Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Prepared for the 'Marriage Supper'

In the Book of Revelation, the author, St. John, tells us he heard these words spoken in Heaven,  'Let us rejoice and exult and give him (Jesus Christ) the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;   it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure"- for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.   And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are the true words of God."

In his vision in Revelation 19:7-10, John saw and heard the heavenly multitudes praising God because the wedding feast of the Lamb—literally the "marriage supper"—was about to begin. The concept of the marriage supper is better understood in light of the wedding customs in the time of Christ.

In biblical times, after a couple were engaged, the next step in the process usually occurred about a year later, when the bridegroom, accompanied by his male friends, went to the house of the bride at midnight, creating a torchlight parade through the streets. The bride would know in advance this was going to take place, of course, and so she would be ready with her maidens, and, when the groom’s party had arrived, both groups would combine and  join in a the parade going back to the bridegroom's home where a feast was prepared. If the sun went down during the course of these events, it became a torch-lit parade, or one involving oil-fueled lamps.  This custom is the basis of the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

In Jesus' parable, five out of ten maidens failed to prepare for the Wedding, because they didn’t have enough oil in their lamps and were gone to get more when the Groom arrived.  By the time they got to the Groom’s house, the door was shut forever. In my past sermons on this reading, I have explored what was symbolized by the oil, perhaps the ‘fuel’ that keeps faith alive – difficult to quantify – but essential in order to have a living, burning flame of trust in Christ, necessary in order to be faithful to God until the end of our earthly lives.  Yet, to only speak of the ‘oil’ being depleted in this parable,  is to speak of effect of their poor preparations for the wedding, not the cause of them.

What caused their problem is just as worthy of consideration.  For without the cause, the terrible effect would not have resulted.  So, what was it that causes preparations for the great Wedding event with our Saviour to be fatally lacking?  In the case of the five foolish maidens, it was complacency and lethargy.  ‘As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept’, Jesus taught.  What is the lesson for us?  How many church members fail to prepare to meet their Lord by over-estimating how much time they have?  How many of us waste our time, acting as though it’s OK to sleep through our church membership and hardly do anything, and we’ll still be OK?

How many church members let their attendance at Divine Services go by the wayside, and their use of God’s means of grace drop off or get ‘postponed’ until an indefinite time elapses when it might be ‘convenient’ to study a bit of God’s word, or give one’s soul some morsel of nourishment?

And how many of us neglect to serve our Saviour, trusting that others will do it for us, as though they could give us some of the oil from their lamps, as ours are going out?   My friends, it does not work that way;  ‘fail to plan and you plan to fail’, as the old British army saying goes.

We cannot afford to fail in our ‘Wedding Preparations’ as Christians – the stakes are too high.  Yet, five out of ten of those in the parable, who should have been prepared, gambled and lost – big time.  Five out of ten – that is a terrible rate of failure, yet in life those who would disciple people, their fellow parishioners, their neighbours, their own family, often find out that this tragic ratio seems to appear again and again.  Look at the ‘rate of attrition’ among those who join the church through confirmation?  Some years are better than others, but averaged together, the rate is around 50% (according to a survey by Barna)!  Five out of ten Christians show every likelihood of having lamps with no oil when the Bridegroom comes on the great Day of the Lord.  And their failure will have the same cause – complacency and lethargy about exercising or even maintaining their Christian faith – the one thing needful above all others – when the Day of the Lord comes.

The wedding feast will be THE place to be, the only place and the greatest place.  How tragic that so many will not make it in.

And their failure will not be for want of God’s provision for them.  Hear His call of invitation to the wedding Feast:
‘Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live!  (Isaiah 55.1-3)

On another occasion, ‘Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servantsa to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business’ (Matthew 22.1-5)  Treating that invitation with contempt and complacency was a BAD idea.  It did not end well for those who have been invited, but could not be bothered.

In the case of the Wedding Feast we are talking about – the Heavenly Marriage Supper of the Lamb, it is not mere livestock been slain in preparation.  The host Himself has been led like a Lamb to the slaughter, so that we might be forgiven of sin and welcome at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

Jesus Himself, our heavenly Bridegroom has borne the tattered garment of our sins that He might give us the spotless wedding garment we need to attend at the heavenly Feast.  He has taken away the sin and guilt - that would have disqualified us - by nailing it to His cross.

He went through death and the grave in order to prepare this place for us.  No one can say His love for us was lacking or His preparations for us fall short.  No.  He has done all that needs to be done to make this Wedding Feast possible.  The Master of the Feast has spared no expense for us, but given His only begotten Son, that whosoever trusts in Him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

Clearly preparations for the 'Marriage Supper' take place on two sides:  The Master of the Feast makes preparation, and His guests must prepare, too, that they may enter into the Joy of the Lord.

What St. John’s Revelation depicts for us, is  Heaven as a wedding feast.  And his original audience would have known that the feast is the third of three phases for weddings in general, and a picture of the preparations that must be made so all the Faithful, every believer, should have full fellowship and participation in it.

The first phase in the heavenly Wedding is a betrothal – an engagement - completed on earth when each individual believer is baptized into Christ as Saviour.  That is when the ‘dowry paid to the Bridegroom’s Father’ is accepted.  Those who trust in Christ as Saviour, offer the Father their faith in the payment fully made by Jesus.  This dowry we have through Jesus Christ is the only payment the Father will accept.

So Regeneration from unbelief to faith is when the Church is “betrothed” to Christ and when, like wise maidens  in the parable, all believers should be watching and waiting for the appearance of the Bridegroom (this first phase lasts until physical death or the Second Coming of Christ – whichever comes first).

The second phase – the procession to the feast would be the resurrection of the body at the end of the world, where all the faithful who sleep in the dust will arise and join together with those who are alive at the great Day of the Lord, in a procession through ‘the air’, as St. Paul puts it,  with both groups  caught up together to meet the Lord Jesus Christ who will claim His bride and take her to the Father's house – there to be forever, body and soul, with the Lord in Heaven.

The marriage supper imagery in St. John’s vision of Heaven as a neverending wedding feast.  There in Heaven will be the complete  Church as the bride of Christ, the faithful believers of the Old Testament and the New Testament saints – all made holy by the Lord who is praised with these words, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever’.
(Revelation 5:12-14)

May God help us, throughout our lives on earth to make preparations for this great Feast to come, with vigilance, energy from His Holy Spirit, and with Faith in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church

We read in the prophet Isaiah, God said to His people: '...your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you," says the LORD, your Redeemer'  (Isaiah 54.4-8).

As most people know, women have gotten a pretty raw deal much of the time, in their relationships with men. Whether it be the current notorious conditions for women in the Islamic world, or in the developing world, or historically, in centuries past (including biblical times), women have often been neglected, disadvantaged, disenfranchised, deserted, and abused. For many women it has always been a matter of 'men – you can't live with 'em, and can't live without 'em'.

When marriages suffer or are destroyed by men and women, God's word tells us it is our fault, our sin, that presents us with this sad state of affairs. When men are unable, or unwilling to be good husbands, they stand before God guilty of violating His word. Likewise, when married women are unwilling to fulfill their God-given vocation, because of sin on their part, they fall short of the mark, too.

So, given that marriage is so characterized by sin, failure and pain, why does God use it as a metaphor to describe His relationship to His people? A few reasons that spring to mind are the fact that the imperfections and flaws that we see in marriage from this side of the Fall, do not detract from the fact that marriage was – originally - a good and perfect thing prior to the Fall.

At the same time God use flawed marriage after the Fall, to depict His relationship to us sinners, with Him being the innocent party and we being the guilty party. As such, the marriage metaphor is as instructive to us as it is descriptive of how the love of God is willing and able to overcome the imperfections in our relationship and, indeed, to heal them. In this God gives us a great example to imitate, as well.

The biblical picture of God, as the faithful husband, restoring our relationship to Himself to the point where we are as good with Him as Eve was with Adam before the Fall, also gives us a picture of the blessedness to come when God restores His fallen creation in the new world to come, a paradise that will never fall again.

Ultimately, marriage is a great illustration, since we get the concept of wife and husband, bride and groom. This is why we can learn so much from it about our relationship to God.

For example, where our Lord Jesus says, (as we say last week), that husbands are to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her – husbands are to love their wives, as their own bodies; We who know Jesus can see why this is His expectation of husbands. Because Christ Himself is the Groom, who loves His bride, the Church – and is willing to treat her, not as her sins deserve, but according to His great mercy as our Redeemer and Saviour.

And, what a passionate picture Scripture gives us of how God's unfaithful people are like an unfaithful wife! Many, many times in His word, God describes his people leaving Him to run after 'other gods' as 'adultery'. In the Old Testament, worshiping other gods is called 'adultery' almost as often as it is called 'idolatry'. As a particularly vivid illustration, God even told one of his prophets (Hosea) to marry a prostitute to serve as an object lesson for the way that God's people had been unfaithful to Him by worshiping other gods.

God makes the case in His word, that our sins against Him have given Him grounds for divorcing us. It is written in the Old Testament laws of Moses that a man could obtain a divorce from his wife on many grounds.
"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance" (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Yet, even though God's case for divorce against us is a strong one, and even though it would 'bring sin upon the land...' if He did divorce us and then re-marry us, that is what God was prepared to do out of love for His fallen people. Remember the words of tonight's first reading? '...your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you," says the LORD, your Redeemer.

When did God hide His face from His people because of their sins? Isaiah referred to the fact that God had used the Babylonians to take God's people away in exile from the land. And then there was the whole period of time between the last Old Testament prophet, and the arrival in Israel of John the Baptist, the final prophet to prepare the way for Christ.

But don't forget, what we learned last week: that Jesus Christ embodies God's people Israel, and that when in that moment of dereliction on the cross, when His Father forsook His Son for our sakes, there God 'hid His face' from Israel, and deserted Israel, that He might gather us in and have compassion on us with everlasting love for the sake of Christ, who was forsaken for us.

Ultimately, that period of separation came to an end when the Bridegroom did arrive in the person of Christ, to 'leave His Father and mother and cleave to His wife' – the Church.

When he walked among us, Jesus of Nazareth said of His presence on earth, 'the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (Mark 2.19-20).

'While I am in the world, I am the light of the world', Jesus once said. Now He is saying, while I am in the world I am the groom who is with my friends and will soon be joined to my bride.

And when did Jesus leave His mother? When, from the cross He looked at His mother, weeping there and the disciple He loved standing with her (St. John). ' Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home' (John 19.26-27). And when did He leave His Father? When Jesus, for our salvation came down from Heaven, left His Father's side, descended from His Father's throne and went to the throne of the cross, where he bled and died there.

In that place of execution our Bridegroom gave Himself up for His Bride, the Church and shed His blood that He might cleanse her and wash her from sin, so that she might be cleansed and presentable to Himself, 'without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish' (Eph. 5.25-27). Christ was forsaken by His Father – 'the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God' (1 Peter 3.18).

In this is the love of Christ, the Bridegroom for His Bride, the Church revealed: As that well-known hymn puts it, 'From Heaven He came and sought her, to be His holy bride. With His own blood He bought her and for her life he died'.

Therefore, we should take the picture of Christ as the Church's loving Bridegroom as both instructive and illustrative for us as we live out our daily lives in relation to God and to each other.

This illustration, this metaphor of something we so commonly see every day, is useful for us as we contemplate the love of that which is not seen. As St. John writes, ' Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world' (1 John 4.11-14). Amen.

The Church as Bride of Christ

In biblical times, wedding customs differed somewhat from what they are in our culture, but not so much that we cannot relate to the language Scripture uses. It would help if we were as familiar with arranged marriages as some of our Christian brothers and sisters are in other cultures, such as in Central Asia. But since we probably aren't, let's just review a few things.

A marriage contract in biblical times was signed by the parents of the bride and the groom and the parents of the groom (or the groom himself) would pay a dowry to the bride or her parents. This began what was called the betrothal period—what we would today call the engagement. This period was the one Joseph and Mary were in when she was found to be with child (Matthew 1:18; Luke 2:5).

Arranged marriages were regarded as very sensible on several levels. Parents of both parties involved would take great care to ensure that there was the strongest possible support structure for the marriage, common world-views, shared cultural and religious backgrounds, and many other things that would serve to make for a strong marriage – things that many today neglect in favour of weaker grounds for marriage, with consequent bad results that are all around us.

One of the reasons why traditional marriage is being abandoned by so many today is the high rate of divorce in our culture. The more marriages fail, the more people despair of the institution of marriage itself, but that is a different subject.

The biblical understanding of what marriage is goes together with the biblical ideal of a bride. A woman who was betrothed to a man in a first marriage was to be someone who had never been united sexually to any man. In a similar way, her union with her husband would be as his only woman. She would be uniquely his - until their marriage ended in the death of either one of them.

You might be thinking at this point – ah! But what about polygamy in the Bible. Yes. It is true some men in the Bible did have more than one wife, but the Bride in each case was held to a separate standard. No biblical women could have more than one husband at a time. In that way there would never be any doubt as to the paternity of any children she might have.

Women might think that this arrangement was unbalanced, but remember – in those days, long before DNA-based paternity tests, only such an arrangement for brides would ensure that the Messiah would be born in fulfillment of God's promise that He would be a descendant of Abraham. In any other arrangement a child's ancestry would be in doubt making it impossible to prove that God had kept His promise.

So the imagery of purity and consecration were part of the character of a Bride and therefore useful as a depiction of the Church to readers of the Bible.

But, hang on, you may be saying; how can the Church be a pure and consecrated virgin to God when the Church is made up of sinners like you and me? This is where today's second reading comes in. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish'.

You and I, by our sins, are indeed not qualified to be a bride dressed in white and worthy of being presented to a holy and righteous God as His beloved, are we? If God were to describe us sinners in a song that depicted us in all our corruption, covered in the iniquity that besmirches our faces, the song would sound quite different from what we heard this evening in the first reading (!)

They say, 'love is blind', but God would have to be deaf, blind and stupid not to see how unworthy we are of any association with Him. As Isaiah wrote, '(God's ears are not dull that He cannot hear)... your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.
3For your hands are defiled with blood
and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
your tongue mutters wickedness.
4No one enters suit justly;
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
5They hatch adders’ eggs;
they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
6Their webs will not serve as clothing;
men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
and deeds of violence are in their hands.
7Their feet run to evil,
and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
desolation and destruction are in their highways.
8The way of peace they do not know,
and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
no one who treads on them knows peace.

So how can God stand to be anywhere near us? Only through Jesus Christ! He, as our Redeemer, has made us His worthy bride. 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish'.

This is how God demonstrate His love for us. Not by waiting for us to be His holy bride by our works or waiting for us to somehow atone for our sins and cleanse ourselves from all our unrighteousness. No. Remember, my friend, we are talking about an arranged marriage and God our Father made this arrangement.

In the words of Luther: 'God beheld our wretched state before the world's foundation, and mindful of His mercies great, He planned for our salvation. He turned to us a father's heart; He did not choose the easy part but gave His dearest treasure. God said to His beloved Son: 'It's time to have compassion. Then go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation. From sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death for them that they may live with you forever'. 'The Son obeyed His Father's will, was born of virgin mother; and God's good pleasure to fulfill, He came to be my brother' (or, to return to the marriage metaphor – my bridegroom).

This was the arranged marriage. 'while we were yet sinners Christ died for us' (Rom. 5.8). First He took on human flesh and blood as man. Then, to make the only successful atonement for human sin, He shed His human, yet holy blood and sacrificed Himself for human salvation. And then, to give us certainty that we are saved as individuals, He gave us the 'water and the word' of the Sacrament of Baptism.

In that washing of renewal, my friends, we are truly made new before God. We can enter into the presence of God, in a white wedding gown as a worthy Bride – but only because God Himself, in His grace and mercy for Christ's sake, has made us worthy to wear white. Just as He has done for those who are with Him in Heaven now, who have 'come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb' (Rev. 7.14).

'Hasten, as a bride to meet Him, and with loving rev'rence greet Him. For with words of life immortal He is knocking at your portal. Open wide the gates before Him, Saying, as you there adore Him; Grant, Lord, that I now receive You, that I nevermore will leave You'.* Amen.

*Schmuke dich, o liebe Seele (LSB 636) stanza 2.