Sunday, November 27, 2011

Last Things First

Texts:    Isaiah 64:1-9;  Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

    WHAT IS OUR HOPE as Christians?  What is the goal and object of our faith?

    To hear some people talk, you'd think it was to make us nicer, more fulfilled individuals, with better marriages, families, and careers in this life.  And with higher self-esteem, too.  In such an understanding of Christianity, the Baby in the manger at Bethlehem is a nice encouragement, but the Son of Man coming again to judge all humanity is not to be thought of at all.  After all, in this world we're taught to put first things first.  But the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, isn't interested in the teaching of this world.  After he greets the saints, about the first subject he mentions is the second coming of their Lord and ours, Jesus Christ.  Hear what he says in verses 7 and 8:

    . . . [Y]ou do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The church in Corinth was eagerly waiting for Jesus Christ to be revealed.  And so they stood in the tradition of the true people of God, for this is the object of our Christian faith: that the great day of the Lord will surely come, when Christ will return as King, the heavens and the earth will be made new, and we will enjoy the kingdom of God in all its perfection.  These things-- The end of the age, the second coming of Christ, the Judgement, and so on-- are known as the Last Things.  And St. Mark, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and all the New Testament writers follow their Master Jesus in urging us Christians to keep Last Things first.

        But why? 

    Because when we keep our focus on the second coming of Christ, we keep our eyes on God's goal for all creation, and when we keep our eyes on God's goal for all creation, we maintain and strengthen our hope in Christ, even in the midst of the troubles and worries of this world.

    And we need hope in this world.  Not the hope that consists in wishful thinking, but the firm and sure hope that depends upon a promise made by Someone we can trust now and into all eternity.  In our Gospel reading from St. Mark, our Lord Jesus declares that the time will come when

    . . . men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man in this discourse.  And thus the disciples know that He is the coming King the prophet Daniel saw in his vision of the Last Things in Daniel 7.  But more than that, the title "Son of Man" tells us that it will be His own human Self, Immanuel, the Child born of Mary who rose from the tomb, who will sit on the throne of God.  And He is God, for the angels are His, and it is His to command them to "gather his elect" from wherever they may be.  That's us, who by the grace of God, have been called by the Holy Spirit into faith in our crucified and risen Savior, all of us in every time and place who have been washed clean by His blood.

    But not all of humanity shares this hope.  Not everyone knows that their eternal happiness depends on their keeping Last Things first. 

    Some don't believe there will be any Last Things at all.  I heard an interview the other night with a man they called an expert on the subject of the Apocalypse.  He admitted that cultures all over the world for the past three thousand years have had prophecies and stories that someday the world as we know it will be destroyed and then made new.  But, he said, all that was false; it was never going to happen.  No, he said, all talk about the end times is just a way for priests and rulers and others in authority to keep people focussed on some future state of perfection, instead of working and maybe fighting and rebelling to make things perfect here and now.

    What do we say to such a man and those who believe like him?  Do we let him undermine our hope, so we stop keeping Last Things first?  He quoted the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, to the effect that it's only some outgrown evolutionary stage that makes people look forward to a end to this age and the birth of one that is new.  Do we tie ourselves in knots trying to prove Richard Dawkins wrong?  There are people who have the gift of apologetics, and God strengthen them as they exercise it.  But there's something even better we can show.  When we speak of the second advent of our Lord and the end of this age, we're not just passing along some gut feeling or old tribal legend.  No, we are quoting the very words of the Son of God.  This Man told His disciples that He would be crucified by the authorities during His next visit to Jerusalem, and that three days later, He would be raised from the dead.  You could say it was inevitable that Jesus would be crucified sooner or later.  But no mere man, not even the wisest and cleverest, can say that He will rise again-- and actually do it.  It is not in the power of any ordinary man to make such a thing happen.

    But Jesus our Lord foretold His resurrection and it did happen, not in myth, not in legend, but in real history, under the authority of a Roman bureaucrat named Pontius Pilate.  When Someone like that tells us that He certainly will return and that by His power death and hell will flee away, you can believe Him.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but His words will never pass away.

    But others, while they may believe this world will end someday, aren't looking forward to it in hope. They can't imagine a better existence than they might achieve in this present age, and the idea of living in fellowship with the Son of God means nothing to them.  Why would they keep Last Things first?  Any second advent of Christ would ruin their whole day!

    And indeed, when we think of our sin, and the judgement to come on the world, how should creatures like us hope and pray for the day of the Lord?  In Isaiah 64 God's people plead that He would come save them in their day of distress.

        Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
               that the mountains would tremble before you!

They look forward to the Lord taking vengeance on His enemies and theirs--

        [C]ome down to make your name known to your enemies
           and cause the nations to quake before you!

But there's a problem.  God's people have been acting like His enemies themselves.  True,

        [the Lord] comes to the help of those who gladly do right,
        who remember your ways.

But Israel has not gladly done right.  They've continued to sin against Him.  "How then," Isaiah asks in behalf of the nation, "can we be saved?"

    What do you do when the One who is your only hope is also the One you most need to fear?  Not because God is some kind of abusive father, but because we have been like adult children who have taken advantage of and robbed and harmed and disgraced Him.  For know this, this passage in Isaiah is not simply about an incident in the history of ancient Israel, it also describes our position before God when we forget Him and go our own way.  In our selfishness and idolatry even our attempts at righteousness are like filthy rags.  How can we who neglect to call on the name of the Lord, who fail to lay hold on God and His goodness find hope in the coming of Christ?  Why should we want to put Last Things first?

    Because the Lord our God is our Father.  He is our Father because like a potter He has formed and made us.  But even more, He is our Father because He has remade us in the image of His Son Jesus Christ.  To cite St. Paul in 1 Corinthians again, thanksgiving can be made for us because of the grace that has been given us in Christ Jesus.  In our sins we were ragged and filthy, we blew away like dried-up leaves.  But in Christ we "have been enriched in every way."  Perhaps not in the material ways this passing world values, but in speaking and knowledge, in ways that build one another up in the faith of the Gospel of Christ.

    Or have we?  This was true of the Corinthians.  Whatever problems they may have had in other areas, they recognised and used the spiritual gifts God had given them.  Paul is saying that God the Father will keep them strong and faithful in the use of these gifts, so they might be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus.

    God has given us gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve Him in the Church as well, till Christ comes.  You do not need to take a spiritual gift inventory to find out what yours is.  Whatever the Holy Spirit is urging you to do, and you know it's the Holy Spirit's urging because it is confirmed by the Word of God, do it!

    This is what our Lord means by saying in Mark that we're like servants a master going on a trip has put in charge of various jobs to do while he's away.  So let's do them!  Let's put Last Things first by loving our neighbor with food and clothing and shelter.  Let us tell them that Jesus died for them just like He did for us, and invite them to church where they can hear the saving good news of eternal life in Him.  Let us do our daily work in ways that benefit others and glorify God, the Master Workman over all.  Let us live holy and gracious lives in the midst of this perverted and wicked world, so that when Jesus comes again we will have no cause to feel ashamed.

    Jesus says, "Keep watch!"  So live the life He has given you on earth to His praise and glory, always with an eye open and an ear tuned to His footstep at the door.  He may come tomorrow; He may for His good purpose delay another thousand years.  But it is the promise of Christ's second advent that gives all our work in this world its meaning and gives our earthly existence its hope.  This life is not one endless grind of things going on the way they always have; it has a purpose and a goal.  Christ came into this world as the Baby of Bethlehem to bear our sins and keep God's righteous commands for us the way we never could.  He will come again as the glorious Son of Man to gather His own that we may be with Him forever.

    Live in this blessed hope.  By His Spirit's power, serve Him in all you do.  And always remember to put the Last Things first.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Word of the Shepherd King

 Texts:    Acts 9:1-6; Galatians 6:7-10; Matthew 25:31-46

     IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A lot like Christmas!  At least, the merchants have had the decorations up for the past three weeks or more.  And up where I live in B--, some people already have their wreaths up in their windows.  However you feel about rushing things like this, in five weeks Christmas will be here.

        But there may be signs something else is coming soon, too.  A lot of people are asking, "Could we be getting closer to the end of the world?"  It's not just false prophets like Harold Camping and chatter about the Mayan calendar and December 2012.  We've got natural disasters coming so thick and heavy.  Civil unrest all over the world, especially in our own streets.  Our whole economic system seems to be headed for collapse, with greed and selfishness championed all the way up and down the economic ladder.  Our moral standards are getting worse and worse, faith is growing cold in many hearts, and even those who call themselves Christians proudly follow their own devices and desires instead of clinging to Jesus their Lord.

    Could these all be signs of the end?

    Maybe, maybe not.  As Christians, we need to be ready for our Lord's return as King and Judge no matter when it occurs.  In Matthew chapter 24 Jesus' disciples asked Him what will be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age.  He told them, and us, that no one knows that day or hour, and that He, the Son of Man, would come as a thief in the night.  Therefore, we must be prepared.  But prepared for what?  Beginning in the 31st verse of Matthew 25, Jesus our coming King tells us what will happen when He returns.

