans reason in a way that other animals don’t –
therefore, that is primarily what distinguishes us.
Now, the fact that we men and women are not actually animals at all but are rather
set over and above the animals, having been created in the very image of God Himself,
that fact set aside for just a moment, even the rest of what that famous pagan philosopher
suggests is terribly nearsighted and downright wrong. It is not our reason so much that
really sets us apart from the rest of the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, though
it might seem like that at first glance. Instead, it is our language. It is our capacity for
language. It is words; speech; the ability to communicate. That is what defines and
determines us as humans – that is what makes us men and women and not cattle and
other wild creatures.
God gave us, the pinnacle of His handiwork, the crown of His creation, the breath of life
and the power of speech – the power to name the rest of the animals, an authority granted
in the garden to Adam alone. And language, friends, when you really get down to it,
language, that gift and authority, is the very basis of our reason. You cannot reason
without language. Try your best to think sometime without words. Do it. Give it a shot.
And let me know how that goes for you.
No, language is the foundation of all reasoning and rationality, without exception.
We are, above all else, linguistic beings – we are speaking creatures – embodied souls
having both intellect and tongues. That is how God made us. And He made us different
from every other creature out there. God created everything in existence through
language, all the universe was created by His divine word. And in making us in His
image on the sixth day, He gave us words as well; words to create with, words with
which to share in the joy of creation. So in other words, God made us to speak. He made
us so that we could speak back to Him, so that we could communicate with Him. So that
we could love Him with words, in words, and through words. That’s in part why it was
not good for Adam to be alone – he needed a bride with whom to converse. But more
than all that, God did not solely create the universe with language and create us, His
finest work, for the purpose of language, but He furthermore continues to save us, His
fallen creation, through language. Language was the basis for our creation and for all
creation, but it is moreover the bedrock of our redemption.
How do I know that? Well, because the Word saves – and the Word is a linguistic
thing, it is writing and speech and articulation. It is a communication from the Creator to
the creature through the creature, as Johann Georg Hamann once put it. It comes from
God to us and to one another through bodily form, through physical means. Namely,
through one man. Remember friends, the Word became flesh, right? That is what St. John
tells us at the beginning of his gospel. Christ is the Word Who became a man. The Word,
as we understand it, is the Bible, without doubt. But the Word is also law and Gospel
proclaimed from this pulpit.
And even more wondrous and mysterious than that, the Word is just as much God made
flesh, a human being named Jesus Who was born at Bethlehem, Who taught with words,
and Who was crucified outside the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem for the sins of the
whole world. God is the incarnate, embodied Word. And God redeems us through that
Word. Through language. Through speech. Through words inspired, written down, read,
spoken, prayed, and preached. And through flesh as well. Through the Word made flesh.
God is not a God Who is far off. He is not just distant in the heavens. He is transcendent,
to be sure. But He nevertheless condescends to us, He reaches down to us, He bends
down to our childish level, He stoops down to our human lowliness, and He speaks to us
through our own native tongue. Just like Jesus once stooped down to scribble a message
in dirt that was unfortunately lost to future generations. God is right here, in the Word
read aloud, in the Word preached, and in the Word administered in body and blood at this
hallowed altar, the body and blood of the Word made flesh and named Jesus of Nazareth,
the promised Messiah. And all these things are essentially a matter of language – of a
word – of the Word in its glorious and various forms.
So here’s what I’m getting at, dear faithful. When you gather here on Sunday
morning and you confess your sins together as a congregation, I, as your pastor, then
pronounce the words of forgiveness or absolution. It is a part of our service, correct? But
here’s the thing. Those words I speak, they are not merely a reminder about your being
forgiven. They are not merely a broad declaration of forgiveness – it is not just a matter
of me telling you something you didn’t already realize. No, friends, the words I speak out
loud for the sake of your ears and your souls are the forgiveness itself. When I utter the
words of absolution in Christ’s stead and by His authority, by the authority of the Word
incarnate, that utterance from my lips, those very words, that is forgiveness. That’s where
it is – where it is located for the sake of your certainty – so that you can hear it and have
sure faith in it. That is how you hear about the good news of your forgiveness won on a
cross, which is conveyed through words and which is indeed now accomplished through
words. The means of grace depend on words.
And this is what we call performative speech. I am not just telling you something
descriptive in a matter of words—I am not just describing something to you, not even just
the nature of your forgiveness—but rather, when I speak the words of forgiveness to you,
I am doing something with the words and through the words. Or put more accurately,
God is doing something for you through me by the words I speak to you. Does that make
sense? For instance, imagine when someone christens a ship. You ever seen a ship
christened before? So when this happens, the one christening the ship speaks some words
of blessing over the new vessel, they name the ship out loud—they give her a name and
speak it—and then they usually break a bottle of champaign over the ship’s bow. That is
the historical christening ceremony for a new ship. And after this ceremony is finished,
the ship is considered christened.
But here’s the question: what part of all that ceremony actually makes the ship
christened? What does the work, so to speak? What aspect of the ceremony does the
heavy lifting? What precisely in the ceremony christens the ship? It isn’t the champagne
bottle shattering over the bow, that’s for sure. But in truth, it is the words themselves that
do the work. When the blessing is spoken and when the ship is named out loud by its new
owner while the champaign bottle is broken, those spoken words do something. They
don’t just mean something, they don’t just relay new information, but they do something.
