The message of Advent, but especially that of Christianity, is backwards to the way it seems things should be. In this season, we celebrate that we have a God who comes to us. It seems like it should be the other way around. We know our condition. We said it together not that long ago: we are poor, miserable sinners. Think about it. The rich aren’t lining up to give handouts to the poor. The poor come in search of charity. Doctors aren’t going door to door seeking out those who need medical attention. The miserable have to seek out their own medical care. So, it would only seem natural that sinners should have to seek out their own forgiveness. But Advent tells us that we have a gracious God who came to us in time, as the Baby born in Bethlehem; who comes to us today in Word and Sacrament; and who will come again as the judge who will usher in the Last Day, where He will take us to be with Himself. We are not the ones who need to seek out His grace and favor. He comes giving it freely, seeking out those who need what He has come to give.
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.”
Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor.” This is the glorious Gospel of Reformation Day. We haven’t come together to celebrate Lutheranism and honor ourselves, but we are here to hear the saving Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We hear this Gospel as we remember that we dwell in the Church Militant, the Church that must, for a time, endure the attacks of Satan. “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees us oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” God has set watchmen who guard against the sad divisions of Satan, watchmen who never hold their peace, proclaiming “‘Surely your Salvation is coming;’ soon your weeping shall be replaced with song, ‘and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.’”
Martin franzmann, the author of this morning’s first hymn and a long-time professor in our Synod, called the man in today’s Gospel “the man who went home with only a word in his pocket.” I think this does more to help us understand today’s Gospel and its importance than anything else. The nobleman is a reminder to us, an encouragement to us, to live by faith alone, faith in the strong Word of God. He went home with only the Word, only a promise. His faith was rewarded with fulfillment. May God grant us all such a faith that endures all things, content with only a Word in our pocket and nothing more!
Isaiah said, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” This is Our Lord’s Law and Gospel. It’s sweetest Gospel: This is the time of God’s grace! He abundantly pardons! He gives bread and wine and milk without money and without price and living water so that you never thirst again. He gives spiritual food and drink—nourishment, health, healing that have no price tag, no strings attached. But there is law here, too. “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” We live in a time of grace will not last forever. As longsuffering as our God is, the invitation has a time limit. The end of days will come and it will be too late to accept the invitation, to repent of sins, to be absolved, and to have eternal life. So in this life, as long as the call rings out, “The feast is ready. Come to the feast, the good and the bad. Come and be glad! Greatest and least, come to the feast!” it is imperative to heed it. All who reject it will find a place in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
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.