Monday, December 24, 2007

The Word of the Lord Increased

In at least three places in the book of Acts, chapter 6:7, 12:24, and 19:20, the author, Luke, describes how the “word of the Lord increased.” The book of Acts describes the early decades of the first Christians, as they strove to bring the message of the Gospel in ever-expanding circles to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Along the way they faced much opposition and persecution. Sometimes the opposition was merely verbal, and at other times it took the form of imprisonment, flogging, or even death by stoning (see the example of Stephen, Acts 7).

But the fascinating part about the three passages that I mentioned above, along with many other passages in the book of Acts, is how the church continued to grow and abound in the face of such opposition. In Acts chapter 6, the apostles had been arrested and put in prison, beaten and then told not to speak in the name of Jesus. In Acts chapter 12, the apostle James was killed by Herod, and then Peter was again jailed. In Acts 19 many magicians and sorcerers quit their magical arts and turned to the Lord, and following verse 20 there arose a great riot in Ephesus. Nevertheless, in each situation, the “word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” The surprising thing is how the opposition to the message of the Gospel did not snuff out or silence the early Christians, but almost seemed to energize and invigorate the further spreading of the Gospel! And lest we be misled to think that it was merely some sociological phenomena where the early disciples were just galvanized against opposition—Luke makes it clear to us that it was the Word of the Lord that increased, and was the driving power behind this growth. The testimony of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, witnessed by the apostles and many others, was a message that could not be contained, no matter what the opposition!

At some points, such as Acts 8:1-4, the persecution caused the believers to scatter, which turned out to be like trying to put out a fire in dry field by striking the fire. It only served to scatter the sparks and burning embers, as the believers spread out even further, to proclaim the message of the word. So this all leads me to wonder…how should Christians today regard opposition to the faith? Perhaps we have enjoyed too long a time of prosperity, and Christian beliefs have experienced a widespread acceptance, or at least toleration. And while Christians in other countries are certainly facing violence (check out the “Voice of the Martyrs” website), here in this country, most of the opposition still remains verbal or ideological.

So how ought we to receive criticism of the faith, and of the Biblical record? Some have suggested that we should be thankful for these challenges to the faith as opportunities for us to engage the world with the true message of the Gospel. When we see or hear Christianity being misrepresented or distorted by those who would challenge the Word, we may be given opportunities to more clearly articulate the true message of the Gospel to a world in desperate need of that truth. The apostle Peter advised that we should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16a). Are you prepared to give a defense? Do you know the reason for the hope that is in you?

In any opposition, whether we are facing physical threats of persecution (as in the case of the apostles and many Christians in the mission field today) or whether it be merely the arguments of unbelievers, it is the Word of the Lord that must be our driving force. If, like the early Christians, we are devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), we will continue to grow and increase in understanding of God’s Word. It is there in Christ’s Word that we learn the message of salvation and the wisdom of God which is revealed to us in the cross of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:21-25). With God’s own Word as our proclamation and instructor, we can boldly face the challenges that arise to our faith. We need not become discouraged or disheartened when Christianity seems to come under fire, but we boldly confess the truth and with gentleness and respect present a winsome defense of the Christian faith. Being faithful to that Word, we have this certain knowledge: that the Word of the Lord will increase, even and especially in the face of opposition. So let’s rise to the challenge instead of hiding or ignoring it, and go forward to speak the truth in love!

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, 4th Sunday in Advent

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text for this Fourth Sunday in Advent is Matthew 1:18-25. On this final Sunday of the Advent season, Advent’s muted celebration of the coming kingdom of God gives way to the full-fledged joyfulness of Christmas, as we move from the calls of repentance to the birth of the Savior from sin. Today we learn how the fear, doubt, and uncertainty of our lives is dispersed with the glorious light of Christ Jesus’ coming. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the sermon today, we will join in speaking words that have echoed through Christian churches for at least 17 centuries. Words that we cannot allow to become commonplace simply because we have repeated them so often. Words that were made possible 20 centuries or 2,000 years ago, when Christ was born of a virgin. The words I speak of are the Christmas Words of the Apostle’s Creed, that I believe “in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” These words have echoed through Christian churches since the time of the early Christians, testifying to God’s personal entrance into the scene of human history, as God made flesh, the incarnation. The heart of the Christmas story.

Christmas is the true story that takes us outside of ourselves—outside of the loneliness, the hurt, the doubt, the sinfulness of life, as God descends to join us to His own narrative. The narrative of His only begotten Son born into the world to save lost sinners. That the deliverance from our fears would not be in ourselves or our own striving, but would come to us from outside us—from the divine offspring of God the Father and the Virgin Mary, His mother. God with us, the answer to all mankind’s ills. Christmas is a time to marvel in reverent awe at God coming into human history to work out our salvation. The clouds break on the darkness of the world and the light of a new day dawns on humanity.

But the circumstances of how this all came to be, is far from the way we would have written the story. Yet we will see how closely those circumstances mirror our own, in considering how we are brought into God’s Christmas story. The entrance of God into human flesh didn’t occur with some angelic being descending from heaven in power and glory. He could have come striking fear in the hearts of all. Or He could have descended as a divine, benevolent ruler, come to claim our worship, but only impersonally ours—in no way born into our race or sharing our true likeness and experience. No, instead Jesus the Son of God from heaven, was born to a woman put in uncertain circumstances, trying faithfully to obey the Lord’s will. He entered humanity personally, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As we learn from Matthew’s account, the beginning of God’s plan for salvation was almost overshadowed by a cloud of suspicion and fear, as Joseph made the unsettling discovery that his betrothed wife Mary was pregnant, though they had not yet come together.

Jesus did not enter the world without hardships or obstacles, both to Mary and Joseph, and even to Himself. Consider that the first Christmas could’ve easily ended with a divorced and disgraced mother Mary, fending for her child alone. Even though they hadn’t come together yet, they were already legally considered husband and wife; and you can imagine Joseph’s distress when she was found to be pregnant, and he wasn’t the father! Unlike a modern engagement, betrothal couldn’t be broken informally, but required a divorce certificate, even if done privately, as Joseph intended. What a cloud of emotions must have hung over Joseph as he brooded over these things! His love for her, his trust in her integrity—but now?

Undoubtedly feeling betrayed, yet still torn by his love for her, Joseph chose to show mercy by getting a private divorce. This was to spare her from public shame and the penalty of stoning, which legally he could’ve had done. Scripture calls Joseph a righteous man for choosing to do this, and I think in part it’s because Joseph reflects God our Father’s heart. God our heavenly Father won’t expose us to shame or disgrace because of our sins, if we turn to Jesus, the one who saves us from our sins. He is righteous, more righteous than Joseph, and has covered our shame by the cloak of His Son’s righteousness. He has taken the church to be His bride, and spared her of any disgrace. And so God intervened to Joseph in a dream, and Joseph took Mary, his wife, sparing her from any disgrace; and he had faith in the Lord’s words. After Joseph had his struggle of conscience, God revealed to him that Mary was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. But what relief! Like the Son bursting through the clouds of his uncertainty, his fears were laid to rest. Not only was his beloved wife Mary found faithful to him, but he realized a far greater joy, that he should step-father the Savior Jesus, who would save us from our sins! Already before His birth, sin is identified as our fundamental problem that Jesus came to solve.

This is what I love about the Christian faith and the Christmas story. It’s the true story that brings lasting hope and joy, but doesn’t deny or ignore the real human struggles and uncertainties that are part of life, even as they were part of the Christmas story. The Christian concepts of hope and joy are not just superficial sentimentality and warm feelings that often circulate around the holidays. This kind of joy can quickly come crashing down as illness, death, or hardship do not disappear for the holiday season. It’s well-known that the holidays are a difficult time for many people, and that contrary to the apparent joy that seems to pervade the atmosphere, people can often feel emotionally drained or depressed during the holidays. If our Christian joy were only that superficial layer of sentimentality and cheer, then we could understand why some are cynical about the holidays. But for the Christian, who truly grasps what Advent and Christmas time is about, the joy of Christmas shines through the darkness, illuminating those dwelling in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Christian hope and joy doesn’t deny or paper over the real difficulties and turmoil in life, but faces them as a real consequences of sin, and gives an answer to them. Christian hope points to the One who saves us from our sins, Jesus Christ! In the baby born in the manger, there is the birth of hope for a darkened world—the hope of the God who has plans for us—plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11). Christ was born into the uncertainty of Joseph and Mary’s young married existence—and doubtless they had their share of fears and uncertainties to escape. Mary’s near escape with the public shame of having been found pregnant without her husband; Joseph’s fear of having his betrothed wife being unfaithful to him; the tiring journey to Bethlehem; the lack of a proper room in an inn that first Christmas; the threat of Herod’s soldiers searching for a King born to the Jews. It didn’t end there.

