Psalm 61:3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Gospel Thrives on Jesus' Blood

In the great vision that is known as Revelation, Saint John sees an angel flying through the sky and proclaiming an eternal gospel.  This angel proclaims that the judgment of God has come.  While that might not sound much like “gospel” or “good news” to our ears, it is.

                In the book of Revelation the judgment of God is only on those who have no faith, who do what is evil in the sight of God.  In other words “judgment” is synonymous with “justice”.  The angel declares that the justice of God has come, and His faithful people, those who trust in Him will receive all that He wishes to bless them with.

                What I want to focus on is the fact that this message is called the “eternal gospel”.  The Gospel, the good news that justice comes to God’s people by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is everlasting.  It is forever and ever.  It will always exist and will never be stomped out.

                This eternal Gospel should not have survived the first century.  It never should have made it out of Jerusalem.  Sinful men carrying a message that sounds impossible to believe facing persecution from religious leaders and political leaders.  How did Peter, who denied Jesus, or Paul, who persecuted Jesus, ever find the courage to preach this gospel in the face of certain death?  

                This Gospel should not have survived, and if it were dependent upon the apostles, if it were dependent upon the goodness or the strength of the Church it would certainly have been snuffed out.  But it was not.  The eternal gospel remained.

                This eternal gospel should not have survived the 4th century.  There was violent persecution by the Romans.  An emperor adopted the Christian faith only to fall into heresy and exile the defenders of the truth.  The authors of the Creeds were marginalized and the preachers of false doctrine were elevated and supported.  

                It is miraculous that the doctrine of the Trinity survived the 4th century.  It is nothing short of astounding that the good news was preserved.  If it had depended on men the truth would have certainly been lost.  But it was not.  The gospel endured.

                The eternal gospel should not have endured through the 16th century.  The purity of the gospel had been mingled with bad philosophy to make a worse theology.  The work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit was marginalized.  Forgiveness and salvation were sold for silver and gold.

                And when Luther rediscovered the gospel, when the Holy Spirit finally convicted him and assured him that salvation was a free gift from God in Christ, it is just as amazing that he was allowed to preach and teach.  

Against all odds Martin Luther proclaimed the good news of Jesus, the eternal gospel, while the Pope excommunicated him, the emperor sentenced him to death, and theologians and philosophers attacked his writings and sermons.  

                If it had depended upon the wisdom of Luther, if I had been up to the courage of this German monk, then all would have collapsed.  The gospel would surely have been lost.  But it was not.

                The gospel should not endure here in the 21st century.  Denominational loyalty is disappearing.  Knowledge of the Bible is declining.  The very order of the creation is called into question.  Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.  

                To mention nothing about your own local congregation.  Many have taken up the habit of attending worship only periodically.  Once a month is the new normal.  People take a cafeteria style attitude toward theology and morality, taking what makes them feel good and leaving what does not.

                And then there is the pastor, a man whose feeble pastoral leadership has so many flaws it is not even worth our time to try and recount them all.  He is simply the chief of sinners by his own admission. 

                If it depended on the world around us being compatible with God’s Word all would be lost.  If it depended upon the perfect attitude and discipline of the congregation the Gospel would quickly be trampled underfoot.  If it rested upon the leadership skills of the pastor to get things done then nothing would ever get done.  The gospel simply would not endure.

                Truth be told, the gospel should not have survived its inception.  One man humbly crucified on a Roman cross, buried in a stranger’s tomb, dead.  That should have been the end of the gospel right there.  And if it were up to mankind, it would have been.

                Thanks be to God that we have nothing to do with the endurance of the eternal gospel.  Its durability comes, not from the strength of men, but from the will and power of God.

             The Gospel is eternal.  It will endure forever because God wills it to, because God says so.  You see, God likes to flex His muscles a little bit.  He likes to do things that seem impossible so that we will have even more confidence that He is more powerful than we are.  

                To that end He makes the Gospel not only to endure through hardship and adversity, but to actually thrive through it.  When the Church of Jesus Christ enters the fires of adversity and persecution it is brought through them better, not worse.  The Gospel becomes more clear as the world become more muddled.  The eternal Gospel stands out with much greater contrast against a world that is always chasing the wind.

