A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

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“The Shepherd King,” preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, November 26, 2017

Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24; Psalm 95:1–7a; 1 Corinthians 15:20–28; Matthew 25:31–46

In the 16th Century, the Geneva Bible was the favored Bible of the people. It was the Bible of the Puritans, the 1591 Cambridge edition is the Bible that the Pilgrims brought to America, where Scots was the main language at that time. One of the innovations of that Geneva Bible was that it was the first study Bible. It had marginal notes by notables like John Calvin, John Knox, and Miles Coverdale—each one a Reformer.

In 1522, Martin Luther published his German New Testament and William Tyndale, an Englishmen, got his hands on one that same year. He was inspired to translate the entire Bible into English. The Catholic Church was not happy about it, thinking it should only be in Latin, ordered him to stop, and after he refused, forced him to flee the country. He landed in Worms, Germany. Sound familiar? Luther was a continuing inspiration and help to Tyndale. But he was eventually hunted down, captured, and imprisoned.

Miles Coverdale, one of the authors of the study notes in the Geneva Bible, took up the task of finishing Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament into English. In 1536, Tyndale was strangled to death and burned at the stake for his so-called heretical English translation, which was the entire New Testament but only about half of the Old Testament. Fires evidently did not scare Coverdale, who picked up the gauntlet and his pen and finished the work of translating the Old Testament.

John Knox, a Scotsman who ended up founding the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, was first exiled to England for his trouble-making, reforming ways. He then moved to Geneva where he met John Calvin.

John Calvin, was a French theologian and the Reformer of Geneva, Switzerland. Philip Melanchthon, the author of so much of the Lutheran Confessions, sometimes seemed to favor Calvin’s theology nearly as much as Luther’s.

These three—Coverdale, Knox, and Calvin—wrote much of the study notes in that Geneva Bible—a Bible that King James, himself a Scotsman, hated with a fire redder than his own hair. Why? Because the notes are harsh regarding words that refer to a monarchy. Although the Geneva Bible uses the word “king,” the Puritans were so anti-monarchical that its marginal notes repeatedly employ the word “tyrant” when commenting about a king. The word “tyrant” would not find its way into the King James Bible, but it appears in the Geneva notes over 400 times. The translation favored by the Puritans must have been very popular at the court of England.

Let us pray: Sovereign Lord, at the end of time your eternal reign will be fully revealed, and all will stand in awe of your Son, the King of kings. As we gather in your holy presence, nourish us with word and water, bread and wine, that we may go forth making his kingdom known through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Indeed, I think one of the driving forces behind the Scotsman who became King James was not just to have a Bible that would unify Great Britain, but that would unify it around its British king. That could never happen with that anti-monarchy Geneva Bible.

Kings can certainly be a problem, if only for being self-centered. Still, the Apostle Paul urges us to pray for kings and others in authority, adding that this pleases God (1 Tim 2:1-3). This is because God wants us to live peaceably and because all authority comes from God, existing rulers and powers receiving their authority from God (Rom 13:1). So, even kings, emperors, and presidents are subjects of a greater ruler, that great King above all gods, as the Psalmist calls him in our Psalm today. Even greater powers than kings and presidents are subject to God. Powers like sin, death, and the devil must also answer to him. As the Second Reading asserts: all things will be subjected to him—even death, which will be destroyed forever.

How does God enforce this; how does he accomplish his authority? He does so in a way no one would have dreamed. He comes to earth as a man who would become a shepherd like his great-grandfather, 13 generations removed, King David. Ezekiel says that God himself will seek out his scattered sheep. What kind of king goes in search of lost sheep? A shepherd king does. Jesu doess. He is the one who has made his wandering sheep lie down and rest so that he may dress their wounds and strengthen them with his own hand. The psalmist says that “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

Now, it may not seem like you have a very good spot to lie down and rest. It might seem a bit rocky or uneven to you. Life may be treating you pretty roughly, perhaps unfairly from your perspective. Whenever this seems to be the case to you, you may be assured that you are at that moment, lying in the wrong place. For the green pastures where he makes us lie down are none other than the Good Shepherd himself. Any tougher turf in life is made comfortable because the Shepherd gives you rest—not an easy life. He satisfies your needs—not affluence, good health, and the applause of people. It is the hand of the shepherding God who upholds you through this life, not the platforms of presidents or the councils of kings.

We are carried by the Shepherd King’s mighty hand through the valley of death, for it is but a momentary shadow. We will pass through in the flitting of the eyes, as though awakening from a peaceful slumber. Because our Shepherd King was the firstfruits of the dead, we who believe will be raised as the latter fruits. Paul’s image in our Second Reading is taken from the Jewish celebration of Passover. Passover was both a remembrance of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, and a barley harvest festival. The Law states:

“When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted” (Lev 23:10–11).

At Passover, the barley was threshed, dried over fire, exposed to the wind so that the chaff would blow away, then ground in the mill, and offered to God. Just so, Jesus had to be offered to God and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of the dead, a second harvest is coming when all who have fallen asleep in the Lord will rise and be caught up with the Lord into heaven. Our shepherding King rose victoriously from the grave, and he will raise us too. Having put all things in subjection to Christ, God will destroy death at the last. We who were bound to die because of Adam’s sin within us, will be made alive forever because we are bound in faith to the King who overrules sin and death.

But kings do not only pardon; they also judge. The Shepherd King will sit on his glorious throne, and there separate the sheep from the goats, the favored sheep sent to his right hand, the goats to his left. Sheep and goats were pastured in mingled flocks, just as we live in this world with unbelievers. It takes a king who is a shepherd to tell the difference between the two. What is it that the Shepherd King will be looking for in distinguishing these similar species? While we cannot infer from this story that we will be justified because of our good works, for we are saved by grace alone. Yet we do see that the Shepherd will be looking for evidence of that faith. That evidence is illustrated by a variety of good works, done to the less fortunate whom Jesus identifies with so strongly that to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned is to do so unto Jesus himself. These are the righteous deeds of those who have true faith, the acts of the faithful sheep of God’s right hand.

Our great Shepherd King is no tyrant such as Calvin, Knox, and Coverdale wrote about, but his judgment is keen nonetheless—make no mistake. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance, the Baptist admonished. That is what faithful sheep do, for they know they do it unto their king.

For these sheep of God, these people of a real and living faith, are the ones whom Ezekiel’s God will go in search of, seeking and rescuing them from the dark places of sin, death, and the devil. He will rescue them from these evils and feed them in good, rich pasture.

He has set a table before you in the presence of these enemies. This holy table embodies his promise that his goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, that the Shepherd King has prepared his house for you to dwell in forever. Fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd King is with you. Be comforted at his table. Come!

A Sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“The Seventh Petition,” preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, November 19, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The seventh petition of The Lord’s Prayer asks God, “But deliver us from evil.”

The Small Catechism asks, “What does this mean?” Here is Luther’s answer:

“We pray in this petition, as in a summary, that our heavenly Father would deliver us from every type of evil — whether it affects our bodies or souls, property or reputation — and at last, when our hour of death comes, would grant us a blessed end to our earthly lives, and graciously take us from this world of sorrow to himself in heaven.”

Let us pray… God of light and life, illuminate our lives with your Word and Spirit so that we may always be prepared for the coming of your Son. Grant that we may bear the light of your love to a world in need, that others may know of your justice and mercy, and themselves be ready for your breaking into the world anew; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was a police chaplain, it usually wasn’t much fun riding along with officers and detectives during the daytime. But doing ride-alongs at night? That’s a different story. People lose their inhibitions after the sun goes down. That’s usually because nighttime is when they start drinking. Once some people start drinking, it isn’t long before they’re drunk and doing stupid things that they wouldn’t do during the day time.

In fact, Thursday will be a particularly busy time for police departments. On Thanksgiving Day, families will get together, and some of them, not wanting to be with their families, and will drink more than usual, which always ends up in a brawl with a family member, and a call to the police to come break it up. This evil is basic to societies all over the world.

Paul uses this image in our Second Reading today. He does so as a way to remind us how we ought to live the Christian life. The apostle tells us that we should be prepared folks, like five out of the ten virgins in our Gospel Reading from last Sunday—the five who had sufficient oil in their lamps as they waited for the bridegroom’s return. Those who have the oil of faith, as Jennifer explained it to us, will always live the prepared life. They are being delivered from evil every day—and will be delivered from the ultimate evils of death and the devil on that great and glorious day of the Lord.

But those who will not live lives of faith, who will not walk soberly in the light, preferring the darkness and its evils, cannot and will not be ready when the Lord, our Bridegroom, returns like a thief in their darkness. They are secure in their spiritual stupor; they are content in their ignorance. They imagine that all is well, that everything is as it ever has been; nothing ever changes and all is right enough with the world.

