The 23rd Sunday After Trinity November 14, 2004
10, 398, 389, 388, (Supplement 2000 alternates: 743, 756, 778)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11).
Dear Fellow Christians:
The setting is a small, wood-heated cabin on an incredibly peaceful, secluded lake in the Deep South—near the border of Georgia and Florida. It is a rather chilly December evening (chilly for that part of the world is about 45 degrees) and through a long-forgotten chain of events I found myself eating a fine bowl of stew and visiting with a colorful old character who came to the cabin in that place “to get away from his wife.”
The conversation drifted from one topic to another until the man learned that I was a Lutheran pastor. As I recall, he first wanted some sort of assurance or confirmation that Lutheran was Christian. I assured him that it was. From that point on he launched into a subject that had obviously been on his mind for some time: the second coming of the Lord Jesus. One could tell that he had invested some thought in the great coming event. After spilling many words on the subject, the man presented to me what seemed to be, in his mind, the Grand Poobah of all questions: “What do you want to be doing the moment the Lord Jesus returns?”
Now, as Grand Poobah questions go, this was certainly not a bad one. In fact the second coming of our Lord Jesus is a topic on which all of us should invest more meditation and preparation. Yet, there was something troubling about this whole conversation, and it actually wasn’t until some time later that I was able to put my finger on the problem. My answer to the man’s question apparently did not measure up to the man’s expectations. In rather grandiose, Southern tones he informed me: “When the Lord Jesus returns, I want him to find me winning another soul for Christ. That would mean one final jewel in the crown that he will place upon my head when I enter the final glory.”
Perhaps you are quicker than I was and can immediately identify what is wrong with the man’s answer; and, more importantly, with the thought and attitude that apparently motivated his answer. Consider that problem as you read our text for this morning, which is found in the Old Testament book of Daniel, the twelfth chapter:
At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.
So far the perfect, certain, sure Word of God. In God’s Word we find nothing doubtful, nothing uncertain, nothing false. Here we find only truth and light. That each one of us might be filled with such truth and such light through these words, we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Have you figured out what was wrong-headed about the man’s answer? The problem was direction wasn’t it? The man’s sense of direction was all messed up. There was nothing wrong, in itself, with wanting to be witnessing to an unbeliever when Jesus returned. It would be hard to imagine a better way to spend our time of grace here on earth. The man’s problem, as we said, was his direction and motivation. There were three possible reasons for wanting to be witnessing when Jesus returns: 1) For the sake of the one receiving the witness 2) For the sake of Jesus himself, whose kingdom you were seeking to broaden, or 3) For your own personal glory, praise, or honor.
The old gentleman made it clear that his motivation was really number 3. In other words, he wanted to be found witnessing so that he himself might receive more praise, glory, and honor in heaven.
Is there anything wrong with that sort of reasoning? Doesn’t our text validate such thinking when it says: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever”? [v.3]
Our text does indeed prophesy that which will one day certainly come to pass. Every word of Holy Scripture is true and right in every way. The problem here is not one of fact, it is one of direction. Will there by wise ones who will shine like the brightness of the firmament? Will there be those who turn many to righteousness who will shine like the stars forever and ever? Absolutely! The Word of God says it will be so—it will be so!
The question is whether or not the wise ones were motivated by this fact. Did those who turn many to righteousness do so in order that they themselves would shine like the stars forever and ever? Absolutely not! They simply served their Lord, and being truly wise they did so out of love for their Savior God.
Here is what Jesus himself had to say about this whole subject in Luke 17:10: “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” Paul also said in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
What God chooses to do to us is of little consequence in light of what God has already done for us. In other words, if God chooses to shower blessings and honor on his children in heaven that is his business. That is never where our focus is supposed to lie, nor is it supposed to be our motivation. We are, quite literally, God’s slaves. He has purchased us with his very lifeblood. We are, as Paul reminded us in the passage above, not our own.