    First of all, Jesus will come as King, King of kings and Lord of lords.  And He will come as the Son of Man.  He will sit on the throne of the universe as a glorified Human Being, in the same flesh He brought with Him resurrected from the tomb.  In Christ, for our sakes, God has become Man forever!  He will sit on His throne as King in heavenly glory, and all the nations will be gathered before Him.  All the nations.  Not just the so-called Christian nations, but all of them, regardless of what religions they professed here on earth.  All people will learn that Christ is King, and Christ alone.

    But what does Jesus mean by "the nations"?  Remember, God ordained that Jesus should be born a Jew.  Jesus was speaking to Jewish disciples in a Jewish context.  For a Jew, the word "nations" (ethne in Greek and goyim in Hebrew) meant the Gentiles.  That is, everyone who wasn't a part of God's chosen people Israel.  The disciples would assume-- and assume rightly-- that God's faithful remnant would find blessedness when Israel's Messiah and King came as Judge.  But what was going to happen to all those other people Out There?

    Something the disciples would not have suspected.  Jesus says He will take the people of the nations and separate them from one another, and some He will put on the right as sheep, and some on His left as goats.  That tells us first that all mankind are under His staff as the universal Shepherd, whether they ever confess faith in Him or not.  In verses 37 and 44 we see that all the dead acknowledge that, they all call Him "Lord."  When Christ sits on His glorious throne, all nations will bow the knee and every tongue will confess that He is King and Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  But on that day He will sort out some who did not visibly belong to His chosen Israel, and He will put them with His chosen ones, with the sheep He loves. 

    These days, we often assume that almost anyone can be saved, if only they're nice enough.  For good 1st century Jews like Jesus' disciples, it would have shocked them to think any Gentiles who didn't convert to Judaism could get into the kingdom at all!

    To these unexpected sheep Jesus the King will say, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world."  Who could have thought it?  Ever since the world began God had included these sheep from the nations in His glorious kingdom, along with His chosen people Israel!

    But why?  On what basis?  Because He was hungry and they fed Him; He was thirsty and they gave Him something to drink; He was a stranger and they invited Him in; He needed clothes and they clothed Him; He was sick and they tended to Him; He was in prison and they came to visit Him.

    These righteous from the nations are amazed.  They don't understand how they could have rendered all these good services to Him, the Lord of glory.  And the King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

    We think we understand this.  But again, Jesus is out to undermine our modern understanding of how things will be at the Judgement, just as much as much as His word subverted the ideas of the typical 1st century Jew.  Here's the question: Who are Jesus' brothers?  Who are His sisters?  Who are this family with whom He identifies so closely?

    Two thousand years ago, the assumption would be that since He was the Jewish Messiah, His brothers and sisters would be the nation of Israel, people who were born Jews by blood.  But over and over again in His teaching Jesus kept letting everyone know that the true Israel was not those who attempted to keep the law in their own righteousness; rather, His brothers and sisters are those who do the will of His Father in heaven, as we read in Matthew 12.  And what is the will of the Father?  St. John tells us that the Father's will is that we believe in the One He has sent, the Man Jesus Christ.

    The consistent teaching of the New Testament is this:  that Christ's brothers and sisters are His believers, the Church.  They-- or rather, we-- are His Body, the New Israel made up of ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles alike, formed by the new covenant in His blood, shed on the cross.

    So in Acts 9 the risen Christ casts Saul of Tarsus down on the road to Damascus and demands, "Why are you persecuting Me?"  Like the righteous from the nations at the Judgement, Saul can't understand.  He'd been attacking a rabble of Nazarene heretics, not this heavenly Being he now had to call Lord!  But Jesus identifies with His Church and says, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."  To do evil to His disciples is to do evil to Him; to do good to His disciples is to do good to Him.

    And who are "the least of these"?  Please note that this doesn't mean "only the least of these."  No, Jesus is saying that the surprised  righteous have done good to Christians even when those believers were so humble no earthly credit could possibly come from it.  Jesus taught us in Matthew 18 that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who humbly repent and become like little children and follow Him.  In Luke 12 Jesus calls His disciples His "little flock" and says that the Father has been pleased to give them the kingdom.  Jesus exalts the humble in His kingdom, and at the judgement the nations will share in their exaltation.

    I realize that this goes against much popular thought on what this passage in Matthew means.  The usual interpretation is that some people will enter the kingdom by believing in Christ, while others can get in by doing good to the financially poor.  But nowhere does the Scripture hold out any possibility of any man or woman entering eternal life on the strength of his or her own good works.  It is only through the blood of Christ shed for us that we can inherit blessedness forever with Him.

    Yes, you might say, but if "the nations" in this passage are those who didn't identify with Christ's Church in their lifetimes, doesn't it sound like they can earn their way in by good deeds done to those who belong to Him?

    Well, think of it this way: When are Jesus' disciples most likely to be hungry, thirsty, refugees, naked, sick, or in prison?  In times of persecution for the faith.  Today, particularly in Muslim and Hindu countries, Christians are being harried, arrested, burned out of their homes, put to death-- all because they dare to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  Now think of yourself as a Muslim neighbor of one of these despised Christians.  Everyone else is pouring on the violence.  But something moves you to step out and help the followers of Christ.  Even though your friends will shun you for it; even though you could be arrested yourself as a Christian sympathizer, you go ahead and open your home to the refugees.  You visit the tortured pastor in prison and work for his release.  You make sure those orphan Christian children are fed and clothed, and you don't pressure them to convert to Islam. Whether you realize it or not, you're identifying with the believers and identifying with Christ.

    In Matthew 10 Jesus sends His disciples out with the good news of the kingdom, warning them they'll face danger and hardship for His sake.  But in all this, He says, "He who receives you receives me," and "anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward," and "if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."

    At the Judgement there will be many who never considered themselves to be part of Christ's flock the Church, but they sympathized so strongly and actively with Christians because they were Christians that Jesus will recognise them as His sheep themselves.  To their surprise they will receive eternal life, the righteous man's reward.

    But what about those on the left, the "goats" who did not minister to Christ's faithful in their need?   To say they didn't identify Christians with Christ will be no excuse.  When they see the King enthroned in glory it's too late to say, "Oh, my Lord, I'd do anything for you!"  What about that insignificant Christian they saw beaten, tortured, starving, or simply slandered out of a job, and they did nothing to intervene?  The King will reply, "If you did it not for the least of these my brothers, you didn't do it for Me."

    So.  Here we are, and we belong to Christ's church on earth. Can we sit satisfied and sure we'll go to the King's right hand in the Judgement?  Not necessarily.  This passage is a warning to us, too.  A lot of people are members of Jesus' New Israel on paper, but actually they belong to the unbelieving nations.
    We have to examine ourselves!  How do we treat our fellow members in the Church?  The truly committed disciple will feed and clothe and help and heal their fellow Christian precisely because he or she is a fellow Christian.  A true believer in our Shepherd King will strive in the Spirit to see and serve Christ in everyone in the congregation, no matter how humble or struggling that other believer may be. 

    In the course of my life I've seen too many churches and church people focus all their ministry on those outside the church.  And yes, like Christ Himself we do extend the love and grace of God to all.  But sitting all around you are brothers and sisters who are hurting.  They're struggling with troubles of body, mind, and spirit.  They need someone to help them repair their house, to watch their kids for an afternoon, to sit for awhile and just listen.  But there's this assumption in the Church today that as soon as someone becomes a believer, they're set up for life and have all they need.  No!  Jesus calls us into His little flock because we do need each other, and He expects us to minister to one another for His sake.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers."

    Remember, Paul puts the command for Christians to do good in the context of judgement.  If we take one another for granted, if we live to please our sinful natures, we will reap destruction.  Goats all along we will show ourselves to be, and as Jesus says, we'll go into eternal punishment.  But if we follow the Spirit of Christ who has saved us and do good to one another, we will show that we are His sheep. We will reap eternal life and enter into the blessed inheritance prepared for us by our heavenly Father before the creation of the world.

    As baptised believers, we no longer belong to the nations; we are citizens of Christ's new chosen people and sheep of His little flock.  Since this is true, let us strive in the Spirit to do the things that belong to Christ.  Do good to all, but especially to your brothers and sisters in the faith, from the greatest to the least.  Care for, help, and build up one another because you belong to Christ.  And so by His grace, His judgment at the end of the age will bring no fear for you, but only exultation, blessedness, and joy as together with all the saints you enter the realm of your Shepherd King.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Master's Property

Texts:    2 Timothy 4:1-5; Matthew 25:14-30

    HAVE YOU EVER DONE RENOVATIONS to your house?  Or maybe you watch DIY programs like Holmes Inspection on TV.  If you do, you know how it goes.  You start out to do some improvement, to put in a new bathroom or whatever, but when you do the tear-out you discover there's rot in the walls or the foundation is weak or the plumbing is about to burst.  And instead of getting straight to the fun things like tiling and painting, you have to go back and redo the basic structure.

