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Author Archives: Infanttheology

Green Pastures, Quiet Waters, and You

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“He makes me lie down in green pastures,

He leads me beside quiet waters,

He refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths,

For His Name’s sake.”

–Psalm 23:2,3

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Throughout the ages, the Lord of heaven and earth has chosen His own.

While they were in captivity to sin and death, the fruit of the devil’s work, God rescued His children, rescues His children, from the evil foe’s clutches…

…from the jaws of the one who is the ultimate wolf…

And how many men and women have hoped, have dreamed, have known joy and love and even known fame throughout the ages… only to have finally lived and died in vain?

If you think about this for a while, I think you will feel that the words of the old hymn seem to nail it:

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day…”

Know this: the believing men and women who were here today and gone tomorrow, like a candle that burns and is quickly snuffed out….

…were never forgotten by the only One whose opinion truly matters in the end.

They were made His, now and forever, by the blood of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and now reign eternally with Him, a part of that great picture that we heard about in this morning’s reading from the book of Revelation….[i]

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Our life here on earth is so short, and we sometimes need someone to help us realize this, see this, feel this…

My mother-in-law died about one year ago… Thinking the other day about her death as we visited the cemetery – and reflecting on the spiritual nurture she herself received from her companions as her life drew to a close – I also could not help but think about the death of my wife’s great aunt, very precious to her, some 22 years ago…

I remember that as she struggled through her last days, we read a devotion to her about the 23rd Psalm, probably the most-well-known and loved of all the Psalms…[ii]

 And of course, going along with that is our Gospel reading for this morning:

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

Amen.

My wife’s great aunt was from a Roman Catholic family, but I also knew she loved the great Lutheran hymns testifying to God’s grace and mercy in Jesus and the gift of faith the Holy Spirit gave…

We had confidence she knew the Shepherd…

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And even so, again, it is not so much that we know the Shepherd but that He knows us – as the Apostle Paul emphasizes in the book of Galatians.

And as the theme of an old devotional book by Herman Gockel put it, it is not so much my hand holding His, but His hand holding mine… More: my hand in His

It is the Lord who holds and knows us.

It is the Lord who makes us His. It is the Lord who provides and protects… It is the Lord who is our strength.

Our loving Shepherd.

Perhaps you noticed that all of our texts this morning are about shepherding…

Probably none of them hit me as much as the reading from the book of Acts, where the Apostle Paul, compelled by God’s Spirit to head into dangerous Jerusalem like his Lord Jesus before him, speaks to some of the overseers or pastors from the city of Ephesus for what he believes to be the last time…

And the thing that I thought about the most here is that during this time and place, the Lord our God provided a strong man like Paul – whom He filled with His grace, power, and love – to take care of His people.

Paul’s words are convicting and powerful, and show a tremendous sense of calling and conviction. To review some of what he says:

  • You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.”
  • “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
  • “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
  • “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”

Knowing the Good Shepherd like he did, Paul simply had to care deeply about the Shepherd’s sheep![iii]

One passage sticks out to me as particularly noteworthy, given the fact that our days seem to be growing darker and darker all the time:

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”

Paul had the joy and the peace of the Lord, but he also knew that part of being a Christian here on earth has to do with knowing that we walk in danger all the way, but with our Shepherd by our side….

The devil wants our souls dead. And he knows false teachers and teachings kill. We though, knowing the ultimate victory we have in Christ, counter him with the Word, God’s sacraments, and prayer.

We call this the church militant!

So Paul, one of these strong and militant ones, was a gift to the early church. And He was God’s gift to us as well.

While in one sense all believers are saints, we nevertheless rightly give him special honor, specifically calling him “Saint Paul”.

And of course, God still does this today, giving us such wonderful and yet fallible gifts…

He gives us pastors (by the way, this is a good time to remind you I am still not actually a pastor!) who powerfully and lovingly pass on to us the Word of Christ, the story, the commands and promises that we need….

They feed us… For the word “pastor” means shepherd…..

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So God means for you to have a shepherd. Someone who lives among you and who delivers the gifts of God to you,  and who will guide you in the Lord’s paths….

And each one of us too, each in our own way – even if we are not called to be pastors or shepherds – are nevertheless called to be those who imitate the Good Shepherd!

There was a book that was popular in Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod circles in the 1970s called “Everyone a Minister”….

And this book gets some things very wrong, to be sure…

For example, not everyone has been called to be a pastor, that is, a steward of the mysteries of God who is called to distribute Christ’s gifts to, to be responsible for, the individual souls of the faithful who gather for worship in a particular place!

Generally speaking, not everyone should be preaching the word of God in a public setting, baptizing those who come to the Lord in faith, or giving the Lord’s Supper to Christ’s people.

And when the author of Hebrews says

“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you….”

…he is not just talking about doing this to every member of the congregation, but specifically those in positions of spiritual authority, particularly called shepherds.

On the other hand, like the woman at the well who eagerly shared the message of Jesus when He changed her life, without question all of us are to be Christ’s witnesses in all the daily vocations that the Lord has given us – as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, students, and workers!

And while we might not all be called to be shepherds who fight the wolves attacking congregations, we all, and particularly the men, are certainly to be those who shepherd our families, schools, communities, and even workplaces, insofar as this is in our power. Taking on wolves in those places.

Again, we are meant to be those who bring the word of God to bear in all the situations we find ourselves in. We too should always be ready to oppose what is false and evil, and to encourage others to hear the Shepherd who leads us to green pastures and still waters… the right paths for His Name’s sake….

This is the way everything is meant to work together… pastors, teachers, deacons, etc. – and laity – all sharing the work of God together…

Ephesians 4 says:

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

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Maturity is a wonderful thing. And yet sometimes people think this means always being happy and going from one victory to another. Also, sometimes the impression is given that this means perpetual busyness in church programs or that the only reason we have our vocations is so that we can evangelize other people, almost like a bait and switch to sell people Jesus.[iv]  

People forget Martin Luther’s advice for the cobbler to excel in his vocation, which would mean making the best shoes possible – or to see changing a baby’s diaper as a great work.

We should glorify God in the ordinary, whether we eat, drink, or in whatever we do!

Brothers and sisters, we do want to be zealous for God and always eager to proclaim His Name as the opportunities present themselves!

At the same time, also know that we are not yet to the point where God is glorified by all creatures and enjoyed by all creatures, even we who are new creations in Christ! … all the time… where there will be no more tears or thorns or sorrow as we hear about in the book of Revelation!

As Luther puts it, “while worms and rottenness are before our eyes, we cannot be unmindful of them…” 

So the travails of life and death continue to happen in this fallen world besieged by sin where also the world continues to get to us… and we fail time and again to stand up to it’s currents, finding ourselves swept away in them time and again…

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When the reality of the world’s continuing evil, outside and inside hits us, it is here when we must remember our wise Good Shepherd who leads us to green pastures and still waters…

“In a letter written A.D. 250 by [the pastor] Cyprian to his friend Donatus [he says]: ‘This is a cheerful world as I see it from my garden, under the shadow of the vines. But if I could ascend some high mountain and look very far, what would I see? Brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas, armies fighting, cities burning, in the amphitheaters people murdered to please applauding crowds, selfishness, and cruelty, misery and despair under all roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy that is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians – and I am one of them” (Enc. of sermon illustrations, 1988, #127).

Cyprian speaks of a content, quiet and holy people… attractive in their humility, simplicity, and faith…

And the reason Cyprian could speak as he did had nothing to do with the believer’s own powers from within and from himself but had to do with their Shepherd!

For unlike the kings of old, who also would talk about being shepherds, He won’t just pretend to be both strong and good… but actually is…

And again, He has provided strong and good men – men strong in the Holy Spirit that is – to guide us still this day!

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

And when they fail, when we fail, He is there to pick us all up again

Because of Him,

“Faith should begin to forget tears and dishonor which it does not see. Although the eyes see the rottenness, the ears hear the complaints and sobs, and the noses smell the stench of the corpses, nevertheless it is the part of faith to say: ‘I do not know this. I see nothing. Indeed, I see a multiplication and brightness surpassing the sun itself and the stars.’ Therefore such examples are set before us in order that we may learn that God is the Creator of all things, restores the dead to life and glorifies words and the foulest bitterness. And He wants this to be acknowledged and celebrated by us in this life of faith. Later, however, in the future life, we shall experience it in actual fact…” (AE 7:210-1).

So far Martin Luther.

Hold firm, little flock!

God Himself will not buy His church with His own blood and then fail to shepherd it with His good gifts – reliably and safely through life’s storms and curses – to life eternal… with green pastures, still waters and more forever!

So little sheep, hear the Shepherd’s voice now!

Remember that His blood applies to all your sins – those you know and those you don’t – and gives you the sparkling white robe by which you stand at true peace in God’s presence, now and forever!

He loves you. So be brave and bold as you face this broken world.

Amen


[i] And so, the Apostle John, privy to the great vision set before him in the book of Revelation, states to us:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

‘Salvation belongs to our God,

who sits on the throne,

and to the Lamb.’”

And:

“All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’”

I wonder if this image may not be as impressive or arresting to many of the young people today as it has been in the past… given the endlessly fascinating rhetoric, special effects, and dramatic visuals that dominate our world…

Nevertheless, the picture behind these simple words can still and will captivate the heart of faith…

The hearts of men and women who know that they are but grass, and this life but a breath…. 

And that they are, at bottom, exceedingly stupid sheep blessed to have a very wise and strong Shepherd.

[ii] It was a short devotion from the 1960s book, My Hand in His, from the popular Lutheran pastor Herman Gockel (some of you might remember the old show This is the Life – he played a large role in this). I’ll read it here:

“It happened many years ago. A group of well-educated people were gathered at the home of a friend for a sociable evening. Among them was a popular actor of the day.

During the course of the evening the actor was asked to give a reading, and he obliged by reading the Twenty-third Psalm. All were impressed by his deep, rich voice, his clear enunciation, and the rhythmic rise and fall of the well-measured tones as they came from his lips. Here was an artist!

After he had finished, the group asked an elderly clergyman to read the psalm. Timidly he declined. But he asked permission to explain certain of its verses, both against their historical and geographical background and in light of their New Testament fulfillment in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

As the clergyman expounded the beautiful psalm, he became more and more absorbed in its message, completely forgetting himself in the process. And at end, almost involuntarily, he quoted the entire psalm – as the humble confession of his believing heart.

Particularly moving was the confidence with which he repeated the words: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.’

The light of faith shone in his eyes as he concluded: ‘Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

A hush fell over the group as the elderly clergyman sat down. There had been a difference in the two readings of which all were aware. And yet – just what was the difference?

Later that evening one of the company put his finger on the difference when he was heard to observe: ‘The actor knew the Shepherd’s Psalm, but the pastor knew the Shepherd.” 

[iii] Overall, his words here are interesting and challenging. Perhaps sometimes they might sound like boasting or humble-bragging to us – or even like he is too militant about His convictions or trying to justify himself too much before these pastors – but I submit that if this is the case for us, it is more a problem with our perceptions than it is any supposed problem with his character…

[iv] People like to riff on Bible passages like this… On a blog post named, again, “Everyone a minister” I read this:

“It’s the less staged activities of the week that really prove where our hearts are investing week after week. I am far from criticizing the Sunday celebration of Christ…. I’m praising that… as wonderful and key to our continued unity and growth, but I’m adding to that our opportunity to respond to the feedings we receive with an insatiable hunger for God’s Word every day in our private and public contexts. May we long for God to show up in our daily interactions and private meditations. May we run in God’s will for our lives, living out what He’s called us to in our homes and work place[] contexts. May we delight in Him so much that we can’t help but [] rise with His praise on our lips, serve with His joy in our hearts and His compassion burning in our chests, and prepare for sleep each night with prayers of thanks and requests for all the more grace. This isn’t a ‘ministry’ for us that is fake and [a] dirty religion of pretenses. This is the only true religion that we are more passionate about than any of the false religions’ followers. Our zeal is an eternal one and our passion an imitation of Christ’s passion for us shown on the cross. We run in His grace and favor on our lives, looking to Christ, seeking His heart, enjoying His strength to grow in grace and show grace to the lost and found in our lives every week.”[iv]

On the one hand, I think this kind of talk can be encouraging and inspirational. Would that we would be increasingly captivated and delighted to be Christ’s followers!

At the same time, this can sound exhausting and discouraging as well… and perhaps, in some circumstances, has the potential to drive some folks to only pretend they are “pulling it off,” maybe faking it until they can make it in their Christians duties…

And sometimes, a danger that exists among those who always emphasize this is that, at the very least, impressions can be given that the only reason we have our vocations is to, for example, evangelize lost people.

…and there are no doubt times when words like those we hear above can be no real comfort to us, but might leave us feeling hollow, fake, and spent…

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Dealing with Conspiracy, Fear, Doubt, and Your Lord and God

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“…these [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 

– John 20:31

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Today, this second Sunday of Easter, there begins a bit of an odd run in the church year…

As you heard, starting today and for the next six weeks, our first reading – typically an Old Testament reading – comes from the book of Acts, which covers the history of what happened after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, following Holy Week and Easter! 

And we, I think, are very blessed by this.  

The book of Acts was written by the physician Luke who also wrote the Gospel by the same name, and I think it is not only a very encouraging but a very interesting book. 

We certainly see evidence of this in today’s reading, as we are given an intriguing and dramatic account of how the Apostles that Jesus chose carried on His mission, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and also performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people near the Temple!

And when the high priest and his associates, members of the Sadducees, get wind of all of this they are filled with jealousy and throw the Apostles in jail.

But an angel of the Lord frees them during the night and tells them to go back to the Temple courts and “tell the people the full message of this new life”!

Eventually, the high priest and his associates arrive at the Temple to discuss this situation concerning the Apostles, only to find out that somehow, there has been a covert prison break and they are in the Temple courts preaching yet again!

This leads to their being brought into the Sanhedrin, something like a Senate chamber, where the Apostles are questioned by the high priest.

Eventually, we get Peter’s dramatic answer: 

We must obey God rather than men! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

To say the least, I’d recommend reading the book of Acts. 

There, you will see how the Christian church, in the vigorous stages of its youth, gains a foothold in the world against the Kingdom of Darkness.

You will see the initial skirmishes between God’s church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and Satan’s kingdom, as the Prince of Darkness looks to hold onto the territory that he has dominion over and to suppress the influence of the Kingdom of God. 

Nevertheless, as we are reminded at various points in the book of Acts, “the Word of the Lord grew…” as its power and influence claimed ground in the hearts and minds of the people of Jerusalem, eventually spreading, as chapter 1 says, to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth….” 

The “many convincing proofs” that Luke talks about, we are told, first claimed the hearts of 3,000 men on the day of Pentecost, in chapter 2, and then an additional 2,000 in chapter 4. 

These were exciting times if you were a follower of Jesus Christ, to be sure! 

It is no surprise that Christians in search of vitality in their own churches often go back to the book of Acts, seeing it as a model of sorts and hoping to learn from it. 

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The text I chose for today’s message, from the Gospel reading, goes hand in hand with the book of Acts is all about. Again:  

“…these [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

That said, we know, sadly, that not everyone does believe…

Even when men are full of great courage, say “we must obey God rather than men,” and proclaim the word in great power, Martin Luther reminds us that 

“One of these two things has to happen: either the Word of God will abide and conquer them; or at least they will be unable to suppress it, even if they refuse to accept all its grace and goodness and salvation” (AE 21:121).

What I find interesting about that quote from Luther is this: when he talks about men being unable to suppress the word of God here he is talking about their not being able to suppress its influence as it conquers the world around them! 

Even as personally, they might still refuse to accept it…

And yet, it sure often looks like they succeed in suppressing it in the world around them though… in society… doesn’t it?

Yes it does, even if God would have us see all of this through the eyes of faith. The book of Hebrews says: God left nothing that is not subject to [His people]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them…” 

And in the book of Acts as well, we see mention of this kind of thing: about how men try to suppress the influence of the word of God… 

When Peter and the other disciples are driven to prayer in chapter 4 of the book of Acts, They make this very clear:

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage

    and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up

    and the rulers band together

against the Lord

    and against his anointed one.

