Psalm 61:3

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rejoice!



Rejoice in the Lord always!  I say again…yeah right.  
Why is Paul always so happy?  Why is he so insistent that the rest of us be happy too?  Rejoice?  Be gracious?  Don’t be anxious but be at peace?  Oh, give me a break.
Seriously, Paul was in prison.  What did he have to rejoice about?  And as far as peace goes, he was forced to be at peace, because the Romans would have killed him if he did anything rambunctious.  He can tell us to be happy until he is blue in the face, but we know the truth.  There are too many things in this world to not be happy about-too many reasons for sadness, anger, or just plain old melancholy.
Rejoice?  You mean like when you have been looking for a job to pay off all those student loans you took out to attend that university that sold you on the idea that 90-some percent of their graduates find work after graduation and the best you can do is minimum wage?
Rejoice?  We should be happy even though we are all sin addicts who have been trying and failing to stay clean since the moment of our conception, or at the very least since the moment of our baptism?  Should we shout for joy because we hate our sin, but we can’t seem to shake it?
Should we give thanks when we stand by the grave of a brother or sister, husband or wife, son or daughter?  Rejoice?  In a life cut far too short or dragged out through far too much suffering?  
When you really think hard about it, when you stretch out your life and inspect it, when you look for the good and the bad, do you really have all that much to rejoice about?  Do you have more reasons to smile than you do to scream?  Can you honestly say that there is more laughter than tears?
No matter where the count falls, there are enough reasons for weeping, mourning, sadness, and depression for us to cynically reject Paul’s admonishment to rejoice, give thanks, and be at peace.  Life is harsh, lonely, dangerous, and deadly.  Is Paul serious when he tells Christians to be happy, to rejoice?
Yes, yes he is.  And we should repent of our melancholy, our despair, and our anger.  
It is not so much that we should never cry, never be angry, never feel depressed.  There is a time for everything under the sun, a proper place for each emotion.  Yet the overall attitude of a Christian’s life should be one of joy, thanksgiving, delight, and happiness.  As we stand before God in Christ we should rejoice.
Joy is not optional for Christians.  We are not allowed to accept that things are difficult and so we walk around with a straight face, or a frown, or tears running permanently down our faces.  No.  Joy is our default mode.  
I know that this is the pot calling the kettle black.  I am the last person to show any emotion, especially joy, through the normal operations of daily life.  I play things pretty close to the chest.  My general expression is one of unimpressed acceptance-like this.
I just found a letter the other day that I had written to Rebekah a few days before our wedding in which I had to reassure her that I really was excited about our wedding day even though, in my own words, I never acted like it.  Can you believe that?  My fiancĂ© could not tell by the way I acted that I was excited to marry her.  What the heck is wrong with me?
It is sinful for one baptized into Jesus Christ to be stuck in a permanent melancholy.  It is wrong, evil, for you and me, who have been given a foretaste of the feast to come, to mope around as if there were no hope, no reason to rejoice.  
Repent.  And believe the Gospel.  For the kingdom of God is at hand.
The cure for our daily blues, for our woes, for our despair and depression, is this: the Lord is at hand.  We can be at peace, we can act reasonably, we pray, we rejoice, because Jesus Christ and His kingdom are here.
That kingdom was on full display atop Golgotha as Jesus bled and died.  And you can be certain that He was not smiling.  He did not laugh as He screamed: “forgive them, for they know not what they do.  My God, why have you forsaken me?”  
Jesus knows our misery.  He knows our loneliness, our moments of deepest despair.  He has taken them on His own shoulders and He has died with them.  He has conquered them.  He has forgiven them and set you free from them.
For He has risen.  That gives reason to rejoice.  
The crucified and risen Lord is at hand.  The one who bled and died for you, the one who conquered death for you, is at hand and on hand listening to and answering your prayers.  Your requests and supplications are heard, not by some distant deity, but by Jesus Christ, who you know is abundant in mercy.  He listens to prayer.  He answers prayer.  And that gives us joy.
The Lord is at hand.  He is coming again.  He is coming soon.  And that too enables us to rejoice.  
When Christ returns in glory He will raise the dead.  On that day there will be no more difficulties, no more financial woes, no more hunger or poverty.  Jesus will supply all that we need for life everlasting.
On that day we will be free from sin, not only by faith, but sight.  We will no longer be tempted.  We will no longer carry guilt.  Jesus shall call us from the grave as Adam and Eve before the Fall: righteous before God and man.
Best of all, on that day, Jesus will eliminate death forever.  Fear and anxiety will be impossible, for there will be nothing to harm us.  Christ will give us life to the full.  
Imagine it.  Every person you have watched descend into the ground climbing back out alive and well.  Every grave on this planet, empty.  That is a reason to smile, to laugh, to rejoice.
This new perspective colors the way we look at the world.  We can find in this place, not only hardship, sin, and death, but grace, beauty, goodness.  We can find joy in all that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  We can handle anything that comes our way, any sadness, any happiness, any poverty, any abundance, through Christ who gives us strength.  
Rejoice.  The Lord is at hand.  Give thanks.  Jesus answers prayer.  Be at peace.  Christ makes all things new.  Be filled with joy in the name of Jesus.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rubbish and Righteousness




