Sunday, December 22, 2013
Advent Meditations 2013. . .
Advent Sermon One 2013 + I Thessalonians 4:13-18
The two things we know least about are both tied together by St. Paul – death and Jesus’ return in glory. Imagine that. We are given precious little information about what happens to the dead when they die, even what happens to the dead in Christ, the faithful who, as Scripture says, have fallen asleep. We are given precious little information about what will happen when Christ returns in His glory – just enough to let our speculation get us into trouble. Then at the end of this paragraph in which we are given little more than tidbits about either death or Christ’s coming again, St. Paul says, “comfort one another with these words.” I guess tonight will be a rather short sermon. Before we write off what we know and rush to speculate about that which we do not know, let us at least give St. Paul the benefit of the doubt and listen to what he has to say to us.
Do not be uninformed. It is a kindly translation. I prefer the blunter word. Do not be ignorant. It sounds nicer to say you have been uniformed. It is much harsher to say you have are ignorant. Do not be, well, stupid. St. Paul is not merely offending us here. Being stupid means ignoring what you know to focus on what you don’t.
About those who have fallen asleep... St. Paul is not into little euphemisms for death designed to cushion the blow. Our death is like a sleep. When you sleep you wake up. That is the first cause for comfort. The dead in Christ will awaken. For this reason alone, we neither grieve like those who know no such thing nor do we grieve without hope. From our perspective as people on earth living within the boundaries of time and space, death is like a sleep from which we WILL awaken. Okay, we got that far.
We will awaken but to what? That is one of the reasons I am not attracted to the idea of freezing my body to be thawed out later. What kind of world would I face if it were possible to awaken from such a frozen state? After all, I am old enough to realize that the future does not always bring good. It can also make us long for and even lament the past which, in comparison, seems better.
We will awaken... as Christ awoke. There is it. There is the shape of our hope. It looks like Jesus! God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep. The future of those who die in Christ is not unknown. It looks like Jesus’ own resurrection. A glorious new body. No more death. No more disease. And, it seems, you can still eat. Not bad.
We will awaken as Christ awoke. How do we know this? There are some trashy hymns out there and one of them is “I Serve a Risen Savior.” At the end of the chorus in which you have sung a couple of times “He lives!” comes this question “You ask me how I know He lives?” And then comes the answer: “He lives within my heart.” That is not what St. Paul says. We know this by something a great deal more certain that a feeling in our hearts or an intuition. We have the Word of the Lord which endures forever.
So we move from death to the second coming of Christ. The Lord Himself will descend from heaven but not in the hidden form of a Virgin in Bethlehem. This coming will be unmistakable. A cry of command, the voice of an archangel, the sound of the trumpet, and the dead in Christ will raise first before any other business of the Kingdom takes place. Then, joined with those who have not yet died, they a caught up in the mighty hand of the Lord to meet Him in the air, joined to Him so that they can never more be parted. We will always be with the Lord.
This is why we celebrate Advent. We need no preparation for Bethlehem. Its day has come and gone and now it is only a fact, a moment in history, in which God delivered upon His promise. But what took place has deep and profound implications for everything that follows.
First of all death is not the end. It is no destroyer of God’s purpose anymore. Instead it has become a tool in the hands of God, a gate or door through which we pass to be with Christ, like Christ. Do not fear death. Fear life with only death as the end. Encourage one another with these words. Death cannot take from you that which Christ has given. Those who sleep in Christ shall awaken in Christ.
Second, Christ’s coming is not the fearful entrance of the unknown but the coming of the One who finishes what He has begun, delivers to us the fullness of His promise, and does what He has said He will do. There is in this return of Christ the reunion with those who have gone before, there is the bestowal of the life that death cannot steal, and there is the unlimited future with the Lord that He has made possible by His death and resurrection.
So... We do not grieve as a people without hope. We grieve as the hopeful, who watch as the future unfolds in preview each Sunday in the unity and communion of the saints with those who gather here. We do not grieve as a people without hope. We grieve as the hopeful who want what the future God has promised and who anticipate that future every Sunday in the Holy Communion.
Encourage one another with these words. The dead are not dead but waiting with us for the finishing of the new creation born of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s coming will not be to separate us but to unite us in perfect communion with Him and each other for all eternity. We will be always with the Lord – not left to a better version of today but the radically new tomorrow which eye has not seen, ear not heard, and mind not imagined. Encourage one another with these words.
The grieving who lose their perspective on hope... the people who live in fear of Christ’s return... the Christians who wonder every time they turn on the news... Our death is all wrapped in Christ’s return... so that hidden in Him and His glory is our hope. Encourage one another with these words!
Through Advent our focus tends to be obscured by the preparations for Christmas but its call is basically to remember what Christ’s coming means – for the dead who still live in Christ and for the living waiting in hope and expectation for Jesus to complete His new creation. Tonight we do just that – we restore the Advent focus and encourage one another with these words...
The times and seasons – boy, wouldn’t it be great if you could lift the cloud of uncertainty and know exactly what to pay attention to and what to ignore! But that is exactly the point. St. Paul says you don’t need any lectures, workshops, booklets, or help there. Funny, that is exactly the opposite of what I feel inside. What about you?
As is customary for St. Paul, what he says you already know becomes the very thing that he goes on to teach you. So he says to us to go with what we know and now what we do not know. Well, what do we know? The day of the Lord will come as a surprise, like a thief in the night. You will not know when it is going to happen but that does not mean you cannot prepare for it. The time when the thief visits your home is always a surprise but that does not mean you cannot install a dead bolt lock, some security lights, get a big dog, and maybe even a security system to prepare for when that thief comes. Likewise, we already have the tools to be ready for Christ’s coming.
I grew up in a small town in which doors are not locked, keys are left in the vehicles, and still people feel safe. In the same small town, a thief opened the unlocked door to my home church and stole the sterling chalice, paten, ciborium, flagon, some cheap flatware, a couple of coffee pots, and even the statue of Jesus on the altar. They were unprepared. They thought they had peace and security but they were complacent and naive. It took a thief to bring to their awareness how vulnerable they were.
There may be those who think they can predict the day of our Lord’s return and to interpret the times and seasons but they are deluding themselves. St. Paul’s point is clear. Go with what you know. You know Christ’s coming will be a surprise but you also know that He has given you the tools to prepare for His return. He has given you the Word and the Sacraments. As St. Paul says, “You are not in darkness... You are children of Light.”
Darkness for Paul is choosing to focus on what you do not know, on what is not given to you to know, and ignoring what you have been given. To be awake and sober is to dwell upon that which God has disclosed to you in His Word and the means of grace through which He delivers to you the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Do not sleep. Do not sleep through church, doze through His Word, or nod off to the Sacrament. If you do, you will be left as vulnerable as my home church was to its thief.
Sleeping and drunkenness are typically the things of the night or at least the evening. They are things associated with darkness. Sleeping here mean to be unconcerned with or inattentive to the Word and Sacraments of the Lord. Drunkenness here does not simply mean drunk on alcohol or drugged up in some way. It also means drinking in deeply of the things of this mortal life, the passing treasures of the moment as opposed to the eternal treasure of God’s grace.
To be sure we have a lot of sleepy Christians – a lot of folks who come to church on Sunday morning and are unimpressed with what God has done for us and what He gives to us in the means of grace. A yawn before the splendid treasures of God’s grace is not an unusual problem in a world in which church has become entertainment and the goal of life happiness and pleasure.
We also have a lot of drunk Christians – those whom the Lord has washed clean in the water of baptism, given new birth by the Spirit, called by the Spirit through the Word, and imparted faith as God’s gift and work within them. But. There is always a but, isn’t there. But their hearts are weak before the glittering tease of the world around us. They are not terrible people but they want to be comfortable, happy, and satisfied with their lives even more than they want to be righteous, holy, and faithful. They are not awful people but they value pleasure more highly than the inconvenience of repentance, sacrificial acts, and a life of self-less stewardship.
Don’t fall asleep at the wheel and don’t drive under the influence is the message of Paul. You belong to the day, to the Light, so live a sober life, a life informed and shaped by the Word and Spirit of God. Put on the breastplate of faith and love, wear the helmet of hope and salvation. Not out of fear or terror but because of what you know God has done for you.
My grandfather often said he did something for fear that and then listed the possible bad consequences he was trying to avoid. We live in the holy fear which rejoices in the because of the manger, the because of the cross, and the because of the empty tomb. We live not in terror of a guilty conscience but as the forgiven who rejoice in the mercy they know, in the grace they know, in the gift of salvation they know in Christ.
For God so loved the world... that Christ came not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him. God has destined us not for wrath and judgement and condemnation but for salvation in Christ. We know this because of His death that gives us life. We hear this in God’s Word. We receive it in the sacraments.
And then St. Paul introduces another way of defining sleep. Awake or asleep, that is living or dead, we belong to Christ, we live in Christ and we have passed with Christ through death to the new destiny of life and glory He has prepared for us.
Finally, we hear a familiar closing statement: “encourage one another with these words...” The same end as last week’s section of First Thessalonians. Encourage one another. Build up one another. Go with what you know – not what you do not. You have been doing this or you would not be here on a Wednesday before Christmas when the busy-ness of life seems to reach its summit. Keep on doing this.
