Monday, June 26, 2006

Musings on Death

While I was working on the sermon posted below, (not necessarily in relation to it though) I was thinking about a comparison between the experience of dying to the experience of being born. In the process of dying, people often endure great hardship and pain, perhaps even leading to confusion or uncertainty about what is happening to them or why. If we could see into the mind of an infant going through birth, I'd imagine we'd find their thoughts and experience to be quite similar. Both, are passing through narrow straits (figuratively and in reality). Yet for the Christian, passing through the narrow straits of death is the entrance to the broad and expansive freedom and bliss of heaven, in the presence of our Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. The new joys of heaven will make the confusion of suffering seem like a distant memory, as must also be true of the birth of an infant, who passes from the narrow confines of the womb to a great and open new world. Yet unlike that birth of the infant, the heaven that a believer enters into after death is not a corrupt and sinful world. I just thought that this parallel might present some comfort as sometimes in the smallness of our perception, the suffering we endure in death does not show that God is not in control or that He is mistreating us, but rather death is without its sting because Christ has forgiven our sins by His death on the cross, and baptized into His resurrection, we rise too.

Those are just some rough musings, but perhaps someone else can explore the parallel a little more.

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Cor. 4:5-12

I forgot to post this one last week, I gave a sermon on Father's Day. I love you Dad!
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In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the epistle reading, 2 Cor. 4:5-12,

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (NKJV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder how many of you here have treasures that you value greatly. Perhaps some family heirlooms or jewelry that has a sentimental or historic value. What do you keep them in? I imagine some are kept in beautiful jewelry boxes; some perhaps in a safe or in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Most likely a treasured painting would be set in a beautiful frame. Then again some might have their treasure concealed in a plain box or container, hidden away in an unlikely place. But unless our purpose is to conceal, we probably wouldn’t keep our treasure in a cheap, unattractive, or fragile container.

But in today’s text, we read that it is precisely this sort of container that God uses to hold an incomparable treasure—the treasure of the Gospel of Christ! St. Paul says that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, or clay jars so that the “excellence of the power may be of God and not from us.” Clay jars aren’t remarkable by any means. They are easily broken, and inexpensive to make. Among the great variety of shapes and sizes, not all clay jars are very attractive. So who would keep treasure inside a clay jar anyways? Especially since they’re so fragile? Who values a clay jar?

Judging by appearances, a clay jar doesn’t have much worth. Here Paul’s metaphor translates into the human experience in a way that we can readily understand. If we take honest stock of our sinful human nature, we realize that it falls woefully short of being counted as a “worthy vessel.” Paul especially made himself an example of this, describing later in 2 Corinthians how some were saying of Paul: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). We might be inclined to agree with a commentator, who noted that after seeing all the persecutions, beatings, and suffering that Paul endured, “He hardly serves as an attractive endorsement for the advantages of becoming a Christian. They would perhaps, more readily accept the counsel and censure of someone with a more regal bearing and a greater show of wisdom, strength, and honor” (Garland, 224). But then we are reminded that the “gospel is not about Paul and his strength and virtue. It is about Christ, who imparts strength and virtue to frail, weak human beings, and delivers them from Satan’s bondage” (Garland, 213). Remember how the text began? We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ the Lord!

As with Paul, so also with us. Our sin and sinfulness can get in the way or present itself as an ugly thing to the world. Sometimes the Gospel is obscured by our sinful lives, so that people only see the sinful exterior, the clay jar, and not the treasure of the Gospel that we carry. Has anyone ever remarked cynically, “And you call yourself a Christian?” Though we all are experts at hiding our sin, being by nature sinful and unclean it inevitably comes out sometimes. And those very people we would like to evangelize, see that ugly clay exterior. A burst of anger that causes us to sin. Laziness or cutting corners on the job. Dishonesty. Selfishness. Lust. It doesn’t take long for those who know us to find out that we are sinners!

And so we wonder, “Why does God choose to use such clay vessels to bear His message? Why me? Why not a more glorious vessel?” Because God wants to use us “clay vessels” so that the Gospel is’nt obscured in such a way that it seems that any of the power comes from us! We can’t dress up the Gospel or make it more beautiful than it already is, or make it any more “effective” or “relevant.” The power does’nt come from us! It’s here that we must become contented with how we’ve been fashioned, and let God put us to whatever use He would have us, not presuming to think we know better than Him. When we examine ourselves and consider how worthless we are in our sinful estate, we are greatly humbled that God should so greatly esteem us to use us as vessels to carry His Gospel. How great a love to redeem such a fallen and broken life, and put it to such an honorable purpose! With such a deep knowledge of our sinful hearts, of all our failings and weaknesses, that He would still elect to use us for His glory, as bearers of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection!

I asked before, “Who values a clay jar?” Now we see that it is’nt the estimation of others that gives a clay jar its worth, but the estimation of our Maker, God the Father! He is the One who values us so greatly as to send His Son to redeem us by His blood. It’s He who puts us to a higher use. As St. Paul writes to Timothy, “in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). Notice from these verses that becoming a vessel for the honored use of the Master does not come by being changed from a clay or wooden vessel into a golden or silver vessel, but by being cleansed! And we’ve been cleansed from our sin and its dishonorable uses in our Baptism into Christ, where we were set apart, sanctified for holy use. It’s through this—being redeemed and joined to Christ that we have value in the eyes of our Maker, and so we’re entrusted to carry His Gospel.

Since it’s only by seeing the treasure of the Gospel that we really recognize the value of a clay jar, it’s often difficult for us to give one another the honor and value that is deserved. We’re so prone to judge by appearances, as well as by what is “convenient” for ourselves. If you’ve any doubt, just look at how we treat the weak, the aged, and the infirm. Our culture has become so “compassionate” for the most vulnerable members of society, that we’d just as soon eliminate them or at best push them out of sight, out of mind so that we don’t have to face them or care for them. Tiny infants in the womb, especially those that are deemed “defective” or “inconvenient” are as readily disposed of as a misformed clay jar would be thrown in the trash by a potter. Those whose clay jar is worn, weathered, and aging from much use, we count of little value and often neglect. In churches we commonly assume that congregations of mostly older people are less “vibrant” than those with more youth, or alternatively that we think that we’re therefore incapable of participating in God’s mission. We determine a person’s value by what they can “do” rather than the fact that they are a redeemed child of God. Does God value an older person any less than a child or young adult? Does He value them any more? No, God counts us valuable because of Jesus Christ and His redemption of us—all alike are of value to God.

St. Clement of Alexandria spoke beautifully of this truth about us “clay jars”—that the visible appearance “cheats death and the devil; for the wealth within, the beauty, is unseen by them”…death and the devil cannot recognize the “‘treasure in an earthen vessel’ we bear, protected…by the power of God the Father…the blood of God the Son, and the dew of the Holy Spirit.” He warns us Christians also, not to be deceived by outward appearances, but contrary to the way of the world, we should gather for ourselves an “unarmed, an unwarlike, a bloodless, a passionless, a stainless host, pious old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with meekness, men adorned with love” (see ref. in notes). Clement reminds us not to despise the lowly or humble Christians, but rather to gather them about us as guards for our bodies and souls, as through their prayers the might of demons is crushed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful indeed, and we’ve shamefully denied this truth in our culture by despising the aged and the infirm. Truly God does not value us by the condition of our “earthen vessel,” but sees us as precious in His sight for the sake of His Son.

On a brighter note, I’d also like to remind us of another variety of “clay jars” among us: namely our fathers! This Father’s Day, we give thanks for our fathers here on earth. Like any clay jar, we’ve seen their fallibility and sinfulness at times, but we’ve also seen them at times when they’ve modeled our heavenly Father—in their caring for us, their hard work to keep us fed and clothed, and in raising us. Their disciplining of us; as fathers who love us will do. We see in them a reflection of our Heavenly Father when they still love us through the times when we’ve been disobedient or stubborn—thought we knew better than them, but later proved wrong. Especially for those who have been blessed with a Christian father, we’ve seen the love of Christ exemplified in their self-sacrifice and love for their wife, our mother. By showing a Christ-like love for his wife, the husband in a small way depicts the love Christ has for His church. And most importantly, our fathers have the great and solemn responsibility to bring us up in the faith. Luther even wrote his small catechism for the explicit purpose of having fathers use it to teach the basics of the Christian faith to their household. And for those who have neglected this important duty, this is a reminder of one of your most important responsibilities as a father. Mothers, pastors, and teachers all participate in this task, but your leadership and example in this role is vital. So it’s fitting this day that we give our dads our thanks and appreciation.

In all these examples, if we can see them by faith, we learn what God is teaching us. He doesn’t use us humans, mere clay jars, because we are powerful, strong, and beautiful. He uses us because clay jars don’t obscure the surpassing power of God. Rather, they show forth that surpassing power of God, and how it’s able to preserve us from all evil. Paul speaks about how we may be hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down. Paul endured much of this, even to the point of despairing of his own life (2 Cor. 1:8). But he assures us that God won’t permit us to be crushed, left to total despair, or to be abandoned or destroyed. In all of our trials we may be put at considerable difficulty, but it won’t be beyond what we can bear—even if we don’t think so at the time. All this happens so that the power of God may be made more evident through our weakness! Hear again these words of Paul:

[we are] always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.

Suffering as a Christian indeed means “carrying about…the dying of the Lord Jesus,” but this is so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in us?

Puzzling, isn’t it? Yet it’s especially in our sufferings that the life of Jesus is made evident in our bodies, as the power of the Gospel produces in us an uncharacteristic love and endurance. In Christ we are able to show forth a love that is far greater than any human compassion can muster. Consider for example, what an incredible testament to the faith it was when the apostles suffered so much for the sake of the Gospel! How that must have bolstered the faith of the believers. Imagine if you saw your own pastors undergoing great persecution and suffering for the sake of the Gospel, as is happening in many parts of the world even now. How much we would be reassured that this Gospel we believe is indeed THE Truth worth dying for, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not something that could be taken away from them, even by force and great pain. To see another Christian bear up under suffering with patience, or to respond to hatred and malice with love and forgiveness—we would see the life of Jesus evident in them. For this is a love and patience that no human being can supply, it comes from Christ alone. But in all this, we must remember that whatever sufferings we or any Christian endure, it is not redemptive. We can’t contribute anything to the perfect sacrifice that is our completed salvation: Jesus’ death.

Indeed, by all appearances, Christ’s death seemed like the breaking of an ordinary clay jar. The glory of Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t visible to worldly eyes. Though He appeared to worldly eyes as but a clay jar, He was in fact the most priceless treasure! His death portrayed anything but beauty and value, but in His precious death His dying vessel bled the most precious healing blood, that forgave the world’s sin. His body was the vessel for blood of priceless worth. But unlike our clay vessels, Christ’s body, life and death was the very demonstration of the surpassing power of God! His death unveiled that long-awaited treasure, but a treasure seen only by the eyes of faith, which could see in a dying man the Divine Savior. But the surpassing power of God couldn’t be held in a tomb! And it’s this Resurrection life, and the all-surpassing love of the God who would choose fragile, unattractive clay jars for His use, that shines like a glorious treasure, even in our dying bodies. This life of Jesus is made evident in our mortal flesh, until that day when our bodies are refashioned after His more glorious vessel. In Jesus name. Amen.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Just to prove I'm still alive!

So it has been a really long time since I've posted anything on my blog, and for the handful of folks who still check it occasionally, I apologize--and I can't promise whether I'm going to continue it much :) ...but I did just post a new sermon I preached yesterday at my home church.

In case anyone is wondering what's been happening lately, the good news is that I've graduated from seminary, and received my call into the ministry as an associate pastor. I'm scheduled for ordination this Sunday, and am expecting to leave early July for my call...which is to Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Kahului, Hawaii! Yes, it's true! I am going to Maui for my first call. I'm actually going to be serving in a unique situation--initially I will be a teacher for the 6th-8th grade science and religion classes, so I'm going to have the greater portion of my duties as a full-time teacher to start out. I will also be helping the pastor on a part-time basis, probably 25% of the time, as the teaching will demand much of my attention. I'm eagerly looking forward to it, as I get to teach my favorite subjects, science and religion (I was a biology major in college) as well as to learn from a Pastor who has had many years of experience in the congregation. And who knows? Maybe I'll learn to surf in my free-time? :)

So I may post the occasional update or sermon on the blog, but I'm not sure yet. I anticipate that it will be a busy first year, but I'm excited about it because now I'm finally going to be serving in the work for which I was called! I look forward to preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in my first congregation, as well as being a teacher, which should be a good experience for me. Until later, Aloha!

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2:22-36

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. The text for this Pentecost Sunday is the reading from Acts. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today in the Church Year is Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection. Pentecost means “fiftieth,” and was originally an Old Testament festival. It was transformed into a Christian festival when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the 12 disciples, and they spoke the Gospel in so many different languages. For the Old Testament Israelites, Pentecost was called the “Feast of Weeks” and was a harvest festival, where they offered the firstfruits of their grain harvest as offerings to God. Now, the 50th day after Jesus’ Resurrection, and 10 days after His ascension into heaven, the day of Pentecost would take on a whole new meaning. Instead of being a festival of harvest for grain, it would now become a harvest of souls! That day a large number of faithful Jews had gathered for this holiday, from Jewish communities all around the Mediterranean Sea, and they had not yet realized the import of these events that had taken place in Jerusalem. They had heard of these events, and knew of this great miracle worker and his signs and wonders, but they did not yet know who he was or what was the significance of His death and resurrection. So they were ripe for the harvest! Just as there are many today that have perhaps heard of Jesus, and have some vague idea of what He did, but don’t understand the significance of His death and resurrection. These are people who are ripe for evangelism, to hear the good news of who Jesus is, and what He did—to hear it from you and me! And that first Pentecost, God blessed the church with a harvest of 3,000 souls!

Lest we forget, it was the Holy Spirit who accomplished this great conversion, and He is always the one responsible for the results—we are simply to be bearers of the message. Sometimes we feel as if we have failed if we don’t see visible results immediately—but here we must realize that the Holy Spirit assures the harvest. We may not always see the harvest, but that should never stop us from planting seeds or watering. The ones who plant or water are nothing, but only God who gives the growth.

So when the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, what was the message that he brought through the disciples? We might expect perhaps, that the Holy Spirit would come to give an autobiography of the 3rd person of the Trinity. We don’t know very much about the Holy Spirit after all. He has sometimes been called the “shy” member of the Holy Trinity. But why is it that the Holy Spirit didn’t give such a self-revelation or autobiography on Pentecost? Are we wrong to give special remembrance to the sending and work of the Holy Spirit this day of Pentecost? Not at all! When Peter addressed the crowd in this sermon, he said the promise of the Holy Spirit had been poured out “this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” And what had they been seeing and hearing? The preaching of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection! This was the content of the Holy Spirit’s message. The Spirit did not come to speak of Himself, but of Christ, who reveals the Godhead! Just as Jesus promised, when He sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit would glorify Jesus by teaching the disciples all the things of Jesus, and bring His teachings to their remembrance (John 14; 16).

So what was so life changing about the Spirit’s message that the apostle’s spoke, that it brought about the conversion of so many? Peter sharply addressed the crowd with the bold charge that: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). You can tell that Peter was no crowd-pleaser! He wasn’t likely to win much favor by telling the crowd that they were complicit in the death of Jesus! People aren’t any more receptive to hearing this today, than they were then. We don’t want to hear that our sins also helped nail Jesus to that wretched tree. Blame-shifting is a popular way of escape. There are plenty of “other” sinners we would rather point the finger at than hear the law directed at us. But we cannot hide from the charge that our sins made Jesus suffer—that the spiritual suffering from our sins weighed far greater on Him than the physical torture He endured.

Yet what is so surprising is not that Peter said that they shared in Jesus’ death, but that this happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God!” You see, Jesus death wasn’t accidental in any way. His death wasn’t some unfortunate consequence of backlash against a mere teacher of morals, or a more enlightened way of life. Some people, who would intentionally like to confuse Jesus with other religious teachers like Buddha, Confucius, Ghandi, or Mohammed—mere men, would like you to believe that Jesus death was nothing more than such an accident. But Jesus wasn’t just one who was made a martyr for promoting peace and love. No, His death had a much greater significance and purpose, because He was not just an ordinary man. Rather, His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion at the hands of lawless men was part of God’s predetermined plan—the crucial event that became the turning point of human history as God’s plan to save mankind was fulfilled.

King David foresaw Jesus’ coming, and spoke prophesies of Christ in his Psalms. He spoke these words in Psalm 16, quoted in today’s text:

I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.

David knew that in all things, the Lord was at his right hand, and therefore he had nothing to fear. He wouldn’t be shaken. David’s heart was glad, his tongue rejoiced, and his flesh dwelled in hope. How was such gladness and joy possible? How could a king who faced warring enemies all the time dwell in hope? David speaks to God of Jesus, whom he refers to as “your Holy One.” So David’s hope rested in these words: “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life…” Though David spoke these words, Peter informed us and the crowd at Pentecost that they were not fulfilled by David himself, for he indeed died and was buried. His tomb was still among them for investigation, should they wonder if his body “saw corruption” or decayed.

Rather, Peter, speaking by the Holy Spirit affirms that we can say with all boldness and certainty that this does not speak about King David, but rather of the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Jesus was the one who was not abandoned to the grave nor did His flesh see corruption. And His tomb was still among them for investigation also! They could go investigate His three-day tomb and see that it was empty, for Peter and all of the disciples were eyewitnesses of this miraculous resurrection. Here is one of the most remarkable things about it: as Peter said, “God raised Him up, loosing the pain of death!” What tremendous news this is! We don’t have to look far to see how great the pains of death are. Right among us at Resurrection we know those who are suffering from those pains even now. Almost all have grieved the loss of a loved one, and some even now look with fear at the possibility of their own death. So to hear news that we have one who has loosed the pains of death is joyous news indeed! The kind of news that can win 3,000 souls to Christ!

So what does it mean for us that Jesus loosed the pains of death? After all, we still die. What it means is that Christ’s resurrection has broken the icy grip that death had on mankind. The sting of death is sin, but Christ defeated sin when He died on the cross according to God’s determined plan. Death no longer has any permanence over us, since by baptism we have been joined to Jesus’ resurrection. So now, even though we die, it is but a temporary sleep, because our life continues beyond the grave with Christ. The other side of death for us is eternal life! And because Christ rose in the flesh, so also will we be raised in the flesh on the Day of Judgment. So now we can understand how David could be glad at heart, rejoice with his tongue, and that his flesh would dwell in hope! For there is indeed hope for our mortal flesh. Being redeemed by Christ it will rise in the Resurrection of the Dead! After that resurrection, our flesh will never again see corruption or decay! We can share in that joy and hope, knowing that our greatest enemy, Death, has been defeated by our Mightier Savior!

We glorify God and marvel at His strength, that even the pains of death could not hold Him. When death comes to us or those we love, there will certainly be mourning and sadness. It is right to mourn death, because it is an invader in God’s creation. We were not meant for death. But because of Christ’s resurrection, His breaking those bonds of death, we do not mourn as those who have no hope! Rather we can with all boldness and confidence know that death will not be the end of us, for Christ has made known to us the paths of life. And He is that path, for He leads us on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake, as Psalm 23 puts it. When death draws near, we turn our full confidence to Jesus, for He has gone before us, and with such a Savior at our right hand, we have nothing to fear.

And this is the amazing news that we are privileged to share with others! Telling that good news to another person does not have to be a difficult or intimidating thing at all. Evangelizing all begins with this fundamental question that Peter addressed on Pentecost, namely, “Who is this Jesus?” If we pray for opportunities to share the Gospel, God will provide them. This Pentecost is a reminder that there is a harvest of souls ripe and waiting! Ask that person who they say that Jesus is, and you have the starting point for a conversation to explain just who Jesus is and what He has done for us in His death and resurrection! And the same Spirit that told Peter that God had made Jesus both Lord and Christ, will speak through us to bring about the conversion of those who do not yet know this truth about Jesus. Pentecost is not just about how God moved through His Holy Spirit 2,000 years ago, but it is a reminder that even today, the Spirit is here and working among us, building up and establishing our faith, and sanctifying us in Christ. Every day we go forth with the Spirit of Christ, with the hope of the resurrection filling us with a joy and gladness that the world cannot grasp apart from Christ. And so we pray that the Holy Spirit would ever bring to our remembrance the faith and knowledge of Christ who is our Lord, and give us the joy of His resurrection in the face of all fear. In Jesus’ name we pray it. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Lenten Sermon Series

Our 4th Year Preaching Workshop Class got a rare opportunity this year for 7 of us to write sermons for a Lenten Sermon Series commemorating the 100th year since Dietrich Bonhoeffer's birth. The sermons are not about Bonhoeffer, but are intended to utilize a short reading or poem of his, written while in prison, to help formulate some ideas while preaching on a specific text of Scripture. I contributed the last in the series, the Good Friday sermon, based on a short piece Bonhoeffer wrote called "Outline for a book." My sermon, as well as those of my classmates can be read at the website for Goettinger Predigten a preaching resources website from the University of Goettingen in Germany. To find the sermons, click "current sermons" then on the right column click 2006 Lenten Sermon Series, then they are listed along the right side. It was an interesting opportunity for me, because up until know I have known little about Bonhoeffer beyond the basic story of his death. But since working on this assignment, I have been exposed to some of his writings which have sparked my interest in further reading down the line. The title for my sermon, taken from Bonhoeffer, was "The Man for Others."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bonhoeffer Quotes

I recently came across two great little quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really struck me:

"A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.”

and,

“One cannot understand and preach the gospel tangibly enough. A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a red apple or a thirsty person a glass of cool water and asking, ‘Do you want it’ We should talk about matters of faith in such a manner that people would stretch out their hands for it faster than we can fill them”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

On Justification and Sanctification in Ethics: A response to "The Quest for Holiness"

(I meant to post this awhile ago...I highly recommend Koberle's book "The Quest for Holiness", but its very deep reading, esp. the first 50-60 pages).

Sanctification is the popular topic among Lutherans in America today, and perhaps rightly so. Lutherans are regularly criticized for having little to say about sanctification, and rarely emphasize it, especially in preaching. One theologian cynically remarked that the Lutheran existence consists of the Lutheran constantly muttering the mantra “I am justified by faith alone.” Others criticize Lutheran theology for being too antinomian, or that we just don’t teach about good works. While none of these accusations is novel, and were present in the time of the Reformation, their persistent reappearance makes it crucial that Lutherans decisively answer the question of how justification and sanctification are related, and what their role is in the ethical life. In other words, how does the interplay and distinction between justification and sanctification shape Lutheran ethics?

At first, one might wonder why justification and sanctification necessarily have to be discussed together at all, in regards to ethics. After all, some theologies see virtually no distinction between the two, and others see them as virtually unrelated—so that justification is simply what God did for you (past tense) at your conversion, but the rest of the Christian life is sanctification, and that is up to you. Well, for one thing, the primary concern of churches that grew out of the Reformation, namely Lutherans, Reformed, and other Protestants—is to maintain divine monergism in salvation, so that it is by grace and not by works that we are saved. But on the other hand, there is the concern that grace does not become a license either for sin or for inaction. Good works too are demanded of the Christian; so how is the ethical life maintained without jeopardizing the Gospel of free grace in Christ Jesus? Köberle begins his answer with this premise in mind: that the antithesis of sanctification as divine gift and at the same time the result of obedient choice must be maintained in Christian ethics, so that man is denied all credit but never relieved of his full responsibility.

The first problem, that man must be denied all credit, is rooted in our sinful human nature and its desire to build its own ways to heaven. These “quests for holiness” are described by Köberle as the universal desire of mankind to attain “communion with God [through] the fulfillment of ethical duties.” Laboring under the bondage of sin, we do not realize that all our best efforts are as filthy rags in God’s sight (Is. 64:6). Therefore, from this rotten root of sinful human thinking grows up a false understanding of Jesus Christ and His role in human salvation. As was discussed in class, Jesus becomes “man’s way to God” or a new law-giver through whom ethical precepts are given whereby we may attain to the “sphere of divinity. But as Köberle points out: if this is all that Christ is, then other religious systems have equally admirable ethics to offer. It is precisely for this reason that the distinction between justification and sanctification must always be maintained—so that sanctification does not get used as an ethical means to the end of justification before God—rather, that they remain distinct yet always together, so that the justified life is never viewed as free from ethical demands or import.

Retaining the distinction between justification and sanctification honors Christ’s atoning work as essential and irreplaceable with our own morality, which can never serve as a “bargaining chip” with God, to offset our sins. If works have no role in our justification, and it is solely by faith in Christ alone, then the all-sufficiency of Christ’s merit is acknowledged. Otherwise ethical impulses apart from justification by faith in Christ can become yet another “quest for holiness” apart from God. Sanctification is easily perverted into self-justification. The Gospel brings an end to all such pretensions and the Word of God shows our inability to help ourselves. This is a critical step, however, for it is by forsaking our own righteousness and clinging to the alien righteousness of Christ by faith alone that we find the most liberating basis for ethics. For justification by faith alone sets the Christian free from worrying about the “God question” so that our good works can be spent in attending to our neighbor.

Yet justification and sanctification are simultaneous realities for the Christian—saving faith always receives both justification and sanctification. Justifying faith “includes the certainty and reality of renewal, that is, it confesses the reality and living activity of the Holy Ghost in the world.” The reality of the Holy Spirit at work in us through the regenerating waters of baptism, and the work of the Gospel as Christ lives in us provides the “energy of moral action”. So here we see how Köberle’s premise carries into sanctification, that even here it is God’s work, and not human work that drives us to ethical action. Without complete and serious recognition of the Holy Spirit at work, the only recourse to bring about ethical behavior on the part of the Christian is through “legal prescriptions and the enforced effort to fulfill such regulations.” But such is not pleasing to God; as whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). But, the flip side of this is the second aspect of Köberle’s premise: that sanctification must be maintained as the result of human obedience so that man is never relieved of his full responsibility to the Law.

However, what law can provide adequate guidance for ethical behavior? No law can anticipate or prescribe action for each unique circumstance. But the heavenly-gifted law of the Spirit makes “constraint and freedom…an indissoluble unity.” What does this mean for the Christian? It means that the ethical life is given a bounded-ness by the third use of the law, which prevents the flesh from becoming “lazy, careless, antagonistic”, but rather guides the Christian’s actions in ways that are God-pleasing. The third use of the law presents the Christian with an arena in which to practice good works toward the neighbor. Yet this healthy spiritual constraint is also met by the freedom of faith, which Luther said is a busy, living, active thing, never waiting to be asked but always doing good for the neighbor. Though Köberle warns that many who hear of this freedom of faith take it to mean a “freedom to do anything they please, and want to appear free and Christian only through the contempt and disapproval of human ceremonies, usage’s, regulations, and laws, as though they were Christians because they did not fast on a particular day…” etc. Köberle states that the greater problem than legalism today is libertinism. This tendency of the sinful flesh is to reject the need for discipline as part of the renewal of sanctification.

Köberle argues that the existence of the Christian as simul justus et peccator means that while thankfulness for salvation was the primary motive for sanctification for Luther, compulsion and fear of punishment are a secondary motive that moves the old man. These double motives of “freedom and compulsion, privilege and obligation” come to practical realization in the “three most central expressions of the life of a regenerate Christian—in prayer, discipline, and service.” But disciplining the flesh is not done out of contempt for the body, as in some sort of Gnostic asceticism, but rather is motivated by a reverence for the body as a temple of God’s Spirit, and the sanctification of the whole spirit, soul, and body. Here also we see the vital necessity of retaining the obligation of Christian obedience in sanctification, for if sanctification doesn’t continually cause a Christian to repent and know his needs, he will not hunger for forgiveness or free grace. The denial of the desires of the flesh, disciplining our bodies and keeping our body under control (1 Cor. 9:27) is part of sanctification, as we are no longer slaves to sin, but “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:15-23). “The battle against dead works is just as important as that against dead faith.

Thus, we see that Lutheranism can indeed offer just as robust a teaching of sanctification as it has historically done with justification. They provide the perfect antithesis for the ethical Christian life, as “justification robs all conduct of its appearance of holiness, [while] sanctification guards men against sinning against grace. The promise of forgiveness gives the basis of action, direction and power to all conduct; the Christianity of action prevents ‘pure doctrine’ from becoming mere talk.” And in all realms of the Christian life, it is in fact the life and death of Christ, and His love that energizes us to serve our neighbor in love. “A church that does not engage in works of love becomes a mere theory and perishes.” Because of the complete acceptance we have before God by faith in Christ, the holy obligation of sanctification becomes a delightful service, motivated by the joy of the Gospel. Lutheran ethics is truly unique in this balance between justification and sanctification, but therein lies its strength.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A quote in Reply to postmodernism

"But it should give Christian theologians the necessary
candor to look their secularist opponent in the eye and confront
his arguments about rationality and intellectual honesty
head on: You are neither rational nor honest; on thecontrary, all
your important positions are dependent on theological points
of view which you have made it your raison de'tre to attack.
You think the world makes sense? It doesn't, if there is no God
to grant it. You build your argument on the idea that what you
say makes sense to another human being? Be careful, for you
may unwittingly have confirmed the idea that all human beings
are created in the image of God." --Knut Alfsvag

Monday, January 23, 2006

Sample Funeral Sermon

I've always loved the imagery Paul uses in 1 Cor. 15 relating to death and resurrection. For probably 6 years now I've wanted to write a funeral sermon on that text, and I finally had my chance in Preaching Workshop class here at seminary. We had to write a funeral sermon on a real or fictional person. And I knew all along which text I wanted to do. I chose a fictional character, so the sermon isn't actually for someone I know or who has died, but there are certainly real-life elements I tried to incorporate into it. Since I've dwelt on this text quite a bit for many years, it was really quite personal for me, and I greatly enjoyed writing this sermon.
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“A Gardener For Life”
1 Cor. 15:35-49
“Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.”
I.
To the end, Edith was a gardener. Anyone who knew her knew of her fondness for all sorts of green plants. At the end of every winter, as spring drew near, she’d rub her green thumbs together with excitement as she anticipated that first opportunity to dig around in the soil and plant those seeds in her vegetable garden and flower bed. And oh the joy she derived from nurturing those first tiny green shoots of life into big healthy green plants and glorious flowers! Carefully fertilizing, watering, digging up the weeds, anticipating the harvest—there was no doubt that when Edith was in her garden, it was a labor of joy. And anyone who wondered why would soon learn when they tasted those garden-fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and squash and all her vegetables.
II.
As I sat with Edith in the hospital, those last few days before she died—we talked a lot about gardening, of a similar sort. You see, even though she didn’t quite know how it happened, Edith knew that when she planted those small, dried up, dead seeds in the earth—that very soon, as the sun shone on them, and the water soaked them, a new shoot of life would break out of that old husk or shell of the seed, and grow up into a beautiful living plant. And her eyes twinkled with the childlike joy of a Christian when I shared with her that this is just how St. Paul describes the Resurrection body in today’s text. So it’s particularly fitting today that as we sow Edith’s body like a seed in the ground, that we recall these words of Paul about Divine Gardening:

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. Paul was facing a troubling skepticism about the Resurrection among the Corinthians, and some were doubting how God could raise the dead—after all, once the body has gone to dust…But Paul rebukes such skepticism: “You foolish person!” They should have had faith, instead of doubting God’s promises. So Paul lays it out once more in a metaphor they can all understand. A seed cannot be made alive unless it first dies. That seed of course, is the human body—unique from animals, birds, and fish, as Paul goes on to tell. But when that seed is planted, the seed is not the body that is to be, but rather still just a bare seed. And admittedly, a little seed isn’t much to look at. Often they are dried up and shriveled.

And though I doubt we have any Corinthian skeptics here, many of us do struggle to believe that new life will come, when we see death staring us in the face. Edith’s wrinkled and frail, aged body might have reminded us of that little dry seed. It’s hard to see life there. Indeed, Paul goes on to say of this seed: 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Edith’s body, the seed we will sow, will be sown as it was in this life: perishable, in dishonor, in weakness, and as a natural body. But that’s not the way it should have been—for her or for any of us. God did not create us to die, but rather The first man Adam became a living being. But because of his sin in the garden, and because of all our subsequent sin, we all together bear the image of the man of dust, Adam. Therefore it is right that we should mourn and grieve for the loss of this beloved friend of ours. Death is not part of God’s design, but it is a cruel invader in this life. But death must happen first before we are raised to life. Just like the planted seed must crack out of its dry, dead, outer husk before it grows up in new life to the surface.
III.
You see, God made Edith a wheat seed, that is a believer, by her baptism into Christ. God gave her a body as He has chosen, a seed for a unique body, a unique believer. And she knew that this happened all by grace—she didn’t make herself that seed, and she wasn’t responsible for that tiny germ of new life that was inside her by baptism. She knew that she was a sinner, and couldn’t bring about new life within her. But that gentle sprinkling of water worked a miracle in her heart when she was baptized as an infant—the miracle of faith. She was adopted as God’s own child, paid for by Jesus’ blood shed for her sins on the cross. And while her new life continues now in heaven, where her soul is with the Lord, it is not yet complete, as her body will lie dormant like a seed in the earth…awaiting that Last Day.
IV.
Because 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. And also, 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. What was once perishable, dishonored, weak, and natural, will be raised Imperishable, in Honor, in Strength, and Spiritual. No longer will Edith suffer with arthritis or a weak heart. No longer will she feel suffering or pain! She is at home with our Lord Jesus, and she awaits with us the day when our bodies will be raised as spiritual bodies. Bodies that bear the image of the man of heaven! Jesus Christ is that man of heaven, who took on the earthly body to redeem us perishable humans from our sin.

The only begotten Son of God, who was imperishable, became perishable, dishonored, weak, and natural for our sakes. Jesus took on human flesh so that when He was brought to dishonor by our sins and weakened by the physical and verbal abuse He faced at His crucifixion, that He would die an innocent death, to bear that awful load of sin with Him to the grave. His natural body perished, sown in the earth—a dead seed. But death could not hold Him! After three days, He rose imperishable, raised in glory, raised in power—a spiritual body. But He was no ghost! And it wasn’t some totally different body—no, He still bore the nail and spear marks in His glorified flesh. The body was the same, but it was transformed! Like a new shoot of life grown from the dead seed, Christ’s new body was glorified, transformed, strong, magnificent even. And so shall we be, and so shall Edith be on that day when Christ comes again.

We shall bear the image of that man of heaven, Jesus Christ, because His death was for our sake, and He has gathered us like seeds to be planted in His field. Martin Luther said, “You can think of God as such a [gardener] and yourself as a small kernel which He casts into the ground, so that it may come forth much more beautiful and glorious…[Thus] the cemetery or burial ground does not indicate a heap of the dead, but a field full of kernels, known as God’s kernels, which will verdantly blossom forth again and grow more beautifully than can be imagined.” So therefore we know

EVEN THOUGH EDITH’S EARTHLY SEED HAS DIED, GOD WILL BRING HER BODY FORTH TO A NEW HEAVENLY LIFE.
V.
To the end, Edith was a gardener. And that makes it particularly fitting that now she’s the seed, to be planted in the ground. And we know that as her body lies dormant in the field like a dead seed, her soul is at home with the Lord. But on that last day, when the Son shines down on the earth, and the clouds in the heavens break—the Son of God will appear to all. Shining down as He descends in His glory, the radiance of His light will stir every wheat seed that lies waiting in the grave. And when all humanity rises to life for the judgment, Edith and all the rest of those seeds that were watered with the gentle sprinkling of Baptism, shall rise to meet Him in the clouds, bearing the new image of the man of heaven! And clothed in His glory, we will bloom forth like new shoots of life, into that new heavenly life that awaits us. Amen. To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Losing Our Virtue: a Reaction

{{Here is a reaction paper I wrote for a theological ethics course, based on the book "Losing our Virtue: Why the Church must Regain its Moral Vision" by David F. Wells. }}

Perhaps no one needs to tell us that the moral fabric of North America has been unraveling for many years now. A plethora of Christian writers have bemoaned this fact, especially as Americans have more and more bought into the (nearly) ubiquitous post-modernism of this age. But the telling issue for the church as we face this moral decay, is how to bring about a recovery of our “moral vision” both in secular culture and in the church. David Wells takes up this issue with an insightful diagnosis of the post-modernism that inhabits our culture and is creeping into or already present in our churches. Precisely what challenges this moral climate presents for the church, and the implications this may hold for Lutheran ethical reflection, will be set forth here.

The root of the problem lies in the variety of attacks that have been made against morality in general. The attack has been both bold and direct, in the form of simple refusal by many to adhere to basic moral norms of our society and of our church, and it has also been subversive and indirect, in the form of undermining the very foundations of morality by the steady incursion of relativism into our beliefs, and the consequent denial of moral absolutes. This problem has been exacerbated by the Church’s assimilation of American business practices and psychology with the attendant weakening of moral language; the Church’s growing failure to understand and speak of sin in relation to God; and the consequent loss of the understanding of the sole sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for sin. This simply cannot continue, as the church needs to be a beacon of morality to the world, so that they might come to know our Father and His dear Son (Matt. 5:14-16).

If the Church is indeed to lead the culture in this regard, it must regain and reclaim the language of sin and morality. It cannot use the flimsy language of psychology to describe sin as lack of self-esteem or self-fulfillment, and should move away from the subjective language of “values” understood as the preferences, beliefs, feelings, habits or conventions that guide our moral action. By taking sin out of relation to God, and putting it into relation to self, the language of psychology prevents sin from being seen as a moral offense in the face of a Holy and Righteous God who cannot tolerate sin. The shift in language from “virtues” to “values” has also aided the post-modern attack on morals, as Wells notes, “The inevitable outcome of treating the self as the locus of all meaning and of all moral values, however, is that both meaning and values become relative to each self.” Instead we must return to the objective source of morals, found in the Ten Commandments, and also reflected in natural law. We must acknowledge that even if we do hold certain beliefs because we were raised with them, that does not make them subjective, because we are not the ones who define morality—God is, and He has established and revealed these objective truths to us in the Bible.

As the Church moves to recover the foundation of morality in the Ten Commandments, it will also be struck by the challenge of making people realize that they have actually broken the commandments. Wells states that the great majority of Americans believe they have kept the commandments, but only 13% believe that each of the commandments has moral validity. The Lutheran response to this is preaching of the Law in its full sternness, so the Word of God can do its work in convicting human hearts of their sin, and showing them the full depth and extent of God’s Law. Christ’s preaching in the Sermon on the Mount showed how the full spirit of the Law required obedience beyond mere outward adherence to the letter of the law. Then repentant sinners will rightly be prepared to hear the Gospel proclamation of Christ’s forgiveness through His death on the cross.

This will move people beyond a mere legalism like Wells describes, where the realm in which “good character” and self-restraint governs one’s behavior has been so narrowed that a tendency develops to polarize issues not between what is right and what is wrong, but what is legal and what is illegal. It is then assumed we are free to do what ever is legal—but in the absence of an accompanying honesty or self-restraint to govern behavior, now many resort to litigation to protect themselves. Instead, with proper preaching of Law and Gospel, they will instead see the Ten Commandments as the shape of the moral life that God wants us to lead, and that though we certainly and indeed daily fail to keep them, that God forgives us in Christ Jesus. In this way, our ethical conduct will not be selfishly motivated by seeking our own righteousness through the Law, but by virtue of our justification by faith alone, the Gospel will move us to altruistically serve our neighbor in true faith and love, as God desires. And out from the realm of mere legalism, the Christian life will be guided and shaped by the character of the new man in us, which will not seek the bare minimum of obedience or legality, but joyfully does good and sees the intrinsic value of all human life, and judges ethics accordingly.

In this same vein though, as the Church strives to be a beacon of morality, the ever-present cry from culture will be, “Ah but you Christians are hypocrites!” Here is the golden opportunity for Lutherans especially to speak of the simul justus et peccator. Though we indeed strive to live according to God’s commandments according to the justified, new man living in us, we recognize that by virtue of our old, sinful Adam we still sin much in this flesh, and are often found to be the hypocrite. Yet the Law unmasks this hypocrisy once again, and we are restored in forgiveness by Christ’s death. Especially in light of our sinful nature, Lutherans have the opportunity to speak in marked contrast the culture’s refusal to give up “their freedom of choice.” Here we must teach and preach that the human will is not in fact free or autonomous, that we do not develop our own values , but that once again God reveals truth from above, and that what He sets is absolute. To believe that God actually brought judgment against sin in Christ’s death, and that sin is not a matter of moral indifference shows that moral relativism simply doesn’t wash. Like an upset bottle of ink on a white tablecloth, the slowly spreading stain of moral laxity cannot be corrected by merely returning the ink to the bottle…the stain remains and it must be purged clean. It is Christ’s death that purged us clean of the stain of sin, and to go on living in sin is to despise of His death.

So the challenge for Lutheran ethics is to continually turn people outside themselves for the source of our knowledge and our moral vision. This is part of the problem with the whole shift from speaking of (moral) character to personality. “It was a shift away from the invisible moral intentions toward the attempt to make ourselves appealing to others.” Turning inward for answers, self-reliance, or inner knowledge runs counter to the Word of God that is revealed to us from outside ourselves (extra nos). But the Christian ethic must always be shaped primarily by the Gospel, as reliance on the law alone has led many legalistic churches to create unattainable standards in man-made laws that drive a person to false guilt or shame.

Here again the Lutheran faith offers an answer to the challenge of the moral climate of our culture, as we face the issue of how to correctly deal with shame and guilt. First, by properly distinguishing law and gospel, we eliminate false shame and guilt by discerning what is God’s Law and what is in fact merely human invention. Secondly, as the renewed preaching and teaching of the Law in its full sternness will create true guilt and shame at one’s sin, there will continually arise opportunities to administer the healing balm of the Gospel through private confession and absolution. For those who are burdened with the realization of past sins exposed by the full light of the Law, private confession can be a safe place for the sinner to release the unconfessed sin and guilt, laying it upon Christ, and hearing the living voice of the Gospel proclaim, “Your sins are forgiven.” And instead of wearing the shame of our sins, we are clothed in honor, which Wells says comes in God’s reverse world through our rebirth , which we as Lutherans recognize comes about by baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

When Wells challenges the church to restore its moral vision by 1) being courageous enough to call sin sin, and 2) to become more authentic morally , the Lutheran church can respond by bringing to the table a strong Christocentric understanding of morality, vocation, and sanctification. Pointing to the full height and depth of the law as revealed in Christ’s perfect obedience and love, we can show how all the commandments are concretely rooted in God’s active love for people, and are not arbitrary whims or regulations. By sharpening Christianity’s understanding of Christian vocation, we can show how our responsibility toward God and our neighbor is lived out in every realm of our lives, not merely those that are governed by civil laws, and how we should act accordingly. And by rooting our ethics in a Christocentric understanding of sanctification, we always begin with the cross of Jesus and our justification, in order to understand that the source of our motivation and ability to live as holy people is not found in our own moral strivings, but in the love of Christ that dwells in us by faith.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sermon on Luke 2:21, New Year's Day

In the name of Jesus, Amen. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text is Luke 2:21, “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise Him, He was named Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before He had been conceived.”

A blessed New Year to you all! Even if you didn’t stay up for the countdown to midnight last night, you probably all remember the New Year’s Eve parties from years past—staying up late with friends and family to watch the countdown till the New Year began. When I was growing up our relatives the Lights would come over for New Year’s Eve, and we’d all watch the big ball in New York City on TV, and count down the seconds in eager expectation for the ball to drop. There’s always a certain joy and festivity that surrounds the long-expected beginning of a new year—a time to start afresh, to wipe the slate clean from the past year’s mistakes and begin again.

This New Year's Day we remember another great countdown—the beginning of a New Year of a different sort. It began with a countdown, and was filled with great expectations for a new beginning. That New Year was the Year of the Lord’s favor, which Jesus’ announced when He began His ministry in Nazareth (Lk. 4:19). This New Year of the Lord’s favor was not a literal 365-day year, but was the new era of God’s mercy unveiled in the life of His Son Jesus Christ. But unlike our New Year’s celebrations, no one knew when the countdown to the New Year of the Lord’s favor was to begin. God’s people had waited many long years in expectation…but soon, unbeknown to all but a chosen few, the countdown began. And Jesus’ circumcision was another tick on that clock as the time of fulfillment edged nearer, and the New Year of the Lord’s favor would begin. Each prophecy and law fulfilled was another tick on that clock: John the Baptist’s birth; the virgin Mary giving birth to a Son; eight days later that Son being circumcised—and named Jesus, which means “He will save His people from their sins.” It was now eight days closer to New Year’s. But even though there would be no celebration here on earth, except for the angel choir in the shepherd’s field, all of heaven was gathered round the Christ child to watch the countdown to the New Year of the Lord’s favor, as they watched the long-expected Jesus come to earth. Time was ticking and the excitement in heaven was building in a slow crescendo till the great fulfillment of all God’s promises would come to pass!

So what was so significant about this eighth day of the young Jesus’ life? And why did this matter in the greater scheme of God’s unfolding plan of salvation? Well the eighth day was the day every Israelite boy was to be circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, and to be named. Turning back the clock a few thousands of years earlier, God made a solemn covenant with Abraham. He promised that Abraham would have a son of his own, and that his offspring would become countless like the stars, and that they would live in the land of Israel. And God promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his seed. Because Abraham had faith in this promise of God, God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness, and gave Abraham a sign to mark this covenant God had made. The sign of this covenant was circumcision. This circumcision in the flesh was a mark of God’s covenant, and for any male to remain uncircumcised in the Old Testament, would be a sign of rebellion against God’s covenant. Luther noted that this covenant of circumcision made it known that it was from this circumcised nation that the Savior would be born, and not from the uncircumcised Gentiles.

And who was the “seed of Abraham” through whom all nations would be blessed? It was none other than this child Jesus Christ, who was now passively keeping the covenant of circumcision as His parents took Him to be circumcised this eighth day. The life and death and life of this child Jesus was going to be a blessing to all nations. And now the time was arriving for promises to become reality. The angel that had announced Jesus’ conception to Mary had also given Him this name “Jesus” which means “He will save His people from their sins.” To fulfill the meaning of His name though, Jesus would have to perfectly keep the Law in our place, to fulfill it on our behalf—and then suffer and die for our sins on the cross. So here at Jesus’ circumcision was His first fulfillment of the Law, by keeping the Law of Moses and the covenant to Abraham that every male child of eight days was to be circumcised.

So what was so significant about this was that Jesus’ life of perfect obedience to God’s Law was set in motion, as He who was born under the Law began to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4). Here at Jesus’ circumcision, Christ shed His first precious drops of divine blood, the blood that was the price of our redemption. It was Jesus’ first suffering for our sin, as He took on the obedience of the Law for our sake, passively keeping the Law by His parent’s obedience. For He was the one to bring about the Year of the Lord’s favor, and this would not be accomplished quickly or painlessly. It was our sin, and the sin of Abraham and all humanity before and after him that brought this necessity upon Jesus. For the New Year of the Lord’s favor to begin, the guilt of all the world’s sin had to be taken away, so we could begin the New Year afresh. Those first drops of blood Jesus’ shed on the eighth day were a foreshadowing of the blood He would have to shed on the cross for our sins, as drop by drop the full price of the world’s sin was drained from His bruised, dying, and then dead body.

As we begin this New Year of 2006, let us think back upon the sins of the past year, and all the wrongs that we have done, which were laid upon His cross. Remember our unfaithfulness, our using God’s name in vain, our neglect of worship, our disobedience to parents or others in authority, our selfishness toward neighbors. Let us examine our lives according to all of the 10 Commandments and see where we have fallen. And see what good we have not done. For here in our failure to do the good things commanded by the Law, and by our breaking of the commandments, we see the guilt for which Christ suffered. A suffering that was to be ours. Our punishment, our blood shed, our eternal damnation. Here we see what Christ did for us. But do not despair…repent! For Jesus brings in the New Year of the Lord’s favor.
BY FULFILLING THE LAW ON OUR BEHALF,JESUS SAVES HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS!

In keeping the law perfectly on our behalf, Jesus fulfills the meaning of His name, given on this day of the Circumcision of our Lord. He fulfills the meaning of His name by saving us all from our sins. He has brought in the New Year of the Lord’s favor, begun in His fulfillment of the Law in those first drops of blood shed in His circumcision, and completed in His death for our sake. By His blood shed on the cross, He inaugurated a New Year, fresh and clean, new starts, new beginnings. By washing away the sin of many years past and many years yet to come, Jesus unveiled a new era of God’s mercy, shown in His own death and resurrection. Done so that we could perpetually live in the New Year of the Lord’s favor, with a fresh start, clean from our former sins.

And this New Year has been brought to us in our baptism. How so? Hear the Apostle Paul: “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:11-12). In our baptism, we were passively brought into a new covenant. The old covenant of circumcision in the flesh was obsolete, as Christ had fulfilled all things. But now a new circumcision made without hands has been given, and this circumcision is the circumcision Christ gives to us in our baptism. In our baptism, we are spiritually circumcised as the old sinful flesh is cut off from us, and we are raised with Christ through faith in God who raised Him from the dead. Here in baptism we have become passive recipients of the new covenant, as Jesus has fulfilled the Law in our stead to save us from our sins.

We have received all grace and forgiveness from Him, so that as we begin this New Year of 2006, we begin it in the New Year of the Lord’s favor—baptized into His blessing, the blessing promised to Abraham, a blessing for all nations. Living in this New Year of the Lord’s favor, we continually put behind us that old sinful flesh as we daily repent of our sins, and strive to live in all righteousness and purity forever. Living a life that delights to walk in the commandments of the Lord, joyfully worshipping our God and Savior and mercifully serving our neighbors in love. Each new day is a fresh start as we are washed clean in our baptism and live anew in the New Year of the Lord’s favor. And we can celebrate this New Year with an exuberance and joy unlike any joy this world knows, because we know the redemption that has been given and the favor that has been shown to us in Christ Jesus. And we know that this New Year’s celebration is just a tiny picture of the heavenly celebration that knows no days or years, but continues in peace forever!
The peace of God that passes all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds this blessed New Year. Amen.