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, September 30, 2014

It is not "Law BUT Gospel": Get the Right Distinction

I apologize for the bluntness of this statement, but it is NOT called the Law BUT Gospel distinction.

It is called Law AND Gospel.

God's Word of Law and Gospel are not to be separated, or even put in opposition to each other.  God is not a schizophrenic.  The Law is His good Word.  The Gospel is His good Word.  They have different content and different purposes, but they are both from God and are both good.

The Law is God telling us how to act as human beings.  The Gospel is Him actually making us into human beings.

The Law is His will.  It only seems like bad news to us because we ignore it.  The Gospel does not save us from the Law, but rather from our inability to keep the Law.

So we should not hear sermons or read blog posts or articles that say, basically, that the Gospel frees us from the Law.  It does not.

The Gospel sets sinners free from the accusations of the Law.  But we are never free from the content of the Law itself.  In fact we are born anew through the good news of the Gospel to fulfill the Law, to do good works.

This side of the resurrection the Law never stops talking.

Neither does the Gospel.

As humans, as Christians, we need to hear both, constantly.

There is no "but" between Law and Gospel.  In fact, once justified by Christ the Christian delights in the Law of God.  He does not abandon it.

No more "buts".  Law AND Gospel, always distinguished, always together, until Jesus returns and renders that distinction unnecessary.

Come Lord Jesus!   


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Stand and Strive

Saint Paul wishes to see the Philippian Christians standing firm in one spirit and striving together for faith in the gospel.  This is the life worthy of the gospel of Christ, that they stand firm in the Spirit and faith that Paul gave to them, that they strive to remain in the one true faith.

            This is Paul’s desire so much that he rejoices in his own suffering because it serves to advance the gospel in which they stand.  While he is imprisoned others have picked up the slack and proclaimed the Word of Christ in fearless fashion.  More people are preaching the gospel because Paul is in jail, and that makes him happy.

            Paul desires them to stand and strive so much so that he is convinced that he should stay on this earth alive so that he may work harder and serve the Philippians with the gospel.  His greatest desire is to depart and be with Christ, that his suffering on this earth would be done and that he could be in Paradise, complete rest from his labor.  

But more than his personal comfort, Paul wants to be God’s instrument in strengthening the faith of the Philippians.  If it were up to Paul (and I should stress here that it is not) he would stay and labor so that the faith of the Philippian Christians would grow.

The reason for this is two-fold: that their opponents would receive a sure sign of their destruction and that the Philippians themselves would receive a clear sign of their salvation.  

The world hates people who stand firm in the Spirit of God, who hold fast to the truth rather than being swayed by the wind.  It was true 2000 years ago at the time of Paul’s writing, and it is equally true today.

Why can’t the Christians just get on the right side of history?  Why can’t we be open to worshipping more than one god, to say that Jesus was just a man?  Why can’t we simply endorse abortion, homosexuality, pornography, gossip, and other blatant evils?  Can’t we just cave in and go with the flow?

Why does the world want that?  Because seeing people hold fast to one God shows the futility of all other so called gods and idols.  Because seeing a group of people who will not endorse their evil behavior, who not put a rubber “OK” stamp on the wicked desires of the human heart, makes people feel bad.  It makes them feel guilty.  And with good reason.  They are guilty.  They just don’t want to admit it.

It is a sign of their destruction.  It is a call to repentance.  It is evidence that they are falling far short of what they were created to be.  

Of course this is why we need each other too.  This is one reason why Christians need to gather together, not just listen to worship on the radio.  I need to see others living lives of firm faith so that I see where I need to repent.  

This man is more faithful in attendance than I am.  This woman is more pious in her speech.  This family expresses their love for one another more clearly than I do.  These things bring forth guilt and drive us back to Christ, to receive His full and abundant pardon through His death.

Of course Jesus Himself is the one who stood firm in the Spirit of God.  He is the one who strove for perfect faith and achieved it.  He was not frightened by His opponents, but rather always met their challenges with sure confidence in His heavenly Father. 

That is why the world hated Him.  He was too good.  He was too perfect.  He showed them, and us, all the things we are doing wrong.  And He showed us that he is the only hope that we have of being what we were created to be.  He is our one exclusive chance at repentance and forgiveness before God.  There is no other.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is not one legitimate option among many.  It is our only possibility.  Jesus is all.

Stand firm in one spirit.  Strive for the faith of the gospel.  Hold fast to Jesus, for that is a clear sign of your salvation given from God.