        We're in that position this morning as we look at Jesus' parable of the talents as it comes to us in Matthew chapter 25, verses 14-30. We've got to do some tearing out before we can begin to build.  The problem is this word "talent."  In ancient times, it had nothing to do with someone's personal endowments or abilities, it was simply a unit of weight, used especially for mass quantities of precious metals.  Over the centuries, however, the English language has taken this word, from this very parable, and changed its meaning to connote our God-given natural abilities, or, as we say, our talents.  So we build on that to conclude that Jesus will hold us accountable for how we put our natural gifts like singing or reasoning or entrepreneurship into service for Him.

    And this is true. He will hold us accountable for that.  But in this parable the word "talents" is referring to something different from our abilities.  Look at verse 15.  It says there that the master gave talents of money to each of his servants, "each according to his ability."  The servants' abilities or natural gifts were something different from the property their master entrusted to them. What profit they would make from it would go along with the abilities-- or, as we would say, the talents-- they already had.

    The talents in this parable do not naturally belong to the servants themselves.  They are, as it says in verse 14, the master's property.  Very valuable property, too.  The weight of a talent varied across the ancient world, but in 1st century occupied Israel it came to 2,080 ounces.  To get an idea of its value, let's reckon it up as gold.  At yesterday's price, one of those talents would have been worth $3,718,728.00.  Just one.  This property is the master's, and it is very, very precious.

    As we heard last week, in these parables our Lord is answering the disciples' question in Matthew 24:3, " . . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"  In the parable of the talents, a master goes away, and after a long time, the master returns.  The Master is Christ, and He warns us to be prepared for His coming at the end of the age. 

    Jesus begins the parable by saying, "Again, it will be like . . . " What will what be like?  Look back at verse 1 of chapter 25: "At that time"-- the time of His coming and the end of the age-- "the kingdom of heaven will be like . . . "  He is speaking of the time of His return.  So when Christ returns as Judge, it will be like a master who has entrusted his great and precious property to his servants and gone away, expecting to find they've turned a profit with it when he returns to settle his accounts. 

    Brothers and sisters, the kingdom of God will not begin with the moment of Christ's return.  We who believe in Him live under Jesus' rulership right now, and it affects how we His servants work with His property in the long weeks and months and years until He comes.

    So what is this property He puts into the hands of His servants?  If it isn't our natural abilities, if it isn't even the spiritual gifts He gives us for ministry, what could it be?

    We can find a clue in Matthew 13, in the parable of the sower.  There, various kinds of soil receive the same seed and yield different amounts of increase, depending on the nature of the soil.  In the parable of the talents, different kinds of servants receive the same kind of money in different amounts and yield different amounts of increase, depending on the nature of their abilities and attitudes.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 13:19 that the seed sown is the message about the kingdom of heaven.  The Master's property in Matthew 25 are the same thing: It is the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God, come to earth to establish the kingdom of God as its divine Lord and King.  As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15,

    [This is] the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. . . .  that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures [and appeared to many faithful witnesses].

Christ's servants the apostles were good and faithful.  By their labors we have received the trust of this good news, too.  His glorious gospel is the currency of the kingdom, and in this parable Jesus our Master charges us to put it to work for Him until He comes.

    So again, if we're talking gold, one servant receives five talents, worth around $18,600,000 at today's prices; one is entrusted with two, about $7,400,000; and the last servant is handed one talent at about $3,700,000.  Verse 16 says the first man immediately put his five talents to work. This man exerted himself to do business with his master's property so it might be increased, and the second servant did the same.

    So how do we exert ourselves in the business of the Gospel?  What is the Gospel's business, anyway?  The Word of Christ on earth has three primary purposes: For grace-- that is, to bring salvation and redemption to the sinner; for growth-- to build up the Church and each individual member in it so we achieve the full likeness of Jesus our Saviour; and for glory-- for the greater glory of God, and for the ultimate glorification of all His saints in Him.

    Each of us is given the Good News of Christ crucified and risen for us and for the sins of the world.  Our depth of understanding may be greater or lesser, but each of us in the Church have heard-- or should be hearing-- what Jesus has done for us.  According to the abilities we have from God, we minister this Word to one another and to the pagan at our door, so that grace, growth, and glory may increase and abound.

    Five-talent people might be those like St. Paul, or, more recently, someone like C. S. Lewis.  When the Holy Spirit brought him out of the darkness of modern paganism, Lewis took the wonderful riches of Christ's gift of salvation and multiplied it in his speaking and writing, and his profit to his Master increases to this day all around the world.

    We can't all be five-talent servants of our Lord.  But we can be good and faithful in our sphere and according to our abilities.  We can be like that wise Sunday School teacher who influenced the children in the church for grace, growth, and God's glory up to the time of her death.  We can be godly parents who lead our children in the way of the Lord, and never take it for granted that they know that Jesus died for them.  We can exert ourselves to increase in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as we study His word and participate in His sacraments.  We can be good capitalists of the Word-- if I dare use the term in these protesting times-- and follow Paul's charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy chapter 4, being prepared in season and out of season to communicate the Word of Christ.  For all Scripture-- all of which speaks of Christ, as He Himself reminds us-- is God-breathed and is useful-- profitable-- for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  So, put it to work, beginning in your own life and the life of your household.  Paul's charge applies especially to us pastors and elders, but all of us who have been entrusted with the good news of Jesus Christ should be prepared at all times to give anyone who asks a reason for the kingdom hope that is within us, so our Master's property might increase.

    What about the third servant?  The other two each increase their master's property 100% and the master commends them, entrusts them even more responsibility, and invites them to share in his great happiness.  But this man buries his $3,700,000 in the ground and very disrespectfully hands it back to his master on his return.  In our understanding of the parable, did he ever truly belong to Jesus Christ at all?

    As any human being belongs to God, yes.  Physically, he was a resident worker in the master's household.  But in his heart and mind, he was not the master's man.  He's like those who sit in church for decades letting the preaching wash over them, but they're never actually converted.  They think they know all about God and what He's really like, and they think they're smarter than He is.  And kinder and more loving, too.  The Jews in Jesus' day knew that God for centuries had made a practice of only saving a remnant of His chosen people. But then He'd go and have mercy on Gentiles.  How was that fair?  "Hey, God, don't You have enough to do taking care of us Jews?  Why meddle with people who pledge allegiance to other gods?  They don't belong to You!"  And so in the parable, "Master, I knew you were a hard man, harvesting where you had not sown and gathering where you had not scattered seed."  A man like that today might reason, "God's going to save whoever He's going to save, whether I say anything to anybody about Jesus or not.  And He'll send to hell anybody He feels like, even if they're really good people.  So why should I get myself in trouble in this world by going around talking about Jesus?  Let God get back what He gave, and keep me out of it."

    This is a terrible distortion of the truth.  But many church members use it so they don't have to exert themselves to increase their Master's property in the kingdom of heaven.  The master in verse 26 in effect says, "So that was your opinion of me?  In that case, you should truly have been afraid to return my money to me profitless.  You should've at least put the money to the bankers so I'd get some interest out of it."

    Now, I humbly admit that I am not certain how our Lord wants us to understand and apply this.  Most Bible commentators I've read skip right over it!  Jews weren't allowed to charge interest, so perhaps the master is saying, "All right, you've called me a cruel man and a thief; why didn't you put my money out at interest so you could call me a usurer, too?"  In that case, it would be a warning against speaking ill of our Lord and God.  But Jesus often used the unrighteous practices and people of this world to illustrate truths about the good of the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus could be saying to so-called followers like that, "You were afraid to speak the Gospel yourself?  Very well, you should at least have opened your home to My apostles who were speaking it.  You should have supported My missionaries and evangelists, even if you never said a word about Me yourself.  Then you would have received for Me some of what they earned."  (This is just a possibility, and if the Holy Spirit commends it to you, good; if not, let it alone.)

    But Jesus' conclusion is clear: As Paul says, when Christ, the righteous Judge, returns on the last day, He will reward His good and faithful servants with a crown of righteousness-- a crown that will signify their responsibility over much more than He entrusted to them on this earth.  But those who take the Gospel for granted, those who think the message of Christ crucified is a word of intolerance and exclusion, those who play it safe in church and bury their Master's property, they will be cast away from His presence into outer darkness forever.  They will find that what they thought they had of Christianity and Jesus will be taken away, but those who truly have laid hold on the truth of the gospel and increased grace, growth, and God's glory in this world, they'll find their share in Jesus Christ and His work wonderfully increased in the world to come.

    Which kind of servant will you and I be?  Our Master Jesus has entrusted His property to us, the infinitely valuable good news of sins forgiven in His blood.  He has also given us abilities, natural and spiritual, so we can put the Gospel to work.  May we be those receive His trust and immediately set to work for the increase of His kingdom.  And when Christ comes again in glory, may He gladly say to us,

    "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Emergency Preparedness

Text :    Matthew 24:36-44; 25:1-13

   ANYTHING WORTH DOING IN life needs to be prepared for.  You all had to prepare to come to church this morning.  I made preparations so I could be with you to share God's Word.  You prepared when you got married and when you had your children.  People prepare to do their jobs, to go on vacation, to retire.  At least, they do if they're wise.  