They perform an action. The words themselves christen the ship. The speech does the
work. The words make something new that wasn’t there before – namely, a christened
boat. That is what we mean when we talk about performative speech. Speech that
performs. Some words in human language describe things, yet other words do things.
That is how language works sometimes. And brothers and sisters, in this ceremony here,
in our Divine Service, the words you hear are what are important. The words do
something for you and they do something to you. And that something they do is
remarkable – something done seldom elsewhere in this earthly life.
The words of forgiveness forgive you. The words of absolution absolve you; they
cleanse you of your sin. You are changed afterwards. You are no longer the same sinner.
The words of the baptismal rite, for example, they don’t just describe your baptism, but
they make you, when you have faith, baptized; the words baptize you. God’s Word
spoken by a minister baptizes you. The water, while necessary, does not do the baptizing
– neither does the minister, for that matter, even by his authority; but the Word through
the power of the Spirit baptizes. The Word does the work. The words of Institution
spoken over the elements of bread and wine, they do something too. They don’t simply
retell the story of the Last Supper. Anyone who suggests as much is wrong. No, those
words consecrate the Supper here and now, such that our Lord is really and truly and
physically present. Words have the power to do this. Again, our God created with words,
He created all things out of nothing with a word voiced into the void. “Let there be light!”
Words are profoundly creative. And God gives His church the authority to speak
redemption and the language of new creation through words every single Sunday.
Forgiveness, life, and salvation: these promises are spoken and kept and ultimately
fulfilled through language, through the Word. Never forget, dear friends, that language is
so incredibly crucial. It is everything. Language brings the reality of what happened at
Calvary twenty centuries ago to life for you in your heart, and in your body and soul, on
this very day. Words bring the merits of that sacrifice offered up over six thousand miles
away to benefit for you right here right now. Words are the foundation of the means of
grace. God works His will for your salvation by way of words – and by way of the Word.
But okay, pastor: what’s your point though? What are you driving at with all this
highfalutin talk about language? Well dear flock, it is plain and simple actually. This is
why what I have said so far matters for us today. St. Paul, picking up where we left off
last week, he encourages us, through this letter to the Philippian church read shortly ago,
he encourages us to rejoice, to not be anxious, but to think about whatever is true,
honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. We are not
to spend our brief lives under heaven in worry and doubt, Paul says.
Instead, we are to be joyful always and we are to concentrate on what brings joy: on the
true, the just, and the pure in this life and in the life to come. Yet how exactly do we do
that when so much in this world is so dark and disgusting and dangerous? How do we
focus on nice things when there is so much conflict and chaos raging around us –
especially in the Holy Land as of late? When sin abounds as much as it does, how are we
supposed to concentrate on the good and the pure? Is it even possible? Or is that not
purely naïve, dear pastor?
Well, first of all, bear in mind again that Paul offered this much-needed advice
while still imprisoned, facing a great deal of conflict and chaos, danger and darkness
himself, arguably much greater than our own. But more than that, this is how we
concentrate on the good and the pure per Paul’s pastoral recommendation: recall friends,
that we are only able to reason because we have language. We can only think because we
have words with which to think. That being the case, whatever words we have in our
vocabulary, in our memory bank up here, whatever words we have at our intellectual
disposal, that is what we will think with. Whatever we put into our minds over time
through words is what our minds will work with. That’s how it works. You can only
think with what your mind has been given to think with. Even in your imagination, you
can only ever imagine with what has been placed into your mind by the senses and
through words. A unicorn is no more than a horse with a horn, after all. The mind is kind
of like a computer and it depends on data being fed into it. Therefore, the words that you
put into your mind, the speech that you spend your day dwelling on, the language that
you indulge yourself in, and the phrases you repeat in your head hour by hour, that is
really what you will end up thinking about. You will concentrate on whatever you feed
your mind. Your thoughts will be centered around your mind’s diet. And things will
become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Whatever you put in your mind and in your heart is
what will come out of your mind and out of your heart. That is guaranteed.
All that to say, dear flock, don’t put garbage in your heart and mind. Stop
worrying about and fretting over all that σκύβαλον – all that refuse and distraction that is
useless in eternity, which we addressed last week. And instead of all that trash, put good
words in your heart and in your soul and in your mind. Put true, honorable, just, pure,
lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy words in your precious head. Meditate on those
things. And do you know where those things are? [Walk over to get bible] Right here.
This is where they are. These are the words you must put in your heart and mind if you
ever want to be free of the chains of anxiety and doubt and despair that tether us to this
disordered world. If you ever want to be free to think about the good, the true, and the
beautiful – you have to turn right here. These words, contained in the Holy Bible, let
these words become your vocabulary, your memory bank. Let them become your new
alphabet. Learn to think, speak, read, and write again through these words, through the
grammar of God’s language, inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded by the patriarchs,
prophets, and apostles. Let Holy Scripture become the very water in which you swim.
Surround yourself with it. Read, mark, and inwardly digest the Word of God. Memorize
Scripture as well, as best you can. Allow it to become a part of you. Take it to heart and
absorb it like the medicine it is. Come to church week after week and hear it again and
again. Tie the Word on your hands, bind it to your foreheads, and write it on your
doorposts, remember? And eventually, I assure you, doing so will positively impact how
you think, and how you live, and even how you hope.
