Sunday, December 3, 2023

Sermon for Advent 1: "Coming to the Rescue" (Mark 11:1-10)

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen! Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Those who went before and those who followed Jesus were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10).


To the repeated chants of Hosanna, meaning: “Save us now!” “Save us now!” “Save us now!” Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Now, today’s Gospel reading may seem odd, since today isn’t Palm Sunday; today is the First Sunday in Advent. But it does make sense when you ponder it a bit. Advent means “coming.” And why did Christ come? He came to suffer and die our punishment. He came to save His people from their sins. He came to rescue us from our evil foes: Satan, our own sinful nature, and the fallen world.


With the chants of “Hosanna in the highest,” the crowds are shouting the right words to Jesus, but do they truly understand the meaning of Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem?


Knowing the expectations of the people, those shouting “Hosanna” likely have the wrong vision of their triumphant King. Yes, they desire a savior, but a savior from what? Most likely, the crowd expects Jesus to save them not from themselves – not from their sins, but from the despised Romans. They wanted to return to the glory of the era of King David.


Everyone needs a king. Even if you don’t think you need a king, you need a king. These Jews desired a powerful earthly king as their savior who, again, would lead them back to the glory days of Israel and Judah.


Now, as Americans, we tend to value our individual freedoms and our right to self-determination. We even celebrate our independence from a king. But from heaven’s perspective, we all need a king, a good king. You see, without a good king, left to us, all we like sheep have gone astray, everyone turns to his own way. Without a king, left to us, we live in darkness. We wander around aimlessly. Without a king, left to us, we invent ways to oppose the Creator and to harm our neighbor by making war with each other. We all need a good king who will gather us together and rule over us. 

These Jews shouting “Hosanna” wanted a king to save them. And we want a good king to save us. The good news is that we have been provided with such a King.


Even when we have been provided with the good King, history has shown so many self-appointed messiahs and messiah wannabes. Now, some of them have turned out to be rather harmless, while some others have turned out to be murderous and tyrannical. But they all have one thing in common: they were all fake. 


We all need a genuine savior. We all need a genuine messianic King. But so often, what we want is not what God has given us. So often, what we want is to select our king for ourselves. Our sinful nature wants a king who always agrees with you. Our sinful nature wants a king who never questions your desires. Our sinful nature wants a king who will never ask you to repent.


Oftentimes, we, like the first century Jews, are looking for the wrong king. But the good news is that God has given us the genuine King. He has given us the King we need. This messianic King is a humble King riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus of Nazareth is the One whom God the Father appointed to be the King of Israel even before the creation of heaven and earth. Jesus is the son of David, and yet David’s Lord. The King of the Jews is the messianic King for the world. And He is the messianic King for you!


Even if this crowd doesn’t fully comprehend what is happening, this crowd was sure anxious to see Jesus. You see, the word had spread on what Jesus had recently done. This Jesus is the Man who opens the eyes of the blind. This Jesus is the Man who raised Lazarus from the dead. The crowds thought, “Could it be? If He can feed thousands, give the blind sight, give the deaf hearing, give the mute speech, heal the sick and raise the dead, why couldn’t He also get rid of the Romans?”


But what most didn’t realize is that this Jesus is not just a bread king and a miracle worker. This Jesus is Yahweh in human flesh. This Jesus is God. And God is unchanging. God does not change to our desires. He gives us what we truly need.


As we – and the first century Jews – may have our own presuppositions on who the savior ought to be, Christ rides over those presuppositions.


As Emmanuel – God with us – Jesus does the unexpected. He accomplishes what is truly needed. He shows that He is the Master of Creation by riding a donkey that has never been broken in. Normally, an unbroken colt is difficult to ride, but not for Jesus. He is the Master of Creation. At a casual pace, He rides this donkey into Jerusalem as the crowd eagerly puts their cloaks on the road along with palm branches.


Jesus enters Jerusalem with simple dignity. He’s riding no warhorse or chariot. Still, the crowds saw in Jesus their hope for salvation and deliverance. Again, even if they didn’t truly understand what was happening, they were chanting the right words: “Hosanna! Save us now!” For Jesus came to rescue them. Jesus came to rescue us. He came to save.


Here, Jesus rides over our wants and gives us what we truly need. He’s riding into Jerusalem to give His people true rescue: the forgiveness of their sins. He rides into Jerusalem so that we would be declared righteous. He is riding to our rescue.


