Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Pleasant Dale, Nebraska
"Blest Be the Tides That Bind"
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
First Sunday in St. Michael's Tide
Psalms 91:11; 103:1 (Gradual)
September 27, 2009
Ps. 91:11—For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
Ps. 103:1—Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy Name!
IN NOMINE JESU
Today marks a turning point in the church year, albeit a minor one. When you come here for Divine Service and you see the green paraments on the lectern, altar, and pulpit during this season of Sundays after Pentecost, what do you think of as you see the green? Do you get bored with seeing the same green paraments our Sunday after Sunday? I remember when I was young, how bored I got with the same green each week, looking forward to some festival so that there would be a different color adorning the chancel. Well, when the Church is in what is known as the non-festival half of the church year, where we are now, there are few opportunities for a changing of the colors, as this half of the year has no major festivals in it, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. There are, however, some pretty important minor festivals during this part of the year, also known as the Time of the Church. These feast days serve as dividing points during this green season, festivals that have quite an extensive history in the liturgical life of the Church. The weeks between these particular festivals are known as tides, and there are a number of tides that take us through this half of the year. Today marks the beginning of one of those tides: St. Michael's Tide (or Angels' Tide). The Church has for centuries set aside September 29, this Tuesday, for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, and so the Sunday nearest the festival marks the beginning of the aforementioned tide. The tides are sub-seasons during this extended time of the year, and each tide is noted with a different Gradual, a pairing of psalm verses spoken or sung between the Old Testament and Epistle Readings.
Just as the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels has extensive roots in the life of the Church, the Gradual is also quite ancient. In fact, its use even predates the Christian Church, having its roots in the Jewish liturgy of the synagogue. The first half of the Divine Service, the Service of the Word, has its roots in the Jewish rite, as each service has three readings from Holy Scripture. In the synagogue liturgy, the readings are from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Between each reading a psalm was sung. That psalm was a step from one reading to the next. The word gradual means "step." In the Divine Service, the Gradual, now just a couple of psalm verses, serves as a step from the Old Testament Reading to the Epistle, connecting those human authors of the Old Testament, preparing the way for the Messiah, to those of the New Testament, announcing the Messiah is now come and will come again. The use of the Gradual as a step is actually traced to the pastor standing on the first step to the chancel during the Gradual, a bit closer to the congregation, symbolizing God's closeness to us in His Word. It is this divine closeness to us that leads us to respond with joy, using the words of the Gradual for today, and saying, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy Name!" (103:1). In doing so, we are uniting our voices with the angels with the words we sing in the great Te Deum: "To You all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the pow'rs therein. To You cherubim and seraphim continually do cry: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Your glory" (LSB, p. 223).
The angels sing praises to God. They serve Him as His messengers; the word angel means "messenger." They have announced the conception, birth, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. They have come on other occasions to announce the news God has given them to speak. The angels also defend God's people, as we hear in the first part of the Gradual: "For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways" (91:11). God has sent His angels to keep us in the way He would have us go, the way of the cross, the way of repentance and faith. This passage does not give us license to do what we please, as if it would be OK for us to go against the Word of God, just as the devil tried to get Jesus to do when he tempted Him, using this verse as his supposed "proof text." The Son of Man, pure and sinless, did not give in but turned him away, again using Scripture, for He, the Lord, is the divine Author of the Scriptures. After the devil left Him, the angels came and served Him, tending to His needs. "Besides," the Lutheran Confessions tell us, "we also grant that the angels pray for us. For there is a passage in Zechariah 1:12, where an angel prays, 'O Lord of hosts, how long will You have no mercy on Jerusalem?'" (Ap XXI:8).
The angels declare divine decrees to us. They protect us. They pray for us. However, they are not one of us; neither are we of them. Humans and angels are separate and distinct creatures, with the angels created during the six days of God's creating the world, and man made on the sixth day. We do not become angels when we die. Angels do not have human bodies, although the Lord has granted them to appear in human form very rarely to make special announcements. We are similar to the angels, in that we were created without sin, and some angels, as well as all of mankind, rebelled against God. Those evil angels are known as demons and are led by Satan. We are simply known as sinners, for we have rebelled against God and not heeded His message, just as the priest Zechariah did not when he learned that he would become the father of John the Baptist. He scoffed at the message of the angel and was rendered mute. We reject the Word of God and stand before Him condemned. We do not like to hear what does not make sense to us. We don't want to hear it if it doesn't sound nice, but God's Law seldom, if ever, is, for it crushes us, it kills us, and it drives us to repentance. Without saving faith in Christ, we will join the old evil Foe and his band of demons, forever separated by the great chasm in place, so that no one from hell can cross over into heaven, and no one from heaven can cross over into hell.
It is comforting for us to know that the devil and his minions cannot enter heaven again, to seek to steal those who belong to the Lord into eternity, for the Lord said, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Lk. 10:18). In a flash the angel known as Lucifer, the "light bearer," was banished from heaven for his rebellion. The Lord says of us, His forgiven and redeemed people: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. I and My Father are one" (Jn. 10:27-30). Those who have gone before us and died in the Lord are to this day with the Lord, and we, who believe in Christ and will one day die, will be with the Lord forever as well. Once we get to heaven, Satan cannot touch us. As we sing in the great Reformation hymn, "A Mighty Fortress": "Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us, We tremble not, we fear no ill; They shall not overpow'r us. This world's prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none, He's judged; the deed is done; One little word can fell him" (LSB 656:3).
That word is a Greek word: tetelestai. It means "it is finished." This word, uttered from the lips of our crucified and dying Lord, told the devil that the war is over. The Lord of life died to protect us from the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature. He willingly laid down His life—and took it back up when He rose from the dead—so that we would live with Him in heaven into all eternity. There on the cross was the Lord, bloody and battered, stricken, smitten, and afflicted—for you! No one would turn Him from the cross, not the Pharisees, not the disciples, not the devil, and certainly not the angels, for they knew that the way of the cross was the path the Savior would take. Christ our Lord went the way of the cross to take away your sin, placing it on His shoulders, and bringing about your forgiveness by dying in your place, the forgiveness He gives to you from the font, as Baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues us from death and the power of the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare; the forgiveness He gives to you from the lectern and pulpit, from whence you hear God's word of forgiveness spoken in your ears, in your hearing, for faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ; the forgiveness He gives you from the altar, just as the angel took a coal from the altar and placed it on Isaiah's lips, removing his sin, and as the pastor, in the stead and by the command of Christ, takes the bread and wine from the altar and, with our Lord's Words of Institution, places the body and blood of Christ on your lips, removing your sin, that you would taste and see that the Lord is good.
Just as Isaiah heard the angels singing one to another around the altar of the Lord, we sing with them, "with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify [God's] glorious Name, evermore praising" Him and singing the song Isaiah heard the angels sing so many centuries ago: "Holy, holy, holy Lord God of pow'r and might: Heaven and earth are full of Your glory" (LSB, p. 161, from Is. 6:3). As our Lord comes down to earth in His Word and in His Supper, He brings heaven down to earth with Him, that we would have a glimpse of heaven on earth, for where the Lord is, there is heaven itself—for you, that you would receive a foretaste of the Feast to come, the Feast they now enjoy into eternity, where we will again join them in singing: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing! …Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!" (Rev. 5:12, 13b), and again, "Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready." And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev. 19:6b-8). The angel of the Lord has extended to us the invitation to come to the marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which knows no end, for the angel said to the blessed apostle and evangelist St. John, "Write: 'Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!' And he said to me, 'These are the true sayings of God.'" (Rev. 19:9). God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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