God commands us to do good works.  He wants us to do them for others.  You cannot read the Bible, especially the Gospels or the letters of Saint Paul, and miss this.

                Jesus teaches His disciples to avoid anger, resentment, lust, divorce, lies, vengeance, harsh judgments, and anxiety about the future.  He teaches them to care for the poor, to pray, to practice self-discipline, and to treat others the way they wish to be treated.  Obviously Jesus wants His followers to see this as their way of life.

                Paul says very similar things at the end of each of his epistles.  Romans, Colossians, Philippians, Ephesians, and others all end with encouragement for these people to act like Christians, to be what God created and redeemed them to be.

                And all of this holds true for us today.  We are called to do good works, to live lives of sacrifice for others.  We are called to love our neighbor, everyone we meet, as ourselves, and to love God above all.  A life of worship and prayer, a life of charity and generosity, should mark each and every Christian.

                It is a good thing when you prepare a meal for your neighbor who has just had a baby, or when you mow the lawn for the neighbor who has been injured.  When you are attentive to the needs of your spouse or children, or care for your ailing parents, it is a good deed.  This is the will of God, that people live in service to one another, doing good works.

                But we must forget about them when we come before Him.  It is a conundrum, I know.  God commands, and even delights in, the good works of Christians, yet they count for nothing as we stand before Him for judgment.

                Saint Paul says that he counts all of his good deeds as rubbish.  They are nothing when he stands before God, they are manure, dung.  He was as good of a Jew as anyone could possibly imagine, yet all his good deeds count for naught. 

You and I, in doing good deeds, are not performing above and beyond the call of duty.  We are not doing anything great or grand that earns us any favor with God.  We are only poor servants doing the least of what is expected.

You see, there is the danger that our works, as good as they may be for the sake of the people around us, might become matters of pride.  And they often do.  It happens when we lay Christ aside.  We start to think that God should answer our prayers because we have done His will.  He should reward us because we have helped others.  We are at the least more spiritual than those “other Christians”.

But this is all nonsense.  It is rubbish.  We come before God as beggars-through and through-or we might as well not come to Him at all.

Imagine the scene in this way.  You approach the gates of heaven, but rather than Saint Peter guarding the way, it is God Himself, in all His glory.  And His question to you is, “Why should I let you in?  Why should I not hit the trap door and let you plummet into the depths of hell?”

If your answer has anything to do with your own righteousness, your own good deeds, your own acts of mercy and generosity, then you are in big trouble.  “I attended church every Sunday.  I was a faithful wife.  I was a dutiful father.  I read my Bible every day.  I gave 90% of my wealth to the poor.”  No, wrong answer. 

If you think, for one moment, that your righteousness, your own personal best deeds, will measure up to God’s standards then you are sadly and tragically mistaken.  Trap door straight down.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200.      

Rather, before God we hold fast to the righteousness of JESUS!  Imagine the scene again.  You stand at the gates.  God asks the question, “Why should I let you in?”  And what is your answer?

Jesus! 

Are you sure?  You have no righteousness of your own?

