What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It? (part 5)

Audio here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Now in faith I humbly ponder/Over this surpassing wonder/That the bread of life is boundless/Though the souls it feeds are countless:/With the choicest wine of heaven/Christ’s own blood to us is given;/He, though heav’nly, high, and holy,/Deigns to dwell with you most lowly” (LSB 636, st. 4). The Supper is ended; the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord of heaven and earth has seen fit to feed you His eternal Body and Blood. He has welcomed you to His Table and though you should serve Him, He serves you (Luke 12:37). He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). It is your ransom paid that Christ gives you freely at His Table. Go now to life, go to death, in peace full and complete. “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32; LSB 199-200). With what joy old Simeon must have seen and held the young Jesus! “[I]t had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God…” (Luke 2:26-28, ESV). How far beyond understanding it all goes. How can God be small enough to hold? How can the Creator of heaven and earth and everything in between be grasped by the hands of an old man? God cannot be contained in temples made by human hands, but yet He comes into the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill His own law. The God whom Simeon praised, even as He was holding Him—this is your God as well.

Do you think that Simeon was more blessed than us because he held the child Jesus? You have not yet seen death, but you, no less than Simeon, have seen the Lord’s Christ. Behold, your Lord and God was present on the altar! And you, no less than Simeon, have held Him in your hands. To you a greater gift has been given than was given even to Simeon: you have eaten and drunk the body and blood of that Jesus. Our minds cannot handle half the thought: we think of the baby Jesus, or the twelve-year old in the temple, or the man teaching on the mountain. And it is no less than that Jesus who gives Himself for our food. But it is more, because that Man is also God and when He gives us His flesh and blood for food and drink, He also gives us the eternal life of God Himself. Being God, He is able to do this and more. “Though reason cannot understand,/Yet faith this truth embraces:/Your body, Lord, is even now/At once in many places./I leave to You how this can be; Your Word alone suffices me; I trust its truth unfailing” (LSB 622, st. 5). Again, “We dare not ask how this can be,/But simply hold the mystery/And trust this word where life begins:/‘Given and shed for all your sins’”(LSB 634, st. 5). This is the God we have: He does strange and embarrassing things like putting on human flesh and making Himself present in bread and wine.

“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” We go to the Sacrament as if we were going to death, so that we might go to death as to the Sacrament. Every time the Supper is celebrated, we pray this prayer, so that when we, like Simeon, come near to departing in death, we will know that we depart in peace. And this is not the peace of the world. This is not the counterfeit peace of some superficial spirituality. This is not getting right with yourself, or “coming to peace” with your life. There is no coming to peace with what you have done. I can have no peace about my sin. This is not the peace of sin excused and death made comfortable, because sin cannot be excused and death is never comfortable. What is this peace? It is the peace of a perfect life lived in place of lives far from perfect; it is the peace of a death died in place of eternal dying. It is the peace of forgiveness granted to sinners for whose sin there is no excuse. It is not the peace of getting right with yourself or your family, but of the Father calling you right with Him because you are in His Son. And it is the peace of falling asleep in Jesus and waiting for Him to wake your body from the ground on the last day. Can there be any doubt? “For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” I have tasted, you have tasted, and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:3). “Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8, ESV)

And, in case we should forget, Simeon reminds us that this peace, this salvation of God in Jesus Christ, is for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. The toddler whom Simeon held in the temple, a Jew born in Bethlehem, is the Messiah, the Savior of all nations, and the hope of all the earth. He is the glory of God’s chosen people, the fulfillment of all prophecy. He is the light to lighten the Gentiles: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2, ESV). Glory forever to the Triune God alone: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Our hungry hearts have been filled, and our thirsty souls have been quenched. The promise has been given and received: the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, will preserve and strengthen you in both body and soul unto everlasting life. We leave the Table in peace. And our joy overflows with the words of Psalm 107: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endureth forever” (107:1; LSB 200). Our prayer after the Meal sums up the blessings of this Sacrament: “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another” (LSB 201). This is the motion of the life of the Church, crystallized in the Sacrament of the Altar: our Lord strengthens us in faith toward Him and in love toward others. He gives, and faith—itself a gift—receives His gifts. Then we leave His House, and we turn toward others in love, serving them, even as Christ has served us. The life of Christ flows unending from the cross to the altar to the hands and mouths of His people to the world for whom He died. And the Fountain that was opened when He died will not be closed until He comes again in His glory. “O God the Father, the fountain and source of all goodness, who in loving-kindness sent Your only-begotten Son into the flesh, we thank You that for His sake You have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament, and we ask You not to forsake Your children but always to rule our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may be enabled constantly to serve You” (LSB 201).

Finally, we conclude with a third Salutation, asking that the Lord be present with and within His Body, both pastor and people. We join together in blessing God by giving thanks to Him for His salvation given and forgiveness granted in both Word and Sacrament. “Bless we the Lord; thanks be to God.” This “bless we,” or “let us bless,” is called, in Latin, the Benedicamus. And then I close the Divine Service with His blessing. The words of the Benediction are, unsurprisingly, Trinitarian: the blessing of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God gives us new life in Christ in the Name spoken over us in Baptism; we speak back to God His Name in the invocation, since He has promised to be among His people upon whom He has placed His Name; and now God puts His holy Name upon us once more as we go out from His temple. God first gave this blessing to Aaron through Moses in Numbers 6: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26, ESV; LSB 202). As at your baptism, as at the absolution, so it is now: you are marked with the holy Name of God, and making the sign of Jesus’ cross is a good reminder of that. And here is what Yahweh says of His blessing: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:27, ESV). Indeed, chosen people of God, your Creator has put His Name on you, and He blesses you. “May [Yahweh] bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!” (Psalm 134:3, ESV) “[Yahweh] will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8, ESV).

So it is, the great gift of Christ and His life, given to us in the liturgy of the Divine Service, handed down by Christians generation after generation after generation. We do not do this because we prefer it, or find it entertaining, or even always enjoy it. We do this because it has been tested and tried through centuries; we do this because the riches of the Word of God, ordered and structured by Word and Sacrament, are never-ending in their depth and breadth; we do this because it orders and brings us into a life that is not our own and not the world’s; it is the very life of Christ into which we are put, in which we live week after week until we die, through Jesus’ birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Holy Spirit. This liturgy, made up of the Word of God, has sustained the Church in all times and all places, in the midst of persecution, war, hunger, disease, hatred, and disaster. I pray that it would, if it is not already, become your rock, your steadfast refuge in the midst of an ever-changing world, the place where you know—without a doubt—that Christ’s own Word and His true Sacraments are given out, whatever else may happen in your life. You may have to work at it a little; nothing that carries the weight of the Word of God comes easily or all at once. Listen, sing, practice, pray, receive, eat and drink; be transformed by the renewal of your mind, as you learn to think Christ’s thoughts after Him. The liturgy is nothing other than the structure and form that allows us to do that; that shapes and forms us to do that. Lord God, grant it to us and to our children, and to the generations who live in this world, until Jesus returns and we are raised from this old, dying world, to live with Him forever in an ever-new and restored creation.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/12/16

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