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

There is a lot of good stuff in that prayer, but we note specifically who the enemies of the Gospel are in this passage, those who are trying, seemingly successfully, to suppress it:

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed…”

I recently read the following from a pastor who rather colorfully and I think relevantly unpacks this. Pardon a bit of extended quoting:

“…this was a conspiracy with deep roots.  It involved many of the conservative Pharisees and lawyers and scribes, as well as their rivals, the liberal priests and Levites and Sadducees, as well as the hated politicians known as the Herodians.  And all of these groups conspired with the pagan Romans, whom they considered to be a hostile occupying force.  It involved the provincial ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which was also a Jewish religious court.  It involved the Roman governor, a military captain, a detachment of soldiers, and one of our Lord’s leading disciples as well, who was the group’s treasurer.  This cabal also included the mobs of ordinary people, who were whipped up into a frenzy by their leaders and by the fake news of the day.

They were so brazen, that this collaboration between Big Religion and Big Government with what was essentially the Big Media of the day, placed the charge over the head of Jesus in three languages at a busy crossroads – the equivalent of airing the execution of Jesus on live TV on all of the news channels.

Indeed, they pulled off what seems to be the most unlikely coup in history: the murder of God, the assassination of the King of the world, the lynching of the one man in history who fulfills all of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and who promised to restore Paradise.  This conspiracy seemed to foil God Himself….”

…[There was] indeed quite the conspiracy. It even drew in our Lord’s inner circle of disciples, who abandoned Him – even St. Peter, the head of our Lord’s disciples, betrayed Jesus in a shameful way, just as Jesus predicted.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that Jesus knew every bit of the conspiracy. He did not use His divine power to evade what was to come…”

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I said earlier the book of Acts shows us these were exciting times. They were also perilous.

And the book of Acts also isn’t just about exciting moments of action-packed church growth and continuous and conspicuous conspiracy… 

It also talks quite a bit about the topic of fear. Yes, fear. 

For in the beginning of our reading from Acts today, what do we read?:

“The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”

Why were some not daring to join together – to basically become culturally united with or one with – the believers meeting in Solomon’s Colonnade, that is, the Temple courts where all this preaching was going on? 

On the one hand, it was no doubt because the Apostles were performing great miracles, and were greatly respected by the people. But men like the high priest and his associates had their own power to protect, and again, were jealous. They recognized how the Apostle’s influence worked against their own desires and designs, and even if they would hear them they would not listen and believe. 

On the other hand, it was also because, as the text says, “no one else dared join them”. And this was because of fear. Fear.

Some, no doubt, feared the religious leaders and did not have “the courage to attach themselves to those with whom they really sympathised…” (think of Joseph of Arimethia and Nicodemus)

That is not the kind of fear that the text primarily has in mind here though…

Right before our reading in Acts today, the book explicitly says “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events….”

What events? 

Well, it might be somewhat understandable if you don’t know this, because – and not to get conspiratorial or anything – I’m talking about an important account that, oddly enough, is never covered in the church’s lectionary, or weekly readings… 

I am talking about the dramatic deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, two of the wealthier members of the church who had also been involved in a conspiracy. 

Not a conspiracy to directly undermine the Apostles or their message. But a conspiracy, that is, a deliberate agreement, to deceive the Apostles regarding the extent of their own charitable giving. 

Ananias and Sapphira decided to sell some land and to give the proceeds to the church. They also decided, however, to keep some of the proceeds for themselves but to tell the church that they were giving all of the profit.

And for this, God struck them both down. Let’s just go to the Bible to pick up some of that story. 

Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Summing up the effects of this, one man put it succinctly: “Unbelievers [would be] deterred by the fate of Ananias [and Saphirra] from uniting themselves to the church under false pretences,” or, as another put it, “from mere curiosity or with any idle purpose…”

Be not deceived, God is not mocked. 

He means business. 

In order to stop those who conspire against Him and His people He can’t have those who conspire to lie in order to promote their own advantage undermining His church just as it is gaining a foothold!

I said the book of Acts was exciting in that it has exhilarating stories about the church’s early success and dark conspiracies, to be sure… But again, it also speaks of this fear… 

And not just here. As far back as chapter 2, we read this: 

“Everyone was filled with fear at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”

Later, in chapter 9, we read this: 

“…the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers….”

When we think about the word of the Lord growing, people coming to faith, what role does fear play in our thoughts? 

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What is it that brings men and women to faith in Jesus Christ?

Here, I want to step away from all the excitement and even fear I mentioned the book of Acts telling us about…. It is all, in some ways, perhaps a bit too uncomfortable….

Let’s get to something though that is related to all this, and that perhaps more of us can identify with.

Doubt. For instance, the doubt of Thomas. 

I think it is probably obvious that Thomas, like Peter in His betrayal of Jesus, does not mean in any way to support those who oppose Jesus and his church or who perhaps try to subtly undermine Him.

Thomas just really has trouble believing, trusting. 

Maybe Thomas is somewhat like a number of men today, very cynical and skeptical of a lot that happens in the church. 

You say your church has how many members? How do we know this isn’t just vulnerable people being taken advantage of by leaders who really aren’t that different then others eager to make a buck?

And some of the biggest churches are well-known for having bands that produce powerful worship music that many say shows the power of the Holy Spirit. But how different really is this Feeling than that can be produced at most any rock concert? 

And what about the weakness and maybe even hypocrisy of Christians? We’ve all heard about abuse scandals in churches, after all. 

…and this past week, I was let down by a man I greatly respect, a man who basically said that God had told him that his marriage was no longer worth fighting for and that his wife was intelligent and brave for filing for divorce, in spite of no infidelity at all in this situation. 

By doubting, Thomas doesn’t mean to lend aid and comfort to God’s enemies – to those who conspire against him….

I think he actually might remind us that questioning things around you is sometimes important….

All that said, I want to make clear that it is nevertheless true that Thomas – who I admit I identify with – was without excuse for his unbelief

After all, he had seen Jesus fulfill the Messianic prophecies!

Heard Him promise that He would be raised from the dead! 

…and even had the eyewitness testimony of this from men he knew to be reliable and true!  

One thinks about how what Jesus said to the discouraged men on the Road to Emmaus could have just as easily been meant for Thomas!:

“‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 

27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself….”

And the rest, as they say, is history – even if modern historians might squeal that they can’t prove this to their satisfaction, as if they could actually prove all of the things they don’t doubt about the past! (or even yesterday)

No, our Lord Jesus condescends to Thomas and other sinful and ignorant doubters…

To condescend can have a negative meaning, as when someone shows feelings of superiority or is patronizing. 

It can also mean, however, to waive the privileges or rank and “to descend to a less formal or dignified level…”

This is what Jesus, mercifully, did for Thomas. 

This is how He loved him and no doubt even showed him respect as He said: “Stop doubting and believe.” 

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In truth though, doubting Thomas gets a bad rap. 

Again, it is not bad to ask yourself questions about some things! 

It is not bad to wonder, for example, about why you believe what you believe, to be concerned about what actually happened and happens, about matters of reason, matters of evidence. 

About pondering and seriously reflecting on what we can really know, even if it is just in part for now…. Finally, asking who you should trust and why.

For the past, evidence, reason, and persons who prove to be reliable are all things that are not meant to work against God’s purposes, but things the Spirit of God uses and works through!

And the world knows that this is true, even if this, more and more, is internally suppressed. 

For they are at war with the God who commands you to love Him with all of your mind..

The world will tell you over and over again that they are right, and that you must listen to them, and that you must not question them or their authority. 

The world will tell you you are foolish or even worse for giving the time of day to this or that “conspiracy theory” – even as their own views of the world clearly can be found to be not just wanting, but truly deplorable.

The world will even look at you with a straight face and assert that you are a dangerous extremist if you want to:

“1) let kids live

2) keep kids’ education apolitical and age-appropriate

3) [insist] kids are too young to choose life altering surgery or chemical treatment”

Even though Thomas really had no excuse for doubting His Lord, I think, in one sense, it is safe to say that today we need more doubting Thomases…

Because, you see, our Lord is not like the false and impotent lords of this earth, who cannot be questioned!

Our Lord not only has answers and reasons but our Lord has truth!

He is The Truth! 

And so, it is Thomas, not Peter, who we attribute the first confession of our Lord’s divinity to:

“My Lord and my God!”

You better believe it!

And you do, right? 

You trust in the words of this Credible One who pays the price for your sin on the cross! 

And then gives you the most important and reliable news that you will ever hear:

“I forgive you. You are mine. Forever.”

Yes indeed. This is most certainly true! 

The divine conspiracy – that is, the Mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ – is a fact. 

“…these [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 

Amen

For message with footnotes see here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10EiOEVBCdjWx-HjS8nN_Mjz6xIWZeKrPlNQl7g100eA/edit?usp=sharing

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

The Great Riches of Good Friday

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“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”

– Hebrews 5:8-9

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In this evening’s Epistle reading, we read what I believe to be one of the most encouraging passages in the New Testament: 

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

What a wonderful word of hope this reading gives us this Good Friday! 

Brothers and sisters! 

…Hold firm because we have a priest who can empathize with our struggles… and who does not hesitate to give us mercy and grace in our time of need!

Even though the first Adam threw the creation into chaos with his sin in the glorious garden of Eden, the second Adam endured the pain of the Garden of Gethsemane – “offer[ing] up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” – en route to His being crushed by our sins that He took into Himself on the cross…

…so that the curtain of the Temple might be ripped and we sinful people might enter into the Presence of God in joy and peace!

As Hebrews 2:10 had put it: 

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation[, Jesus,]  perfect through what he suffered.”

And so Jesus, the book of Hebrews also asserts, endured all of this “because of the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2)! 

He did this all because of the Triune God’s heart of love that not only seeks justice for the earth – dealing with man’s sin as it must be dealt with!but that is also full of gentleness, tenderness, and compassion….. 

This, let’s never forget, is the God who even says from the cross [!] “Father forgive them for they know not what they do…”!

Like His faithful follower Stephen, who as he was being stoned cried out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)!

“Amen!”, right? 

“What wondrous love is this?” as the old Gospel hymn puts it, right? 

What more is there to say on this Good Friday!?

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Well, there are more great riches in our readings for tonight!

And so let us meditate a bit more about what the book of Hebrews goes on to say here, perhaps having our view of this wondrous love expanded some more!

 Let’s unpack a bit the text I chose, starting with the first word of verse 8: 

“Son though he was…”

“Son.”   

What do you think of when you listen to the word “Son” here? Well, on the one hand, we know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God by nature! 

The words “Son of God” put us in mind of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. 

We should all know that somehow, someway, Jesus Christ is not half God and half man, but fully God and fully man, or 100% divine and 100% man if you will.

This is why, for instance, the book of Hebrews begins by saying that the Son was “… appointed heir of all things, and [the One] through whom [God] made the universe.”

And also that…

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” 

Another part of the text I chose talks about the Son being “the source of eternal salvation…”

Well, what does this mean? 

First of all, it goes without saying that Christians believe that only God Himself could pay for the debts of every man’s sin. 

Luther said this:

“We Christians should know that if God is not in the scale to give it weight, we, on our side, sink to the ground. I mean it this way: if it cannot be said that God died for us, but only a man, we are lost; but if God’s death and a dead God lie in the balance, His side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale. Yet He can also readily go up again, or leap out of the scale! But He could not sit on the scale unless He became a man like us, so that it could be called God’s dying, God’s martyrdom, God’s blood, and God’s death. For God in His own nature cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is called God’s death when the man dies who is one substance or one person with God.” (see LW 41:103-104 and FC SD VIII, 44-45).

And this, really, is where the book of Hebrews is focusing in chapters 4 and 5. It is saying that the very Son of God, divine through and through, is offering, actually being our sacrifice, as our divinely-appointed high priest…

Luther is right here but there are even more reasons God needed to become a man to save us!

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What do I mean? 

Well, only one who was truly man could, as we learned in chapter 4, sympathize or empathize with our weaknesses.

The Triune God could have never been tempted like us much less sin, but when the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took on human flesh – entering into solidarity with us by truly becoming one of us – this was a different ball game. 

There, in any particular situation, the concrete person of Jesus Christ could operate more or less according to each nature, human or divine, and often freely chose to forego all His divine privileges and prerogatives…

And so, somehow, someway, that historical person crucified under Pontius Pilate, though fully God, really was tempted in every way that we are and yet did so without sin… fully obeying His Father’s will… and, as Hebrews says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted….” (2:18)

He was faithful to His Father’s mission all the way to the cross… that He and we might experience the reality and fruits of the obedience that God ordains and blesses!

“It is finished!” we hear from the cross…

And so, as a result of the Son’s trust and submission to His Father, His Father’s mission for the sinless Son of God to be the “Source of our Salvation” was completed!

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Still, we might be struggling with what comes before the words: “source of eternal salvation…”

Namely: …and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation…”

We also might not really understand what the text says about the Son learning obedience from what He suffered…  (as well as how the Father heard Him “because of his reverent submission…”)

Let’s start here: remember the text Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…”? 

Why is that phrase, “Son though He was,” there? 

It is there because what good earthly father wants to see his son to suffer? 

None does, and yet God the Father determined that His Son would suffer on the cross for our sake… and this suffering is then what the Son, being the Son, gladly embraced because of the joy set before Him…. 

And how did he “learn obedience from what he suffered…”?

Well, it does us well to think about suffering in two senses here: First, like Mary, we freely receive, or “suffer,” what God allows: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Second, what God allows – especially in our fallen world! – creates difficulties for us, and forces us to call out to Him, look to Him, depend on Him!

….like Jesus did in reverent submission…  

Sinless Adam and Eve were tempted in Eden to sin and failed the test, but our Lord Jesus Christ not only endures  temptation without sin, but actively relying on God, fulfils the mission that the Father had appointed for Him!

And He did not stop or falter…

…but went all the way to the end, trusting and depending on His Father and embracing death on the cross that we might be freed… 

For without the shedding of blood, Hebrews re-asserts from the Old Testament, there is no forgiveness of sin…. 

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It had to be this way. 

It had to be this way. 

Jesus Christ, being the man without sin, had to obey for the sake of our salvation.  

In much the same way that the Son of God eternally proceeds from the Father, this man Jesus Christ follows in the paths, the plans, laid out by His Heavenly Father. 

And so He embraces the fullness of what it means to be man, the crown of God’s creation.

He becomes one with us, sharing our human nature, our humanity! 

And so He gets hungry. 

He experiences exhaustion, and becomes tired…

And He experiences not sin itself but many of sin’s consequences all people experience as well. 

So He knew thorns and pain and sadness and discouragement… and death.  

And so yes, He not only demonstrates to us but experiences Himself what it means to suffer… and what it means to be driven to prayer and to go all the way in spite of that suffering… to reach the goal that God had set for Him, and ultimately, for us…

He prays “Thy Will be Done” and His prayer is answered in the affirmative. 

And in the midst of the pain of man, with the joy set before Him, He knew also of the fruits of the obedience that would come. The obedience that God blesses… 

That we might as well. 

“God is love,” we know. 

Strangely enough, this is how love wins. 

By the submission of the God-Man to His Father’s will, which entails enduring man’s cross of shame…. 

He was “content with death and shame…”

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Let’s move on to this part of verse 9: 

“…and, once made perfect, he became the Source of eternal salvation…” 

So just when we thought we might be getting to what verse 8 means this passage comes along to perhaps confuse us a bit more! 

Maybe the learning obedience through suffering stuff makes sense, but what about implying that there was a time when Jesus Christ was not perfect? 

Was not Jesus perfect to begin with? How could He then, at some point, be made perfect? 

And has not the Son of God, being the second person of the Trinity, always been the source of our eternal salvation?

Again, He has always been the source of our eternal salvation but the answer lies in that fact Jesus Christ not only needed to be fully God, 100% God, but also fully man, 100% man. 

Because of His completing the Father’s mission, He likewise becomes “perfect” or, as we can also translate it, “complete” according to His human nature…

So what does this mean practically? 