And let the words spoken here, in this gathering, the performative words of the
absolution, of the sermon, of the Supper, let them flow through you. Do not put up a
guard against them. Do not lose attention or focus. Don’t just come here for the sake of
coming here and making an appearance. Instead, let the words of forgiveness and
salvation have their way with you. Let them melt your hardened heart. Let God love you
through these words. That is how He loves you –through His Word.
Through the absolution at the beginning of the service, through the lectionary readings,
through this sermon, through the hymns we sing and the language of the liturgy, through
our collective prayer, through the words of Institution and those most intense and
intimate words of all: “The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ shed for
you.” Let God create a new creation Sunday after Sunday through these most pure words
of all, through His own saving Word. And let that new creation be you. Permit your God
to redeem you. And don’t think that that happens in some overly spiritualized,
mysterious, ascetic or ecstatic way apart from what happens here in space and time and
history. It doesn’t happen that way, I’m afraid. Not usually. It isn’t usually a big,
dramatic thing. On the contrary, God creates and sustains and saves and forgives you
simply through language. Through common human language, through something very
physical, audible, and seemingly ordinary. Like what you hear within these walls.
But really, these aren’t only ordinary words you are hearing. That is what I need
you to believe and to trust. I am not just having a nice conversation with you up here. I
need you to be convicted of the truth that words have the power to do something
powerful. And that is just what they do, week after week, in this sacred space. Don’t
underestimate the ability of language to transform and transfigure you. If we are, at the
end of the day, what’s up here [point to head] and right here [point to heart], just know
that what is here [point to head] and here [point to heart], it all begins – or it all once
began – with language. When you were a baby – a toddler – a child – language was given
to you, as a free gift from your parents and teachers. However, more than that, it was a
free gift from God above, from the Author of all things and the Author of your own life.
That gift of language was the alphabet, the building blocks, given for your mind to grow
– and for your personality, who you are as a person, to blossom. So language is, in a very
real sense, what you are. You are a linguistic creature, God’s child imbued with the gift
of speech. Language is what you use to think with and to communicate with. As such,
you must always be mindful of the words you use and cling to. Be thoughtful of the
words you spend your day hearing and speaking.
Let your words and thoughts be good words and good thoughts. Let the words you
imbibe be honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy words. Let
them be biblical, Christian, and life-giving words. That’s the pastoral advice for the
sermon this Sunday. Pay attention to words. Because words matter. Words save. And
words are also how we confess our saving faith to the world out there.
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these
things, and the God of peace will be with you.” This is what else St. Paul promises us
today. His message is straightforward. What you learn and receive and hear and see in
written words; in speech; and in the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, becoming visible in
Holy Communion, hidden yet still revealed under the form of bread and wine; practice
these things, Paul urges. Concentrate on these things. If you do, then the God of peace
will most assuredly be with you always and everywhere. And the God of peace will
strengthen you, such that you, too, can do all things. We, as baptized children of God, can
do all things through Him Who strengthens us. We can endure all things, suffer all things,
overcome all things, accomplish all things. Paul is right on the money, once again. But if
we want that strength from God, if we sincerely desire it from the bottom of our hearts,
then we have to recall from whence it comes. We have to remember where to find it. It
comes through words. It comes through the Word. The Holy Bible and the Sacraments,
that is where it is now found. So cling to these blessed and holy things. Grasp your Lord
by grasping those gracious means through which He comes to you presently – through
the Word. In His name. Amen.
Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text this morning is the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Philippi.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “But
whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as
loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have
suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and
be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that
which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that
I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming
like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the
dead. Not that I have already obtained this or that am already perfect, but I press on to make
it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I
have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward
to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in
Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, St. Paul very likely
wrote these profound words to the Philippian church during that particular Roman
imprisonment we hear a little about at the very end of the Acts of the Apostles. In Roman
chains that very first time, St. Paul then realized his hope for release from prison, or house
arrest, or whatever confinement it was, that his hope for freedom could take only two
possible forms: either fortunate release from the physical bonds of the Roman guard, or a
less fortunate release from the physical body entirely through persecution, death, and
martyrdom. Those were his only ways out, as it were. But we know, of course, that Paul was
eventually freed from that initial incarceration in Rome, right?
However, only a few short years later, as the holy tradition of the church tells us, St. Paul
was ultimately martyred in that same ancient city, beheaded in the Ardeatino, its twentieth
quarter, on the orders of Emperor Nero. Now we might happen to think that a sad story. He
was emancipated but then brought right back to the same place to face and suffer his unjust
death. And in a sense, it is a sad story. But you know what: Paul certainly wouldn’t have
thought so. He wouldn’t have understood it that way. In fact, he didn’t understand it that
way. You see, the hope Paul he had when he wrote this letter while jailed to the still
somewhat fledgling church at Philippi, this hope was only later perfected by his blessed
Roman death. His words here were not undermined by his execution a few years later but
they were rather solidified by it. Martyrdom gave his optimistic message an eminently
powerful and an enduring meaning down through the ages – a meaning for all the Christian
martyrs throughout the history of the church – to this very day. So let us now try our best to
learn something for our own present good as the twenty-first century church from these
noble words of the holy apostle this morning.