As we begin the new church year, we remember why God took upon Himself our human flesh in the first place. Jesus came to rescue us from our sins.


As Jesus entered Jerusalem, He knew second by second what His week would become. He knew He would be turned over to death. He knew He would be stripped, whipped, beaten, and adorned with a crown of thorns. He knew He would be enthroned by being nailed on the cross of Golgotha. He knew His disciples would flee. Yet, Jesus, knowing He would be put through pain, misery, and death, did it anyway, so that by grace through faith in Him, you would be rescued from the powers of sin, eternal death, and hell.


As Christ breathed His last enthroned on the cross, Satan and his fallen angels believed they defeated God. They rejoiced. But their supposed victory was short lived, for Jesus rose from the dead three days later. Sin was overcome. Jesus lives and death is conquered. Then 40 days later, Jesus bodily ascended into heaven, where He continues to rule all things on behalf of His Church. 


Even right before Christ ascended, His most loyal apostles still didn’t understand as they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Even if they didn’t fully get it, they would in time. Jesus did not come as an earthly King, but as the heavenly King. He came so that we could live forever.


Also, as we enter this Advent season, we are reminded that Christ will come again. We are reminded that the trumpet will sound, and the voice of the archangel will be heard (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Meanwhile, we wait with eager expectation. This Advent season we look back at Jesus’ first coming in Bethlehem and give thanks. We see the climax of that first coming with His enthronement upon the cross. We celebrate and ponder this mystery. The manger and the cross are made of the same wood. Jesus came to die. He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).


Gentleness, humility, and meekness marked His first coming, even as He journeyed to the cross. A crucifixion is the last place one would look for an enthronement, but here is Jesus, crucified for you. All your sins were laid upon Him. And by “His wounds, you are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Christ, the good King, our rescuer, fulfilled God’s Law completely.


Today, we walk by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and gave Himself for us. Yet, Christ is not away from us. He remains with us. He continues to rescue us. He is still our Emmanuel. His presence is hidden in Word and Sacrament: the Scriptures, water, bread, and wine. He takes these ordinary elements and uses them to join Himself to us. Today, He comes to us through ordinary means in His Means of Grace. But in time, we will see Jesus as He is. What is hidden today will soon be seen by everyone. His kingdom of glory will surpass every expectation in its power, splendor, and majesty. 


In the meantime, Christ continues to come to our rescue as He is fully present with us in Word and Sacrament as He gives you forgiveness, life, and salvation! Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 


The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.   


Sunday, November 26, 2023

Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year: "Your Judgment Day" (Matthew 25:31-46)

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen! Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Jesus said: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on His left” (Matthew 25:31-33).


How often do you think about the glorious return of Christ? How often do you think of the Final Judgment?


Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars. He speaks that many will fall away from the Christian faith only to betray one another and to hate one another. He speaks of an increase in natural disasters.


With the war between Israel and Hamas, and the war between Russia and Ukraine, one may think, are we close to Christ’s return? With an ever increase in Christians falling away from the one true faith, are we close to Christ’s return? With the news media and politicians lecturing us about the climate, is this a sign of Christ’s return?


Instead of pondering these questions, what does Jesus say? “Concerning that day and hour no one knows” (Matthew 24:36). So, life will be considered normal. Christ says that it will be like the days of Noah, since the general population was unaware until the flood came and swept them away. Christ says over and over again: “Be ready.”


But even with the call for us to “be ready,” the natural question is “when?” Now, we don’t know the day and the hour of Christ’s return. So, if someone tells you that he knows when, he is lying. So, you must dismiss him. And, if you forget about this, then some false prophet will make a fool of himself by claiming he knows what he cannot know and he might make a fool of you as well.


But Jesus does give us a question from today’s Gospel lesson that we can answer. At least this is one that the Lord tells us the answer. When will all this get decided? When does the judgment happen? When does the Lord make up His mind about who goes where? The big answer to when is this Final Judgment is: right now.

After warning us through the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Tenants, this morning, everything comes to its climax. So, on this Last Sunday of the Church Year, Jesus again is warning His church – you and me – to be ready for the Final Judgment. As I said last week, on the one hand, we pray for Christ’s return, and on the other hand, we pray for His delay. Just the other day, I was waiting in line at Kwik Trip, and I thought: “How many of these people around me will be numbered with the goats?” It is a scary thought!


