Monday, November 28, 2011

The Glorious Is Comprehended in the Ordinary

First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011

On the first Sunday in the Church Year our eyes go toward the end. Well, it’s not really the end. It’s more like a beginning. It’s the end of this life as we know it. But it’s the beginning of eternity where we will see no more death, experience no more pain, cry no more tears. On the first day of this new liturgical year our focus moves toward the glory that is the Last Day. The day when Christ will return for all to see. As He says, with great power and glory.

This is the description Jesus gives in the Gospel reading: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” It’s all very apocalyptic, the stuff of much glory but also of fear for many. What we don’t understand can be frightening. But Jesus tells us why the Last Day is the ultimate day of glory: “they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

But perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is that we don’t comprehend it in the spectacle and glory of it. We don’t ultimately understand it in its magnificence. Rather, we comprehend it in, for example, something like a fig tree. Or, take another example, servants put in charge of the household while the master is on a journey, and a doorkeeper commanded to keep watch. Christ’s return in glory and Judgment Day are comprehended in ordinary things like these. So Jesus can describe the details of the Last Day in their magnificence and then say something so plain and ordinary and even seemingly not all that important, such as, “Learn the lesson of the fig tree.”

Try that on somebody. Hey, let me tell you about the Last Day, Judgment Day. You see, it’s like this, you need to learn the lesson of the fig tree. If you were to set them up with something of magnificence as Judgment Day and then continue on in talking about something as ordinary as a fig tree, they might wonder what the big deal is. Or they might wonder if you really understand what the Last Day is about. But it is in the ordinary that the glorious is comprehended. If we look for glory apart from the ordinary means through which our Lord delivers it to us we will miss it. So learn from the fig tree its lesson: “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that He is near, at the very gates.”

Now we have to know what these things are that Jesus referring to. They are the things He describes earlier in the chapter from Mark that are Gospel reading is from, the part that isn’t in our Gospel reading for today. They are things we normally refer to as the End Times. When you see the fig tree beginning to bloom you know summer is near. It’s as simple as that. You can look at the signs and know when summer will happen. It’s an ordinary thing and Jesus is using something as ordinary to show us His glory. When you see the signs of the End Times you know that He is near. You know the end is coming. You know that He will return in glory imminently.

Those things He described earlier in the chapter are things we’ll recognize: false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution of Christians, families divided against each other. We have seen these things, haven’t we? They are so prevalent that they have become an ordinary part of life. And there is the point. God’s glory is comprehended in the ordinary. If we become numb to the signs of the End Times because they have become ordinary we miss the glory. If we are alert and read the signs and understand that He is near, that His return in glory is imminent, we won’t miss it. We will see it in all its glory. These are words Jesus spoke nearly two thousand years ago. They are as true today as they were then. Fig trees have continued to bloom and designate the coming of summer.

But Jesus also said this at the same time: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” How is it that this is true when generation upon generation has passed away when the signs of the End Times have continued to go on and the End has not come? It’s true that all of those things did take place in the generation to which spoke. How this was so was that the promise and prophecies of the Old Testament and His own prophecies are tied to His coming in the flesh and suffering and dying on the cross. His coming again in glory is no glory at all without His coming in the flesh and in humility and in suffering and in dying for the sins of the world. Any interpretation of prophecy in the Bible and any interpretation of the Bible in general apart from its being centered in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ is false interpretation and interpretation that leads you to miss the glory of the Last Day.

That’s why when Jesus continues on He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” They will not pass away because all that we see was brought into existence by His very Word. Even though it was all created to be eternal it will not last because of the Fall into sin. So it will all pass away but His words will never pass away. Words are ordinary things, aren’t they? With words God brought into existence the universe. With words our Lord prophesies His coming again in glory. His words will never pass away even though they are among the most ordinary of things. By His Word He declares us His people. We are His people who hear His Word and cling to the promise that He will come again in glory even if two thousand years seems like a long time for the promise to be fulfilled.

This shows all the more reason for us to be ready. Because the glorious is not comprehended in the spectacular, but in the ordinary. We should never underestimate the decision of God to bring His glory to us in the ordinary. The Incarnation is an amazing fact of history. God became flesh. He dwelt among us. God was born. He became a man. People are ordinary. We are a normal part of life. God became an ordinary man. The thing about ordinary human beings is that we don’t know when our Lord will return in glory. In fact, it’s just an ordinary part of life that even He didn’t know! This is Jesus’ startling statement: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Jesus is not afraid of the ordinary. He relishes it. He rejoiced in His incarnation, in being a man, in submitting Himself to His Heavenly Father. As a man, He truly did not know when He would return in glory. According to His human nature He was as in the dark as every other person, as the angels, as all except God the Father. Nevertheless, according to His divine nature, He knew everything.

This is difficult for us understand. No, it’s impossible for us to understand. But it’s tough for us to come to terms with. Jesus is God. How could He not know? It’s because His glory is comprehended in the ordinary. He doesn’t want to come in the spectacular but in the ordinary. The spectacular will come soon enough, on the Last Day. We need to be ready for it. In the meantime, the way we get ready for it is in the ordinary ways He’s given us. That’s why He says: “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Those ordinary ways are His Gospel and His Sacraments.

This is how He describes His coming again in glory: “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.” Notice how simple this is. He doesn’t give spectacular details but rather an ordinary account of servants taking care of the master’s home and the doorkeeper keeping watch. This is it. This is how simple it is. This shows the ordinariness of it all. Jesus is the master. He has gone away, so to speak. He ascended into heaven and will return again in glory. As we await His return in glory we are His servants. We take care of His household on earth, the Church. We take our cue from the doorkeeper and keep watch. Jesus says: “Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest He come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

How do we do this? The Gospel and Sacraments. We partake of them. We live in them and are sustained by them. Jesus the Master has gone away for at time, after having come to secure salvation for the world in His suffering, death, and resurrection. But though He ascended into heaven He hasn’t just up and left. He comes to us often in His Gospel and Sacraments. In the preaching of the Gospel we receive Christ. In Baptism we are united with Christ. In the Holy Supper of our Lord we receive our Lord, partaking of His body and blood, eaten and drunk by us for the forgiveness of our sins. He does all of these things through ordinary means such words, water, and bread and wine. Why He blesses us eternally and strengthens us through these ordinary means is so that we can comprehend them. They’re not out there somewhere, they’re right here among us.

Why He does it through ordinary means is so that we can live as His servants as He described in His parable of the master going away and putting the servants in charge. The lives we live are ordinary lives. That doesn’t make them less special than if they were spectacular lives. In fact, it makes them more special because God works through the ordinary. His glory is comprehended in the ordinary. That means in your life. In the ordinariness of it all. In you serving in the ordinary ways you do day in and day out. Little things that you do to help others. Taking time out to comfort someone who is struggling. Making the effort to tell others who Jesus is and the salvation He brings. Carrying out the daily responsibilities you have at work and at home. Since these are all ordinary things you can be assured that God is the one who is at work in you. If it were up to you to do spectacular things for God then you would look to yourself and miss the glory of God that is comprehended in the ordinary.

Be ready. Stay awake. Rejoice and relax and be comforted in the ordinary. Mostly the ordinariness of God. God coming as a man. Jesus coming in order to suffer and die in your place. Coming to you in your Baptism and in His Holy Supper. Strengthening you so that you may be ready. The glory is coming. You will know it when it happens. When Christ returns in glory on the Last Day it will be unlike anything you know. And it will indeed be glorious. But don’t miss the glory that is comprehended in the ordinary. God loves to bless you in these ordinary means of His Gospel and Sacraments and there is nothing more glorious than that. Amen.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Just As He Is Holy

All Saints Day [Observed]
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
November 6, 2011

The first thing to do is see. Don’t just look. Really see. See what kind of love God the Father loves us with. See that this is love we have from Him because He gives it to us. That’s what John says in the Epistle reading: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us.”

That’s a word you should think of when you think of the Father: given. We have what we have because He has given it to us. John is telling us about the kind of love we have from the Father. It is love He has given us. What kind of love is that? Love that is free. Love that is not forced on us. Love that doesn’t expect something of us first.

It’s simply love that is given. That’s what God likes to do, give. He gives. He loves. He showers down upon us His love. He’s a giving God. He’s a loving God. See what kind of love this is!, John says.

What kind of love is it that He’s given us? The second thing we will see is that we are children of God. Why are we children of God? Because we are called children of God.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we are called children of God? Why doesn’t God just make us His children? Why aren’t we just naturally His children? In one sense we are. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone was created by Him. But John is being more specific here. He’s talking about us Christians. We are children of God, but we have to be called children of God to be so.

The reason this is is because we ran away from home. We were created by God, in His eternal family, but we renounced our inheritance. We struck out on our own. It’s tempting to blame this on Adam and Eve. They’re the ones who sinned in the Garden. They’re the ones who messed it up for the rest of us. This is true. But it’s also true that we are more than ready to follow in their ancestral footsteps. We sin. We go our own way. We shy away from God our Heavenly Father.

And so He calls us. He calls us His children. He restores us to His eternal family. See what kind of love this is. It is love that doesn’t just take for granted that we are His children because He is our Father. It is love that seeks us out. It is love that says, “Even though My precious children have gone away, I love them. Even though they rejected My Fatherhood and My love I have given to them, I will continue to love them. I will remind them who they are. I will call them My very own children.”

When God says something, it is what He says it is. So when here in the Epistle reading we’re told that we’re called children of God, well, that’s what we are. God calls us His children, His children is who we are.

There’s something that goes along with being the children of God in the world. The world doesn’t know us. John says that plainly. How are we to take that? Is it a good thing? Kind of like, we’re covert operatives in the world for God? Or is it a bad thing? Perhaps along the lines of, we’re children of God but we have a kind of reverse identity crisis: we know who we are but no one else does. How are we to relate with others?

On whether the world not knowing us is a good thing or a bad thing, John doesn’t just say that the world doesn’t know us, he says that the reason the world doesn’t know us is because it didn’t know God. It’s plain that this is a bad thing. The world not knowing God is the problem. The world not knowing God means they don’t know His love He gives to them. Not knowing God means not knowing that He is their Father and they are His children.

We know this. We know that the world doesn’t know God and we therefore know that the world doesn’t know us. That’s a bad thing. It’s not a good thing. In a sense we’re covert operatives. But in a another sense we are the people who show the world what it means to know God; what it means to be children of the Heavenly Father; what it means to live as ones who receive love from God and are called by Him to be His children.

This is why John reiterates that we are God’s children: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” This is who we are. This is who we are even now, even as we live and breathe in this world. We are the children of God even as we live among those who do not know God, who do not know who we are. If you ever have a bit of an identity crisis, know that you are in good company. Your brother and sister Christians are in the same boat with you. You are the children of God, even now.

Even so, there’s another aspect to put in the mix. You might very well be having an identity crisis because though you are a child of God, you are not who you will be. You are the recipient of God’s love. You are His child. But what you will be has not yet been revealed. So, we know who we are, but we don’t? How’s that for an identity crisis? “Beloved, you are, even now, the children of God! But!, you are not who you will be”?!? At this point if we had been listening to John’s Epistle being read we might have been tempted to interrupt. “John, can I get to you explain what’s going on here?”

He does exactly that. John tells us another thing we know, identity crisis or not: “we know that when He appears we shall be like Him.” Who we will be will be revealed when Christ appears again. Who we will be will be like Jesus. That’s some kind of statement. We will be like God. It’s really interesting how John comes full circle here. That was the problem old Adam and Eve were having. Satan convincing them to partake of the fruit, because, after all, then you will be like God. John here is doing the opposite of Satan, however. He, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is stating the reality of what God Himself will bring about: we will be like God. It won’t come through the eating of any fruit of a tree of knowledge. It will come about through God bringing it about in Christ coming again on the Last Day.

When He comes again in glory, how is it that He will bring it about? As John says: “because we shall see Him as He is.” This is an amazing statement. We shall see Him as He is. It’s not really so much amazing because we will see God face to face; although that will be pretty amazing! It’s really more amazing because of what God does to make this happen. It’s not so much that He will transport us to heaven, and then, voilĂ !, we will be in the presence of God. It’s that He will show us who He is in the Second Person of the Trinity. In Jesus we will see who God is. We will see Him as He is. And then, astonishing as it is, we will be like Him!

This God stuff is first and always about Jesus. Being the children of God is never apart from God being our Heavenly Father in Jesus. God is not just our Father. He is our Father in His Son. We are not just the children of God. We are God’s children in Jesus, the Son of God. It’s in a similar way to those Beatitudes we heard Jesus speak. We are not just blessed in a generic way. We are blessed specifically in Christ. It is because of the One speaking the Beatitudes that we are the blessed who are the poor in spirit, etc.

This is the kind of tension the Beatitudes bring to bear on our lives. We are blessed. Of that there is certainty. We are also poor in spirit. We mourn. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. We are meek. The Beatitudes paint a portrayal of us Christians as ones who don’t necessarily look particularly blessed. That’s why there’s hope. John says, “everyone who thus hopes in Him.” He is stating this in the same way he has stated God’s love and we being God’s children. We hope in God. It’s certain, but doesn’t always seem so. We are blessed, but doesn’t always appear to be.

Hope is one of those things we’d probably just as soon do without. There’s a sense of expectancy. But you never quite know for sure until it actually comes about, don’t you? When you hope for something, you want it to happen but don’t know for sure it will happen until it happens. The word John uses, though, isn’t ‘for’ but ‘in’. We hope in God. We don’t hope for Him, as if we hope He’s real. We hope in Him. It’s altogether certain even if we may feel like we’re not all altogether certain of it. With God hope is a thing of certainty. Not because we hope really hard. Because of God. Because His call to us to hope is grounded in His promises. Remember the kind of love we have? It is love He has given us. Remember what that means for us? It means we are His children. He calls us His children. He calls us to hope.

What comes out of this hope is what today’s celebration in the Church Year is all about. The celebration of All Saints. Saints are holy ones. John says that “everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself.” This word ‘purify’ comes from the Greek word for ‘holy’ and it’s where we get our English word ‘saint’. A saint is one who is holy; one who is pure.

How does one become pure, holy? Is there anything you need to do? Is there any way to get rid of all the filth and the sin? Is there any way to purify yourself, to make yourself holy? As it happens, there is. In living your life as God has called you to live, it’s all about the hope. “Everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself.” John here is talking about the life we live. We normally call it sanctification. Living in a way pleasing to God. Living in accordance with the Ten Commandments. Living this way doesn’t save us, but it does indeed purify us. We don’t live this way in order for God to love us but we do live this way because God loves us. It is absolutely appropriate that we Christians be exhorted to live godly lives in order that we may walk in a manner worthy of our calling.

That it’s all laid out in the Ten Commandments is a tremendous blessing. It’s a blessing to know that instead of seeking my neighbor harm I should help him in his need. It’s a blessing that instead of seeking gratification outside of the bond of marriage God gives wonderful blessings within the bond of marriage. It’s a blessing to know that instead of deceiving others I should be speaking what is true and good. It’s a blessing to defend others and put the best construction on their actions rather than tearing them down. It’s a blessing to be happy for others in what they own and be content with what we own. It’s a blessing to give thanks for and to honor and obey our parents and those in authority over us as servants God has placed in our lives for our good.

These are the things that make up the purified life of the saints of God. These are the examples given us from the saints who have gone before us.

We have seen what kind of love the Father gives us. We have seen that He calls us His children. We have seen that the world doesn’t know us, even as it doesn’t know God. We have seen that what we will be has not yet appeared, but will when our Lord Jesus Christ appears and we will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. This is the hope we have. We hope in Him because of His promise. In this we are purified, made holy. In this way we are saints.

You will wake up tomorrow a saint of God. Tomorrow you will wake up and you will live another day as you have done before. You will sin. You will not live in purity as God calls you to live. So how does that square with you being a saint? Because you are already a saint. When God calls you His child He declares you holy. The hope you have in Christ is hope based in the promise of God that you will be like Christ. In this life there is always that tension of being saint and sinner simultaneously. All the more reason for hope. All the more reason to know that your true hope is in Christ, not in yourself. In this life, as one who is a saint, you are more and more sanctified, made more and more holy, conforming to the image of God’s only-begotten Son.

It’s an amazing thing, as all of this is amazing. See what kind of love the Father has given us, that He has made us saints. See the kind of love in calling us His children through His Son Jesus Christ. We know the promise is reliable, that He will come again in glory. We know it’s true because we know what He has already done, just as He promised. He suffered, He died, He rose. To make us holy, just as He is holy. He did all this to give us ears to hear our Heavenly Father call us His children. Amen.