Pentecost 22A, November 9, 2014
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114
“If you were to die tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven? If so, why? Can you be sure?” Those were some of the introductory question behind a program called “The Evangelism Explosion” created by Dr. D James Kennedy in the 1960’s that became popular with many Lutheran congregations in the 1980’s and 90’s. The questions in and of themselves are pertinent, but the conversations that they sparked, very rarely ended with a sense of security, in fact in my opinion, those questions left both the interviewer and the one being interviewed with a deep sense of hope (I hope I’m saved), and also a feeling of fear (what if I’m not saved?). This is why the “Evangelism Explosion” kind of fizzled out within our denomination.
What many of us discovered was that faith is not something you can logically present to someone, rather it comes when a person encounters the crucified and resurrected Jesus through the Word of God within real life contexts. But like I said, the questions in and of themselves are worth considering, so let me ask the question in a different way; “Can you be sure you are saved?
In our Old Testament lesson (Amos 5:18-24), God through the prophet Amos was talking to a bunch of people who just knew that they were saved. After all, they were the children of Abraham, a chosen and unique people. There was no need to ask them if they were saved, or if they were afraid of the day of judgment, because each of them would have answered quickly, “Of course I’m saved, and why would I be afraid, I’m a son of Abraham!” But God did not send Amos to ask thought provoking questions; instead He sent Amos to deliver some very bad news, listen: “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness and not light”. This is a blunt warning from God that their eternal security is not nearly secure as they thought it was. Within these words, God was telling them that if they continue in their insincerity of faith, the Lord’s coming on the last day will mean trouble worse than any they have ever experienced or would experience on this earth.
Amos said that the Israelites were like a man who runs away from a roaring lion (which represented their current troubles), only to be met by a more dangerous bear (which symbolized the day of the Lord, or judgment day). And if that analogy didn’t get their attention, He gave them another one: It will be like someone who reaches home safely (the day of judgment and rest in heaven), only to lean against the wall in your home and have a snake jump out of a whole near your hand and bite you. That bite is God’s judgment and it would take the people by surprise.
But why wouldn’t they receive the promised salvation that they thought was theirs? Because they broke their covenant with God. So for them, the day of the Lord would be as dark as midnight on a country road. So what happened? How did those who were once so close to God’s love and mercy fall so far away?
Well God answered that question in the rest of our reading, listen: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offering and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offering of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
What God was telling the people then and us today is that just going through the motions of worship without faith can’t save you; their hearts were not devoted to God, but instead they embraced the ways of the world around them. They trusted in the things that life brought and not in the things that God gives. They thought that being a faithful child of God meant following a set worship formula, which would please God and assure them of His favor and eternal peace. In their opinion, going to God’s sanctuary for festivals and assemblies was a way of appeasing God and staying on His good side, even while they disobeyed His commandments and broke His covenantal laws during the week.
But what about we Christians today? Is God pleased with our worship and our liturgies that we practice today? And the answer is the same now as it was then: Only when our worship comes from penitent faith-filled hearts. That is hearts that painfully agree with God that they are sinful and unclean and can only be changed and saved by God alone.
The danger for us today is the same danger that had consumed the people of Amos’ time. We too, run the risk of losing our security if we think that our Sunday worship centered around liturgies, hymns, and offerings are a way to stay on God’s good side, and then when the worship is over, we live a life that cares nothing about God’s will for us as we live out our lives at home, at work, and at play. In other words, if we are using Sunday worship to excuse our misconduct during the week, we are in for a very rude awakening.
So here we find that religion offers no guarantee that God will be pleased with us on the Day of Judgment. So then, what about those who say they love God, claim Jesus as their Lord, try to live a decent life before God and their neighbor, but see no need for faithful church attendance? Where do they stand?
In our gospel lesson (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus in His story about the ten virgins, let’s the non-religious people know where they stand as well. I think that the story is meant to answer a simple question that was hidden inside the heart of the sincere Jews who were listening to and following Jesus, and that question is this: “What shall we do while we are waiting for the day of the Lord to come?” And what is Jesus answer? “Make sure you have plenty of oil in your lamps!” So what does the oil represent?
Martin Luther and many others felt that the oil represented faith. I like that explanation, but like the questions used in the Evangelism Explosion, simply saying “have faith,” can be received more like the law than the gospel, depending on what you think faith is.
Some Christian scholars will tell you that the oil represents good works that are done because of faith. But again, how is the individual Christian to define works of faith, and when has the individual done enough works so that God is pleased? No, I am afraid if the oil has anything to do with what we do, then this is the law, and the law demands that all of our works must be done perfectly and unceasingly, which I’m sure you would agree is impossible for sinners such as us?
But let me steer your sinful hearts away from you and your abilities and point your eyes to another way to define the oil. What if the oil is simply the source of our faith and the power within us that produces good works. What if the oil is simply your relationship with God, who is the source and power behind all that is good in our lives and in this world? If this is what the oil in our lamps represents, then we can also see who the two different classes of virgins are. The five that had their lamps lit with an ample supply of oil are those who remained close to God and His gifts of grace. And the five who ran out of oil would be those who had become distant to God and His gifts of mercy and forgiving love.
You see, each of us in our baptisms were cleansed of all sin. We were as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “presented (to the Lord) as a pure virgin.” That is, through the work of God we were made pure and holy and acquired by Him to be His own children, and the bride of His Son, Jesus the Christ. By remaining in this state; within this relationship, our virginity, or if you prefer our purity is protected. But when we turn from this work of God and from His means of grace that keep us pure, or when we find fulfillment in other things above God’s gifts, well then what St. Paul says next to the Corinthians applies to us as well: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” [2 Corinthians 11:2-3]
So how can you know that you are truly save? By knowing that you are known by God; by seeking out His presence and allowing Him to keep you there.
When the five foolish virgins returned and found the door shut, they called out, “Lord, Lord open to us (the door). The response from within was chilling, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” And to that, what can you say? Wait I know, you could say, “But Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” But even to those proclamations of good works, Jesus declares, “I never knew you; go away from me you workers of lawlessness.” [Matthew 7:21-23]
So what we see then, is that being right with God is more than just doing the right thing. It’s more than just saying, “I know Jesus.” But what can be more important than knowing Jesus? Well, being know by Jesus of course!
Does the Lord know you? If you come to His church regularly to receive His Divine Service and His gifts with a heart that knows God’s Son is the only way for you to have peace about your eternal salvation, well then certainly you are known by Jesus. If you end each night with a prayer of confession and seek God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ alone, I would say that you are know by Jesus. If each Sunday as God’s Divine Service begins in our midst, you find yourself coming before God with a broken spirit as you confess your sins, and then as you hear the sweet words of absolution spoken you find your burdened removed, well then I would say that you are known by Jesus!
You see friends, to know God and to be known by Him through His Son is the only way you can be sure of your salvation. When you know God and are know by Him through Christ, well then you are assured that His Word, which you listen to here in this house of worship is indeed good news for you. In His Word, He reminds you everyday that on the day of your baptism, His righteousness along with His grace did in fact roll down upon you like an ever flowing-life giving and sustaining stream. And in that same Word, when you approach His Holy altar to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, you are pulled even deeper into a relationship of faith and love with these Words, “Given and shed for you!”
How can you be sure? Because God gave His Son unto death for you. Upon the cross, Jesus took all of the darkness and gloom upon Himself. There at the cross, the darkness of the day of judgment came upon Jesus so it would not come upon you. [Mark 16:33]
How can you be sure? Because God’s Word promises that for you who trust in Christ alone, who hunger for God’s Divine Service and the gifts that He so freely dispenses to His church, even here in this place we call Trinity Lutheran Church, for you is given only the promise of eternal day. The eternal day when you will in fact be welcomed into your mansion prepared for you by Jesus, within the city of Zion, the New Jerusalem. “And (that) city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb (of God, Jesus Christ). By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” [Revelation 21:23-25]
How can you be sure? Only by faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone, and all of this comes to you here in this place through Christ alone! So come to His holy house, and come often and be filled with His perfect peace, which surpasses all understanding… AMEN!