And let’s start here – with a single solitary word: σκύβαλον. Yeah. Funny sounding
word, huh? Have you ever heard it before? Σκύβαλον. Well, it is an ancient Greek
word—because of course it is, I always love to bring the Greek in whenever I can, against
all seminary advice to the contrary—but it is an ancient Greek word that we find in our text
today. Most translations are pretty mild with handling it though. I think the New King James
Version, my personal preference, and the English Standard Version we read earlier render it
as “rubbish.” And that’s close, I suppose. But the full meaning, I think, is a tad bit more
jarring and, truth be told, a little more graphic than that. Really it means in a visceral, or a
very earthy and a kind of coarse way, it means gross waste – it signifies the trashiest of trash
– it indicates icky and unpleasant garbage and refuse, and if you really want to get the point
across – it denotes dung – yeah, in a rather indelicate sense, it means feces – human waste
even. That’s really what we are talking about. And what exactly does St. Paul consider dung
and human waste here? Well, everything. Everything other than Jesus, everything in the
world, Paul regards as trash and dung, pure rubbish. It is all worthless compared to Christ.
Paul never minces words, does he? When it comes to the things of God and the
things of men that get in the way of the things of God, there is really no time for politeness.
And Paul is right. Nothing matters without faith in Christ. Period. Nothing else matters
without Him. Nothing else saves. Nothing else has eternal worth removed from the
incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, and saving faith in His historical atoning sacrifice. And
here’s the painful reality for many that is plainly implied by Paul’s words here: even our
own lives, without Christ, they are meaningless and lacking in purpose, worth, aim or any
lasting value. That is why we see in this letter Paul’s over-eager willingness to face
martyrdom and death. Because if living for him meant forsaking Christ in this life before the
despotic Roman authorities, or whomever, then it wasn’t worth it at all – because life
without Christ just isn’t ever worth it. Martyrdom itself is more of a gain than such a
meaningless and empty trifle of a life. That’s how Paul understood it anyhow. Faith must
come before everything, even our own comfort, even our own wants, even our own safety
and our own lives. And Paul proved that with his own bloodshed nearly two thousand years
ago. He literally lost his head for that eternal truth.
And here’s the lesson for us today: we are exceedingly lucky and blessed that
Emperor Nero isn’t ruling in 2023, however much we might jokingly suggest otherwise at
times. Our government isn’t Nero. We aren’t yet facing real physical persecution in this
nation, at least not violent persecution – and thanks be to God. But I seriously worry about
the church if we ever were in that dire position. If ever we were under the harsh and
repressive rule of a truly anti-Christian emperor or empire. Because look around. We are
free to worship our God right now, we are not forcibly restricted from doing so – and yet
again, look around: the churches are growing vacant nonetheless. The pews are emptying
quickly—and not just the pews themselves like here this morning, but the people in
them—they are emptying hastily in every single denomination without fail, and without the
slightest threat of force. And even among us faithful few, how many other distractions and
concerns we let get in the way of our faith day after day.
Money, or mammon, as our Lord calls it – it is meaningless. Vanity of vanities.
Material wealth and nice things, the accumulation of hollow, futile, purposeless things,
lording money and influence around for the brief enjoyment of some societal clout, it is all
meaningless. It is dung and nothing at all in comparison to Christ’s glory. None of it matters
whatsoever in the end. King Solomon, again, he made this clear to us in the Book of
Ecclesiastes, did he not? Vanity of vanities, remember? So yes, having the newest i-Phone,
for instance, not only does that not matter, but it can, if we let ourselves obsess over it, it can
become a considerable hindrance and an even a diversion from what actually does matter.
The fancy car, the expensive house, the enviable plot of land, the well-manicured yard, the
upper-middle-class existence, respectable GDP growth and suburban comfort – none of this
will make you genuinely happy and joyful – don’t be deceived, it won’t. Sports and
popularity, or your preferred politician winning a debate or an election, or any politics
whatsoever, none of that will bring you fulfillment for very long. Attention from others,
online influence, the lusts of the flesh and their gratification, the respect and esteem of
seemingly important people, these things fade so very quickly. Sic transit gloria mundi –
such glory always fades, it is said.
Like everyone else, like you and like me, we will each grow old and pass away
someday. Brothers and sisters, we are all going to die. Unless Jesus comes quickly, that is
our future. And we cannot take any of the stuff we’ve amassed with us. Because in eternity,
none of it matters. We don’t need it. It counts for nothing – it is but rubbish. And so if you
believe me, which is to say, if you believe Paul, then examine your priorities daily, dear
flock. This faith in Christ, this church here and the fellowship you have here and at home
with your own faithful family, that’s all that really matters. Everything else is superficial,
temporary, and altogether fleeting. Everything else is σκύβαλον. It is just decoration. And it
is all useless in comparison to life in Christ and among our Christian brothers and sisters.
Having considering that, I want you to do something for me today. Or at least I want
you to try to do something – and it is something I have been trying so very hard to be better
about myself: when you get home, today or tomorrow, or whenever you get the first chance,
as soon as you have the opportunity, take a full day and keep an account of how you spend
it. Log the hours. Keep track of what you are doing and what you are thinking, even. Write
it down if you need to. We sleep, on average, a third of our lives. We work at least another
quarter of our lives. But that leaves about forty to forty-five percent of our lives free. So
what do you with all that time? How much of that time is spent valuably, with your family,
friends, and loved ones? How much of that time is spent in the Word of God, the very thing
that delivers you from death and saves you from sorrow? How many of those seventy or so
hours a week are spent in prayer and worship and doing works of mercy, too, lest we forget?