        Then there are the kind of things that are bound to come into every life, but we can't know for sure when or how.  Sudden illness or the loss of a job.  And what about those life emergencies we hope won't happen to us, but might?  Nobody plans to undergo natural disasters like floods or wildfires or devastating Fall snowstorms, but it's still wise to be prepared.

    Emergency preparedness is preached to us from all quarters.  Have enough food stored up!  Formulate a meet-up plan for your family!  Buy gold and silver for when the market collapses!  But for the ultimate emergency this world will ever see, how can we be ready?  What do we need to do, what do we need to lay up for ourselves to be prepared?     

    In chapters 24 and 25 of the gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord Jesus tells what it will be like when the Kingdom of heaven finally emerges in all its stupendous grandeur, on that day when Jesus Christ Himself will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

    In the portion we read from chapter 24, we see that His coming will indeed be an emergency.  For the most part, people will be living life as normal when the Son of Man returns.  "As it was in the days of Noah," Jesus says in verse 37, people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.  That's not to say there will be no signs of His coming; no, it's just that we humans have an amazing capacity to be blind to anything that threatens our everyday routine.  When Jesus comes again, believers and unbelievers alike will be going about their ordinary work, making a living, doing what people do.  Two men in a field: one taken, one left.  Two women grinding grain together: one taken, one left.  Incidentally, the Greek word rendered "taken" in our modern translation has a positive meaning in Matthew's gospel; the idea is of taking someone to be with you, not taking them off to destruction. 

    Whichever category we fall into, the coming of Christ will be an unexpected emergency, and Jesus says we believers need to be prepared.  "Therefore keep watch," says Jesus in verse 42, "because you don't know on what day your Lord will come."  In fact, for those who are not prepared, Jesus' second coming will be like having your house broken into in the middle of the night.  "So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come when you do not expect him."

    So what does it mean for us to be prepared for His coming?  Jesus tells four parables to help us understand.  The first is the parable of the faithful and wise servant, which Matthew relates in verses 45 to 51 of chapter 24.  We didn't read that section this morning, but it shows us that a big part of being ready consists in doing those acts of service towards one another that Jesus Himself commands for us day after day.  This parable is especially addressed to pastors and elders, whose responsibility it is to give the Master's other servants their food at the proper time-- the food of the Word of God.

    But what happens when we've done all we can to be ready,  and all we can do is wait?  The second part of today's reading helps us with that question.

    If we want to understand the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it will help to know a little about first century Jewish marriage customs.  The practice was that when a young man took a fancy to a particular young women, he, or his father on his behalf, would approach the girl's father and make an offer for her hand.  The men would settle on the financial arrangements, then the young woman would be brought in to see if she agreed to have the young man.  If so, the marriage covenant was sealed with a glass of wine and the engagement was made.  As we know from the story of Mary and Joseph, this engagement had the effect of marriage, and a formal divorce was necessary to break it.  The only difference was that the couple would not come together for a year or more after this.  The girl continued to live in her father's house, and the young man would return to his father's property, to build a dwelling where he and his new bride would live.  Then, when all was ready, he would come by night with his groomsmen to the bride's house, in a torchlight procession to take her away to be with him.  When they approached her house, the best man would shout out, "Look! The bridegroom has come!  Come out to meet him!"  The groom would lay claim to his bride, and her bridesmaids would join the torchlight procession back to his home and the home of his father, where the marriage would be completed with the formal ceremony, the consummation of relations between the bridal pair, and a week of feasting by the family and their guests.

    Now, it is said that some grooms liked to take their brides totally by surprise.  But in this parable, Jesus says that at the time of His coming, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who have gotten word that the groom is coming  sometime very soon.  Five are wise, and five are foolish.

    Let me say that with Jesus' parables, we must be careful not to turn them into allegories.  An allegory is a story where every last detail symbolizes something specific, whereas the point of a parable is, well, to make a point.  It is proper to say that the bridegroom who is coming is Jesus the Son of Man Himself.  But the point of this parable is preparedness, especially, preparedness for an event that we know definitely is coming, but we don't know exactly when.

    At first, it looks like all ten of the bridesmaids are ready.  They've all heard the bridegroom is coming tonight, and they've  all taken up their positions in the street near the bride's house.  All of them have lamps-- torches, actually, it would have been-- for the procession back to the house of the groom.  They did all they could do, and now, all they could do was wait.

    So it is with us.  We know Jesus will definitely return someday.  We look around ourselves these days, and we think that perhaps, just maybe, the signs are right that He may well come back in our day.  In contrast to the faithful servant of the previous parable, this teaching is not so much about taking action or doing, but about our attitude of heart and mind.

    For Christ our Bridegroom, for His good purpose, does delay.  And we are weak and human, and like those ten girls we simply cannot be looking out for His coming all the time.  Sometimes we have to sleep.  We have to take care of the ordinary business of life.  Neither the foolish nor the wise virgins are condemned for sleeping; it's just a fact of the situation.  True preparedness is revealed when the emergency occurs, when they're all awakened by the midnight cry, "Here's the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him!"

    It's too late now to take thought about what they will do or what they need.  It's time for them to put their torches in order to light the bridal couple back to the father's house.

    But the foolish girls have brought little or no oil.  Their torches are going out as soon as they are lit.  "Give us some of your oil!" they demand of the others.  But the answer is no.

    Are the wise virgins selfish and cruel not to share?   This detail tells us that when Jesus speaks of "oil" He is referring to something belonging to each person, that can't be shared.  In Scripture, oil tends to signify the Holy Spirit and His anointing.  It'd be foolish of us, though, to think that the Holy Spirit were some sort of commodity, something we can have more or less of.  Rather, think of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life.  He's the One who brought you to salvation.  He's the one who confirms the grace of Christ to you in baptism and Holy Communion.  The Spirit illuminates the Word of God to you are you read it and as you hear it preached.  The Spirit causes you to have a wise attitude of heart, full of faith in your Lord Jesus, a heart that can persevere in any kind of trial, no matter how long He may delay. 

    But there are many in the church who simply are going along for the ride.  They think they can enter the kingdom of heaven on someone else's faith.  They believe, foolishly, that they don't need to know anything about Christ and what He has given to them in His death and resurrection.  Their Jesus is only a creature of their own imagining, a mascot to help them get along in this life, but no good for the life of the world to come. Those who are foolish are not really expecting Christ to return as Lord and Judge; even less, they do not eagerly desire to see Him appear as the beloved Bridegroom of the Church.  If that's your attitude, what do you need a heart and mind prepared by the Holy Spirit for? 

    But those who are wise do walk according to the Spirit. They take advantage of the means of grace that He provides them, so they will have light when the crisis comes.

    When Jesus returns, it will be too late to get ready.  The wise virgins literally are sending the foolish girls off on a fool's errand when they tell them to go find someplace to buy oil at midnight.  Interpreted, their words mean, "You should have prepared when there was time.  We cannot share with you; it simply isn't possible, and now you must take the consequences of your foolishness."  But those who are like the foolish virgins will actually think they will be able to purchase the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives at the time when Christ returns.  But it will be too late.  The very fact that they will attempt such a thing shows that they do not belong to Christ at all, however much they have appeared to be part of the visible Church, and the door to the marriage feast of the Lamb will be closed against them. 

    "I do not know you" they will hear.  This is not a statement of simple fact on the part of the Bridegroom, but a formal rejection of those who did not care for Him enough to be ready at His coming.

    What of us?  Are we ready for Christ's return, no matter how long He may delay?  Are we improving our baptism by heeding and following the Holy Spirit as He ministers to us in Word and Sacrament?  When the ultimate crisis comes in your life, be it death or the coming of our Lord to judge the living and the dead, will you be firm in your faith that He died for your sins and rose to give you life eternal?  This isn't something you can do in your own strength or your own effort.  This grounding of heart and mind can't be acquired at the last minute when the shout of the archangel announces that the Lord is near.  It is yours only by the gracious gift of Jesus Christ in His Holy Spirit.  Be wise and follow His leading as He strengths you by the Word of Scripture.  Let Him serve you with Christ and all His benefits at the Table of the Lord and as you remember your baptism.  May He confirm to you more and more each day that your Lord Jesus Christ is coming, He is coming soon, and that will be the most glorious, joyful day of your life.

    For although Jesus wants us to see ourselves in the bridesmaids in this parable, we must never forget that ultimately, we who are called and confirmed by His Spirit are also the Bride.  Your Beloved is coming!  Live the life on earth He has given you, but be ready, always ready to run to meet Him when He comes.

    Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!  Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Always Being Reformed According to the Word of God

Texts:    Nehemiah 7:73b-12; Matthew 23:1-12

TODAY WE OBSERVE Reformation Day.  It was October 31, 1517, when the issues that'd been fermenting for decades  in the Church of Jesus Christ came to a head and nothing would ever be the same.  Reformation Day marks the official beginning of the Protestant Church, for when Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, he was protesting against the evils and degeneracies that were rife in the church he loved.

