On The Third Day He Rose Again

By Fredrik Sidenvall

Translated by Bror Erickson

This sermonette was originally published in Kyrka och Folk.

Holy week began this last Sunday. Once again you stand before the opportunity to live within the great drama of Easter. Of course, living within means more than decorating your house with various ornaments and eating traditional foods. Yes, it even means more than that you attend a few worship services. Here, to live within means a spiritual journey through time where your life is woven together with the children of Israel in Egypt, with the disciples in the upper room, with Judas in the temple, with Jesus in Gethsemane, with Peter in the high priest’s courtyard, Simon carrying the cross, with the Savior on the cross, with Mary and John at the foot of the cross, with Joseph of Arimathea at the shroud, the women at the empty grave, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

This trip through time and space also extends beyond the limits of personality. It doesn’t merely mean that you should travel there to see and experience things like a tourist. Rather, it is more that you, your person and your life, are present and participate with the people whom God’s word puts before you. You are there amidst God’s enslaved children who are torn between the security in their monotonous and oppressed life and the call to break out on the great adventure home in freedom. You are among the disciples whom Jesus treats as family, whose feet he washes, whose hunger he feeds with his own self. You are among those who sleep, who fail, deny, and betray. You and your blood red sins are there beneath Jesus’ scourged skin, ripped by thorns and pierced by spikes and suffering the wrath of God’s judgment on the cross. Your tears blend with the tears of those who cry at the foot of the cross and tenderly shroud the Savior’s cold corpse.

Now you can ask as Mary once did: How shall this happen? I am not so religious or spiritual that I can manage that much empathy. No, that is true. If it is up to you, then your Easter will be a superficial history. But the answer you receive is the same as that which Mary received: The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and power from on high shall overshadow you! The Holy Spirit dwells in God’s word and makes it a living and powerful word, a word that creates and moves across boundaries, transforms, binds together, and renews.

These lines are written not so that you should increase your efforts, but that your expectations should grow. When you celebrate the divine service this Easter and use God’s word at home, then an awesome thing can happen to your life: the here and now can be woven together with that which happened then. But it is not only so that you can now be carried to the Easter back then, but the whole dynamic of Easter can now be present in your life and your reality today through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus can then grab hold of your rebellious will, despair, and unbelief with his pierced hands and take all of this with him into death. The Savior can shroud all of you in a robe made white as snow in his blood. Louder than the blood of Abel, it cries to heaven: “It is finished!” To you who sit alone and afflicted behind walls of fear, the hostile world’s most extreme front, Jesus comes to you and says, “It is I! Be not afraid!”

And as he once took the hand of Thomas into his open side, so he invites you to plug the USB cable of your life into his heart, so that his life that is stronger than death, stronger than anything, will stream into you. It births you anew, and you come to know that you are justified before God in Jesus. You are never without God, and never without hope in the world.

Easter, my friend, is not something that you should observe, but something the Lord causes to happen to you. 


Fredrik Sidenvall, pastor in the Church of Sweden, serves as principal for the Lutheran High School of Gothenburg, where he lives with his wife Anna. He is editor for the weekly Lutheran magazine Kyrka och Folk (Church and Nation) and co-founder of the North European Lutheran Academy. 

Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Farmington New Mexico. He has translated and published several books including Then Fell the Lord's Fire by Bo Giertz and Witness by Hermann Sasse. 


As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

Living in the Light of the Last Day

Living in the light, not the shadow of the Last Day, does not mean that all the questions evaporate or the voice of lament is prematurely silenced. We walk in the light that God gives us in his Son, that is, we walk by faith, not sight. We are enabled to confess with the hymn writer “what God ordains is always good” and that there is no poison in the cup my good physician sends me. Amen.

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The Foolishness of the Cross

This sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 was preached by the Rev. Jacob Corzine on 26 July 2014 (Saturday of Trinity 5) in Neuendettelsau, Germany at the fourth International Loehe Conference.

Wilhelm Loehe

Wilhelm Loehe

I’ve been reading the game of thrones books over the last year and a half or so. I don’t read a lot of fantasy fiction, and I have to admit, I’m impressed. I’m seriously enjoying the books. I’m going to say just a little bit about what’s going on in the volume I’m reading right now, but there’s no need to leave. I don’t think I’m providing any spoilers beyond those already given away in the title. You see, the “Game of Thrones” is exactly what it sounds like. The books are basically about a battle between the elite in an ancient semi-medieval, semi-magical land for the place on the so-called “iron throne” of Westeros. Depending on the volume you’re reading, there are Lannisters, Starks, Targaryans, and Baratheons—I’m sure I’ve missed a few—putting everything that they have into finding a path from where they are to sitting on that throne in King’s Landing. Mostly that means gathering troops, forming alliances, and in general getting the upper hand any way they can. At any rate, it entirely consumes the characters driving at it.

How it will end is anyone’s guess. The next volume is due out pretty soon, I think. What seems fairly clear, however, is that there can be at most one winner—there’s only room for one on the Iron Throne. If anyone sits there, he—or she—will sit there alone. Anyone who has followed or supported that aspirer along the way can hope for due reward at the end. Those on the opposing side, not so much. Their years of efforts will have been for naught, and their foolishness will be unveiled. Years of effort in the wrong direction. What could appear more foolish?

There could seem to be an analogy reading this passage from 1 Corinthians to a group of people gathered around the topic of Education or Formation and the phrase, “If you cease learning, you cease being capable." Years and years are dedicated to study, learning, and understanding, in the hopes of attaining wisdom. Then comes one of the absolute greats of the discipline, the apostle Paul himself announcing that it’s all for naught. Wisdom is not the order of the day, but foolishness. The cross of Christ—that’s the beginning and the end of it all. It would almost seem, for all of our studying, that we may as well have spent our time reading fantasy novels.

But then, it could be that “foolishness” doesn’t mean here what foolishness typically means, but actually does mean wisdom. After all, St. Paul calls Christ the “wisdom of God.” Then, all our pursuits could be called wisdom, in as far as they pursue Christ and the cross. And we would be rescued after all with our wisdom. But I’m not sure. Christ is called the “wisdom of God,” not the “wisdom of theologians.” St. Paul calls what he preaches folly. The world doesn’t know God through wisdom, but through folly. Should we be too proud to call what we pursue folly? Or are we so bold as to call it wiser than St. Paul’s preaching of Christ?

Now, St. Paul wasn’t preaching to academic theologians. So, when he speaks so disparagingly of the wise, he surely doesn’t mean this crowd. He means the Greek philosophers and the Jewish scribes. Maybe there’s an out there. After all, our wisdom, however worldly it might be, is finally the wisdom of the cross of Christ. Except, again that wisdom is folly. Do we really have the self-confidence to admit that Paul was right about himself, but that we’ve moved beyond that?

To borrow St. Paul’s words from another place: What then shall we say? Shall we give up our studies, conferences, and societies? Give up our wisdom in favor of something many of us might be inclined right now to call “fundamentalism”?

I hope not. I prefer to read this passage as a needed caution. Wisdom may be the Achille’s heel of the scholar and theologian, our idol, or with Luther, the place we hang our hearts that becomes our God.

And here, this passage of 1 Corinthians works against that in two ways. First, it pushes us to self-reflection, revealing our wisdom for what we in our very human egotism make it to be. It forces the hard question, not “how could you ever think yourself so wise?”, but rather “what place does your wisdom have in your life as a Christian?” and “Is that the place the word of the cross was meant to occupy?” Or very simply, “Do you suppose your wisdom is wiser than the word of the cross?”

Second, the text draws us out of ourselves, directing the attention of our faith away from our own wisdom toward the word of the cross. It says, “Once you realize the foolishness of your own wisdom, know that there’s something better—the foolishness of God. Once you realize the weakness of your wisdom, that it isn’t a lasting wisdom, know that there is something better. God’s foolishness is wiser and his weakness is stronger. And both are in the word of Christ crucified.” But it remains the foolishness of God. It remains a foolishness extra nos, and this is, I think, why this passage can always be read as an indictment our wisdom, however theologically astute it might be. The word of the cross is always a word about something external. Our wisdom is, at best, a reflection. The word of the cross is the original.

The contrast is stark as it must be. We must give up our wisdom in favor of folly. Otherwise, we would risk hearing this passage as a call to refine our wisdom. But it’s the folly of the cross that, by the grace of God, may even baptize our wisdom.

Of course that would mean it’s not for naught. There are a few figures in the Game of Thrones novels who stand above the infighting and “serve the realm.” Ostensibly, they don’t work to replace the regent, but to serve whoever the regent is. They lack great wisdom and often seem foolish compared to some of those seeking the throne. They don't always have answers but do sometimes have grounds for critiquing other would-be wisdom, seeing the folly.

They have an idea that’s fixed as the world and the wisdom around them changes—the idea of the realm. We have something fixed as well—the word of the cross.

Amen.

The Rev. Jacob Corzine (FELSISA) does Campus Ministry at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and is the English-Language Co-Secretary of the International Loehe Society.

As an extension of LOGIA, BLOGIA understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed on BLOGIA are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

St. Joseph, Guardian of Our Lord

Here in these later days of Lent, we hearken back to Christmas and that is not just because it is snowing outside this morning. The theology of the cross is no mere addendum to the story of Christmas. It is not the product of an overly pessimistic former German monk who was obsessed with suffering and death. Rather the theologia crucis makes its imprint over all of Holy Scripture.

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Confessing the Truth of Jesus

Jesus puts the question to his disciples, a question that will not go away: "Who do men say that I am?" Whether on the History Channel, in popular magazines, scholarly seminars, or chance conversations, it is an enduring inquiry, this question about Jesus. The disciples chime in with their speculative answers: "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 

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A Lament from the Ruins

Prof. Pless preached this sermon at the LCMS Life Conference on January 23, 2013.

Text: Job 30:16–24

This evening’s text from the Book of Job puts us with Job in the midst of the ruins, teaching us how to lament—that is, how to cry out to God. In a day when worship is judged effective and meaningful if it is upbeat, inspirational, celebratory, and positive, there is not much room for lament.  It is far too negative, too depressing to meet our refined taste for liturgies that are affirming, creative, and exciting. But where the church lacks the capacity for lament, a fragile human optimism replaces the hope which does not disappoint and the praise of God becomes shallow and empty. In fact, we may even praise ourselves under the guise of adoring God.

We stand with Job tonight who knows God’s judgment and wrath cannot be evaporated by wishing them away. We stand with Job, tossed about by a God who plays rough with his children to paraphrase Luther. We stand with Job who does not explain away the hidden work of God—his inscrutable ways which as Luther said often appear as those of a mad axe man let loose in the forest, chopping and hacking way. We stand with Job, slimy and muddy in the mire of our sin, ourselves like him “dust and ashes” and bound for death.  We grieve over a wrecked society where the murder of children is considered a fundamental human right and the elimination of the injured or aged is thought to be an act of compassion.  We stand with Job, whose complaint is not merely about faceless forces or evil, a decadent culture, a cancerous secularism, or corrupted enemies; His complaint is directed to the Almighty God who, he says, “has turned cruel to me.” We stand with Job who is not asking for an answer to the riddle of evil but for the Lord’s salvation.

Hence Job’s lament: “Yet does not one in a heap of ruins stretch out his hand, and in disaster cry for help?”  We know, of course, something about life in the middle of devastation.  The ruins among which we live, move, and have our being is not a bombed out Dresden of crumbling, charred buildings but of a land where death is regularly administered under the most clinical of conditions.  In fact, the ruins are hailed as monuments of enlightened progressiveness. We may indeed reflect on how we have come to such a time as this where the weakest of our neighbors are the most endangered. We may look for reasons for the shifts in morality and the denial of truths once held to be self-evident. We might well look at strategies to recover and restore the recognition of the inherent value of human life and God-given dignity.  We may seek venues for teaching and advocacy. This is all well and good. But tonight we are not here for that. Tonight we are here to stand with Job, with outstretched hands praying in the midst of a disaster.

Our prayer, like that of Job, is nothing other than a lament. It is a protracted “Kyrie, Elesion!” It is a plea for God’s own mercy; his compassion. Lament might be described as prayer in those times when God leaves “the wound open” to use the words of Oswald Bayer. It is not a self-directed whine, but a prayer addressed to God himself.  Job’s lament is not the whimper of one who sees himself victimized by society or circumstances, but one who has a God-sized problem. Listen again to his lament: “God has casted me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. . . .You [that is, God] have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm. For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all the living.”  Job’s lament is directed to God who is his judge, his critic, who stands by, gazing on his shame but does not act, at least not yet.

Like Job, we lament before the God who leaves the wound open. We lament before the God who certainly has the power to bring an end to all that contradicts his will. We lament before a God who has the power to put down the mighty from their thrones, close abortion clinics, and reverse the hearts and minds of those who institutionalize evil. God instead leaves the wound open.

In the fullness of time, Job’s lament was answered. The redeemer whom Job confessed that he would see in his own flesh and with his own eyes has come into this ruined world where we live.  The Book of Hebrews tells us that this Jesus, God’s own Son, was given to lament: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7).  This Jesus is the Word of God come in our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. He is God’s own answer of grace and truth, of life and salvation, through the forgiveness of sins to God’s wrath revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness. Jesus’ wounds—his side split open by a Roman spear and his nailed-pierced hands and feet—are forever the foundation of our confidence to live in a world where God leaves the wound open.

In that confidence we live and work, repenting of frustration and weak resignation. Bringing our exhaustion, unbelief, and fatigue to his cross, we have his promise: “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).  Resting in the wounds of this Jesus and alive in the hope that his resurrection guarantees, we stand in the midst of the ruins calling upon the Lord in this troublesome day, knowing that he will hear and he will hear and that our lament will be answered “for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will be our shepherd and he will guide us to the springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes” (cf Rev 7:17).

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.

 

Prof. John T. Pless teaches at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

That’s Not Very Pastoral . . . or Is It?

A sermon preached by Prof. John T. Pless on 24 October 2012, in Kramer Chapel, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Text: Jeremiah 23:16–17; 23–32

In an essay entitled Union and Confession written just prior to WWII in 1938, Hermann Sasse penned these words: “Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie” (Union and Confession, 1). In this wonderfully lucid little booklet, Sasse goes on to contrast the truth with the lie. He notes that from the beginning the lie and the truth have done battle within the church. So it was in the days of the apostles as Paul said to the congregation at Corinth: “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (I Cor 11:17). The lie, Sasse said, takes on various forms. There is the pious lie, that hypocrisy with which man lies to himself, to others, and even to God. The pious lie easily becomes the edifying lie. This is the lie that takes comfort in untruth. Sasse sees an example of the edifying lie embraced by medieval Christians when they trusted in the power of the saints, relying on the excess of their merit to further them in the struggle toward righteousness. The edifying lie was the lie unmasked and expelled by the Reformation. Then there is the dogmatic lie, the assertion that we have come to greater doctrinal maturity and old teachings are to be changed for a more contemporary, relevant theology. Finally there is, Sasse warned, the institutional lie when the churches embody the lie in their own life, instituting false teaching as normative.

Jeremiah has the lie, in all of the forms Sasse described: pious, edifying, dogmatic, and institutional lie in the crosshairs as he takes aim at Jerusalem’s prophets. With inflated visions of peace and prosperity, they have lulled the people of Israel into a state of spiritual drowsiness. Instead of proclaiming the certainty of the promise, they have peddled the sweet security of the flesh. Thinking themselves to be pastoral they say: “It shall be well with you; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (Jer 23:17). It is a soothing homiletic to be sure; but it is devoid of consolation for it is not true. It is not a message that God has authorized. It is a lie that edifies only by building up a hardened resistance to repentance. No talk here of God’s wrath and judgment on unbelief; no mention at all of a God who both kills and makes alive. Just sweet spiritual nothings whispered into ears plugged to the voice of God.

Instead Jeremiah harangues against prophets whose lips God did not open, whose mouths give exposition to dreams woven out the deceit of their own rogue hearts. With their reckless sermons they lead the Lord’s people astray, so that the Lord is not remembered as the God that He is. Rather than awakening faith which is bold to call upon the name of the Lord, these preachers lull their hearers into complacency with unauthorized promises of well-being: No disaster will come upon you. They cannot preach the invasive God, this wild God of the Old Testament, the Lord who is jealous to have a people exclusively for Himself, so they advertise a domesticated deity who will put his benediction on the desires, the plans, and the programs of the heart whatever they might be.

Jeremiah denounces this as idolatry, no different in substance from the way that Israel’s fathers had been seduced into the worship of Baal. God’s ears are not closed to these lying words. From his sight nothing is concealed and no utterance is so quietly or softly spoken so as to be beyond his ears. Truth and falsehood have no more in common than wheat does with straw. God comes, and his coming is in judgment. The fire of his Word ignites the stubble of unbelief. The hammer of his law pulverizes hearts that have become granite monuments of unrighteousness. The Lord sets his face against these lying prophets. That’s about as far as today’s text takes us. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! Not a very good place for teachers and students at a seminary to be! There is plenty of dire warning in Jeremiah for us who are preachers or aspire to the preaching office lest we be numbered with those lying prophets who preach peace when there is no peace, who proclaim that all is well when disaster is imminent. There is much here to remind us that we are to “afflict the comfortable if we are ever to comfort the afflicted.” But there is not much in our text to give opportunity for the comfort and consolation of the Gospel to predominate. Not much, but something. Listen again to verse 28: “let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.”

We have the promise of the Righteous Branch proclaimed by Jeremiah, the One who for all time will be known as “The Lord is our Righteousness.” We have Jesus’ word and his “words are spirit and life” (John 6:63). His word is truth–the truth of God’s attitude toward sinners for the sake of his Son. The truth that when we confess our sins God “is faithful and just and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We have the word of the cross, the certain truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself through the blood of the cross. We can live without the lie, because we have the truth in Jesus Christ. It is him that we proclaim. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.

Prof. John T. Pless

 

 

Prof. John T. Pless is associate professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

C.F.W. Walther Sermon for Trinity 15 (Matthew 6:24–34)

Translator’s Preface

This Sunday’s Gospel in the three-year series is the account of the rich young man from Mark 10:17–22. Jesus preaches a sharp law sermon against greed to this rich young man. Here you will find a similar sermon, this time from the pen of C. F. W. Walther.

One wonders what was going on in the congregation when Walther preached this sermon. It is an attack on the sin of greed and the love of mammon, so much that precious little gospel is found in the sermon. This is striking as the sermon comes from the lecturer on The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, who insisted there that the gospel ought to predominate in preaching. Walther’s sermon, much like Jesus’ sermon in Mark 10, reminds us that repentance must clear the way for Jesus, casting greed from its throne in the heart of man to clear that same throne for its rightful possessor, Jesus. Until that repentance occurs, as Walther notes in this sermon, preaching God’s word to a heart possessed by greed is futile.

Also striking in the sermon are the similarities of attitudes toward money today to those in Walther’s day. Walther excels in this sermon at unmasking greed as it hides behind any number of disguises. We may very well disagree with some of Walther’s critiques, particularly of charging interest, but still appreciate his approach that cuts sharply to reveal greed where it lies hidden in the heart of man. Indeed, we may note new disguises for greed. There may be some, untouched by the current economic slowdown, who still use the slow economic environment as an excuse to be lazy in giving. Walther’s sermon gives us a method to assess such claims—to unmask the greed that lies behind them.

Today, as in Walther’s day, there is great need to preach against greed. This sermon is offered as one example of a Lutheran sermon against greed.

Aaron Moldenhauer

Pentecost 20, 2012

 

Trinity 15

God grant to all of you full grace and peace through the knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

In Him, our faithful Savior, dearly beloved!

When we read the history of the Jewish people as it is recorded in the diving writings of the Old Testament, we cannot but be amazed at how inclined to idolatry they were. As soon as one idol is disposed of by a prophet, another one is immediately set up in its place. As soon as the poor people have been saved from the burdensome slavery of Egypt through the greatest, unheard-of deeds and miracles of the true God—passed through the Red Sea with dry feet, drank from the rock, fed miraculously with manna from heaven—as soon as God has revealed himself on Mount Sinai in awe-inspiring majesty, with thunder, lightning, and trumpet-blast and called to them: “Hear, O Israel! I am the Lord, your God, who has called you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an image or any likeness, neither of what is above in heaven, nor of what is below on earth, nor of what is in the water under the earth. Do not worship and do not serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, who visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” As soon as this has happened, the idolatrous people have arranged a service worshipping idols like the Egyptians. They have Aaron cast a golden calf and, drunk with happiness, proclaim: “These are your gods, Israel, who led you out of Egypt.” They celebrate a great festival, offer burnt offerings and thank offerings, and thus, eating, drinking, and playing, ascribe divine honor to the dead image.

When the world of today reads this, it blesses itself in its heart and says: Praise God, that we are now more enlightened than the ignorant Jewish people. A foolish worship can no longer occur among the educated peoples of the old and new world. Idols have fallen and will not rise again. The world has stepped forward. The light of the all-present truth has eliminated the darkness of heathendom. Now we worship God in spirit and in truth. Oh, how good it would be if this were true! How good, if at least the world living under the light of the gospel had renounced all idolatry and given itself truly to the worship of the only true God! To be sure, the world of today has progressed so that it will not easily fall down before the golden image of an animal and say: “Behold, these are our gods!” However, we would be greatly mistaken if we thought that now, instead of the old, gross idolatry, the worship of the true God in spirit and in truth had arisen and had become universal in the so-called Christian world.

Rather, I assert that at no time has more idolatry prevailed than in our day, and certainly also in our new, so-called Christian fatherland. There is one particular idol that is worshipped by young and old, by great and lowly, by rich and by poor. No special temples are erected to this idol. Its temple is the whole world, its priests all children of this world, and its altars their hearts. This god reigns all-powerful in every place. Its praise sounds forth day and night from the tongues of millions and its altar fire, blazing up to the throne of this great god, is never extinguished.

Dearly beloved, do you not know this god? Have you never bent the knees of your heart before it? Have you never kindled the incense of your love to it? I fear that none of us remain completely clean of this idolatry, indeed, that perhaps many of us have devoted ourselves completely to its service. Should I tell you the name of this idol? It is money, it is wealth, it is good days, it is vanity. In a word, it is “mammon.” Indeed, dearly beloved, this is the god before whom all now bow. This is the god who now has countless worshippers, the god who reigns over all and whom all serve with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their power and with all their mind. The true God must everywhere step aside and make way for this god. “Money rules the world,” as the proverb says, and so must agree everyone who even glances at the life and character of the world.

Christ warns us against this idolatry in today’s gospel. Let us now hear this warning.

Matthew 6:24–34

No one can serve two lords. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will cling to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say to you: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat and drink; nor about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky: they do not sow, they do not harvest, they do not gather into barns. And your heavenly Father still feeds them. Are you not much more than they? Who among you may add a cubit to his life, though he worry about it? And why do you worry about clothing? Look at the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not work, they do not spin. I tell you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of them. If then God clothes the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, should he not do that much more for you, O you of little faith? Therefore you should not worry and say “what will we eat?” or “what will we drink”? or “what will we wear”? The heathen seek all these things. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all of this. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will come to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. It is sufficient that each day has its own trouble.

“You cannot serve God and mammon.” These words are the theme which Christ speaks on extensively in the entire gospel just read. “Mammon” is an Aramaic word and means the same as wealth, money, and chiefly temporal goods. Christ depicts this “mammon” as a god whom man cannot serve alongside the true God, but only in his place. Christ shows in the following what this worship consists of, but also how corrupting and damnable it is. Let me therefore now speak to you:

 

About the corrupting and damnable worship of money;

in this I will show you:

  1. that mammon truly is the god of and world which it serves, and
  2. that this worship brings ruin her and damnation there.

I.          What is a man’s god? A man’s god is that which he holds to be the greatest and highest thing in the world, in heaven and on earth; what he loves as the highest good above all; the loss of which he fears more than anything, and what he trusts above all; in which he seeks his highest joy; from which he expects preservation in his entire life, protection in every danger, deliverance from every need, in short, from what he expects his true salvation. Whoever holds something in this way, whoever believes that about a being or about a thing and is wholeheartedly devoted to this being or this thing, that thing is this man’s god, in whom he actually believes and whom he serves.

If this is true (and it cannot be denied), then it is also undeniable that the world’s real god is not the true God, not that invisible being who made heaven and earth. Rather, the real god of the world is nothing other than “mammon,” in whom it believes and whom it serves. Yes, mammon is the all-powerful god for which the hearts of men in every land beat, and to whom the most sincere adoration is offered in every kingdom. This god mammon has its faithful servants in every class without exception. The richest, who do not want to serve anyone, are nevertheless the most zealous servants of mammon. Emperors, kings, and princes, who want to be subject to no one, are nevertheless obedient subjects of this high monarch. Most of those who are called to be messengers of the heavenly king nevertheless stand secretly in the pay of mammon. The world views the poor man who is without mammon as abandoned and cast off by God. On the other hand, wealth catches the attention of the world and makes its possessor an honorable man in the eyes of the world. In city and country, in every house, in the palace and in the hut, in every shop, in every factory, in every market, and in every street and alley this god has its altars and its priests sacrificing to it.

Ask yourself, what do most men seek and love above all? It is not mammon? Does not an increase of temporal goods delight the hearts of most men more than anything else? Do not most find in gold and silver, in a growing, profitable business, in beautiful houses and expansive estates their greatest enjoyment and comfort in this world? Why does one get up so early in the morning and burn the midnight oil? What is the source of that restless feeling and drive through city and country? What is the gain of all this speaking and speculating and chasing and running? At what does everyone snatch so eagerly, as if it could avail to win a heaven? It is vexatious mammon. One sacrifices everything else to it, even what is most dear to him. Only to acquire mammon one sacrifices health, works and worries himself sick. Only to win mammon one denies himself a thousand friends, denies himself rest and ease, sacrifices friendship, oftentimes honor and his good name, virtue and a good conscience, yes, even life, and goes down to an early grave as a martyr for mammon.

Further, what does one fear more than the loss of this god’s favor? Do not nearly all men consider themselves completely unhappy when they have lost it? Do not many fall into deathly sorrow over this? Are not most sighs breathed out over the loss of mammon, or over the mere danger of losing it? Do not most feel as though a piece of their heart would be torn out if they should give even a small gift to a poor man or give even a small offering for charitable or churchly use? Indeed, have not countless ones in complete despair taken their life because they saw themselves completely robbed of the comfort and help of mammon?

And in whom, finally, does the world trust? Does it not believe that it is at peace if only it possesses great mammon? Does it not regard it as the key to its happiness? Does it not ever increasingly strive for it, in order that it may finally be without worry for the future? Is it not the highest wish of most, to hunt down so much capital that they can finally lay their hands in their lap, live only from their money, that is, from the interest, so that they retain their money in a wonderful way, indeed, that the money even increases, while they continue to do nothing but live on it?

Yes? Is not mammon the god of the world, for the world loves, fears, and trusts it above all? Does the world not serve mammon zealously day and night with body and soul? Does it not sacrifice everything for mammon? Undoubtedly this is true.

Still, dearly beloved, the worship of mammon, or stinginess and greed, does not always appear in this easily recognizable form. It is not always so crass. Thousands serve mammon as their god and no one suspects it. Stinginess and the worship of mammon appear as a knave in many disguises and under many false names throughout the world and nowhere want to be known by their true name. Here it puts on the dress of thrift and hatred of waste. Here it calls itself diligence, faithfulness in earthly things and faithfulness in fulfilling one’s earthly calling. Here it answers, if one asks its name, that it is nothing other than care for one’s own, or the innocent pursuit of a good livelihood. Yes, the secret worshipper of mammon declares, mammon does not adhere to his heart at all, his heart is disgusted by stinginess. Even though nearly all men serve mammon wholeheartedly, nearly everyone is ashamed to admit that this is his god. Indeed, most seek to be so persuaded that in no way could they boast of their faithfulness in its service.

Let the servants of mammon conceal themselves, even behind virtues as though it were generosity; Christ removes their mask in our Gospel and brings them into the light. Namely, Christ says that whoever does not commit himself in true love and childlike faith to the rule and care of the Heavenly Father, but worries anxiously about tomorrow, about his body and his life; who, worrying anxiously, says and asks: “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” yes, “who does not seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” this man is no Christian. According to his faith and his heart’s condition he is still a heathen. In short, his god is still mammon.

Is that not a hard, terrifying judgment? How many it now shows to be greedy, covetous, money-loving, worldly-minded servants of mammon, who do not realize it. See, only he is not a servant of mammon whose heart does not cling to money and worldly goods; who, if God blesses him with these, sees them only as an opportunity to do good for others; who regards himself only as an instrument for divine goodness, as the caretaker of God’s charity, and who finds his own joy only in the joy of his neighbor. Further, only he is not a servant of mammon who thinks that it is God’s command that you work. Because God wills it and it is pleasing to him you work, but not out of worry about your food and clothing, which you expect not because of your work and toil, but from your Heavenly Father. Finally, only he is not a servant of mammon who regards temporal things as merely a minor matter in this world, the world which admittedly wants to worry; but who “seeks first,” that is, most zealously, most dearly, most enduringly, most seriously, “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” that is, the grace of God, after the salvation of his soul, in a word, to be saved.

However, all those who say that they do not wish to become rich, but seek only so much that they would be assured of a carefree living; indeed, they all think that they are certainly not servants of mammon. But by this attitude they confess that they only want so much that they need not trust God alone, as the birds in the trees who must daily wait and see where God has scattered their food for them. No, a sum with which they would expect to get by according to their rough calculations is more certain for them than God’s care. Therefore this sum is—their god! Another one says: I am content with what I have and therefore thinks that surely he is free from the accusation of greed. But look! The little that he has is his comfort, therefore—his god! Another one certainly cares for the kingdom of God, he prays, he goes to church and to communion, he considers himself a Christian, he separates himself from the godless world and so forth. But a greater care, which lies daily on his heart, is how he will get by, or how he will improve his business and become richer. What is such a man’s god? As pious and Christian as he may appear, his god is still mammon. To be sure, many others rejoice over God’s word and grace and are saddened to lose the one or the other; but if he gains something similar from temporal goods, if his joy is even greater, or if his sadness is greater when he loses his temporal good, so great that he cannot be comforted—also such a man is (however he may posture) a secret worshipper of the god mammon. Not the heavenly father and his spiritual goods, but temporal good really possesses his heart. Many others do not seek wealth because they know that this seeking would be in vain. He who wants to become rich is angered at this. He does not appear to depend on worldly things, but when his heart laughs at the thought that he might become rich: behold, mammon is also his god. Many a one indeed gives, however, not as much, but as little as he can give with honor. He can, from love of money, let a supplicant go without the alms requested from him. He can turn away hardhearted from the one who is in need and wants to borrow from him. With a smiling face he can pocket the appointed interest from a debtor who can only expound to him with sighs. He can strike a burdensome deal, or cancel the wages of the poor. Such a man is a servant of mammon. Money is his idol, to which he has pledged his soul. The love of the true God, though he may have it on his tongue, does not live in his heart.

Nevertheless, who may seek out greed and the worship of mammon in all its hideouts, to which it often retreats in the heart to elude the eye of men and to avoid being seen for what it is? By nature we are all servants of mammon. Man must have a god. Once he has lost the true God in his heart, the world with its goods has taken his place. Who has been freed again from greed, if not by a special work of grace by the Holy Spirit? Otherwise man is undoubtedly still ruled by it. Alas! Many a heart is purified from this idolatry through true repentance, yet how common it is that mammon first finds again an open temple in that heart. Countless Christians have endured everything—trouble, shame, poverty—but mammon has finally betrayed them, for there is almost no other vice with which a man can appear always as a good Christian as when he serves mammon in his heart and seeks his rest, his joy, his comfort, his hope—in a word, his god—in temporal good.

II.        Now that we have heard how common the worship of mammon is, let us hear the second part, how corrupting and damnable it is.

The holy apostle expresses briefly how corrupting is it with the words: “Greed is a root of all kinds of evil.” See what a vile thing greed or the worship of mammon must be. Could anything more vile be said of it than that it is a root of all evils? No evil is too great, there is no abundance of evil too large; the worship of mammon produces them all! From it grows self-love, indifference to neighbors, hatred, envy, apathy towards Christ, his word and his grace, yes, enmity against God, despising of heavenly bounties, robbery, murder, hardening against the work of the Holy Spirit and the like. Christ in our gospel names only the chief evil from this list when he says: “No one can serve two lords. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will cling to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” It is here stipulated: where the love of money and property permeate the heart, the love of God is pushed out. Wherever an altar for mammon is erected, there the heart becomes a temple of idols, there the true God must yield at once.

No matter how many outward works of worship the servant of mammon performs, his heart does not take part. And where the heart which clings to mammon is turned away from God, his whole worship of God is a miserable illusion, an abomination to God. No matter how faithful a servant of mammon shows himself to be, he hates God in the depths of his heart. He hoped that he could be saved without God’s grace, so he was not the least bit concerned about God’s grace. If he could abide eternally in the world in earthly joy he would gladly remain forever far from God, gladly forsake his heaven and be content with the world. In vain God’s sharp law or sweet gospel is preached to a servant of mammon. Worry, wealth, and the bliss of this life choke out the heavenly seed. The word of God is written in his heart as letters in sand. The next gust of wind quickly blows it all away again and it is seen no more. One who loves temporal property sometimes is indeed troubled in his heart, for he would like once to possess, beyond earthly goods, heavenly goods. But no sooner do his thoughts turn back to temporal things, and they wash over him like waves of the sea and once more extinguish the glowing spark of faith. Often a servant of mammon comes to the firm resolve to be a true Christian and to follow Christ even to death. But when he finally hears: “Sell all that you have and give to the poor,” namely, when he hears that he must tear his heart free from everything temporal, that he must posses this merely to do good with it, then he goes away sad like that young man. This gate is too tight for him, this way too narrow, this requirement too difficult.

But what is his lot? Already here it is heartache, grief, worry, discontent, unhappiness. Always he thinks: If only you had this or that, then you would be happy. But the more he gets, the greater his desires become, just as thirst grows continually worse as one drinks more salt water. Death is a dreadful messenger for a servant of mammon. Either he is terrified to lose the world and its good, or he is still not certain how he stands with God. He suspects that Christ will not acknowledge him as one of his own. He suspects that he has forgotten and frivolously lost the heavenly in favor of the earthly.

Oh, already for many a man in the hour of death his money and property—much of it obtained unjustly, or still anxiously accumulated, and for its wearying acquisition he had set aside seeking the kingdom of God—oh, for many a dying servant of mammon his property has come crashing down on him like a mountain! Then, with the ship of his life about to founder, he would have gladly thrown all his treasures, his gold and silver, his houses, his estates into the sea, if only he could be saved by this. Oh, many a man has woken up from his dream in the hour of his death and finally departed with a doleful cry, without hope and without comfort.

But despair in the hour of death is only a harbinger of what awaits a servant of mammon in eternity. Here he has not sought his joy in God, but in base mammon. God will therefore say to him there: Depart! Be saved now by your dead idols. God’s anger and eternal condemnation will be the interest which those will receive there, who here used their temporal property only for themselves, who delighted only their eyes in it and would not let it abound for the poor and for the spread of the kingdom of God. In vain then the servants of mammon will excuse themselves and say: What evil have we done that we should be condemned? God will answer them: All right, if you have done nothing evil, where is the good that you should have done? Not only the tree which bears bad fruit, but also the tree which bears no good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I had blessed you with temporal things, but where is the interest from the talent loaned to you? The undried tears of the poor accuse you to me. The rust on the gold and silver in your chests, the sighs of the oppressed and swindled, indeed, your life entirely devoted to seeking temporal things testifies against you, that you accumulated treasures for yourself, that you loved yourself, and that you have not served me, but mammon. Therefore depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared from the devil and all his angels.

Oh, let everyone be terrified by this abominable worship of mammon! Time spent serving it is dismal, and horrible is its final pay. Here it robs man of rest and peace in his heart, there of God, his soul, and salvation. Let everyone look in his heart and ask: Whom do you serve? If you serve God not with your whole heart, you do not serve him at all, and certainly then mammon is your god, for “no one can serve two lords.” Consider that a man can drown even in a small brook. He need not fall into the sea to find death. In the same way the service of mammon may not be so obvious in you as it is in another, yet still your heart may cling to it secretly, in order to steal God, soul, and salvation away from you.

Oh, seek God with all his grace. Taste and see how gracious he is. Give him room in your soul, and mammon will quickly be pushed off of its throne in you and you will sing out continually:

 

Depart, O world, with your idols,

Depart with your silver and gold;

I have God with his treasures,

I am already saved through Christ’s blood.

There, moreover, I will be fully pure

And ever, evermore be saved. Amen.

 

Translated from Carl Ferd. Wilh. Walther, Amerikanisch-Lutherische Evangelien Postille: Predigten über die evangelischen Pericopen der Sonntage und Hauptfeste des Kirchenjahrs (St. Louis: Druckerei und Stereotypie der Synode von Missouri, Ohio, u. a. St., 1871), 295–301.

Welcome St. Stephen at Christmas

A sermon by Rev. Ronald  F. Marshall, proclaimed to his flock at First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, December 26, 2010.

"And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56).

Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church – who died because he spoke out for Christ (Acts 7:51-53). But “what a difference a day makes” – as Dinah Washington sang on her Grammy award winning record back in 1959! For this transition from Christmas day to today – the second day in the twelve days of Christmas – is anything but smooth! For we have gone from singing, “Repeat the sounding joy,” to killing (Acts 7:57-58). So what’s up? Why this “most glaring contrast” between these two days of Christmas [Kaj Munk, Four Sermons (1944) p. 20]?

 

Delaying Peace

Now it is precisely because we heard yesterday those heavenly, angelic words, “Peace on earth!” (Luke 2:8), that we wonder why, all of a sudden, St. Stephen is being stoned to death by an angry mob. Have we missed something? The Christmas decorations are still up – but to no avail, for this wretched brutality still befalls us!

Well, in fact, the sad truth is that we have missed something. And what we’ve failed to consider sufficiently is that our Lord didn’t come to bring peace on earth right away (Luke 12:51)! For on earth, for now, we must instead endure tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22). But that doesn’t mean that we won’t have a peace of mind which the world cannot give (John 14:27). All it means is that we’ll be the “off-scourging” of the world because we follow Christ (1 Corinthians 4:13). So having a peace of mind rooted in knowing to whom we belong, and the blessedness that awaits us when we die (Philippians 4:4-7) – that will not and cannot keep us from running the risk of being tortured, mocked, imprisoned, wandering over deserts and mountains, living in dens and caves, and even being “sawn in two” or stoned to death (Hebrews 11:35-38).

 

Slogging in the Bog

Now that being said, how in the world can we live with the threats in these tribulations? How can we, as Martin Luther said – who is our most eminent teacher [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576] – how can we put up with this “vexation of life,” a life which is so “horribly wretched, difficult, and troubled” (Luther’s Works 8:114)? In his Large Catechism (1529) he even goes on to say that when we do follow Christ, we will never “have peace” – even though God “faithfully provides for our daily existence” (BC pp. 429, 431). And if we eke out some worldly peace anyway, that can only be because we – as Luther’s relentless logic again has it – have abandoned Christ [LW 13:415; 51:112; 52:117-119; Luther’s House Postils, 3 vol. ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:163] – by avoiding the “hard knots” intrinsic to Christianity (LW 21:62; 23:402), like self-denial, eternal damnation and the uniqueness of Christ. So Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – who thought preachers could do no better than read aloud Luther’s sermons every Sunday in church rather than writing their own [Journals & Papers, 7 vols, trans. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, 3:3496] – he felt that we were left, because of this tribulation, to “slog along as if in a bog” (JP 3:6503), finding our help from God, as Luther said, “in the midst of opposites” (LW 4:232). Lord have mercy!

Because of this trouble, Luther believed that “there is no life… on earth more wretched than that of a Christian” (LW 28:106) – and the stoning of St. Stephen underscores that most emphatically. And Kierkegaard, for one, took Luther’s insight to heart. For he argued that it would be a bad “slogan” for the Christian life, to think that if you are loving and kind, then “it will go well with you in this world” (JP 3:3527; Hebrews 10:34)! So by including St. Stephen’s stoning at the start of the season of Christmas, the point is made that the birth of Christ means “that the natural man should die,” and that, to die in this way means, “to be born” (JP 1:568).

 

Abounding in Adversity

To be able to rejoice in this redefined birth of the Savior, we will have to follow the wisdom of God. But if we do, as Kierkegaard warned, we will run the risk of “fanaticism” (JP 3:2379). Even so, Luther is fearless and says that the Biblical message holds that the Christian “knows how to rejoice in sadness and to mourn in happiness” (LW 25:347; Psalm 90:15). For the true Christian is “uplifted in adversity, because he trusts in God” and is “downcast in prosperity, because he fears God” (LW 27:403)! Kierkegaard called this strange flip-flop an “inverted dialectic” (JP 4:4680).

But it is just this inverted dialectic that gives us the calm to face any situation in life and to learn to be “content,” as was the Apostle Paul when he suffered adversity (Philippians 4:10). So the secret to enduring tribulation is in this very inversion or flip-flop – whereby adversity becomes a blessing, or as Luther said, we learn by it to be uplifted in adversity – following Romans 5:3. By so doing, Kierkegaard notes, Luther doesn’t put us to sleep spiritually but instead preaches us “farther out” (JP 3:2462) – out on a limb, if you will – beyond a mere “human cause,” whereby we are busy about only “finite matters” (JP 3:2570). Moving out into a realm where, if one were stoned to death for the truth, it wouldn’t be the end of what matters most, but it’s beginning. For when the world shuts its doors on us, “heaven opens up” (JP 4:4508). That’s why we are to rejoice in our adversity and not collapse under it – being only “struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:12).

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed…. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory,… [for] we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

This is what St. Stephen knew! No wonder, then, that when the thief on the cross cried out to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? [Then] save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39), it fell on deaf, albeit divine, ears. And that was because “in Christianity everything is aimed at eternity – therefore a lifetime of suffering, therefore no help in this life, no victory in this life” (JP 3:3098). Or as Jesus said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28)! So Kierkegaard writes that if this earthly tribulation and anguish is lost, then we might as well “lock the churches and convert them into dance halls,” because that higher divine cause of spiritual renewal and salvation will have been lost, for it is what prepares us for that eternal weight of glory (JP 3:2461). To guard against this, Kierkegaard says that the human skull is the most fitting object for “prolonged mediation” on the meaning of Christian living, because it symbolizes “that to love God is: to die, to die to the world, the most agonizing of all agonies” (JP 3:2455).

 

Seeing Jesus

Therefore we will surely need help if we are ever going to turn our anxieties and tribulations into blessings, like St. Stephen did. Somehow we’ll need to know that God is “swift to help,” even if everything is to be rendered futile, is to be blown away like a fantasy, even if nothing, nothing whatever, is to be achieved and the suffering is the one and only actuality, even if the unremitting sacrifice of a long life is to become meaningless like shadowboxing in the air… (Kierkegaard’s Writings 5:334).

We cannot come by such knowledge intellectually. But we are told in no uncertain terms that God has “delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), that we might go “through life to life” (KW 15:217)! And these words are good-as-gold, for in them we hear, Kierkegaard would say, the very “voice of God” (KW 21:39), and not some human interpretation (1 Thessalonians 2:13) of an old, disputed text. All of this happens through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus whereby he cancels what’s against us (Colossians 1:14).

This sterling sacrifice, Kierkegaard notes, reveals that “Christianity is the divine combat of divine passion with itself” (JP 1:532). For the very blood shed in the sacrifice of the Son of God, saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9)! In that salvation we are shocked by the internal combat of God “recoiling” within (Hosea 11:8). But in this sacrifice is life. And so when St. Stephen is stoned to death, he sees the heavens open, with Christ standing – not sitting as usual – to welcome him (Acts 7:56) because “dangers threaten” (JP 1:300). In death, then, Christ “strangles” death for us, so that our death – strangely – is in him and not in us (LW 42:105)! Therefore our reward comes after we die (Luke 14:14). So we are to struggle to remain faithful unto death, that we might then receive “the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10), since Jesus refuses to magically turn “mortal life into worldly delight” (KW 15:233). And to remain faithful to this promise, receive the Lord’s Supper today, for it’s “new strength and refreshment” (BC p. 449).

 

Being Angelic

And then, in thanksgiving for our salvation (Colossians 2:7), may we also “walk as children of light,” holding on to what’s “good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8-9)! So be angelic under attack, as St. Stephen was (Acts 6:15). Don’t seek suffering (LW 30:110), but don’t flee from it either (LW 35:56). And pray for your enemies, after you rebuke them, as St. Stephen did, and so show that love is “like a nut with a hard shell and a sweet kernel” [Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols (1988), ed. J. N. Lenker, 6:208]. Amen.

Second Sunday in Advent, 1918

An Advent Sermon from Werner Elert translated Adam Koontz

 Luke 21:25-26

            “There shall be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.”—says the Lord. So far it hasn’t happened yet. Certainly at times a new show takes place in the night sky. There a comet ascends and after a time disappears again. A few months ago a new star in the sky was discovered, but after a few days, it became small again. Or an unusually long drought or long wet period prevails. Or once a great storm on the sea—“the sea and the waves will roar”—yes, all this occurs also in our times. But it has often been so before. Comets have often stood in the sky. And all manner of horrors at sea have disturbed men. In all these and the like, our time does not distinguish itself from other times.

Certainly one thing does apply to our day in a special way: “On Earth people will be afraid, and they shall say”… “And men will die off for fear and for awaiting the things that shall come on the Earth.” There is a monstrous restlessness among our people and seemingly also among all other peoples. One lives in the anticipation of great things. One hopes and fears. One waits.

“But when this begins to happen, look up and lift up your heads, for your salvation draws near.” When what begins? The sky’s activities? They have not changed, so long as the thoughts of men stretch into the past. Therefore we come to the other option: when the angst and restlessness of men and the restless anticipating becomes ever greater—then lift up your eyes. Lift your heads, for your salvation draws near.

And so the appeal is addressed also to us today. Lift up your heads, for your salvation draws near. From this and the following words of the Lord comes an essentially different picture of the imminent end-times from that which most Christians among us maintain. Usually the matter is put forth as if horrible things are the most certain mark of the future coming of Christ, as though one must await a dreadful upheaval in all earthly conditions, indeed in all the conditions of the stars, the heavenly bodies among them, and finally, as though the best preparation were to hide oneself warily at one’s own hearth. Though all these things and opinions have a certain truth to them—this speech of the Lord shows that the matter also has another aspect. From this announcement comes much that is in contrast to this widespread opinion:

  1. The signs of the future coming of Christ shall be not only terrible but also full of hope.
  2. One should fix his eyes not on the ephemeral, but on the everlasting.
  3. One should be not worried, but watchful and worthy.

I.

            One should certainly not overlook that in the proclamations of Jesus the description of events in the sky is by no means the only thing. It says, “He told them a parable, ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees—as soon as they leaf out, you look for yourselves and know the summer is near. So also, when you see all this going on, know that the kingdom of God is near.’” Had the Lord thought only of downfall and destruction at his future coming, he would have likened the time of preparation not to the spring but to the autumn. That he likened it to the spring, bright budding and the greening of the trees, so we may definitely expect that the end of time will also mean a bright budding and greening in his kingdom.

Is such budding and blooming something to be perceived in the present? Before the war, we received the reports of our missionaries every year. Who among us read them? Who was at all interested in them?—Yes, there was something of blooming in the kingdom of God to notice, when the heathens pressed in to hear the Gospel. How happy we would be today, if that happened again! But if also in this time some consoling news arrives, in general a monstrous reversal has come. It is autumn there instead of spring, and the young congregations of Christians there are far more like not to a greening fig tree, but to a fading one. The leaves for the most part are fallen. So here the Lord’s condition is not fulfilled.

And in Christianity here at home?—Some believed strongly during the rush to arms in the first months of the war that a rush to arms brought with it the chance to behold a greening fig tree in the area of prayer meetings for the war, of prayer, and of a penitent attitude. Granting there may have been something true in that—today we are in any case farther from a conversion of the entire people than ever. Here also no blooming, but a falling of barren leaves—for that reason we will not hold the horrible things of the present for more important than they actually are. Therefore they are not decisive, says the fact that the trees still are not green.

II.

Not the ephemeral, but the everlasting.

            When many Christians busy themselves much more readily with the outward signs of the coming of Jesus than with the inward signs, it is presumably because above all the ephemeral is more important to them than the everlasting. You remember that the last Sundays of the church year preach the everlasting in ever-new phrases. And out of the prayers of those weeks rings out the tone: “Prepare our minds for the end.” But do not think, fellow-Christians, that that is a special cemetery-mood or autumn-mood that is again finished once happy Advent promises hopes and joys again. The season of Advent also in its way directs its vision to the everlasting.

Proof v. 33, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” That is: away with all thoughts of the temporal, but also with all thoughts and musings on the downfall of the world, etc. It all passes away—what does it matter to you? Think still more on that which will be saved, yes, what then will still be, and then always will rule all life. Those are his words.

The Lord’s words—they are not dead and gone like other people’s words. Some among us can only speak smartly; they give first-rate advice in all political and business affairs. But do not think, fellow-Christians, that such has eternal worth…. That Christ’s words have eternal worth, that is because he himself is an eternal being.

And let us apply these predictions of the Lord to some of his words. “Come unto me…” “The Son of Man—that he should give his life as a ransom for many.” “I am the Good Shepherd—I give them eternal life, and they shall nevermore perish.” These words have validity also in the eternal world, and to that let us turn our attention.

III.

Not anxious, but watchful and worthy.

            From this follows—and that is for us the most important thing—how we should conduct ourselves in these hard times (which should however, as the season of Advent, lose all that is comfortless). First: not anxious. If we were to be anxious, fearful, then certainly it would be never be set there: “Lift up your heads.” So not a sunken head, but an uplifted one. Not fearful, but inwardly free and full of trust in a very strong Helper.

But beside that: watchful, v. 34-36. The day comes like a trap. Not as if someone has an interest in bringing us to a fall. The Lord, who brings it, wants rather the opposite. But he wants to preclude all hypocrisy. Were the preparation of the fulfillment such that no man could anymore doubt it, then the temptation would lie near that many would repent at last out of so-called smartness. What do you think, fellow-Christian? Oh, how many good Christians lean upon the possibility to still repent before the gate is closed and to still be able to come home. It doesn’t work that way with the Lord. The end comes unexpectedly like a trap.

So watchful. And further “worthy.” Oh, of worth among us we cannot speak, still less of worthiness. Namely then, not when this is connected to it: “Worthy to stand before the Son of Man.” Therefore there is only one way out. That is the begging outstretch of the hand to him: Lord, take me as I am. Forgive me my sins, and save me. I cannot. That strikes some among us not as worthy but as unworthy. That we still thereafter must humble ourselves is because the human measure of worthiness is generally invested in hypocrisy. Not with the Lord. And above this: it is not about humility before men but about humility before God. …

Amen.