But in the midst of what seemed to be swirling impossibility and bewildering circumstances, Joseph and Mary walked in obedience and faith to the commands of the Lord. And into the topsy-turvy world of these faithful servants of the Lord, was born the Christ child, come as their very Lord, to walk amongst them. God with us! He would deliver them to a hope and a future they couldn’t have fully expected in their uncertainty. Yet Jesus was not just born into the life of Mary and Joseph—He came for all humanity. God’s beacon of light shining out to the chaos of a world laboring under the guilt and burden of sin. God had entered into the chaos to be the anchor of stability; that all the promises of the prophets might be fulfilled in this lowly child, born into a manger. Here the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Christ. Here was a refuge and a shelter for all the storm-tossed and distressed.

We can see in Joseph and Mary, and also in us, what the Psalmist meant when he spoke of the righteous: “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries”(Ps. 112:6-8). This is the kind of trust and security that the believer has, when he is resting on the sure promises of the Lord. We need not be afraid of bad news, but can have a steady heart as we trust in the Lord. For He’s the Lord who is Emmanuel, “God with us.” And God is with us precisely in His saving power and plan, as He literally became one of us in flesh and blood, as Jesus, who would save us from our sins. As troubling as fears, doubts, and uncertainties are to us, they are merely the symptom of a deeper problem, namely that of sin. And this is precisely the problem that Jesus Christ was born into the world to take away.

When we call Jesus “Emmanuel,” God with us, we are recognizing that God is with us in the most personal and beneficial way—as our Savior from sin. As one commentator thought about three different ways one can view God, he put it this way: “By the light of nature, we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel, we see him as Immanuel, God with us, in our own nature, and (which is more) in our interest.” After the miracle of Jesus incarnation—God coming into human flesh at Christmas—we can truly say that God is not simply above us in the heavens, watching at a distance. We can truly say that He is not against us any longer because of our sins. But He is truly with us and among us for our interest. In Jesus’ conception and birth from the Virgin Mary, God was creating the circumstances whereby He could send the Savior from sin. One who was fully human, so as to be the legal substitute for human sin; and one who was fully God, so as to be able to die the death that would atone for the sin of the whole world, and further to be raised from the dead. Only as true God and true man could Jesus’ death accomplish what God intended. You see, God’s saving plan was not complete with Jesus’ birth—the goal was not merely to have God as a companion for humanity—rather the plan was complete with Jesus’ perfect death on the cross, where He saved His people (us) from our sins.

Emmanuel, God with us, through the mystery of the Incarnation, born of the Virgin Mary, the heart of the Christmas story. But since Christ has risen from the dead, and ascended to heaven, are we now absent a Savior? Was “God with us” only for the 33 years of Jesus’ earthly life, and now He’s only “God above us” again? By no means! As He’s with us through the mystery of the Incarnation, to save us from our sins, so also is God with us through the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, where today we can share in the very body and blood of the one who is with us to save His people from their sins. When we commune, we truly partake in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), who is there at the table, Emmanuel, God with us, in His saving work. There God brings us the forgiveness He earned for us through Jesus’ death on the cross. So Christ truly has kept His promise that He will be with us till the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), both through His Supper and through the sending of His Holy Spirit. With the knowledge that our God is with us for our salvation from sin, we have a lasting joy and hope that cannot be stolen away, no matter what our circumstances. For in the Christmas story we have been pulled out of ourselves and into the narrative of God with us, working for our salvation. Praise to Emmanuel! God with us! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Golden Compass

In theaters this December 7th, there will be a new film titled The Golden Compass, marketed as a children’s fantasy story. The movie is the first of a planned trilogy of films based on the trilogy of books titled His Dark Materials by English author Philip Pullman. Previews of the movie are reminiscent of the Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia—recently converted to film. The storyline involves a young boy and girl, Lyra and Will, who come from parallel universes, and engage in a series of adventures involving a “battle to decide who rules heaven.” Some have raised concerns about the movie(s) and the potential interest they might drive in the book trilogy His Dark Materials.

Why the concern? According to an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Pullman is a self-described atheist or agnostic, and he does not deny that his beliefs are integral to the storyline of his trilogy. Concerning the early lack of reaction by Christians against his book, he remarked that,
I’ve been surprised how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking
all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people—mainly from
America’s Bible Belt— who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or
witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been
flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything
poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God
. (emphasis mine)
Pullman’s own comments show that the religious themes are not just incidental to the plot. However, he has publicly denied that his books are about promoting atheism.

The director of the film, Chris Weitz, acknowledges that the anti-religious elements of the first book have been softened or altered in the first film, to allow for appeal to a larger audience (see his interview on the MTV moviesblog). Weitz defends his actions against the fans of the book trilogy, saying that,

Some people will only be satisfied if the film I’ve made is an outright attack
on religion, which to me shows that they have misapprehended the meaning of
Pullman’s books as much as the “other side.”
and continues:
The whole point, to me, of ensuring that “The Golden Compass” is a financial
success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful,
more literal adaptation of the second and third books. This is important:
whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the
religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without
destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them
without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the
heavens. I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three,
since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be
able to deliver on the second and third films.

According to reviews of the books, the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the trilogy are said to contain the more overt references to religion, ending in the death of God.

Christian response to the film and movie has ranged widely. Bill Donohue’s Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film, and has denounced the books as “sell[ing] atheism for kids.” On a fan website for the trilogy, another response from Christian apologist Anthony Horvath, was quoted:

“We need to learn how to keep our guard up whenever we are being 'entertained' and teach our children to do the same. … “Boycotting the series gives the impression that we need to be afraid of the ideas it contains. … “Pullman's 'God' is nothing like God as Christians perceive Him,” said Horvath. “For this reason, one might think that the series poses no threat because any reasonably informed Christian would see the inaccuracies and the agenda behind the series in an instant. However, the apologist asserted, “Young Christians will not be able to do that, which exposes the real issue: we need more reasonably informed young Christians.”
Horvath’s website (http://www.sntjohnny.com/) contains a “Christian Parent’s Guide”/Bulletin insert that you may find useful. In that guide he adds that in the book, “God is an evil tyrant whom many of the characters set out to kill…sound like an innocent children’s book to you?”

Certainly parents will have to individually exercise their own parental discretion about whether or not to take their children to see this film. Either way that you decide, we should at a minimum be informed about the films/books, and be aware of the messages that might be contained therein. If you do take your children to see the film, it might be wise to discuss the themes and ideas portrayed afterward, and be prepared to identify some of the mischaracterizations of God or religion that are presented. As Christians we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world.” In that vein of thought, we should be ready to face and address challenges to our faith with “speech that is seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), and know fully what we believe, so that we may “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope we have” (1 Peter 3:15). The hope that we have is Christ, our redeeming Savior, the God who is no tyrant, but a self-sacrificing King who is boundless in love, even for those who are His enemies. (Romans 5:8)

For further information on the web (from both sides):
http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Dark_Materials:_The_Golden_Compass#_note-10
http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/
http://moviesblog.mtv.com/
http://www.sntjohnny.com/

Sermon on Jeremiah 8:4-7, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Rise Up and Be Judged!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. If you have noticed the days of the church year that are printed on your bulletin inserts, you will notice that today is the 2nd to Last Sunday in the Church year. That’s correct, the Church year doesn’t end on New Year’s Eve, but rather the church calendar ends just before the season of Advent in December. And as we draw to the close of another church year, the readings for these last few Sunday’s focus particularly on the End Times and the coming of the Final Judgment. They are at the same time joyful in expectation, and filled with sober warnings to be ready. Themes of judgment and repentance may sometimes seem to be “downers” for us—yet I hope you will see today that this is not necessarily the case. And I also hope that you will see why the Holy Spirit saw fit to make judgment and repentance such common and widespread themes throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and how God calls us to repentance, so that we can rightly face His judgment. The sermon text is Jeremiah 8:4-7. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago in chapel, the children helped me answer a few questions about this same reading. Have any of you ever tripped or fallen down? What did you do afterward? Stand up again, obviously. Now what would you say if one day, people just started falling down, but never got back up again? They just decided to stay on the ground. Maybe they just said, “It’s no use, I’m just going to fall again sooner or later…might as well stay here.” Or maybe they said, “I kind of like it down here on the ground…I’d rather not get up.” The kids all agreed that this was nonsense! Of course you’ve got to get up again!

Or take a second scenario. Imagine that one day people started going to school and work, but never returned home at the end of the day. Maybe they’d say what’s the point in going home? I’m just going to have to be back here the next day anyway. Or that someone would get in their car to drive somewhere, and on their way they took a wrong turn. Although they couldn’t reach their destination by continuing down that wrong path—they stubbornly decided to keep driving that way anyhow. What kind of sense would that make? To turn off the right path, but not return to it when you realized your error?

Both of these two scenarios seem so illogical to us, that they go almost to the point of absurdity. Yet as obvious as these things are: that a person who falls would get up, or that a person who turns away would return home, or return to the right path…God tells us in today’s Scripture reading that it should be just as obvious to repent of our sins. To repent means to “turn away” from our sins, not to continue willfully in them. To God, it doesn’t make any more sense for us to fall down, and not get back up, than it does for us to sin and then not turn away from those sins and turn back to God. God says that He’s waiting and watching for His people to stop doing wrong and to say what is right. He says, “No one repents of his wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’”

As God observes His people, He sees that we cling to deceit and refuse to return. He compares the attitudes of our heart to a war horse that goes charging into battle, throwing all caution to the wind. God is saying that to turn aside from His path and pursue our own course is a reckless endeavor. When it comes to stubbornly pursuing our sins, we are liable to get injured by the consequences. In our reading God even calls on the birds of the air to be our teachers, as they at least have the common sense to follow their patterns of migration. Migration is an inborn instinct in birds, and they naturally follow this impulse each season at the proper time, following the need for food or fair weather, etc. Similarly, the basic knowledge of God’s law is written on our heart, and part of the imprint of God’s image on humanity. Yet we do not follow His law and walk in righteous paths, but prefer to cling to our sin and deceit. God is telling us to have the common sense to rise up when we fall, and to turn back when we go astray!

We sometimes wonder why God is so angry about disobedience to His laws. Part of the problem is that we forget whose law it is. We are accustomed to treating laws rather loosely. Not all laws of course, but think about how kids bend their parents rules, about bedtime, or curfew, or how long they can watch TV. Or how workers bend and stretch the rules to take advantage of the “system” or reward themselves secretly because they don’t feel like they are getting paid enough. Sure, we all probably expect to be in trouble if we get caught…but we don’t expect to die for it. And of course parents and employers don’t give us ultimate consequences.

Having built up the idea that as long as our infractions aren’t too serious then there won’t really be any harsh punishment, we then carry this idea over into God’s law, entirely forgetting the cosmic difference between God’s law and man’s laws; failing to understand His requirements. Forgetting that it is the infinite creator and Holy God who has set these things into order, and that they are entirely just and true. God’s Ten Commandments aren’t arbitrary, vague, or unfair. They govern our worship and faith in God, and they govern our life with our family, spouse, and neighbor. As equally as they protect the rights, safety and well-being of our neighbor, so equally do they protect our rights, safety and well-being. There is no bending, stretching, or out-right breaking of God’s Ten Commandments. In fact breaking just one part of the law is like triggering a chain reaction of dominoes, that makes us guilty of the whole law.

Yet which of the commandments do we usually consider to be the most heinous to break? Murder…adultery? Right? We generally consider those the worst offenses against God’s law. But which commandment does God Himself consider the greatest? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matt. 22:37) This was Jesus’ own perfect summary of the first three commandments: You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; and remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. The offence that was greatest in God’s eyes throughout all the Scriptures is the breaking of the first commandment. Idolatry—worshipping another God, or forsaking the one true God, in any number of ways. Since this doesn’t seem like a moral issue, we sometimes are astonished at how seriously God takes this sin. Yet again we forget that this is God’s law. The fear of His judgment must strip away all self-security from us. We cannot cling to deceit and wickedness, ignoring God’s commandments, live unrepentently, and expect to be forgiven. By the very act of clinging to sin and refusing to repent and return to the Lord, we reject the forgiveness offered to us in Jesus Christ.

Instead we must be astonished at our sin, and say what is right. What is that, you ask? To repent of our wickedness, saying “What have I done?” If you have a hard time finding yourself to be sinful enough to make such a confession, sit down quietly at home, and read through the Ten Commandments carefully, and as the catechism says, “consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Once we have come to an examination of our own heart, by the light of God’s law, we can rightly see that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath and punishment. At this point, we should not dwell a moment too long on introspection, which can only lead us to despair, but rather turn away, get up and repent. The aim of God’s law in causing you to examine yourself inwardly is to see that you are not sufficient in yourself to gain your salvation. We see that we have fallen down or turned away. Only when you have realized this, and looked outside yourself, will you see the solution, which is Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus comes to the sinner who has fallen, and He gently lifts us up. The Good Shepherd goes after those sinners who have turned away and refused to return. He comes to bring us back home to Him.

In the last verse of the text, God says, “my people do not know the requirements of the Lord.” Actually a more literal translation of this verse would be, “my people do not know the judgments (or justice) of the Lord.” So God’s people fail to understand His judgments or His justice. Now if you think back to how I began the sermon, you remember that I mentioned that people often think of repentance and judgment as “downers.” But as truly as there is a negative side to judgment, which we must face—there is also a positive side of judgment, if we understand and know the judgments of the Lord. If the law has done its work as I described—and we have repented of our sins and spoken what is right about our sin: “What have I done?” Then we are prepared to know the judgments of the Lord. A few chapters earlier in Jeremiah, God declares what He will do if His faithless sons do return to Him: He declares, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness” (Jer. 3:22). Even a glimmer of light can bring the greatest hope in the pitch darkness of sin. The positive side of judgment, then, is that for those who have been brought to repentance, God’s judgment against them is no longer a judgment of guilt, but one of innocence! Not because we have any righteousness or innocence of our own, but because Jesus Christ has been made our righteousness by faith! He has taken our guilty verdict on Himself at the cross. So judgment in itself is not simply negative, rather the question is, “Which side of the judgment do you stand on?” or “What is God’s verdict going to be for you? Guilt? Or Innocence?” In Christ Jesus, it is innocence!

Truly, as the epistle reading says, all people, all—must one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. But for the believer, who has spoken what is right, and turned away from sin—we do not approach God’s judgment with fear, but rather with great joy! How can this be? As Romans 8:1 tells us, “therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” Yes we will be judged, but we already know the verdict. Innocence! because Jesus’ blood shed on the cross covers us! So knowing God’s judgment or justice does show us two sides to the matter. For those who fall down and don’t get up; for those who turn away but do not return, because they have clung to their wickedness, there is indeed the fear and threat of God’s judgment. But for those whom Christ has lifted up from their fallenness, and who have turned to Jesus in repentance from their sins, God’s judgment is something we anticipate with confidence, knowing that in faith, Christ’s innocence is attributed to us. It is His verdict of innocence that becomes ours. We know that God has healed our unfaithfulness through the wounds of Jesus Christ. So when you fall down, get up again! When you sin, repent and turn back to God for forgiveness! Jesus will lift you up again, and He will strengthen you to walk after Him in love.

Just yesterday I was reminded that the Christian life is a marathon. It’s not a sprint or even a mile run. It is a lengthy race, and we are in it for the long haul, even when the going seems rough. There will be many times that we stumble and fall. But Christ lifts us up when we stumble. When we turn down wrong paths, Christ turns us back to the right way. For at the end, we will attain the prize that He has won for us: life eternal. So Rise Up! Be Judged by the Lord, knowing that we do not face God’s condemnation, but His forgiveness! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

Monday, October 22, 2007

No Longer Disappointed By Hope

Some things aren’t the way that they were meant to be. A colossal understatement, no doubt. One such “thing” is the way that promises are meant to go hand in hand with hope. If all were right in the world, then hope would always have certainty in promises that were made. Every promise would be fulfilled. But that’s not the world in which we live. It’s evident all around us that we live in a world of broken promises. Children grow up in a world of broken promises, broken families. Many children and adults also have grown accustomed to having promises broken. Few relationships can escape this pattern of broken promises and disappointment. Sometimes it’s our own failing for not keeping a promise made; sometimes it’s not intentional. None of us are superhuman, after all—none of us could keep every promise we make.

With so many broken promises, there are so many people who have grown accustomed to being disappointed by hope. Hope often becomes a letdown. Sadly many lives have been jaded by hope, rather than lifted up from despair. With so many broken promises, we live in a world that doesn’t know real hope. A world that doesn’t understand what Christian hope is. To those who have all-to-often been disappointed by hope, the word hope becomes equated with “wishful thinking” or “unfulfilled desires” or “pie in the sky.” Just listen to some of the music on rock stations and pop music today, to hear the cynicism about even things like family and love.

But when we turn to the Bible, we learn a whole different theology of hope. When we study God’s words (and this is what theology means), then we find the hope that the Bible speaks of, is of a whole different character than the world knows. If you just searched the Bible for the word “hope,” you would find that it does refer to times when even believers feel like all hope is gone. Psalm 9:18, for example, says, “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.” There are times when the poor and needy certainly seem to have lost all hope. There are times when we are cast down in our soul, but yet still hope in the promise of God (Psalm 43:5).

But the hope we do find in Scripture is not like the wishful thinking or unfulfilled wishes of the world—no, hope in the Bible is founded on the sure and certain promises of God. Promises that never are broken. The apostle Paul recognizes the sufferings and hardships that we will face in life, and how difficult they are to bear. But he makes the most remarkable claim, that we can actually rejoice in our sufferings! How is that possible? “Because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5). Hope does not disappoint us! This is certainly not the fleeting hopes and failing promises of the world that he is talking about! Paul tells us that the reason that we can take courage in our sufferings—the reason that we can rejoice in our sufferings, is because they produce character and hope within us.

But as we’ve already shown, hope is only as good as the one who makes and who keeps the promise. Exactly! Our hope is unshakeable, because our hope is in One who cannot fail in keeping His promises. Hope does still wait for its fulfillment, as we also

who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:23-25).

