Archive for April, 2013

revelation

Friday nights are usually movie nights at my home.  But as we were about to put the movie into the DVD player, I asked my wife to wait.  “What’s on TV right now is better than any movie,” I told her.  “This is real life, and I want to see how it ends.”

I’m sure a similar scene played itself out over the last week in homes all across America.  Eyes were glued to TV sets as the plot lines unfolded in Boston.  First the horrific tragedy of terrorist planted bombs which killed three and wounded countless others.  Then the surrounding uncertainty as speculation ran rampant as to what – or who – was behind the attack.  Fingers pointed in every direction, blaming just about every possible group, as pundits debated the reason for the senseless violence.

And on Thursday evening, as families everywhere were preparing their Thursday night dinners, the FBI held a press conference and revealed photos of two men, younger than I even am, and asked the public to notify authorities if they had any leads on these men.  The plotlines thickened, the story deepened.

When most of us woke up on Friday morning, one suspect was dead and the other at large.  Considering this suspect armed and dangerous, the FBI and local authorities did what is seldom done in America and never before in Boston: they issued a Lockdown order for the entire city of Boston and its suburbs.

As I had the TV on in the background yesterday, I found myself (more than once) trying to imagine what it must have been like to be in Boston on Friday – to hear the mayor, the governor, police chiefs and FBI agents warn people to stay inside until further notice; to try and find activities to do inside (one on of the first “spring-like” days in some time!) with family members; an unexpected day off of work.  I wondered how I would handle that situation.  The unanswered questions (where is this guy? Why haven’t they caught him yet? Is there another bomb?), I think, would have left me cowering in the basement; windows and doors locked…shades drawn shut…almost huddled in the fetal position as if I was awaiting the inevitable.  The sense of fear would have been heightened as agents in bullet-proof vests, armed with assault weapons knocked on doors, asking to search the premise to see if (knowingly or otherwise) the fugitive was there.

Kinda makes you wonder how those disciples felt the weekend of Jesus’ death and resurrection, huh?  The Sanhedrin saw Jesus as a sort of terrorist, executed a manhunt for him that resulted in his execution.  Now, they feared that the manhunt was on for them.  So they huddled together, with the doors and windows locked, waiting for the inevitable.

I don’t think we would have been any different – whether in that Upper Room some two thousand years ago, or kept inside for a public safety day in one of America’s most prevalent cities.

I’m fairly confident about that, because it doesn’t take a lot to make us feel threatened.  It doesn’t take a lot to shut us down out of fear.  It can be as simple as spiders and bats – as my daughter told me yesterday – or bombs in Boston; there are those things in life which are just able to make us shrink back in fear and (even inwardly) recoil into the fetal position.

Have you wondered what frightened John? Here’s a guy that had seen it all.  He was there when Jesus was threatened with stoning and other abuse during his ministry.  He watched as Jesus was arrested, put on trial; he was there when they drove the nails through his hands and feet.  He huddled in the Upper Room that holy weekend.  He was arrested, abused, mocked.  If tradition be true, he was even poisoned!  But, by God’s grace, here he was – some 80, maybe ninety years old, stranded on a scarcely populated island, waiting out the days until he died of old age.

Maybe there wasn’t a whole that threatened John anymore.  There wasn’t much which could be thrown at him that he hadn’t already survived.  But his last letter, the Revelation on the island of Patmos, frightened him.  The terrifying images, symbolic of the attacks against the church led by Satan, more than once made him gasp in horror and fall in fear.

But then…then he saw the vision before us this morning.  An entirely different scene: not one filled with war and destruction and death.  The devestation seen in other parts of his vision gave way to the pristine image of a host arrayed in white.  A number uncountable, surrounding a throne. On that throne?  The God of Creation, and the Lamb.  From their mouths came not the screams of fear and terror but the gleeful shouts of praise and thanksgiving.  Countless voices banded together, singing as one: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.  Amen!  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!

The question was inevitable.  These in the white robes – who are they, and where did they come from? John was stumped, either because of the glorious scene before him or because he truly did not know.  I don’t know, was his de facto response, but Sir, you know. You’re going to have to tell me.

He wasn’t made to wait or guess.  These are the ones who have come out of all those horrific things you just sawThey have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 

I’m not sure whether John saw the faces of this countless host arrayed in white when he first looked, but I like to think that after he was given the answer to the question, “who are they” that he looked a little closer.  Perhaps, then, he began to recognize some familiar faces.  Maybe he saw Peter, or Paul, or his brother James.  His mother.  Mary Magdalene.  Any other number of faces of friends who had long since been taken from the world.  All joining together, singing the praises of the Lamb who was slain and had risen from death! Singing without fear, for the troubles that threatened them were now gone, and there they stood in the glorious life free from fear.

You and I don’t need a miraculous revelation to see what John saw.  We see it every day, don’t we?  That tribulation which John witnessed, recorded in other places of this same book – we’re living in the middle of it, just as John was even back then!  War and threats of war. Terrible tragedies.  Natural disasters.

There’s enough in this life to make us huddle in our basements with the doors and windows locked and shades drawn closed, waiting for the inevitable destruction to end.  Boston.  West, TX.  Newtown, CT. Aurora, CO.  Benghazi, Libya. North Korea. And even our own homes and lives.

Look around you, and what do you see?  A great tribulation, escalating…its enough to make you wonder if this world is spinning out of control.  Who would place a bomb right next to an eight year old boy?  A freak accident at a fertilizer company that devastates an entire town.  Fighting families.  The wrong that we are all so guilty of – it’s enough to draw into question the certainty of our futures, isn’t it.

And every last one of those threatening situations is one more attack by which our great enemy, none other than Satan himself, seeks to lure us out of the sheep pen where our Good Shepherd protects us…and out into the open where snarling wolves wait to devour.

When you feel that urge to hunker down and live in fear, then Behold!  A host arrayed in white!  Look closer, my friends.  Do you see any faces you recognize?  A parent?  A dear friend?  A coworker?

Look even closer.  Do you recognize that face joining together with so many others in singing praise to the Lamb who sits on the throne?  It’s yours.  Yes, yours.

Yes, there you are, dressed as every last one of them is dressed – in a glorious robe of white.  There you are, because the Lamb came to rescue you from this world which seeks to destroy.  There you are, because the Lamb fought your fight for you.  He sacrificed himself on your behalf. He shed his blood to save you from bloodshed and from an eternal tribulation.

And you who, like so many others, have been led to trust him as the author and provider of salvation – your scarlet robes of sin and guilt have been laundered in the Lamb’s blood…by which they are made as white as snow!

Whatever it is that seeks to pry you from the Shepherd’s flock, look closely at this host arrayed in white.  They aren’t there because they’re somehow different from you.  They’re there because the Lamb has kept his promise to them, just as he will keep it to you, too!

Yes, he promises you now that he is watching over you – that even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, there is no reason to fear since he is with you; his rod and staff shield you.  He promises you that whatever threatens you here, nothing can snatch you out of his hand.  He promises you an everlasting life, free from all the perils of this world.

Just listen to the song sung by the host arrayed in white:

He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.  The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

What a wonderful home this is!  The place where we never have to huddle in our homes, doors locked in fear.  The place where the great tribulation of this life is gone.  The place where nothing threatens, nothing destroys, nothing terrifies!

It’s the place where life will be what it was always meant to be: the perfect home, the joyful home, the everlasting home!

And best of all, it’s free!  Paid for, already won – and all by the victorious Lamb, our Good Shepherd Jesus!  Thanks be to God!  He has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!  In him, our robes are washed spotlessly clean; in him we have the certain hope that one day he will bring us, too, out of the great tribulation into the land where springs of living water flow!  Behold a host arrayed in white! – and God speed the day that he will bring us to enjoy the life he has already given us!  Amen.

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The Road to Damascus

Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to live at the time of Peter, James, and John?  To live at the time of the Apostles, at the time of the first century Christian church?

In some aspects, it would have been a wonderful blessing.  How many of us wouldn’t have loved to take a Bible class taught by John, or listened to a sermon preached by Paul?  To have had the opportunity to learn the Christian faith from those who learned it from the Savior himself – such a time must have been a wonderful time!

But what about the flip-side?  There’s always a flip-side, isn’t there?  While such a time would have been a wonderful blessing, it wasn’t always peaches and cream.

Those first-century churches didn’t have the luxury of worshipping in church buildings or out in the open.  They worshipped in secrecy, holding their services underground, marking their locations with secret symbols like fish.  They had to be careful about those whom they welcomed into their midst, because spies were everywhere.

Yes, those first century Christians didn’t have the luxury of something we call First Amendment rights.  There wasn’t freedom of religion or freedom of worship.  Christianity wasn’t even tolerated back then!

There were those who wanted nothing more than to stamp out the spreading flame which was the Way.  The Sanhedrin tried it by throwing the Apostles in jail.  The Jewish zealots tried it, as they persecuted those who confessed Jesus Christ as Savior.  Their efforts had two results – some Christians became martyrs, put to death at the stake; they were rounded up, thrown into prison with no hope of parole.

Perhaps no one was more zealous in his persecutions of the Followers of the Way than a man named Saul.  A Pharisees Pharisee, Saul hated the group that would later be known as Christians.  He saw them as perverters of his religion, as blasphemers of his God.  To Saul, these Followers of the Way were abominations that needed to be exterminated!

So he led the stoning of Stephen; he led groups of temple guards into the homes of Jesus’ disciples.  He earned himself a reputation as top persecutor for the Sanhedrin manhunt.  But he wasn’t satisfied with just rounding up Christians in Jerusalem.  He wanted to expand the Sanhedrin’s sphere of influence, because the other result of the persecution was the spread of the Way.  Jesus’ disciples fled the Jerusalem persecution and settled in distant cities like Damascus.

So Saul’s goal?  Get those Christians, too.  After asking for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that he might have religious jurisdiction, in order that he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 

But something happened along the way.  It was supposed to be a simple horse-ride over the some 200 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus.  But after crossing the mountainous terrain surrounding Jerusalem…after pushing his crew through the hot, arid wilderness…as Damascus grew closer and closer…

Bang!  A bright light flashed around Saul, taking him completely by surprise.  Saul fell backwards, falling off his saddled horse.  As he landed on the ground, he fell face-down to the ground.  And then the voice, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?

Can you imagine the sinking pit that Saul felt in his stomach at that point?  Who are you, Lord? he asked with trembling fear, hoping that the answer which he would be given was not the one he was expecting.  Then it came: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, Saul heard the radiant figure in front of him say – and then waited for the inevitable, and now I will do to you as you have done to those who follow me.

For Saul, there was no escaping reality now.  He had wanted to deny Jesus’ statements during his earthly life.  Up to this point, when Saul heard Jesus’ disciples quote him, I am the way and the truth and that life; no one comes to the Father except through me, he wanted nothing more than to stick his fingers in his ears and drown their voices out.  When they preached of Jesus as true God made flesh, he wanted to scream with every ounce in his throat, No!  Blasphemy! 

But now?  There was no escaping the fact that what they said was true.  That what Jesus had taught while on earth was true.  He was God, and now he had to face what that meant: he had defied the God whom he sought to serve.  He had killed those who followed God.  Thinking he was serving God, he was acting to eradicate the world of the true God.

And for that, he had to pay.  For that, he deserved death.  He was a sinner, and now he was in the presence of the holy God – more than that, he was in the presence of the one whom he had persecuted by persecuting those who followed him.  Death was certain, because he had earned it for himself.

But that never happened.  Those words he expected to hear never came from Jesus’ mouth.  Faced with the reality of his sin, the completeness of his transgression, Saul heard Jesus speak a word of peace.  No get up and go.  You will be told what you must do. 

That’s when Paul realized that he had been squeezing his eyes shut.  As the bright light faded, Saul slowly opened his eyes…only to see nothing but pitch black darkness.  Oh, the sweet symbolism that blindness presented.  Up to this point, Saul thought he had seen things truthfully and that these followers of the Way were the ones who were blinded.  Yet, all along, he was the one who had been blind.  Blind by his own zealotry; blinded by his own hatred of Jesus; blinded by his own sin.

Now, now he was physically blind.  Left to wander the road of Damascus only by the assistance his comrades offered.  Left to sit on the dirt floor of a house owned by someone named Judas, on a street called Straight, in the darkness of his own blindness. Left to sit and do nothing except pray.  Pray that the Lord who had shown himself to Saul would have mercy on the sinner who persecuted him.  To pray that his blindness would be lifted, and he might be given a new life.

For three days he prayed.  For three days he sat, eating nothing, seeing nothing, and in nearly constant prayer.

And then came the knock at the door.  Saul leaned his ear toward the front door and listened to his gracious host speak with an unknown voice.  Then he felt two hands place themselves on his shoulders, and that same unfamiliar voice spoke again, Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me to you so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. 

And just like that, it was as if scales fell from his eyes.  The suffocating darkness that had been his world for three days was gone!

The Lord had granted him a new life.  The Jesus whom he had been persecuting had shown him mercy, even though he had deserved death!

Something had happened to Saul over the last few days.  Once a hardened persecutor of Christ and his followers, the same Lord whom he persecuted had shone into his heart and changed him.  He no longer hated Christ – he loved him.  He no longer abhorred the message of salvation through Jesus because this message meant life.

You almost wonder – don’t you?  What did Jesus see in Saul that made him desire him?  Why would the Lord of life intervene in the life of the one who hated him with every breath?  Why did the risen Jesus bother using his power to change the spiritually dead and blind Saul into Paul who lived by faith?

To ask that question is really to ask what Jesus saw in us, isn’t it?  After all, the difference between Saul and each one of us is non-existent.  The details of our stories may have played themselves out differently, but we, too, were just as much of an enemy of Jesus.  We, too, hated Jesus with every fiber of our being; we, too, wanted to stick our fingers in our ears at the name of Jesus and drown him out.  We, too, wanted nothing to do with the message of salvation through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

And as such, like Saul, we were marked for death.  Our hatred of the Savior-God meant that we would spend an eternity without him.  An eternity of suffering.  An eternity in the fires of hell.  An eternal death.  An eternity that we would have liked to ignore.

But then, the risen Jesus intervened in our lives just as he did with Saul.  No – not with the blinding light and personal revelation, but through the Word.

He intervened as he sent the Holy Spirit to us at our Baptisms.  He intervened as our parents read devotions to us as children.  As they taught us those songs of Jesus’ love.  He intervened through Catechism classes when we were barely teenagers, or through the coworkers with whom we share office space.  He revealed himself to us through a church-mailed postcard or a friend’s invitation.

And through that Word of Sacrament, he revealed why he came in the first place: not to judge the world, but to save it. That though we deserved death, God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son Jesus, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

Yes – Saul’s story is our story.  The details may be different, but the point is the same.  This faith which, as we heard last week is blind but not without evidence, is not a faith we made for ourselves.  Its not even a faith which we gave ourselves!

This faith which we share – a faith that grasps Jesus’ sacrifice and victory on our behalf! – is a faith which was given to us.  It’s the faith which was worked in our hearts by the power of the risen Jesus.  It is he who has changed us from spiritually dead to those who will live forever!  It is he who has shone into our hearts through the blinding light of his Gospel.

And yes, Saul’s story can be the story of others, too.  If there’s one thing to learn from today’s lesson, it’s this: Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can change even the most apparently hardened of sinners into the most faithful of followers!  He did it with Saul; he did it with you and with me; and he can do it with those you know, too!

Yes, he can change those hearts of the people whom you know; the twenty-something who was raised in the faith, but has since fallen away in complete denial.  Those more willing to accept the theories of science than the truth’s of God’s Word.  Those who doubt God could love such a wicked person as they have been.  The risen Savior can not only change their hearts with the power of his Gospel; he desires to do nothing less!

And he uses us to share that life-changing message with them.  He uses us to take the message of Christ died and risen for salvation to those whom he has placed in our lives, so that he might shine into their hearts, too, through that wonderful truth.

The story of Saul continues, as you already know.  He went from being known as a Pharisee’s Pharisee to being a missionary’s missionary; the greatest missionary ever, he has been called.  Through Saul – who became known as Paul – the Lord shone into the hearts of countless individuals.  In fact, it is through the Lord’s work in Paul that you and I ultimately had the Gospel shared with us.

Lord, thank you for changing us from death to life through the power of your Gospel.  Use us just as you used your servant Paul.  May we share that same Gospel with others, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; and as we share that Gospel, change many, many more from death to life, too!  Amen.

Do you know how old Abram was when God first came to him and spoke with him?  75!  75 years old, right there around the same age as some of you.  75 years old when God came and spoke with him, telling him to leave his family behind, to pack up his belongings and to start walking towards an unknown location which God himself “would show to Abram.”

How many of you would so easily follow in Abram’s footsteps if God came and asked the same of you?  Pack your belongings, leave your house and family, and start driving.  Don’t worry; I’ll show you the way!  I’ll tell you when you get where I want you to go. Yeah, I don’t think I would be able to do that, either.

And that’s not to mention the fact that God continued his conversation with Abram: You will be a great nation.  I will bless you; I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.  All nations of the earth will be blessed through you.  And not one word of Abram doubting; instead he took God at his word, trusting God’s promises.

Now, maybe it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to see Abram trusting such wonderful promises – but don’t you think that over time some doubts would have creeped into Abram’s mind? As days became weeks and weeks became months and months became years and years?

Sure, there were moments of weakness – attempting to bring about the fulfillment of these promises through his wife’s maidservant, trying to pass his wife off as his sister (twice!) – but at the end, what does the book of Genesis say but how the first lesson today ends: Abram believed the LORD.

Have you ever found yourself wishing, hoping, even praying for a faith like Abraham’s – a blind faith which trusts, sight unseen?  I remember being a kid, not much older than some of you, praying for just that: Lord, give me a stronger faith like that of Moses, or Abraham, or David.  So do you want a blind faith?  Or – is your faith blind already?

It’s a show-me generation we live in, isn’t it?  Things like gentleman’s agreements don’t exist anymore.  You can’t buy a car on a handshake.  Even contracts don’t always stand for what they once did.  Over and over again – especially in the world of sports – organizations, coaches, even athletes worm and weasel their ways out of the signed dotted line.

Show me, we say.  Prove it.  I won’t believe it until I see it.  Got a whopper on the line?  A monster buck that you shot?  Better have a picture to prove it, or the skeptics will come out of the woodwork.  And broken promise after stretched truths just add to the skepticism and lack of trust.

King Solomon once wrote There’s nothing new under the sun, and I guess that applies to this situation, too – doesn’t it?  Because for every Abraham…there’s a Thomas.

Next to the betrayer, Judas, perhaps no disciple is known more for something negative than Thomas.  Doubting Thomas, we call him – and maybe for good reason; Thomas’ statement isn’t far from our minds when we hear his name.  Unless I see the nail marks…and put my finger…and my hand…I will not believe it.

We’re quick to give Thomas’ looks of shame, aren’t we?  Thomas, Thomas.  You should have known better.  Your closest friends just told you they saw him, why didn’t you believe?  But don’t we forget that the disciples themselves scoffed at first when the women told them the tomb was empty?  Don’t we forget the doubts in the minds of Peter and John as they ran to the tomb, or the two on the road to Emmaus?

They weren’t all that different from Thomas, were they?  Sure, it wasn’t until after Thomas got to rub his thumb over that gaping hole in his wrist or stick his hand into the spear-hole in Jesus’ side or look upon the face of his beloved Teacher with his own two eyes…only then did Thomas believe.  But the rest of them?  Their doubts lingered, too, until tangible proof was presented…only when Jesus was standing there in the middle of them that first Easter evening did they believe.

Because you have seen me, you have believed, Jesus said to Thomas – and really to all who were gathered with Thomas.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Who have not seen and yet have believed.  Jesus is advocating blind faith – right?  Believe what you haven’t seen, what you have no evidence of, without the “show me” aspect.

Blind faith?  Let’s consider the evidence.   Just look at the things which we hold dear – the central truths of our Christian faith.  Who among us was there when God said, let there be…and it was?  Or, raise your hand if you were there when Jesus was conceived by Holy Spirit.  Better yet, as the hymn says Were you there when they crucified the Lord?  Have you seen the empty tomb, or the folded cloths…touched the scarred wounds?

No – none of us were there.  None of us heard him cry at his birth or cry out at his death.  We didn’t see the empty tomb.  Yet here we are – worshipping a man we have neither seen nor heard.  Here we are, celebrating the life, death and resurrection by which our eternal salvation was secured.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, Jesus said.  Was he talking about us?  You bet.  But, blind faith?  I’m not so sure…

Yes, we believe without seeing his wounds.  We believe without seeing his empty tomb or hearing his voice.  These eyes have not seen him and these ears have not heard him.  Yet we call him Lord, Savior, Friend, Brother. But faith without evidence?  On the contrary – the evidence is overwhelming!

Consider this: why did the Holy Spirit have the Apostle John include this story of Doubting Thomas?  Perhaps – without trying to delve into the depths of the mind of God – this account was recorded for  your benefit and mine.  Imagine the doubts that would creep into our minds if we did not have this account.

Was this really Jesus?  The nail marks and spear hole prove it!  Had Jesus actually risen from the dead, or was this just his spirit – as some would claim?  As we see, through Scripture, Thomas touching those scarred wounds of our Savior…any doubt dissipates.

Is our faith without evidence?  Absolutely not!  We have overwhelming evidence right here in Scripture…right here, in God’s Word.  As Peter wrote: we have the word of the prophets made more certain

Have we seen our Savior alive?  Maybe not with these two eyes – but the eyes of faith lay hold of the evidence in Holy Scripture.  Have we heard our Savior speak?  Maybe not with these ears – but the ears of faith hear our Savior say, I am the way, and the truth and the life…I am the resurrection and the life.

No, my friends – our faith is not blind!  The Word of our God recorded on these pages of Scripture for the benefit of the generations following our Savior’s saving work.  Yes, God made sure that the account of our Savior’s life, death and resurrection were recorded in Scripture so that our faith did not have to be blind!  Blind faith?  Absolutely not.

So why is it that we doubt?  Why do we live as though we are unsure of our faith, unsure of whether our Savior lives?

Isn’t that exactly what we’re saying about our faith when we live in ways which contradict our God’s Word…that we’re not sure about our faith, or at least we have our doubts and are more willing to take what we see with these eyes and hear with these ears than what our Savior tells us in his Word?

My dear brothers and sisters in the faith, there really isn’t any difference between us and the Apostles in that Upper Room.  Yes, we too can say, We have seen the Lord in Scripture!  And what we have seen there leads us to cry out with Thomas, My Lord and my God!

Is your faith blind?  Some may say that it is, and in some way they may be right.  But entirely blind? Absolutely not, my friends!  We have all the evidence we’ll ever need, right here.  We have seen our risen Savior, in Scripture.

And yes, we’re like Abraham.  Abraham couldn’t see any reason to trust God’s promises other than the fact that they were God’s promises.  There may not be anything that we can lay hold of as reason for us to trust God’s promise of salvation and forgiveness and life everlasting – but we have God’s Word, his promises recorded there.

No, our faith is not blind.  Yes, we are blessed: through the eyes of faith we have seen our risen Savior.  And yes, one day, we will see him with these physical eyes, too!  Amen.