Christ’s Letter to the Church in Smyrna

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service based on Revelation 2:8-11

Dear church of Christ who will not be hurt by the second death: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We focus far too much on our first death, that is, our physical death. Our time and energy and money are consumed by the things of this life, rather than that which relates to eternal life. We thus show we are more concerned with our first death than we are with the threat of the second death, which is eternal death, or with eternal life.

If we are honest with ourselves and count the hours we spend on matters related to this life versus the matters related to eternal life, we will see that this is very true. We spend hours working for material goods to benefit us in this life. We spend energy on planning meals, shopping, and cooking to nourish our physical bodies. We spend money on recreation, leisurely pursuits, and getting rested so that we can go back to work for more material goods and nourishment for our bodies.

How many hours per week do you spend on spiritual pursuits which relate to eternal life? How much time do you spend per week on planning and ensuring your spiritual nourishment? How much money do you spend per week to ensure that you will receive spiritual rest in this place to strengthen you through the spiritual battles of this life to eternal life?

This examination of our own failures can help us to understand why tribulation or persecution can be good for the Church. Tribulation can change our focus to the eternal, instead of being so preoccupied with the temporal. Tribulation can cause us to release our grip on the things of this world that are passing away, and cling to what is eternal.

However, for the Church in Smyrna facing tribulation, persecution did not help them focus on the eternal. They were in poverty and being slandered by the unbelieving Jews, who Jesus calls a synagogue of Satan. Jesus told them that the devil is about to throw some of them into prison as persecution was about to increase. They were afraid.

The Church in Smyrna may not have focused as much time, energy, and money on the pursuit of material goods, nourishment, and leisure as they had before the tribulation, but they were still focused on this life. They were still afraid of the first death, their physical death from this life. Tribulation undoubtedly refocused their use of time, energy, and money, but now they lived in fear over what was about to happen to them and what slanders were spreading around about them. They were still more concerned about their monetary poverty than spiritual riches. Their focus was fear of persecution; fear of suffering; fear of death. Here too, in Smyrna, the people were more concerned about their first death, than about eternal life.

Thus, Jesus writes the Church in Smyrna a letter saying, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life… The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” These are words of comfort to troubled and fearful hearts.

Because these words of comfort are “the words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” we don’t have to be afraid of the first death. Christ is the first because He is the cause and source of our faith and life since He died and came back to life. He is the first, because He is the founder of our faith (Heb. 12:2) and the first born from the dead (Col. 1:18). Christ is the last, because He is the goal and object of our faith since He is the giver of eternal life.

His promises give comfort in tribulation because He assures us the tribulation is short. To the Church in Smyrna, Christ says they will have tribulation for ten days. A symbolic number, but nevertheless an indication that the time is short. As also Saint Paul writes in Romans chapter eight, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (v. 18)

We also heard in Peter’s First Epistle of the living hope that we have through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us. In this we rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, we are grieved by various trials (I Pt. 1:3-6).

A little while. Ten days. It’s not worth comparing to eternity in heaven. It’s not worth comparing to the glory and joy of heaven.

This is Christ’s promise to His Church. So, do not fear. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). Do not fear the first death because you will rise from the dead. Do not fear the second death, which is eternal death, because Christ writes to His Church that you will not be hurt by the second death.

Christ will give you the crown of life – a symbol of victory over fear, death, and the grave. Christ wore a crown of thorns and suffered and died for you, so that you have the promise of the crown of life and eternal life with Him in heaven. This inheritance is waiting for you. It will never perish. It will never be defiled. It will never fade.

Thus, do not fear what you are about to suffer.

But don’t allow your time and energy and money to be consumed by the things of this life. Rather, focus on eternal life. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt. 6:19-20)

Spend time in reading God’s Word and serving your neighbour. Spend your energy in making sure you receive spiritual nourishment. Spend your time, energy, and money on supporting this congregation, and come here often to receive spiritual rest, nourishment, and strength for the days ahead.

Do not fear. Do not fear even though the earth gives way, and the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea (Ps. 46:2).

Do not fear because it is not up to you to keep yourself in the faith. It’s not up to you to nourish or strengthen yourself spiritually. God does these, but He does them through means. He does these things through His Word and Sacraments.

Christ is the first and the last, who died and came to life. His Church is in His hands. You are in His hands. He will keep you faithful to death and give you the crown of life. Through faith you will conquer, and you will not be hurt by the second death. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Faith in the Midst of Storms

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 14:22-33

Dear storm-tossed disciples: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you know for certain that you are saved? How do you know for certain that your sins are forgiven? How do you know for certain that you will receive eternal life? How can you be certain that when you are sinking and you cry out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus will save you?

Do not respond by saying that it is because you have faith. You do have faith, and because of the faith that God has given you, you are saved (John 3:16), but that is not the answer to the questions.

Look at the example of Peter to understand why having faith is not the answer to the questions. When Peter stepped out of the boat, he had faith in Jesus’ Word. When he saw the wind, he was afraid and doubted Jesus’ Word.