This is the same person who hides his talent in a dark hole in the ground. The Church is full of such souls. Instead of putting God’s gifts to work in his service, their lives are wasted, spent only in pursuing what they imagine profits themselves. But our Lord requires more of his servants. And as each and every believer is his servant, God gives us each talents, according to our abilities, expecting us to use them for a profit—for his profit, the profit of his kingdom.

These ancient talents were measures of silver or gold, and were no small sum to invest. A single talent of silver was equivalent to 15 to 20 years wages. Imagine spending 15 or 20 years of your life with nothing more to show for it than what was initially given to you. But that is precisely what so many—too many—do with the gifts God has given. That is a serious evil run amok in the Church.

Statistics show that 20% of folks do 80% of the work in just about any institution. The Church is not exempt from this 20/80 statistic. You don’t have to be told the common reply when a church member is asked to serve on a committee—let alone on Council. Now imagine that God calls to the mission field. How many go? Maybe 20%?

But it isn’t just serving on committees or answering a call to ministry. It used to be that 40% of a congregation’s membership could be expected to be regular in worship. It’s less than that now. Indeed, in my experience, many who serve on Church Councils only worship once a month or less. Yet they contend that they know how God would have them lead his Church.

Deliver us, O Lord, from this evil. Is this living the prepared life? Aren’t we concerned that these folks may be caught off-guard on that Day? We would be wise to expect more of folks before making them our leaders.

Indeed, Lord, deliver us from ourselves.

Christians are expected to be delivered from evil, as God has promised to “strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work that He has begun in them (Phil 1:6), if they cling to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness, and faithfully use the gifts they received” (Formula of Concord).

But here is that same evil problem in the Church. How will God deliver us from evil, if we do not cling to his Word? If we hardly know it, how would we be much comforted? This is tantamount to crying, quoting Paul, “There is peace and security!” Those who have no need of a steady diet of God’s Word must be similar to those whom Jeremiah said insisted, “Peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). If one does not need the constant reminder of God’s promises, he must be living in a dark land filled with this false peace. If one does not require the gracious uplift of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, she must be drunk on some other fare. If one does not believe in the fellowship of believers, the communion of saints, he must be carousing with some other sort of souls.

Let us hear with ringing—or if need be, jarring—clarity what Paul has admonished. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” We are children of the light, expected to live lives filled with God’s grace, so that on that Day, we will not only not be caught unawares but, be glad for that day. For Christians are not to be slumbering dolts but wide awake, dressed in faith and love, and capped off with the confident hope of salvation.

So, I pray that your Thanksgiving this week will be full of fine times with family and feasting. Even more, I pray that all your days may be filled with faith, love, and the hope of salvation so that whenever the Day of the Lord might come, that you are prepared.

The Lord may return tomorrow or even before this service of worship concludes. Then again, the Day of the Lord could be in another 2,000 years. Like the Thessalonians, you don’t need to know when the Lord is returning. You’re ready when he does return. Your lamps are full. So, we can say with St. John the Revelator: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20).

“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Rev 22:21).

A Sermon for All Saints Sunday

“The Seal of God,” preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, November 5, 2017

The Seal of God” – Revelation 7:2-17

It is appropriate, especially this being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, that we carry on our thoughts of Luther from last week’s Reformation Sunday celebrations.

Luther had been summoned to the Diet of Worms, an imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, to face charges of heresy because he taught a reform of the Church. The hearing lasted four months, from January 28 until May 26, 1521. This was not merely a judicial council of the Church; it was a formal court case against Luther, carrying the full weight of the empire. Luther stood his ground, but was finally sentenced to death, when anathema was pronounced against him. This meant that after three weeks, a period of time the Emperor allowed for getting his affairs in order, anyone could kill Martin Luther with impunity.

But Martin had a protector. While still in Worms, a scheme had been worked out by the Elector Frederick, the ruler and so-called “fox of Saxony.” He feared for Luther’s life beyond the three weeks of the Emperor’s safe-conduct. Frederick did not want to disobey the Emperor. Nor did he wish the reformer, his own citizen and the pride of his university in Wittenberg to die. His solution was to remove him from the public eye for a while and hope that things would settle down.

While on the road from Worms to Wittenberg, Frederick had Luther kidnapped and brought to Wartburg. There, he sealed him up in the castle where Luther grew a beard as a disguise and spent his days writing letters and translating the Greek New Testament into German. It took him eleven weeks, but he gave Germany a New Testament in her own tongue and the tool she needed to bring reform to the Church—and change the world.

Let us pray. Beloved God, in Christ you have drawn all your people into one, holy communion. Grant that, as we remember the saints who have gone before us, we may be sealed in the one true faith, and be strengthened for faithful service to you so that the world may know your blessed presence. Bring us at the last to the feast that has no end where all will be one; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

People are afraid. These are troubled times—just as all times are turbulent. Religious people can sometimes get a bit frenzied, pinning their hope on the wrong thing. Often, this hope is simply that soon it will all be over and they won’t have to deal with this troubled world any longer. These predictors of doomsdays go back to the time of the Reformers and still much earlier. And they are with us today.

Just over a month ago, a Christian numerologist and self-published author—whom I will leave unnamed but whose prediction went viral on social media—missed his prediction of the end of the world: September 23rd—just 33 days after the solar eclipse. In fact, he based his prediction on convoluted calculations and inferences centered around the number 33—that number, those calculations, and that the planet Nibiru would pass by earth on September 23, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves. He further stated that a constellation would appear over Jerusalem on that day, triggering the launch of a series of catastrophic “tribulations” that would mean the end of life on earth as we know it.

In the meanwhile, NASA had repeatedly insisted that the planet Nibiru does not even exist. I, for one, am grateful that it does not, and that the world did not end on September 23, as Susan and I would have missed our 40th wedding anniversary by one day.

Now you may think that I am making light of this doomsday prophet, or of the whole lot of these apocalyptic preachers. I suppose I am, but I have good reason to do so. In John’s letter to the churches, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, one of God’s messengers or angels rose in the East from whence the star guided the ancient magi to the newborn Messiah. This angel appeared with the seal of the living God. The wrath of God was set to be unleashed on the world. But his wrath was stayed for a time—a time much longer than the Emperor’s three weeks—until all of God’s people, those whom the Apostle Paul called the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), could be sealed on their foreheads.

The Apostle John, the writer of the Revelation, undoubtedly takes his imagery from Ezekiel where we see a band of mercenaries—perhaps angels—who are to exact deadly justice on Israel, indeed upon Jerusalem. But there is also one there, not clothed in the garments of battle, but dressed in a more civilian linen. He has a writing case, an ink horn, tied at his waist. This one, also very likely an angel, is sent through the city to seal the faithful remnant. “And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Eze 9:3-4).

Well, that symbolic remnant, the “Israel of God,” is bigger than Israel, larger than the Church, and is not yet complete. It includes those believers in days of old, friends of God like Abraham and David. The “Israel of God” or the “144,000” as John called it, includes the Christian Church too. This 144,000 who must be sealed is an interesting metaphor.

Numerologists are not all crackpots. Numerology was something John used to code his letter to the churches that we call The Revelation. He wrote that letter in an apocalyptic literary style that had fallen out of use amongst the Jews, but was still remembered. The apocalyptic genre can use numerology—and John did. We see it employed in this number 144,000. 144,000 breaks down around common denominators of 12 and 10. 12 times 12 is 144. John used these two 12s earlier in his letter to speak of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles, but here he multiplies the OT by the NT, ending up with 144, not 24. The Israel of God is larger than we thought. God’s angelic scribe has been busy sealing the foreheads of the faithful with his own holy name.

But his scribe is not finished. Even as the two 12s were multiplied, 12 being a number of completeness in Jewish numerology, the resulting 144 is now multiplied. It is multiplied by 10s, 10 also being a number of completeness or fullness. In fact, 144 is multiplied by three 10s—three being a number of perfection. 10 x 10 equals 100…times another 10 equals 1,000. Now the Church, symbolized by the number 144 is multiplied by a number of perfect completeness, and the result is 144,000. How many will the angel of God seal? A perfectly complete number of souls, scattered throughout time, whom God will bring safely through tribulation. They will be delivered from sin, death, and the devil. Nothing can touch their faith in God, for the avenging angels, those four winds or spirits, are not permitted to touch God’s faithful remnant.

Christian, you may feel like you are pretty-much alone in the world today. Believers have almost always felt that way; after all, we are a remnant, not the common, unbelieving people. But we are not alone— not hardly. People are still coming to faith today; they are still being sealed on the forehead by the Lamb’s angel. Yet, largely due to the frenzied preaching and even popular writings of doomsdayers and Rapturists, there are a lot of people who have heard of the mark of the beast, and may even fear that they will receive it. Would that they would be more concerned about having the mark of the Lamb, of being sealed with that salvation that comes only through faith in Jesus.

For “these are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” These are the ones we remember this All Saints Sunday. Indeed, we who believe in the Lamb of God are numbered among them, that blessed 144,000 who are the sealed of God.

We too will be “before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter [us] with his presence. [We] shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike [us], nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Two Sermons for Reformation Sunday

Photo: Rusty Bates

“A Gift for Sinners,” preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, October 29, 2017

“The Transliteration of Souls,” preached at the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation service, Organ Lutheran Church, Salisbury, NC, October 29, 2017

A Gift for Sinners” – Romans 3:19–28

My great-grandmother was the Sunday School Superintendent of Calvary Baptist Church in Springfield, Ohio, for 50 years. Then the whole Ryman clan left for, half going to a Methodist Church and the rest, the ones from whom I am descended, to Calvary Lutheran Church. All of this happened because, for whatever reason, the Baptist Church no longer allowed a Boy Scout troupe to meet in their church. My grandfather and great-uncle were Scout leaders so they had to go somewhere else. That is why I was raised Lutheran.

Let us pray. Sovereign God, we pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to reform the church of Christ. Keep it in the true faith; restore, correct, and inspire its teachings; and embolden it to bear witness to the life-giving message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

God does not look at a person and say, “Zounds! You were a Boy Scout leader? Seriously? Come on in!” He doesn’t look at a woman who has been a church leader for 50 years and decide, “She’s a keeper.” He doesn’t look for confirmed Lutherans to fill the pews of heaven. We are not saved in these ways: through our good works and religion. The fact is, we are so incapable of saving ourselves, or of being good enough, that we are condemned. “He will render to each one according to his works” (Rom 2:6).

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). So, if we are rewarded according to our works, and no one does good, what reward can you expect? “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).

Like Peter’s audience on that ancient Pentecost, who on hearing his sermon were cut to the heart, we too should cry aloud in despair, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The answer echos down through the ages: there is nothing we can do. People have tried, and we may try to comfort ourselves that we have even succeeded. One hears it at every visit to a funeral home. Perhaps you have even said it yourself: “He was such a good man. He’s in a better place now.” Well, if we are judged by our goodness, we will all burn in the fires of hell. Our goodness is not good enough. We are not good enough. Indeed, we are not good at all. The sooner we admit that we are just sinners like all sinners, the closer we will be to the only solution to our predicament.

I mean, you may be a better sinner than someone else—or a worse sinner. But there’s no difference. You’re a sinner. Don’t think you’re not. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). But that’s a good place to be. Yes, it’s good to admit who you are and what you are. That is the first step in getting better. That is the purpose of the Law: it makes you aware of your sin. And that you cannot satisfy its demands of you. And its demand is that you be holy, as holy God is. Impossible, you say. Remember, this is impossible to do on your own, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26).

That was Martin Luther’s problem: all he could see were two things: (1) an angry God and (2) a man who could not appease that angry God. So, he confessed and did penance, and confessed more and did more penance. But nothing changed. God was still God and Martin was still Martin. He knew that he was a sinner but thought, as his church taught and the Jewish faith before had instructed, that he must appease God through works. It was a no-win situation.

Then, in reading the Bible, Luther didn’t have to get far into Romans when he read a verse that changed everything. “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). “The righteous shall live by faith.” We must have the faith that declares we are saved in only one way: by the grace of God alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

The righteousness of God cannot be obtained by human effort. It always comes back to God’s work, his righteousness—on our behalf. This is a gift that no one deserves since all have forfeited any personal righteousness due to their sin. Therefore, righteousness can never be left to our own exertions. Rather, we rely through faith on the work of God in Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4-5).

Consequently, in the great love with which he loves us (Eph 2:4). God offers his own righteousness to us and does so freely. It is available to all who believe. The righteousness of God justly makes us just through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. This free gift of God, his righteousness, becomes ours through faith alone.

A nationwide poll was taken in the United States on religious questions. When asked whether they believed in God, 95 percent of those polled answered “yes.” When asked whether religion in any way affected their politics and their business, 54 percent said “no.” They had a belief, but they did not have faith. If these half of all Americans who believe in God do not have faith that God affects simple things like politics and business, how many believe in their hearts that God can make them righteous, so righteous that they may stand before the holy God with complete confidence that they are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself? If they do not have such faith, faith in the cross of Christ, then they only believe in half of what that cross means.

The cross is two things—and should be two things at once. It is the wrath of God visited upon sinners. Sinners must die. And those who do not have faith in Christ will remain conscious of their sin, but terrorized by the wrath of God upon sinners. But the cross is not just God’s judgment of sinners, it is his acquittal of those sinners who have faith in the Savior who died there for them. This is what that great old word “propitiation” means. The cross is that which makes God favorable toward sinners like you and me. The cross is not sacrifice, but as William Tyndale that great English Reformer put it, the “atonement.” That which ones us with God, or justifies us with him—the only at-one-ment of sinful humanity with the holy God.

That is Luther’s great gift to the world, as its is the Apostle Paul’s. They have made clear to us how to do the impossible. They have shown us how to be righteous before God.

So, as you come to his Table in a few minutes, remember your baptism: that you have already died for your sins, but died in Christ’s death so that you may live. Remember that there is nothing you can do, no law-keeping, no good-working, no Sunday School superintending, no scout leadership, no graduation from a class, no denomination that will save you from the wrath of God. Only Christ, received by faith, saves sinners. Come to the Holy Meal, and commune with the God who has given this great gift of his grace to sinners who have faith in Jesus.

The Transliteration of Souls” – Revelation 14:6-7

The Small Catechism exhorts us to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Since the day of judgment is coming, it will serve us well to learn this lesson now, so that our fear, love, and trust brings him glory not only on that great and glorious day but also in these earthly days. In the meanwhile, may we be his messengers who fly about the globe, proclaiming the eternal gospel of salvation.

Let us pray. Sovereign God, we pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to reform the church of Christ. Keep it in the true faith; restore, correct, and inspire its teachings; and embolden it to bear witness to the life-giving message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

We too often think of angels as beings who are hidden from our senses. We typically think of them as supernatural beings whom we cannot see or hear or touch. And angels are indeed supernatural beings. But that is not all they are. The word we read as angel in the New Testament is not a translated word. It is instead, transliterated. It is taken from the original language, in this case Greek, and carried across into the language of other literature. One example of a transliterated word is “baptize.” Literally, the word means to dip into or under. Symbolically, it means to kill in order to make alive. Paul makes this clear in Romans. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:3).

If publishers wanted to be literal, they would have said, “Don’t you know that all of us who have been dipped into Christ Jesus were dipped into his death.” It just doesn’t carry the same spiritual idea, does it? So, the English translators removed the “o” ending on the Greek word baptizo and added the English “e” ending, creating through transliteration, a brand knew English word. Baptizo becomes “baptize.”

The New Testament Greek word under consideration in our First Reading today is angelos. The word means “messenger” but again Perhaps it is simply too difficult to come up with a new English word that carries the weight and substance of a heavenly being that we cannot imagine. So again, translators of the New Testament removed the Greek os ending on angelos and left the word as AHN-GUL, or as we say in English: “angel.”

One wonders whether these transliterations are a good idea. I suppose that they sometimes are. But in the case of angel, I more often prefer the literal translation of “messenger.” For this is what those angels who are sent to earth are meant to be. They are sent with God’s message. Consider the angels who were heard on high, sweetly singing over the plain. They were sent with the message of God. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:14-15).

Or consider another angel who visited the earth earlier, calling upon a maiden named Mary. Gabriel was sent with a message: “You have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

Angels are messengers of God, sent to earth to convey his message. They do not have to be what we consider angelic beings. Earlier in Revelation, am angel, a messenger if you will, was sent to John with a message from Jesus Christ. He tells John to write to the angels of each of seven churches. Did you know that individual churches have angels? Did you know that your church has at least one angel? Now there would be no need for an angel to receive a letter dictated by an angel to an apostle. These angels of the churches must have been something other than a heavenly being, if they needed to receive a written communique from John that they were then to be read to their churches.

Remember that “angel” means “messenger.” Who is the messenger at your church? Who is the one God has sent to you with his message. Now it may come as quite a shock to you to find out here on this Reformation Sunday that your pastor is an angel. Yet that is indeed what your pastor is: someone whom God has given a message to be proclaimed to you.

Human beings, not just spiritual beings, may be angels. So we ought to take the writer of Hebrews admonition seriously: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).

My wife Susan encountered an angel back in 1974 at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He was sitting outside the Student Union and had been sent with a message of encouragement for that Freshman. Susan told me that she had spoken with an angel. Some time later, she was startled to see that her angel was at a service we attended together, discovering that he was the pastor at a church on the other side of town.

Luther was an angel. He was a messenger sent from God with a message for the world. That message changed everything. Through it, communications was changed. One-eighth of the human race is Protestant. Public education became normal because of the schools Luther started or encouraged. Luther also helped Germans…speak German. In translating the Greek New Testament into common German in eleven weeks, he not only gave them the Scriptures, he gave them a readable that normalized the language for the whole people. Even the modern notion of individuality was influenced because Luther was available to be God’s angel.

Eric Metaxas writes in his newest biography, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.”

Luther, God’s angel, influenced and changed a great many things. But the greatest thing he did was help us understand—indeed, help us to see the truth of it in God’s own Word—that Christians are not saved by their good works or their religion or their piety or by a perfect, sinless life. Instead, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17).

I really hesitate to say it, since I know them just well enough, but this is why your pastor too, is an angel. Your pastor has been sent with a message, the same message Luther was entrusted with. Our pastors are not alone—or at least they shouldn’t be alone. For all Christians are meant to be angels. Everyone who believes has been transliterated from someone dead in his sins into a reborn being, full of new life in Christ. What could you call such a person but an angel! We have been reborn in our baptism into Christ’s death, and then sent into the world “with an eternal gospel to proclaim.”

If you think Luther changed Germany, Europe, and the world, think how God would remake North Carolina, the USA, indeed, the whole world, if we all took seriously our calling to an angelic, transliterated status. We have been given a message, an eternal message. Go and tell!

A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost


Children’s message…

Let us pray…

Sovereign Lord, your reign extends across time and space. You ruled through ancient kings and governors of all countries, and you govern our time and nation too. Help us therefore, to trust you with the governance of our country, paying our taxes and obeying the laws of the land. Give us the courage and conviction to also return to you what is yours, giving ourselves fully to your mission in the world; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

God goes before us, just as he went before King Cyrus of old, leveling what seem to us to be high and mighty places—flattening even death and hell themselves by bringing his salvation with glory and great strength. What would we chosen and elect ones do then, but throw ourselves wholly in to Christ’s kingdom, worshiping him and becoming devoted disciples and imitators of the Lord?

When this trust in God’s reign happens within us, we change in a fundamental way. We concern ourselves with matters of his eternal kingdom instead of being preoccupied with the things of this world. We know that God will take care of the world we live in, governing it just as he did Persia, Babylon, and Israel.

God has used many earthly kings to accomplish his will. He still employs the rulers of our world so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6:10). We believe this implicitly, as this is what we pray, even as Jesus taught us to pray:

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our prayers should attend kings, presidents, and other rulers. So yes, we should pray for President Trump—even as we ought to have prayed for President Obama. These are not perfect men. They require our prayers—and we are commanded to pray for them (1 Ti 2:1–2). This is simple, first-order business of the Church.

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Yet, as much as God used a king named Cyrus, he has used the King of kings to accomplish far more. God subdued nations before King Cyrus but the forces of Hell itself have been vanquished through the cross of Christ. He is the one who causes people from the east to the west to know that there is none besides the Lord who accomplishes these things. God may use a Cyrus or even a Trump or a Putin, but it is the Lord who subdues nations and levels high places. There is no one like God, our God, who brings prosperity and creates disaster. Such matters are the work of God—not political parties. Let us trust in him alone. To do otherwise is to put your trust in other gods, idols, not the creator of heaven and earth.

We should fear, love, and trust him “above all things…worshiping him with prayer and praise, and thanksgiving” (SC), for it is he, as the psalmist says, who “will judge the people with equity” (v10), or as the Creed states, “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

Knowing this to be true, we should be emboldened to declare the glory of God to the nations. One way to accomplish this is by offering more for missions than we do for government—in terms of money, as well as work and prayer. We give 20, 30, and 40 percent in taxes to the government. Yet we only give a tithe (if that) to the Lord’s work. I wonder what would happen if we gave as much to the Lord’s mission as we give to the government. Could we trust God by living on half of what we make? Will we actually dare to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name? What would the Church look like if we lived so daringly? How would such living influence the world? What could our country look like if we understood discipleship in a radical way, throwing ourselves all in with Jesus?

For it is “our gospel” (1Th 1:5), the gospel of Christ’s Church, that ultimately impacts the world. Taxes, civic authority, and armies are of some use. Indeed, God uses such things. Yet in the end, our trust must be placed in the Gospel of Christ’s kingdom. Then our efforts and prayers will be with those workers in the true kingdom on this earth, those who are spread as his kingdom throughout the kingdoms of the earth. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, individual lives are changed. Even whole nations can be changed when the Church does not yield to the temptation to be less than they are called to be.

He has chosen us (v4) to be an example to all. This example is not simply in words but in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our steadfast faith and certain hope can be an inspiration not only to believers but to all. When we do not give in to the temptation to be Sunday-believers, instead being sold out to Jesus, wholly committed to his Gospel, God will change lives through your example. He will change your life, your family’s, your country’s, and the lives of people all over the world.

So, pay your taxes…and pray to God. Jesus has called us to do both, trusting the Lord with the nations. Certainly, God will use our prayers even more than our taxes but we are called to be faithful in each. This is not a matter for debate; it is a matter of obedience—Christian obedience to God.

As you continue to prepare to receive the Holy Meal, examine yourselves concerning the temptation to be disobedient in these things: whether in the matter of paying taxes or giving your tithe. Pray, “Lead me not into temptation,” and resolve to do the Lord’s will today.

A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

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Sermon audio for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A, preached for Homecoming at Concordia Lutheran Church, China Grove, NC, September 24, 2017:

How many times, as a child, did you look in some dark hiding place for a friend while playing hide and seek, yet never see him? You suspected where he was hiding but it was only after spending enough time in the dark to allow your eyes to adjust that you saw some dim light reflecting off his cheek. After a long time in hiding, the cleverest kid even had to stick out a leg so that you noticed him.

We may suspect that God is hiding there, but we will never find him.

God is not one to be found in the nature of the world around us. We may suspect that he is hiding there, but we will never find him—nor are we able to reason our way to God. Yet, because he has revealed himself in his word, God may be “found.” His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. God is near when one takes the time to seek him in his own revelation of himself.

Though the things of this dark world would distract us, those who gaze on the beauty of the Lord, know his light and salvation. Troubling times come and go but the Lord shelters the believer during those times. Seek God’s face as Moses and David did; you will not be disappointed as he makes himself present to you—even while the world does its best to make you anxious.

The world did its best to make Paul anxious. Going to prison would make the best of us stress. It may be difficult to consider imprisonment as an advancement of the kingdom, as Paul did. We have a tough enough time thinking everything will be okay if we are not on Church Council next year, or our particular politician doesn’t get elected. Yet, while in jail, the apostle eagerly expected good things from God. Even if he should die, Paul knew God was in control of matters. He knew that God would get glory whether an apostle lived or died.

With such an example, we too know how to behave in difficult or anxious situations. We may be courageous in the face of whatever befalls us. We may stand firm no matter the shaky ground. We can strive for the gospel without fear of opposition. We may suffer for doing so, but this too is for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom. It is not too late to get started.

We have always done it this way—and “this way” means my way.

Here is a parable for those in congregations who think, “We have always done it this way—and “this way” means my way.”

Serving the kingdom of God is not something just for the old-timers. He calls people—young and old—in the last hour too. When he calls, those called must be faithful to respond but they are not alone in this responsibility. Those who have served the Lord for years, must be grateful for God’s wise choice when he calls newcomers into the work of his kingdom. Those called this year are as dear to the Lord as those he called years ago.

It is difficult for us to let go and let others. Yet, Isaiah has reminded us that God’s ways are above our ways; his thinking is beyond us. So, it is left for us to either whine or to trust when God calls someone else or someone different in these last hours. It is left to us to either stress and be anxious in difficult times—whether they be family, country, or church—or trust that God is in control and loves us. It remains for us to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, even in troubled times. It is our great privilege of faith, even when it seems as if God is hiding from us, to be able to see this God who has revealed himself in many and various ways by the prophets, but now in these last days has spoken to us by his Son.

Thanks be to God, that eternal life is the wage for those who believe in the Son the Father has revealed, whether early or late, whether in easy times or troubled times. May we strive together for the gospel, revealing him to those around us. May God bless Concordia Lutheran Church with many, many years of proclaiming the gospel.

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

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“The Third Article” – sermon audio for the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost Year A, preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, August 27, 2017: