April 19, 2020- Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning- Luke 12:35-48

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“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning,  and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.  Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.  If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!  But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into.  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?  Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.  Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.  But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk,  the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.  And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.  But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. Luke 12:35-48 (ESV)

One of the most beautiful Spiritual songs ever written is the traditional, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.”

We understand that our salvation is in Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone.  We don’t, and we can’t, earn our salvation in any way.  Jesus is our Suffering Servant, who paid the penalty for all the sins of the world, as John the Baptist understood when Jesus came to him to be baptized. (John 1:29)

We are, however, baptized into Jesus’ suffering and death.  Because He has set us free from the curse of the Garden, we are bound to Him, beggars at the throne of grace. We have all been given much.

Jesus has promised that He is returning to this earth and He is going to remake both heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:8-13) and we will be given incorruptible, physical bodies (1 Corinthians 15:51-53.)  We affirm the restoration of our physical bodies when we say “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” when we recite the Apostle’s Creed as well.

Staying “dressed for action” is not easy.  We are distracted by the world and tempted by our own sinful desires as well as the influence of the Adversary.  Our sinful nature is nothing new.

Jesus is talking about keeping faith in Him, of knowing Who we belong to.  We were purchased with a price, our Savior’s own Body and Blood. Our motivation to serve and follow him is not one of fear of hellfire but one of gratitude and love.

In these times apocalyptic talk is very popular.  There have been multiple books, various so-called prophets and loads of random speculation on the end of the world.  Hal Lindsey once claimed the end of the world would occur in the 1980s, claiming in his book “The 1980s, Countdown to Armageddon,” that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” 

Jesus, however, taught us, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Matthew 24:36-37 (ESV)

The time that we might spend speculating on the timing of the end of days would be better spent in trusting Jesus and serving our neighbors.  The end of days may arrive tonight or a thousand years from now, who knows?  But as Jesus teaches earlier in Luke 12, in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) our lives may be required of us tonight, making the timing of the end of days rather irrelevant.  He created us and has already set the number of our days.

Again we come back to faith.  Knowing that we belong to Christ, knowing that when we confess our sins and repent of them, He forgives us, our actions should reflect our confidence of knowing that God cares for us. Because He loved us first, in Him we have the capacity to love others, to be generous, to be good stewards of God’s good gifts and not fall into the panic of hoarding or obsessing over whether or not we will be provided for.

The path of the cross is not an easy one but it is a path that we follow knowing that we do fail and we do fall short.  We sin constantly.  We doubt.  Even though we are poor tools with which to work, Jesus is still on that path with us, lifting us up in our suffering, challenging us to die to our selfishness and insecurity, and to keep on remembering our baptism.  The old Adam needs to be drowned every day, because our sinful nature flares up often.  Yet Jesus keeps forgiving us and lifting us up. He equips us for the good fight of living out the faith.

The good news is that Jesus is stronger than the temptations of the world. He has defeated our sinful nature. He has put death to death for us. We take confidence that He gives us the gift of faith so that we will keep our eyes and hearts focused on Him.

Lord, help us keep our lamps trimmed and burning.  Create clean hearts in us all, clean hearts ready to serve you and to care for those around us.

April 10, 2018 Daniel, the Lions’ Den, and God Wins- Daniel 6:16-24

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Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” And a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no diversions were brought to him, and sleep fled from him.

Then, at break of day, the king arose and went in haste to the den of lions. As he came near to the den where Daniel was, he cried out in a tone of anguish. The king declared to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever!  My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.  And the king commanded, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and cast into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. And before they reached the bottom of the den, the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.  Daniel 6:16:24 (ESV) 

Most of us are familiar with the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. On one level it is an encouragement for us to trust God and follow Him even though we may face extreme consequences for doing so. The Book of Daniel is of a genre known as apocalyptic literature, which means it is telling or revealing events that will occur in the future.

Merriam Webster- definition of apocalypse-

1 a : one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

The important thing to remember about the apocalyptic Books is that the point is always that no matter what the disaster, no matter what the challenge, no matter what the gory imagery, they point to the victory that Jesus has won over sin, death and evil.

Daniel trusted God instead of simply paying lip service to the king. Trusting God and doing what God wants can get us into plenty of trouble here on earth. It is easy to follow the ways of this world and chase after all the things the world tells us are important. It is not as easy to stand for things that please God when they conflict with the world and its demands. The world makes demands on our time, our resources and our loyalties. As much as we would like to think we put God first in our lives, if we are honest we realize that we are easily distracted and we don’t stay firmly focused on God no matter how hard we try.

We aren’t even able to trust God in any way apart from His grace. The story of Daniel tells us and encourages us that God is faithful and all-powerful. Was the angel who shut the lions’ mouths a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do to save us from certain eternal death? It does point us in that direction! Jesus saves us from sin and death and the penalty we deserve as surely as God closed the mouths of the lions for His servant Daniel.