We have this conflict, because the Day of Judgment, which is magnificent, is also scary. It’s scary, since we have family and friends who are lapsed Christians. It’s scary, since we have family and friends who are being fed lies by false prophets wearing albs and stoles saying good is evil and evil is good. It’s scary, since we have family and friends who have never once stepped inside a Bible-believing church. It’s scary, because we all see so many people heading for judgment. It’s scary, because we see how urgent it is to tell everyone that their salvation has been won in Christ alone and that He is coming again to judge the living and the dead.


Again, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, … He will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31a, 32b).


So, on that great and magnificent day, Jesus will divide all mankind into two groups: sheep and goats. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus likens this to the customary practice of the shepherds in Israel. You see, during the daytime, the shepherd would let his sheep and goats graze together in the same pasture, but at night, the shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats. As it is with a shepherd, this separation is easy, since a shepherd can easily tell the difference between a sheep and a goat. So, on the Last Day, this will be a simple matter for Jesus. “He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:33).


The sheep are those who God made righteous through Holy Baptism, so they live as sheep. They gladly hear and learn God’s Word. They share the good news of salvation. They care for God’s creation. They take care for those around them.


The goats are those who ignored the call of God. They chose to do other things instead of gladly hearing and learning God’s Word. They chose to reject God’s grace. They chose to ignore the cry of their fellow creatures. They chose eternal death. So, in return, God gives them what they chose. They chose to share in the same fate as Satan and his demons – eternal punishment apart from God in hell.

Now, what to make of “right” and “left”? Well, “right” signifies complete approval by the One who has all power and authority. By contrast, “left” means rejection, or sinister.


During the French Revolution, the French National Assembly was divided as “right” and “left.” In fact, our Congress has adopted this framework. But do you know the origins on this seating arrangement? You see, those who supported the Church sat on the “right” and those who supported the revolution sat on the “left.” It may be unknown to them, but the French Assembly and even our Congress is attempting to divide in a similar way as that of Christ on the Last Day.


But then we come to a problem. I thought true believers were not judged. Remember Christ saying, “Whoever believes is not condemned” (John 3:18a)? What about: “Whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24)?


But then we come to: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10) and “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). 


Hmm. What is going on here? On one hand, those who trust in Jesus are not judged and on the other hand, everyone is judged. How do we resolve this?


Well, let’s look in what manner Jesus speaks of the sheep and the goats. To the sheep, Jesus does not mention a single sin of theirs. He only speaks in glowing praise. But to the goats, Jesus makes a specific mention of their sins, which have brought them into everlasting condemnation.


To the sheep, the Last Judgment is a witness of exactly what they by faith expected. At the sight of Jesus, the sheep are filled with great joy, since Jesus is their Brother and Friend. To the sheep, He calls them “blessed by My Father” (Matthew 25:34).


To the goats, the Last Judgment is a witness of exactly how they lived apart from faith. For them, at the sight of Jesus, the goats are filled with fear, since Jesus who they denied, is actually real and present before them. To them, Jesus says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).


The goats may have known Jesus, but they chose to deny their faith before man. Remember, even Satan and his demons believe in Jesus. So, by denying their faith and living no different than an unbeliever, Jesus casts these goats into hell. 


I mentioned earlier about the big answer to when is the Final Judgment. I said that this Final Judgment is right now. But what about that separation of the sheep and the goats? Well, right now everyone’s fate is being decided. As for the Last Day, that is when everyone’s fate will be publicly announced, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is vindicated as the truth before all people: the sheep and the goats. So, for the sheep, the same Jesus you believe and trust in today and throughout your life is the One in whose righteousness you shall stand on Judgment Day.


But what about right now? Each Sunday, we publicly confess that Christ will “come to judge the living and the dead.” We confess that this day is not a day that we – as sheep – dread, for we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. We have the forgiveness of sins that covers all our sin. For us sheep, Judgment Day marks the public and eternal announcement of God’s judgment in Christ: “Your sins are forgiven, so you are righteous for Jesus’ sake!”


Each Sunday, we too, confess that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and “cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10b). According to God’s Law, the sinner deserves God’s “present and eternal punishment.” This is the judgment of the Law.


But this judgment, which we all deserved, fell upon Christ in His death on the cross. Because He took our sin into His flesh, God the Father punished His Son. Christ bore the suffering and death that we deserved. “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed” (Psalm 53:5).


The judgment of the Gospel is that the death of Jesus and the shedding of His blood covers the sin of the world (1 John 1:7). The judgment of the Gospel is that the sinner is declared righteous for the sake of Jesus who has paid the price for his sin. And this word of forgiveness is received by faith. The righteousness of Christ clothes the baptized believer. It covers his sin with forgiveness, so that on Judgment Day, the Christian stands before God righteous and holy for Jesus’ sake as His sheep. 


You are His sheep! In Holy Baptism, He claimed you as His own as He gave you His name! As His sheep, we believe the judgment of the absolution which declares you forgiven!


So, today, you are judged. Through Christ’s death and bodily resurrection, you who believe in Him are now declared innocent. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20a). When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He declared that His death paid the price for all sin, and our salvation was accomplished. When He rose from the dead, He proclaimed the forgiveness of sins to His disciples when He said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19, 21). Then He sent them out to proclaim the judgment of the Law and Gospel on His behalf, in order that sinners might be brought to repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.


So, our Judgement Day is today when a sinner is either “bound” or “loosed” from his sins through the preaching of the Law and Gospel in sermons, in catechesis, and in confession and absolution. This takes place daily in the life of the Christian as he is brought again and again to repentance and faith in Christ. This is the life of the Christian. We hear the preaching of the Law that exposes our sins, which flow from a mistrust of God. God’s Law cuts us to the heart (Acts 2:37) as we feel the judgment of the Law that Jesus felt on the cross. But then you hear the preaching of the Gospel, which declares your sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake. The word of the Gospel covers your sins, creates faith in Christ, comforts the heart, and gives the penitent and forgiven sinner the joy of salvation and the sure and certain hope of eternal life.


So, when you hear, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you are hearing the judgment of God. It is as if you are hearing, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). Amen. Come Lord Jesus!


The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.   


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve: "Contentment" (Philippians 4:6-20)

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen! Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Through the Holy Spirit, St. Paul writes: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11b).


Do you ever feel troubled? Do you ever feel anxious? Do you ever feel that life makes little or no sense?


Who here has heard of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis? It’s a mouthful. But you know what it is. You know it as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, which is a brutal disease that causes the brain to lose control of the body’s muscles.


As he played for the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939, Lou Gehrig was known as the “Iron Horse,” as he held the Major League Baseball record for consecutive games played – 2,130 games. That’s 14 years without missing a game. This record seemed unbreakable until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995. Gehrig was known for his tenacity and drive as he played day in and day out.


Despite his consecutive game record, Gehrig is likely most known today for his farewell speech that he delivered to a packed Yankee Stadium when he retired prematurely due to the disease. He spoke: “Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”


How could he consider himself to be lucky? Afterall, his career is being cut short! These words seem so foreign to us. Shouldn’t he have said, “I deserve better than this!”


How can anyone be so content when their world seems to be crumbling around them? How could anyone be content when facing financial concerns, sickness, disease, uncertainty, pain, or even death?

Some people find contentment in being stoic in the face of adversity. You know those people who never seem to let anything get to them. Nothing gets to them because they’ve shut themselves off from all things outside themselves. But just as they won’t let troubles get them down, they also won’t let joy bring them elation. They have just constructed a cold, empty life for themselves. And in their attempt to protect themselves from the pain of turmoil, they have robbed themselves of life’s beauty and joy.


Others may find contentment by finding someone who is worse off than they are, saying, “At least I’m not in his shoes.” While there is some wisdom in this insight, that’s not how you find contentment. A relentless search for someone who is to be pitied more than you will leave you discouraged because your focus will be on life’s tragedies. Maybe this is why watching the evening news is popular, since you can always say, “At least I’m not in his shoes.”


In our reading from Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul describes the true meaning of contentment. But the fullness of what Paul teaches only becomes apparent when we know the conditions in which he wrote this epistle. You see, Philippians is one of Paul’s prison letters. And he is in prison for the sake of the Gospel, which should not surprise you since he spent about one quarter of his missionary career in prison.


While none of us would like to be in prison today, what Paul endured makes today’s prisons appear more like a resort hotel with law libraries, cable tv, and recreation.