Christian hope does teach us patience, as we await the fulfillment of the redemption of our bodies, but our hope is not an uncertain, doubting thing. Rather it is a sure and certain hope that trusts in the promises granted to us by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the gift of His Holy Spirit is His “deposit” or guarantee that He will keep His promises (2 Cor. 5:5)! So as we live our lives each new day, in suffering or in health, we can truly say that we are no longer disappointed by hope, for we know the One in whom our promises are fulfilled!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Not a Tame God

In C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a scene occurs where four children who are exploring the magical land of Narnia have a conversation with some talking beavers. These beavers are explaining to the children about the lion Aslan, who represents God and Jesus Christ. In asking about what Aslan is like, the children ask, “Is he dangerous, or is he safe?” Surprised at the question, the beavers answer that “He’s not a Tame Lion!” and something to the effect that a lion isn’t safe, but he is good. I think that is a good insight into how we think about God.

The way that many people seem to approach God, is that we are trying to tame God. Or really, we are trying to create an image or understanding of God that fits with what we want God to be. Something manageable yet benevolent, sort of like the kindly old grandfather who winks at your faults. Or an absentee landlord who only checks in on us on rare occasions. A God that would never send anyone to hell, a God that was utterly separated from the warfare of the Israelites in conquering Canaan, and a God who would not work in unpredictable or unexpected ways. We try to knock off all the hard edges of the way the Bible speaks of God and His actions throughout history. This is captured well by a quote from Mark Twain, “In the beginning God created mankind in His image; ever since man has been returning the favor!” In other words, mankind is always trying to make God in our own image. Which is idolatry of course. The first commandment states, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

I suspect some of the reasons we engage in this sinful enterprise of fashioning our own image of God, are that for one, we want a God that we can face. We want safety. We want a God who is easy to digest and presentable enough for us to share with other people. We don’t want a God who identifies our sins. But we must let God be God. Hidden in these attempts to refashion God, I think there is a truly human, and understandable impulse. Job spoke of it in the Old Testament, when he was beset with enormous difficulties and loss in his life. He lamented that God “is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both. Let him take his rod away from me, and let not dread of him terrify me. Then I would speak without fear of him, for I am not so in myself” (Job 9:32-35). What Job wanted was a God with a face. He wanted to meet God like a man, and contend his case with him, safe from the rod of discipline and the dread of God’s holiness. Then Job could speak to God without fear.

I think this is what our attempts all amount to—trying to create a God we can face without fear. But the irony of Job’s wish, that God would be a man, is that now in Christ Jesus that wish is fulfilled! In Christ Jesus, God is a man, and He has a face. He is the “arbiter” or mediator between God and man. In Christ Jesus we can approach God without fear and dread. And we don’t have to engage in silly and sinful games to refashion God’s image. (Though we are not immune to attempts to refashion Jesus also, to fit our own agendas). No, we dare not try to “tame” God. God is terrifying in His supreme majesty, His limitless power, His control of the universe by His divine Word, and His power to give life and take it away. God is unapproachable in His bare majesty; in fact in the Old Testament God told Moses “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). But God showed Moses His back, so that he would not perish in seeing God’s full glory.

Instead of “taming” God, we approach God in Jesus Christ, who has revealed and made God known to us (John 1:18). In Christ Jesus, we find that God is indeed good toward us, and that His true Fatherly heart towards us is to love us and see us redeemed by His Son. In Christ Jesus, God has a face, and in that face we see the sternness of God’s judgment against sin, but also the compassion and mercy of the one who took that judgment upon Himself.

In the end, a God whom we have to reduce, refashion, or recreate in our own image—is not only a false idol of our own making, but it is also a god that is powerless to save us. Only the true God, who is indeed fearfully holy and powerful, yet abounding in steadfast mercy and love (Ex. 34:6)—only this God can save us. In His hidden will and His hidden ways, God is indeed mysterious and His ways are beyond our understanding, but in Christ Jesus we see God’s revealed will and His revealed ways. And His revealed will is that “all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). This is how we ought to understand God, and how we ought to approach God—through the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, and through His Holy Scriptures that reveal this face of God to us. And we may leave the mysteries of God to remain to His glory until we meet Him face to face in heaven.

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10, "For Sinners Only"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, Luke 15:1-10. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

All of today’s lessons are about sinners. You’d be correct to say that it’s a frequent topic in the Bible. We all might wonder why the Bible, and the church for that matter, is so intently focused on the topic of sin? Every worship service we gather for, we make a full admission of our sinfulness. We began our service with a confession of our disobedience to God and neglect of His commandments and word. At worst, this is downright offensive to some, at best it might seem a little odd. But maybe a better question to ask ourselves is why are we so bothered about being identified as sinners?

Two thousand years ago, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a group of people unmatched for their moral behavior. They would be the citizens or employees of the month, if there had been such a thing. Their clean living and careful avoidance of evil would have put each one of us to shame. And they were offended to see Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. Of course, they couldn’t see themselves as sinners. But they were happy to point out that the people Jesus was eating with were an unfit crowd—tax collectors and sinners. You could sum up what it means to be a Pharisee, both then and today by the attitude, “Just don’t touch my sin!” We all have a little Pharisee blood in us. We consider ourselves mostly moral people, ready to point the finger safely away from us—at the ills of society, the corruption of politicians, the immorality of celebrities. But don’t dare speak of my sin!

There was another man who had once been a Pharisee. He too could claim to be blameless by the law. But he was so passionately devoted to the law of God, that he was driven to fervent persecution of the followers of Jesus, throwing Christian men and women into prison. Why? Because the teachings of Jesus seemed to threaten the law of God, by opening the kingdom of heaven to sinners! The followers of this Jesus were telling people that God had sent His Son Jesus to seek and to save lost sinners! That they could receive salvation as a free gift through His death on the cross and resurrection. This Pharisee was the person we now know as the Apostle Paul, who in the midst of his persecution and hatred for Christians, was sought after like a lost sheep and found by God. He made a complete 180 degree turn in his conversion, to become the most ardent messenger of the Gospel in the early days of the church. And as you can see in our second reading today, Paul, once a Pharisee, came to realize he too was a lost sinner. And he gave us a saying that is trustworthy and deserves our full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”

By grace Paul had hit on the truth that the Pharisees missed, and that we also miss when we say in our hearts “don’t touch my sin!” That truth is captured in the first line of an old hymn, “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die.” The reason that we can boldly (not proudly, but boldly) confess our sins each Sunday is because we recognize that we really are sinners, and I myself am the worst of all. I cannot look to another and say that they are a worse sinner than I. Perhaps it’s too uncomfortable an admission for us to make, but when we do, we find that God’s love and forgiveness overwhelms us and frees us from that guilt we try to hide. Hiding it even from ourselves. And we know that Christ came into the world for sinners only. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. When we gather for worship, this is precisely what we do: boldly repent because we have an even bolder confidence in the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death on the cross.

But for some, its all too easy to realize we are sinners, and the problem is not so much denial of our sin, but the fear and uneasiness that somehow we cannot leave it behind. Or that sometimes we cannot even believe there is forgiveness for our sins also. Like a lost sheep, we have found ourselves cornered by the circumstances of life, and seemingly there is no way out. But Christ came into the world to save sinners! As the Bible says, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

When we see ourselves in this light, and take full stock of the seriousness of sin, we will begin to find that the really amazing thing is not how much the Bible is focused on sin; but rather that God is so merciful to us despite our sin! The shock for the Pharisees was that Jesus would welcome and eat with sinners. In the two parables that Jesus taught, we see how persistent God is in pursuing lost sinners. In the first parable, there is a flock of one hundred sheep, and one wanders off and gets lost. The shepherd then leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one lost lamb. That lost lamb represents the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus was getting flak for eating with. That lost lamb is also the apostle Paul. That lost lamb is us. Anyone who has wandered away from God. This shows us how deeply God cares for His sheep, that when even a single lamb is lost, Christ our Good Shepherd goes seeking after it. God doesn’t let one of His sheep slip away, and say, “Oh well, chalk another one up to foolish, wandering sheep! You never can tell when one is going to run off!” His concern as a Good Shepherd is to always retrieve every lost sheep.

And see with what tenderness our Good Shepherd seeks after the lost! Though we like sheep are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, He patiently seeks after us and draws us back to Him. God has sought and found poor lost sinners in all the dark places of life, and people who have fallen so far away from God. Christ came for the lost and the sinners, for those suffering from addictions, from immorality, from greed and violence. From unfaithfulness to Him. Wherever Christians have brought the good news of Jesus Christ, God has found lost lambs. Notice the Good Shepherd carries the sheep home on His shoulders, to safety, and that He is rejoicing as He goes home. He does not drive the lost sheep home with His staff, berating and cursing it for wandering away. So also Christ has come and sought us when we were lost, and He rejoices to bring us home to Him and to the safety of the church, His sheepfold.

