Wedded Bliss Without End

Revelation 19:9 “Then an angel said to me, ‘Write: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ and he added, ‘These are the true words of God.’”

I’ve never been to a wedding that didn’t have some issue force a change of plans. I once attended a wedding at which the bride and groom didn’t show up until almost two hours after the ceremony was supposed to begin, and then they had to send someone back to the hotel to get the service folders they had forgotten. My sister’s wedding reception was interrupted by tornado sirens. Half an hour later the power went out and never came back on for the rest of the night. My wife’s bridesmaids got crossways with each other while they were getting dressed for our service. Later, when we walked into the reception hall, we found a teal blue cake with white trim, not the white cake with blue trim we had ordered. Even more stress can be had leading up to the big day.

The heavenly wedding to which we are invited is completely stress free. We will experience nothing but blessing. You may know that the Greek word behind the word “blessing” basically means “happy.” The wedding supper of the Lamb, and everything that follows, is a life of uninterrupted, completely satisfying happiness.

The Bible is admittedly short on the positive details, most likely because the things we will find there are so much better than anything we have experienced here that there is nothing to compare it to. It’s like trying to capture the Grand Canyon on a four-inch by six-inch snapshot. We know that all the negatives will be absent: crying or pain, death or danger, thirst or hunger, sin or sadness. We will live with an enormous, extended family in faithful love, and the Savior who loves us most will be our personal friend and companion for life without end. “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.”

How can we be sure? “These are the true words of God.” The God who promised to send you a Savior and did, the God who promised to sacrifice his Son for you and did, the God who promised to raise his Son from the dead and did, is the God who promises you blessings at the wedding supper of the Lamb. Your blessings are guaranteed by his own word.

An invitation to a wedding is always a privilege. Someone has placed you in his or her list of most- favored friends or relatives. But we aren’t mere guests at this wedding. We are the bride. This is our big day. And our marriage to Christ is better than a traditional wedding, a destination wedding, a celebrity wedding, or even a royal wedding. It’s a heavenly wedding, and this happy marriage will never end.

Your Forever Wedding Dress

Revelation 19:6-8 “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)”

When my wife and I got married, I was asked for input about a number of things. “Do you like these invitations? What do you want the organist to play for the processional and recessional? What kind of food should we serve at the reception?” As groom, I got no say about the wedding dress (not that I was asking). That was one hundred percent my wife’s choice. The same was true for my daughter’s wedding. She picked out the dress all by herself. My son-in-law was not consulted.

How different for the heavenly wedding planned for us! In this case the bride does not choose her dress. She takes what she is given. The groom, of all people, is the one who has picked it out. More than that, he has put the entire thing together himself, stitch by stitch. It’s made of the costliest fabric. It’s so white that it shines. Not even the tiniest stain mars the perfection of its fine tailoring.

As with most things in the Book of Revelation, this dress is a picture, a symbol. It isn’t a particularly difficult one for us to figure out, but because of its importance, John interprets the symbol for us: “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” Unfortunately, the NIV translation hasn’t interpreted John’s words very well. Rather than “righteous acts” of the saints, it is better to stick with the rendering we find in the King James Version, or Luther’s German: “…the righteousness of the saints.” After all, we have just heard that this isn’t a dress the bride has made for herself. It has been given to her by her groom. The only righteous acts involved in the making of this dress have been the righteous acts of Jesus. Moment by moment, day by day, he stitched a perfect life together with each new act of kindness, each new expression of love. He put the crowning finishes on this outfit with his innocent death for our sins and triumphant resurrection from the dead.

Then he presents this to us as our righteousness. You have already been fitted for the wardrobe provided by God’s Son. Paul writes the Galatians, “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” (3:27).

Unlike most wedding dresses, this is an outfit that’s good for every day. A regular wedding dress looks a little out of place at a backyard barbecue, or the birthday party for your next door neighbor’s six year old, or your company’s weekly sales meeting. But Jesus dresses you in his righteousness every day, not just the big day we finally see him face to face. Wear it ten thousand times beforehand, and it will still be perfect for the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Inspired Worship

Revelation 19:6-7 “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!”

I will admit that I can struggle to be as excited about attending worship as I should be, and I am a pastor. I don’t think that I’m the only one. There are days when I look out at a congregation of “worshipers” and see glazed or wandering eyes; or people reading the bulletin, text messages, even a novel during the middle of the service! I hear singing so faint, so lacking in enthusiasm, that I can practically hear the people thinking, “Why are you making me sing this draggy hymn? Why do you make us sing at all?”

More and more people choose to attend only once or twice a month, or only on major holidays. Believe me, I’m happy to have them when we can get them. But doesn’t it reveal something about the value we place on worship, our enthusiasm for what happens here? I realize that things like work schedule or health can get in the way, but most of us wouldn’t be quite so casual about attending a child’s birthday party, or making sure we were sitting in front of the TV when our favorite team is playing.

There is no such struggle with enthusiasm for worship in Revelation 19, or in the rest of the book, for that matter. The attendance is beyond count, beyond number. The voices are so loud that John compares them to the roar of waterfalls or the deafening boom of thunder. Have you ever been in a large congregation with a thousand or more attending the service, with everyone singing at the top of their lungs? The sheer force of all those voices will give you goose bumps. Or have you ever been at a sporting event with tens of thousands of cheering fans? When the home team makes a great play or scores, the rising tide of all those voices lifts you out of your seat, quickens your pulse, and pumps your adrenalin. The experience of the sound itself is an emotional experience.

All that volume would be just a whisper compared to the great multitude worshiping at the wedding feast of the Lamb. What is it that fires their enthusiasm? “For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!” This is worship inspired by God’s reign, by God’s rule. God’s ruling, of course, is nothing new. Three thousand years ago the psalmists celebrated God’s ruling power. “The Lord reigns” are the first three words of Psalms 93, 97, and 99 and are sprinkled liberally around the rest of the book. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus promised his disciples shortly before he ascended into heaven. We have reason to worship God for his power and rule now, just like we will in his kingdom to come.

So why don’t we? God’s reign over the universe isn’t so clear for us to see, is it. We still live in a world where the streets are paved with asphalt, not with gold. Somehow God’s reign in our world coexists with things like terrorism, COVID, injustice, and starvation. Yes, God reigns, but that doesn’t prevent racial tensions in our cities, or child sex-trafficking in Bangkok, or the mess we refer to as Washington D.C. Yes, God reigns, but his rule over our own lives involves tests of our faith, humbling of our pride, discipline for our unruly hearts that is neither pleasant nor easy to understand. We may be as inclined to question God’s rule as worship him for it.

All of that disappears in the other-worldly worship to which our Lord invites us. There is no more opposition to God’s reign in heaven, including the opposition that is lurking within our own souls. God not only rules, but he rules unchallenged, he rules victorious. He has restored utter peace, utter safety, utter order and goodness. There we will find a world that works. Our worship will be inspired by his perfect rule. But even now we can begin warming up for our place in that choir, because you know that you are invited.

God Calls Unlikely Servants

Acts 13:2-3 “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”

How did the five men who served as prophets and teachers for the church in Antioch, and the two newly-minted world missionaries, get to serve the church this way? They didn’t merely push themselves on the church. They didn’t have a warm-feeling about the ministry in their hearts one day, an inner urge to start preaching, and then hang out a shingle and start a church. These guys weren’t just people blessed with the gift of gab, extroverts with silver tongues who knew how to work a crowd.

They were called, and that call came through the church. Barnabas was sent to Antioch through the Apostles in Jerusalem. Barnabas later found Paul and made him part of the ministry team. When the Spirit decided to reassign these men, he didn’t secretly speak to their hearts. He spoke to the whole church while they were worshiping. Paul and Barnabas were a Spirit-selected team.

Have you ever noticed that the Spirit makes what we might consider odd selections? Look at Jesus choosing fishermen to be his disciples. Have you ever watched an episode of Deadliest Catch or Babe Winkleman’s Good Fishing and thought to yourself, “Now there are some men who ought to be pastors and missionaries”?

Jesus later rounds out his group with people like Matthew, the occupation-government collaborator, and Simon, the anti-government terrorist. Would you think to yourself, “That’s just the kind of men the church needs working side by side”? If Jonah was dead set against going to Nineveh, why didn’t the Lord find someone else? Would your employer chase you down like that if you quit and went on a cruise?

One could wonder about the choice of Barnabas and Saul as well. One of the five men on the church staff in Antioch was named Lucius. That is a Gentile name. He was born in Cyrene, North Africa, outside of Israel. If this new mission was going to Gentiles, might it make sense to have a Gentile on the team? Manaen, another man on the list, grew up with King Herod the tetrarch. He had political ties. Perhaps he had some understanding of how things worked with the people in power. Might that not come in handy when traveling around the empire?

Instead, the Spirit selects the congregation’s senior pastor and a discredited former rabbi who had spent years trying to destroy the same faith he now embraced. The Spirit-selected team might not appear the obvious choice. But I think you know something about this man named Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul. His ministry started riots, divided synagogues and cities, and generally disturbed the peace wherever he went. But no one in the first hundred years of Christianity did more to introduce the world to Jesus than he did. The Spirit-selected team was perfect for God’s mission plan, which is just what we should expect.

What’s the take away for you and me? The Spirit has called the man who serves as your pastor. We need to trust that the Spirit has his own reasons, and these may not be based solely, or even mostly, on his background or talents. It has everything to do with the message he shares, because the good news that Jesus’ has secured our full and free forgiveness and life eternal by his life, death and resurrection is still the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.

Preaching and Teaching

Acts 13:1 “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch) and Saul.”

God had staffed this congregation in Antioch to make it a church well-prepared for his mission. Luke tells us that they had prophets and teachers. It’s possible that some of the men in the list that follows were prophets, and others were teachers. It is possible that all five were a little of both. But it is certain the members of the church in Antioch received God’s word in two different ways, or “styles” if you will. Sometimes their leaders preached to them. Sometimes they taught. Christians needs both.

You see, a “prophet” was more than a divinely approved fortune teller. He was a preacher. When you read the Old Testament prophets, from time to time they talk about the future. But mostly they preach to God’s people, like your pastors preach to you. They tell it like it is. They announce the good news.

That kind of delivery method has fallen out of favor with many people. They don’t want to be “told.” They want to be taught. There is a time and a place for teaching. But preaching isn’t meant to cram your head full of new information for a quiz later. It is telling the truth. It is reporting God’s news.

If you are a Christian, there are times you want to be preached to, whether you realize it or not. When you wind up in the hospital, you don’t want a teacher to bring you a Bible class. You don’t want white boards, diagrams, and a time line comparing the ancient kings of Judah with those of Israel. You are facing your mortality! The only “little” surgery is one someone else is having. You may or may not be a bundle of anxieties, doubts, and fears. But you want someone to tell you God still loves you! He isn’t punishing you here, because all your sins went to the cross with Jesus. He has all the power in the world to see you through. Whether your time in the hospital ends with you going home, or going home, you win! If you are a Christian, you already know all of that, but your faith longs to hear someone say it with confidence and authority. You want preaching, because it drives your faith deep and makes it strong. The church in Antioch had prophets, preachers, who were doing just that.

Teaching expands your understanding of God’s word and enhances the usefulness of your faith. Compare your faith to a house. Preaching cures the concrete foundation, making it harder and harder. It drives the piers and pilings of that foundation down to the bedrock, and then drills them deeper and deeper into the bedrock.

But all of that strength for just a one room shack? Teaching adds rooms. It increases the functionality. You get a decent door and a decent entryway, because we need to sort out what comes in and what stays out. You get a fireplace to keep things warm, a kitchen because the occupants need to be fed, good bedrooms for rest. A large living space can host others, and a large workshop is a place from which to serve them. The more the house grows, the better it functions, the more it can do.

It’s the same for a Christian. A well-prepared believer listens to preaching and teaching. He doesn’t pick and choose.

Why is this important? From the beginning the church in Antioch was a church with a heart for evangelism– the kind of people who knew that everyone needed to know Jesus, regardless of who they were or what they looked like. The Lord was about to ask these people to give up their senior pastor, the first pastor they ever had in Barnabas. With him would go arguably the best teacher Christianity has ever had in the person of Saul, later known as Paul. We don’t hear even a hint of objection from this church. They fast and they pray and they send the men off. They had been well-prepared for God’s plan.

God wants your faith to be strong and deep, because who knows what challenges are going to be coming. He wants your faith to possess an ever-expanding collection of Bible knowledge and understanding so that you will have the words to say and know the right things to do when you get the opportunity to witness and serve. God’s plan for us involves preaching and teaching so that we can be well-prepared.

Claimed

Mark 1:11 “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”

In case we couldn’t figure it out from all that we see Jesus do during his ministry, here the heavenly Father comes right out and says it: “You are my Son.” Jesus is the very Son of God. But this also tells us more. God is claiming Jesus as his very own here.

When we claim something as our own, when we say, “This one’s mine,” that can have a selfish connotation. It can mean we are unwilling to share.

But it can also mean that something, or someone, is dear to us. It means so much to us we would never let it go. Remember this scene out of the movie “Toy Story”? Woody the cowboy, and Buzz Lightyear the astronaut, are Andy’s favorite toys. To show this, Andy has written his name on the bottom of their feet. Woody and Buzz belong to him, and he treasures them like no other toys he owns.

When Jesus was baptized, and God called down from heaven, “You are my Son…” he was claiming him as his own. Wrapped up in that claim was already a heaping helping of the words that followed, “whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The Father had every reason to claim and to love this Son of his. Jesus, and only Jesus, perfectly pleased our Father in heaven with everything he did. He followed God’s will uncomplaining through a life with few comforts, a life filled with persecution, leading to an excruciating death on a cross. All this he did just so that he could give that love, that perfection, and that payment for sin away to you and me. As Jesus sets out on his earthly ministry, God professes his love for him. He proclaims Jesus’ own perfection, for all of us to hear. So, we can see and know him as our Savior sent from heaven.

Then, how can we not notice something else God is saying about our baptisms? We may not hear heavenly voices, but if we could, we would hear God claiming us as his own, professing his love for you and me. We may not be sons in the same way that Jesus was and is, but in our baptisms he adopts us as his children by faith. He is perfectly pleased with us as Jesus purifies us from every sin.

And so, heaven has opened to us, not only to show us our Savior, but to show us what a difference the simple application of water in God’s name has made in our lives. Now heaven is truly open, not only to show us, but to receive us.

Lessons from Jesus’ Baptism

Mark 1:10 “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”

When we are baptized, it is usually a relatively quiet affair. Sometimes a baby may cry through the ceremony, as they tell me I did when I was baptized. The heavens aren’t torn open for us to see God’s glory. There are usually no visible displays of God’s presence and power.

But if God would enable us to see through the veil of this physical world into the workings of his spiritual kingdom, then we would see a scene something like the one described at Jesus’ baptism. Here God did pull back the veil for Jesus, and for John the Baptist, and for any other onlookers to see. The Holy Ghost raced down from heaven and settled upon Jesus in special way. In showing us this, there are two messages he is sharing with us today.

First, he is positively identifying Jesus as our Savior. The Bible refers to this event as God’s way of anointing Jesus for the office of Christ. Peter says in Acts chapter 10, “You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached–how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power…” Jesus was already our Savior, but this baptism served as a kind of formal inauguration. God was formally and publicly announcing that Jesus is our prophet, priest, and king. He had a special commission to preach the good news, die for our sins, and win our battle with the devil.

It’s as if the Father were saying, “Hey, Christians! Sit up and pay attention! This is your Messiah! This man is the difference between heaven and hell for you! He holds eternity in his hands. You need to pay attention to what he says and what he does if you want the gifts he came to bring. You can be sure that he is the one I sent to save you from your sins.”

The other thing we learn is that Jesus was empowered to serve as our Savior by the Holy Spirit. The verses immediately following this account tell us that the Spirit sent him into the desert to be tempted. After that the Gospels tell us that Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.” When Jesus gets back to the synagogue in Nazareth, he applies the words of the prophet Isaiah to himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Jesus served us by the power of God’s Spirit.

That leads to the question, “why?” Jesus was already God. Why did he need the Holy Spirit’s power for his work as our Savior? Here we see that when he became like us, he became like us in every way. The almighty Son of God so humbled himself that he placed himself under human limitations. He lived and served like other believing human beings–with the power of God’s Spirit.

Can we help noting what this says about our own baptisms and Christian service? Baptism is special, if for no other reason, because in it God sends us his Holy Spirit. If we are not receiving the Spirit for the first time, then he comes with an additional promise of God’s grace and power.

If Jesus, who was God in the flesh, would live his life relying upon the Holy Spirit’s power, can mere mortals expect to be able to serve God any other way? Our natural abilities alone will fail us. But in Baptism the Lord has connected us with the grace that saves us. He has also connected us with the Spirit’s power that fills us with whatever we need to serve him with our lives.

Our True Treasure

Matthew 2:9-12 “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

It is difficult to express in English the degree of joy the Magi experienced. Our translators simply tell us they were “overjoyed.” This was the most joyful of times for them, and not just because they saw the star. It was not the star, after all, that they came to see. They rejoiced in the prospect of meeting the Christ child. Jesus was their joy.

This joy wasn’t due to Jesus making their lives fantastically easier. They still had a very long journey ahead of them. They had an angry, dangerous king to avoid. They didn’t rejoice because Jesus had suddenly showered them with earthly wealth. In just a short time this same child was going to relieve them of some expensive gifts. Their joy wasn’t rooted in what they had in this world, but what they had in their hearts. They were on the verge of seeing their Savior and their King. He was their joy, the treasure on which they had set their hearts.

Isn’t that still the source of genuine Christian joy? Jesus may give us the joy of having some of the things we want. He may help solve some of our problems and smooth some of our difficulties. But isn’t Jesus himself the real joy? He has given us himself, his love, and his life. These things will never grow less. They can never be taken away. When Jesus is our true treasure, having him by faith gives us joy.

That is what leads the Magi, these truly wise men, to the next step: “…they bowed down and worshiped him.” We aren’t used to seeing the kind worship the Magi offered here. Their entire bodies expressed the great value they placed on this child. These bows were not the polite half-bend used to greet people in some Asian cultures. They got down on their knees and put their faces on the floor. They were saying, “You are great and worthy. We are small and low.”

We don’t have to imitate their body language to worship Christ as they did. When we worship in a spirit of humility and brokenness, when we humbly confess our sins, when we keep our focus on Jesus and his works of love, then we will know his true value, too. He is our Savior from sin. Such worship is an uplifting experience, even if, in spirit, we are down on our knees.

The treasures the Magi gave to Jesus were further evidence that they valued him deeply. But perhaps an even greater proof is found after their visit was complete. “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” More than God wanted their offerings, he wanted hearts that obeyed him. Do you remember the words of Samuel to Saul? “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). The Magi avoided Herod as God had told them. This showed the place Christ held in their hearts.

Those who treasure Jesus still live lives that obey him carefully. He rules their hearts, because they know he has made them rich.

The Name of Jesus

Luke 2:21 “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.”

Circumcision was part of God’s Old Testament law. If you were a male, and you wanted to be one of God’s chosen people, you had to be circumcised. Circumcision was a vivid reminder that God had made a covenant, a promise, to these people, and that God had claimed them as his own.

Circumcision was also a vivid reminder that sin begins at the very source of our life–it is passed from parent to child from the very time of our conception. Thus, it must be cut away at its source. Even this original, inherited sin must be removed, before we are acceptable to God.

Jesus had no personal need of circumcision. He already belonged to God. He was already chosen by him in a way which far surpassed that of any other human being. Jesus needed no reminders of our sinful flesh and the need for its removal. He was sinless, because God was his only Father and he was born of a virgin.

But Jesus came to be our Savior. That’s what his name means. With his circumcision, Jesus was saving us. He was keeping this law for us. Here he began his perfect fulfillment of all God’s commandments. Here he began to offer to his heavenly Father the perfect obedience to the law that we owed, in our place–as our substitute.

As we begin our year in Jesus’ name, draw on this comfort: Jesus lived as your substitute. We have the comfort that Jesus was our Savior not just at his circumcision, nor only at his cross and empty tomb. Jesus was our Savior every single day he lived. He still is. Everything he did–every breath, every movement–he did as our Savior.

As you listen to the gospel lessons read in church, as you read them for yourself at home, take comfort! Jesus is doing all these things to save you. He is teaching the pure word of God, performing miracles of mercy, loving people, glorifying his heavenly Father, and perfectly keeping the law, to make up for our failure to do so.

Do you understand what peace will be yours if you begin, and live, your year in Jesus’ name, always aware that he is your Savior? We will still be sorry when we sin, but we need not try to hide or deny them in fear. Jesus’ blood washes every sin away. Jesus’ holy life replaces our disobedient and rebellious lives. Jesus is our Savior, and his holy life and his innocent death for us is all that the Father sees anymore. We don’t have to be afraid.

If Jesus is our Savior, does this not assure us that we can trust God? Can’t we conclude with the Apostle Paul, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” We can be sure that everything our Savior tells us, whether he is identifying our sins, giving us his promises, or instructing us on how to live, he tells us only because he loves us. We can be sure that everything that happens, every obstacle in front of us, happens for our good, because Jesus is our Savior. It’s promised in his name.