Last Sunday of the Church Year November 25, 2018
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
552:1-4, 572, 764, 552:6-8
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the love of God the Father fill you with wonder, may the sacrifice of the Son fill you with gratitude, and may the gifts of the Holy Spirit fill you with faith, hope, and the eager expectation of our Lord’s return. Amen.
Dear Fellow Servants of Jesus Christ:
There’s an old saying in the news business that helps to identify what is and isn’t newsworthy: “Dog bites man—not a story. Man bites dog—story!” It’s true, isn’t it? It’s the strange and unusual that is deemed newsworthy. What is bad and what goes wrong in life gets all the attention, while all the things that are good and go right pass without notice. Thousands of planes take off and land without incident and without fanfare. The one that crashes gets all the attention.
Maybe the best example is the human body. Think of how many impossibly complex systems—chemical, electrical, and biological—work flawlessly in the human body every moment of every day without so much as a passing notice or a word of thanks to our Creator and Protector. Eyes see, ears hear, hearts beat, unseen infections are identified and destroyed. But man oh man don’t we let the world know when something goes wrong with our bodies.
One of those incredible “take for granted systems” in the human body is the ability to feel satiated or satisfied. No matter how ravenously hungry or thirsty we can get (which, by the way, is also a blessing we take for granted because it is our bodies telling us they need fuel and hydration) there is also an incredibly complex system that tells us when we have had enough. It is a marvelous insight into the wisdom of our Creator—a self-contained system that lets itself know both when it needs more and when it has had enough. No wonder David, in considering the creation of his body in Psalm 139 said, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Yet as is the case with every blessing, there is also here the potential for abusing the good things that God has done for us. Even our God-given ability to feel satisfied carries with it the potential to allow that basic gift to become what God never intended—first thanklessness, then entitlement, then indifference. The God-intended cycle of our lives is supposed to be: need, petition, fulfillment, thanksgiving. We perceive a need, ask God to fulfill that need, he does so, and we thank him for it. That’s how it is supposed to go, but the cycle we tend to adopt is: need, fulfillment, apathy.
Obviously if this is a bad system in connection with material or physical things, it is infinitely worse when carried into the spiritual. This morning we will address this very problem and seek answers on the basis of our text, found recorded in the Book of Ezekiel, the 34th Chapter:
For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (ESV)
These are the very words of our God, given by inspiration through the Prophet and mercifully and miraculously preserved and passed down to us today. Thank God for giving us his perfect truth. That we too may enjoy the Life and wisdom these words were intended to confer, so we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
If you’ve been driving pretty much anywhere in rural North Dakota after dark lately you are probably well aware that the deer are fully engaged in their annual Fall madness. You are probably also then amazed at just how stupid these otherwise wily creatures can be when it comes to crossing highways in front of several tons of fast-moving steel. Not only do they insist on crossing in front of approaching cars, they seem determined to wait by the side of the road and cross only when you can no longer avoid them. For creatures as cagy and elusive as white-tailed deer, this lack of highway smarts defies our sense of logic.
So what does that have to do with the Sunday sermon? As you undoubtedly noticed from the Scripture readings and from the fact that we today commemorate the Last Sunday of the Church year, the general focus of our service this morning centers around the coming of our Lord, the end of this temporal age, the Resurrection of the Dead, and Judgment Day. All of these are fitting topics as we look back at the year now drawing to a close and look forward to what comes next. Yet this is supposed to be more than just a time for “being ready” and “prepared for the coming of our Lord.” If it is no more than that, we will be pretty much just like those deer in the headlights—brute beasts that calmly (or in a panic) step right in front of the oncoming truck.
Our great and terrible enemy here is apathy. Nothing I hear from fellow Christians frightens and saddens me more than apathy. Apathy is the absolute worst spiritual killer. “I don’t care” is the stuff the damned are made of. Such are the ones who don’t care about anything having to do with the spiritual or the afterlife, don’t care how God sees him or his actions, don’t care what his actions are doing to others—they just don’t care. Worst of all are those souls who have heard and believed the gospel, only to grow cold and indifferent to that message of Life.
Hear what Scripture has to say about that worst of all worlds in Hebrews 6:4-8: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
Hear well also God’s message to the Church in Laodicea, whose problem was apathy: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” (Revelation 3:15-18)
Recognize here not only the voice of God himself, but also the fact that God does not make idle threats. His warnings are always given with the express purpose that the sinner will hear and turn away from the danger. This is the sort of God we have. He hates evil, but he loves you. In fact, he loved you enough to sacrifice his beloved Son for you. He loved you enough to subject his greatest Treasure to horrors well beyond our human powers to grasp or measure.
Our text certainly reveals God’s love for us in striking fashion. Listen again to that text, but this time focus your attention on the words “I” and “myself"— remembering that this is God speaking to you:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
Remarkable, isn’t it. If you are having trouble being impressed by this, consider again just who is speaking to whom. This is God speaking—the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists. He is not only the Maker of all that is, he is still the center of his creation—the focal point of everything that exists. All power, glory, praise and honor rightly reside with him alone. Everything else that exists pales in comparison. God is immeasurably greater than even the sum total of all of humanity and angels combined.
Yet given all of that, what is the focus and concern of the God of heaven and earth? With what does he occupy himself and on what does he direct his love, attention, and care?
Again, how amazing this all is when we stop to examine two immutable truths. First, how unworthy we all are because of our innumerable sins, and, second, when we stop to contemplate how far above us is our God that he would pay any attention at all to the likes of us. So, who cares? First of all, God does.
This is why apathy on the part of mankind is as mind-boggling as it is wrong and sinful. How could any human being ever be apathetic about anything in any way connected to our infinite, immortal, omnipotent and omniscient Creator-God?
Though we have a God who cares for us and seeks us out even when we wander, we still have the terrible power to distance ourselves from him and to wander from the path of life. In the words of our text, we have the power to turn ourselves into those apathetic “fat and strong” sheep that God will sentence to hell on Judgment Day.
But his warning also means something else. It would be a pointless warning and therefore a waste of time if there were nothing that you and I could do about the problem. Clearly there is. God has offered us the powerful, foolproof means to keep us in the faith and thereby to be preserved until our Lord returns: his holy Word.
We conclude where we began: “Who cares?” The answer is that God cares, but so should you. On Judgment Day you will be sentenced to an eternity in heaven or in hell. No middle ground; no opt out; no escape clause in your contract. It is either heaven or hell, for all eternity. God in his mercy sent his Son to pay in full for all your sins. He has already sought you out. He found you when you weren’t even looking for him and set your feet on the path to heaven by creating saving faith in your heart. You now have the terrible power to throw away what God has done for you. Or you can visit him regularly in his Word—where he has promised to meet with you, to strengthen you, and to preserve your eternal soul. These words are therefore both a loving warning and a benevolent invitation—from God himself—for you who have already been brought to faith in your Savior Jesus. Immerse yourself regularly in the power that is his Word and then trust that he will strengthen, protect and preserve you—as he promised. With your God thereby working in and for you, you can have complete confidence that you will never be unprepared for his return. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
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.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.