Nope.  Just Jesus!

You don’t want to claim anything for yourself, no good deeds?

No.  That is all rubbish.  Just  Jesus.  Jesus.  Jesus!

That is the answer.  Jesus is our righteousness, not attained by works, but given to us by faith.  He did all the deeds that God sees as good.  He lived a perfect life, died a perfect death, for you, to make you righteous.  He has risen from the dead so that you may know the power of His resurrection.

We hold fast to Jesus because before God Jesus is the only person that counts as good.  He is the only thing that counts as righteous.  And Jesus has bought us, adopted us, and revived us.  We are His, and He is our righteousness.

                And this makes us very bold.  We can now pray with confidence because we are righteous in Christ.  We can live the lives we have been called to knowing that God is pleased with us as husband, father, son, brother, all because Jesus covers us.  Back with our neighbors we can strive to reach the goal because the goal is already ours in Christ.

                We are not yet made perfect, but we will be, not in this life, but in the life to come, in the resurrection.  And so we press on toward that goal, striving to do good works, letting the good deeds of Jesus, the righteousness of Christ pour through in our lives.
 
                Forget what lies behind: sinful pride, arrogance in our own righteousness.  Strain forward to what lies ahead: the resurrection of the dead.  We press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

Baptism and Marriage



"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish." [Ephesians 5:25-27]

Let's take another look at what it means for a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church.  Rightly, much of the emphasis in those talks, discussions, and articles, centers of the sacrifice of Jesus.  He literally died for the church.  A husband must be ready to do the same thing.

Yet the verses above, from Ephesians 5, also make a connection to baptism-the washing of water with the word.  What is the connection between baptism and the manner in which a man should love his bride?

Perhaps Romans 6, another baptism text, can give us some insight:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?...If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his...Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him." [Romans 6:3,5,8]

In baptism Jesus unites the church with himself in a one-flesh-union.  The church becomes the bride of Christ, the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12).  He remains the bridegroom, the head.

Yet notice that everything that belongs to Christ now also belongs to the Church, both death and resurrection, cross and new life.  Jesus holds nothing back from his bride.  She shares in his greatest tragedy, albeit vicariously.  And she shares in his greatest triumph.  By extension, also, she receives all the treasures of heaven and earth over which Christ rules.

A man is also joined with his bride in a one-flesh union.  And he is to share with her all that is his.  He is to hold back no good things from her.

He is to share with her his sorrows, his defeats, his death, although only vicariously.  He never places her in harm's way, yet she will suffer his hurts for the sake of love.  You cannot strike the head without affecting the rest of the body.

More so, however, he is to share with her his life.  The husband shares new life in Christ, drawing his bride to receive with him the gifts of God.  He passes to her the same forgiveness he has been given from God his Savior.

Also, he shares with his wife every blessing of this life: physical, emotional, material.  The husband gives her the physical blessings of the marriage bed, the delights of making love.  He shares all of his joy with her, approving glances, affirming embraces, compliments and flirtations.  He provides for her food, clothing, and shelter, earning what she needs, and if her is able even more.

In this union of groom and bride, what is his is hers.  Christ shares life and eternity with his bride.  A man of this world shares all that he has too, all that is good.  May all husbands find joy in this sharing of God's gifts.  Christ will surely never tire of giving us life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dumb Things Lutherans Say



"You can't stop yourself from breaking the _______ commandment, so you might as well______."

You can fill in the blank.

"You can't stop yourself from breaking the 6th commandment, so you might as well watch movie with sexually explicit content."

"You can't stop yourself from breaking the 5th commandment, so you might as well just drink and drive."

I have never actually heard anyone say these exact words, but I have heard and read similar arguments used by different Lutherans as rationalizations for other behaviors.  The thinking is that if I am a sinner through-and-through (which you are) then the commandments cease to have any real value in terms of guidance.  If I cannot stop myself from breaking the commandments then I should just ignore them altogether.

This is folly, especially since it confuses the three different functions of the Law of God.

Lutherans have traditionally and popularly divided the workings of God's Law into three distinct functions.

  1. There is a civil function where the threats of punishment keep me from doing things which might endanger society at large.  
  2. There is a theological function where the Law holds up the standard that God has set for humanity where I am found weighed, measured, and lacking. 
  3.  And there is the teaching function where the Christian, freed from sin, delights in the Law of God and desires to learn to please God and serve his neighbor with good works done in faith.


The fact that you cannot stop yourself from breaking a commandment (any commandment for that matter) falls under the second [theological] function of the Law.  When we look at the commandment we see that we are complete and utter failures at keeping them.  I should repent, plead completely guilty before God, and throw myself upon the mercy of Jesus Christ earned at the cross.

But this tells me nothing about how I should now act as a forgiven sinner.  I am forgive of my sin for the sake of Christ, but I still need to learn from the commandment how to act as a child of God.

According to the first function, some actions have worse consequences than others.  No, I cannot keep myself from breaking the 6th commandment, but I can stop myself from ruining my marriage.  I can avoid situations where I am placed under unnecessary temptation.  I can warn others who might be traveling down that path.

According to the third function I would gladly avoid anything that even smelled faintly of evil.

We cannot use the fact the we are all 100% sinful as a guide for our lives as human beings.  The standard of the 10 Commandments serves as a curb and guide for our lives before and after we come to faith in Christ.  Being a sinner, and being forgiven, is then not an excuse for more sin.

Lutherans have to keep their distinctions in check.  It is a tall order, a difficult task.  It is, however, the calling of a true theologian.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Do We Really Believe the Law Always Accuses?




"The Law always accuses."  It is axiomatic in Lutheranism.  When the will of God is announced in the ears of His sinful creatures their consciences are stricken with guilt.  It cannot be otherwise.  Sinners will always stand accused before the Law of God.

Yet I do not think we preach like we believe this.  We preach more as if we are afraid that the Law will fail in its accusations, so we have to do that work, even if that means leaving out the Law's other functions.

"The Law always accuses, but it does not only accuse."  It also acts as a curb for evil in the world, threatening would-be thieves, murderers, and adulterers with proper punishment.  If you live by the sword you will die by the sword.  There is no honor among thieves.  The house of the adulteress sinks down to death.  

The Law too imparts wisdom to the child of God, teaching him the works that God desires of him.      He learns what is true, honorable, just, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  He must be taught, for though his new heart washed in the blood of Jesus desires to do good, it does not know what good to do.

If we believe that the Law always accuses, then it would follow that we can trust it to do that work while the Law is being proclaimed and taught without our aid, or at least without very much.  Our Law preaching should be primarily focused on the content of the Law, the actual commands, rules, and virtues that God has put forth as good and right.

Yet far too often our Law proclamation descends into spiritual name-calling.  We are content to tell people that their good works are dirty diapers in the sight of God, that they are rubbish before Him.  We convince them that they are sinners without convicting them of any sins.

Of this I am certainly guilty.  I am in need of deep repentance.  The Law must do more than label me as scum.  It must show me why I am scum.  When God's commands are taught, then I will see clearly that I have failed to keep them.      

Only then will I know how much I need Jesus and the redemption that His blood has bought.  Only then will I be prepared to receive the forgiveness of my sins.  Only then can the Gospel of Christ's action for me restore me to life, forever.

Teach the Law.  It will accuse.  Proclaim the Gospel.  It will restore.
 

Friday, October 3, 2014

You Are A Star



http://www.bigfoto.com/themes/nature/sky/sunset-jv4.jpg
bigfoto.com

You are a star.  But probably not the kind you think.  In modern America “star” has become synonymous with “celebrity”.  But that is not what I, nor Saint Paul, mean when we say that you are a star. 

                Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” [Philippians 2:14-16a]

                You shine as lights in the world.  The word “lights” has the meaning of stars.  You shine as stars in the world, as you hold fast to the word of life.  But only as you hold fast to the word of life.

                Human beings are not naturally stars that shine brightly.  We are born, rather, as black holes.  A star gives out light to the world.  A black hole sucks in light.  It holds everything in for itself.

                Sin takes the beings that God created to be stars and it mutilates them into black holes, caved in on themselves, always taking and never giving. 

                Black holes take from God every good blessing, but never offer Him thanks, praise, and obedience in return.  It is all fine and dandy that we get to live here on God’s green earth, with material and technological blessings that are the envy of the rest of the world.  But how often do we stop to be thankful?  Once a year at the end of November? 

How hard do we work to be obedient to God’s commands?  How much credit do we give to God and how much do we keep for ourselves?  We are pulling in the blessings, the daily bread, but we are not giving out the light of service and praise.

Black holes take in the life and work of other people-other stars-but offer little, if anything, in return.  A husband who lets his wife do all the housework without ever offering a single “thank you”.  A wife who never stops to appreciate the hard work of her husband.  Children of all ages who take the blood, sweat, and tears of their parents for granted.

We can fall into this trap when we are out and about shopping or eating at a restaurant.  We expect the employees to be model people, polite, clean, hard working, but we do not always reciprocate.  We are happy for them to serve us, because that is their job, they are being paid.  But we can then treat them as our slaves, rather than as fellow human beings.

It is not as if we really have a choice.  This is our default state.  We are gaping black holes sucking in anything we think is good and useful, appropriating it all for ourselves.  And then thinking nothing of giving back, returning thanks, or passing on a favor.

It is not, as we usually think, that darkness is empty.  No, darkness is hungry.  It is full of itself, and it wants more from everyone else.

Black holes are conceited.  They see others as rivals, competition, as less significant than themselves. Black holes have not the mind of Christ, but the mind of the world, the devil, and the sinful nature.

And then enters Jesus, shining like the Sun, brilliant in radiance.  Jesus lives His life as the one true Light illuminating the darkness, always giving, never taking. 

Jesus lived as the brightest Sun amidst and ocean of black holes.  He lives a life of perfect humility, submitting not only to His Father in heaven, but also to the needs of the men and women around Him. 

Jesus shone His light as He walked in perfect obedience to the commands of God.  He rejoiced in even the simplest of gifts from His Father. 

Jesus gave light to the world, healing the sick when He was tired; feeding the hungry when He needed to retreat; giving out forgiveness when He needed none; raising the dead as He headed toward His own grave.  The Christ emptied Himself just as everyone else was ready and willing to gorge themselves upon Him.

He went up to the cross to give, what seemed at the time, to be the last of His light, the final ray of His brilliance.  Jesus poured out His life for the hungry black holes, for you, for me.  And His light went out.

But the Son rose three days later.  And He was brighter than ever.  Now His light could not simply be pulled in by the black holes.  Now He had conquered the darkness.  Any who took in His light became light themselves.  The black holes were transformed into stars shining brightly in the midst of the world for all to see.

Jesus eclipsed the power of the gaping black holes and gave you His own light.  He ignited your flames with His Spirit and Word.  And now you are stars, lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.

It is that word, that Gospel, that good news which Jesus uses as the catalyst to change dark vacuums into shining stars.  To hear of Christ and His humble suffering and death, to hear of Jesus and His glorious resurrection, His luminous exaltation, is to be lit on fire.  All that useless gas that we carry around with us is ignited and we begin to burn bright.

As we hold fast to the Word of life, as we cling to Jesus in the Gospel, as we trust His work of death and resurrection for our salvation, we remain as shining stars.

And what do stars do?  As I mentioned earlier, we think of stars as celebrities, those who engage in endless self-promotion.  But that is not what the stars were to Jesus, to Saint Paul.  The stars were guides in the night sky.  They pointed the way north.  They formed constellations to show you how to make your way home.

That is our role as stars too.  We are not here to promote ourselves.  We are here to point others to Jesus.  We are to aid in guiding them to the light of the Savior.  Our borrowed light directs them to the source of warmth and life.  There they too will find forgiveness of their many sins, they will find rest for their souls, they will find hope for the days ahead.  They will find life in the Sun.

You are a star.  Christ has made you so.  He has ignited your soul with the fire of His love, His Gospel.  And you will shine with Him in glory forever.  And you shine even now, reflecting the light of Jesus, holding fast the Word of Life, so that others will be guided to Christ.  They will see your borrowed light and be drawn to Jesus, the source of all light and life.