                The Gospel survived the moment of greatest weakness for God, the death of Christ on the cross.  It survived because that moment, as seemingly weak as it was, turned out to be the hour of God’s victory over sin and death.  The death of Jesus breaks the power of sin.  It triumphs over our weaknesses and incompetency.  

                The Gospel thrived through the death of God on the cross, opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers.  The Gospel flourished when opposed by the religious and political powers during the ministry of Peter and Paul; even to the ends of the earth.  The Gospel succeeded during the 4th century and gave us the clear teaching of the creeds that we still confess to this very day.  

The Gospel exploded during the Reformation.  Martin Luther and the reformers were God’s instruments to make known that forgiveness and a new life are free gifts from God, purchased and won with the innocent blood of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel will endure here in 2013 and beyond.  It cannot be defeated by the evils in the world around us.  It cannot be stopped by the sin in our own hearts.  It is here to forgive that sin, to renew our hearts, and to give us confidence and courage to hold fast to Jesus.

If it were up to the power of men, the Gospel project would have fallen apart two thousand years ago.  It is not.  All depends upon the blood of Jesus, upon the power of God.  The eternal Gospel cannot be stopped.  It cannot be broken.  It will endure.  It will thrive in Jesus’ name.            

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Boyfriend or Bridegroom?

                I am going to begin with an apology.  You see, there is a general consensus out there that Church is for girls, or women.  The average person in the USA thinks that spirituality is better left to mothers and grandmothers.  

                The congregation I serve has a better view of things, I think.  We have a good number of men in leadership positions.  We have men teaching Sunday School and leading Bible classes.  We have men attending worship weekly.  Our Church is not girl-ish in the slightest.  

                But this message is going to have a slightly feminine bent to it.  I’m sorry guys.  Not all of my posts can be about football and war and snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails.  This one is about boyfriends and bridegrooms.  Just bear with me.

                Boyfriends are ok as far as they go.  This is generally the title that a young woman gives to a young man who is trying to win her affections.  What makes boyfriends nice is that they are, well, nice.  They buy flowers and chocolates.  They pay for dates and open doors.  Boyfriends remember anniversaries of the third time you held hands after dark and they let their love interest choose the movie and hold the popcorn.

                And hey, who can fault ladies for liking their boyfriends?  That all sounds well and good.  The problem with boyfriends is that they are by definition, well, “boys”.  They are not men.  Being boyfriend and girlfriend is ok for a while, but there comes a time when you have to grow up.  There comes a point when one is tired of being a boy or dating a boy.  Then it is time to call upon the bridegroom.

                Bridegrooms are men.  Bridegrooms don’t simply hold hands.  They consummate marriages.  They do not go on dates.  They throw wedding feasts.    They are courageous and strong.  They are not always nice and romantic, but they are always there, not blown here and there by the wind.  The bridegroom is the goal, the fulfillment of a relationship.  He brings, not a girl, but a woman into his home and creates a family.  Bridegrooms are far superior to boyfriends.  (No offense to any boyfriends out there.)

                And why do I bring this up?  It has to do with Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well.  

Perhaps we don’t catch this right away.  But think back through your Old Testament history.  Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.  What do they all have in common?  Each one of these men meets their wife beside a well.  Isaac’s servant finds Rebekah fetching water.  Jacob spies Rachel while she waters her sheep.  And Moses defends Zippora as she and her sisters water the flocks of Midian.  In the Old Testament, if you were a woman looking for a good man, the well was the place to meet.  

And this Samaritan woman finds such a good man, although maybe not the kind of man she was looking for.  This Samaritan woman, as Jesus points out to her, has had five bridegrooms in her past.  And she is now living with a 6th man who is not her husband.  And maybe number 6 is just not working out.  Perhaps this woman sees Jesus, a single man sitting by a well and asking for water, and she thinks He might be the new one.  Could this man be her new boyfriend?

No.  Jesus would not be her boyfriend.  He would not pander to her lifestyle.  He would not whitewash the obvious differences that there were between them.  Jesus does not want to be her boyfriend, her prophet, or her teacher.  He wants to be the bridegroom, her Savior, her Lord and Redeemer.

And so Jesus calls her away from her sinful life and to faith in Him.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit she believes.  This woman trusts that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, sent from God to save the world from sin, death, and hell.  

We see her faith in action immediately following her encounter with Jesus.  The Samaritan woman leaves behind her water jar and enters her village telling everyone who Jesus is and what He has done.  And the entire village believes.  Jesus stays with them, and becomes the Bridegroom, not only of Jews, but of the hated Samaritans.

Do you want Jesus to be your boyfriend or your Bridegroom?  I think today we are tempted to move in the direction of the boyfriend.  Jesus is someone who should make me feel better when I am sad.  He should be a shoulder to cry on.  He should give me the gifts I ask for and then leave me alone.  Jesus should be at my beck-and-call.  Think about how nice life could be if Jesus were simply your very own cosmically powerful boyfriend who simply wanted to win your affections and make you happy. 

But Jesus Christ is not your boyfriend.  He is the Bridegroom.  He does not cater to our desires without requiring anything of us.  He will have the Church for His Bride and the bride of no other.  He is a jealous husband.  He will not share.  He will not be satisfied until you are His, until there is a ring on your finger, until you share in His name, in His household.

Jesus will not take you on dates.  But He invites you to the feast.  Each week He calls you to Church to be fed from His bounty, from His Word.  He will not whitewash your differences, but He will forgive your sins.   He will erase your transgressions by His own suffering.  He will not whisper sweet nothings in your ear.  He will speak to you as often as you will hear Him of His boundless mercy and grace.  Jesus will not leave you alone.  He will give you His name, written upon your forehead, to mark you as His own.  He will not buy chocolates or flowers, but He will give you all He has, even His body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.  

In a world that is looking for fast relationships, easy arrangements, and quick hook-ups, Jesus Christ offers us something much more.  He offers to be more than a spiritual guru, more than some religious adviser.  He buys us with His blood.  He wins us from Satan with His death and resurrection.  He pays the price.  Jesus Christ will be the Bridegroom of His Church, and nothing less.

It is traditional in our day for the bridegroom to give a gift to his bride on their wedding day.  The traditional gift for us is a pearl, or a string of pearls.  You know, I don’t even remember what I gave Rebekah at our wedding, if I got her anything.  We were 20 years old and too poor to worry about pearls.  But, she married me anyway.

Jesus Christ has a gift for His Bride, the Church.  It is not as fancy as pearls, but it is far more memorable than nothing.  Jesus Christ gives us Living Water.  His gift to His Church, upon the occasion of their marriage, is a spring of water that wells up to eternal life.  It is His Holy Spirit.

This gift produces within us something new, something precious that cannot be counted in dollars and cents.  We are given, by the grace of God, faith in Jesus Christ, trust in the Bridegroom, that His death has bought us for Himself, that His love will never be taken from us.  May the gift of the Bridegroom strengthen your trust in Christ your Savior.       

Friday, October 18, 2013

Everybody wants to receive it, but nobody wants to give it.

What is it?  It is the benefit of the doubt. 

Everybody wants it to be given to them.  If you screw up you want people to assume that you tried your hardest.  If you say something mean you wish everyone took it as a joke.  When you send an e-mail that might possibly be taken in a sarcastic light, you want the recipient to take it with a grain of salt.

Yet, when someone does something I don't like, I jump to the conclusion that they are an evil, sadistic personality who wants to ruin my life.  They must by intentionally making my life miserable.  They are the devil in disguise, all evidence to the contrary. 

A slip of the tongue becomes an insult.  A gentle reminder becomes nagging.  A friendly suggestion becomes a hate-filled critique.  It was not intended that way, but that is the way I took it.   

The older wording of the 8th Commandment stated that "we should fear and love God so that we ... put the best construction on everything."  In other words, we should assume that people mean the best, even if we rightfully suspect they do not.  We should gives others the same benefit of the doubt that we want them to give us.      

As much as we all desire to receive it, lets work on giving it a little more.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Necessarily Unnecessary

"It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere."  Augsburg Confession VII

"At the same time, however, the people are taught that such external worship of God does not make them righteous before God and that it is to be observed without burdening consciences, that is, no one sins by omitting it without causing offense."  Augsburg Confession XXVI

The one thing that is necessary for a Christian to believe about the liturgy or pattern of worship which they follow, in order for it to be true worship, is that it is unnecessary.

This is not to say that baptism or the Lord's Supper are unnecessary.  These sacraments are instituted and commanded by Christ Himself.  But rites and ceremonies created by human beings, even pious saints, are not necessary.

And to say that they are is idolatry.  To say that a pattern of worship drawn up by man (or even the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church) must be followed for salvation contradicts the words of Jesus Christ (Matthew 15:3-9).

In fact, to declare a rite, tradition, or ceremony created by man to be a necessity for salvation or unity in the Church makes it necessary for all Christians to deny this by their practice.  "We believe, teach, and confess that in a time of persecution, when an unequivocal confession of the faith is demanded of us, we dare not yield to the opponents in such indifferent matters."  (FC, E X)

But when we free the liturgy of the freight of having to be salvific, when we rightly recognize that following its forms and patterns will not make us righteous before God, we can actually use it for the reason it was intended: to direct our attention to Jesus Christ.  We can practice the various forms that have been handed down through the ages, or modified by the church in more recent years, and rejoice in the Gospel truth that it imparts to us.

The moment we think that following a form of liturgy saves us we rob it of its power and content.  The focus is moved from Gospel to Law, from the Son of God to the children of man.  My performance becomes the center of attention rather than the person and work of Christ our Lord.

When we keep the liturgy as necessarily unnecessary we keep Jesus at the center, and that is where He belongs.     

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ashton Kutcher and a Reality Check

  So, a few months ago an actor named (Chris) Ashton Kutcher won an award at the Teen Choice Awards and after winning that award he gave a nice little speech to the teens who had voted to give him that award.  The speech was basically three pieces of advice.  His advice, however, was so "not your typical Hollywood" advice that it caught a lot of attention.

The first piece of advice was simply that in order to get ahead in life you have to work hard.  Don't be lazy and expect good things to fall into your lap.

Second, it is better to be smart, thoughtful, and generous than to be "sexy".

(Thus far I pretty much agree.  Hard work and generosity, who can argue with that?  But number three took things off the deep end.)

Third: "And you can build your own thing, you can build your own life that other people can live in. So build a life – don’t live one, build one – find your opportunity, and always be sexy."  Build a life that other people can live in.

I have heard this sort of thing from him before, so I think what he means by this is that you can create your own reality.  You can dictate the rules by which you, and the people around you, function.

But that is b-o-l-o-g-n-a.  You cannot build a life from nothing.  You cannot create your own reality.  Reality is a fixed things.  The laws by which it is governed are not yours.  They are God's.  Unless He changes His mind the rules stay the same.

This is part of the problem with the world.  Everyone wants to make up their own rules.  They want to live according to their own desires, to do what is right in their own eyes, and not what is right in God's eyes.  And it is making everyone miserable.

You cannot create your own reality.  You are not God, as much as you may like to believe you are.  You can, however, find your spot inside God's created order and delight in it. 

You can see the reality that God has established and revel in its beauty.

You can see that you are not living in God's reality, but rather rebelling against it. 

You can repent, receive the forgiveness that comes from the reality of Jesus' death and resurrection, and rejoice.     

You can see the cross and empty tomb as the center of all reality, as the center of a life that God has built, and live your life around that.  That is a third point worth remembering.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rejoice Always!

          "Joy means sweet thoughts of Christ, melodious hymns and psalms, praises and thanksgivings, with which Christians instruct, inspire, and refresh themselves.  God does not like doubt and dejection.  He hates dreary doctrine, gloomy and melancholy thought.  God likes cheerful hearts.  He did not send His Son to fill us with sadness, but to gladden our hearts.  For this reason the prophets, apostles, and Christ Himself urge, yes, command us to rejoice and be glad.  'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee.' (Zech. 9:9)  In the Psalms we are repeatedly told to be 'joyful in the Lord'.  Paul says, 'Rejoice in the Lord always.'  Christ says, 'Rejoice, for your names are written in heaven.'" 

An extended quote from Dr. Luther
Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians