Thomas, Jonah, Jake, and Ben: This is the first class, I think, that everyone who took the final test got a 100. You'd be graduating at the top of your class, if you were being graduated that is. You're being confirmed. I stopped putting confirmands in gowns over 25 years ago because that's what you do at the end of an educational process. Today, as Churchill said, is just the end of the beginning. O it's a milestone. Confirmation is one of the few rites of passage left in our society for people your age. It's the first time you take an oath, make a vow, to die rather than give up.
Today we confirm that you are indeed soldiers of Christ. Did you notice that about the hymns? From the opening hymn urging you to, "Fight the good fight with all thy might;" To the Alleluia repeating the theme: "Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old." To the Sermon Hymn asking: "The Son of God goes forth to war a kingly crown to gain. His blood-red banner streams afar; who follows in His train?" To the Closing hymn sounding the call to battle: "Stand up! - stand up for Jesus! The trumpet call obey; forth to the mighty conflict in this His glorious day!" From first to last, the hymns are about the church militant, the fighting church, the church this side of heaven.
There's good reason that this is the theme on Confirmation Sunday. The first of the empire-wide persecutions of the church was in 202 A.D. It "was directed against those who had resolved to enter the Church, the catechumens" (Reu, Catechetics, 27). In the Early Church the anointings associated with Confirmation were described in military or athletic" terms" (Oxford History of Worship, 89). Luther too spoke of the Christian life as a soldier's battle. He urged us to remember "that we are soldiers who must be on the battlefield. Indeed, we must always stand armed for battle..." We are "enlisted in the army that fights under Christ against the devil" (LW, 58, 180).
In training athletes coaches sometimes try to duplicate game, particularly big game, conditions employing crowd noise, jeering, and even a countdown buzzer. The military seeks to duplicate combat conditions. I tried to duplicate the conditions you will face as solders of the cross. This is where Barbie the Baptist, Chuck the Church of Christ, Carl the Catholic, and Patty the Pentecostal came from. In the military, never did someone get so mad at me in training as the combat veteran who saw I was not taking the training seriously. Now you know why I got mad. I'm preparing you for a bigger battle than physical combat. One for your soul.
In the military you might be given a special coin to show you were in a certain unit or served in a particular location. I'm giving you soldiers of the cross Psalm 61:1-5. The 5 verses belong to all of you, but the verse I'm bestowing on you in the Rite of Confirmation is yours to keep. I hope that verse has meaning for you all your days, but the next time it will figure prominently is when you die. If I can, I always preach a funeral sermon on a person's confirmation verse particularly if they remembered it all those years. You remember yours. It comes from a Psalm where David finds himself at the ends of the earth. Separated from his church. With an overwhelmed heart, in the face of the enemy. You know your Bible stories: In the end what brought him down wasn't the Devil who tempted him to wrongly count his warriors. And it wasn't the world in the mouth of trusted soldiers who urged him to kill the Lord's anointed. In the end, it was himself who was his biggest enemy that led him into sexual sin and then murder. Your Psalm takes place after that. Probably when his favorite son rebelled against him.
Today I'm confirming to you that salvation unto you has come. Today you own the promises that God first gave to you in Baptism. I know them because I was there. I baptized each of you. I was there when you were Baptized into the Triune God. I was there when Jesus drowned your Old Adam in the Font of Forgiveness and a New Man emerged to walk about just as Jesus did after Easter. Walk about free from Sin's guilt. Free from the Devil's threats. Free from Death's hounding. Today you acknowledge those promises of God; today you say, 'Amen' to God's promises.
You stand before God today not on your own goodness, piety, or even faith but on Christ the Rock. When David's heart is overwhelmed within him, he doesn't ask for another chance; he doesn't promise to do better. Nope, he prays to be led to the Rock that is higher than him. David finds refuge not in his armies, not in his skills, not in his possessions but in Christ, "a tower of strength in the face of the enemy." In Gethsemane, He alone doesn't sleep. Even though that night belonged to the power of darkness, Jesus didn't run. He went into it. That Darkness of Sin, of Death, of Devil swallowed Him because that's what it can do to you; that's what it should do to you; that's what it does to everyone outside of Jesus the Light. Your class was freer than most about good naturally throwing each other under the bus. You happily volunteered others to answer this; recite that; explain this. Well, Jesus is the one to see out in front in every battle you'll ever face. Your heart, my heart too, can be overwhelmed. His won't be. In the face of the enemy, He'll never cower but remains a Tower of Strength.
What tent does David speak of when he says he wants to live forever in it? Who took on flesh and tented among us? God the Son. Who promised to dwell in the Tent in the wilderness? Who promised to meet His people there? Who came down to the Tent of Meeting and met with Moses? Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. David, faced with a rebellious son, an outnumbered army, and banished from the Tent where the Ark of the Covenant was, says, "I want to keep living in Your tent forever. I will take refuge under the cover of Your wings" What tent could that be but the Tent of Jesus' flesh and blood which He took on in our place to satisfy the requirements of God's Law and pay for our breaking of them? And where does Christ stretch out His wings for you to take refuge under? Where but at the cross where all of God's wrath fell upon Him not you.
In this last section, I'm telling you newly enlisted soldiers of the cross that you're not being confirmed in the Roman Catholic faith. You're not starting a life where serving in the Lord's Army wins, help wins, or even adds to your salvation. In this next section, I'm telling your you are not being confirmed as soldiers in the Reformed, non-denominational, Protestant, or Pentecostal church. Over against Roman Catholicism we emphasize that we are justified by God's grace for Christ's sake apart from good works. Over against the Protestant side we don't emphasize that because Protestants too rightly emphasize this. What they don't emphasize is that God almighty works in the lives of His people through tangible means. He gives wonderful spiritual, divine, heavenly gifts through earthly things that you can stick your hand into, through things you can read, hear and inwardly digest, through things that you can physically eat and drink.
What I'm saying Thomas, is that God has given you a means on earth to reach the Rock that is higher than you. And Jonah you can touch, taste, and smell your inheritance. Jake you can see the Tower of strength you need to face the enemy. It's behind you in the Font. It's in front of you on the Altar. And that Tower is being preached into your ears right now. Same for you Ben: The Tent you can live, not just all your days here but forever in, is as close as your Baptism, as close as your Communing, as close as God's Word. Luther said that if we preach salvation by grace through faith, we preach despair unless we preach the means of grace. Because faith needs something here and now to hang its hat on. Here's the illustration:
The northern shores of England have steep cliffs. When ships of the 19th century wrecked, there was safety on the top of those sheer cliffs, but no one could climb them. So iron ladders were installed which people could climb to safety on (Spurgeon, Expositions, II, 40). What the Hebrew actually speaks of here is not a rock higher than me, but "a rock too high for me" (Keil-Delitzsch, 5, 201). Cliffs you can't reach without means. The Baptismal water I poured on you 14 years ago are the rungs of the ladder to the Rock where there is safety from your greatest enemies: Sin, Death, and Devil. As sure as you been baptized into the holy life of Jesus and His guilty death in our place, so sure can you climb up to this Rock and no one can push you off.
The idea of overshadowing, protecting wings of the cross is a great picture. Standing under the arms of the crucified Christ, where do you think that blood drips? On you; over you; in you. But where is that cross today? It's not in the Holy Land. No one's sure where the actual cross stood and even if we were it's long decayed away. Where does the blood of Jesus Christ that John says cleanses us from all sins drip today? You only think you know where I'm going. It drips in the Words of Absolution. Those are Jesus' Words. When you take refuge in the Absolution rather than in how forgiven you feel, how sure you are of being forgiven, or being able to forgive yourself, you're taking refuge under the outstretched wings of Christ crucified.
Where is the inheritance David said is given to those who fear His name? O wait. He left a last will and testament. Let's look there. His Last Testament says He leaves you here in your time the very Body and Blood He gave and shed on the cross almost 2,000 years ago. For 14 years I've been passing you by. For 14 years I've assured you by hand that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with you. And that was true, is true. But this is far more than words. Christ Himself gives all of Himself to you today in a real, tangible, touchable way. In the early church you received your first Communion together with 'milk and honey' to symbolize you had entered the Promised Land (Church from Age to Age, 18). Well, you've been in it since your Baptism; today I'm confirming that all the fruits of the Promised Land are yours for the partaking. Welcome to the next level. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Confirmation Sunday (20220501); Psalm 61:1-5