Do we not do the same? We believe Jesus’ Word until we see the wind and waves of this life howling and threatening. That’s when doubt sets in. When we are overwhelmed by loss and strife, illness and death, we doubt. When we pass through trials, with sin and ills contending, bearing the cross that God has sent us; when we are facing adversity and the storms of woe dismay our souls; when death pursues us without rest and the only thing between us and death’s strong grasp is a failing breath – at such a time, do not turn inwardly to find your faith. You will have a hard time finding anything but doubt.

Our response is not likely to be one of faith, but despair. We question why God would allow such tragedy. We may even feel angry towards God. We respond like the widow of Zarephath to Elijah when her son died, who said, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sins to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” (I Kings 17:18)

The widow responded with those words because when she turned inwardly to find faith, she found only sin. She thought because of her past sin, God had taken her son from her. She thought because she remembered her sin, God also remembered her sin and punished her for it.

To find certainty of your salvation; to know for certain that your sins are forgiven and not remembered by God; to know for certain that you have eternal life, do not look inward to your faith. We are sinful people whose faith waivers, especially in trials and temptations. When we are sinking and we turn inward to look for faith, we will find only doubt and despair.

For certainty of your salvation, look to where God has promised you salvation. God has promised you salvation in the waters of Holy Baptism. Scripture tells us that Baptism gives the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and washes away sins (Acts 22:16). Scripture tells us Baptism rescues from death and the devil (Romans 6:3-5) and clothes us with Christ (Galatians 3:27). Scripture tells us that as Noah and his family were saved in the ark from the flood waters, so the flood waters of Baptism save us (I Peter 3:21).

When the wind and waves of this life hit you with full force, do not turn inwardly to try and find faith. Instead look to your Baptism where God has given you faith. Look to your Baptism which is not a feeling or emotion. Your Baptism doesn’t waiver. Your Baptism doesn’t wear off. Baptism saves you.

You have certainty in Baptism because that is where God has promised you salvation. In the midst of trials and tribulations, remember your Baptism where God claimed you as His own and promised you the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

For certainty of your salvation, look to where God has promised you salvation. In addition to Baptism, God has also promised you salvation in the Sacrament of the Altar. Scripture tells us that in the Lord’s Supper, we receive Christ’s true body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Matt. 26:28). Scripture tells us that Christ’s blood cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:7). Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation (SC VI.2), thus eternal life and salvation are also received in the Sacrament of the Altar.

When the wind and waves of this life hit you with full force, do not turn inwardly to try and find faith. Instead look to the Sacrament of the Altar where God gives you the forgiveness of sins and strengthens your faith. Look to the Sacrament of the Altar which is not a feeling or emotion. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t waiver – you always receive Christ’s true body and blood. The Lord’s Supper saves you through the forgiveness of sins.

You can thus be certain of your salvation through the Sacraments because they are where God has promised you salvation.

When Peter doubted and began to sink, Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of Peter and saved him. Jesus didn’t say, “No, I’m not going to save you because you are doubting instead of believing.” It was not because of the strength of Peter’s faith that Jesus saved him. In spite of Peter’s doubting and lack of faith, Jesus saved him.

All of this does not downplay the importance of faith. Faith is what saves, but faith has an object. Faith believes in something.

Faith in false gods does not save. Faith in one’s own goodness does not save. Faith in one’s own faith does not save.

Saving faith is trust in Jesus and His promises. Saving faith is trust that Jesus’ death on the cross was for your sins. Saving faith is trust that when Jesus’ Word tells you Baptism saves you, you believe it to be true. Saving faith is trust that when Jesus tells you that He gives you His body and blood to eat for the forgiveness of sins, you believe it to be true. Faith is trust that Jesus gives you all the benefits of His life, death, and resurrection through the Sacraments He instituted for that very purpose.

This is why faith does not turn inward to look to itself. Faith looks to Christ on the cross. Faith looks to the empty tomb. Faith looks to Christ and what He has accomplished for our salvation.

Faith must also look to where Christ has promised that we receive that salvation. We cannot receive salvation from the cross. We cannot receive salvation from the empty tomb. We receive salvation in Baptism. We receive salvation in the Sacrament of the Altar. Thus, faith looks to Baptism. Faith looks to the Sacrament of the Altar. Faith looks to these two Sacraments where Christ has promised us salvation.

When the storms of life gather and our road looks dark; when great woes and troubles overtake us; when disaster brings our sins into remembrance and death looms near, know for certain that you are saved. Know for certain that your sins are forgiven. Know for certain that you will receive eternal life. Know these for certain, because these are the promises God Himself has made to you in your Baptism and in the Sacrament of the Altar. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Tribulation Overcome

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter based on John 16:23-33

Dear disciples of Jesus: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

“In the world you will have tribulation,” says Jesus to His disciples. He doesn’t say that some of you, His disciples, will have tribulation in the world. He doesn’t say that you might have tribulation in the world. Jesus says in the world you will have tribulation.

This is necessarily so because the world is the enemy of Jesus. Thus Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18) Of course the world hates the followers of Jesus, because the world hates Jesus. Jesus has chosen us out of the world, so the world hates us (John 15:19).

But we don’t do so well with hate. We want to be liked. We want to be loved and accepted. We certainly don’t want tribulation. This creates a great temptation for us to not look like followers of Jesus. It creates a temptation for us to blend into the world so that we will not be the target of their hatred. It creates a temptation for us to turn away from God’s Word in order to avoid tribulation.

You’ve seen the news. You know what’s going on in the world. Apparently the world doesn’t know what a man is and what a woman is anymore. If you don’t want mentally unhinged men going into bathrooms and locker rooms with your wives, daughters, and grand-daughters, the world says you’re a bigot.

Apparently the world doesn’t know what marriage is anymore. If you think that homo stuff is not only disgusting but also an abomination like Scripture teaches, then the world says you are unloving. If you think that marriage is the institution of God and that seeking the benefits of marriage outside of God’s institution is sin, then the world has got a bunch of names to call you too.

Don’t think that Christians aren’t being persecuted for these things. Coming from our neighbours to the south are continual news stories of Christians losing their businesses and livelihood because they won’t join the world in sin. In our own country we won’t have long before we’ll see what will happen to Christians in the medical field if they refuse to participate in the murder of the weakest members of society through so-called “assisted dying.”

The easy thing to do is to do nothing. Keep quiet. Watch quietly as other Christians are suffering for the name of Christ. After all, we don’t want to join them in their suffering. We don’t want the tribulation that Jesus has told us is part of being in this world as His disciples. This is especially true if we have these issues within our own circles of friends or families. We don’t want strife in the family, so we just bite our tongue. We don’t want to lose our friends, so we just stay quiet.

But the church is supposed to be a lamp shining in a dark world (Matt. 5:16). The world only has the expectation of eternal death in hell if God does not convert them. It is not our job to convert the world, nor are we able to do it, but we are to be a light shining with the truth of God’s Word. We can be a witness to the name of Christ by suffering tribulation for His name’s sake. We can confess the truth of God’s Word to our friends and families, especially to our children and grandchildren, even if we face opposition in doing so.

Look, the devil doesn’t attack his own. He doesn’t bring tribulation to those who follow him and believe his lies lest they turn to God for help. The devil attacks those who teach and believe rightly. It pains him when his lies are exposed by the Word of God, and thus, like a furious foe, he raves and rages with all his might and even enlists the world and our sinful flesh as his allies. For our flesh is in itself vile and inclined to evil, even when we have accepted God’s Word and believe. The world, too, is perverse and wicked. So the devil stirs things up, feeding and fanning the flames, in order to keep us from confessing the truth, to turn us from the truth of God’s Word, and to turn us away from God to avoid tribulation, thus bringing us under his power (LC III.3).

Jesus is the only hope that sinners have. He is the light of the world; He is the light that the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:4-5). Only His blood can cover our sins. Only His Word can turn sinners away from the world and the lies of the devil. Only He can turn sinners to Himself for forgiveness.

The world loves the darkness rather than the light because their works are evil (John 3:19). The world hates Jesus because their works are evil. The world hates us because their works are evil.

The world doesn’t hate us because we are good. In fact, the world loves nothing more than to point the finger every time a Christian fails and sins. Every time a Christian falls into open sin and the world sees it, the first reaction of the world is to laugh and say, “See, you’re no better than us.” And you know what? They’re right. We are no better than the world. We aren’t Christians because we’re good. We’re Christians because Jesus is good and we need His forgiveness to cover our sins. We’re Christians because Jesus has saved us and called us out of darkness into His marvellous light (I Peter 2:9). We’re Christians because Jesus has overcome the world.

That’s why Jesus says we have peace in Him. He says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” We have overcome the world because He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (I John 4:4).

The devil is condemned. Jesus defeated him through His suffering, death, and resurrection. The world is condemned because it follows the one who is condemned. Christ has overcome the devil and the world, and since we are in Christ, we have overcome the devil and world (I John 5:5).

Whatever tribulations we must face in the world we can take heart that Jesus has overcome the world. As the Psalm says, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

Jesus has also overcome the devil. Jesus has crushed his head as prophesied already to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15). The devil can rave and storm against the children of God and attack them day and night. He can and will bring tribulation on those who belong to God. He can take away earthly peace, goods, fame, child, and wife. Though these all be gone, he can harm us none. He’s judged, the deed is done. Our victory has been won. The Kingdom ours remaineth (from LSB 656 st. 3&4).

Jesus has stripped the devil of his power over us. Our sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ death for us, so the devil’s accusations against us are worthless. His lies will not deceive us because we have the truth of God’s Word. His attacks against us are in vain because tribulation will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35).

We have this comfort and boast: that the will and purpose of the devil and the world shall and must fail and come to nothing, no matter how proud, secure, and powerful they think they are, because they oppose the will and purpose of God (LC III.3). The will and purpose of God are your salvation (I Tim. 2:4). The will and purpose of God are your eternal life.

To this end, God has given you His Word and the holy Supper of His Son’s body and blood. With these gifts from heaven He will strengthen you through all your tribulations. With these gifts He is ever with you and protects you from the devil, the world, and even your own sinful inclinations. He’s also promised you an end to all your tribulations when you leave this world. So take heart. In Christ, you have overcome the world. In Christ, you have overcome the devil. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.