It means that post-Ascension, not only is everything then prepared for Him – He who is no longer limited by time or place or matter! – to be closer to us (not further from us!) than ever before on earth through His means of grace, the word and sacraments…. (Kleinig). We receive Christ not according to His divine nature only but as the One who continues to be a human being!

…all is also prepared for the final day when the exalted God-Man, in accordance with His representation of mankind as its Head, will also submit Himself to His heavenly Father, that “God,” i.e. the Triune God, “may be all in all” or “all-Supreme.” 

So in this way, the God-Man who has become mankind’s King on earth, paves the way for both the Father and the Spirit also to rule and be present in person, in the new heavens and new earth! 

Earth and heaven, man and God, fully united (I Cor. 15:28, Rev. 21:3; see Lenski, 685-87)!

This is the great victory that the cross leads to and that we partake of when we are baptized into Him!

The victory that we know by faith.

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So, with that said, let’s finally look at one more potentially confusing line: “…for all who obey him…”

“….he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”

What does this mean? 

Obedience can be understood in a broad and a narrow sense in Scripture. And in the Old Testament, the root of the Hebrew word we often translate “obey” simply means “listen…”

Listening which inevitably leads to action!

And so, in the broad sense, obedience entails all of the actions that result from simple faith and the love for God and neighbor that grows from that faith…. 

And that faith and love submit and obey! Not just in an external sense, reluctantly, but in joy! 

For Christian faith and love know that obedience not just to some of God’s commands but to all of God’s commands is to be offered up with a willing and happy heart!

That’s all true. That, however, is not the only thing that our text is getting at here. 

Here…we need to realize first and foremost that God commands us to simply rest and just listen to Him, for this Teacher and Brother’s yoke is easy and His burden light! 

And so we might think here of the story of Mary and Martha – Mary was commended for simply resting and sitting at the feet of her Lord Jesus ! 

“She has chosen the better thing”, He said…

…for the sake of us all!

And is this not exhilarating? God commands us to “stay put” and “abide in Him”? 

Always remember that the Apostle Paul says “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God”…. 

To be known by God!

(we can especially see this justifying and regenerating work of the Lord’s in holy baptism, can’t we?)

And remember always the very beautiful and encouraging words in I Thes. 2:13:

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

In other words, what we ultimately need is to be justified and delivered and comforted in Christ – to know the sheer Loving Majesty of the King who has stormed the castle and rescued us, dying for our sins and giving us a new identity in Him! 

And when it comes to this teaching of justification, particularly but not limited to when we think of infants, the Spirit gives us faith, causing us to consent in a way that is primarily passive

We first simply receive – here I think about a mother nursing her child… a picture that Scripture uses to talk about faith or trust as well!

So when you hear “obey” here, think first of just this kind of thing!

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With that said though, of course, persons like the Apostle Paul do go on with more and different kinds of exhorting….

For example, even as it accuses me as often as I hear it, I absolutely love his command in I Thes. 5:16-18: 

“Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

Our Lord has given up everything this day, suffering the greatest pains and sufferings for your sins which put Him on the tree.

But, you see, don’t think that that means He doesn’t want to be close to you, to love you, to talk with you, even hold you… 

Don’t ever think that when He determined to go to the cross for you He did that reluctantly at all! 

Years ago there was a TV movie called “Eric” where… 

“…we watch [very] young Eric struggle with cancer[, cancer..]. There is a scene in which he stands on the beach of the family’s summer home with his father. ‘Daddy,’ he says, ‘remember how I wanted to swim across the bay with you? We got halfway across, and I said I couldn’t make it. Remember how you reached out and helped me? Well, Daddy, I don’t think I can make it now.” Eric’s father quickly spread his arms around him and said, ‘I’ll help you.’ That is God’s promise to us.” (Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, #604)

He is more than willing to do this for us every day… 

He does this for us every day… 

…and – remarkably given what He has endured because of usHe did this for us on this darkest and most consequential of days, Good Friday, above all.

Thank you, Jesus. 

Amen 

To see sermon with footnotes, go here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1m9LA69OcNr6zDFYiddVoPoHNLtzDpbRAz62ZHIw3kj4/edit?usp=sharing

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Vineyard’s Gonna Vineyard?

“A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time…” 

–Luke 20:9

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What does the word “institution” mean?

That’s a word that represents a big idea. One definition is “a society or organization founded for a religious, educational, social or similar purpose.”

Another definition is “an established organization or corporation of a public character specifically”.

Why do I bring it up institutions here? Well, because in the parable from our Gospel reading today, the vineyard represents God’s assembly, or church.

And the church, along with the natural family, is one of His core institutions in the world.

That might not be what you thought of right away when I brought up institutions. Perhaps when you hear the word “institution” your mind goes to things like schools, companies, the military, and other political, well, institutions…

And perhaps you also think about how these things often become corrupted.

Especially today, many of the institutions we might think about seem to be losing their way, as they fight against God’s institution of the family, which of course is produced by His institution of marriage between one man and one woman for life…

And yet, even if they aren’t at war with God’s natural institutions, many go astray in a more common way.

What do I mean?

Well, even relatively good institutions seem to lose their way, that is, they stray greatly from the needs they were created for, from their original purposes…

They often seem to be seeking to preserve themselves for the sake of the people who run them. To both survive and thrive primarily or even just for those people.

And they seem to do everything they can to do protect themselves against all the things they perceive to be threats to their power, their status, their privileges…

They just show that institutions are gonna do what institutions are gonna do…  

And this even happens among God’s people! His society, His assembly, His church…

We see this in Martin Luther’s day, for example, don’t we? During the Reformation?

Luther lived during a time when the leader of God’s church in the Western world, the Pope, was actually saying things like “since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” 

And not only this, but some of the top defenders of Rome were saying that because the church essentially owned the Bible they could decide how it was to be used and interpreted! Some of Rome’s highest-ranking theologians even claimed the authority of the Gospel existed because of the Pope’s authority,  

And you can bet that when Luther insisted that Christians really could be sure that they were Christians – that is, that faith in Jesus Christ could give them certainty, many in Rome were not happy.

For how would the church’s power and influence continue without the offerings from people trying to earn their peace with God? 

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And as in the days of the Reformation… so also in the days of the Old Testament and in Jesus’ day as well. 

We see something similar happening in our Gospel text for today, don’t we? Again, we see a corruption of the church, the institution God had established, an institution failing to do what it was intended to do.

To say the least, right?

The parable talks about how no less than three servants were sent by the owner of the vineyard and all were beaten! These represent God’s prophets.

In the Old Testament, we see how the Lord entrusted the spiritual care of His people Israel to patriarchs, priests, and yes, prophets (and, yes, even a few political rulers like David, who basically doubled up as a prophet!). 

And what does the New Testament go on to tell us about God’s direction of His people? 

By way of summary, perhaps we can’t do much better than what the book of Hebrews says:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe….”

And as our Lord Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority He too understood and respected authority… 

For instance, even though we remember Him looking out over the crowds of lost people and mourning because they were like sheep without a shepherd…

…we also should not forget that Jesus nevertheless says this of the religious rulers: 

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach…”

“Do everything they tell you?” Was He joking? 

Not at all. 

Is not the patience, forbearance… tolerance of our Lord remarkable? 

Surely, even as Jesus goes on to sharply criticize these men, He also desires for them to be the shepherds God meant them to be… even ordained them to be… in the institution that God had established.

To be like Elizabeth’s husband, the faithful priest Zechariah! Or the Pharisee Nicodemus and Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea…

Instead, though, what do we see from almost all of those who were in charge of the temple, the synagogues, the Sanhedrin… the core institution and sub-institutions of Israel…?

We see abject hostility towards Jesus and His ministry!

…they persecuted the one Hebrews goes on to say is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” – this One who came to reveal the Triune God’s heart of love, gentleness and forgiveness!

“How could they miss such wonderful truth?” 

How in the world could they miss the import of what they were planning to do? 

How could they not see that there was something greater than institutional success – their success – at stake here? 

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Well, to get our answer we might want to look to the Apostle Paul here, who at the beginning of Romans 10 tells us that those in Israel, having a “zeal without knowledge,” sought to establish their own righteousness and hence did not submit to God’s righteousness.

Not only this but the Scriptures also tell us that they were envious of Jesus and hence handed Him over!

For these men had a twisted pride related to their status as God’s stewards… and they loved the praise of men that status afforded them!

Institutions are going to do what institutions are going to do…

They were not about to sacrifice their influence and privilege!

So what do these religious leaders end up doing? 

They sacrifice the true Lamb of God, the Heir to God’s Kingdom….

As the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” puts it: 

“…But men made strange, and none

  The longed-for Christ would know…

…[t]hey rise and needs will have

  My dear Lord made away;

A murderer they save,

  The Prince of life they slay….”

Again, their pride and their envy and their works-righteousness could not see it… 

Even if, at some level, they really knew who Jesus was and what they were doing…

For the parable directed at the teachers of the law and chief priests had said: “…[b]ut when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’

And yet… and yet!

God actually used all of this evil for good – even telling us that He planned on doing a new thing though this: He planned on saving us through their terrible actions even from before the beginning of time…. 

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“Well, preacher…” you might be thinking, 

“These are some good points… and I can see why God would then give the vineyard to others, which I assume are His disciples and us Gentiles… ”

At the same time, though, how bad are things really today? How relevant is all of this extreme stuff about corrupt spiritual institutions for us?” 

Well, I pay some attention, and I think it can be pretty bad.

Apart from the power and grace of God, institutions are going to do what institutions do…

Even so, I know there are standout churches! 

I know there are faithful pockets of faith, hope and love! 

That said, let’s always remember that even in the best churches today… we all fall short of God’s glory…

-We might not be relying on our own righteousness, but it’s easy to take an unhealthy pride in our involvement, even sometimes feeling that we might well be doing God a favor by participating in the work that He invites us to find joy in!

-And it’s easy to get so excited about letting others know all the good that we are doing that we forget about emphasizing the most humble and simple and wonderful gifts of them all, that make it all possible… 

-Knowing “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb”… 

-Remembering “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”

-Believing “God loves me dearly…loves even me…” 

-Praying “Jesus, Savior, wash away; All that has been wrong today…” 

-And we might not be filled with envy or jealousy, but it’s easy to get caught up in busy-ness and want recognition. So much so that we might come to resemble Martha more than Mary, who Jesus said had “chosen the better thing”.

And we, buoyed by pride, might not be fixated on our status in this or that institution, but we might perhaps be too willing to ignore, and hence forget, our deep roots and heritage found in the fullness of the Scriptures, in the church’s rich history… just like the prophet Isaiah warned God’s people in chapter 8 of his book: 

[Run] to [God’s Word] and to the testimony! (2x) 

If [others] do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them!” 

How ready are we to be students not only of the world and of our culture but, first and foremost, God’s word? 

That we might be able to recognize opportunities to bring it to bear? 

How ready are we to, as Peter says, give an answer for the hope that is within us? 

Or, as Paul exhorts us, to take every worldly philosophy captive for Christ? 

Well, some might say here:  

“Yes, there’s always work to do, but at the same time, things can be much worse in the church and often are! Have you paid attention to the news about…!”  

Yes, I get it – none of us can ignore great public scandals. At the same time, let us magnify our own sins first and take the specks out of our eyes!

For there is more than enough for us to repent of every day, brothers and sisters, so let us not hesitate to do so here too, and in joy!

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In the book of Isaiah we hear “The grass withers and the flowers fail, but the word of our God endures forever.”

And in our Gospel, standing among those who got lost in their desire to survive and thrive in the midst of life’s riches, cares, and pleasures…

-Jesus was simply upholding this word, glorifying His Father simply for who He is and proclaiming His deeds with all His might!” 

-He was fulfilling the prophecies God’s institution was supposed to be focused on!

-And He was, therefore, simultaneously meeting the deepest longings and needs of faithful men and women like Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, Nathaniel, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea!

Even if the Chief Priests, Pharisees and others felt their world being turned upside down, they shouldn’t have.

For Jesus was no political revolutionary… radical as He surely was!

He was doing just what God had planned from the beginning!

Faithfully passing on like a baton the Promise that gives life, true life!… and that was finally fulfilled in Him!

So:

“Lord, please renew and revive us always, and give us your peace. That we not only conserve for ourselves and our children your Holy Word, but do so for all people, all nations, far and wide! 

Make us those who pass on the church’s song!”

Don’t doubt for a minute that He hears and answers that prayer and gives us peace in His Son!

The peace that passes all understanding, and the peace that makes it possible for us not only to be the church that can meet our neighbor’s physical needs, but the most important needs… our eternal needs as well!

Even in the midst of the worst kinds of sufferings!

+++

Sufferings… 

They rise and needs will have

  My dear Lord made away;

A murderer they save,

  The Prince of life they slay.

    Yet cheerful He

    To suffering goes,

    That He His foes

    From thence might free.

Never forget. 

The Father looks into the eyes of His Son, the Only Begotten Son whom He loves… And He says: 

“They’ve now killed one servant after another… I want You to go now…” 

And the Son cheerfully goes, en route to walking out of that grave in victory!

But in the midst of that true earthly glory – that resurrected glory that ushers in the coming new heavens and earth and where we will reap with songs of joy! – let us not forget to fix our eyes on the cross….

Never was love, dear King,

  Never was grief like Thine.

    This is my Friend,

    In whose sweet praise

    I all my days

    Could gladly spend.

O Lord, thank You for Your forgiveness and life that You give us even now through your cross! 

And Lord, grant us that we may know you even more, evermore!

And that we… that this institution… ever pass on this sure hope until You come again!   

Amen.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Should You Question Your Status as a Christian? 

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“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

–I Corinthians 10:12

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Have you ever had anyone question your Christianity?

When I was in college, I was taken aback by the fervent Evangelical Christians who came to my dorm room to speak to me about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 

After the visit, I was a little bit distressed because they left me with the impression that they suspected I wasn’t a true believer…

largely because of things I said to them!   

And I felt like I had failed my God… failed to be a witness to them about what I, really – deep down – knew Jesus had done for me…

Needless to say, their surprising visit shook me up and caused me to start to re-evaluate my spiritual life. 

My wife had a similar experience at college, except a bit worse! 

She was told by people – people from this same organization actually, not the same college – that Lutherans were not Christians.

Shocking as this might sound to some of us, in truth episodes like this can be worth not just getting upset about but reflecting on!

What does it really mean to be a Christian? 

How can we identify other Christians?

How can anyone be sure about their own Christianity?

Interestingly, all of our texts this morning seem like they could easily go hand-in-hand with these kinds of questions…

First, let’s take a look at our Epistle lesson. There, St. Paul is eager to encourage those in the Church in the large port city of Corinth (in Greece) – folks who he earlier identified in this letter as believers – to not fall into sin like those God had chosen in the Old Testament. 

Of the people Israel, Paul goes so far to say: 

“They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.”

…but God will always provide the Corinthians a way out, Paul goes on to assure them!

Nevertheless though… nevertheless… hear the import of what Paul is saying! 

Here, he is recalling the story about how when they only had bitter water in the wilderness, God provided pure drink for them through Moses. 

That refreshment, that comfort, that temporal salvation if you wil, Paul tells them, was all from Jesus Christ, the second person of the Eternal Triune God, even though He had yet to be born in history, in the temporal realm!

Furthermore, the physical rock gave them physical water, nourishing their bodies to be sure…. 

…but Paul says that they were all eating the same spiritual food and drinking the same spiritual drink  from the spiritual rock that was Christ. 

All of them!

Think about this: he is saying that even though every single one of the people of Israel was given spiritual food and spiritual drink through Christ, God was nevertheless not pleased with most of them!

…and their bodies were consequentially scattered in the wilderness! 

It seems that what Jesus talks about today in His parable of the fig tree in the vineyard might also apply doesn’t it? Let’s hear that from our Gospel reading again:

“Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Yes! Here we see God’s patience, forbearance here in this parable of Jesus! But we also hear…

Cut.

It. 

Down. 

…like let their bodies be “scattered in the wilderness…”  

So why was God not pleased with His people in the Old Testament? 

Why did so many seemingly die as those He was not pleased with instead of dying well, dying with His pleasure? 

Because they did not have fruit. 

And why did they not have fruit?

+++

Well, we’ll get to that question soon, but first let’s address this matter of fruit.

In Galatians chapter 5 we recall that the Apostle Paul speaks of the fruit of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law,” he says. 

Christians are those who show some of this spiritual fruit. 

And so it is right that such matters should be of importance to us. As I have heard it put: If you were accused of being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you in court? 

And going along with this, it is not wrong for Christians to have confidence that others they know or meet are Christians as well – even if absolute certainty about other’s status with God is knowledge that only He can have. 

For example, we might take to heart what the Apostle Paul says to the young pastor Timothy, 

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also…”

Again, this is true: Christians can have confidence that others are Christians. 

And yet, we also need to acknowledge this: Things can go seriously wrong here.

This clearly happened with my wife, when people told her Lutherans couldn’t be Christians. 

I think that also happened to me in college, my freshman year. When asked whether I thought I’d go to heaven when I died, I said I was 95% sure. 

The people talking to me took this as a sign that I was not really trusting Jesus Christ, but considering my own good works as part of this equation. In truth, I believe I answered that way because while I did know Jesus loved me and forgave me by grace though faith apart from works, my faith was quite weak. 

After my senior year in high school I begin to have more intellectual doubts about whether or not Christianity was really true. I went to the 1992 LC-MS youth gathering, hoping to get more clarity, and this only made things worse for me.

Everything seemed to me to be about emotion, the power of suggestion, and getting caught up in exciting moments with one’s like-minded group. I had more pressing questions and wanted more solid answers. 

I think what I actually needed to hear is that God’s word is trustworthy, and that He even invited me to test that, like Thomas sticking his hand into Jesus’ side…

But the men in my dorm room that day didn’t know any of this, and I think they mis-diagnosed me. 

…as many often misdiagnose other Christians. 

Perhaps rightly concerned that Christian faith must be living and active, they, unintentionally, might do exactly what Jesus said He would not do: snuff out the flickering wick or break the bruised reed…

…snuff out the flickering wick or break the bruised reed…

I’d submit here is actually a long history of this kind of thing in America. Many American Christians, again, fall down here. While they are rightly concerned to honor what we heard in our Psalm this morning: 

Restore us again, God our Savior,
    and put away your displeasure toward us.
 Will you be angry with us forever?
    Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
 Will you not revive us again,
    that your people may rejoice in you?

….that [God’s] glory may dwell in our land.

…Americans Christians often lose the biblical context of today’s Psalm and create one of their own making in which to understand these words… 

For example, historically, besides many thinking that Americans are “God’s chosen people,” many American Christians have tended to equate things like large numbers, powerful music, strong emotions, and the appearance of power, influence, attraction with true spirituality… true spiritual success…

 “We need revival!” they might say, and it will look similar to this. 

Have you ever heard of the first and second “Great Awakenings” in America? 

The first featured men like the American Calvinist Jonathan Edwards and two highly impressive Englishman, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who worked tirelessly to travel far and wide preaching his message, and George Whitfield, a fiery Anglican preacher who preached to thousands upon thousands in open fields (without a microphone, of course). The second great awakening was dominated by the American Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney, who promoted “new measures” like the “anxious bench” (where one sat if they were thinking about their sin and becoming a Christian…) to bring spiritual awakening…   

Here, in general, there were concerns about a “dead orthodoxy” that was cold and stand-offish, concerns about an emphasis on liturgy and creeds, creeds, creeds instead of deeds!… and also a real skepticism regarding the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, thinking of the traditional understandings as being “too Catholic”… 

After all, they might point out, even if the Lord’s Supper really was Christ’s true body and blood – which is “too Catholic”! –  note what Paul says in I Corinthians 10: even though God’s chosen people Israel spiritually ate and drank from the rock that was Christ…

…God was not pleased with them!

How many fill our churches, Whitefield would often say, who do not actually know God!

Now even though we certainly know Jesus speaks about this… about the tares among the wheat, many take things further, going in very disturbing directions in fact… 

Even in our times, as we have heard, some professing Christians think (I’m sure much to the devil’s glee): 

Those non-emotional and doctrinally obsessed Lutherans? 

Where is their really joyful song? 

How can they really be Christians? Where is their fruit? 

Where is their concern for the evangelism of the lost? 

Where is their concern to fight corruption and injustice? 

Where, perhaps today, is their desire to fight racism? 

Where is their concern about good methods and measures, taking practical steps to reach the culture they live in where it is at – not where they insist the culture should be? 

Again, as harsh and unfair as all of these sentiments might be, we must of course recognize that there is a very important grain of truth to all of this. 

And that grain of truth is this: human beings are meant to really live, to really embrace all that they participate in…. To live our lives with conviction and gusto! 

And so, for Christians, it is good that our hearts would be overwhelmed with thanksgiving. And that, alive in God, that those hearts would ever be enlarged to not just walk, but run – and run more fully and faster all the time! – in God’s commandments, producing God-pleasing fruit!

But again, these American revivalists get things wrong not only because they downplay simple good works in favor of more impressive accomplishments, but because they take no heed to not snuff out the flickering wick or break the bruised reed…

Unlike our wise and strong Savior. 

+++

Again, we hear our strong Savior in our Gospel reading this morning: 

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

This message from Jesus is jarring. 

What he is saying is that when bad things happen to others, we should not think that God is punishing them because they were worse sinners! 

Instead, here is what we can know: We should take such distressing signs – and yes, distressing signs which rightly make us think of Divine Judgment – as a call for all to repent, for us to repent as well. 

Even us as Christians. 

Actually, especially us as Christians! You see, this is the kind of message that we continue to need to hear throughout our Christian life! 

At the beginning of the Reformation, the 16th century friar, pastor and professor Martin Luther penned the 95 theses, the first which was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

True Christianity always lives in repentance, and does not live apart from repentance!

Sometimes Christians – like many of the Christians we have been talking about who might not understand that Lutherans are, or at least, can be, real Christians – have  and give the impression that repentance is something that is only meant to start the Christian life. 

I was a sinner, but then I repented and now I am a saved.

This is not a clear picture. 

Why? Because as I’ve often pointed out, the Apostle Paul speaks very clearly about how a war – a war! –  takes place in the believer. 

In Christ we are a new creation indeed! But in Galatians 5 we see that there is always a war in us between our new man and our old man. 

God’s Spirit which drives our spirit against our fallen flesh, often energized and encouraged by the devil’s lies… 

This is why Paul also writes as he does in Romans 7 and 8: 

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] [my fallen flesh, my old man,] a slave to the law of sin.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”

Again, American Evangelicals, for instance, are right to talk about how a true and living faith is a sign of a Christian.

But this, as Paul’s words should suggest to us, is not wholly straightforward, or easy to understand. 

True, when we suppress the fear of God, not having a care about intentional sins – or even when we tell ourselves that our sins are rarely intentional and so they aren’t a big deal…

…we are in danger at the heart of our spiritual life. God is never under any obligation to pull us out of the pit of our own self-destruction.

That said, also take comfort in Paul’s words here about the two natures of the Christian and how he directs even the failing Christian – even the failing Christian! – to Christ’s mercy in the midst of his struggles!

So don’t ever let anyone convince you that Romans 7 is not that important for Christians?

Saying, remarkably, this is only Paul speaking about his life before coming to Christ! 

Paul is writing as a Christian. 

+++

Again, fruit is important, no doubt. One is right to insist that good works provide evidence one is really a Christian. 

Did you see how fruit was also important in the Old Testament reading today? 

It is.

For example, God says through Ezekiel that if a righteous person trusts in their righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered and they will die for the evil they have done. 

In like fashion, if a wicked person does what is just and right, and gives back that which they took in pledge for a loan, returns what they have stolen, and follow God’s decrees, for example, they will live. 

But also notice, at the same time, how important in that text repentance is as well… 

Again, and again, we see the emphasis on turning from sin to the Lord and finding life. 

So, where does the true fruit come from? 

True fruit is born of repentance. 

And just what is it that makes for effective repentance, that is Christian repentance?

Repentance that will allow us to truly live as those who might have a sure and secure hope? 

Faith. 

Faith.

Faith in a good and strong Savior. 

Faith in the Savior who says 

“As surely as I live…I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’”

Faith in the God who loves all people so much that He would even hold his own children accountable for the blood of others who die in their sin… 

God will hold them accountable when their own love fails to reflect and to proclaim His love… 

When they would not care enough to warn their neighbors that the wages of sin is death and that hell is real and that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life…. 

-Again, the most important thing when it comes to true revival is not to try to be “fruit police,” always judging the fruit of others.  

-The most important thing when it comes to true revival is not to dig down deep, reach into one’s self to try harder, do better, be more sincere, etc…

-The most important thing when it comes to true revival is not to obsess and worry about how false Christians really can spiritually partake of Christ in communion, and hence eat His true body and blood to their damnation (true as that one might be!) 

The most important thing when it comes to true revival is simple faith in Christ – to acknowledge our sin before God and look to His Son on the cross for mercy!

When God’s Holy Spirit breaks through and convicts us of our objective guilt before Him…

When God’s Holy Spirit then shines the spotlight on Jesus as the answer to that problem…

That is always a new beginning of sorts! 

That is the beginning of true revival, as faith lives in repentance!

And sure – please God let our faith in our crucified and risen Lord be strong and grow stronger still! May our roots go deep…

Go deep, that we may continually be enlightened, revived, reformed, transformed in Your beloved Son!

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But do you see clearly? 

Faith in Christ, a mustard seed of faith in Christ, is the key. 

And even this is His gift for you, even now!

We spoke earlier about how Christians can not have absolute certainty regarding the status of another professing Christian’s faith…

What, however, should Christians believe about themselves? Can they have absolute certainly they are God’s? 

Should you have absolute certainty God is at peace with you?

Yes! 

Yes!!

Yes!!!

Call your sin “sin” and call grace “grace” and believe the Lord Jesus Christ when He forgives you 

all your evils…

all your doubts…

all your worldly fears…

For He is Strong and Good, and He will hold you forever in His hands. 

Amen

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Being Sent to Speak All These Words

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“…for in truth the Lord has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing.”

– Jeremiah 26:15b

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In this Old Testament passage, Jeremiah is pointing out that virtually none of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, wanted to hear the words God had given him to speak. 

And, let’s be honest… be honest with ourselves and others! 

In truth, the Bible contains lots of bad news for everyone… words of judgment for everyone!

And its not even like we can free ourselves from our miserable state, trying to conform by power from within us, by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Man, after all, is not a sinner because he sins. On the contrary, being “by nature deserving of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), man sins because he is a sinner. 

And God has no patience with any who would contend otherwise! Because deep down, each and every one of us knows this (Romans 1)…

And so, when we hear thunderous words like…

  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) 
  • “…the Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thes. 1:7-9)
  • “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (I Peter 4:17)
  • “…by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. (2 Peter 3:7)
  • “For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:14)
  • “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” (Matthew 12:36) 
  • “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Hebrews 13:4)
  • “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
  • “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

Yes, when we hear thunderous words like…

  • “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)

…how can we not, along with the prophet Isaiah, say:

“Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.”

And why are things like this? Well, as a means of quick review it goes like this: 

[tell the story… God created the world… Adam and Eve had it all… The serpent tempted them in the Garden… Did God really say?… They realized they were naked and fled from God… For on that very day, they, along begin to spiritually and physically die. Adam and Eve were indeed punished… And yet, He also gave them a Promise [Genesis 3:15]….]

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So on the other hand, there is good news too…. This Promise…

God gave Adam and Eve this promise that was then handed down throughout the Old Testament…

God chooses Abraham to be the father of Israel, God’s chosen people, and tells him that He will  make him into a great nation, and that Abraham’s Seed will be a blessing to all the nations. 

And the book of Genesis in fact closes out in part speaking of a very special and specific descendant of Abraham: 

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” (Genesis 49:10)

A good Ruler! And Psalm 72:17 states, “May the king’s name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun shines. May all nations be blessed through him and bring him praise.” Other Psalms, like Psalm  22 for instance, are also beloved for their Messianic prophecies (see also 2, 89, 110, e.g.).

In the preaching of the Old Testament’s later prophets, we hear more specific information about this Promised One. Big hitters like Ezekiel (34:23-24), Jeremiah (23:5, 31:31-34) and Isaiah (7:14, 9:6-7, 11:1-16, 42, 52, 53:1-12, 61) speak clearly of Him, and Micah gives us the wonderful promise that we hear and celebrate each Christmas season:  

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days…”    

Finally, in the New Testament, we see the flowering of this promise, as the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, “takes on human flesh” and becomes one of us… so that He might go to the cross to pay the price for all man’s sins! (and be raised in victory over sin, death, and the devil!)

In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul calls it the “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people [including the Gentiles…”] and in our reading for today, he says: 

“…our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,  who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body…”

In Jesus Christ, God forgives His people, God shares in their humanity, and God vindicates and blesses them again His people as He will raise them from the dead and give them new spiritual bodies in the new heavens and the new earth! 

And here, our poor and fallen imaginations falter… because we have no comprehension of how good the things to come are!

This.

Is.

Glorious.

…and this is the fullness of the message that has been passed down throughout time… This is, as they say, the church’s song, it’s highest joy and the root of all our comfort and peace!

And, in truth, even as the hard words of God’s judgment stand, there is also a real gentleness and tenderness that appears with God’s servants, as they attempt to communicate to fellow pastors and people the heart of the God they know, that others may come to know Him as well. 

Paul, for example, writes to the young pastor, Timothy: 

“…Those who oppose him he must gently instruct…. in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (II Timothy 2: 24-26).”

+++

But sinful man, we know, rejects God! 

And those in the church as well are among them!

And so, in our Gospel today, we see Jesus cry out over the chosen people, over the nation, over the institution that He established and loves: 

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

The excuses for such unwillingness continue today, and are many. 

There are both crass excuse and sophisticated ones…

The crass ones are easier to describe…

Here, on earth, health, wealth, and status often seem like our greatest need. We feel we need what’s sexy, success and stuff.

In fact, if we love these things instead of simply using them and being thankful for them, receiving them as the gifts of God that they are, we too will be lost…

Why? Well, we need to recognize, as the Epistle of 1 John puts it:

“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 Jn. 2:16).

Jesus Christ’s brother, James, also smacks us right in the face:

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jas. 4:4)

The immediate context of this passage? Humanity’s unbridled passions, greed, and pride:

“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (4:2-3)

Again, there is still a deep rot even within us… even as Christians, as new creations, we most certainly do not fear, love, and trust in our God as we should… we rather, inevitably so, find ourselves following in the train of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

Not sure if that is true for you? Again, the evidence that you, too, are a sinner is your death…

As Christians, we should know that God really does desire to bless His children.

That said, the popular views of the day, always emphasizing the glories of the world rather than its curses and crosses, misses the boat entirely…

+++

There is also a more sophisticated kind of rejection as well. One that, in fact, downplays thoughts about God and focuses and fixates on the matter of suffering

… and, nowadays, particularly the suffering caused by various kinds of human oppression, which today, in the eyes of many, also consists of those oppressors who would dare to tell others that there are in fact some natural limits that exist! 

And that actually limit their interpretations of reality or what their imaginations can construct and build… 

How did we get here? The broad answer is sin and the devil. More specifically, however, such things started among our best and brightest – among some of the greatest minds who have flourished in our the hallowed halls of our colleges and universities…. 

First, it was posited – quite unreasonably to be sure – that Christianity was not reasonable. 

And now – when yet a new opportune moment has arrived – it is contended that Christianity is not moral. Mankind is at war with God, and even His creation, attempts to “redefine realness” as much as is within their power. 

Some however, would like to slow down this craziness however, or, perhaps even better, be like a man bravely standing before an encroaching railroad engine and yelling “Stop!” 

Many with some more socially conservative dispositions were thankful, for example, to hear about the newly proposed University of Austin. A man named Andrew Abela writes about it: 

“The recent announcements about the founding of the University of Austin, “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” were received with excitement by those of us who share a concern about the censorship of thought—the groupthink, cancel culture, and wokeness—that plagues so many of today’s universities…” 

But Abela hits the nail on the head when he plays the devil’s advocate, throwing a wet blanket on the excitement: 

One crucial question remains unaddressed [by the University of Austin and others]: is the fearless pursuit of truth sufficient to form the basis of a new university? Is it enough to be always in pursuit of truth? Or does one hope, along the way, to find, keep, and act on some of it? Is a commitment to truth and freedom in the abstract sufficient to ground an academic community, or is something else—a larger tradition— required? The essence of a tradition is the set of truths that thoughtful people who have gone before us have discovered and tested, across generations, and deemed worthy of keeping. The pursuit of truth is like the pursuit of a spouse: at some point you hope to catch the object of your pursuit, get married, and have babies…”

What will the University of Austin be assuming about questions regarding man’s meaning and purpose? 

And what about beliefs about the nature of all reality?

Will the University of Austin, with its seemingly more conservative yet secular orientation, really be drawing any significant conclusions about what it really means to be man?

Will it recognize the importance of acknowledging fundamental truths – including basic “moral facts” about right and wrong – and their role in attaining any real knowledge?

I think it is safe to say that they will do no such thing.

“Well, preacher…”, you might be thinking. “Doesn’t the Bible itself say that we ‘see through a glass darkly?’” 

Indeed it does, but none of this means – as those the church has called “noble pagans” have known – that there is no knowledge, no common ground, that man can not have!

And Christians, in particular, can and must  be different!

Recognizing that God blessed Moses and Daniel with knowledge from even the Egyptians and Babylonians respectively…

….recognizing that we are to love God with all our mind…

…and saying Amen to the early church father Justin Martyr who asserted that “all truth is God’s truth”…

Intelligent Christians could, for example:

-State that, ideally, Christians gain and share knowledge about the world or cosmos not only because they are curious or gain control by doing so, but also because knowing, teaching, and living in accordance with what is true, pure, just, lovely, commendable, etc. is one way to serve one’s neighbor in love.

-Be honest that “academic and intellectual freedom” always has limits. Emphasize that all colleges and universities – not just private or religious ones – are more or less consciously taking deliberate steps to introduce and even indoctrinate students into a specific and limited range of “acceptable” ways of understanding the world.

-Acknowledge that speaking both anthropologically and sociologically, whatever one’s beliefs about the world, it is human nature to either directly or indirectly shun and stigmatize contemporary voices who promote certain views that one and one’s community determine to be “out of bounds” – even in times that are not hysterical like our own today! Of course, traditionally private or religious schools, for example, have had the freedom to teach and practice their beliefs as they saw fit, but now this is being challenged in a myriad of ways.

-Recognize that because the form of toleration that some Christians in leadership positions have practiced can be interpreted as capitulation, a lack of courage, or inconsistency, the reasons for this tolerance should be made explicit and explained.

-Assert that we must stand. Even as all men and women seek identity, security and meaning, in the midst of all of this, the Church and its “parachurch” and other offshoots will be who we, by God’s truth and grace, know ourselves to be… We must be vigilant about running our household in accordance with who we are. Neither can the “spirit of the age” nor the “customer” always be right for us – any open and collegial conversation and debate must always exist in a context where kind but forceful intellectual opposition and attempts to gently correct can be provided…

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I know that is heady stuff, but this is deathly serious. In the book of Hosea, it speaks of God’s children being destroyed from a lack of knowledge. 

Jesus tells us that the children of the world are more shrewd than the children of light, and urges us to be wise instead. Tot be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves my friends… 

Remember also that Jesus says that in the last days the love of many will grow cold… and He even asks rhetorically whether or not He will find faith on earth!

We need to heed what the Apostle Paul says: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) 

We need to know what we believe and why we believe it. We need to learn how to give answers to those who ask us about the hope that is within us. 

A short story.

Once, Error, cold, dark, and empty, came upon a table where Goodness, Truth, and Beauty were feasting. Seeing their bounty he beseeched them, “O friends, do you mind if I just remain here at the foot of your table, eating the crumbs of nourishment that fall from your table?” Full of compassion and pity, Goodness, Truth and Beauty agreed that this would, in fact, be fine. After all, Error looked quite pathetic and had humbly asked if he could do so. A bit later however, at an opportune time, Error was bold to ask if he could sit at the table with Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. “Friends,” he said, “even as I have gotten stronger with your good food, I do long to have discussions with you, to learn about you, to better understand who and what you are! Might I be able to come up to your table?” Perhaps since love “always trusts”, they took Error’s stated desire to seek them – Goodness, Truth, and Beauty – to heart, and invited him to sit with them at the table.

Error asked some interesting questions, to be sure. Questions that always seemed sincere and born of real curiosity and interest. As time went on however, the questions wore at the resolve of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, as doubts entered into their minds. Later, Error brought his children to the table as well, and all of them began to get a bit more bossy. Soon, the discussions turned into debates, and after a while, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty were told that their opinions were not really appreciated anymore. They were not only unreasonable, but filled with animus, hate, as well. 

Finally, it was they who were sitting on the floor, and no crumbs were forthcoming for them…

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The devil wants your hide. Your family’s too. And beyond. 

Wherever you are, whatever the depth of your thoughts, don’t get stuck in either of these ruts, the crass or the sophisticated rejection of God and His Word! 

And so, in the season of Lent, we focus on the matter of repentance… that we are were made from the dust and we are going to the dust. Such is God’s judgment upon us. 

It does us well to remember that when Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” we are reminded of the Greek word metanoia, which is the word for repentance… 

Metanoia basically means “a change of mind”… That is what repentance is. 

So, recognize that even as we try to get our troublesome impulses and desires under control, that the most important element of repentance begins with our minds… 

When Jesus cries out:

“O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem…. how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…” 

Don’t let that unwillingness be true for you on any level. Don’t say, for example, what a famous church leader said this past week in a tweet: 

“The Christian faith doesn’t rise and fall on the accuracy [or the inerrancy] of 66 ancient documents [or books we call the Bible]. It rises and falls on the identity of a single individual: Jesus of Nazareth.”

No, pastor. The Scriptures are the cradle that holds Christ, who is, yes, its primary message! 

They also are the voice of God Himself! 

You can even say the Bible is God in a sense. The Bible is God speaking.

Don’t be eager to find creative ways of avoiding the whole counsel of God.

Don’t let that be true for your family.  

Don’t let that be true for your church. 

Don’t let that be true for your Christian institutions. 

Fight. 

The world’s insistence on unbelief is neither rational nor moral in any sense. 

Being a “good person” – either because they follow God’s law or they follow the laws they make for themselves, will not save them, in this life or the life to come.  

The Lord means for you and your house to cling to Him. 

And it is not just your pastors who are to speak such truths, to encourage with such truths!

But it is for all of us to do so, for “if anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God…!” (I Peter 4:11)

Cling to the Word, the whole counsel of God…

For it, truly, is our only hope. 

And cling to the Gospel that He extends to you even now, stretching out His hand to you to life you up, proclaiming words of forgiveness and life, the life that is truly life. . 

Take courage! 

For the victory is His and there is no condemnation for those who are found in Him. 

Amen 

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

The Truth About Being A Prodigal and Why You Never Want to be One

[Reposted]

Prefatory material:

Should pastors who fall into grave public sin continue in the ministry?

This has lately become an increasingly talked-about topic. Most recently, people following the public debate on the issue could read dueling articles titled “Grace for the Disgraced: Showing Forgiving Mercy to Former Ministries” and “Real Sin. Real Forgiveness. Real Faith. Real Fruits of Repentance”.

I highly recommend reading these articles side by side (here is Martin Luther’s view of the matter as well). and I cannot recommend this piece by Quamdilexilegemtuam (or Quam for short), strongly enough.

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By Quamdilexilegemtuam

Much ink has been spilled and much oxygen wasted on the “testimony” of the so-called prodigals among us.  As a former prodigal myself, let me assure you, there is nothing glamorous nor beneficial in choosing to live a life of sin and rebellion.  Indeed, quite the opposite is true.

To begin, let’s get very clear on an oft overlooked and monumental fact.  Choosing to be a “prodigal” is choosing to abandon faith.  Lest we forget what abandoning faith ultimately means, let me spell that out in no uncertain terms.  Abandoning faith means choosing a lifetime of war with God and an eternity in hell.  It is a deception of the highest order to claim that abandoning the faith is somehow a “necessary evil” that aides in ultimately strengthening faith.  That simply is not true.  The notion that we cannot be saved by our works, yet we can be saved by our sin – that the only thing our salvation requires is our sin – is patently unbiblical.  It is a direct violation of the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 6 and in other places.  It is a blasphemy of the cross of Christ.

You may argue back, “But without our sin, the cross would not have been necessary!  It’s not the healthy that need a physician but the sick!”  True enough.  However, we distort these truths when we arrive at the conclusion that we need somehow to experience the heights of sin and rebellion beyond what’s already present in order to qualify for the cross and the aid of The Physician.  Simply being born in sin and acting in accord with that sinful nature is plenty to make us suitable for the Gospel, yet our sinful nature thinks that we must sin all the more that grace might abound.  Fundamentally, this is a failure to recognize our own sin.

Now, some might make the claim that we’re all prodigals at some level.  I disagree with that reading of the parable from St. Luke’s Gospel.  This is clearly a case of a man who was in the household of faith and chose to leave.  Not everyone who is in the Church does this nor should they.  The lesson for those who have remained faithful is threefold.  One, it is a warning not to abandon faith.  Two, it is a lesson on the great mercy of the Father.  Third, it is an exhortation to continually recognize the Father’s great mercy extended to us even as we remain faithful sons that are still in need of forgiveness.

I believe it’s no accident that St. Luke records for us the incident at Simon’s home in Luke 7 in order to prepare us for this parable in chapter fifteen.  The point of Jesus’ teaching there is not that Simon needed to go out and engage in manifest sin.  The point Christ was making was that Simon needed to recognize his own sin and be grateful that his many sins were forgiven.

To be sure, no prodigal thinks prior to their apostasy, “Oh, I don’t have enough sin.  I need to go out and do some ‘wild living’!”  Instead, those at the greatest risk of abandoning the faith generally fall into two categories:  one, a legalistic camp — believing a life can be lived on this side of glory with no sin and two, an “all is grace” camp – believing that a reformation of life as a Christian should, at best, not be emphasized.  Both potential prodigals ignore the clear exhortation of Holy Scripture to “take heed, lest he fall” (1 Cor 10).

The “legalist”, thinking himself to be perfect, ignores his daily need of the Gospel.  The “all is grace” man ignores his need to strive, work, and discipline himself in his sanctification.  One day the “perfect man” is confronted with a sin he cannot bear up under because he has so neglected the Gospel.  The “grace man” falls into a pattern of sin that destroys faith because he has so neglected the seriousness of his sin.  These sins that lead to apostasy are generally sudden, manifest, and utterly devastating to both the prodigal and everyone around him.

Adding to this, if a prodigal does return to the faith, he often falls into the opposite ditch or goes deeper into his former error.  The legalist, reacting to his former situation, all but ignores sanctification or he tries to double down on his perfectionism.  The more libertine fellow will often do the opposite; seek to guard against sin only and neglect the Gospel or, attempting to justify his rebellion, put forth a recapitulated version of his former antinomian theology.  Put simply prodigals tend to experience a pendulum swing from one extreme to the other.

Take “Dave” for instance.  Dave was an all-American Christian man, a pastor, and eventually a teacher at his denomination’s college.  All he cared about was making sure he followed the commands of Holy Scripture and of his success as a college professor.  One day Dave is injured while on his daily bike ride and his doctor prescribes a muscle relaxer.  Dave becomes addicted.  Instead of turning to the Gospel for help, he determined all was lost by his moral failure and chooses apostasy instead of forgiveness.  Fortunately, Dave returns to the faith, however there’s a problem.  Instead of retaining his former love of God’s law, he completely abandons it in favor of an “all is grace” antinomianism.  Or, conversely, Dave decides that this time, he will try harder than ever before not to succumb to addiction and continue to all but ignore the Gospel.

Then take “Chris”.  Chris is popular, good-looking, and an elder in his local parish.  He teaches one of the adult bible study classes where his exposition of the Gospel is virtually irresistible.  Unfortunately, his “all is grace” message has fueled a vice of his – kleptomania.  He begins robbing liquor stores.  Eventually Chris is caught and is disciplined by his church.  Like “Dave”, instead of seeking forgiveness, Chris goes prodigal.  After some time, Chris does come to his senses and returns.  Only this time, he is going to take God’s law seriously.  Never mind all of this “grace” stuff.  Chris is going to follow the Law.  Or, conversely, Chris will decide that he didn’t get grace enough.  Now he thinks that because of his descent into gross and manifest sin, he is not only qualified to teach bible class, but is more qualified than anyone to be in the pastoral office.

Clearly, both “Dave” and “Chris” have it all wrong as prodigals.  As we will see, the returning prodigal still must deal with temporal consequences.  This might include, for defrocked clergymen who have betrayed Christ’s Church, to remain out of the ministry for a very extended period if not for a lifetime.  Like the situation regarding salvation, being an apostate does not further qualify a man for ministry over those who, while still sinners, have remained in the faith.  At any rate, we observe here that not only going prodigal, as it were, has no benefits to faith, it is also a detriment when said prodigal returns.  This is especially true when that man is attempting to enter into a formal ministry capacity.

Furthermore, what is most troubling about the returning prodigal is that it seems they are making attempts to salve their damaged consciences with another gospel.  (This would be a good example of the “all is grace” prodigal slipping deeper into his former error or the “legalist” reacting against his previous Gospel-less life.) This “gospel” tells them that somehow their sin is necessary because it brought them to a fuller understanding of the true Gospel.  Or that they never really understood the Gospel before they fell headlong into sin.  Furthermore, the claim is made that those who haven’t rebelled can’t understand the cross of Christ as deeply as a sin-scarred prodigal can.  Some intimate that they are better and more qualified teachers of the Gospel than men who have been faithful.  Moreover, this attitude perpetuates the lie that the Gospel has no power to transform men’s lives for the better; that there is no “getting better” as a Christian.  There is only the greater realization of how evil we really are.  For those in the “prodigal works salvation camp”, if you will, the entire Christian project is simply becoming accustomed to the justification in Christ we enjoy as Christians.  In other words, for the hyper-grace prodigal, the only “good work” we can do as Christians is to get more fully acquainted with our Justification.  In his mind, anything further amounts to legalism.

Additionally, I am frequently stunned at the surprise of the prodigals who aren’t welcomed back into the fold with open arms.  Totally unwilling to recognize the damage his own sin caused, the prodigal is quick to point out how his faithful brother mistrusts him.  We prodigals tend to condemn our faithful brothers for not being as gracious and welcoming as the Father.  It’s somehow permissible if we sin all the day long, yet we condemn our brothers for the sin of not being perfectly forgiving?  That’s hypocrisy.  If we as prodigals want forgiveness from our brothers, we too must be willing to give some grace to them – especially those whom we have betrayed the most.

I am reminded here of a relationship in my own life with a faithful brother who I hurt quite deeply with my sin.  While he never gave up on me, he simply would not allow me back in his life until he was convinced that I’d been brought to genuine repentance.  In this case, what my friend did with me was right, good, and wise.  But sometimes people are simply hurt by our sin such to the degree that it’s difficult to forgive the offending brother.  Prodigals, like me, should allow those who have been hurt by our sin this latitude.  We should recall that we have been forgiven many sins and that if a brother falters in the sin of unforgiveness, we too should extend him grace.

Moreover, the prodigal must take into account that it is perfectly legitimate for offended brothers to both forgive us all the while treating us with caution.  It is equally legitimate for certain brothers to mete out temporal punishment to us if they are in a proper position of authority to do so.  So for instance, a pastor who falls into manifest sin must be willing to undergo that church’s discipline process.  Instead of fleeing or decrying such discipline as “unforgiveness”, that man should, if he is genuinely repentant, embrace such discipline as from the Lord.

Finally, what many don’t realize about prodigals is that they will live with regret and shame the remainder of their lives.  As stated, I believe that some will try to salve those emotions and memories by falsely believing that their sin was somehow necessary.  A person can only do that exercise so long before he realizes such efforts are akin to holding your breath.  One day, the brutal reality will hit you.  You abandoned the faith and there was not a single shred of what you did that was good, let alone profitable to faith.  You didn’t earn a higher place in understanding salvation.  All you did – every bit of it – was evil and corrupt to the core.

Despite all of this, God be praised that while we were still a long way off, our dear heavenly Father ran to embrace us once again.  And that really is our only hope.  My son teases me because sometimes I weep during the singing of the Agnus Dei after the consecration of the elements.  It goes, “Oh Christ thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world.  Have mercy upon us.”  This moment is particularly striking because I realize I cannot in any way justify my sin and that I need One who can take it away.  My sin served no purpose.  It was stupid.  Irrational.  It hurt countless people who I said I loved.  Yet the Father still sees fit to welcome me back with open arms for the sake of His Son.  He called off the war, despite my best efforts to destroy Him and everyone around me.  He robes me with the robes of a son.  And now, far from thinking that sin and rebellion are what is required, my Father empowers me with His own Son’s body and blood and the preaching of His word to be the man I was created to be; a man who loves His law and His commandments.  I can truly put my hand to the plow in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to love much because I have been forgiven much all while recognizing that it didn’t require me abandoning the faith.  The Father’s love and grace was always there.

Here, I am reminded of the words the Father spoke to the older son.  “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Not only did the older son struggle to believe this about his Father, but I believe the younger son did as well.  This is what initiated his leaving.  May all of us grasp tightly to this truth whether faithful or former apostate:  by the death and resurrection of Christ and the forgiveness of all our sins, all that the Father has is now our inheritance. May we both live in accord with that truth as well as continually recognizing our daily need for our Father’s great mercy and grace.

FIN

Image: http://www.freebibleimages.org/

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Do you Really Want to Know What Love is?

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“But love your enemies, do good to them… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

–Luke 6:35

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What is love?

Back in the “awesome 80s”, when I was young, love songs by “rock-and-roll” bands were all the rage.

I particularly remember one very catchy and memorable line above all, from the group Foreigner:

“I want to know what love is. I want you to show me…”

When I was teaching a high school religion class in the nation of Slovakia several years later, I introduced the topic of love to the class by starting to play that song from a “boom box,” dramatically turning around, and quickly writing that line from the song on the blackboard… The class ate that up. Probably all they remember from that day…

If you do a Google search, love define, it says the noun love is “an intense feeling of deep affection” or “a great interest and pleasure in something.”

The verb’s definition is “to feel deep affection for (someone)” or “to like or enjoy very much”. What this means, of course, is that we can say things like “I love my wife” and also “I love chocolate ice cream” and not think there is anything too strange about this….

The Greeks, you have probably heard, did not just use one word for love, but four: To quickly review, they are “Eros, (romantic love), Phileo, (enjoyment, fondness, friendship), Storge (family loyalty) and Agape (unconditional love with stick-ability)…”[i]

The great English author C.S. Lewis, while writing his own book on the topic of love, or, the loves, had an interesting experience. I quote from a summary of that book:

“When [he] first set out to write about love, [Lewis’] thesis was “God is love” (as St. John writes in the Bible). Therefore, he divided natural human loves into two types—Gift-love (which is God-like, because God is self-giving) and Need-love (which is unlike God, because God lacks nothing). Based on this distinction, Lewis planned to praise Gift-love and criticize Need-love. However, he soon realized that things are more complicated. For one thing, human beings never lose their need for God, and this is the way God intends it to be…”[ii]

The Bible speaks of God’s love for us in terms of phileo, again, “enjoyment, fondness, friendship”, and agape love. Of Agape, one writer says this:

“Agape puts the beloved first and sacrifices pride, self-interest and possessions for the sake of that beloved. This is the love that God has for us which inspired him to sacrifice His son and for His son to obey and sacrifice himself. It is the kind of love we are commanded to have for one another. It is a love of supreme greatness…only Agape is free from the error of our humanity. Agape is the glue that holds the other loves fast and gives us the wisdom and patience when the other loves fail.”[iii]

We could go on saying much more about love Some have pointed out how in order to “do love” one needs to have another person, a community, and this explains why only the Christian’s God, being Tri-une, can actually be described as being love itself. In other words, God is love because He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And of course, the world isn’t wrong to associate strong feelings of care and affection with love!

And yet, at the same time, when the Bible speaks of love, it speaks primarily in terms of actions…

This is why even though I’ve heard many definitions which I think highlight an aspect of love, the best definition of love is this: “to seek the good of the other, and to take actions – sometimes very difficult – to ensure this…”

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Such a definition of love goes against the grain of what our culture today accepts.  

Many, especially many elites for example, might be hesitant to say that there is any real goodness in the first place – at least that we can consistently know across cultures and history.

In other words, what is good evolves, and so defining love the way I have would be problematic from the start!

Everything is “socially constructed,” they might say.

Nevertheless though, practically speaking, we know that people certainly do have their own ideas of what is good now; what we could call good actions today.

And even if they might give lip-service to ideas like tolerance, free speech, and self-determination for a while, they also, like any other human being, will end up condemning some actions.

In fact, we now know that they will even find some ideas of goodness that have been absolute staples throughout world history as being “beyond the pale”!

For example, in Finland, a pastor and a politician are currently being criminally tried for a small booklet they wrote in 2004 insisting that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that according to the Bible homosexual acts are therefore objectively sinful. This, their accusers, say, is “hate speech.”[iv]

So, what is considered goodness today, as matters currently have “evolved”? Well, perhaps the well-known rapper Eminem – who just “took the knee” in the Super Bowl last week – gets pretty close to articulating a widely-held modern ethic when, many years ago already (at least ten years ago) he said this:

“I don’t care if you’re black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, short, tall, fat, skinny, rich or poor. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Simple as that.”

In a sense, Eminem is simply voicing a form of the Golden Rule, that, in its own way, has Christian roots. Before Christ, teachers like Buddha and Confucius were content to express this rule in its negative form: “Don’t do to other people what you don’t want them to do to you.”[v]

Jesus Christ, of course, said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” – found in our Gospel reading today – and many people will at least pretend to respect and follow this rule for very good reason, even if they don’t actually do it very often…

Indeed, this is the way it goes. And here, the “social constructionists” are, in this sense, very wrong. For no matter how far man gets from God, they are going to keep coming back to realizations like Eminem’s. Namely, that there is much truth in the very simple Golden Rule, even if what it actually demands of us in this or that situation is not always that easy to figure out….[vi]

For we can’t escape what it means to be men and women, as God’s creatures. We know there is something called love, and there is something called justice, and we persistently must reason about how these two things go together….

The “common sense” Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid for instance, writing in the 18th century, wrote the following:

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 1997, p. 117)

Again, these are just some of the things it seems different groups of people do not really “design” or “construct” (unconsciously or consciously), but instead, as if by built-in design, can recognize and receive. In other words, they appear to be ethical principles that are intrinsic to our nature, our properly-functioning human being.

So there is a fallout of sorts from Adam and Eve’s experience of “the Fall” in the Garden of Eden. We still know a bit about justice and love and God, as, for example, all people the world over are given joy by God (see Acts 14, also Psalm 104:15)… and hence are going to experience feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving from time to time…

And regarding goodness and love, the wisest of the worldly-wise  know it is not merely a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of thing, a mere “tit-for-tat”, a “quid pro quo”… it is indeed often about gifts given and received across time, sometimes over years…

Love, or need love, is a gift from God all people know. The non-Christian couple can have a happy and stable relationship across time. The caddy of the golfer who pays him can have a real admiration, respect, and affection for his boss. And, as Jesus says in our reading today, sinners love those who love them…

And yet, it is about gifts to a limit…

Must not reciprocity come at some point?!

As Romans 3:23 reminds us, all of us fall short of the glory of God… The glorious God who really did love us, his enemies, and is always eager to forgive, and hence, create relationship…

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Yes, our love is fallen.

Sinful man cannot comprehend the love of God.

This is why, for years, human beings, knowing their guilt and knowing the divine nature, sacrificed animals to their gods in their formal religions. And even children.

And it is why when the going gets tough, people are so ready to sacrifice others today in all kinds of way: as scapegoats, for example… “to throw [this or that person] under the bus” as we say. Someone has to pay the price, the cost, for our sin.

The Bible, on the other hand, condemned such acts of the nations around them – particularly the child sacrifice – and the animal sacrifices that God prescribed for His own nation, Israel, were to be seen more as provided than demanded.

As Abraham answered his son Isaac before God tested his faith like never before: “God will provide the sacrifice…”

No, these animal sacrifices were unique in their ultimate meaning: the blood of lambs, for example, pointed to the Lamb of God who God freely gave to take away the sin of the world, and hence the blood from the sacrifices really forgave their sins.

Again, recall that the Bible asserts that there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. And so the Father truly offered His Son, His only Son, to redeem us.

This is what our worship is all about really. Remembering and exulting in and participating in this truth!

And therefore, also offering God gifts ourselves as we receive those He continually gives to us in this worship service, this holy service where He first serves us…

And yet, in our society today, how much do we “get it” – this “holy service” this “Divine service”? Maybe, “buying into” in a modern consumerist society – where “we go out of our way to improve our wealth levels, comfort levels, physical appearances” – we have gotten too used to doing the things we do for personal benefit… (Harold Ristau).

Not too long ago, someone sent me a link to a sermon online. It happened to be from an old friend in seminary. He is a professor now, and made some very good insights, I thought, about some of the problems with modern Christian worship. It is very good, and as I read large portions of it to my family a couple weeks ago, I read it to you now:

“In other cultures, religion is more about giving and sacrificing. Yes, it’s a worship driven by fear not love. But there is a sense, in the best versions, that the creatures owe the creator worship and praise; and he owes them nothing. Theoretically, even if there wasn’t an afterlife, it would still be worthwhile going to the temple, to pay respects, give thanks and adore God. For, ‘Lord, I love the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells.’ We love it in itself and not just because we get stuff there, even though what we get there—the gracious and amazing gifts of God—is obviously necessary for our salvation.

In other words, our notion of perceiving church as a place where we ‘get stuff’, even in Lutheran circles, has sometimes deprived us of the beautiful sentiment of going to church to adore our Lord as we encounter His majesty. And believe it or not, in our going to church ‘to get’ attitudes, we can make an equally works-righteous error as the worshippers in false religions, since our getting stems from a culture of entitlement. We deserve a stress-free retirement. We deserve a high wage. We deserve high marks ….

We deserve our “blessings”. For when it comes to the Gospel, it can also become about getting something we deserve, even though we may not believe we need to work for it.

Isn’t it a peculiar observation of the human condition that we are more apt to appreciate and value those things which we don’t feel entitled to? After all, when you are entitled to something, when you believe that you deserve something, you control that something. You get shocked when it is taken away from you, or told that you are not entitled to it … things like civil or human rights (as is how many Lutherans have felt over the last few months and are expressing these concerns in Ottawa as we speak). For all of us, we don’t value those things that much, think about it them much, until we feel like those entitlements are being threatened. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we didn’t believe that we were entitled to all the wonderful gifts that God distributes to us in His holy house, we would be more eager to attend and receive. People were horrified by the closure of churches; but they didn’t line up to enter when they were ‘open for business’, so to speak. I think it’s safe to say that there has been more running away from, rather than running to, our Father’s house and family meal over the last two years. Yet if we really valued what happens in the divine service, we would celebrate it every week, as the Bible and Confessions instruct, wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t show up late or find excuses to skip, avoid, or reschedule, right? We would faithfully say our prayers in the pews in preparation instead of reading the news in the bulletin; we would sing hymns with zeal, instead of mumbling the words, or arriving late for [worship]; we would focus on Jesus instead of getting distracted by meandering thoughts, or tempted to take the time to reflect upon [other things that are interesting to us], wouldn’t we? In other words, none of us values the means of grace as much as we ought. Yet God does, and that counts the most….” (end quote from Ristau)

Our God is a God of love, and therefore, of action – even as this is often in the form of simple and humble action, hiding His full gloriousness behind things like the bread and the wine that partake of at this altar…

He shows up to personally forgive us, in effect laying His hand on each one of our heads as He forgives us our sin as we consume His body and blood.

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Again, we know that external actions go a long way in this world – even humble and simple actions sometimes! – and even if the world is often wrong in promoting actions that seem to be of personal benefit to us, it is right in pointing out the importance of action: 

Benjamin Franklin said “Well done is better than well said,” and we of course, take it from there…

“You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?”

“Put up, or shut up.”

“Show me, don’t tell me.”

“People lie, actions don’t.”

“Don’t just talk about it, be about it.”

“Actions speak louder than words.”

The world recognizes the importance of strong action. While one website I was looking at again puts the focus on one’s personal power and self-development it nevertheless made this point in terms a lot of people would understand.

“People speak a lot and do very little. Be it business, work, or personal life, you should always do things which you say. You should honor your words and be a person of integrity. By doing so you ensure that people trust you and your actions. Actions should always match your words. This is a sign of strong leadership and character.”[1]

And, there is something about action in the text I chose this morning, for example, as well:

…love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

So, interestingly, even as it is the opposite of the world in terms of the expectation that our actions should somehow earn God’s favor, attention, and salvation, the Bible nevertheless promotes a similar kind of wisdom as the one that we see in the world: action is critical, and our actions, among other benefits, communicate to others our beliefs, attitudes, and inspire others. 

The Bible puts it this way: a good tree is known by its good fruit.

In other words, the tree will *be* what it is… When a Christian mother and father urge their child to act like a Christian, they are, in effect, reminding him – who, like all of us, has a sinful “old Adam” – to act in accordance with their primary identity, the identity that God has freely given them…new creature in Christ! Child of God![vii]

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As faith in God grows… as it comes to better know God in the person of Jesus Christ… it comes to better know and understand the true nature of love, that is, Divine love.

All the things from our Gospel reading this morning in Luke 6 come to make better sense to us… we want to do the kinds of things Jesus talks about. We too, like our father in heaven, naturally want to be “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

And the actions that we find ourselves doing will not only look right on the outside to the people of God, but increasingly will be right on the inside, resembling the I Corinthians 13 impulses that Paul speaks about. After saying, for example, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” he goes on to proclaim:   

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…”

As we grow in as Christian, we love not because of what love does for us. Or because of fear of punishment or hope of reward. But we love others, God and man, for their own sake.

I’ll say this though: both sections of Scripture like Luke 6, today’s reading, and I Corinthians 13, with their emphases on hard actions and wholly pure motivations respectively, can at times leave us feeling a bit insufficient, and not only this, but wholly condemned…

Yes, they are actions that we should do – and again, I think these two passages taken together, from Luke 6 and I Corinthians 13, are more or less the best descriptions you could possibly give of a perfect life in the fallen world!

And no, we do not do them, or do them as we ought, but fall short of the glory of God.

For even insofar as we’re new creatures in Christ, we only begin to do them as we ought…

And yet, Jesus Christ pulled it off. And not for His own benefit. His was a perfect life and innocent death for us…

And this, my friends, this is a life that is now ours as well. In Him, we share in all the blessings that He has won by living in perfect love… So we could be together forever.

It is the ultimate picture of what love is.

His life and death for us, and then credited to our account… as we are baptized into Him and enter into this eternal love! 

Buried!

Risen!

Ascended into heaven and sitting at the very right hand of God!

Again, this is the life that He has lived on our behalf, and that is ours, and this is the life that He has called us to as well!

Let me go back to my wonderful pastor friend to give him the last word:

“Our Lord Jesus always shows up [for our worship, for the ‘Divine Service’]; He’s the first one there, never late, and with no locked doors barring access to His grace. Though we are faithless, He remains faithful. He is always well prepped, and–without exception–eager to receive, receive you, into His holy presence as invitees to His holy meal. This faithful steward of His own mysteries has prepared your heart, even when you haven’t. And even though He owes you nothing, He offers you everything. Just fix your eyes upon His crucified body. For He values you. He values you so much that He won’t let you get away with departing with anything but His peace. That’s right: His peace. And that is where the getting really gets good. When we go to church, we get peace.