You see, Roman imprisonment was preceded by being stripped naked and then flogged, which was a humiliating, painful, and bloody ordeal. These wounds would go untreated as the prisoners sat in painful leg or wrist chains. Most cells were dark, unbearably cold, with little water, cramped quarters, and had a sickening stench. Because of these miserable conditions, many prisoners begged for a speedy death.


But then there’s Paul. He’s not begging for a speedy death. Here’s Paul chained alongside murderers and swindlers and all that Paul has done was proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is surrounded by those who are longing for death, because of these conditions. But not Paul. Instead, he writes: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11b-13).


On this Thanksgiving Eve, our likely situation on this holiday is far from Paul’s situation. As we all head to our family Thanksgiving feast, you will likely have the staples: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, rolls, and pie. To top it all off: nine hours of football. And Thanksgiving meal leftovers.


How can Paul be content? Well, the secret of Paul’s contentment is Jesus Christ. So, as long as your attention is focused inward upon yourself, you will never find true contentment. 


But fixing your eyes on Jesus will bring contentment even in the darkest times. Paul says that he is content because “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Paul does not have delusions of grandeur, that Christ will make all of his troubles disappear so his cold prison cell will become a hotel suite. Paul is anticipating ongoing suffering and even death at the hands of Christ’s enemies. Yet, Paul knows – he knows for a fact – that no one can rob him of Jesus. Paul can do all things through Christ who strengthens him so that no matter what he faces, he will remain strong in Christ. 


Paul says, “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied” (Philippians 4:18a). Paul is content in all circumstances because his contentment is grounded not in his circumstances, but in Christ. And so is yours.


Each year, your Thanksgiving meal is a bit different than the past. Some of you will be missing loved ones. It may be death that has parted you from loved ones, or it could be family strife has robbed you of seeing a loved one. Yet, contentment remains yours in Christ.


None of that can rob you of Christ. Now, this doesn’t mean that life is easy on Thanksgiving or any other holiday, or any other day of the year. Remember, Paul didn’t have it easy in prison. We don’t have it easy either, as each of us have a personal cross to bear. But we don’t bear it alone. Christ is with you to shoulder your burden. He has already carried your burden to the cross. And He has risen triumphant from the grave, victorious over your burden. So, Christ strengthens you just as He strengthened Paul. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).


Christ’s strength is bound up in what He delivers to you. If you will not be feasting this Thanksgiving holiday, Christ promises that the Day is coming when He will deliver an eternal feast to you. If you are feasting this Thanksgiving holiday, Christ promises that His coming feast dwarfs whatever you will eat. A banquet table is spread for all. That is contentment.


If death has separated you from someone you love, you are not alone, for Christ dwells with you. If division prevents you from sitting at the table with your parent, child, spouse, sibling, or friend, Christ comes to assure you that He has brought you peace with the Father. Sin divided you from God, but through Christ you have been reconciled to the Father through His suffering and death on the cross. That is contentment.


And there is more. The Day is coming when there will be a full and perfect reunion for all those who have lived and died with faith in Christ. The Day is coming when death will not separate us, for death will be destroyed. The Day is coming when all our divisions will be overcome by Christ as we are perfectly united with Him, and so we will be perfectly united with one another.


Until that great and magnificent Day, Christ sustains you, providing you with His perfect companionship in His Means of Grace – His Word and Sacrament – so that you would not lose heart. Paul says, “My God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus”(Philippians 4:19). This is what Paul is talking about when he says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Here, in this place is where God strengthens us. Here is where the penitent comes to receive Christ’s forgiveness. This is the secret to Paul’s contentment and to yours as well. Christ alone brings you contentment, because by grace through faith in Him, you have it all: forgiveness, life, and salvation. Amen.


The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.   


Sunday, November 19, 2023

Sermon for Pentecost 25: "Don't Forget Your Calling" (Matthew 25:14-30)

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen! Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: 

Jesus said: “For [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:14-15a).


Our Scripture from last week, this week, and next week are focusing on the return of Jesus and His judgment of the living and the dead. We could call these weeks “pre-Advent,” since the focus is on Christ’s coming. We began this theme last week with the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Today, this theme continues with the Parable of the Talents.


The focus on Christ’s return leads to several attitudes among Christians. On one hand, we long for His return and the full realization of His reign over the new heavens and new earth. So, we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. On the other hand, this reality also causes many of us to hope for His delay, so that those in our family and others in our lives who are living apart from Jesus could have time to hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, we pray fervently for God to work through His Church to bring more into His fold. So, preaching these last weeks of the Church Year – to which I call “pre-Advent” – is both about an expectant hope for Jesus to return and an urgency in the Church’s mission to proclaim the good news of salvation to the lost. Today, on this 25th Sunday after Pentecost, Christ is warning His Church – you and me – to not forget who your Master is, so that you would be counted among His good and faithful servants.


Again, Jesus says to us: “For the [kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away” (Matthew 25:14-15).

When the Master went away, He entrusted His servants with a stewardship. First thing to know here is that the Master is Jesus, who went away as He bodily ascended into heaven. But the mission wasn’t over. The Master entrusted His servants, which are you and me, with talents, which are various gifts He has placed in our lives.


As the Master went away, the one who received five talents made five talents more. The one who received two talents made two talents more. But the one who received one talent dug his talent into the ground and hid his Master’s money.


So, what’s a “talent”? Well, a talent was a unit of money. A silver talent was worth about 7,300 denarii. A gold talent could be even 30 times more valuable than a silver talent. Remember, a denarius equaled one day’s wage. So, receiving just one talent is a sizeable amount of money.


Now, when we use this term “talent” for an ability or a skill, that is the meaning that Christ is using in this parable, for we all have considerable abilities and skills given to us by God. These talents include intellectual and physical abilities that we are born with and those that in time develop and mature. These talents include many opportunities God provides for us in serving Him and our neighbor.


So, after a long time and “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2), the Master returns and He came to settle the accounts with His servants. Each servant came forward. The first servant said to his Master: “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more” (Matthew 25:20). Then the second servant said to his Master: “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more” (Matthew 25:22). To these first two servants, the Master says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).


Now, notice what the Master pronounces here: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” You see, they had been faithful with their respective talents, and this was all their Master asked of them. They traded with the talents that were entrusted to them. 


And what exactly was entrusted to them in these talents? The Gospel. It’s Christ’s ministry. It is Christ’s mission: the Great Commission in baptizing and teaching all they knew in order to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). It is their faithfulness to the Gospel that these servants are commended for, rather than their accomplishments.


But then we come to the third servant. When it was his turn to settle his account, he said to his Master, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25).


Often times, our response is like that third servant. We don’t take risks. We would rather do what is safe. We would rather do what is easy. It’s safe being a Christian within these walls, but when we leave the church building, how often would you rather do what is easy by not showing you fruits of faith to others. The safe way, by hiding your Christian faith is the path of least resistance. Our fallen sinful nature would rather do safe things, rather than hard things, like discussing your Christian faith, inviting those living apart from Jesus to a Bible Study or devotions, or inviting your lapsed family member or your neighbor to church.


In recent years, there has been a growing cultural view that safety is our highest value. We demand guarantees of safety. But for those who live for safety alone, end up living joyless lives. This concern for safety can easily become a form of idolatry. This concern for safety is what so many fear, love, and trust in. By living for safety, we fear for our own personal wellbeing more than trusting God.


Now, this doesn’t mean that we seek out danger. That would be just stupid. But if we do God’s mission, if we do what He has entrusted us to do, most likely danger will seek us. Opposition will seek us, because this fallen world hates Jesus, and so you will be hated for Jesus’ sake. This is what we are to expect out there beyond these church walls in the mission field of West Salem, Bangor, Onalaska, La Crosse, Holmen, La Crescent, and Sparta. Hatred and opposition of Jesus is expected. So, it is a hazardous path following Jesus in this fallen sinful world, but this path is led by Jesus who always leads those who follow Him to eternal life.


With regard to these three servants, the first two servants differ only as to the number of talents; otherwise they are identical, and both double their number. The contrast is between those who acted and the one who did not. This third servant rejected his Master by refusing to serve Him in any way.


By refusing His Master, this third servant’s talent was taken away from him. Since he hid his faith from the world, by living in accord with the fallen world, this servant was cast into the outer darkness of hell where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30).


In the Parable of the Tenants, this third servant played it safe. He didn’t tell others about Jesus. He didn’t show his fruits of faith. And we must confess that we often play it safe as well. For this, repent and receive Christ’s forgiveness. Turn to Christ and proclaim His saving grace to others who are desperate to hear it.


As we may desire to play it safe, there is One Servant who never played it safe. His mission was supremely perilous. This Servant knew that to advance the kingdom of God took sacrifice, His Sacrifice. It involved ridicule and danger. The Apostle Paul wrote: “[Jesus Christ] though he was in the form of God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).


Jesus Christ took the hazardous path. He took the way of sorrows and it cost Him His life. God the Father sent Him on this mission that we – in our fallen sinful nature – could not accomplish, and He did it all for you. Through His death, He delivers to you who have repentant faith, pardon for your sin and idolatry. And His death was not the final word. His bodily resurrection is the stamp of approval of His mission and ministry. To Christ, God the Father said: “Well done, good and faithful Servant.”


Remember, the Master has entrusted you with His property, which is the proclamation of the good news of salvation to all people, to baptize and teach the good news. But you may still be thinking: “I can’t do much. What can I do?” To this, the Master says, “I give to you according to your ability.”Today, our Master is here to strengthen your weak faith. Today, our Master is here to strengthen your ability to use your talents out in the mission field of this fallen world. Today, our Master is here to strengthen you through His Word and Sacrament. You see, it is not you alone doing the work, it is the Holy Spirit that He gives you in the Means of Grace that does His work in you!


The point of today’s parable is don’t neglect your Master who has given you various talents that He has entrusted to you to use in proclaiming the mission of God. The other point of this parable is to not forget who you are: you are a servant of this Master. This is your vocation, your calling. So, as you wait for the Master’s return, we are to serve Him and our neighbor. In this time of waiting, we use our lives for Him and His will. And when He returns, He will treat you the same way that He treats all of His servants who serve Him. He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. For everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 25:20, 23, 29a). Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.   


Sunday, November 12, 2023

Sermon for Pentecost 24: "A Warning: Are You Foolish or Wise?" (Matthew 25:1-13)

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen! Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise” (Matthew 25:1-2).


Who really enjoys waiting? I don’t. Waiting for anything really doesn’t come naturally, especially when we live in an instant gratification culture. At the click of a button, your desire is found in the online cart. In just another click, it’s on its way to your home. In the words of Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “If I don’t get the things that I’m after, I’m going to scream. I don’t care how, I want it now!” If we’re honest, that’s who we are. We want it now! Why read a book when you can just stream the movie? Why make supper when you can just order fast food?


But there is another risk. If the waiting goes on too long, it’s possible that you can forget what you were hoping for. You see, ever since Jesus bodily ascended into heaven, the Church has been waiting for His return. In the first years, there was eager expectation. But then it seemed that the waiting was too long as we heard in our epistle from 1 Thessalonians 4 today. Did they misunderstand? Do we misunderstand? Is Jesus going to keep His promise? Is Jesus really ever coming back?


Since waiting isn’t easy, and because there is a risk that we can forget or lose hope, Jesus tells us a parable on this 24th Sunday after Pentecost. And if you are honest with yourself, this parable is frightening. In fact, it’s terrifying. But remember, Jesus desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. So, as terrifying as this parable is, Jesus is warning us, so that we would be counted among the wise.


Again, “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise” (Matthew 25:1-2). First thing to note here is who are the wise and who are the foolish. What do they represent? If we take the wise to be believers and the foolish to be unbelievers, we are missing the point of this parable. Jesus isn’t speaking about Christians versus non-Christians. Jesus is speaking this parable to His Church. So, the foolish and the wise are you and me in this very place. He is warning the foolish to “wise up.”

You see, this parable is actually a variation of the Parable of the Sower, in which Jesus warns us about the dangers of the devil, the dangers of persecution, and the dangers of covetousness.


As Christians, we are not secluded from the fallen sinful world; we live in this fallen sinful world. We live in a world that is full of doubt and full of sinful desires. We live in a world that is filled with false gods. Even false gods that claim to be the one true God. 


Perhaps, the most deceptive false god is the god who is always loving – not loving in the way that we know God to be in Jesus – but loving in a different way, a false way. A god who is always tolerant. A god who is always accepting. A god who will always accept you as you are – unrepentant and drenched in sin. A god who will always receive you. A god who will always love you. A god of the open door. A god of the second chance. A god who shuts one door and opens another. A god who shuts two doors and opens a window. That’s the false god that this fallen sinful world and its fallen prince offers to you. 


Today, Jesus comes to shock you with a vision of a different God, who is the one true God. Jesus doesn’t want you holding onto that false god as you think that you are prepared, because you aren’t. So, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). For these ten virgins, they each thought they were prepared. They each thought they had the right way of thinking. But only half were truly ready.


As it was custom then, on the wedding day, the bridegroom would dress in wedding garments, and his friends would escort him to the house of the bride. The bride would then come out to meet them with her friends, in this case, the virgins, who would be known as bridesmaids today. The only question would be when? So, the bride and the virgins would always have to be ready as the bridegroom could arrive at any hour of the day or night.


When the bridegroom would arrive, the whole group would joyously parade to the home the bridegroom had prepared. Elsewhere, Jesus used this imagery to describe His relationship to His Church saying, “In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, and where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3). You see, the Christian life now is like a betrothal, and heaven will be like marriage.

So, here we have ten virgins waiting in the night for the bridegroom to come. But as they waited, the hour grew late, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, when the virgins all least expected the bridegroom, He arrived with the cry of command, with the voice of the herald, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!” (Matthew 25:6)


Then the virgins all rose and trimmed their lamps. At that instant, five of the virgins realized that their lamps were going out. They never considered the possibility that the bridegroom might be delayed, so they brought no extra oil for their lamps. So, they wandered into the darkness to find a merchant selling oil. Now, what does the “oil” here represent? The oil represents faith. And faith is not anything that we can earn or purchase. Faith is only continually sustained by the Means of Grace: hearing God’s Word and receiving His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through Holy Baptism, Absolution, and through the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood under the bread and wine.


Now that the bridegroom has come, what does He do? Does He leave the five wise there at the door and tell them to go out into the world to find the foolish? No! He gathers the wise in and He shuts the door.


Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). But that’s not what happens here. Those foolish virgins certainly ask. They asked the wise to share their oil and they do not receive. The wise say, “Go to the dealers and buy for yourselves” (Matthew 25:9b). And they seek. They go out looking for that merchant. But then come back only to find that it’s too late. And they knock. They knock on that door saying, “Lord, lord, open to us!” (Matthew 25:11). But the door is not opened. Then the bridegroom says, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).

Here, we have a Jesus who is not seeking the lost, who is not opening the door, who is not inviting everybody in, who is not bringing in the blind and the lame and the poor, so that the banquet hall may be filled. He shut the door. It’s barred and bolted shut. Here, Jesus is dividing between the foolish and the wise. He has taken the wise and to the foolish, He says, “I do not know you,” because they had neglected their faith by not receiving His Means of Grace, by ignoring the will of God the Father in having other gods, since they did not hold God’s Word sacred by gladly hearing it and learning it. They would rather say they know Jesus, but in doing so, they do not show fruits of that faith. They would rather live a life no different than any heathen. This is extremely frightening. This is what could be called spiritual shock therapy.


Jesus is coming. He will come to judge the living and the dead. Sin is sin and all sin is worthy of damnation. Foolishness is foolishness and by saying you know Jesus and then in return live a life does not put Christ in the center will cause you to be ejected from the kingdom of heaven. So, when God shuts the door on that final day, God shuts the door. He shocks you into reality. He shocks you into the reality of what it means to come before God who judges the living and the dead.


But as terrifying as this may be, Jesus is still Jesus. As I said earlier, Jesus is saying this parable so that you and me would be counted among the wise. He is saying this parable as gospel, so that we would be warned. He is saying this parable, so that we would not lose hope.


The same Jesus who has the power to say, “I do not know you,” is the same Jesus who uses that power to come and know you even in your sin. God the Father sent this Jesus into this fallen sinful world that would reject Him. Jesus came to a people who would not know Him. Even though His disciples would deny Him and fall away, Jesus still came to know them. And, even though, we, in our sinful nature, would kill Him, Jesus still came to know us. He came to know us in our sin, so that we would know Him as our Savior from sin, death, and the devil. He came to bring you into His grace.


Today, that shedding of Christ’s innocent blood is the oil for your lamp. Jesus is the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. That blood and water that flowed from His side as He was crucified even flows today. That water with the Word washed you clean and gave you faith. That blood now flows with His body in the Sacrament of the Altar so that your sins are forgiven, and your faith strengthened for the day of the Lord’s coming. 


In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus does not mince His words: you are either waiting for Him or you aren’t. Here, in the Divine Service through His Means of Grace, Jesus prepares you so that you would be counted among the wise. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.


The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.