When the world presses us to cave in, yet we cling fast to Jesus, it is a sign to them and to us that we are in fact God’s children, for we know that only the Holy Spirit can produce such faith.  Only God Himself can keep us grounded.  Only the Spirit of God can move us to strive for the one true faith.

It has long been part of the Lutheran confession that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, or come to Him.  But rather the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel, enlightened us with its gifts, sanctified and kept us in the one true faith.  

The Spirit works through the gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to call us to faith.  That faith, so empowered by the Spirit, stands firm and strives to endure strong in God’s Word.  And being thus immersed in God’s Word, faith is strengthened to stand and strive.

Our greatest temptation is that when we struggle, when the world presses in on us, we drift away from the Word of God, we put distance between us and the Spirit.  We cut ourselves off from the very thing that can save our lives.  We need to hear the promise of God when the world presses us.  We need it then more than ever.

It becomes a beautiful cycle.  We hear God’s promise that Jesus has stood firm and striven through all manner of suffering, even death, to ensure that we will stand with Him on the Last Day.  That promise is used by the Holy Spirit to build faith in us, to stand us firm on the work of Christ.  

Faith then wants more of Jesus, more of the promise, more of God’s Word.  So it feasts on the Bible, sermons, hymns, worship, communion, devotion, conversations with other Christians; faith cannot get enough.  It strives to receive more of the gospel.

The more gospel we receive, the more we want.  The firmer we stand, the more we strive.  And it is all the work of the Spirit through the Word.  God is building your faith.  He is shoring up its foundations.  He is fortifying its walls.  

Paul’s hope, his deep desire, was that his life would be useful to aid the Philippians in standing firm in the Spirit and striving for the faith.  My hope is the same.  My desire is that you will be the fruit of my labor.  No matter what becomes of me in this life, you will stand firm in Jesus Christ.  You will strive for and thrive under the grace of God.  The Holy Spirit will see it done. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Get Behind Me, and Follow Me

Jesus said to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!  You are a hindrance to me.  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."  Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."  (Matthew 16:23-24)

In front of Jesus is the wrong place to be.  Likewise beside him.

You are not supposed to be leading Jesus.  Nor are you his partner, walking side-by-side through all of life.

You don't tell Jesus what to do, how to act, where to go.  You don't tell Jesus how to save the world, nor how to bring that salvation to the world today.

But this is what we all want to do.  "Jesus, the church would grow if you stopped being so stubborn, if you overlooked sins rather than forgiving them, if you stopped being so exclusive, if you would just listen.  Let me help you!"

But Jesus does not want your advice.  He does not really want your help either.  He certainly does not need them.

Jesus is the leader.  We are the followers.  He the Shepherd, we the sheep.  He speaks.  We listen.

Jesus came to give life to the dead, to lead a host from the gates of Hades into the land of the living.  He did not come for endless bureaucratic debate in a church  council meeting.

Jesus gives life where, when, and how he pleases.  We have nothing to say about it.  That is not our place.

Our place is behind Jesus, following him through the gates of death, being dragged along by the sheer force of his life-giving charisma.  Our place is to trust that the same means used to save us, the Word of Christ, Law and Gospel, will be the means he uses to save countless others.

To try and stand in front of Jesus, to attempt to lead him or even to advise him, is simply satanic.

We listen.  We follow.  We live.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Greatest

The question has plagued humanity almost from the very beginning: “Who is the greatest?”  That is really the conflict that arose between Cain and his brother Abel, is it not?

                Cain and Abel both brought offerings to the Lord.  Cain brought the fruits of the ground: vegetables, fruits, any kind of edible plant.  Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and the fattest of his flock, nothing but the best.  And whose offering was better?  Why that of Abel, the younger brother.

                It was not better because of the value of the offering, no.  The author of Hebrews tells us that it is faith which makes Abel’s offering acceptable in the sight of God.  Faith makes one great before heaven’s court.  But Cain cannot understand this.

                So what is there to do? Eliminate the competition, of course.  Cain invites his brother out into the fields and there murders him.  The firstborn son of the world asserts his authority, his personal greatness, over his brother.  And he becomes lost to God.

                Cain wanted to be the greatest man, to give the greatest offering.  And in the eyes of the world he was great.  He was powerful.  He slew his brother.  He dominated the competition.  But he also refused to repent of his sin.  And, so far as we know, he dies confident in his own strength, great in the world, but nothing in God’s kingdom.

                That problem is not resolved by any human effort throughout the history of the world.  In every time and in every place mankind is constantly attempting to dominate his brother, to subdue what he sees as the competition.  Every man wants to be the greatest.  Every woman wants to be the best.  
Whether they realize it or not, what they really want, what you and I really want, is to make ourselves great before God, to be His favorite.  We want to stand on our own accomplishments and show off to God: “Look what I have done!  I am the greatest!”  And we bite, scrape, and devour one another to get there.

                So God levels the playing field.  He sends Jesus Christ to be the best, to show us what real greatness looks like.  Jesus lives in humble perfection, never trying to dominate His brothers, although He was their king, but rather helping and serving them in every way.  

                With His death Jesus shows the greatest act of mercy this world will ever know.  With His resurrection Jesus shows the greatest act of power.  And then He gives His greatness to all who believe.  Jesus bestows greatness on all by faith.

                You see, with everything that He does, Jesus turns this question on its head.  “Who is the greatest?”  It is not who you think.  Those who look impressive in the eyes of the world are nothing in the eyes of God.  Those who are nothing are of great importance to Jesus.  And anyone worried about being the greatest will never achieve it, no matter how many awards and accolades they get.

In essence Jesus tells His disciples to stop worrying about whether or not they are great in the kingdom of God.  Just be thankful that they are in at all.  “Unless you become like children, you won’t even enter the kingdom.”

By faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by trusting in His greatness, we have been brought into God’s kingdom, and we have been promised an eternal inheritance.  So we can stop worrying about our own position.  We can stop trying to prove ourselves to God, stop trying to dominate the competition.  And we can focus on what Jesus wants us to: not the great ones, but the little ones.

Jesus uses a child as the supreme example of who is the greatest in the kingdom, although this title is certainly not limited to them.  The idea is not that we should strive to be like little kids so that we can be great in God’s eyes.  Rather, forget about being great and serve those who are not great. 

Jesus gives a few examples of those who we should consider of great importance.  First, and most obviously, are the little children that Jesus uses as an example.  

I have spoken before about the difference between the way we see children today, and the attitude of people in Jesus’ day.  While they did love and care for their children, they did not see them as particularly useful or helpful.  They certainly would not be considered great. 

Yet children are vulnerable, particularly in spiritual matters.  We should worry more about protecting them from the spiritual evil and falsehood that is out there.  Jesus admonishes that we should wish for death before leading a child into temptation.  Instead, we should lead them to Jesus, teach them the faith, and give them every spiritual gift.

The Lost are also to be numbered among those of great importance.  Look around on a Sunday morning and think about who you do not see in worship.  Brothers and sisters from your school days?  Neighbors who have not moved, but perhaps moved on from regular church attendance?  Relatives or friends who have simply fallen out of the habit?

Those people matter to Jesus.  He loves the 99, but He goes after the 1 who is lost.  And our concern should be the same.  Yet this is not simply the pastor’s job.  It belongs to all of us.  They are the lost of our congregation, not mine.

Jesus came to save sinners.  And we are here to forgive sins.  So it should come as no surprise that the brother who has sinned against you is to be considered of great importance.  It is of great importance that you win them back, lead them to repentance so that they may have their transgressions removed by the blood of Christ.

It does no good to hold a grudge or ignore the sin.  That will only lead one or both of you to hell.  Seek out your brother or sister.  Go after them, not once or twice, but 70 times 7 so that they may be restored to you and to Christ.

People matter to Jesus, all people, even the ones we don’t really want to care about.  In fact, the lower they are in the world, the weaker and more vulnerable they are to the devil’s schemes, the more we should strive to serve them.

I want to close by quoting a section from Philippians 2: 

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Everyone will bow before Jesus.  Everyone.  He is truly the greatest.  

So forget about being great.  There is only one whose greatness counts for anything.  And He shares it with us all.  Instead, look to the weak, the lowly, the suffering.  They are in great need and so they are of great importance.  The Spirit of God will lead us to humble ourselves and serve the greatest. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Sunday School Answer Is Still the Right Answer

Have you heard that joke?

One Sunday a Sunday School teacher asked her class, "What is small, has a bushy tale, climbs trees, and eats nuts?"

A bright student raised her hand and answered, "It sounds an awful lot like a squirrel, but this is Sunday School so the answer must be 'Jesus'."

It has become a thing lately to beat up on Sunday School and the answers we learn there.  The good old, tried and true lessons of the Sunday School teacher are downgraded, laughed at, even mocked.

People don't want the Sunday School answers.  They want what they perceive to be the deeper, more satisfying reasons.  And above all they want to be able to struggle and doubt without judgment.

Those who struggle and doubt are seen as "real", while those who stick to what they learned in Sunday School are looked down upon as "simple" or even "fake".

But there is nothing simple or fake about holding on to that good, old fashioned Sunday School answer: Jesus.  He is the answer.

To all of our doubts, all of our questions, all of our anger and protest, Jesus Christ crucified and risen is God's final response.

The doubters may struggle in all their angst and confusion.  But they will never find a better answer than Jesus, the Bible, forgiveness, baptism, communion, the Lord's Prayer, or the Ten Commandments.

These things are simple because they are foundational.  And it is to the bedrock foundation that we return in the days of struggle and angst.

  Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nationsbeginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”  

The Sunday School answers are not trite, they are true.  They are not fake, but rather firm.  And we would all greatly benefit from rehearsing them with our children and running to them when we doubt. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We Need Courage

If there is one thing that we can glean from the words of Jesus in Matthew 16 it is that it will take courage to be both Christ and Christian.  For Jesus to do what He has come to do will take a tremendous amount of fortitude.  Being a Christian will require a kind of bravery the world does not know.

This has always been the case.  Christians have always faced difficulty in the world because they hold to an allegiance to a God who is greater than the world and the world does not like it.  So from the very first days of the Church until now there has been persecution and martyrdom.

Men like James the Apostle and Stephen the Deacon stood bravely before the authorities, confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, and died with their eyes fixed on Him.  Even those who were not killed for trusting in Jesus certainly suffered for it.

John the Evangelist and Apostle was exiled to the island of Patmos.  Athanasius, the faithful confessor who gave us the Nicene Creed, and after whom is named the Athanasian Creed, was also exiled from his homeland on more than one occasion for holding fast to the truth that Jesus is God.

And there are more, countless others, unnamed others, who courageously confessed Christ, who held fast to His name, and suffered for it.  Some of them are famous, honored in the Church to this day.  Some of them are buried in unmarked graves and forgotten.  Yet God remembers their courage.

The enemy of courage is the love of self, the valuing of your own reputation or happiness or life above all else.  People will go to great lengths to protect these things.  They will lie, embellish, or gossip to protect their reputation.  They will cheat and steal, or work long hours neglecting their families, to secure the material blessings they believe they need to be happy.  People will do anything to protect the life they think they deserve.

We look only to ourselves, refuse the cross, and attempt to gain the whole world, or at least our own little corner of it.  We just want our own little "free" space where I am the master, where no one tells me what to do.  At least there, in my own personal kingdom, I am allowed to be myself, to be completely comfortable.

Yet that is not the life to which we are called.  That is the way of the coward.  The way of courage is denial of self, taking up the cross, following Jesus.  Courage is losing your life and giving up the whole world.

Of course Jesus Himself exemplifies courage for Christians.  It certainly took tremendous courage to face death by crucifixion.  To pray in the garden, "Thy will be done," took a force of bravery that is unmatched in the world.  Crucifixion is the most painful manner of execution ever devised.  And Jesus went there--willingly.

Yet that is not the most courageous of Jesus' acts.  It took even more bravery for Him to accept the sins of the world upon His shoulders, and then to accept the wrath of God.

Jesus is the one man who could have stood confidently before the judgment of God and received nothing but blessing.  He is God's perfect, flawless, righteous Son.  He earned honor and glory with every deed of His life.

Christ, however, lays that aside and takes on the sins of the whole world.  He takes up the transgressions of the Smiths and the Joneses, every Tom, Dick, and Harry, the Hitlers, the Stalins, the murderers, rapists, thieves, and liars, the gossips, busybodies, swindlers, and drug addicts.  He lays them on His back and then He stands before the judgment of God.

Jesus hung courageously on the cross as God poured out every ounce of anger, wrath, and punishment that He had over our cowardice.  He bravely endured my death, your death, the death the world deserves.  That is the courage of Jesus Christ.

The courage of Jesus enables our own.  His bravery looses us from the cares and worries that entangle us, that would prevent us from taking up our cross and following Him.

By faith in Jesus, trusting that He has done the courageous thing of denying Himself, taking up His cross and ours, and suffering the brunt of God's wrath, we are given fortitude to follow Jesus.  By faith in the death of Jesus we can forget about saving our own reputation because we already know how God sees us.  He has exhausted His anger and wrath on Christ, and now sees us with the eyes of love and mercy.  If God is for us, who cares what anyone else thinks?

By faith in the resurrection of Jesus we can stop worrying about saving our own life and gaining the world.  We shall rise from the dead and God will give us the earth as a gift.  In Christ we find everlasting life.  In Christ we gain a never-ending world.  By faith we are set free from the cowardice of worrying about ourselves.

By this faith we follow Jesus with courage.  We have the courage to live for others, not ourselves.  Courage to work for peaceful resolutions to conflict.  Courage to forgive, even if it will cost us something.  Courage to miss out on the fleeting pleasures of this world, for the hope of the world that is till coming down the road.

I do not know if we will be called upon to confess Jesus Christ in the face of death.  There are certainly Christians around the world, particularly those in Iraq and Syria at this very moment, who are doing just that.  I pray that their faith in Jesus will give them great courage.

Yet even here, in the relative comfort of the United States, we are called to take up the cross and follow Jesus, to deny ourselves, lose our lives, and find them again in the resurrection of Christ.  We do this daily.  Faith in Jesus enables the courage we need to leave our comfort zones and confess Jesus in word and deed, even before those who don't want to hear it or see it.

Jesus is coming again.  And when He appears on the Day of Judgment He iwll cast the cowardly, those who cared only for their own present life, into eternal death.  Yet the brave shall receive life without end, full repayment and more for every loss they have suffered.

Thanks be to God for the courage of Jesus, to bear God's wrath on the cowardly, and give us courage.  His death sets us free from punishment.  His resurrection sets us free for courage.  He will continue to make us brave to bear the cross and follow Him.


  I have to admit that after seeing this commercial I was highly tempted to go out and purchase about a dozen boxes of Peanut Butter Cheerios.

Monday, September 1, 2014

You Are Not King David

The Biblical David is a favorite for many people.  And who can blame them?  He is courageous, handsome, intelligent, charismatic, and eventually, powerful and rich.  Most men want to be him and most women want to be married to him. So it is no wonder that upon reading the history of David people want to identify with him.

And so they begin to make comparisons from their life to his. He becomes a model for their life so that they can justify certain behaviors or certain personality traits. "Well, David was passionate, so I can be passionate too."  That sort of thing.

The problem with people, no matter how good their intentions, comparing themselves to King David is that, well, they are not David!  Certainly the Lutheran Confessions mention that Christians can use the saints of years gone by as examples, but that is according to their vocation, not their life in general.  So, unless you are a shepherd, king, or polygamist, you are out of luck.

You see, David was no man of ordinary calling, like most of us.  He was the king of Israel.  More than that, however, he was a messiah, an anointed one chosen by God to fulfill a needed role in the history of God's people.  David saves Israel from their encroaching enemies, establishes a stable government, and paves the way for the birth of Jesus Christ (the Messiah) nearly one thousand years later.

So you and I do not have much in common with David.  If you are ever elected President of the United States, then maybe, but until then, no.

What we do have in common with David is our humanity, and along with that a sinful nature.  David is far from an ideal figure.  He is impulsive, selfish, an adulterer, and a murderer to name a few.  What we can learn from David is mostly in his relationship to God through repentance and faith.

When David is confronted with his sins at various times, either by a prophet's word or simple common sense, he repents.  He acknowledges his sin and laments it.  It pains him to have committed such grievous acts.  He throws himself on God's mercy, trusting that he will be forgiven.  And when he receives absolution for his transgressions, David also accepts the temporal punishment for his sin, no matter how horrible it may be.  

This is important, because I think this is precisely the point we often miss as Christians.  If we are forgiven for our sins then life should just go on hunk-dory, right?  No.  There are still temporal punishments, bad things that happen here and now, because we screw up.  And we need to accept these as discipline from our heavenly Father who loves us and wants us to learn to flee from sin.

Some of David's temporal punishments were the death of an infant son, a son raped a daughter, a son murdered a son, a son slept with his concubines after stealing his throne, and that same son was later killed in battle.  Also there was a three day plague towards the end of his life, showing that when the king sins it is more often the people who suffer.  It was all pretty harsh.

Through it all David continued to acknowledge his own sin and rely on God's mercy.  He knew that he deserved much worse than he got.

Remember that the next time you need to repent.  Admit your sin.  Soak up the infinite mercy of God in the blood of Jesus.  And accept the temporal punishments that may come.  They may seem harsh at the time, but they are discipline from your heavenly Father, merciful instruction from God's hand, that we (and the people of God around us) would learn to detest sin.

So, you are not King David.  But you are human.