Last Sunday in the Church Year – St. Matthew 25:1-13

25. November 2012
Last Sunday in the Church Year
St. Matthew 25:1-13

Recently two books were released that sought to answer the question of what happens after judgment day. In one book a little boy recalled his near death experience. His father named the book “Heaven is Real.” I understand it had all the typical features: a light at the end of the tunnel, a feeling of calm, white clothing, and such. In another book “Love Wins” author Rob Bell agreed with the little boy about heaven but rejected hell. While Bell has much to say about heaven and God’s love he couldn’t abide by the idea of a place of weeping and gnashing, fire and brimstone.

Both authors implicitly reject the precise thing that Jesus affirms. You also affirm this ting when you confess: “from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.” The little boy “died” and went straightway to heaven. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. And Rob Bell denies the final judgment but giving only one possible verdict—heaven. What happened to the universal confession of the church and the explicit teaching of Jesus about the final judgment? St. Matthew spends chapters recalling Christ’s Word on the topic.

Why the fear of judgment? Why the skepticism about Jesus’ teaching of heaven and hell? It seems to the wise of this world utterly foolish. Why would God create life and then judge that life to an eternity of hell? If God loves the world—indeed, us—so much, why would he damn anyone. The young boy who claims to have met death didn’t talk about judgment because he likely never heard about it. Rob Bell doesn’t talk about judgment because he can’t handle a God who doesn’t meet his expectations.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins sets the wisdom of the world in stark contrast to the wisdom of God. There is reality and there is unreality. The gift of faith allows you to see what is truly real. Rejecting this gift means you continue to live in the unreal. This world would tell you to judge yourself by a flexible scale. Everything is about being the best we can be, doing well enough, trying hard, and striving for excellence. Such gauges of performance are unreal. They lack any kind of absolute standard.

The reality is this: there is an absolute standard established by God and it is unattainable by prudence. For many Christians their life is about getting all the Jesus ducks in a row. Baptized? Check. Sunday School? Check. Confirmed? Check. Fairly regular attendance? Check. Money in the plate? Check. Christian funeral? Check. And when the marriage feast comes around they think they’ve got it all together. Seems like they’ve taken care of the whole list of Christian duties, marked off the list just like Jesus wants it to be.

These figurative five are wise according to the religion of this world. They’ve risen to the challenge, received their share of good and ill, showed up to the party prepared. Some friends came too, another five outrageous. For some inexplicable reason they come with extra jugs of oil “just in case.” Just in case of what? Everybody knows the party is tonight. Why have so much extra oil? What could go wrong, they ask? Whatever. Let’s party and wait for the bridegroom.

The whatever is the point of the parable. Whatever could go wrong does. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” This world is never so predicable. The unexpected happens. The bridegroom is late. Funny that? God late to His own party? There’s God’s wisdom at work and its utter foolishness to us. The eternal God can’t even show up on time. Why are we surprised? You yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

There is another problem. Whose fault is it that only half of the virgins are prepared? Ancients tried to answer this question. It was called theodicy, the perennial why-some-and-not-others. It’s the bridegroom who can’t even show up on time. The foolish virgins were completely prepared with enough oil to burn until the  party. They did it all just right but the bridegroom had to muck it up.

All through the Scriptures we wise people end up in a mess: Job, Peter, Judas. Whose fault is it that Job suffered or Peter denied or even Judas betrayed? It is God’s. They were chosen and God even sent suffering their way. Ouch. That’s not the God we want but He’s the God we’ve got. And He’s stuck with us. In the final analysis, it’s the way God is doing things. We suffer. We deny. We betray. And we answer with Job in the midst of his suffering: Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15).

When its all said and done there’s no point in using the wisdom of this world to figure out the ways of God. We’ll look at God choosing foolish means of a pastor, or water, or bread and wine, or even just simple words and scoff. Ha! Ha! That could never be enough. I’ve got to fill my lamps, follow the orders, do the right thing, and then—and only then— will I be ready.

It turns out that all our self-wrought preparation will be wasted when the time comes. Whether wise or foolish, we’ll be sound asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” The cry will ring out. Those questions about when Jesus will come, what is happening in the meantime, and even what we must do are immaterial to the feast. The question we ought to be concerned with is faith.

The Father has reconciled us to Himself in Jesus. He did it, not us. This means we’re restored to a trusting relationship. We don’t have to figure God out but only know that’s He’s got it figured out. We don’t need to know when He’s coming back but only that He is coming. We don’t need to know why we suffer but only that He sends suffering for our good. That’s faith—to trust in the Holy Trinity explicitly even in the face of things we cannot understand. Faith, after all, comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Faith does not come by experiencing or simply knowing, but by believing and trusting.

This is the God we’ve got and we’re stuck with Him. He will deliver on His promise to draw all to Himself. We are reconciled to God no matter what our sins. The doubter, the denier, and even the betrayer all received the call to faith. It’s a gift, no questions asked, given without answering our questions. God’s way of doing things is silly and outrageous. It’s also worth celebrating—and we will during Advent. Come, Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

There’s no denying the judgment outlined in today’s parable and the rest of Scripture. Heaven and hell are real. We don’t have to like it or even agree with it. It is God’s way of doing things. Some will deny the reality in the midst of this unreal world. Some will waste their whole life trying to prepare themselves for the day. Many will try to jump through all the right religion hoops. In the end, at the final judgment, it’s not really up to those who wait but up to God. He’ll be late, things won’t go as they’ve planned, and only the faithful will be able to say: “Oh, well.” That’s God’s way and it’s wise.

God has fudged everything in His favor. We’re not in the dark. Now is the long dark teatime for our soul. We belong to the light. We wait and celebrate the divine blessedness of His way of saving. Despite the world, despite his delay, even despite our suffering, we trust we are not destined for wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us. Yeah, its messy business. Dying and rising isn’t so pretty. Such it is for a God who works in history. He’s delivering the package and he’s given the trust, a lamp and more worth. Look, He comes on clouds descending—eventually. And at midnight—the cry!

In holy name of + Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

The Sunday of Brotherly Love ’12 – Matthew 5:20-26

15. July 2012
The Sunday of Brotherly Love
Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 5:20-26

You are tempted to believe that your many violations of God’s holy law are excusable because they were mostly harmless. Sin is not just between you and God. Sin affects your neighbor. There are those that sin and those that are sinned against. There is no excuse to sin, not in mind, by the tongue, or in deed. Sin corrupts you and corrupts your neighbor.

The Fifth Commandment is no exception. No one here is a murderer in deed, at least that I know of. Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone of us holds some deep-seated anger, resentment, or hatred. Jesus says: I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. From Jesus’ perspective, we’re all murderers.

That doesn’t stop us from trying to get off the hook. We’re pretty good at excusing ourselves with every kind of rationalization. We’ve convinced ourselves that we can hold a grudge without sin. We think that secret hatred won’t affect anyone else. We tell ourselves that we were right and thus there’s no cause for repentance.

Perhaps you only were angry in your mind and thus think it affected no one. Perhaps this anger resulted in only a flippant word, a casual dig against the neighbor, or a bit of unpleasantness that could be glossed over later, smoothed out, or paid off. Surely, you never took the sword and sought to slay your neighbor, to murder him, right?

No, all have sinned, all have murdered. You sin because your flesh is sinner, just as natural in this fallen world as the eating and excreting. It is what your corrupted and wicked flesh does and has no choice but to do. You are captive to this flesh, utterly unable to overcome its every evil desire, intent, and action.

Holy Scripture refers to the life of the sinner as  self-made slavery. Life in this Egypt of our making ain’t bad? Bondage to Pharaoh has its perks. At least we sit by our fleshpots, engorging ourselves on the meat of idolatry, adultery, and greed; at least we are comfortable and secure in ourselves, right?

God’s Holy Word tells another story. He tells us how this life of the flesh, bound to sin and Satan, hurtling towards death, is not good. He tells how our flesh is truly captive to sin, to death, and to the evil one. Slaves do as slaves are told. There is no overcoming this bondage. The chains are too heavy, the shackles too tight. The evil taskmaster is to strong.

Not only that, our perverse flesh enjoys bondage. We actually like living in sin. We’re so twisted that we like hating, degrading, and enraging our neighbor. We like how it makes us feel. We like murdering their flesh by ignoring their physical need. We like how it makes us feel and in a warped way, how it ruins our neighbor.

Some part of us still knows such sin is wrong. Yet, our flesh is especially good at dealing with this problem. We’re all Pharisees at heart. We say to Jesus, “All these commands I have kept from my youth.” I have not murdered. I’ve never taken the sword. I’ve never killed unjustly. So, your internal scribe and Pharisee says to Jesus. Nothing to confess here, move along. Off the hook, no problems. Fifth Commandment, check!

Jesus says: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribe and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The scribes and Pharisees are legalists. They have understood God’s holy Law in such a way that they think they have kept it. Their strict legal code is perfectly attainable, even by sinners. In other words, they understand the Law so that they keep it.

Pharisees and scribes like Egypt. They like bondage in sin. They delight in their wickedness. But as it is said: “Scratch a legalist and underneath you’ll find an antinomian.” Scratch the lover of the Law and underneath you’ll find they really hate it. It is true: Pharisees and scribes hate the Law while putting on pretense of keeping it. They can’t stand the truth and so have relaxed the Law so as to keep up appearances. In reality, they love themselves more than God. Their standard is better than God’s standard. They love the life of sin and will not allow the Law to ruin their unholy and profane party.

How is your keeping of the Law of God going? Have you kept it perfectly or relaxed it to think you have?Let’s examine ourselves according to the Fifth Commandment, LSB p. 321.

The Fifth Commandment. You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.

So, how have you done? Surely, you have not murdered. Have you hurt or harmed your neighbor? The Pharisee (legalist) in you is probably saying “no.” Have you helped and supported your neighbor? Have you provided for the sick, the needy, the homeless in our community and world?

“Scratch the legalist and underneath you’ll find an antinomian.” You love the Law only until it convicts you of hating your neighbor. Make no mistake, you have not loved your neighbor as you ought. You love your own flesh and hate him. Worst yet, you are hopeless to overcome this hatred. No amount of me exhorting your flesh to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, or shelter the homeless is going to do a lick of good.

Your flesh will either relax the Law to keep it or hate the Law and ignore it. The truth is we’re all murderers. It begins with anger in the heart, that secret place where we let our hatred stew. Eventually it always comes to a boil and our anger spews forth its sickening signs. We’re skilled to do so while keeping up appearances, with smiling facade, all the while with knife prepped to stab the neighbor in the back. Our tongues lash out and we insult each other. While we may never take up the sword, it is true that such deep-seating anger and hatred, when allowed to fester, grows and can bring about ruin of life even amongst Christians.

There’s no hope for you within you. You need is a Divine smack-down. That’s what the holy Law does to the sinner, when it is preached and taught. It doesn’t just level the playing field, it obliterates it. There’s no playing the Law gamble. The odds are never in your favor. Pharisees and scribes alike will fail at the righteousness game. All are equally bound to trespasses and doomed to failure. All are in Egypt with no hope and no future apart from corruption, the grave, and eternal fires.

Horrible news, to be true, if that was the final word. Why does God destroy your false righteousness, your legalism, your hated of the Law, your hypocrisy? Why does He put the sinner to death? The Law is given to show you your sin and curb you from doing it. If you want it to be a list of moral precepts for the flesh to keep, you’re no better than the Pharisee or Scribe. The Law is the bright mirror that brings the inbred sin to light. By its threats, we fear judgment. This is good and God’s Holy Will. Why? Because it prepares us for the Gospel.

Knowing that we are murderers to the core is good and even loving. This knowledge is rightly given to us by our God to rebuke us and discipline us. This knowledge condemns the sinner to judgment, council, and the hell of fire. In other words, because we’re all murderers, we’re all dead according to the flesh. We’re dead in our trespasses. Dead people don’t keep the Law, not one jot or tittle.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? … We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For the one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:3ff)

Baptism is the daily drowning of the sinner in waters made holy by the Word. Baptism is the death of the sinner and the new life of the Christian. While the Holy Law crucifies the sinner, placing its just penalty for sin upon Jesus Christ. Our sin was granted to our Savior when we were baptized into Him. So also, our dead body, enslaved to sin and devil, was buried with Christ. Why? In order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. 

The slavery is over. The self-justification is brought to end. All hatred, anger, and murder is crucified, died, and buried with Christ by your baptism. Baptism lifts the condemnation for our Fifth Commandment breaking and places it upon the perfect one, from whom no murderous thought, word, or deed was ever conceived. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Through daily contrition and repentance, the baptized saint of God has all anger, malice, and murder drowned to death. By the forgiveness of sins that is in Christ Jesus, baptized believers rise to new life again, a life dead to sin and alive to God. This is not your own doing. It is a gift of God, received in faith, and lived out in the life of the church.

This is why you ought to examine yourselves according to the Ten Commandments before the Divine Service. You will come to know by the Law schoolmaster the bondage of your flesh and your need for forgiveness. Then, as we prepare for worship through Confession and Absolution, the old flesh is crucified and by the Holy Absolution in the stead and by the command of Christ, the new man rises forth with love of God and love for neighbor.

If you there remember that your brother has something against you, that is, you have sinned against them, first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift, that is, offer your sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the liturgy of the Word and Holy Sacrament. So also, if you have been sinned against, forgive the fellow brother in Christ, both in your heart and also with your tongue and in deed. Even if he will not hear or admit his fault, your forgiveness will be like burning coals upon his head.

We don’t need to relax the Commandments to think we have kept them. Nor should the new man in the Christian hate the Law of God because it is so severe. We now love the Law because it crucifies in us all evil passions and prepares us to receive the blessed Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. This is the love of God, to discipline and heal.

Love includes correction, sometimes in righteous anger such as with parents or government, and always with forgiveness. We forgive because He first forgave us at the cross, crucifying our flesh’s desires, and granted new life in Him. We love because Christ first loved us and gave His life as a ransom for many. We live because He lives. Create in us clean hearts, O God, hearts that forgive as we have been forgiven.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

Trinity 27 2011 – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:1-13

20. November 2011
Trinity 27
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:1-13

“Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” The cry rang out in our Lord’s parable of judgment. The virgin companions trimmed their wicks, rose, and went to meet the bridegroom.

It used to be that weddings were held at night. The party was the wedding. From the bride’s house, she and her companions were escorted by the bridegroom to the wedding hall, for singing, joyous celebration, gladness, and great food. You never knew quite when the bridegroom would come but you had a pretty good idea.

Oil is stored, wicks are trimmed, and all wait. The kingdom of heaven though is likened to the night of prayer in Gethsemene. Three times Jesus left His disciples to pray and three times they fell asleep. Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Like the blessed disciples who lost track of their prayers, ignored their Lord’s word, and fell asleep, so also is the case for these ten virgins.

Some think you can’t fall asleep on the Christianity job and go into the kingdom. If that’s the case, then the disciples are outside the kingdom. All ten virgins are excluded. None of them stayed awake. None of them watched and prayed as they ought to have.

Instead, they got bored, drowsy, and drunk with sleep. They got tried of waiting. Things were too quiet. Nothing to do but go about watching and praying, trimming wicks and waiting.

Thus the Christian life is about passively waiting. It is also true that Christianity is about actively working. I should not have to tell you to love one another, whether friend or foe, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another.

Loving one another is difficult business. We sin against God and each other daily. We let the stupid insult slip across our lips. We do not help each other in our need. We dislike the idea of cherishing only what God has given us. We greedily seek what is not ours.

The worst is inactivity. We sit on our bums, twiddling our thumbs, acting as if its all been taken care of. Truly, your salvation has been taken care of. Jesus died for you and your trespasses. He has redeemed you from death and hell by his bloody death.

This great love is a living and active love. Given to you, it does not die but brings to new life love for neighbor. Because you are justified in Christ, you are being made holy, or sanctified, to love both God and neighbor.

I urge you, brethren, that you increase in love more and more; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing. 

Knowing the day is coming, we do not sit idly, simply waiting for the bridegroom. Instead, we wait in active and hopefully expectation. Each day we cry our “Come, Lord Jesus,” not knowing if today is the day. Each day, we go about the work our Lord has given us to do, singing and giving thanks.

You have heard it said and know it to be true that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman.

Nothing good can come of idleness. Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. What is sober watchfulness? How do we not fall into temptation, sleeping as those disciples or the ten virgins pure? Simply this: be equipped with faith, hope and love. These are freely given to you. God is a gracious God. He loves you, cares for you, and wants you to inherit heaven for the sake of His Son. Receive His gifts of love.

You know Jesus is the only hope you have. This you know and believe is true and trust is for you. You hope and watch, all the while encouraging each other, warning those who are unruly, comforting the fainthearted, upholding the weak, and being patient with all. You see that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. 

You do this because He first loved us. It is love to watch over the little ones. It is love to warn those who err. It is love to comfort the faith and uphold the weak. It is love to be patient and kind. Thus, we labor while the day is still upon us, before the night when no one can work.

From the parable, we know that some Christians miss the boat altogether. They are like the five foolish virgins, hypocrites to the core. They go through all the right motions but fail to receive and cherish the one thing needful. They receive the robes of righteousness, fit and tied for the wedding feast. They frequently listen to the voice of instruction and promise. They show up to the party, lamp and oil. But in the end, they are not prepared.

This was their fault only. For God has not destined [them] for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. If five do not enter the wedding hall, finding only later the door shut, no one is to blame but them.

Jesus is teaching us that tomorrow may be the end. Don’t think you’ve got it all together because you have a baptism certificate, you went graduated from confirmation, and you pay your dues to the church regularly. The kingdom of heaven is not about a piece of paper, an eighth grade rite-of-initiation, or an annual giving statement.

That’s the difference between the five wise and the five foolish. The foolish do not wait in faith, hope, and love. They take our Lord’s promises, receive them, but do not cherish them. That is, they know Jesus died for their sin. They know it is true. But they do not trust that in Jesus only will they enter the kingdom of heaven.

True and saving faith is the oil needed for the journey. It is living and active, just like love. It keeps the fire burning until we enter the wedding hall. It shows the way to the feast. Without this oil, our way would falter, our hope lost, and our love die.

Faith gives hope and hope produces love. All three go together. It is faith in the Word that gives knowledge, truth, and trust in God. Yet, too many Christians think like those five foolish virgins, saying: I have my lamp, I have my wick, I have the festal garment, and I’m in the right place at the right time. That surely will be my ticket when Jesus comes again. Wrong. Going through the church motions doesn’t save you.

For example, we have rightly emphasized the necessity of Holy Baptism, the reception of the Sacrament at First Communion, and the Rite of Confirmation of Holy Baptism in our practice. But we have also done a great disservice to them by giving some the impression that they save merely by doing them.

Dear Christian, it is true—baptism now saves you, that is, the washing of rebirth with Word and Spirit that creates faith to know, assent, and trust in this Word.  Yet, a mere washing of water with family and friends present, before joyous congregation, with all the right fixings does not make baptism. No, it is the Word of God that promises and grants faith to believe this Word.

Or another example—the Holy Communion is Christ’s living body and blood, giving you forgiveness, life, and salvation. But, it is not merely a special meal with friends, dining on special wafers of unleavened bread, sweet wine, at the altar rail that makes a holy communion. There is only Holy Communion with these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” and faith that knows, agrees, and trusts that these words are for you.

So it is in the church. Going through the motions isn’t a ticket to heaven. Receive the Lord’s gifts, yes, but receive them in faith, knowing that they are true and for you. Receive God’s means of grace that your faith may increase and you love and cherish them more and more. Fill your lamps and your extra vessels with faith.

Trust in your baptism because the Father said by that water: you are my beloved child. Trust in the Holy Supper because Jesus said of the bread and wine: this is my body and blood for you for your forgiveness. Trust in Holy Absolution, knowing our Lord’s forgiveness is declared when that pastor, as instrument of God, lays his hands on your head and says: “by the stead and in command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins…”

That’s how the church rolls. That’s how the bridegroom and her virgin companions prepare to be led to the king. They take up the gifts of God and accept them fully. These gifts of Sacrament are bound to faith. Both are received and are grown. This faith does not sit by idly, only to mold and decay from disuse. Faith does not receive thinking the mere act of doing saves. Faith breaths and lives trust, bringing hope for your tomorrow and love for all.

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Christians, be sober and vigilant. Watch yourselves, lest you forget the faith necessary for the journey. Watch each other, lest any fall into temptation. Watch family, knowing that simply going through the motions isn’t good enough. Love and hope, encouraging one another to receive these gifts in living faith and for the upbuilding of faith until the end.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana