Anxiety doesn’t take a vacation. Even though it’s Thanksgiving and we’re supposed to be thankful for what God has given us, there’s still a part of us that’s anxious, that’s worried. You know what you’re worried about, what’s distressing you. It’s hard to be thankful while something is hanging over your head.
Lutheran preaching is at times quite perplexing to outsiders. It’s because, to them, we’re stuck on repeat. Each sermon has the same elements: Law and Gospel, a call to repentance and an assurance of God’s forgiveness in Christ. There’s certainly moral instruction, an encouragement to live by way of God’s Law, but most Lutheran preachers aren’t telling you how to be better Christians by your own actions. We approach each sermon as if we’re dealing with new converts, people who need to be called to repentance. It’s because we are. Both preacher and hearers alike need to be called to repentance week in and week out. It’s part of how we are kept in the faith, by being told we’re straying.
Us Christians are an interesting breed, aren’t we? We live a life of paradoxes. Now, but not yet. Joy in the midst of despair. Life in the midst of death. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the Christian life. That’s something Gary knew well. He knew joy in the midst of despair, life in the midst of death, now but not yet. What does this mean? The Christian life is lived knowing full-well what the eyes see, but knowing also that to which faith clings. The eyes see death and decay and difficulty. Faith sees life and restoration and perpetual joy. And that’s why we’re here this morning. We’re here to celebrate that what our eyes see, what Gary’s eyes saw, is not the end of the story. Death is temporary. Death, though it hurts, has been robbed of its eternal sting by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thanks be to God who has given us, who has given Gary, that victory through Christ Jesus Our Lord!
Today’s Gospel is one that makes Lutherans nervous. It sure sounds a lot like your works get you into heaven. The sheep are sheep because they did enough good stuff. They visited prisoners, fed widows and orphans, clothed the naked, and the like. They were out doing deeds of charity, and for that they are given eternal life. The goats, the cursed, didn’t do good works, or at least didn’t do enough of them, and so they go to hell. This seems to create an impasse. Which is it—faith or works? Do I earn it or not? And with the judgment motif running through these last three weeks of the Church Year I’d really like to know which so I’m on the right side when the Last Day comes. I just want to be a sheep!
What do the Scriptures teach us about the end of the world, the final judgment, and Christ’s second coming? We know from today’s gospel that Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
In the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer talks about the faith that motivated the saints. He begins to name the saints, using them as examples of what faith does. He chronicles the stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah. He concludes the list with saints known in that day. In the Epistle they are unnamed, unknown to us, but known to the writer, and, most importantly, to God. In the middle of the chapter, the writer summarizes the lives of these men and women: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.