God is faithful. Even in the face of hungry lions.

November 2, 2017 – White Robes, Apocalypse, and God Wins- Revelation 7:13-17, Mark 13:32-37

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Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:13-17 (NRSV)

Revelation is one of the books of the Bible that some people find confusing and intimidating. Apocalyptic (meaning “of the end times”) literature uses extreme imagery and symbolism to get the message across. Its purpose as written to its original audience (Romans living in the province of Asia in the late first century), however, is one of encouragement. The people to whom Revelation was addressed were living in a time when believers were routinely persecuted and killed for following Jesus. The perspective of Revelation is one that states that today might be really terrible, and there might be even more really terrible stuff happening in the near future, but the end of the terrible stuff is near, and the end turns out good for those who persevere. The graphic imagery that can be found in Revelation makes for some good pop fiction (remember the Left Behind novels?) and cheesy end of the world movies, but the message of Revelation has a much deeper purpose and meaning for those who follow Jesus.

As for the people robed in white, they are the ones who have gone before us in heaven. They are living in what is for us, the “not yet.”  We can take hope that no matter how bad things get here on earth, that the bad things going on here and now aren’t the final reality for us.  God’s plan for humanity and for the universe He created is one of redemption and restoration.

The caution that should be taken from apocalyptic literature is that the imagery used isn’t always meant to be literal. The imagery is supposed to make sure that the truth of the story sticks in one’s mind. When Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God” throughout Scripture, it is not meant that He is a sheep, but that He is the one perfect sacrifice made for all of us for all time.

There is a temptation in having the knowledge that “today is not forever” to give up on making things better where we are. That is not the intent behind the message of Revelation.  We aren’t supposed to give up on the here and now.  While the End of Days (or the end of our own personal days) can occur at any moment, only God knows the hour and the time.

(Jesus said): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:32-37 (NRSV)

So the take away here is that we should be ready for any contingency, knowing that we know the end of the story: God wins. In this assurance we are free to embrace the ongoing work of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. We have the knowledge that the best is still to come.

August 23, 2017 – God is Forever- Isaiah 55:4-6, Mark 13

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Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.

 I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath, for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended. Isaiah 51:4-6 (NRSV)

The science of astronomy has shown that the universe is constantly expanding and changing. Nothing that we can see or experience within creation is permanent. Everything begins and ends, except God and His promises, and we have a really difficult time wrapping our minds around that one.

Human understanding is necessarily limited to things that we can perceive with our senses, so it can be hard to trust in the permanence and constancy of God when everything we encounter eventually decays, dies or changes in some way. Entropy is inevitable.

Jesus warned us that there will always be wars and rumors of wars, as well as earthquakes, famines and various other types of civil unrest, (see Mark 13) but that He is with us no matter what happens in this world.

It is easy to be cynical about the state of the world especially should we ponder over the news for too long. However, when we watch the news, we must remember that reporting tragedy, drama, gossip and pathos is what keeps people watching the news and keeps the media in business. Sponsors pay for advertising, so the media needs to put on a good show. Otherwise people won’t bother watching, and then how would we ever know what widget we can’t possibly live without?

Good news is never reported as much as bad news is. No reporter would bother to focus on the 499,999 people in the city who didn’t get fatally shot last night.  The one person who did is the one we want to know about.

It can be tempting to go to one of two extremes in our conduct and stewardship of this earth. We can live in a way that only has regard for today because we know today is temporary.  Unfortunately this approach is not God-honoring as it does nothing to bring about or preserve God’s kingdom here on earth.  We should conserve resources and use them wisely.  We should strive to leave the earth a good place for our children and grandchildren.  The earth- whether it is going to last millions of years longer, or for only one more day- is God’s good gift to us and should be treated as such.

It is worth knowing that in spite of (and sometimes because of) our efforts, nothing here on earth is permanent. This doesn’t mean to plunder at will, but neither does it mean to hoard resources to the point of denying people a way to make a livelihood or causing undue hardship.  There are ways to use the earth’s resources wisely and be good stewards without calling for us to bury our cars or forgo personal hygiene.  There is a balance.

We have no way of knowing when our last hour will come, or when the Lord will return and the kingdom of God will arrive in its fullness. We can’t even be sure of the nature of that transformation.  What will the new heaven and new earth look like?

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I still would plant my apple tree.”- Martin Luther

We have no way of knowing or proving what life beyond our existence is going to look like, or even for sure when that transition will take place. Jesus said we would not know the day or the hour when He returns.

(Jesus said): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:32-37 (NRSV)

We don’t know when our own personal end will come either. Only a small electrical charge is all that keeps a heart beating. It is the barely tangible difference between life and death.

The best that we can do is to trust God and know that He is beyond it all. We are supposed to do and be who and what He created us to be, and to hold on to His promises even when the world and its circumstances would seem to contradict the sovereignty and permanence of God and His kingdom.

God is in control. Amen.

August 14, 2017- Apocalypse, Eventually- Revelation 15:1-4

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Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.

And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.  And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.

All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” –Revelation 15:1-4 (NRSV)

Lately the lectionary has been taking us through the parables in the book of Matthew, in which we see the humanity of both the disciples and of Jesus. Now we come to a rather dramatic passage in the apocalyptic book of Revelation. Here we see Jesus revealed as both divine and supernatural, glorified as a king.  Confusing?  It is, but remember that Jesus is both fully human, and fully God.

Apocalyptic literature is somewhat difficult for 21st century Westerners to understand, because it uses bold imagery and metaphor. Here are a few of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word apocalyptic:

  1. forecasting the ultimate destiny of the world : prophetic apocalyptic warnings
  2. foreboding imminent disaster or final doom : terrible apocalyptic signs of the coming end-times
  3. wildly unrestrained : grandiose
  4. ultimately decisive : climactic an apocalyptic battle

None of these things sound regular or common. Ultimate destiny, imminent disaster, wildly unrestrained, and ultimately decisive all sound like final things- big and scary things.

The apocalypse is not something to be feared, in spite of the dramatic metaphor and sometimes gory imagery used by the writer of Revelation. The apocalypse is a completion.  It is an ending of the paradox we have lived our whole lives in which we have one foot in each kingdom. The heavenly kingdom comes into its completeness and fullness, while the earthly kingdom passes away.

In Christ we are given the privilege of having our sinful nature wiped away, and we become saints to live and reign with Jesus forever. Until that day we are in the process of being transformed- a little bit more saint, a little bit less sinner, by the grace of God.

In the process of becoming fully a part of the heavenly kingdom we may have to figuratively (and possibly literally) go through the fire, not as a punishment, and not because we have anything to earn or deserve. The grace of God in Christ cancels out any old notions that we can earn brownie points with God or that we “deserve” anything from Him because we try to be such “good children.”  Many people question, “How can a good God allow His people to suffer?”  There is no really good answer to that question.  Sin (anything that goes against God’s will) has been a part of the earthly kingdom since the Fall, which was when we humans got the insane idea that we have a better way to do life than God does.

Jesus followers have a different perspective on suffering. We may not understand why we suffer, or how suffering could ever be considered a good thing, but we can only trust that He uses our trials and suffering to mold and shape us, and to get rid of what is not of Him, to prepare us for life in the heavenly kingdom where there is no sin or decay or entropy. Good and bad things happen to “good” and “evil” people alike, just as the rain drenches the fields regardless if the owner is good or evil. (Matthew 5:44-45)   Everyone who lives on earth is equally subject to tragedy, disease, pestilence, decay, etc. because those things are part of the earthly condition (entropy).  Earth and everything in it at this point, is temporary and is waiting to be remade.

Humans allowed sin to enter in to the earthly kingdom, which is also a question for God that we really can’t answer. Why did God allow sin to come into the world to begin with?  We may never know the entire answer to the purpose of sin or suffering other than to know Jesus shares in our every suffering. We have been given the promise that God in Christ takes away our sin, He is beyond our suffering, and there is life in Christ beyond the suffering of this world.

This passage also talks about judgment, which is a squirmy subject for Lutherans, because we tend to (and I believe rightfully so) focus on the grace of God. We aren’t really into scary talk of hellfire and brimstone, and ultimately people are won over by the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God, not by fear. While grace is not earned or deserved, and God pours His grace out on everyone, for grace to be effective it must be accepted and applied to our lives.  Judgment enters in when people refuse to accept God’s grace, and when we insist on having our own way even when it is damaging ourselves and others.  A wise pastor once said that if you are saved it is all to Jesus’ credit, but if you are damned, you chose that yourself.

Repentance is nothing more or less complicated than “doing a 180-“ seeing that what we are doing is not pleasing to God, and turning away from that thought or behavior. It’s not always easy, and that is why God gives us His grace, so that we can keep on coming back to Him so that He can transform our hearts and minds to conform to His will. (Romans 12:2)

Our salvation is not at all reliant on how well we “do life,” but on how we trust Jesus to refine and transform us.  Salvation is not a one time event, but an ongoing process, a transformation that occurs as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. He walks with us.  He’s been there.  He is Holy God, but also one of us.  The world as we know it is going to end.  This world will pass away.  Things are going to happen that are tragic, painful and destructive along the way.  The good news is that in Christ we are never alone, and the best is yet to come.