Isn’t it just like sinful man to come up with new and unique instances of greed and self-service? We no sooner learn that we can do absolutely nothing to pay for even one of our sins—all of them having been laid upon Jesus Christ—than we turn our attention to earning some other kind of reward. If we can’t earn our passage into heaven, then by all means let’s spend our time on earth earning a higher position and more glory once we get to heaven. In other words, Jesus will get us in the door, but we have to earn the honor and glory that will be paid to us there, so let’s get busy.
Is this why God made us? Is this why He sent His only Son to suffer untold misery, followed by a tortured death on the cross, abandoned by all? Did He do all that for us so that we might spend our time of grace here on this earth establishing our legacy in heaven? God didn’t leave the answer to this question to our imagination. Listen to what he told us in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” To whose glory or honor do we do such works? “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
God did have a plan in mind when He sent His Son into the world. His plan was that we would live for Him in all that we say, think, and do. Again in Matthew 5:16 Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
That was indeed the divine plan and it was both good and holy, but when has mankind not thoroughly perverted that which is good and holy? The Jews rather quickly substituted works for faith. As a nation they came to believe that salvation was earned by man according to his life and conduct. They lost sight of the fact that the sacrifices prescribed by God under Moses were not payments for sins but reminders or pictures of the only true sacrifice that could ever be made to pay for sins. The sacrifices all pointed ahead to the Messiah who would be slain by man for man, and yet to the Jews the sacrifices themselves became the very payment. (This was the message of our first Scripture reading this morning from Hebrews 10:11-18.)
Can you imagine the uncertainty and terror that must have filled the hearts of those Jews? How could they ever know a moment’s peace without the fear that they might sin and then die suddenly with no chance to make a sacrifice to pay for their last sins? They obviously were not plagued by questions concerning what they wanted to be doing when Jesus returned, but a sudden departure from this life (while sinning) must have terrified them. Members of the Roman Catholic Church can often relate to this same fear for they are taught to put their hope in their own works, their own acts of penance, and finally in the Last Rites—meant to wash the final slate as clean as possible.
This is the kind of thinking that prompts frightening thoughts about what a man or woman will be doing—or will want to be doing—when Jesus returns. Fortunately for all of mankind, the Word of God clearly debunks all of these false and uncertain notions and lays our hope for salvation upon solid, certain ground—Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Our reading from Hebrews 10, for example, makes clear that unlike Old Testament times when the priest had to offer sacrifice after sacrifice (“which can never take away sins”) Jesus Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins forever… For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12ff).
Here we find the very heart and soul of the whole Christian faith. Note that there is no uncertainty anywhere in God’s Word, no lack of clarity or lingering questions about the future. God’s Word is altogether certain. The section in Hebrews 10 concludes: “Now where there is remission of (sins), there is no longer an offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). There is no need for any payment from mankind because the payment for all sins has been made by Jesus Christ. Our part in this grand plan was our sin. Jesus supplied all that is good and valuable.
What will you and I be doing when Jesus returns—assuming we are still living on this earth? Odds are you and I will be sinning in thought, word, or deed—or some combination of the three. Our comfort can never rest there. Our hope can never be based on something so fickle as our own conduct or behavior. Our peace and joy must never be subject to such doubtful things.
The fact is you and I already know who is going to win. You, dear Christian, are going to win, because Jesus Christ has already won! He conquered sin and death and Hell in our place. He paid for every single sin when He gave his life on the cross. Now the certain, sure, unchanging promise of God the Father is that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will spend eternity in heaven. Understand then what this blessed pronouncement really means: Your sins have been forgiven you! That includes the sins you committed yesterday, today, and whatever sin you might be committing when our dear Lord returns. Jesus paid for every one of them. All is credited to you by grace through faith in that same Lord Jesus.
God preserve us from all sins, but thanks be to that same merciful Father in Heaven for the certainty of our election by grace, and for basing our eternal future not on our own conduct, but upon the merit and goodness of his Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.