    Luther was followed by Calvin, and Melanchthon, and Knox, and all the other great Protestant Reformers who lived and died by this confession: That we are saved not by our works, but by Christ alone by God's grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone, this truth being revealed to us in Scripture alone.  In the life of the people of God, reformation is not a one-time thing; it's required again and again, as often as we go astray from the truth of the grace of God and as often as He sends His Spirit to bring us back to Him again.

    In our Scripture passages this morning we read of two occasions in Israel's history when God's people were in desperate need of reformation.  In Nehemiah, the reformation is underway.  In Matthew, it appears to be too late.

    The assembly in Nehemiah 8 takes place about a hundred years after the Jews were first given permission to return to the land of Israel after the exile to Babylon.  The exile shook to the foundations everything the Jews understood about their covenant with God.  But as they studied the Law and the Prophets, they came to realize that even in this terrible situation the Lord was still with them and still had a purpose for them.  They saw that it was their sins that had caused the Lord to drive them out of the land, and they returned to Judea with a heart of repentance and reformation.

    But as we read in the twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the book of the prophet Haggai, after awhile the returned exiles became complacent and lazy towards God.  They erected their own houses and didn't restore the Temple.  They feared the opposition of their non-Jewish neighbors and didn't trust God to protect them.  So they didn't rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Worse, they began to fall back into the same sins that had gotten them thrown out of the Promised Land in the first place: Marrying foreign wives and adopting their religious practices.  Desecrating the Sabbath.  Oppressing the poor, not supporting the worship of the Temple as prescribed by the Law of Moses, and so on.  Spurred on by Ezra and Nehemiah, they put in the effort and the Temple and walls were rebuilt.  But spiritually, they needed reformation.  How was it to come about?  Would it be enough if all the heads of households simply pledged to keep God's covenant?  They did do that.  But how were they to know what God's covenant will was?

    Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest and scribe knew:  True reform would come to the people only if they were brought back to the written Word of God, delivered to Moses in the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  So in Nehemiah 8 we see the people, men, women, and all children who were old enough to understand, standing in the square beside the Jerusalem Water Gate, listening to Ezra read the Word of God to them. 

    How could they know God's will unless they knew God's Word?  God's people could be remade and remolded only according to the original plan and pattern He set for them.  The people listened to the Word of God read to them in Hebrew.  Most of them no longer understood their ancestral language, so the Levites went through the crowd and translated the Word into Aramaic for them, so, as it says in verse 8, the meaning would be clear.

    And the message of the Word became clear, painfully clear.  These spiritual ancestors of ours were devastated.  They were cut to the quick by the enormity of their sin.  They mourned and wept, as we read in verse 9. 

    Any true reformation born of God's Word and Spirit first convicts us of our sin.  The Scripture confronts us with how far short we fall of God's will for us.  It exposes how we have gone wrong, and God's Spirit moves us to grieve at how we have offended against the Lord who saved us once and loves us still.

    But after grief, the Word brings hope.  Its message of salvation does not leave us in our distress.  It doesn't stomp us into the ground and tell us how worthless and meaningless we are.  No, God's Word calls us to lift up our heads and rejoice in the Lord, for He has saved and forgiven us.  Through His power we can amend our lives and our practices and be the church He intends for us to be.  This is cause to celebrate!  As Nehemiah says to the people in verse 10, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

    "The joy of the Lord is your strength"!  True reformation according to the Word of God brings joy!  Joy in the Lord who is our salvation, and strength, because God Himself is joyful when His people return to Him in faith and humility.

    God's people the Jews needed to be reformed by the Word of God.  And again and again up to the coming of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Messiah, they needed reformation. 

    The Pharisees began as a reform movement.  They started out well, in the days of the Maccabean kings, about two hundred years before Jesus was born.  They worked hard to call their Jewish brethren back to the Law of God and away from Greek and secular innovations.  But so zealous were they, that over the years they began to see themselves as the only true interpreters of the Word.  They were so anxious that everyone should keep all the laws of worship and ritual just-exactly, that they came up with all sorts of additional guidelines and rules setting out their ideas of what God in His Word had really meant.  This oral law took on the same force as the original Law that the Lord delivered to Moses, whether it was faithful to the original meaning or not.

    By Jesus' day, things had gotten very bad with the Pharisees, but they didn't realize it.  They didn't see they'd missed the whole reason that God had given the Law to Moses in the first place-- to prepare a holy people through whom the Savior of the world should come.  They were like a bride who's so concerned with getting the pearl decorations on her headdress just right that she forgets to show up at the altar to meet her groom.  The Word of God no longer had power to bring repentance and joy in their lives.  Or, should I say, the Lord had withdrawn His Spirit from them so that they could not and would not hear the truth of the Word, and repent and be saved.

    In chapter 23 of the gospel according to St. Matthew Jesus pronounces woe and condemnation on the Pharisees.  They were beyond being reformed and they sought to keep others from being reformed, too.

    Yes (as He says in verse 2), "The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat."  They were like college professors with multiple doctorates.  By training they were qualified to teach what God had given through Moses.  They were the only sect in 1st century Judaism who made any effort to instruct the common people in the word of God.  So, as they taught according to the Torah, the people should obey them and do as they say.  But do not do as they do, Jesus warns us.  Do not follow the way they show off their outward obedience and inwardly are full of impurity, meanness, and unbelief.  Do not follow the way they claim to love God, but reject His Messiah, Jesus Himself.  Do not make the teaching of the Word of God all about ourselves and our greatness, instead of us being all about what God has done.  Do not be like them and make the voice of Scripture a burden and a trial to one another, instead of a light bringing repentance and the joy of the Lord.

    The Pharisees thought they didn't need to be reformed.  They thought the way they were doing things was a reformation in itself. In Matthew 23 Jesus tells His disciples and the crowds that God was finished with the Pharisees and their pretensions.  So do not aspire to be called "Rabbi," which literally means, "My great one."  Do not look to any human being as your spiritual master or teacher, for Christ alone is your supreme teacher.  In the life of the spirit, do not adorn any man with the title "father," for God in heaven alone is the Father of all the faithful.  No, for "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

    As Presbyterians, we celebrate the Protestant Reformation.  We proudly stand in the tradition of Luther and Calvin.  So is it enough for us to look back five hundred years to a reformation that is finished, accomplished, complete?  Or are we, in our own time and place, in need of reformation so we will be a church pleasing to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and Cornerstone of the church?

    Considering what's been going on in our denomination lately, I think most of us would give that question a resounding "YES!!"  As a church body, we do need reformation in our time.  But let's not deceive ourselves.  Yes, it's harmful for us to celebrate open transgression.  It's distressing when we who call ourselves "Reformed" don't extend the redeeming grace of Jesus to those who tragically identify with their besetting sin.  But it's worse when we fall away from the faith of Jesus Christ in ways that seem innocent, even helpful, and don't even notice how faithless we've become and don't realize how much in need of reformation we really are.

    How many of us would agree to the following tenets:
1) "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
2) "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
4). "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when He is needed to resolve a problem."
5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."

    Does this sound like Christianity to you, let alone Reformed Christianity?  It is not.  It's a counterfeit, false religion called moralistic therapeutic deism.  There is no room here for the sovereign Lord of the Bible.  It says nothing about our sin and our desperate need for a Savior.  It has no real need of the Son of God who hung on a cross to purchase forgiveness for us.  It does not acknowledge that our sovereign God has a claim on every part of our lives, nor does it bow the knee in awe and thanksgiving at His grace that alone will allow us into His presence when we die.

    But this is the creed many of us live by, a false creed we must reject.  The watchword of the Reformed churches is that we are "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei"-- "The Church Reformed, always to be reformed according to the word of God."  Without close knowledge of God's Holy Scriptures, without the Holy Spirit confirming their truth to our hearts and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ the living Word, our attempts at self-reformation will be worse than useless. 

    God's good news to us is that we are saved by Christ alone by God's grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone.  This truth is revealed to us in Scripture alone, the Word of God that is as close as the Bible on our shelf.  Take up, read; repent, rejoice, and be reformed, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Higher Than the Angels

Texts:   Hebrews 2:5-18; Matthew 22:15-33
IS THE RESURRECTION OF THE dead and the life of the world to come essential to Christianity?  Would following Christ be any less worthwhile if we had no hope of personally rising again at all?

    The Scripture teaches us absolutely, yes, without this hope, our faith would have no worth at all.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."  And in verse 32 of that same chapter he says, "If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" Isaiah, St. Peter, St. John, St. Jude, and many more of the inspired writers of God's word also agree that we are meant for a life in God that does not end with our last breath, but continues in the power of the risen Christ forever more. 

    In the same way, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews  wants us to realize that Jesus Christ in His own body made the ultimate, perfect sacrifice in order that we might be raised with Him and live forever in the very presence of God.  Jesus' whole purpose on this earth was to live and die so He could destroy death for us, His brothers and sisters, and bring all of us together with Him into the glory of the kingdom of heaven.

     The Sadducees knew that the resurrection of the dead was key to our Lord's teaching, though they didn't believe in it at all.  If they could undermine Jesus' doctrine of bodily resurrection, they could demolish Him and His entire ministry.  St. Matthew records the encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees in chapter 22 of his gospel.

    You'll remember that Jesus is teaching in the Temple the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem And that the Sadducees weren't the first to come at Him that day with what they thought were sure-fire "gotcha" questions.  The Pharisees and the Herodians had failed, but the Sadducees thought they could do better.  Again, this Jewish sect didn't believe in life after death.  They denied the existence of angels and demons.  They maintained that only the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy:; that is, the Torah, were authoritative for God's people Israel.  They claimed to be more faithful to the exact words of Moses than the Pharisees were with their oral law.

    So that same day at the Temple, Matthew tells us, the Sadducees came to Jesus to challenge Him on the resurrection of the dead.  Their question was designed to make the doctrine-- and Jesus-- look so ridiculous and even so immoral as to blow Him and it away like chaff in the wind.  The question is based on the Mosaic law about levirate marriage.

    Briefly, levirate marriage (from the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother) was instituted by God to make sure that no Hebrew line would die out or lose their inheritance in the Promised Land.  Remember, under the old covenant given at Sinai, the promises of God were centered around possession of the land.  Here's how the command reads in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

    If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

    Usually, marrying your brother's widow could count as incest, but in this case, the need to maintain the family line took priority in the sight of God.

    Given all this, the Sadducees raised a hypothetical question concerning a whole family of seven brothers, none of whom can manage to beget children.  All of them in turn try to do their levirate duty towards one wife and widow, and all die childless.  Hey, Jesus, what about that?  "At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"

    They think they've got Him.  Jesus will have to deny the law of levirate marriage as given by God to Moses.  Or He'll have to overturn the principle that God makes marriages, as written in Genesis.  Or He'll condemn Himself by approving a vile incestuous arrangement where one woman has relations forever with seven husbands at once.

    Jesus confounds this immediately:  "You are in error, because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God!"

    Where were the Sadducees so wrong?  They were assuming that people who believed in life after death were looking forward to a mere continuation of this earthly existence, but without the disease, deprivations, and troubles.  The Sadducees claimed to be ever so exact and careful about the word of God as recorded by Moses, but they really didn't understand it at all.  If they'd really known the Scriptures, they would have seen God's wondrous power recorded there and recognised His ability to bless and favor His chosen people in ways they could never have imagined ahead of time.  They would even have discovered hints that man made in the image of God does not end when his body is consigned to the dust.

    No, responds Jesus, the life of the world to come will be wonderful, new, and different.  "At the resurrection," He says, "people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."  Moreover, the same Torah that the Sadducees accept and claim to defend itself testifies that God's saints live on after physical death.  Had they not read what God said to them in Exodus 3:6?  The Lord testified to Moses at the burning bush, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."  Not, "I was," but "I am now and ever shall be their God," How?  Because by God's power His saints yet live.  So, declares our Lord Jesus, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living!"

    Isn't it satisfying to see Jesus defeat His enemies?  May it satisfy us even more to hear Him uphold our hope for eternal life and blessing with Him.  When Jesus extinguished the argument of the Sadducees, He did it for us, and for all who believe in His name.  As Hebrews tells us, Christ was born and died to bring many sons to glory; that is, to resurrection life.  He claims you and me and all who believe as His brothers and sisters, and makes us holy like Himself.  We will be raised again in perfectly renewed bodies like His own, and then He will proudly present us to His Father and ours:   "‘Here am I,'" He will say, "‘and the children God has given me.'"

    Hebrews 2:14 says that by His death on the cross Jesus destroyed our fear of death.  Not as if to say, "Don't worry, death's nothing to be afraid of, it's only like a dreamless sleep." Rather, He gives us a firm and certain hope of new life with Him in glory.  How?  By Jesus' sacrifice of Himself, wherein He made perfect atonement for the sins of God's people.  Sin handed us over to the devil.  Sin brought upon us the wrath of God and condemned us to die.  But like a faithful high priest Jesus has ministered the sacrifice of His own body to God in our behalf, that our sins might be taken away and we might share in His life that nothing can destroy.

    The Sadducees erred with their limited, distorted view of what resurrection life would be.  But frequently, sincere Christians also carry around a mistaken view of the life of the world to come.  Again, in Matthew 22:30 Jesus told the Sadducees, "At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."  And from this many people mistakenly conclude that human beings are transformed into angels when they die.

    Should a preacher say anything against this?  After all, if it gives someone comfort to believe that his or her deceased loved one is an angel in heaven, why disturb it?

    But I must disturb that belief, because God's promises to us in the resurrection of the dead are so much greater, so much more marvellous, so much more comforting, that I would fail both God and you if I didn't tell you about them, if I caused you to miss out on the peace the Lord has for you, or robbed Him of the praise He is due.

    When Jesus says the resurrected saints will be like the angels in heaven, He is telling us that in the world to come, there will be no need of marriage.  The joy and communion happy married couples experience is only a foretaste of the holy union of spirit that all of us will know with God and one another when our bodies are raised and made new.  This is the joy the angels know now, and we will know then.

    But the writer to the Hebrews says even more about human beings and angels.  In 2:5 he reminds us that it wasn't to angels that God subjected the world to come.  No, it was to Man, to the Man Jesus and to all the human beings who like you and me are included in Him.  In verses 6 through 8 he quotes Psalm 8, which we used as our Call to Worship.  This psalm reminds us that at creation we were made a little lower than the angels-- which is to say we were different from angels, but still ranked very high in God's estimation indeed.  Everything was put under the feet of our first parents-- but as we know, they sinned.  So our Lord came from heaven and was born as the Son of Man.  He who was the King of angels was found in human flesh and became a little lower than they.  And now through His obedience unto death He is highly exalted, higher than all angels, archangels, principalities, and powers, crowned with honor and glory.

  Jesus has regained for mankind the rank we had at the beginning, and brought us higher still.  Jesus our Lord did not become an angel when He rose again, and neither shall we.  No, we become something better: glorified and honored human beings, whom Jesus the Son of God is not ashamed to call brothers and sisters, members of His holy family.

    And see what it says in verse 16 of this chapter: "For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants."  Remember, all who receive the promise of God in faith are children of Abraham, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that includes us.  Again, "It is not angels [Jesus] helps." Knowing that, is there anyone who would still wish to become an angel when they die?  Do they not want to be helped by Jesus who died for them?  Do they not want to live forever in a renewed and glorified human body like His own?  The blood of Christ was never intended for the fallen angels, the demons, and them it cannot save.  The holy angels are without sin, and don't need a Savior.  But we are frail and fallen human beings, born in sin and doomed to die.  We do need His sacrifice and for us-- for you!-- He shed His blood that you might be raised to new and eternal human life in Him. 

    Claim your humanity!  Wear it proudly, for your risen Lord sits in heaven forever as the glorified Son of Man, and you are His flesh and blood, a member of His own family.  Honor the holy angels and accept with thankfulness their ministry to you, but do not worship them or desire to take their place.  No, the place you have in Christ is so much better, so much higher, so much closer to the heart of God.  For you are His redeemed, born again to give Him eternal praise and glory, and in the resurrection His power will create for you a new life more wonderful, blessed, and truly human than anything we can think, conceive, or imagine.

    To Christ who sits on the throne be all honor, glory and majesty, with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Do We Owe?

Texts:    2 Chronicles 26:3-5; 16-21; Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:1-14
    UP WHERE I LIVE, WE HAVE A SCHOOL district per capita tax.  A poll tax.  Everyone has to pay it simply because they live in the school district.  It's $15.00 a year, no big deal.  I pay it and forget about it until the bill comes in the mail the following July.

    In occupied Israel in the days when Jesus walked this earth, paying one's poll tax was a big deal.   It raised passions and questions of freedom and worship, of bondage and loyalty.  For Jesus' enemies, it was a way to try to destroy Him and His ministry.  But for us, the events of Matthew 22:15-22 should lead us better to understand who we are under God and what we owe to the kingdom of God and to the kingdoms of this world.

     It is Monday, the day after our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus is in the Temple.  He'd been teaching the people that morning, until He was interrupted by a delegation of chief priests and elders, many of them Pharisees.  They challenged His right to do what He was doing: His royal procession into Jerusalem, His driving out the moneychangers, all of it.  In answer, Jesus confronted them with three parables, all of them passing judgement on these Jewish leaders for their failure to be ready to welcome Him as Messiah when He came.  Did that humble them and send them home to search the Scriptures and pray the Father to open their eyes to welcome their King?

    Of course not.  It made them all the more determined to find a way to get rid of Jesus, to kill Him.

    So, our passage begins, the Pharisees left His presence.  But they didn't go far.  They huddled together to make plans to trap Jesus in His words.  They'd ask Him one little question about paying the per capita tax to Rome.  However Jesus answered, they'd have grounds to arrest Him and have Him tried for  sedition, or He'd rile up the crowd so they'd spontaneously stone Him.  Cleverly, these same men didn't return to the Temple themselves.  No, they sent disciples of theirs, men they thought Jesus wouldn't know, to pretend to be earnest seekers after knowledge.  These men would flatter Jesus and then, when He was off His guard, they'd spring a question that was sure to land Him in disaster, no matter which answer He gave.