I always like to point out who it is that does the seeking and the finding in this parable. Because the way we often talk as Christians gets it precisely backwards. We are accustomed to talking about how “I found God,” or “I found Jesus.” Churchgoers have even coined the term “seeker” to define those who are seeking some spirituality or God, and are exploring their options. Problem with this label is that we humans aren’t very good “seekers” according to God. You see, none of Jesus’ parables and illustrations about lost sheep end with the lost lamb wandering its own way back into the fold. For all the seeking we do ends up being aimless wandering. Truth is we don’t know what we are looking for or how to find it. God had to come after us and seek us. It was never Jesus who was lost, waiting for us to find Him. Rather, Jesus is the true seeker who goes out and retrieves the lost lamb, and brings it to safety on His own shoulders. God is always the first to awaken faith in our hearts by His Holy Spirit. All who come to Him have first been sought and found by Jesus Christ. And we see what a delightful labor this is for our Lord Jesus, by how He tenderly lifts the broken and wounded sinners to His shoulders. All who tremble in fear at God’s holiness, and see that they have disobeyed Him, He brings His forgiveness in Jesus Christ. All who have been awakened, like the Apostle Paul, to their own sinfulness, He gently restores to the sheepfold where there is food and there is life.

The second parable Jesus taught the Pharisees and scribes was about a woman who had lost a coin, and engaged in a panicked search for it, lighting a lamp and carefully sweeping what was probably a dirt floor, to find the coin. In a world where few people stop to pick up a penny any more, it might seem that the point of this parable is a little lost on us. But in actuality, this coin was worth about a day’s wages. So it had some value, but the woman would probably not be so concerned for it except if she were poor. But honestly now, who calls up neighbors to celebrate finding a lost coin? But perhaps that’s just the point we fail to realize. Though it might seem trivial to us to rejoice over finding a lost coin, the woman is unexpectedly joyful. In the same way, God and all of heaven shows surprising enthusiasm over the repentance of even one sinner. To the eyes of the world, one seemingly insignificant person becoming a Christian might seem a rather unimpressive feat. Hardly worth making a fuss over. But not in God’s eyes! In God’s eyes, the poor, lost sinner that has been found and recovered by God, is worth setting all heaven to celebration! Every time a sinner repents the whole angelic choir of heaven tunes up their voices for praise.

A quote from a seminary professor of mine sums this up well: “The value of the lost coin was in the mind of the poor woman and nowhere else. We have little value in ourselves. Our value is completely in the God who saw something in us that we could not even see in ourselves.” That is the message I want to leave with you today. Jesus shows us God’s remarkable love and desire for us, that even as lost sinners who have rebelled and gone astray from Him, He still seeks after and finds us. Christ gently restores us through His forgiveness, earned by His death on the cross. And to those of us who see no value in ourselves—to the lost, the broken, the burned out, and the weak—God has seen in us priceless value that we could not see in ourselves. So precious and valuable are you in Jesus’ eyes, that He shed His own blood as the price of your salvation. You were worth the death of God’s own Son. And God has raised Jesus from the dead, that we might eternally be His possession in heaven, where all the saints and angels rejoice over one lost sinner who repents! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Sermon on Proverbs 9:8-12 and Luke 14:25-33, "The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon is on both the Old Testament reading, Proverbs 9, which I will reread for you, and the Gospel reading Luke 14. Though they are not directly related, both share the theme of godly wisdom. My aim today is that you would gain godly wisdom, by the fear of the Lord. The passage from Proverbs 9:8-12,
8 Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.
9 Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.
10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
11 For through me your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.
12 If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you; if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.”

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

In Proverbs chapter 9 we have a contrast between the way of the mocker and the way of the wise man. A mocker is one who scorns instruction, laughs at advice, and hates the rebuke of God’s Word. The reason that a mocker cannot bear the rebuke of the Lord is that all that he does is right in his own eyes. A couple of weeks ago we heard the text from Hebrews that says the Lord disciplines those He loves. Rebuke is one form of discipline, and it is often unpleasant at the time. If we walk in the way of the mocker, we will hate the discipline of the Lord.

But there is another way for us than the way of the mocker, and that is the path of the wise man. God’s call to wisdom is that we would learn to realign our thinking with God. Seeking godly wisdom is about bringing our thoughts, beliefs, and life into alignment with God’s way of thinking. And this is what is so difficult for the “mocker” in every one of us. The old sinful nature in us stubbornly rebels against this realignment in thinking. But the wise man welcomes rebuke, and loves the one who rebukes him. For the wise man knows that he can learn from rebuke, and become wiser still. He sees that God is at work to guide and teach him in righteous paths. By being “teachable” we become wise.

So what is God’s purpose in rebuking us, through the Word of Scripture? There are many wrong paths that we can head down in life, and rebukes are like God’s messengers standing in that wrong path, or like road signs warning you to turn around. Caution! Danger ahead! Road Closed! Wrong Way: Do not Enter! Etc. Many have traveled far down those paths before hearing and listening to those rebukes from the Lord, and turning back to the path of righteousness. One of the greatest mistakes that we make, however, is to be heading down a wrong path unknowingly, and finally hearing that rebuke or warning, but ignoring it and continuing down that path. I have heard that some people say that they are just too guilty to come to church or believe, because they have led such a reckless life before, and that God could never forgive them. Or to settle so far into our sinful path that we see no point in turning back to the right way.

It is never too late to change our behavior or our beliefs. And Christ is not slow to forgive when we confess our sins. There is one path, one way to heaven, and that is the path of Christ, whom Scripture calls the wisdom of God. Though that path is narrow, God gives rebukes and warnings down the false paths we might stray onto, to keep us on the right path. Rebukes may come through people—fellow Christians, pastors, parents, or they may come through the discipline of consequences in life. Sometimes the consequences of our actions are rebuke enough to teach us that we have gone down the wrong path.

I can compare this to how certain persons in my life (my parents) gave me many warnings about speeding when I first began to drive, but I didn’t listen until the consequence of getting my first ticket rebuked me. But of course, I didn’t completely learn my lesson, and though I continued to be a reasonably safe driver with no accidents, over the next 3 or 4 years, I got a ticket for going through a red light (it was debatable, I thought), speeding again (I was following someone else!), and disobeying a right-turn only sign (traffic was clear in my lane!). For each ticket there was a protest and an excuse, a self-justification for why I really shouldn’t have gotten it. But if I had only heard the rebuke and instruction of my parents and the traffic laws at first, I would have saved myself a lot of costly tickets and higher insurance premiums. Even though I could ignore my parents’ advice and the traffic laws, the consequences of my driving eventually caught up to me. So I had to learn from repeated consequences to change my behavior. Like the mocker in our text, I stored up my resentment for those correcting words of wisdom. I always knew better, or so I thought. As our text says, “If you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.” The consequences that fell on my own head were my prize for ignoring instruction.

Pride is always the biggest obstacle to realigning our life and our ways to God’s way of thinking. Our own way always seems right in our eyes. After all, who is a better expert on our own lives than ourselves? But the wise man heeds advice. He seeks it out and listens to gain learning.

Our proverb continues, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” True wisdom grows from the fear, love, and trust in the Lord above all things, and from knowledge of the Holy One of God, who is the source of all wisdom. I already mentioned that the Bible calls Christ the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and it also says that God has made Christ “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). In today’s Gospel reading you will see that Christ teaches us about godly wisdom. Christ’s wisdom comes as a rebuke about counting the cost of discipleship.

We are always startled and puzzled by the harsh words that Jesus spoke here, and in several other places, about the cost of discipleship. He says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” If the hard moral teachings of the Bible cause us to stumble, how much more the teaching of discipleship and the cross! What can Jesus mean about hating your family and own life? Doesn’t Jesus elsewhere teach that we should not only love our neighbor, but even to love our enemies as well? That a husband and wife should remain faithful to each other, and that children should honor their parents?

Those Christians who have left religions such as Mormonism or Islam or Judaism to become Christian, know what it means to have father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters turned against them. They know the isolation and rejection that can happen when one follows Christ instead of the false gods of other religions. Those of us who have the blessing of our immediate families being Christians do not know how fortunate we are. But each person must count the cost of discipleship. Whether raised in a Christian or non-Christian family, our call to discipleship means that nothing and no one, even our closest family—no, even our own life!—cannot be more precious to us than God.

This is another call for us to realign our thinking with God. Family relationships cannot be prized above our identity as Christians. Ask yourself, “Is full acceptance in my (non-Christian) family more important than my commitment to Christ? Am I willing to live out my Christian faith before my family, or am I going to hide it to protect earthly relationships that are more important to me?” Jesus Himself declared that His true mother and brothers were those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8:21). In other words, we recognize that our new identity as Christians is as part of the family of believers, and not our earthly family. Our faith may in fact divide our relationships and families. This is part of the cross of a Christian. But how blessed are those whose earthly families are also united by faith.

As we consider Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow Him, we wonder why we are carrying a cross. Of course to carry a literal cross is something that one only does in preparation for their own crucifixion and death! Christ bore His cross forward to His crucifixion and death on Calvary. Yet our bearing of the cross is different. We are not marching on toward our crucifixion and death, but it has been reversed for us! We have already been crucified and died, with Christ in our baptism. In our baptism we have taken up that cross and gone forward into a life where suffering and trial is a part of discipleship. But for us the cross is light and easy, for the burden of sin has been lifted from us in Christ’s death on the cross! When we carry our cross, we face the rebuke and discipline, but it is not the hostile rebuke and scorn that Jesus faced as He made that deadly march to Golgotha, but rather the loving rebuke and discipline of the Lord that schools us in paths of righteousness. We do not march on bearing the guilt of our own sin as a heavy burden, but we say with the Psalmist, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Ps. 130:3-4). We can have a holy respect and awe of God, because He has shown us such amazing mercy in forgiving our sins in Christ Jesus.

When we return to our initial theme that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we can see how realigning our thinking with God’s thinking can be of great blessing. First of all, we are warned and rebuked in life to turn away from the path of folly, to turn away from sinful behaviors and from false beliefs that lead us into harm. Secondly, as we count the cost of discipleship, Jesus shows us that we have been given a new identity, apart from the identity we find in the world or in our family, but an identity that is rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ. Lastly we consider the spiritual blessings that we have in Christ Jesus.

In the final part of Jesus’ parable on discipleship, He gives two examples of the wisdom of counting the cost. The first is about estimating the cost and supplies required to build a tower. The second is about a king considering his strength to go into battle against an enormous enemy. In our life, if we have counted the cost of discipleship, we will see that following Christ may lead to separation from family and the trials of bearing our cross. Then we will also want to know if we have the supplies and strength to go forth in our life. Will we have the resources to go forward in discipleship, or to face the host of spiritual enemies that rise against us? Thanks be to God! The foundation for discipleship and the resources to complete the walk of discipleship are all supplied for us in Christ the church’s one foundation, and in our baptism into His death and resurrection. Through faith we are the recipients of all His benefits. And how can we engage the legion forces of the devil and his demons if we are not standing together with the holy army of saints and martyrs strong, who engage in the spiritual warfare of life behind our Victorious Champion, the Christ, who has sealed the victory for us?

But we have a Lord and Savior, who has fully counted the cost of salvation, and paid the price in full. As Christians we are not independent contractors who have to go out on our own and gather the resources and supplies to complete the tasks we are given, but Christ our master builder is the foundation itself, and He supplies all our needs and gives us the strength to walk in discipleship each day. Jesus will see our life through to completion, and guides us by His wisdom. And in the spiritual battles of temptation in life, we are not scattered foot soldiers fending for ourselves, or members of an army that is outnumbered and doomed to surrender, but rather we are marching in the ranks of the armies of heaven, who follow the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who rides forth against His enemies dressed in a robe dipped in blood (Revelation 9:11-16). And it is Christ our King’s own blood shed on the cross that has won for us the victory against Satan and all his powers. So now go forward confidently in godly wisdom and fear of the Lord, knowing that you are marching forward from the redemption of Christ’s cross, and that you stand shoulder to shoulder with Christians who have become your own family in Christ. Knowing that we have been supplied for every task, that you stand on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ, and that we bear our crosses with Christ for a little while, knowing that in Him we have the promised victory. Amen!

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sermon on Hebrews 12:1-13, “The Lord Disciplines Those Whom He Loves”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Hebrews 12, the Epistle reading. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discipline. It’s a word that no longer strikes fear in the hearts of many children. It’s really an area where parents must admit that they have often failed their children. Perhaps it’s a word that more often strikes fear in the hearts of parents and those in authority! Discipline is such an unpopular idea, after all. As little as we enjoy receiving discipline, often we enjoy giving it even less. In my own stumbling way I am learning this lesson myself as a teacher. My own reluctance or hesitation to give out discipline at times, has opened the door for misbehaviors to persist. Under pressure from society and from our own changing attitudes about what it means to really “love” our children, discipline has become less practiced and seemingly less effective these days. Neglecting to discipline our children has its cost: they become more unruly and disrespectful of authority, they are delayed into maturing as adults, and often times we may be leaving them exposed to damaging behaviors and experiences that they didn’t know to avoid.

Last school year we had an excellent session with Dr. Mendez, one of Zach’s college profs, and he talked to our parents and school families about discipline. While I’m not going to repeat his presentation for you, nor is this the time for that, I want to recall four of the points he made about the characteristics of discipline. Drawing directly from the Scripture, he reminded us that 1) discipline is a necessary component of love, 2) discipline seems painful at the time, but the result is progress toward righteousness, 3) discipline takes courage, and 4) discipline leads to peace, happiness, and hope. Perhaps one of the hardest things for us as sinful humans to accept is the truth that discipline is a necessary component of love. The tempting and easier alternative to discipline, is for us to think that by not drawing boundary lines around our children we are loving them. We think that by allowing them the freedom to do and choose as they please, we are giving them the freedom we wish we had as children. Or that because we are more permissive with their behavior and choices, perhaps they will love us more. In some cases it almost seems like the roles of parent and child have been reversed, so that the child is the one making decisions, rather than abiding by what their parents say. Honor your father and mother has been turned on its head.

You are all familiar with the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Although most people think that comes right from the Bible, it must be a popular paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24, because none of the English translations I found said it that way. The actual verse reads much more strongly, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” So we are told that lack of discipline doesn’t simply spoil a child, it shows that we hate our children. Or as Hebrews says, we are treating them as illegitimate children and not true sons (and daughters). This is a tough pill to swallow, but its true. On the contrary, those who responsibly discipline their child, show that they in fact love them. Of course we will protest, “I don’t hate my child, the reason I don’t discipline them is because I love them. Maybe we have had bad experiences with discipline as a child. Either the parents were too harsh, or we were too naughty. So we overreact by neglecting to discipline. The Bible does warn about being excessively harsh and exasperating our children. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4) A difficult task for parents to learn is to figure out the constantly changing level of expectations and responsibilities for a growing child. A 3 year old cannot be disciplined for the same kind of behavior that a 7 year old would be, nor is the punishment going to be the same. (two lines illustration?)

But the important lesson from this Proverb is the same as from our reading today from Hebrews: Discipline is a necessary component of love. The Lord disciplines those whom He loves. Neither does the Proverb necessarily require that punishment for the purpose of discipline automatically be corporal. That question came up at Dr. Mendez’s presentation. It certainly permits corporal punishment, (spanking for example) as an acceptable form of discipline. Yet it does not say that is the only form of discipline. The Proverb states that discipline is what is necessary, not that the rod is necessary. Otherwise the verse would read, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to use the rod.” I know I am thankful for the discipline I received, and feel that I am much better off for it. If I hadn’t been disciplined as a youngster, I might have turned out to be twice the “pest” I already am! And it also enabled me to mature faster than otherwise. (Though you may find witnesses to dispute that). But by failing to discipline our children, we often extend adolescence into adulthood.

So far parents and teachers have the brunt of it. But as we are all children of God here, this applies equally to all of us. Even those who have no children, or whose children are grown. The reason this passage from Hebrews touches on all of us is that we are all running the race that is marked out for us as Christians. The Greek word for “race” is agona—from which we get our word agony. There is a real struggle we are all engaged in, and that is the sometimes agonizing battle against sin. And this is precisely why we need discipline, which is spiritual and physical training for our bodies and souls. We need it because it’s so easy to become entangled, encircled by sin. After all, sin can be rather enticing, rather pleasant at times. Much easier to let the spider spin its web around us, than to struggle against it. That soft cocoon of sin can become quite cozy, no need to resist…but watch out! We are Satan’s prey, and he spins that entangling web of sin for our destruction!

So throw off the sin and hindrances, the obstacles in our race! How? Christ has cut the bonds of our sin that had us firmly wrapped, and each time our sins are forgiven a new strand has been cut again. We are running a race that has already been completed and won for us by Jesus, and we are to always look to Him as we complete this race. He is the author of our faith—the origin and one who wrote our names in the Book of Life and wrote our salvation. Not only has He written our story, but He is also the perfector, the finisher of it. He has finished the race, won the prize of our salvation and forgiveness. Our race is not about “placing” (Jesus already won), but rather it is about struggling to finish the race in faith.

In that struggle we need discipline. What another Proverb (22:15) says of children is also true for us: Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” Foolish thinking is part of our nature, but discipline will drive it away. Sometimes our own foolishness is to think that in our struggle against sin, that we have resisted all the way to the breaking point, and that we had no other choice but to give in. That the temptation was simply too great, and there was no way out. But the rebuke of God’s Word ought to drive that foolishness away. This verse from Hebrews hit me powerfully not that long ago, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” What humbling words! In Hebrews chapter 11, right before our text for today, we read about how some of the Old Testament saints were

tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.[1]

There were some people who really did resist to the point of shedding their blood. But this is not here merely to “put us in our place” and make us feel lousy about our failures to resist temptation. Rather it is a reminder to us that even our greatest struggles against sin are together with the saints of all ages, an echo of the greatest struggle and agony that was ever waged against sin. That is none other than the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! Our sufferings and struggles are but an echo of His pain endured on the cross for our justification. But in our struggles we are taking up our cross with Jesus, being supported and strenghthened by His strong arms, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.

Christ has marked out and completed the race for us, and in His agony in the garden and the shame of the cross, He struggled on in our place. He has won the race for us vicariously—that means that He has won it as our substitute. In all the failings of our struggle against sin, He has taken our place and succeeded. He resisted the opposition of sinful men and the shame of the cross to the point of shedding His own blood. He resisted all sin and temptation, even the temptation of turning away from that most difficult death—He resisted it all to the point of shedding His own blood. But not in a futile struggle, only to be defeated! Driven ahead by the glorious joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross and by the very shedding of His innocent blood, He struck down the power that sin, death and the devil held over us. What joy was it that lay before Him, that drove Jesus so resolutely to go through such a death? It was the joy of accomplishing the reunion of God to man through His saving death—the joy of restoring all creation from sin and “making all things new.” It was for this joy, the joy of having mankind brought back together with God, for us to become His eternal possession and heirs of all His gracious promises. No whips or nails or thorns or cross was too great to turn Him aside from the path to that joy.

It is by fixing our eyes on this Jesus, and borne up by His unshakeable determination to have us restored to Him, that we can run onward for our race. With our faith and our attention always drawn to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, we can endure all hardships and sufferings as discipline. Discipline that will not break us down or cause us to lose heart, but godly discipline that we respectfully submit to, knowing that God is treating us as true sons. The Lord disciplines those whom He loves. Through faith in Jesus, we can view our sufferings as a “slight momentary affliction…preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:17) We endure this present discipline, knowing that God is doing it for our good, to produce His holiness in us, and that this is all preparation for the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. That sounds like the joy that was set before Jesus. And it is the joy that is set before us. The reunion of God with man through the work of the completer, the finisher, the perfecter of our faith: Jesus Christ. Discipline may be unpleasant and painful now, but it will be a forgettable momentary affliction for us when we have reached the end of our race, and share in all the victory celebration and rejoicing for the prize of eternal life, won for us by Jesus, our Finisher. Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen

[1]The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Heb 11:35-38.

Wedding Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, "Marriage is the Embodiment of Love"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The basis for the message on this joyful wedding day is the great chapter of love, 1 Corinthians 13.

Some might say that this chapter is too beautiful to describe real life. That it’s too idealistic. Well God is no mere idealist. God does not speak of love in abstractions or ideals or impossibilities. He does not speak of a love that does not or cannot exist, but God Himself gives love its concrete reality, its embodiment. God’s love took on flesh and human form. God gave love its embodiment in the person of Jesus Christ, coming down to earth to show God’s love embodied in His death on the cross for our sins, and His resurrection. In Christ’s life, death and resurrection, He showed that the love described here in 1 Corinthians is not abstract or idealistic. He lived it out, He embodied it to the fullest. And it is only through Him that you, Josh and Kristi, are now able to embody this same love toward each other. By faith in Jesus Christ you are joined to and filled with God’s love so that it overflows into your actions. So now you become for one another in marriage, the embodiment of this love to each other. Your marriage will give flesh and blood to this love.

Of course the reason that a person might call this great chapter of love idealistic is because by our sinful nature, we are not creatures that spontaneously and willingly love. On our own, all sorts of selfish behaviors and prideful feelings develop. St. Paul describes those behaviors as the opposite of love. Envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, insisting on our own way, being irritable and resentful, and rejoicing in wrongdoing. Because of our sinfulness, all of these have the potential to creep into marriage and erode the love and commitment that you are here to establish today in the sight of God and these witnesses. And this is why, romantic feelings alone are not enough to sustain a lifelong marriage. Love must run deeper than skin, and it must also embrace the commitment to each other’s well-being.

This love has its source in Jesus Christ, who embodied God’s love for you, so that you can embody it for each other. And in this love, you both acknowledge that you come together in marriage both as sinners and as saints. As sinners you must learn that your marriage, as with any godly marriage, must depend on continual repentance and forgiveness. This is the most important way your love for each other is embodied, and takes shape. When those inevitable arguments arise, or poor communication leads to hurt feelings, or you both are stubbornly insisting on your own way, instead of walking together in love—it is then that you need to practice your love for each other by repenting, apologizing to each other, and forgiving. How can a marriage last without forgiveness? And how can we forgive without first admitting our faults? Verse 6 says that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Marriage will be full of opportunities for your love to rejoice together with the truth. Part of that will be rejoicing together at the truth of acknowledging your own sin, then seeing it covered with the forgiveness of Jesus, and His forgiving love through you to each other.

There lies the joyous truth that you also enter marriage as saints! That whatever sins and errors and mistakes lie in your past, present, or future, that Jesus Christ has forgiven you! That His death on the cross and His shed blood wash you clean of any guilt, so that you can be presented blameless and holy before God and before each other. In Christ you’re covered by the white garment of His righteousness. And in this embrace of God’s love embodied for you in Christ Jesus, you are given that new spiritual nature that lives and walks in the way of love described for us in 1 Corinthians 13.

And how will Christ’s love for you shape your love for each other in marriage? In one of the most beautiful wonders of creation, God has made marriage to be the highest and most mysterious picture of Christ’s own love for the church. A husband’s love for his wife is compared to Christ’s self-giving love for the church. Perhaps God named marriage as this mysterious picture of Christ’s love, because marriage is the best approximation our fallen lives have to the greatness of Christ’s love for the church. This speaks to you, Josh, as Jesus described the greatest form of love that there is—it is for “someone to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And so Josh, as you are Kristi’s husband, you are to love your wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Your love for her is to embody Christ’s love, and to take on those concrete forms of love described in 1 Corinthians 13, that you both chose for your wedding text. Your love is to embody patience and kindness, to bear with all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. For a love that is founded on the everlasting love of God is a love that will endure through the hardships of life and marriage, through the “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy will.”

It is by loving Kristi in this way, and by embodying Christ’s self-giving love to her in marriage, that you create the safe and loving context for her to fulfill her God-given act of loving submission to you as her husband. Here the Scripture also speaks to you, Kristi, that as Josh’s wife you are to “submit to your own husband as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:23). As Josh embodies self-giving love for you, not seeking after his own interest, you can willingly and delightfully submit to him as your husband, knowing that his concern is for your protection, safety, and well-being. As you both embody this love for one another, your marriage becomes a frame for the beautiful picture of God’s love expressed between and through a husband and wife. Love that is embodied in all your actions toward each other.

And submission for you does not mean inferiority or inequality, anymore than Josh’s headship means being domineering or inconsiderate of your opinions. But rather, as you together embody the model that Christ has shown; you, Josh will love Kristi as you love and cherish your own body. Showing all concern to care for her best interests. And likewise Kristi, you will lovingly submit to Josh as the one who loves you so greatly as to even give his life for your protection. As the Bible also says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).As we look again at the great love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, the passage ends with this statement: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Faith and hope are highly exalted gifts in Scripture, and indeed we cannot get to heaven without faith in Jesus Christ. But why then does St. Paul call love the greatest of these three? I believe the answer lies in the fact that faith and hope both await the time when they become sight, and there is no longer faith, but rather seeing and believing because we will have reached the full reality of heaven. But love does not pass away or come to completion in heaven, but rather love never ends. All other things, prophecies, tongues, knowledge—these are all partial things that will pass away when all things become fully known in heaven. So what is that for you? This means that in marriage in this life, you are taking part of God’s greatest gift, the gift of love. And in your small way you are participating in that everlasting love of God that will not cease, and is not partial, but full and enduring. Though your bond of marital love will last only through this life, till death do you part, your love for each other is nevertheless a small reflection of God’s great and all embracing love, that brings us up to heaven through the embodied love of Jesus Christ our Lord. His love extended all the way to the cross and beyond to the empty tomb, that we might all share one day in God’s heavenly love for eternity. May the blessing of this love of Christ be always embodied in your love for each other. Amen.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Private Confession and Absolution: An Outdated “Roman Catholic” Practice, or an Exercise in the Gospel?

Most Lutherans, and most Protestants in general probably think that the practice of private confession and absolution was done away with during the Reformation, as a burdensome and outdated practice. The idea of a minimum yearly required visit to the confessional booth, to enumerate all your sins to a priest strikes many as a bit legalistic, or at the very least somewhat odd.

Turn your thoughts for a moment to the world around us. Television is filled afternoon talk shows where guests eager for 15 minutes of fame spill the private details of their life for public consumption and entertainment. As family members and lovers squabble and audiences laugh and gasp, we wonder what moves people to reveal their “dirty laundry.” I’ve heard callers on the radio, bragging about their wildest and most adventurous behaviors. Internet websites are cropping up where you can “confess your sins online”…essentially post your secret sins on a public forum to receive the therapeutic benefit of “letting it out.” We have a world that is burdened with guilt, but without God’s Word to guide them, these “confessions” more often serve the purpose of bragging, voyeurism, and shock-value entertainment. But in all these and even among more serious examples of people who are legitimately seeking relief from their guilt through confession, there is one key element missing. ABSOLUTION! That is the forgiveness of sins. In none of these circumstances, was the forgiveness of sins offered.

Back to our question of whether private confession and absolution is an outdated Roman Catholic practice, or an exercise in the Gospel. We may be surprised what we find in the Augsburg Confession.[1] When it came to the article of confession, (as in confessing our sins) they wrote “Concerning confession it is taught that private absolution should be retained and not abolished. However, it is not necessary to enumerate all misdeeds and sins, since it is not possible to do so. Psalm 19:12: ‘But who can detect their errors?’”(AC XI) They also added that “the preachers on our side diligently teach that confession is to be retained because of absolution (which is confession’s principal and foremost part) for the comfort of terrified consciences and because of other reasons.” (AC XXV). While the Reformers rejected the idea of mandatory private confession, and the requirement that people enumerate all their sins, the nevertheless insisted that private absolution be retained. It’s not insignificant that they referred to it as private absolution, because as you notice in the second quotation, the reason they retained the practice was for the sake of that personal pronouncement of forgiveness and the comforting of terrified consciences.

But where in Scripture does Christ give pastors the authority or responsibility to absolve sins? Two places in Matthew; chapter 16:19, and then explained more thoroughly in the context of forgiveness in chapter 18:15-18. And again in John 20:19-23, where Jesus gives His disciples the Holy Spirit and tells them “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” The Reformers were also very clear on this point, that when absolution is pronounced, “It is not the voice or word of the person speaking it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin.” (AC XXV) It’s not by any special power that pastors have to forgive sins, but rather as they have been called to be mouthpieces of God’s declaration of forgiveness through Christ.

On a Lutheran talk radio show called Issues ETC (www.issuesetc.org) a caller named “Adam,” who identified himself as a “recovering evangelical” gave this description of his experience with private confession and absolution:
“This is probably one of the most difficult issues that I had to overcome—the idea that I could receive forgiveness for my sins from the pastor and that it was just something where I had to deal with sins privately, me alone in my bedroom just between me and God. But because Lutherans understand confession and absolution to be pure grace, not something that’s done as a command it has been just an incredible blessing to me…I will never forget the first time I went to confession, and I still get a little emotional about it, so please bear with me…but I have struggled with sins, particular sins for twenty years, and I recall the first time I went to confession and I just blurted out the ugliest, nastiest sin I could think of, and to actually get that off my chest and then just a few moments later hear the words of forgiveness given to me as Pastor Curtis laid his hands onto me, it was like a million chains were just, just fell to the ground that had been wrapped around me, and I had felt like I was in such bondage, and finally it was just relief. And you know I don’t want to look at confession only as something for its utilitarian purposes, but I received a freedom in confession and absolution that I never received in just private prayer.”

I can personally identify with that description, having gone to private confession and absolution myself, and experienced the tremendous relief that comes from simply speaking your sins before a pastor, and to hear those words: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Why is it such a relief? Why does it feel like a million chains wrapped around you just fell to the ground? Because that is the power of Christ’s forgiveness. That a broken, wounded soul, troubled by past or present sins that nag the conscience—will personally hear that their particular sins are forgiven them. The joy and the confidence that we can have in Christ’s Word of forgiveness is the joy that can reply to the devil when he comes accusing, “Yes I did commit that sin, and thanks be to God it is paid for and forgiven at the cross. Go take it up with Jesus!”

So why bring up private confession and absolution at all? Certainly it should never become something imposed upon people as a yearly obligation, or requiring the enumeration of all their sins. Nevertheless, Lutherans retain this practice, and may even want to reeducate people to its value, for the sake of the forgiveness of sins and troubled consciences. For those who are troubled by guilt, and have trouble believing God’s promises—having the opportunity to confess their sins in total confidentiality and hear personally the Word of forgiveness, can be a welcome relief. And neither do specific sins have to be confessed. A person may come to private confession and simply make a general confession of their sin without naming them, and come to hear the personal words of forgiveness. Also a reminder that Pastor Fricke and myself both solemnly pledged in our ordination vows, to “forgive the sins of those who repent, and promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you.” This “confessional seal” means that sins privately confessed to a pastor will never be spoken of to anyone else, not a friend, family member, wife, or even someone who doesn’t know the individual who has confessed.

In fact the confidentiality of the confessional seal is even upheld in the court of law, that a pastor cannot be forced to reveal sins privately confessed to him. And one of the things I came to realize through seminary, is that pastors are never “shocked” to find out that their parishioners are sinners. After all, we know our own hearts all too well. So in the end we have to answer our question with a “Yes”—private confession and absolution is an “exercise in the Gospel.” It is a very specific way of laying our burdens at the cross, and personally hearing that our sins are forgiven. Because the primary purpose of the Gospel is to bring consolation and forgiveness to sinners, and this is exactly what is done in private confession. Should anyone feel a constant pressing burden of guilt in their lives, they may want to consider it. There is always an open invitation to any person to ask one of our pastors to offer private confession and absolution. May we all find peace from our sins in Christ Jesus!

[1] Written in 1530 as a presentation of the Christian faith to the Emperor, as the Lutheran Reformers were asked to express their teachings. In this key Lutheran document, the Reformers showed their continuity with the faith of the historic Christian church, while rejecting those errors that had accumulated in the Roman Catholic church at the time.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

What Do You Think About Jesus?

**This appears as an article in our current church newsletter**

Today as much as ever, people always have an opinion about anything and everything. Maybe the only difference is that nowadays people are more unabashed about making their opinions known. And yet political correctness and a fear of causing offense often hangs in tension with this tendency. Perhaps we may find it difficult to enter the “marketplace of ideas” as Christians.

Yet as Christians who seek to have meaningful interaction with the world around us, we may wonder how to engage those around us in conversation about The Faith. Here at Emmanuel Lutheran Church we desire to do evangelism—the spreading of the Good News about Jesus. Sunday mornings in adult Bible class we are trying to equip ourselves for this task. However, like many things, it is easier said than done. After all, the world is increasingly full of “opinions” and many which are hostile to the Christian Faith. We may be intimidated into silence.

But I would like to suggest that our “opinionated” society can actually work to our advantage in the task of evangelism. The question “What do you think of Jesus?” (which is also the title of a book by a professor of mine) is an “opinion” question that you can ask anyone, and be fairly certain that they will be willing to volunteer their opinion, even if they are not a Christian. I think it might be an easier entryway into conversation than some other ways, simply because even if they haven’t thought about it before, most people will have at least a knee-jerk response to the question. And that opens the door to further discussion if they haven’t thought it through. (I’ll give some examples later)

So why this question? The reason I think that this is such an important question is because it gets right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and what we believe, because it confronts us with the person of Jesus Himself. The question really comes from Jesus, when He was asking His disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13ff) Like you might expect today, Jesus got a variety of answers: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But when Jesus pressed the question further, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s confession of faith was not his own, it was given to him by God, for no one can confess “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3) Of course, Peter gave the only correct answer to the question, and that is the answer to which we would direct our conversation with those we talk with.

But when we ask the question, “What do you think of Jesus?” out in the world, you may expect to get all sorts of answers. Ranging from the fairly neutral to the more hostile, we might hear something like these: “Well, I think he was a really nice guy, and taught people to love each other…I respect that.” Or “He always put others first, and ended up getting a bad rap and then he died, but I’m not sure why…” Or “I’m not really sure if he ever really existed, but I guess he inspired a lot of folks.” Or “He was certainly a great teacher, but I don’t believe he was the Son of God or the Messiah.” Or “I think he was a promoter of dangerous ideas and was delusional about himself.” All these we might expect to hear from a non-Christian, and each provides its own avenue into further discussion.

How might such a talk start? With all the media attention and books out about Jesus and supposed lost gospels and conspiracy theories, there are plenty of opportunities to ask someone, “Hey, did you hear about such and such that they are saying about Jesus?….So what do you think about Jesus anyhow?” The conversation might start over coffee or lunch break, or while your at some sporting event with other parents. The nice thing about having an “opinionated” society is that most people don’t mind sharing theirs. As Christians, we can use that as a doorway to tell the real story about Jesus—who He said He was (the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and mankind’s only Savior), and what He did for us (died on the cross for our sins and rose to eternal life).

Having these conversations can get people to confront the figure of Jesus in a way to consider who He really is, and why His life was such a turning point for human history. We can help people to see the inconsistency different opinions they might have about Jesus, and how ultimately only Peter’s confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” fully explains the person of Jesus Christ. So you are still uncertain about how to answer the questions your friend might raise after you’ve broached this topic? No problem! Get yourself involved in one of the many Bible studies at Emmauel, study the Bible yourself for the answers, or talk to one of your pastors! All are at your fingertips and ready to help equip each of you to help engage in this exciting task. To God be the Glory!