Over and over again we get this same call to us as Christians. Keep on. Endure. Continue. Do not grow weary. Be steadfast. You have the Word and Sacraments of the Lord. These are your guidance in life, your joy in sorrow, your strength in weakness, your hope in despair, your peace in turmoil, your comfort in death. Sadly we grow complacent with these precious means of grace and we forget what is there, we fail to look for all that God has given us, and we stop expecting the fullness of His gifts which come to us right here in the Word preached, the absolution spoken, the water splashed in the name of the Triune God, and the bread and wine set apart with His Word.
So let me end as St. Paul began us tonight. But you yourselves are already fully aware of this and you don’t need me to tell you that. Encourage one another with these words.
I love what St. Paul says tonight. Respect those who labor among you, are over you in the Lord, and admonish you... and esteem them highly in love because of their work of ministry... That’s me. But St. Paul is not saying to respect the man more than the office. No, the minister is respected because of the ministry. Here our Lutheran Confessions get it just right. That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake.
So I will not spend too much time here. Respect the Pastor as the delivery system through which the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered according to the Lord’s design and definition. That is enough to say there. The hard words are the ones that follow.
Be at peace among yourselves. But not the artificial or contrived peace in which people keep their lips buttoned up and care too little to practice the hard love that is real love. No, this peace is the fruit of love... love which admonishes the idle whose hearts have become captive to the inconsequential and meaningless... love which encourages the faint hearted who seem overwhelmed by the burdens they carry and the troubles around them... love which helps the weak and does not push them off or away... love which exercises patience in judgement and patience in presuming to know the person or what is best for them... love which is persistent in prayer.
That is a tall order. But that is what characterizes our life together as a church. Love strong enough to admonish the erring. Love soft enough to encourage the faint of heart. Love gentle enough to loan our strength to the weak. Love patient enough to hang in for the long haul with those who need us. If this happens, and it does for many of us, we will have what we need for those in any kind of trouble to sustain them through the day of their trouble.
That is the Word for the way we relate to others and then St. Paul offers us some somber words about our own hearts. Do not return evil for evil. This means control your tongue and reign in the great temptation to return the worst to those who fail to show us our best. As Luther put in the commandments: put the best construction on all things. Seek good and seek to do good. Like Nathaniel or Bartholomew of whom Jesus said there is no guile or deceit in his heart, St. Paul calls on us to be transparent in motive and without evil in our hearts.
That said, St. Paul characterizes our lives not as a people doing what we don’t like and what we think is beneath us or a burden. Rather, we are to rejoice always and especially in the opportunities for service, even sacrificial service, for so our Lord has served us. Rejoice always. Pray always. Give thanks always. This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for YOU.
Rejoice always – especially in the midst of troubles and trials. Then and especially then do we recall what our Lord suffered willingly for us. Then and especially then do we keep before us not the misery of the day but the joy of the Lord and His gracious gifts.
Pray always – not always on your knees but living so that every thought, word, and deed is prayerful, an expression of our faith and lives directed to the Lord. Pray always, not one constant mass of words heaped upon each other but a prayerful life in which we offer the Lord all we are to His glory, confident that His will shall carry us through. We confess our sins of thought, word, and deed, but how often do we think of our lives as being lived to the Lord in thought, word, and deed?
Give thanks always – there is no such thing as happiness and contentment that come from a miserable heart. Gratitude is the mother of happiness and contentment – not some vague and generic gratitude but the faith that daily and richly remembers what God has done for us, while we yet sinners and enemies. Grace upon grace. Mercies new every morning.
This is God’s will. Joyful of heart, a prayerful life, shaped by a grateful heat. And then St. Paul gets even more personal. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not close yourself off to the Word and Sacraments. There it is again. Do not despise prophecies. Do not live as though you know all and can do all things but live dependent upon the Lord and His Word guiding you through your life and shaping you for His service. Test everything – not as the skeptic who refuses faith but as the faithful who love truth, who desire what is good, and who live for the noble character in the high calling of their daily life as Christians. Hold on to good. Let go of evil. That is not hard to understand. Hold on to the good that is Christ and all that is Christ’s and let go of all that is evil. I say it this way to catechism students. Speak as if your grandmother were always in the room. Do what you would not be ashamed to have grandma find out about. Maybe I should say “great-grandmother” but I think you get the drift. If you have nothing to hide, you will not fear exposure.
And finally this wonderful verse that is the epitome of Advent. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for He who calls you is faithful and he will keep His promise.
I can only add what we heard the last two weeks. Encourage one another with these words. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for He who calls you is faithful and he will keep His promise. Encourage one another with these words.
Let God make you holy. Let Him keep you holy and blameless through confession and forgiveness. Let Him prepare you for the great and awesome day of Christ’s appearing. Because even though you are not faithful but fickle, not steadfast but flexible, not confident but prone to doubt... God is not. He who calls you is faithful, He is steadfast and immovable, and His Word is gold. He will keep His promise so trust in that promise. Today. Tomorrow. Forever. You will not be disappointed. Encourage one another with these words. Amen.