    Why is that?  Because, unlike the poll tax I pay to my area school district, the poll tax levied by Rome signified subjection to Caesar.  To a good religious Jew, that meant that Caesar was usurping the place of God.  In Exodus 30 the Israelites were each commanded to pay into the Tabernacle treasury a half-shekel "atonement money," as the NIV puts it.  The Scripture calls this a ransom for each Israelite's life, the price on his or her head, so to speak, and it symbolized that they belonged to the Lord their God and lived or died at His sovereign pleasure.  The Jews of Jesus' day still paid the Temple poll tax, but Caesar had imposed a head tax of his own, as if they belonged to him instead.

    To make things worse, Rome required that every citizen and subject of its vast empire must pay the poll tax with the imperial Roman denarius.  This was a silver coin minted out of Caesar's personal treasury.  Therefore, it belonged to him.  With it he paid his soldiers, officials, and high-ranking local collaborators, and through them, it got into circulation in the occupied territories. Most Jews were anxious to obey the Second Commandment, the one forbidding graven images, and they ordinarily used copper coins with no images of humans or beasts on them.  But the imperial denarius always bore the portrait of the reigning Caesar.  And to make things worse, it was also stamped with a motto.  The imperial denarius of Jesus' day read, "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."  There was this man's blasphemous claim to divinity, on the very tribute coin they were forced to use.

    What a galling affront this would be to most Jews!  The Pharisees, as the official defenders of the faith, would be opposed to Rome and all it stood for.  So would the super-patriot Zealots and their supporters.  So would the crowds that followed Jesus and wanted to make Him be their earthly king.  They wouldn't be happy if Jesus said paying the tribute money was right.  But Matthew tells us that some Herodians came along with the Pharisees to set the trap for our Lord.  These men supported the Herod family and its ties to Rome.  They favored Roman rule; after all, the Herods were kings only through Caesar's gift, not because they were proper Jewish royalty in the line of David.  The Herodians would make sure Pilate heard if this rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth said the Jews should refuse to pay.

    So here they all come to Jesus, talking Him up and pretending to esteem Him and His reputation.  Ironic, isn't it?  Everything they said about His character was absolutely true.  He was and is a true man, a man of integrity.  He did and does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Our Lord was not influenced in His judgement by who people were or what positions they held.  But the Pharisees and the Herodians don't actually believe that.  They think Jesus is a dangerous imposter who can be maneuvered into condemning Himself with His own words.  By reminding Him of who He has set Himself up to be (as they saw it), they think they'll compromise His credibility as a rabbi if He refuses to answer, or make Him go against Scripture, if He does.

    With this in their hearts, they spring the question: "Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not?"

    They don't understand that they're dealing with the Font of all Wisdom, the divine Son of God.  His Spirit sees clearly into their evil hearts and He retorts, "You hypocrites!  Why are you trying to trap me?" 

    Yes, they are hypocrites.  Hypocrites for coming to Him with their flattery, pretending to be eager to learn.  And hypocrites for another crucial reason, which Jesus is about to reveal.  He commands them, "Show me the coin used for paying the tax."

    Ah, yes.  The hated silver denarius, bearing the image of the blasphemous emperor and his claim to be the son of a god.  One of these Pharisees, at least, has such a coin.  In his possession.  On the sacred ground of the Lord's Temple.  So shocked they would have acted, had Jesus said outright, "Pay Caesar's poll tax."  Why, that'd mean agreeing with Caesar's claims!  But here they are, carrying and using Caesar's money, even for their everyday business.

    Like the discerning rabbi He is, Jesus asks them a question in return: "Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?"

    They answer, "Caesar's."

    To us, this may seem to be a simple question and a simple answer.  But to Jesus' opponents, His words couldn't help but remind them of the words of Holy Scripture.  The Greek word the NIV translates "portrait" is εικών, icon.  It's the how their Greek Bible translated the Hebrew word meaning "likeness," as in "image and likeness."  Ah! what does that remind us of?  First, the fact that people are not to make images or likenesses of God or anything alleged to be a god.  But it also reminds us, and Jesus' challengers, of Genesis, of creation, and of mankind being made in the image and likeness of God.  Whatever is made in the image and likeness of its maker, belongs to its maker.  So this coin belongs to Caesar who made it and whose image it bears.

    And Jesus confronts them about the inscription, the επιγραφή, on the coin.  Remember, it says "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."  It was a confession of faith in Tiberius and his adoptive father Augustus as gods.  But Israel had its own inscription, its own confession of faith, which the Lord had commanded the people to write, not on coins, but on scrolls to be affixed to their doorposts and bound onto their foreheads and hands.  It's found in Deuteronomy chapter 6, and it says,

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

    Whose inscription shall be heeded and obeyed?

    Jesus' opponents have presented and seen the coin.  They have admitted that the likeness and inscription on it are Caesar's.  Jesus has evoked the authority of Scripture.  With this, He delivers His response, and it utterly confounds the Pharisees and the Herodians alike.  He says, "Give--" literally, "give back"-- "to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give back to God, what is God's."

    Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that these men were amazed and astonished.  They had failed in their purpose.  Jesus had somehow evaded their trap with a riddle of an answer, and they had to admit defeat and go away. 

    Brothers and sisters, the Pharisees and Herodians didn't approach Jesus because they cared deeply how a servant of the one true God should relate to a pagan civil authority.  But we do care.  And because we do, it's frustrating that this text doesn't actually give us clear guidance on how we are to relate to the civil government, especially to a government that seems to be growing more and more hostile to the free exercise of our Christian faith.

    What did Jesus actually say?  Many scholars write that by reminding the Pharisees that mankind is made in the image of God, by evoking the confession of "Hear, O Israel," Jesus was saying that faithful Jews-- and faithful Christians-- should not pay taxes to godless governments.  For everything belongs to God, which leaves nothing left over for Caesar.  And in fact, the chief priests made this very accusation against Jesus in His trial before Pilate (see Luke 23:2).

    But according to other scholars, Jesus has effectually said to us, "This paltry silver coin made in the image and likeness of Tiberius?  It's his, he made it, let him have it back.  Pay your earthly taxes.  Meanwhile, you, child of God, give yourself and your devotion back to your Maker who owns you."  And, as for Caesar's claims to be a god and the son of a god, God Most High Himself refers to the human rulers of the earth as "gods," as we read in Psalm 82.  Fine, says Jesus, Caesar can call himself a "god" all he wants-- as long as he administers justice and defends the right as his own High King and Emperor, the God of Israel, has given him the authority and responsibility to do.

    Which of these has Jesus said?  We can't be one hundred percent sure.  But God has not left us to go away astonished and amazed.  He has given us sure guidance in His Scriptures on how we are to relate to the civil authority.  I'll summarize these quickly, then I'll conclude.

    First of all, in Matthew Jesus shows us that the kingdom of this world is not to be confused with the kingdom of God, not in ancient Israel, not even in these United States of America.  We have duties and responsibilities we owe to both, but those duties are not the same. 

    Second, our epistle reading from Romans 13 shows us that all civil authority is under the power of Almighty God, even when that government is pagan and doesn't acknowledge the Lord God at all.  Earthly authorities are established by God to uphold the right and to put down the wrong, according to the law of human nature that our Creator has put into every one of us, believer or unbeliever.  Because earthly rulers are representatives of God, we Christians are to obey their laws and pay the duly-legislated taxes they levy, for to refuse to do so is to rebel against God.

    In our American republic, being obedient to God in the kingdom of this world means fulfilling our responsibilities under the Constitution and voting and being involved to the extent of our ability, for our rulers, under God, are responsible to us, and we get the government we deserve.

    But third, the rights of the civil authority are not absolute.  In 2 Chronicles 26 we read of King Uzziah, a ruler who started out well.  But he lost his kingly honor and authority when he went beyond what God delegated to him.  He tried to usurp the honor and duties of the priests as well, to extend his influence into the affairs of the kingdom of heaven.  When Uzziah did that, God and God's priests put him down immediately and permanently.  As a leper, he could no longer enter the Temple, he could no longer rule, and his son had to take over the government in his stead.

    It's the same with our government today.  When they presume to legislate against the clear commands of God, we must confront them, and we cannot obey.  As the apostles Peter and John said to the ruling council in Acts 4:19,

    Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

What they had seen and heard was Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God.  The Pharisees and Herodians could not entrap Him in His words, and we cannot escape His authoritative claim on our lives.  Through Him we were made, and through His blood He has remade us anew.  Let us give back to our earthly governments what we owe them under God.  But always and for eternity, let us render back to God our hearts, our souls, our strength, and everything we are, for we bear the image and likeness of His Son, and we are His.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kingdom Manners, Kingdom Rules

Text:    Matthew 22:1-14

     I MISSED A WEDDING YESTERDAY.  THE groom is the only son of some friends of mine from way back, and I wish I could have gone.

    But they live all the way over on the far side of Illinois, and the drive was too far. So I followed custom and returned the RSVP card with my regrets.

     It's good to exercise good manners and follow the rules, especially on important occasions like weddings.  On this Worldwide Communion Sunday and every day of our Christian lives, Jesus wants us to know that when it comes to the marriage supper of the Son of God, we're both bound and set free by Kingdom manners and Kingdom rules.

    "The kingdom of heaven," Jesus begins in Matthew 22, "is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son."  Jesus told this parable in the Temple courts the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  A delegation of chief priests and elders of the people had marched up to Him to challenge His right to teach and act the way He did.  In response, He taxes them with their failure to carry out the responsibility God gave them as leaders over His people Israel.  Even now, when they should be the ones getting the people ready to receive God's Messiah and take their places at the great feast that will usher in the kingdom of heaven, these very leaders are deliberately ignoring the gracious call of God their King.   Will this parable wake them up, or will it make them more hardhearted still?

    This is no ordinary wedding Jesus is speaking of, it's the marriage for the son and heir of a mighty king.  Some of the customs will seem strange to us, and we may think that Jesus made them up for the purposes of His parable.  In fact, the manners and rules Jesus describes were expected behavior in ancient royal and aristocratic society.  The ancient Jewish Bible commentary called the Babylonian Talmud tells one parable of
    . . .  a king . . . who distributed royal garments to his servants.  The attentive among them folded them and deposited them in a chest.  The foolish among them went and did their work in them.  Days later the king asked for his garments.  The attentive among them returned them to him all sparkling; the foolish among them returned them to him all soiled.  The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish.1

And the king gives orders that the foolish should be locked in the prison house.  Another parable tells of

    . . . a king who summoned his servants to a banquet but he did not set a time for them.  The attentive got themselves dressed and sat at the door of the king's house.  They said:  "Is anything missing at the king's house?"  The foolish went on with their work.  They said:  "Is there any banquet without toil?"  Suddenly the king summoned his servants.  The attentive gathered before him all dressed up while the foolish gathered before him all soiled.  The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish.2

    Both these rabbinical stories and Jesus' parable of the wedding banquet reflected the customs of ancient Jewish society.  The priests and elders could never say, "That's impossible, Jesus!  You're just making that up to be mean!"  What the king did and what he expected from his guests exactly matched what everyone knew about good manners and obeying the rules.

    The two-part invitation, to begin with.  It took a long time to prepare a royal feast, and the king would give notice of it well in advance.  He'd invite his princes, his noblemen, and the head men and chief elders of all the towns under his rule.  As we saw from the Jewish writings, the king would send a beautiful festal garment, often made of shining white linen, to each guest.  They were expected to keep it safe and clean until the day they were summoned.  When you accepted the garment, you were committed to go.

    Then, when everything was ready, the king would send his servants around to his invited guests, saying, "Come to the feast!  Put on the wedding clothes I sent you and celebrate the marriage of my son!"

    The king in the parable is Almighty God.  The invited guests were the nation of Israel, especially their kings, priests, and rabbis.  These leaders claimed to love the Lord their God and to be waiting for His Christ.  And now, God the king has sent His servants the prophets to say, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  And what do you think?  These guests refuse to come!

    Still, God didn't give up on His people Israel.  He sent more prophets to plead with them to get ready.  In that very time He sent John the Baptist and Jesus' disciples to announce the good news that the wedding feast was prepared.  You can hear the pleading in the king's voice in verse 4, as he says, "My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.  Come to the wedding banquet."  Come, please, come!

    But, Jesus says, the invited guests pay no attention and go on about their business.  This was not something these men had a right to do.  These noblemen owed their positions to the king, and to disregard the wedding of the royal son for the sake of their everyday activities was an insult to their lord.

    But this is what the leaders of the Jewish people were doing.  Do you realize that if they had obeyed and welcomed Jesus, God could have brought in His kingdom in all its fullness, then and there?  But the priests and elders of His chosen nation thought their business, their speculations, their rules and manners, were more important than Almighty God's.

    And see how some of the other invited guests respond!  Jesus says in verse 6, "The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them."  Just so, the Jewish authorities from time immemorial had arrested, abused, and murdered the prophets God had sent; John the Baptist was only the latest to meet that fate.

    How ought a king of that time deal with this injury?  Could he just brush it off?  Absolutely not..  You harm a messenger of the king, you've harmed the king himself.  It's an act of open rebellion. No sovereign could let such a crime pass unpunished and expect to remain on his throne for any time at all.  So Jesus says, "The king was enraged.  He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." 

    You may be thinking, "That's no fair!  Why not just arrest the murderers?"  But think of an ancient walled town, with the people inside of it loyal to the nobleman who is in rebellion against the king.  All become guilty together, all must be put down.

    In the same way, at the end of the age, God will send His angels to punish and destroy all those who remain in rebellion against Him, all those who killed His prophets or approve of those who did, those who hate His name and despise His word.  By God's grace, let us examine ourselves, that that crowd may that never include you and me. 

    Meanwhile, in the parable, the marriage banquet is ready.  In ancient Jewish tradition, the feasting together of the bride and groom and their guests, was the wedding ceremony.  The royal son cannot be wed until the guests have sat down.  Says the king, in verse 8, "‘[T]hose I invited did not deserve to come.'" What will he do for guests?

    The king does the unthinkable.  He commands his servants to "‘Go to the street corners and invite anyone you can find.'" Common, ordinary people.  Non-chosen people.  Whosoever will must come.  "So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests."

    By saying this Jesus departs from every rule and custom of His day.  How could a great king dishonor his son by filling his wedding hall with the dirty, stinking rabble?  It was bad enough that the servants bring in the respectable common people, "the good," but they also gather the low-down, disgusting, "bad" people, like tax collectors and prostitutes and even-- heaven help us!-- Gentiles!

    But this is exactly what our amazing, loving Lord did.  God willed that when His people Israel rejected and crucified His Son, that His death should open up a wonderful avenue of mercy to you and me.  Few if any of us here have Jewish blood.  We were not His princes and noblemen, originally invited to the wedding feast of His royal Son.  No, we were foreigners to his promise, disobedient to God and lacking His law.  But now through Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Son of God, we, too, are invited to sit down at His feast with His faithful people in all times and places.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus."

    This promise is for you!  You and I had no right to the kingdom of God, yet the mercy of Christ extends to us and bids us come in to the feast.

    In the parable, then, the king comes in to view the guests.  And he notices a man sitting there in his ordinary street clothes, not wearing a wedding garment.  That tells us that all the other guests had shining wedding garments on.  Where did they get them?  The king hadn't sent wedding clothes to their homes; there hadn't been time.  Clearly, they got them at the door to the banqueting hall.  They put them on in accordance with the rules of the kingdom and made themselves ready to celebrate the feast.

    Isn't it the same way with us?  Here in this holy sacrament we participate in the wedding supper of the Lamb.  The church is the King's banqueting hall, and we enter through the door of baptism.  At our baptism the filthiness of our sin is washed away by the blood of Christ, and we put on the new robes of His righteousness, shining with His purity and brilliant with His truth.  As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." Solely because of the finished work of Christ both the so-called good and the truly bad are made clean and fit to celebrate the marriage feast of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

    But here is a man who somehow has slipped in without a wedding garment.  There he sat in his own clothes, violating the rules, not fit, not ready-- as so many people try to come into the presence of God today.  They say they don't have to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ for God to accept them.  They think they can sit down and enjoy the good things of heaven in their own human righteousness.  The king challenges the man on his lack of wedding clothes, and the man is speechless.  And speechless everyone shall be who refuses to be covered by the righteousness of Christ that He won for us on Calvary.

    The king orders that the man be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, where, Jesus says, "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 

    What kind of rule is this?  Aww, Jesus, he only showed up in the wrong clothes!  Can't you cut him some slack?

    No.  Brothers and sisters, the marriage feast of the Son of God is not a casual dress affair.  We're worthy to sit down at His table only if Christ has dressed us up in His righteousness alone.  He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.  To insist there is any other way is to insult God our King and call Him a liar.

    By His Spirit and His grace, may we know better.  Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "For many are invited, but few are chosen."  Don't be afraid of this teaching, brothers and sisters.  Those who were invited but not ultimately chosen-- who were they?  The ones who despised their invitations.  The ones who hated and rebelled against the King who gave it.  The one who wouldn't mind his kingdom manners and refused to submit to the king's rules, who tried to get in by his own way instead.

    But you who acknowledge your unworthiness and have been cleansed by the blood of Christ your Saviour, come.  You who despise your own good deeds as filthy rags and have clothed yourself with the obedience of Christ, come.  You who realize that it's all the overwhelming love and grace of God your Father and King that brings you to this Table, come.  The feast is spread, the wine is poured, it is time to sit down.  With Christians around the world today; with the faithful in all times and places, let us celebrate the wedding feast of the Son of God.  In His name, come.
1.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 152b
2.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 153aB