And alternatively, how much of your week is spent with things that serve absolutely no
purpose in eternity? I urge you to find out for yourselves. And find that out regularly, if
Now obviously I’m not saying that there isn’t plenty of time for leisure and
entertainment and much-needed rest. Naturally there is. We keep the Sabbath here, we
understand the value of rest – we know this better than anyone else – much better than the
secular world out there, that’s for sure. There is a time for everything, as that wise king
Solomon once also noted. But if God matters most of all, if everything apart from Christ is
secondary, then it stands to reason that that truth, that reality, would reveal itself in our daily
and weekly lives, in how we spend our time – in how we spend our money as well. Because
here’s the thing: someday, we may face actual persecution. We may be confronted with the
tyranny of unbelief. It may well be in the cards for some of us. Who knows? And if that day
eventually comes, the question is: will we be more willing to part with our creature comforts
or with Christ? What will we be more attached to: God or goods? The faith or our own
sinful wants and fallen fancies? That’s a question we ought to always bear in mind.
Now believe it or not, there are valid reasons to miss church. You heard it from the
pastor himself, so there it is. But guys, the thing is: there aren’t very many. There are good
justifications for neglecting our daily Bible reading. But those are few and far between.
There are even decent causes for forgetting to pray now and again. But they are so
incredibly rare. And yet, what do we sinners—myself very much included—what do we do
all the time? Exactly those sinful things. You know what we really lost in the garden,
friends? In the fall from grace long ago, when Eve took that forbidden fruit and shared it
with her disobedient husband? We lost our innocence, we lost the tree of life, we lost our
original righteousness and our freedom. But more than that, we also lost all sense of priority.
In Eden, faith and family were everything. Worship was everything. And these things used
to mean an awful lot in this country, too. Maybe you can remember. Once upon a time, that
was the case – God meant something, He meant a whole lot, as did His holy church. But
how distractable we’ve become. How part-time and lackluster in our faith, in our doctrine
and practice, we as a nation have allowed ourselves to become. But don’t let that be you.
Don’t let that be us. Listen to St. Paul. Recall what Christ is really worth – for you and for
yours. It is high time for a revival, if you ask me. A revival of the heart and soul, of good
theology and good practice, of American Christians being devout and devoted American
Christians once again.
And here's what we have to revive foremost in our memory: the fact that God made
His home in a poor virgin’s womb. The fact that He took on the lowly flesh, with all its
struggle and baggage. The fact that He knowingly suffered rejection by His own beloved
people. You know, they once welcomed Him into the holy city with celebration and then
they straightaway cried out like banshees for His brutal and bloody crucifixion. Pretty much
immediately. The cornerstone was once the rejected stone – and He was rejected in such a
blatant and vile way – by all men and women, with us being no exception. And then what:
He was crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and left to die. He underwent all that
disappointment, bitter betrayal, and agony precisely because His priority was our
redemption. His priority was our deliverance, never once deserved. The salvation of all
mankind was His top priority. And He delivered on that priority, defeating the final enemy,
death itself, for all those of faith. He was raised on the third day and ascended into heaven,
leaving us with His Holy Spirit as our comforter.
And that Holy Spirit long ago gave us faith, always a free gift, through our Holy Baptism.
And our Lord returns week after week to strengthen that faith in Holy Communion.
And God, He is always with us, everywhere we go, as He once promised to Joshua
and so many others. He is with us everywhere, speaking to us through His Word, and
through the created world out there and through our own individual conscience. The only
way you can go a whole day, a whole hour even, without deliberately thinking about God is
by putting blinders on – by willfully ignoring His voice and His ever-present nearness and
His loving desire for conversation with you. So don’t do that. But be revived instead. God is
here with you and for you. Believe these words and these promises. And act accordingly.
Let there be a revival of proper priority among us.
Worship God here. Worship Him consciously and with reverence and the deepest
respect, regardless of what people say. This weekly gathering isn’t just a cute thing we do. It
isn’t about keeping up appearances and being hospitable. It is about the one true God
coming to you, entering into your broken body and soul, and fixing you, healing you,
sanctifying you, and making you perfect, a slow process, to be sure – but a sure process
nevertheless. And what an amazing and gracious gift that is. If we honestly believe it, and I
sure hope we do, then how could we ever fail to prioritize this gift of forgiveness, life, and
salvation? It should come first in everything we do and in everything we are. Christ is the
most significant and consequential thing in your life. I know that to be the truth. So do not
lose sight of that important truth. Say it to yourself out loud every morning. All things are
but loss apart from our Lord. Paul got it so right. He got it right unto death by Roman hands,
just like his own Lord. And may we get it right too. No matter what. May we treat Christ,
especially His body and His blood, as being of the greatest eternal worth.
Of course, maybe you’ve messed up though. Maybe you’ve forsaken your Lord in
thought, word, or deed recently. Perhaps you’ve failed to make Him first in your life as of
late. Or maybe you’ve even partaken of His own body and His blood in an unthinking and
potentially unworthy way. That would not be a surprise, seeing as how we all have at some
But that’s okay. You’ve repented of it, you have already confessed it here to God, and are
therefore forgiven. So then, all that’s left to do now is change course. That’s what
repentance is really all about: changing course, turning around. As St. Paul says in
encouragement, forget those things that lie behind and strain instead for what lies ahead.
Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Repentance
and revival, that’s what we’re trying to be about here at Bethlehem.
Today is a new day, friends. You are forgiven and freed – freed the prison chains of
sin’s eternal consequence. Sunday is the eighth day which is the first day of the new
creation – and you are the new creation. It is the first day of the rest of your saintly life.
Your God is here now to absolve and to feed you, to revive you, a miserable sinner, with
His own precious body and blood. And may that body and blood make you brand new. In
the life to come, our Lord Jesus alone is what matters. Focus on that. Meditate on that,
because it is equally as true for this life down below. What is more, tell all your friends
about it. Tell them about Him. And at every step, press on toward the goal of life everlasting
with Jesus and with all His saints. And when you do that, when you put Christ first, take a
moment here and there to truly appreciate the feeling of liberation you then experience, the
feeling of freedom and emancipation from all the oppressive heaviness of this weighty life,
a freedom only our dear Lord can offer. All this stuff, this σκύβαλον all around us, it doesn’t
really matter in the end. All the stress of things and of the profane responsibilities we can’t
help ourselves but have – clinging so desperately to these worldly things just wears down
our already weary souls. However, Christ and His church, His body, our family here and at
home – that’s what matters. That’s what is worth clinging to – in good times and in bad.
And having these as your constant priority, that’s the most freeing thing in this earthly life.
Therefore, with Paul, count all else as loss, beloved. Christ is the sole gain, along with His
body, the faithful Christian church. So press on toward Him. In His holy Name. Amen.
Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “‘Behold, I
am coming soon, bringing My reward with Me, to repay each one for what he has done. I
am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ And it is also
said: Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of
life and that they may enter into the city by the gates… And the Spirit and the Bride say,
‘Come.’ So let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the
one who so desires take the water of life without price.” Dear brothers and sisters in our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Christ the King, He is coming. The liturgical
season of Advent is on the horizon, of course, only three short months out now. And I know
that’s a time of year we all eagerly await, right? If for no other reason than the fact that
Christmas follows it, arguably our favorite church holiday. But more importantly than all
that, for us faithful believers, our Lord’s final advent, His second coming, His ultimate
return on the clouds in glory, His descending from the heavens above just as He once
ascended to them, this most momentous advent of all remains forever on the figurative
horizon, no matter the time of year. And we know that to be true because our Savior tells us
as much in our reading this morning. I ended my sermon last week with these words that we
hear again today – Jesus, the King, promises: “Surely I am coming soon!” – Put otherwise:
“Don’t worry, little flock, My advent, it is coming very shortly.”
Now the holy Christian church has waited many centuries for this advent, millennia
even. Our ancestors in the faith, all the faithful departed who preceded us for two thousand
years, they once waited like we now wait. In years past, theirs was our present wait, it was
no different for them then than it is for us now. They waited patiently, though no doubt with
keen expectation. They, the millions if not billions of sinner-saints from every generation,
longed for Christ Jesus to return and bring them home, just like we do. And it goes without
saying that it has so far been quite a long and protracted anticipation, hasn’t it? Again, two
whole millennia. That’s something of a wait, wouldn’t you say?
Probably the longest wait in all of human history. But no matter how long that wait
continues to last, our Lord’s parting words to His church, recorded in St. John’s apocalyptic
revelation, these words are no less true. For as St. Peter tells us in his second epistle, with
God, one day is a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day. Our Lord is surely
coming soon, and that promise is perfectly kept today, just as it was yesterday and as it will
That is why the church’s chief prayer is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” – the closing
words of Holy Scripture, mind you, with which we are invited to pray ceaselessly. Jesus’
promise to us is only perfected and made more trustworthy with the passage of time, as
paradoxical as that may seem – and so our chief prayer begging for His hastened arrival is
mostly a helpful reminder to ourselves of that fact, a reminder of the reliability of His return
and the reality that it draws nearer with every blink of the eye and with every new spoken
prayer. It is closer with each and every subsequent breath. Closer now … and now … and
closer now … But in this growing wait though, in this drawn-out longing for our dear Lord,
from this day forth until the very last day of all, we have to remain watchful always and as
vigilant as ever, like all those saints who fell asleep before us. Let us never once become
like those foolish virgins in the biblical parable whose oil ran out during the night-watch for
Remember that story? I think it comes up in a month or so in the lectionary. And a
funny story about that story: when I was England a few years back, in a gorgeous Anglican
or Anglo-Catholic church, there was this remarkable statuary depicting the parable of the
foolish and wise virgins. And one of the foolish virgins depicted there, in a striking pose,
looked like this – [face palm] – with a face palm felt for eternity and memorialized in
marble. It was such a funny yet profound sight. You could feel the concrete regret. So no, let
us never be like that, like them, like the foolish virgins. But friends, let us instead be like the
wise virgins and let us be found properly prepared when Jesus does return. Let us be greeted
by the Groom with robes all washed and readied. Let us, the bride of the church, be
composed, well-dressed, attired and adorned for a heavenly matrimony, in a state befitting
the holy Bridegroom Himself.
He is surely coming soon, so we must not delay in this our preparation or lose watch or
vigilance for even the slightest second. And that warning right there, that admonition toward
readiness and diligence you just heard from my thirty-three-year-old lips, that’s what these
closing Sundays of this current liturgical season are really all about. Preparation.
So how? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we make sure we are ready?
How do we anticipate our Lord with patience yet prudence? Christ could come back at any
moment. Or frankly, dear faithful, we could fall asleep and meet Him first at any moment.
This earthly life is fleeting. Our existence is very fragile. Youth, it is no guarantee against
that regrettable reality. None of us here are invincible, none of us can escape our fate, and
none of us can outrun the hour of our end. So how do we prepare ourselves either for His
triumphant return or for our own jubilant journey home? For the end to our wait or for the
end to our lives?
Well, consider this: the Lord’s angel once showed St. John in his vision a glimpse of
the New Jerusalem, with the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, running through a
grove of sheer vitality, through the midst of the tree of life with its many healing leaves –
and the angel as well showed him the eternal sunshine of the Almighty God’s undying and
undiminished radiance, the radiant brilliance of God’s beautiful, incandescent face. But we
are not yet there, obviously. That was but a glimpse for one man seen centuries ago and
recorded for us latter-day believers to give us hope. But here and now, in 2023, on this
wrecked and sin-ravaged earth, instead of a river of life there is rather a great deal of
drought all around, often apparent in the ground beneath our feet, like with the sad Colorado
river out west, but just as much is there drought present and altogether apparent in the
withered and parched hearts of men and women. Sin and its consequences infect and corrupt
all creation. Which is why creation remains so devastated today. Look around: there are
trees right now ready for their death, a white witch’s winter soon approaching, both in
nature with its seasons of discontentment and its misuse and abuse by greedy and careless
men, and more importantly there is persistent winter and disease in the souls of the
unbelieving world out there, too, whose superficially ripened fruits all spoil in eternity. And
there is plenty of darkness, both physical and spiritual. We know that painfully well.
It is dark for lengthy periods of time – we ourselves are soon to endure longer hours of
darkness. And that darkness is equally as actual in the wicked ways of the world. Evil goes
on for days these days. No, as is evident to all with eyes wide to see, we are not yet home.
This devastated world is not our true home, we are but pilgrims here. Yet the Bridegroom is
nevertheless coming soon, to carry us over the threshold, to hurry us there, to hasten us
home, where all things will be made new, where a fresh creation awaits us. Therefore, we
must be found ready, at any time.
So how? How do we make ourselves ready? How do retain the oil in our spiritual
lanterns and keep our robes pure and white? We all want so much to enter into the holy city
of the New Jerusalem by the gates someday and to have a right to that tree of life at its
center once again. So how do we do that? What do we have to do? What can we do? Our
Lord Himself says that He will bring with Him His reward, His recompense, and that He
shall repay each according to what he has done. For us, we will be ready for that reward and
that holy recompense if we wash our robes and keep them clean – we are assured of this.
But how? How do we do that exactly? That’s the important question.
Well, put simply, beloved: you do so by staying put. By being still. By being passive
and receptive. You are already where you need to be. You are already in the true church on
earth, the Church militant, you are in the house of God, you are where robes are washed
weekly and where lanterns are kept continually supplied with a sanctifying oil and are
perpetually lit. But outside, in the hopeless dark out there, in the lamp-less night beyond
these walls, “outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers
and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” as Jesus and St. John warn
us. Now, some of us here have also fallen into sexual immorality at some point, most of us
here are idolaters in some way, shape, or form, we all harbor anger and resentment against
our neighbor, murdering him or her in our own hearts, according to Christ in St. Matthew’s
gospel chapter five, and truth be told, we are all mangy dogs, just like that Canaanite woman
begging for the scraps from the master’s table we heard about some weeks ago.
However, these particular sins mentioned outside, these unfortunate failings, though
grievous and shameful they are, regardless, they are forgivable; and insofar as you’ve
repented and confessed them to God the Father, they are thusly truly absolved. You are
forgiven them. Your robes washed clean again. It is that easy.
Yet what we cannot ever let ourselves become is lovers of falsehood. That is a
completely different story. And that is what staying put and holding fast to the true church
and her true teachings prevents and precludes. That is why it is so important to be here,
within these walls at Bethlehem, in God’s company and in the fellowship of His saints. Sin
is forgiven freely wherever there is repentance and faith, full stop. No sin whatsoever is
unforgivable or unpardonable, except the sin against the Holy Spirit. But falsehood, faith
and falsehood can never coexist. They have nothing to do with one another. One is of the
true God and the other of Lucifer. Falsehood, wherever it perpetuates itself in impenitence is
unpardonable – and in truth, it is the sin against the Holy Spirit, it is akin to blasphemy –
because it is a rejection of the true faith.
Our Lord, when He returns in glory, He will repay us for what we have done. But
what we have done, what we do now, whatever good is wrought and worked by our feeble
human hands, it is not actually even ours to claim, now is it? We went through this a few
weeks back. Instead, it is all the work of the Holy Spirit within us, sanctifying us and others
through us, as mere vessels of God’s good and gracious will – this work is nothing more
than the fruit of our faith, the evidence of our belief – and it doesn’t even belong to us – it
belongs to God alone, Who works faith and belief. Our entrance into the holy city someday,
it has little at all to do with what we are capable of accomplishing by ourselves. We are
sinners, and on our own, we are nothing at all. We would be eternally helpless were it not
for the grace of God. And before that grace, as Luther once scribbled on a deathbed note, we
are all beggars.
No, our passageway into paradise depends solely on faith, it is predicated, based and
contingent on faith alone, on faith in the Son of God worked by the Holy Spirit for the sake
of the Father’s grace – again, the water of life is offered without price, as our reading
promises. We don’t owe anything, because Christ already paid everything. Our hope for the
kingdom rests in belief alone – belief in the truth, belief in Christ, not in falsehood, never in
falsehood nor false teaching. Belief and falsehood are diametrically opposed, the one only
ever diminishes the other. The robes of our bodies and souls were washed clean long ago in
Holy Baptism and they are daily rinsed when we cling to our baptismal faith and when we
drown the old Adam in us in those cleansing waters. Our sin is pardoned every single
Sunday when we walk through those doors there and make our confession collectively as a
church – all our sin, the dirt and the filth are bathed away week by week. Those sins great
and small that so burden your poor souls, they become nothing at all in the eyes of God –
they are forgotten entirely in eternity – the Father solely sees the Son’s sacrifice. And our
lamps, dear friends, our lamps are kept lit, kept oiled, kept readied by the Word proclaimed,
spoken from the lectern and preached from the pulpit. The pulpit and lectern put oil in your
lantern. Think of it that way.
So how do you make yourself ready for the King’s coming? You don’t. You simply
stay put and you receive what is graciously given to you with thanksgiving. You remain in
the bosom of the church; that’s what you should do. You abide precisely where robes and
lanterns are so well cared-for. Right here. You cling to the truth rather than to those
falsehoods and false teachings out there in the world that tug on the sickly souls of sinners,
urging them to abandon the sure certainty they have here in their salvation. There aren’t just
dogs outside, but moreover there are wolves, even wolves in sheep’s clothing. They may try
to tempt you away from the church, or they may lie to you, to your face, and tell you that
you can do something more, that you can add something, that you can do a little bit extra to
ready yourself for the final judgment, or that you can even save yourself in the end. But they
only ever lie. The wolves and the self-righteous hypocrites and legalists are one in the same.
The serpents and the Pharisees are no different, which is why our Lord once called them a
brood of vipers. And they and their falsehoods have no place in the coming kingdom.
Falsehood and faith are sworn enemies. So don’t be carried away by the god of this world
and by the seduction of untruth and false doctrine. Only untruth is unforgiveable. All else is
pardoned by Christ’s bloodshed. Never lose sight of that fact.
You, friends, are saved by grace through faith. You know this. Truth and faith, faith
in the truth, faith in the truth incarnate at Bethlehem and then hung naked on a tree to die
twenty centuries ago, these are what prepare the bride of the church for the coming of the
Bridegroom. So stay put in these, keep steady in the Word and Sacraments, hold still in pure
doctrine and pure practice. Don’t budge and don’t give in – ever. Don’t compromise with
untruth and falsehood. We don’t do that. Our Lord certainly never did.
Read your bible, at least a few verses each day. I’m serious: I implore you to do that
without fail, make it your habit and don’t let yourself break it. Hold yourself accountable.
Or have others hold you accountable. And do the same with your catechism while you’re at
it. Always say your prayers with a willing heart – and even when your heart is unwilling,
say your prayers anyways. Just move your mouth and go through the motions. A willing
heart will come with time. And give thanks to God every morning and night. That is a given.
And tell the people in your life that you are grateful to God for them too. They might
appreciate hearing it spoken out loud once in a while. Ask for guidance and wisdom in your
personal vocations, from God and from others. And when you mess up, which you most
certainly will, as a husband, mother, friend, or brother, seek forgiveness. Don’t waste time.
You don’t know the hour of the Second Coming, nor the hour of your own impending death.
So don’t hesitate. But repent and reconcile. That’s what our religion is all about. And stay
right here, where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. If
you do, then you will be ready for whenever the King finally comes, you’ll be good and
ready until kingdom come. You will be prepared for His permanent advent. Trust me in this.
And yes, you will be ready as well should He first decide to carry you home individually, in
His most able arms, over the threshold of death, into paradise, where you will rest
peacefully in the company of all the saints until that Last Day, until you are raised body and
soul from the grave to inherit the new earth with all the children of God.
The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the King
of glory and of all creation, the Lord of Hosts, He is coming soon, make no mistake. The
truth of that statement has only become truer since this sermon first began twenty or so
minutes ago. And should you ever feel afraid, or too weak to withstand the seemingly
overlong wait, alone or too discouraged and downtrodden to carry on for another difficult
day, then do not despair, dear friends. For behold, Christ the King, He comes to you right
now as well. To pick you up for a little while, to wipe your cheek, to stand you firm and set
you straight, to strengthen and ready you for tomorrow and for the other five days outside
these walls. He comes now, this Sunday, this Lord’s Day, to bear you up for the drought, to
sustain you for the long winter ahead, and to lead you with His unfading light through the
deep darkness of this often-exasperating life. And so very soon, He indeed will come again
in glory at last to make all things new – to put an end to each and every sorrow – to raise the
dead from their defeated death – to grant us access to the river and the tree of life in that
eternal spring on the horizon – to welcome us into His blessed kingdom, where we will live
with Him and all our departed loved ones in the faith in righteousness and under His reign
forever and ever.
Until then though, do not fret, brothers and sisters, everything is going to be alright.
It’s going to be okay. I promise you. Because God is always with you – now – and also
very, very soon. How do we prepare for His coming then? How do we withstand the wait
and ready ourselves for that final advent of His? Well, we do so by being here and receiving
Him when He comes to us right now, in this present and perennial advent – in the Divine
Service, today and next week and the week after that too. So dear saints, I really hope to see
you then. And so does the King, the Holy Bridegroom Himself. In His Name. Amen.