…We go to [worship to] get something. God doesn’t mind. After all, it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And God is an extraordinary giver…”

Amen


[i] https://fromerostoagape.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/eros-romantic-love-and-agape-unconditional-love/

[ii] https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-four-loves/summary

[iii] See link in footnote 1.

[iv] https://www.gottesdienst.org/gottesblog/2022/2/16/latest-on-trial-of-rsnen-and-pohjola-in-finland

[v] Bovon, in his Luke commentary (Fortress, 2002), points out that the positive form can be found in Homer, being expressed by one of his characters (his reasoning about why he is doing something), though not stated as a formal rule.

[vi] From a blog post I did on the Golden Rule for my academic librarian blog: “Indeed it is. Forms of this rule have an impressive pedigree, appearing, importantly, in concrete testimony both trans-historically and trans-culturally. And this, it seems, is most significant for our discussion here regarding social constructionism and its either implicit or explicit claims about power’s all-encompassing role. For understood rightly[ii], the Golden Rule’s profundity is undeniable. As relational beings, all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constantly make moral judgments about ourselves and others (easier!). Here, the Golden Rule gives us the means whereby we might test the consistency of our judgments vis a vis our own lives, consciously self-legislate our behavior, and even recognize the significant overlap of our judgments with those of others – particularly those committed to living ethical lives. Further, it is conducive to building human understanding, respect, and mutuality – solidarity, trust, and even love (Guseinov, 2014).”

[vii] Took out the rest of this section:

This is why, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12, verses 1 and 2: ‘

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

…because, the fact is, we can lose sight of the mercies of God – all the wonderful things that He has done and does for us in Jesus Christ – and fall back into the world’s patterns, failing to live in repentance and faith.

Jesus would have us be those who go beyond the good intentions and to do the right thing, the good thing, the hard thing for our God and our neighbor, which is precisely why He told the chief priests and Pharisees who countered him this parable in Matthew 21:28-32:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

Faith clings to God because it has no choice. Only His freely given forgiveness can give us lasting and true hope.

And He can save us from what Peter calls “the empty way of life”: a worldly life that makes null and void the love of God…

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

How to See True Prosperity When it Comes

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Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
    they will not see prosperity when it comes.”

– Jeremiah 17:5-6

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It has been said that the biggest reason people in the Western world doubt God is because of the problem of evil, both natural evils (like earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and tsunamis) and, perhaps more importantly, the evils we see men commit.

And interestingly enough, the Bible itself is all over this concern.

In fact, there are a number of times when God’s people complain about how they suffer while the wicked thrive, flourish.

In the book of Job, we hear this great man of faith whom God commends like no other complain that,

“The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;

He blindfolds its judges.

If it is not [God], then who is it?” (9:24)

And:

“The tents of robbers are safe, and those who provoke God are secure – those who carry their god in their hands” (12:6)

He later also asks:

“Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?… Their homes are safe from fear; no rod of punishment from God is upon them.” (21:8, 9)[i]

The prophet Malachai is bold to say “So now we call the arrogant blessed. Not only do evildoers prosper, they even test God and escape…” (3:15)

And did you know that the prophet Habakkuk deals with this issue as well? The entire book, in fact, is about dealing with the initial complaint with which he begins his writing, namely:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.”

He goes on to ask: “Why do You remain silent when the wicked devours one more righteous than he?” (1:13). 

And right before our reading today, just a few chapters earlier in Jeremiah 12:1, you can see – very interestingly I think – that the prophet tries to be careful, respectful even, as He also makes his concerns known:

“You are always righteous, Lord,
    when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

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You might also remember that in Genesis 18 – Abraham, the man God called from among the nations start a His new people, Israel – was interested in helping his nephew Lot avoid getting hit in the God’s crossfire.

He prays that God would not entirely destroy Lot’s home, the city of Sodom, but that he would spare it if He can find 10 righteous men there. Prior to Abraham getting God to bring down the numbers from 50 to 10, he had cried out to Him:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)

Abraham was confused and who knows?—maybe He was even more confused after God granted his request, perhaps giving the impression that Abraham had corrected Him. In any case, we can see that Abraham did not understand why God would act the way He did in His judgment.

We too, might often be confused by God.

And that prompts all manner of explanations about why God does what He does, given that He often does not give us direct answers to such questions in Scripture.  

I explored this a bit more this past week and found an online article by a Jewish rabbi dealing with the question: “Why Do the Righteous Suffer and the Wicked Prosper.”[ii]

The rabbi is careful to lay out his parameters. He carefully qualifies his words by stating beforehand that there are multiple and various kinds of causes lying behind every phenomenon and that “we cannot attribute a given cause to any particular case.” He then goes on, however, mostly using Scripture, to say that the righteous might be denied the opportunity “to earn an easy livelihood”…

-because of a sin previously committed that is now being repaid (Proverbs 11:31[iii]).

-or because one has failed to be zealous for God in confronting one’s contemporaries (think here of Eli refusing to confront his out-of-control sons in I Samuel, chapter 2).

-or because a person’s “patience and good outlook in the service of God” is demonstrated so that others can learn from that person (think of Job).[iv]

In like fashion, the rabbi says, “God might show favor to an evil person for a number of reasons”. He gives some very interesting examples:

-He might reward him in this world for an earlier good deed.

-He might give an evil person riches to hold onto, or a “deposit he has been entrusted [with]” so they can eventually be given to a “righteous son” (the rabbi than quotes Scripture that mentions the righteous – not particularly righteous sons – getting the wealth of the wicked[Job 27:17, and Ecclesiastes 2:26]).

-God might also give an evil person wealth so that it might be the cause of one’s own “undoing or even [ones’s] demise”. Ecclesiastes says: “There is a great evil I have observed under the sun – riches kept by their owner for his own injury.”

-Also, “[w]ealth might also be given to an evil person as a sign of God’s patience, in the eventuality that he will repent and become worthy of his lot” (see 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33).

-Another example: “Wealth might be given to an evil person as repayment for the good deeds of his righteous father. In 2 Kings chapter 10, as a reward for driving Baal-worship out of Israel, Jehu was granted four generations on the throne, regardless of the worthiness of his successors.”[v]

-Finally, the rabbi says this:

“[W]ealth might be granted to one who might be inclined toward evil on the inside but outwardly acting righteously. This is a test. When they see how the wicked prosper, will they turn from the service of God and follow the path of evil? This separates those who are loyal to God from those who allow the wicked to persuade them. The purpose of this is so that those who succeed will receive their reward from God.”

Now, we must be honest: even as these are all very much law answers, there may indeed be something to many of these reasons, (and, again, there are Scriptural examples to back them up).

At the same time though, when it comes to our own personal circumstances these are things that we cannot know with any certainty.

Remember, for example, what Jesus said about the man born blind: He was blind not because either he or his parents sinned – as Jesus’s disciples thought – but rather, to demonstrate the glory of God through Jesus’ healing of the man!

And really, for all that there might be to these reasons, we are still missing the greatest and most important of the reasons – the one which we can know for sure – and the one which we will indeed get to…

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Not quite yet though – because before that I first need to bring some balance to our little Bible Study here!

I started this message by speaking about many of the ways the Bible itself – God’s word itself! – complains about how the righteous appear to suffer while the wicked thrive!

In contrast to those passages though, it is of course important to note that there is a contrary theme in the Bible too. And one, it appears, that is shared by all of our Bible readings this morning!

Our Psalm speaks about how the one who delights in God’s law, or Torah – which, here can also be translated as “direction” or “instruction” – is:

…like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—

    whatever they do prospers.”

It also assures us that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction…”

And what about the reading for today from Jeremiah that I based this sermon on: it too indeed asserts that the wicked ones who trust in man and mere flesh will not see prosperity… They will be like a “bush in the wastelands” while the righteous man is a tree whose roots are sent out to the stream. Such a tree does not fear when heat comes and has no worries in a year of drought…

And what of our Gospel lesson? It also talks about how it will not be those who are now rich, well-fed, happy, and who reject Christ who are blessed… but rather those who look pretty much the opposite!

His disciples – even fishing business owners like Peter, tax collectors like Matthew, and almost certain sons of privilege like the disciple John – Jesus characterizes as those who are poor, hungry, mourning, and oppressed by the world because of their Christian faith!

The Kingdom, he says, is yours!

Blessed indeed, they will be satisfied, laugh, and leap for joy!  

+++

Why can these passages be so confident in what they assert?

Well, in the book of Job, when the man himself is being assailed by his friends… being told that he is not a genuine believer because of all the bad things that are happening to him, he protests mightily.

Job defends his integrity even as he admits his sins – and also, of course, complains a bit in the process!

And if you know the story, you know that at the end of the book of Job, he was vindicated, and was blessed once again!

This was God’s way of saying to Job’s friends, a rather disloyal lot if there ever was one: “Job was right. You were wrong….”

So, in the end, God vindicates His people before the world that could only point, shriek, and mock.

Now I do not want to say that God’s vindication of those He loves never ever comes in this life, like it did in Job’s, by means of His being blessed with earthly blessings again in the end.  

At the same time, we indeed know from the testimony of Scripture that even God’s faithful people did not see this as a foolproof marker.

And of course – as we might gather from those first Scripture passages I read this morning – their prayers often amount to something like this: “God we know that we are your children. We know that You are good. So why is this happening to us? Why don’t you do something?”

And the answer is… the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This message the Apostle Paul shared in our Epistle reading:

“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures… he was buried… he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and… he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born… this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”

The Gospel is the true goodness, and the true prosperity.

It is the treasure above all earthly treasures.

For in it we see sin defeated by goodness, the devil conquered by the Messiah, and death destroyed by resurrection.

Sometimes, as we pursue the things of this world and the things that make us happy here and now, this message doesn’t seem like much to us.[vi] Nevertheless, this great Gospel even breaks through the hearts of men who even after they are saved by Jesus still struggle to appreciate it!

We see that a man like Rob Bell – though having a bad theological outlook – did indeed get this right:

Love Wins.

It is because those who trust in Him will ultimately not be put to shame, for God loves His children.

This world is passing away, and the new creation and new blessings for His people are coming…. Where all will finally be set to rights…

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This is the solid message for us.

It is trustworthy; it is reliable. And it mocks the world in its certainties which are really falsehoods.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News and not fake news, news that is not about us, but is for us, containing the content – the Promise – that overturns the world.

So we hear this morning that blessings in this world, prosperity in this world, is not a reliable indicator that God is truly blessing you for your good, that He is pleased with you…

How can we really know that God is pleased with us, right now?  

We know it in the Gospel… in the cross and resurrection… in the fact that He is your Father, and in love, sent His only Son to destroy sin, death, and the devil for you!

In giving you His forgiveness, life, and salvation through His precious gifts: His true body and blood in the sacrament, His tender adoption of you in holy baptism, and His giving you all those who loved you enough to share the love of Christ with you!

As Paul says, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” and as He was raised, we too who are baptized into Him, like this sheet of paper in a book [actually do this], not only died with Christ but will also be raised and ascended and sitted and the right hand of the Father!

+++

Still feel besieged by doubts?

Are you sometimes haunted by your modern scientific and technological mindset?

Or perhaps a sensitive poetic disposition distraught by the world’s abject brokenness?

No matter! For we also take comfort in the fact that even as God does not scorn the blessings that have come through human reason and creativity He also, ultimately, is the one who will determine what constitutes proof of what is truly true and really real… what really gives us comfort and meaning in life!

When the Apostle Paul answers the Greek philosophers in Athens by saying:

“[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead…”

…let that message ultimately bring comfort you, for Christ has died for you and forgives you all of your sins!

Test the claims if you must, for there is nothing to fear! He is truly raised from the dead for you, and ultimately, the full flowering of this confidence, this certainty, this knowledge – this knowledge that defeats the world! – will be attained in the resurrection of the dead, your resurrection as well…

All doubts will pass away as we know fully and are fully known….

Now of course none of this means that we cannot vindicate before the world our brothers and sisters now as well… by, for example, attending to their material and physical needs in this world!

In fact, this is the kind of thing God urges us to do.

He would indeed bless us in this world through one another, as we use the blessings that each one of us has to be a blessing, and as we even do more, blessing our enemies!

“Many are unworthy!”

…we might think, but let us always ponder our own unworthiness and reflect on the love of Christ…

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One more thing, and we’ll wrap it up. I read a blog post this past week which dramatized a bit the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. I think it is worth sharing here:

“How did I get here? She was a little nervous. Her eyes were focused on Jesus. He won’t throw me out. He’ll be happy I’m here. She walked toward Him as everyone realized she was in the room. No one invited her. She was the last person you’d expect to be in an upstanding member of society’s house, let alone an authority of righteousness, such as the Pharisees.

Even to this day she doesn’t remember making some sort of plan or [careful] decision to barge into the Pharisees’ party and pour her perfume on Jesus. There was no deciding about it. She had watched him eat with tax collectors. She had seen him touch the leper. She heard him tell a divorced woman she was forgiven. She knew He loved her. She wasn’t allowed in the synagogue. She could never offer enough at the temple to make up for her public past. She had given up. She was scared of God. She pretended to not care about what God thought. But deep down she did. Everyone does.

She didn’t think about it. She didn’t contemplate various claims of Jesus. She really had nowhere else to turn. There were no “options.” She had no choice. She knew Jesus would be happy to see her. She knew that she was safe with Him. She knew He would forgive her and wouldn’t call her “whore,” but her name.

She followed Him into the dinner party. She wasn’t courageous or bold. This was the only option…”  

The post ends like this:

“The Pharisees were shocked by the woman. They still thought they had a choice. They still lived in the fantasy that death was far off, that perhaps they were not that bad. Some said Jesus was the Messiah. They contemplated the possibility – as if they had a choice. As if they didn’t need a savior. As if they had options.

Sometimes, like this woman, you need to have all the other choices taken away from you until you see there is only One. And there is only One who actually has a choice. And He chose to die and rise. And He chose to give His inheritance to YOU…”

And so, let us go and do likewise, seeing ourselves first as those like that woman without a choice, and then reaching out to others like her, like one beggar showing another beggar where to find the bread… the glorious bread of life!  

The resurrection life will be one of perpetual acts of concrete love, but there is no reason that cannot become stronger among us in earnest.

Did you know, regarding the early Christians, that a watching world said things like this: “Look how they love one another!” In addition to people saying “those Christians – they’ll take anybody…”  

This, my friends, is also good news!

Mankind is in darkness and decay; Jesus has come to bring us, and all people, into light and prosperity. That we might have life and have it abundantly!

And we love one another because Jesus Christ first loved us!

It is in Him we know the full blessing of God, a blessing that will continue to unfold and flourish unto life and joy everlasting.

Amen.


[i] The Psalmist, one named Asaph, is not silent either. For instance, in Psalm 73 we read:

“For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” and “Behold, these are the wicked—always carefree as they increase their wealth”. Of himself, however, he complains that “I am afflicted all day long and punished every morning…”

The writer of Ecclesiastes says he has seen “a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness…” He dares to go on with his observation:

“There is a futility that is done on the earth: There are righteous men who get what the actions of the wicked deserve, and there are wicked men who get what the actions of the righteous deserve. I say that this too is futile… (8:14)”

[ii] Rabbi Jack Abramowitz first wisely notes that Deuteronomy 29:29 states that

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law…”

…but then he nevertheless goes on to speculate, as human beings are wont to do.

He also notes Ecclesiastes 5:8, a very interesting passage that will likely catch more people’s attention today: “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.” From: https://outorah.org/p/37805/

[iii] NIV: “If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!”

[iv] Another: because “it is a contrast to the evil of this person’s contemporaries, in order to highlight the afflicted party’s piety and devotion to God,” as opposed to the attitude and conduct of others.

Another quote the rabbi mentions that I do not fully understand is this one: “It is to increase his share in the Next World, as per Deuteronomy 8:16, “To do good for you at your end.” From: https://outorah.org/p/37805/

[v] He goes on to say “Similarly, Psalms 37:25 says, ‘I have never see a righteous person forsaken or his children begging for bread.’”

[vi] If I recall correctly (I can’t find the quote) Martin Luther had something very interesting to say about the Gospel at one point.

He essentially said that if some salesperson came to us offering eternal life – the ability to live forever here on earth, along with all manner of earthly blessings and glory – we would gladly find the offer appealing, even if we didn’t believe the man. However, when Jesus Christ comes offering eternal life in His Person, we often flee from the far greater goodness and blessing that He offers through His perfect life, death for our sins, and glorious resurrection.  

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

The Role of Christian Preaching in the Context of Christian Liturgy

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What is the significance of preaching in the context of the liturgy?

This is the question that will be addressed in this brief essay, using the 2011 book Preaching is Worship: the Sermon in Context, edited by Paul J. Grime and Dean W. Nadasdy, and particularly Bo Giertz’s essay “Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening,” as the primary resource for formulating an answer.

Prolegomena

First, such a question demands definitions. What is preaching? And what is liturgy? The first question seems easily answered enough: preaching is to publicly proclaim the Christian message to those assembled to listen, usually in the context of a Christian worship service.

To define “liturgy” is a bit more difficult. A dictionary definition of liturgy, obtained from the first hit of a Google search performed on Nov. 18, 2018, seems simple enough: “a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted.” James Wetzstein goes deeper when he speaks of “liturgical people” whose lives are “framed, defined and interpreted in our regular encounters with the divine mystery through a scripted rite…” which gives them a shared story that “is at odds with the stories of the world” (200-201) And Giertz, taking this even further, provides a grand image of liturgy indeed, with the believer dying to self through the Love of His Creator-Redeemer:

“Liturgy in the church is a foretaste of the eternal song of praise, an earthly expression of that which is the content of eternity and the basic melody of creation, a never ending thanksgiving to the Creator and Father of all things. Within its earthly poverty liturgy contains something of the beauty of the heavenly, the blessed sense of the nearness of the eternal, and the joy of being privileged to sacrifice everything in order to be one with Christ (238).”

Where did this powerful and abundantly rich thing called liturgy come from? Giertz makes the following claim, connecting the work of the liturgy with the work of the Word of God:

The Word of God creates the church.[1] Already in the days of the primitive church the Word of God gave to the life of the church those forms which have continued through the centuries. This includes both those forms which appear to be more or less improvised and spontaneous and those which appear fixed and unchangeable….

The relation to the apostolic age [and before] is obvious. It has flowed through the centuries like a ceaseless stream… [2] To the ancient worship of the synagogue the apostolic church added the Holy Communion, that new creation which she received from the Savior Himself and which is the center of all liturgy. As it is celebrated still, with the traditional chants, the Preface and the Sanctus, it is essentially a contribution of the first century.

The unbroken connection with apostolic times is also revealed in the external forms of the liturgy. The altar is today the only place in our modern life where, with unbroken tradition, the vestments are still used which were worn by people in that olden day (229-230, italics mine).

Giertz explains that the external forms of the liturgy are meant to be accompanied by the greatest and most God-pleasing internal motions:

The deepest significance of liturgy lies in the fact that it is a form which the Spirit Himself has created to preserve and deepen the life which he has awakened in the church… Liturgy is the work of the same Spirit in preserving the flame which has been lighted. It is the means by which the awakened soul is bound together with the fellowship of the church. It is a pathway for walking in the light, a road that leads forward through the years, and the soul is ever anew called to join itself with that royal priesthood which worships before the altar of God with prayer and thanksgiving, with Communion, and with a quiet listening to the Word of the Lord (230, italics mine).

There are parts of the Christian liturgy that God himself has given and revealed to His church (to be covered more in part III). In its essence, those parts of the liturgy revealed to us directly by God are the core matter:

“[In the liturgy] the whole earth is full of God’s glory, but we have no visible evidence for it. Yet here… are the divinely ordained signs that tell us the Word is present in all His creative and redemptive power: the baptismal water, the spoken Word of Christ, the bread and wine of the Supper. You do not need to “go to heaven” to hear angels and worship God. You need only come to the liturgy” (144, Cwirla, italics mine).

The whole of what we have come to call the Christian liturgy is not given and revealed to the church directly by God. Rather, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit that God has mediately given to the church through the church. It is therefore largely something that has been brought about, in part, through the freedom of God’s people working with the Holy Spirit. This means that it also has the potential to be added to—and even adjusted—depending on the circumstances and needs of each age.

This is nowhere more the case when it comes to that which brings about spiritual awakening, the Spirit-led Christian proclamation of the Word of God, in accordance with the Church’s unchanging Scriptures.

Preaching Bringing Awakening for Liturgy

Kent J. Burreson writes that “other than Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it is difficult to conceive of anything as formative and fundamental to Christian worship as preaching” (xi). For Giertz, the matter of preaching is of great importance because “awakening” is of great importance. And what is this?:

“Awakening is the fire that flames forth in dead souls. The fire burns in the breast when the sinner feels a pang in his conscience. He is gripped by an uneasiness that makes him ask, “What shall I do?” And the Spirit answers by enlightening the soul about the desperate character of sin and the boundless mercy of Christ” (230).

James A. Wetzstein sees not only preaching, but the liturgy itself as performing this action. Explaining that the liturgy “tak[es] its cues from Scripture” and that its “script tells the great story of creation, redemption, and sanctification among the people of God who have come to say back to God what He has said to them (199),” he says things like the following:

“Like any good story, the liturgy tells us things not only about the protagonist (in this case God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) but also about ourselves, the listeners of the story. And it is in this “people-producing power” that we often overlook the gift of liturgy. The story of the liturgy changes us….

All of the great stories of encounter with the divine share in framing the events of the liturgy of God’s people: the story of Moses at the burning bush, the account of the first Passover, Elijah hiding in the cave, the visit of the three strangers to Abraham and Sarah, the call of Isaiah, the confrontation between Nathan and David, the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the Last Supper, the conversion of Paul, and the vision given to John the Evangelist. The themes are the same. God’s people are confronted where they are by the divine presence. This confrontation takes place in the larger context of God’s covenant promises. The confrontation requires of God’s children a radical rethinking of who they are and who God is. The tension of confrontation is resolved through the gracious act of God, which is part and parcel of His presence and which, in the blessing, calls us to carry His message into the world” (199-200, italics his).  

Giertz does not deny that the liturgy may indeed have this effect on a Christian, but he sees the liturgy more as “preserving the flame which has been lighted” (230) ; being a slower and steadier burn which patiently can instruct the Christian in the fullness of the life that is truly life. For example, he writes:

“[Liturgy] speaks wisdom among those who are full grown. It uses all the richness of the Scriptures, all the meaningful symbols and prefigurements of Christ in the Old Testament. It prays the prayers of the Psalter anew, it listens to the prophecies and finds in them the deepest mysteries of the gospel. It loves exactly those hidden things that only slowly unfold themselves and constantly give the mind something new to ponder. Just because liturgy constantly turns back to the same holy forms, it dares to make use of the hidden wisdom of the Scriptures. Therefore it also loves that music which beneath an obvious simplicity hides unfathomable depths of humble worship and joyful longing” (231)

In other words, awakening leads to liturgy… is for liturgy. Even when Giertz hints that the liturgy might do the work of awakening, he seems to do so with Scripture reading and hymn-singing on his mind. He notes, for example, that Satan never knows—even in spiritually lethargic realms—whether “a little word from the Epistle lesson or a line from a hymn will fall on good ground…” (237).

Overall, for Giertz, awakening which confronts “sleeping sinner[s]” in fundamentally life-altering ways comes through the proclamation of the word, preaching: “the most common method is the preaching of the Word of God, the prophetic message, in the Spirit of awakening” (236). He describes this matter of awakening quite colorfully in a number of places. For example:

“The Holy Spirit always needs to awaken slumbering souls, stir up the dust, push the old Adam against the wall, and blow a new breath of life into the dead bones. Awakening is never superfluous, as long as we are in the flesh” (232).

Of course, the purpose of the sermon in the liturgy can be hijacked. Giertz writes that the liturgy can even become awakening’s “chief enemy”[3]:

“A false liturgy would rather clip the wings of the Word of God. It loves to make the sermon itself a portion of liturgy framed in liturgical formulations and Psalm verses and spoken with disciplined carefulness in a language removed from all concentration and all specific and accusing actuality… It accepts the ancient pulpit language and the time honored words. But they have lost their point, and they are so far removed from everyday sins that an unrepentant heart can listen to them with great satisfaction” (236).

What then, is the right way to prepare for the sermon in the context of the liturgy? Primarily, David Schmitt tells us, “the sermon recognizes God’s historic intervention as recorded in the biblical text but also confesses God’s continuing intervention through the public proclamation of His word and hopes for God’s final intervention in the fulfillment of all that God has promised (20)”.

In addressing the practical matters here, David J. Peter writes that the pericopal system allows God and not the popular culture to “dictate the subject of the sermon” (57) and Schmitt adds that “…in handling the Scriptures as literary texts inspired by the Holy Spirit and pointing to Christ, pastors use textual exposition, theological confession, evangelical proclamation, and hearer depiction in their sermons” (20).

Preaching or Liturgy as Pinnacle? And that Pinnacle’s Nature?

Charles A. Gieschen uses the memorable analogy of the sermon as a solo, which “blends with the concert sung before and after it” (90). Helpful as this may be, the previous section brings up the question: what is primary? Liturgy or preaching? On the back of Preaching is Worship, we read a statement which puts them side-by-side with one another:

“The sermon is ultimately an act of worship itself. Here God graces the listener with His Word, written in the Scriptures and proclaimed by the preacher. He graces the Table with His presence, the visible Word served by the celebrant. Altar and pulpit are in fellowship” (back of book).

And yet, as regards the liturgy, the Lord’s Supper, or the Sacrament of the Altar, is clearly the core component. And historically, the Lord’s Supper has been seen as the pinnacle of the entire worship service, as important as the sermon might be. As Kenneth W. Wieting argues:

“There can be no greater misunderstanding of the Divine Service than to deny or downplay the reality of Christ’s presence and the purpose for which He is present… the Lord’s Supper is central to regular weekly worship and not an appendage or an occasional extra. That is also why the sermon is properly used to set the table, inviting those guests prepared to commune to receive the heavenly food Jesus comes to serve” (74, 76).

Even more jarringly, when Giertz says that “sacraments need form, the order of worship must have some definite pattern” (232) one must notice that the sacraments already are a form, and a divinely given one at that! They are not just a supposed continuation of synagogue worship, but symbols of the New Covenant given in His blood: divinely given ceremonies that are Forms of the Gospel!

And here, I feel compelled to do a bit of preaching as to what this means for the rest of the service. All of the ceremonies of the liturgy, really and truly, should complement and adorn the Word of God, and particularly the Gospel—and even more particularly, the Lord’s Supper!

And here, Pastor Holger Sonntag offers some stunning words:

The humble nature of the gospel and the pastoral office reflects the humility of Christ’s life on earth. While he always possessed all the attributes of his divine nature, he only rarely used them openly. For the most part, he kept them hidden under his servant form. His humble external form as well as the humble external form of the gospel serve the key purpose of his mission: to bring his forgiveness to sinners terrified and humbled by the law. For such sinners need to be approached in a humble, gentle manner lest they be terrified further (100).

Hence God coming in things like words, bread and wine. From this, other ceremonies of the Divine Service are created. Therefore:

… ceremonies created and observed [should] conform to the humble form of the gospel also by the very way they are created and observed. In that such humility is also in keeping with Christ’s humble life of service on earth, they are part and parcel of the Christians’ humble way of life and service that puts the needs of the neighbor first. In this way love restrains the freedom that is indeed ours by faith in the gospel (101)

Here one can see some of the reason for Luther’s bold yet conservative reform of the liturgy in the 1520s. The cup withheld from the laity and sacrifices of the mass performed for profit for departed saints did not do this, to say the least! And with this rubric, one may also ask: “Does this text point to and properly adorn the word of God and the blood of the New Testament in its humble forms?

Do the church buildings, vestments, pulpits, fonts, altars, chalices, organs, music and other earthly forms we use point to and properly adorn the simple and humble forms of words, water, bread, and wine? Care must be taken that the liturgical ceremonies that grow up along with the forms of the Gospel serve the Gospel and do not overwhelm it.

Here, one is challenged to think not only of medieval extravagance and visual spectacle (should “giving our best” like Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly oil mean, when we have the means, massive medieval cathedrals, as well as all manner of pomp and circumstance?) but efforts less concerned to exalt a culture than to draw a crowd: using things like young, attractive singers, amplified rock music, smoke machines, and theatrical or stadium seating conducive to producing “The Feeling.” Here, one can, to say the least, issue a hearty “Amen” to Bo Giertz’s words:

“…it would not be wrong to say that the new forms that grow up… are usually less attractive and more profane than the ancient liturgy. They contain less of God’s Word, they pray and speak without Scriptural direction, they are not so much concerned about expressing the whole content of Scripture, but are satisfied with one thing or another that seems to be especially attractive or popular” (232).

Things like this also get far away from the humble and simple purpose of worship, for in one sense, the whole of the Christian life can be seen not only as an act of worship, but as liturgy. We consistently acknowledge God as truthful and Savior, pray, praise and thank Him in worship, study and follow his Word (the first table of the commandments: faith). Then, Gospel-driven service of the neighbor in one’s vocation according to the remaining Ten Commandments is also part and parcel of the Christian’s worship and thanksgiving (the second table of the commandments: love).

Conclusion

God is to be proclaimed as the Maker and Redeemer of all things. And while worship contains both sacramental and sacrificial elements, all ultimately belongs to Him: we have nothing that we have not received from His goodness and love. Of these truths, we are stewards and caretakers.

Hence the church’s formal liturgy.

We close this essay on preaching in the context of the liturgy by letting Giertz preach to us once more, explaining that liturgy not only unites us to God in Christ, but to one another as well:

“There are people who find it difficult to feel at home in the liturgical forms. All liturgy demands the submerging of self. The individual shall become a part of a praying congregation. One must become so much a part of a fellowship with others that one can pray the same words as they, follow along in the rhythm of the worship, the Confession of Sins, and the praise, and feel the same joy and penitence as the others. Every Christian is a member of the body of Christ… [and] does not live to please himself, but [is] a part of an organism. He who will not subordinate himself in such fellowship is no Christian, because one cannot be a Christian by one’s self. He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen in the church and at the Communion table, even so much that he can pray, sing, rejoice, and tremble together with him, must not imagine that he can love the God whom he has not seen, or that he can worship Him in spirit and in truth in his own chamber. And yet it is clear that there are forms for reverent worship which are very natural to some people, so that they immediately feel at home in them, while other people find it hard to become accustomed to them. The church must therefore be generous, open-minded, and tolerant. She must be able to give her children what they need most and what they can most readily receive, provided of course that she truly gives them the Word of God and real fellowship with God… (234)

FIN

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Works Cited:

Burreson, Kent J., “Foreward” ; Schmitt, David R., “Law and Gospel in Sermon and Service” ; Peter, David J., “Balanced Preaching: Maintaining a Theological Center of Gravity” ; Wieting, Kenneth W., “Sacramental Preaching: Lord’s Supper” ; Cwirla, William M., “Unfolding the Meaning of the Liturgy” ; Wetzstein, James A., “Liturgy as Story” ; Giertz, Bo, “Appendix: Liturgy as Spiritual Awakening” in Grime, Paul, and Dean Nadasdy. Preaching Is Worship: The Sermon in Context. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2011.

Sonntag, Holger. Christian Worship: Apology of The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel, Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Press, 2014.


[1] Bill Cwirla states: “The liturgy is the Word of God because it is almost entirely composed of quotations from the Holy Scriptures” (130).

[2] After the ellipses here we read: “It had its first deep sources in the synagogue. It is not only that a few words have remained in continuous use since that time, such as Amen, Hallelujah, and Hosanna, but the whole structural form of our order of worship shows clearly its relation to that worship which Jesus Himself share in the synagogue at Nazareth and in which, as a grown man, he officiated when he was invited to read and interpret the Scriptures.” Exploring and even testing these claims, even to the smallest degree, goes beyond the scope of this essay.

[3] Geirtz also writes two pages earlier about awakening being “the most deadly enemy of liturgy” (232).

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2022 in Uncategorized