And they crucified him…
– Mark 15.23a (ESV)
Almighty and everlasting God, You willed that Your Son should bear for us the pains of the cross, that You might remove from us the power of the adversary: Help us to remember and give thanks for our Lord’s Passion that we may obtain remission of sin and redemption from everlasting death; through the sames, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Prayer for Good Friday by Veit Dietrich (friend of Martin Luther), Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
(Ps 131, ESV)
The Baptist had preached repentance, but it didn’t help. The Church has done the same for two thousand years, and it still doesn’t appear to have helped. It looks like other means are necessary to get people to listen. Shouldn’t we show others that we can do something really impressive? That’s a temptation that has pursued the Church throughout its history. Many times it’s been tempting for the Church to get politically involved or intervene in society in an effort to make an impression, create good will, gain sympathy, and win support.
–Bo Giertz, To Live With Christ
The Church is always tempted by the world to fall into the trap of relevance, felt needs, or some other buzzword to boost attendance and reach out to those around us. Much ink has been spilled and many dollars have changed hands in the name of church growth as pastors and congregations have chased after the next big thing to bring people in the door. Gun-infatuated Evangelicals in the Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention are even raffling off rifles as “a surefire way to get new people through church doors.” I wonder if the sermon title that evening was something to the tune of “Win a ‘piece’ from the Prince of Peace”?
Did we ever stop to think that being an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5.20) doesn’t necessitate that we behave like a perpetually-awkward teenage boy who hangs out with the older guys who tolerate him just as long as he’ll do their bidding?
If it isn’t efforts to boost numbers, Evangelicals also play the whore to the American political Right. We sell ourselves out, cheaply, in the name of conservative values, traditional family values, America’s God-fearing past, or some other righteous-sounding slogan to gain political clout and power in corrupt, worldly system. So much for rendering Caesar’s junk to Caesar.
Did it ever occur to us that being all things to all people (1 Cor 9.22) doesn’t require us to act like a desperate, ignored teenage girl who craves the affection of the jocks on the football team and thinks nothing is too slutty to gain their attention?
All these stunts are a sham, a gimmick, and a joke. They are the antithesis of everything the Church should be about. Seriously.
What did Christ give his Church to attract sinners? Word and Sacrament. Our real need is for forgiveness, so he gave us absolution in response to our confession. To satisfy the hunger of our souls, he gave us his body and blood as nourishment. It may appear that other means and methods are necessary to bring people to Christ, but this is a lie. We are the Bride of Christ. We ought to be seeking him instead of the approval of the world, because honestly, the latter only lasts as long as the girl is willing to put out or the boy is willing to do others’ dirty work.
Lord, have mercy.
The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me,
because the Lord has anointed Me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and freedom to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of our God’s vengeance;
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion;
to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
festive oil instead of mourning,
and splendid clothes instead of despair.
And they will be called righteous trees,
planted by the Lord
to glorify Him.
I greatly rejoice in the Lord,
I exult in my God;
for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation
and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness,
as a groom wears a turban
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth produces its growth,
and as a garden enables what is sown to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61.1-3, 10-11, HCSB)
What is this good news to the poor and brokenhearted; to the captives and imprisoned? Quit simply this: that God in Christ Jesus has clothed us ‘with the garments of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness.’
This is not our doing, for we continually fall short. This is not our work, for our deeds are routinely sinful. No, instead ‘the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up’ where before our lives and works were barren and self-centered. This is God’s work of grace, freely given us on behalf and as a result of the Beloved.
In Christ our unrighteousness and sin is covered by his righteous perfection. Those sins and scars, no less real, are no more revealed and no more remembered. We are spotless, without blemish–beloved of God our Father.
How can we grasp so great a gift? Solely by faith.
But these truths are intangible and hidden, whereas the effects of my sin are tangible and ever before me! Take comfort. In the sacrament of the altar, God has–again in his mercy–given us something tangible upon which our weak faith can cling.
Hear the words of absolution.
See, touch, smell, and taste the bread and the wine.
Let all of your senses experience the promise of forgiveness in the body and blood of Christ.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
War is messy. It is a mess of dirt, sweat, blood, gunpowder, rubble, tears, death, and destruction unparalleled by anything else that comes about by the brute force of humanity.
Those affected by war as either its practitioners or its victims get this mess on their bodies, their lives, and their souls. Shrapnel tears through them physically with just as much power as their experiences tear through them spiritually. Its scars on our bodies and souls seem permanent. Unchanging. Indelible. Those scars may heal in time, they may lighten–better but never quite forgotten, or they may remain raw and painful. The holds true for the physical scars as well as the spiritual ones.
It has become routine to treat those spiritual scars under the umbrella of PTSD instead of what they really are, moral wounds or moral trauma. Describing trauma as ‘moral’ necessitates a judgment of right or wrong, good or bad, righteous or sinful. The trouble is, our society with its steady prescription of moral relativism is unable to cope with the objectivity required by this sort of judgment. As a result, our warriors go untreated. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are subjected to an ineffective regime of cognitive behavior therapy that might treat some of the symptoms but fails to offer a cure. As necessary as these therapies are for coping with PTSD, they focus primarily on desensitization, not complete healing. No amount of Cognitive Processing Therapy can heal a wounded soul. No number of sessions of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing can restore a broken spirit. No dose of medication can regenerate a wounded conscious.
There is true healing for moral trauma. True restoration is possible. True hope is available.
Nearly 3,000 years ago the Prophet Isaiah declared:
I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit
or a bride with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61.10, NLT)
Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul wrote:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (Gal 3.26-27, NLT)
True healing is found in Christ Jesus. In baptism, we are clothed in his righteousness, which covers us in his perfection. In him are we dressed with the ‘clothing of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness’ which covers the stain, hurt, and mess of our own sin and experiences. All of them. Even war.
This prescription is not a ‘take two and call me in the morning’ sort of regimen. It is not an overnight cure free of struggle or pain. It is a long, hard road to recover from such wounds. But it is the path to true recovery and healing.
This Sunday, January 12th, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. This event is recorded in all four Gospels, which clearly points to its importance. Matthew’s account is given as the reading for this Sunday:
Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
– Matthew 3.13-17 (NLT)
This passage is anything but unfamiliar to us, but what exactly does it mean? What is the point? Why was Jesus–the sinless Lamb of God–baptized? Whether one understands baptism as God’s work of grace (e.g., Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, etc.) or our own work of obedience (e.g. Baptists and other Evangelicals) makes no difference. That Jesus was baptized can be just plain confusing, especially if we get wrapped around the axle about Jesus’ baptism to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ or ‘carry out all that God requires.’
There are two facets to Jesus’ baptism for us to consider. First, he was baptized as an example for all of those who would follow him. Baptism is our visible entry to Christ’s Church. As Christ was baptized, so we also are to be baptized. As Luther pointed out:
Christ is baptized, not in order to be made righteous—for He is the Son of God and endowed with eternal righteousness so that we may be made righteous through Him—but as an example, so to speak, for us, in order that He may precede us and we may follow His example and also be baptized.
– LW 3:87
This is perhaps the more obvious reason Jesus was baptized, but it is not nearly the more important.
Jesus was also baptized not only to serve as our example, but to become one of us sinners. Clearly, Jesus did not become a sinner in actuality. He never sinned. But he became a sinner by association–in nearly every part of his life–beginning with his taking on humanity and ending with his death and resurrection. By descending into the waters of baptism, Jesus points out that he is like us, he is with us, he is us. Again, Luther:
He was entering into our stead, indeed, our person, that is, becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism. And that he did this in accord with the will of God, the heavenly Father, who cast all our sins upon him that he might bear them and not only cleanse us from them through his baptism and make satisfaction for them on the Cross, but also clothe as in his holiness and adorn us with his innocence.
– LW 51:315
By becoming one of us, Jesus made possible what Luther called the ‘joyous exchange’–exchanging his righteousness for our ungodliness and vice versa. In his baptism, Christ takes on the sin of the world and drowns it in the waters–an act completed for us on the cross. And in return, instead of death and condemnation, which we deserve, we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.
This he did; he took the sin of the whole world upon himself; he became a curse for us, and thus redeemed from the curse all those who believe in him.
Let us joyously celebrate Christ’s baptism as we remember our own and take heart in the knowledge that in it, we are united with Christ and shall live forever. Amen.
photo credit: Paracletos Monastery | purchase this icon from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com
American Christianity–especially American Evangelicalism–has a love affair with war, guns, ‘freedom,’ and the military. Christians in America are historically very supportive of our military, our various interventions around the globe, and all things pro-gun-related. This support is manifested in Evangelicals’ love for patriotic church services, their admiration and gratitude for those in the Armed Forces, their consistent support of hawkish political leaders, and their outspoken support of the NRA and other Second Amendment groups.
All this may sound great, but there’s a problem. The more I have traveled around the globe and interacted with Christians in other nations; however, the more I have consistently and sincerely been asked, “Why?”
Christians in other places around the world are not nearly so infatuated with war, guns, and violence (political or personal). In fact, many of them loathe such things and cannot fathom why American Christians believe and act like we do. They believe that war is antithetical to Christianity, that violence begets violence, and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52, ESV). In short, their views are much the opposite of our own.
How can this be?
I think the answer lies more in the theology of American Exceptionalism than it does in the pages of Scripture. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan John Winthrop first proclaimed the notion that America was somehow different, unique, and under the special watch care of God. While still on the seas from England, he taught his fellow passengers:
God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission…
From this beginning, Winthrop went on to encourage his shipmates in ways they might practically take care of one another, provide for one another, and forgive one another that their great journey of faith might be a successful one. Their success was important, because the world was watching, just as Egypt was watching Moses and the Hebrews when they were taken out to the wilderness:
We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.
Winthrop’s idea of America as occupier of a special place in the heart and plan of God runs deep in the American DNA. Jesus’ phrase about the ‘city on a hill’ has been invoked by Presidents Wilson, Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan, Bush (43), and Obama as evidence of America’s uniqueness in the world. And what is popular in the secular realm of politics is even more strongly emphasized and believed in American Evangelical churches, where American biblical heritage and our direct blessing by God are routine talking points–especially in election years.
With this in mind, doesn’t it only make sense that American Christians would believe and act the way they do? If America is indeed specially blessed and endowed by God as rich and powerful, doesn’t that translate into enforcing our version of liberty and justice for all around the world? If America’s heritage has been enabled (dare I say guaranteed) by its indelible roots in faith, family, and guns (a la Duck Dynasty), doesn’t a faithful Christian family need that same American trinity? If America’s foreign policy is deeply influenced by Christian ethicist Richard Land and those of his ilk, who single-handedly redefined the Just War tradition to include pre-emptive wars, isn’t America’s warmongering heritage morally defensible?
No. No. No. And NO!
America is a great nation. There is nowhere I’d rather live. But we are far from perfect. American Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to seriously rethink some things many of us take for granted as right, reasonable, and true. Our views on these things conflict with those of our brothers and sisters around the world. More than this, our views conflict with those taught by our Lord Jesus whom we claim to follow above all else.
Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety–that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
This single paragraph by Bonhoeffer contains so many deep truths about God, it requires reading slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once. In it, hope is born of the ashes of anguish; self-righteousness is destroyed; arrogance is dashed on the rocks of humility; and everything our culture trumpets about what we ought to be and whom we ought to honor is proven false.
Bonhoeffer’s words drip with the sweet truths of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness, God is for us. In the midst of our loneliness, God is with us. In the mist of our weakness, God is our strength. In the midst of our rejection, God loves us.
To the proud and self-exalted, these words are senseless. To those who ‘have it all together,’ such talk is foolishness. To the rest of us, however, these words are a balm to the soul.
Praise the Lord!
For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Ps 28.6-7, NLT)
Part of the wonder of Advent is meditating on the mystery of our God…or perhaps I should say, our mysterious God. As much as the systematic theologians want to smooth out all the wrinkles of Scripture and theology to present us a God who is tidy, neatly-packaged, and predictable, God will have nothing of it. In reality, if we’re honest, Scripture is not so easily handled and God is not always so easily understood.
The whole revelation of the bible presents us with a God who makes a habit of acting quite differently than we might expect. God likes to choose the younger over the older, the unfortunate over the privileged, the poor over the wealthy, the unlearned over the scholar, the despised over the celebrity…again and again he does this. As Bonhoeffer points out:
God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.
Perhaps the ultimate theological curve ball God throws us is the incarnation, Christ’s taking on of humanity, deity becoming humanity. As if this weren’t enough of a theological problem, this whole business is compounded by God’s decision to be born in an out of the way village, not the cultural center of the Mediterranean. He comes as a son born to an unwed mother and lowly carpenter, not as royalty or celebrity. He is born among sleeping livestock, not in a palatial or even well-decorated nursery. God calls attention to this most incredible miracle by announcing it to shepherds, not to theologians or mega-church pastors or best-selling authors.
In other words, in the eyes of the world (and maybe quite a few of his own people) God gets it all wrong…again. Yet in actuality, in his own mysterious way, God of course gets everything exactly right. In Eugene Peterson’s words:
The wonder [of Christmas] keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.
Keep the wonder alive. Look for the unexpected. Revel in the mystery and glory of God.
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer
Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent, Lutheran Service Book
Advent has no place for the satisfied, because Advent is all about waiting.
Should we find ourselves satisfied with the status quo of our faith and the world, it is more than our observance of Advent that needs examination. We ought to step back and examine our very faith itself. After all, the faith that is pleasing to God is an unsatisfied faith. It is a faith that yearns to find completion.
God blesses you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
God blesses you who are hungry now,
for you will be satisfied.
God blesses you weep now,
for in due time you will laugh… 1
…and on the contrary…
What sorrow awaits you who are rich,
for you have your only happiness now.
What sorrow awaits you who are faith and prosperous now,
for a time of awful hunger awaits you.
What sorry awaits you who laugh now,
for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
What sorry awaits you who are praised by the crowds,
for their ancestors also praised false prophets 2
Those who are blessed of God are those who are poor, hungry, and mournful. While we may find contentment in our physical circumstances (cf. Phil 4.11), we must never be satisfied with our spiritual condition. We must never be satisfied with the way things are in this world. We are waiting, expectantly I trust, for Christ’s return, the new heavens and new earth, and eternity in the tangible presence of God. Things are not as they should be right now. Things are not as they will ultimately be.
So we wait. Content with our physical condition but never content with our spiritual condition–always looking forward with anticipation to the realized blessings of Immanuel, God with us, at his return.
Advent can be celebrated only by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself toward us–the Holy One himself, God in the child in the manger. God is coming; the Lord Jesus is coming; Christmas is coming. Rejoice, O Christendom! 3
No matter where you live in the northern hemisphere, the routine of Autumn has set in, the weather is growing colder, and the days are growing shorter. The cycle of school is firmly in place. The hectic pace of our vocations in the midst of holidays makes causes many to put their noses to the proverbial grindstones and press forward to accomplish everything necessary before the workplace doldrums of Christmas and New Year’s weeks arrive. Even as we prepare for Christmas, many of us are so busy with self-imposed obligations that we give hardly more than a passing thought to spiritual things.
Advent won’t let us off so easy, however.
The season of Advent calls us to wake up and be aware of the presence of God in our lives and our world. 1
Instead of being consumed by the ever-increasing pace of contemporary life, we Christians are called–perhaps paradoxically–to slow down. Advent is a new beginning. It is a time to shake off the habitual rhythms of busyness and begin again a lifestyle of deliberate focus on Christ and our lives in him. This is more than a call to nostalgic simplicity of days gone by, it is a matter of spiritual life and death. For in our daily hustle and bustle, we tend to develop an unhealthy self-reliance
When [we think we can do things on our own] God becomes remote and even absent from our lives. We may go for days without any sense of God, without recourse to prayer, or without concern to hear God speak to us through his Word. 2
Such self-reliance becomes spiritually deadly in its slow, unnoticeable withdrawal from our source of life: our Triune God and the very means he has established to create, sustain, and nourish our faith, the Word and Sacrament.
Slow down. Pause. Reflect. Wonder. Listen. Re-connect. Wake up to the presence of God.
Advent is a season of expectant waiting. We are masters of anticipation–just look at the weeks of hype about ‘Black Friday’–but we are complete failures at waiting. In a society where everything happens immediately, we have regrettably forgotten how to wait.
Celebrating Advent means being able to wait. Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote those words 60 years ago. By the standards of many, 60 years seems like an eternity ago. We would consider it a given that those were much slower times than today, the sort of age that the elders among us look back fondly upon as ‘the good old days’ when the pace of life wasn’t nearly as hectic as now. If Bonhoeffer thought that people had forgotten how to wait in 1943, he would definitely be dizzied by the pace of today’s world.
Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting–that is, of hopefully doing without–will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment.
Those words really hit the proverbial nail on the head, don’t they? We are rarely, if ever, fulfilled. Thoughtful Christians recognize that fact. Secular society recognizes this reality. The suggestion that waiting enables fulfillment, however, escapes us. The notion that without waiting we will never find fulfillment is completely foreign to us, but if we can remember back to a time when our wants were not immediately satiated, we know it is also completely true.
For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.
This Advent, let us wait expectantly and patiently.
Let us re-learn the art of waiting that we might be truly fulfilled.
“Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray, “and illumine our darkness by your light.”
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer
Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by Your mighty deliverance; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent, Lutheran Service Book
Tragedies are all around us. It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the news to recognize the reality of devastation and its inevitability in our own lives. In times of tragedy, one of the first words that often finds itself on our lips is, “Why?” In the moment, it is usually a cry of desperation as we try to wrap our minds around the loss we have just witnessed. After the initial shock of things, however, that question can become one of deep philosophical and theological meaning as we try to reconcile events with what we know and believe about life, humanity, and God.
This weekend, I was reading Acts 12 and noticed something fascinating. In the beginning of that chapter, we read:
About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. (Acts 12.1-2, NLT)
In the very next verse, Herod has Peter arrested and intends on similarly putting him to death. This time, however, the outcome is very different. Peter is miraculously rescued from his captor by an angel, resulting in his startled confession:
The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me! (Acts 12.11, NLT)
Why did the Lord supernaturally intervene in Peter’s life but not James? Were not both apostles? Were not both deeply involved in the life of the infant church? Were not both (insert question here)?
Here’s the startling thing, for me at least. Luke neither asks nor speculates why. Nor does anyone else in his account.
Does this suggest that no one in the church asked why? I doubt it. Such a question is only natural. But, for the Christian, such a question is ultimately a distraction. Even in the midst of great suffering, pain, and sorrow, the question of why is never answered in Scripture–read Job if you don’t believe me.
And so, that question is the wrong question to ask. Instead of asking, “Why did God allow this suffering to take place?” the proper question to ask is, “What has God done about this great suffering?” The answer to that question, of course, is found in Christ.
In Christ, evil is finally conquered. In Christ, pain is completely soothed. In Christ, suffering is ultimately comforted.
In times of trouble, may the LORD answer your cry.
May the name of the God of Jacob keep you safe from all harm.
May he send you help from his sanctuary
and strengthen you from Jerusalem.
May he remember all your gifts
and look favorably on your burnt offerings.
May he grant you your heart’s desires
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy when we hear of your victory
and raise a victory banner in the name of our God.
May the LORD answer all your prayers.
Psalm 20.1-5, NLT
All too often that is our human response to the notion that God conveys grace through means like the sacraments. Perhaps, in America, we are too steeped in a Christianity influenced heavily by a Zwinglian flavor of Reformed thought or an overly-sensationalized, Pentecostal television ministries. Perhaps, in 2013, we are too intellectually-sophisticated to believe that God would choose to work through things as mundane as water, bread, and wine.
Such struggles are not new. Tertullian wrote about the human tendency to expect God to work only in the spectacular in the second and third century. In his work, On Baptism, he wrote:
There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible.
Some things never change, do they? Neither our tendency toward disbelief…nor God’s condescension to lavish his grace upon us plainly and wonderfully.
To point out that the hours and days ahead are precarious for America’s political and financial systems is to point out the obvious. At times when disaster seemingly looms just around the corner, interest in politics blossoms, and nearly everyone with a keyboard and a political opinion feels the obligation to weigh in on this or that. The talking heads are droning on in their predictable choruses. The left and right are simultaneously blaming each other while taking credit for any bright spots of hope that may appear.
Christians all across America, professedly polarizing in their politics on days when nothing important appears on the political landscape, are certainly not going to be left out of the ruckus either. Some bloggers are writing about why debt ceilings are unbiblical while others are touting how give great glory to God through the political process. Others are writing how wonderful is the government shutdown while others lament it effects on families and the economy.
I can’t help but think they’re all missing the point. Entirely.
Politics and political systems are important, don’t get me wrong. As proud as Americans are of our political system, they are not an end in themselves but only a means to an end. As a result, we mustn’t trust too highly in politics or expect too much from politicians. If we do, we will be consistently disappointed.
I have no doubt our politicians will come up with a solution to avert fiscal crisis, re-open the government, and get back to business-as-usual…probably kicking the proverbial can farther into the future as politicians are wont to do.
So what’s my point? Don’t put too much trust in politicians, political parties, or politics as a whole. They have their place, but nowhere are we as Christians called to be so completely wrapped around the political axle as we tend to be in America.
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and [God] will give you everything you need.
– Luke 12.31 (NLT)
The Kingdom of God is not found in any political system or any nation. It is, in fact, a-political.
Some take pride in chariots, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of Yahweh our God.
– Psalm 20.7 (HCSB)
Don’t put your ultimate trust in the wrong place–politics–ultimately it cannot save us, temporally or eternally.
None can believe how powerful prayer is, and what it is able to effect, but those who have learned it by experience.
It is a great matter when in extreme need, to take hold on prayer.
I know, whenever I have earnestly prayed, I have been amply heard, and have obtained more than I prayed for; God, indeed, sometimes delayed, but at last he came.
Martin Luther, Table Talk
photo credit: unit25 on stock.xchng
This morning in church we read Psalm 23.
There is absolutely nothing even remotely odd about that. After all, this is one of the most beloved and comforting psalms in the entire Psalter. This morning our focus was on the first part of verse six, which is traditionally rendered:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6a, ESV)
This translation is well and good…except it is not nearly strong enough to describe God’s actions toward us. Most English bibles have followed the tradition established by the KJV and translated the Hebrew word radaph (רָדַף) as ‘followed,‘ but a quick look at the standard lexicons shows that this word is more often understood as ‘pursued.’ God’s actions here are better understood like this:
Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6, HCSB)
I don’t know about you, but being pursued feels a whole lot different than merely being followed. God, in his goodness and faithful love, does exactly that–he pursues us…
Relentlessly. Tirelessly. Persistently. Lovingly. Mercifully.
Thanks be to God!
Ask most any Christian about the focus of worship and you are likely to receive an immediate ‘Sunday-school’ answer: “The focus of worship is God!” With those words still hanging in an imaginary comic book text bubble in the air, a follow-on question about the worship style may generate hesitation and may even spark a passionate debate, revealing a competing interest in questions about worship: we as individuals.
Our society is consumer-based. Everywhere we turn we are blasted with messages competing for our limited time and resources in an attempt to get us to choose Product A over Product B. Unfortunately, in an attempt to be ‘relevant,’ ‘missional,’ ‘exciting,’ or (insert most-recent church ‘marketing’ buzzword here) and lure the unchurched in the front doors, the church has followed suit. Almost without exception, discussions of worship style end up ultimately focusing on appeal to people. While I am not one to advocate a one-liturgy-fits-all approach to corporate worship, the way in which we have approached worship styles in the church has completely changed the focus of worship from God to us.
Responding to an email on the purpose of worship, Frederica Mathewes-Green recently wrote a powerful essay calling out this shift in emphasis from God. I encourage you to read her entire response, but one particular aspect struck a chord with me. She writes:
If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins.
She nailed it. If the focus on our worship is us–that is what entertainment is about, after all–we will continue to fail. The world will always provide a better alternative. Not only that, but we will have sorely missed the true focus of worship in the first place: the Triune God.
Despite the pressures and external pressures to be more authentic or relevant, the Word that the pastor is given to speak is the objective certainty of a crucified and risen Savior of sinners. It does not mimic the trends of the culture or emotion or entertainment. Most importantly, the Word proclaimed by the pastor does not depend on the man behind the collar. For when a pastor wears the clerical collar of the Office into which he has been placed, his own individuality is covered in order to show Christ.
That is his vocation–to bring Christ to the people–such that when a pastor is praying with the hospitalized, communing the shut-in, comforting the bereaved or simply visiting with his flock, the collar he wears is an indication of the pure Gospel of Christ that he is given to bring. As such, his collar is white, vesting his vocal chords from where the ear is filled with the Gospel and reminding the pastor and the people of the purpose of his ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry: to speak the word of God.
– Pr. Anthony Voltattorni, Lutheran Witness, Nov 2012
God, hear my cry;
pay attention to my prayer.
I call to You from the ends of the earth
when my heart is without strength.
Lead me to a rock that is high above me,
for You have been a refuge for me,
a strong tower in the face of the enemy.
I will live in Your tent forever
and take refuge under the shelter of Your wings
Psalm 61.1-4, HCSB
Inflame our hearts with love for Thee, O Christ our God, that loving Thee with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we may obey Thy commandments and glorify Thee, the Giver of all good things. Amen.
O God, by the patient suffering of Your only-begotten Son, You have beaten down the pride of the old enemy. Now help us, we humbly pray, to imitate all that our Lord has of His goodness borne for our sake, that after His example, we may bear with patience all that is adverse to us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Treasury of Daily Prayer
photo credit: Creative Commons | Bert Kaufmann
It is the perversity of the world that, when we preach about forgiveness of sins by pure grace and without merit of man, it should either say we forbid good works, or else try to draw the conclusion that man may continue to live in sin and follow his own pleasure; when the fact is, we should particularly strive to live a life the very reverse of sinful, that our doctrine may draw people to good works, unto the praise and honor and glory of God. Our doctrine, rightly apprehended, does not influence to pride and vice, but to humility and obedience.
Martin Luther, House Postils, Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Many non-Lutherans mistakenly believe that Luther was soft on sanctification, and many Lutherans proudly proclaim as much (implicitly or explicitly). Both are wrong. Though lost on many contemporary, American Lutherans, Martin Luther was an outspoken champion of good works for the benefit and blessing of our neighbor. Unfortunately, in reaction to anything that even remotely smacks of Pietism, American Lutherans especially recoil at the language of “works” regardless of context.
Truth is, it is impossible that the Christian life, forever affected by the unfathomable grace of Christ Jesus, could be marked by anything but a striving for good works. Such efforts do not reflect a misguided attempt to secure the blessings of God but are the overflow of thanksgiving from a sinner whose life has been inexorably changed.
photo credit: Creative Commons | Johnny Wilson
One of my most negatively memorable times from seminary was when a well-respected professor questions the legitimacy of a student’s faith because he could neither remember the exact date of his “coming to Christ” nor could he describe it in dramatic detail like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. This particular student was foreign and not from a tradition so highly-influenced by American revivalism as the seminary where I studied. I simultaneously felt embarrassed for the student and angry at this professor for having the audacity to question another believer’s faith because of these trivialities. I wish I had these words so eloquently prepared that day:
Some interpreters treat Saul’s experience as a model for Christian conversion, as though every person has to experience a crisis in order to become a Christian. This is misleading. Though God can and does work in people’s lives through crises, conversion is always the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace…Let no one question your salvation because you came to faith quietly, without some dramatic experience. What matters is trust in Jesus as the Savior, which is truly what made Saul a Christian.
The Lutheran Study Bible, note on Acts 9.3-9 (emphasis mine)
That conversion results in dramatic change to thought, word, and deed is a given. That conversion necessitates a ‘Damascus road experience’ is foreign to the Gospel.
Christ, our risen Lord, Your resurrection showed us what we will someday be and what we already are now through our Baptism into Your holy name. Give us courage to bear in our bodies Your resurrected life as we live out the fruit of Your victory over death through works of charity and mercy; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Treasury of Daily Prayer
photo credit: Creative Commons | Vinoth Chandar
With each one of us there is a Yes to the evil that can be held back by God’s grace alone. But God is mightier than all evil in the world.
- Bo Giertz, Hammer of God
Obvious or not, adoption and suffering often go hand-in-hand. Infertility, miscarriage, disease, sickness, accidents, death, infidelity, grief, separation, insecurity, tragedy, heartbreak, pain, jealousy, rebellion, and loneliness are just a few of the multitude of hardships patiently and expectantly endured by many (or most) adoptive families, both children and parents. Everyone is able to understand some of them, at least empathetically, but those who have not experienced the process first-hand have a hard time recognizing the totality of difficulties faced in adoption.
It is in the pain, suffering, and sometimes evil circumstances that accompany adoption that God does some of his most marvelous work. That is why a quote I recently read from Miroslav Volf impacted me so much:
God works against evil and suffering. But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.
Struggling with years of miscarriages and infertility definitely counts as suffering, but if my wife and I didn’t endure that suffering, I don’t know if we would have have chosen to adopt and would not have been blessed with three of the four children we have today. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of a mother leaving her infant son–himself a result of infidelity–on the steps of an orphanage in Ukraine; but if it weren’t for that grief, I would never have known and loved my older son. I would never wish for children to have to endure watching their mother live with the horrors of and finally succumb to HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, but if it weren’t for that suffering, our younger daughter and son would not be in our family today. I certainly have not wished the many hurdles upon my family that adapting to a multi-ethnic, multi-adoptive family has brought us, but out of those struggles have come some of the most grace-created, joy-filled memories of my life.
God certainly does not will evil, suffering, pain, or loss. But in the midst of those, he is most certainly at work.
Surely the whole world does not grasp the tiniest syllable of the statement that God is love. No human religion can hold its own in the face of the judgment, but it is solely in the blood of Christ that we have confidence on the Day of Judgment.
– Martin Luther
photo credit: Creative Commons | Raul Lieberwirth
All sorrows, all heartaches, all disappointments, all bereavements, and all heart troubles lose their bitterness in the sweetness of the Savior’s tender promise: ‘I will come again.’
– from Meditations on the Gospels
As an adoptive parent of three wonderful children from Ukraine and Ethiopia, I jumped at the chance to review an advance copy of Mother India: Life Through the Eyes of the Orphan by Word Films. After watching now several times, I can stun up the entire movie in one word: other-wordly. (OK, it’s hyphenated, but it’s still technically one word)
India is home to over 31 million orphans…read that again…31,000,000 orphans. That number is far greater than the combined total populations of the ten largest cities in the United States. Think of the entire populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose COMBINED , and then add New York in AGAIN. That is nearly 31 million. It’s unfathomable, isn’t it?
In this film, David Trotter and Shawn Scheinoha get taken in by a family of 25 orphans living in and around a train station in rural India. What they experience and share is guaranteed to break your heart. The experiences of these children, their struggles to cope with hardship, and the true family that they have developed is truly unbelievable for most Americans. As one who has traveled around the world and seen living conditions that have literally made me sick to my stomach, Mother India succeeds in giving insights into the plight of these orphans. It does much more than that, however, and this is where it truly shines…David and Shawn have told us the names and stories of just a few of India’s countless orphans.
Through this movie we come to know, not just about them, but to a little bit about them as people and their stories. This movie is an absolute must-see. But…you won’t want to watch it all. It will break your heart. It will leave you unable to continue in your own status quo knowing about the stories of these children (and the 147 million orphans world-wide who share similar lives) but content to not think about them anymore. And that, friends, is a tremendous, God-blessed burden for us to act upon!
Mother India releases today, April 23rd! Pick up a copy here at Amazon (not an affiliate link)…you won’t be disappointed.
After making significant updates to the HCSB in 2010 and releasing the superb HCSB Study Bible shortly after, B&H has started releasing some new HCSB reference editions featuring a completely redone text layout and greatly expanded textual and translation-related footnotes. So far, both regular and large-print Ultrathin reference editions have been published with the new text block. The main innovations of the new layout include:
- sans-serif fonts throughout
- book and chapter references in the bottom margin instead of the top
- extensive footnotes for textual and translation-related issues
Below the photos are some thoughts about the new features. If you’re looking for a review of the HCSB as a translation, Pr. Richard Shields has done a great job reviewing it at his blog: https://exegete77.wordpress.com/
Sans-serif fonts are pretty standard for the web (including this blog) and some e-readers, but a quick look through my library revealed that I have very few print books with this type of font. To me, in a side-by-side comparison of two equally-sized serif (think Times New Roman) and sans-serif (think Arial) fonts, the sans-serif font appears larger. Another benefit is that the quirky HCSB choice to bold-face OT quotes in the NT is not nearly as noticeable than in prior editions. Personally, I think this is a good thing as I find the use of bold-print very distracting. Overall, though somewhat novel for print editions, I find the sans-serif font extremely easy to read, even for long periods of time.
Book and chapter references are moved to the bottom margin in these bibles. At first I thought this would be very difficult to get used to after decades of looking to the top margin for these references; however, it took me about five minutes to adjust. As radical a departure from the norm as this appears, don’t overreact. It works.
In my opinion, the most wonderful improvement in these new layouts has been the incredible expansion of the footnotes, as seen in a couple of the above pictures. These notes are not interpretation or study bible-type notes but are exclusively related to textual issues (comparing difference manuscripts) or translation matters (alternate translation possibilities). As nerdy and academic as this might sound, I find these notes extremely helpful. The only other bible I have seen that even comes close to this level of detail is the NET bible. B&H should be commended for this valuable addition.
These new layouts are fantastic. If you are in the market for a new bible, the HCSB is a super translation, and these new editions are wonderful. Many thanks to Jeremy Howard at Lifeway for providing me a copy of the large-print edition for review!
“By God’s design, people are not to be won over to his kingdom primarily by our clever arguments, scary religious tracts, impressive programs, or our sheer insistence that they are going to hell unless they share our theological opinions. No, they are to be won over by the way in which we replicate Calvary to them. They are to see and experience the reality of the coming kingdom in us.”
– Gregory A. Boyd
Last week, I posted a survey on languages and bible preference, which is still open by the way. (If you haven’t spent the 30 seconds necessary to complete its four questions, I would greatly appreciate it.) Soon after, I came across these thoughts on bible translation in the preface to a commentary on Romans by Fr. Lawrence Farley, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America serving at St. Herman’s Church in Surrey, British Columbia. After briefly describing the two principle approaches to translation–formal and dynamic equivalence–he writes:
The English translator is faced, it would seem, with a choice: either he can make the translation something of a rough paraphrase of the original and render it into flowing sonorous English or he can attempt to make a fairly literal, word-for-word translation from the original with the resultant English being stilted, wooden, and clumsy.
These two basic and different approaches to translation correspond to two basic and different activities in the Church. The Church needs a translation of the Scriptures for use in worship. This should be in good, grammatical, and flowing English, as elegant as possible and suited to its function in the majestic function of the Liturgy. The Church also needs a translation of the Scriptures for private study and for group Bible study. Here the elegance of its English is of lesser concern. What is of greater concern here is the bring out of all the nuances found in the original. Thus this approach will tend to sacrifice elegance for literality and, wherever possible, seek a work-for-work correspondence with the Greek. Also, because the student will want to see how the biblical authors use a particular word (especially St. Paul, who has many works included in the canon), a consistence of translation will be sought and the same Greek word will be translated, whenever possible, by the same English word or its cognate.
So, what do you think about Fr. Farley’s observations concerning the place of different translations in the life of the Church? Do you agree that we would do well to utilize a more flowing, dynamic translation for public reading and liturgy as part of worship while resorting to a more literal translation for study? It seems the desire of many (most?) of us is to find that one bible translation that is perfect (or at least suitable) for both worship and study. In the ever-changing landscape of English bible translation, this quest is as elusive as it is ultimately frustrating.
What do you think of Fr. Farley’s advice?
That Jesus was born of a virgin is one of the most marvelous aspects of the miracle of the Incarnation. While not even considering objections from skeptics here, it is not uncommon to hear Christians raise the question, “Why was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary?” Answers typically revolve around the need to fulfill prophecy (cf. Isaiah 7), show God’s providential initiative, or avoid the transmission of sin*.
Reading through Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (according to the Read the Fathers reading plan), St. Justin presents the following reason for Jesus’ virgin birth:
He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 100).
In other words, since sin entered the world through a virgin, Eve, Christ was born of the virgin Mary that sin might also be destroyed through a virgin.
His is an interesting one, to say the very least.
* This view only makes sense, of course, if sin is transmitted by male DNA or you further postulate Mary’s Immaculate Conception…neither of which is supported from Scripture or Church Tradition outside of Roman Catholicism.
The joy and celebration of Christmas is that God took on humanity and dwelt among us. Immanuel, of course, means “God with us”–as everyone familiar with the Christmas narrative in Matthew’s gospel knows. Yet, so often, it seems we let this essential mystery of our faith evaporate as soon as Christmas and Epiphany pass, the decorations are put away for another year, and we resume our post-New Year routines.
Usually, this translates into lives characterized not by walking in faith in Christ’s presence with us but by an unending series of questions addressed to him.
- God, why did you allow ____ or ____ to happen?
- God, what should I do about ____?
- God, how will you handle ____?
God does not typically answer those questions. Just ask Job. God does not usually reveal his plans to us with crystal clarity. Ask the apostles about that. As Oswald Chambers points out, “God does not tell you what He it’s going to do—He reveals to you who He is.”
To be even more succinct, God is not in the business of answering our questions. He is in the business of coming to us, dwelling with us, and giving himself to us.
He is not our instructor who promises to answer our questions that we might gain knowledge.
He is Immanuel, who has promised never to leave or forsake us, that we might gain him.
This is most certainly true and most certainly better.
When we think seriously about what it will cost others if we obey the call of Jesus, we tell God He doesn’t know what our obedience will mean. Keep to the point–He does know. Shut out every other thought and keep yourself before God in this one thing only–my utmost for His highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and Him alone.
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come
among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver
us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and
the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end.
– Book of Common Prayer
Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do no be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.
– The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians
Much could be said about these magnificent words of instruction, but nothing honestly need be said about them. They are instruction, reminder, rebuke, and encouragement enough.
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
– Book of Common Prayer
It is far easier for us to point out fault in others than it is to recognize it in ourselves. One of the most pointed teachings of Jesus centers on forgiving others again and again and again.
The Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ ‘I tell you, not as many as seven,’ Jesus said to him, ‘but seventy times seven.’
Matthew 18.21-22 (HCSB)
According to the rabbinic teaching of the day, believers were required to forgive a person three times, so in all likelihood Peter thought he was being more than generous in asking if seven times was enough. As usual, Jesus’ response blows us away–seventy times seven. “Forgive your brother as many times as he is truly repentant,” Jesus might as well have said.
This kind of love is hard. In our own strength, this kind of love is impossible.
Honestly, we don’t like the idea of forgiving someone this many times. “Enough is enough!” we’re tempted to cry out. Even though God continues to forgive our sins again and again and again, there is a part of us that hates the idea of extending this same kind of grace to others. And yet, the attitude Jesus exemplifies and demands of us is precisely the attitude that realizes that ceasing from sin–especially a long-standing one–involves much more than simply willing ourselves to stop.
There is an archaic English word used throughout the King James Version that describes God’s attitude toward our never-ending cycle of sin and repentance. The word is “long-suffering.” According to Merriam-Webster, long-suffering means “patiently enduring lasting offense or hardship.” That pretty well sums up God’s attitude of grace in the face of our sin.
Here is my 70×7 prayer:
May we be as long-suffering with the sins of others
as God is long-suffering with our own.
The great evangelical disaster is that evangelicalism has become synonymous with Republicanism rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
– Rachel Held Evans (read more)
Rachel’s post is right on target with respect to the wearying drone of Evangelicals who equate “conservative” and “Evangelical” with “Republican” rather than anything to do with theology or the Scripture. Both the political right and left have long since abandoned any sort of Judeo-Christian ethic in their legislation. If you don’t believe me, then you aren’t reading past their platforms to anything they’ve actually voted for.
Sadly, the president of my seminary alma mater is the loudest voice in the room recently on this subject.
When will American Christians figure out that Christianity has everything to do with Christ and nothing to do with politics?
One of the most common popular objections to the existence of God has to do with the existence of suffering (or more broadly, evil) in the world. If your God is so good, the objection goes, how could he possibly allow such suffering to exist or continue? After my wife’s recent trip to minister in the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, several internet readers have asked exactly the same question regarding the poverty, hardship, and suffering she witnessed there.
In all seriousness, I’d like to turn the question around a bit and ask it this way:
Is poverty God’s problem or ours?
If we step back and look at the problem of poverty, I think we will find the problem is not with God but with us. Looking through the Old Testament, there are numerous provisions in the Torah concerned with providing for the poor, widowed, orphans, and foreigners in Israel. Perhaps the best summary comes to us from the lips of Moses in Deuteronomy, where we read:
If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart y when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’
Deuteronomy 15.7-11 (HCSB)
Time and time again, the Prophets indicted Israel for their lack of compassion against the poor in the land. Amos is especially critical of the wealthy among Israel for continuing to stockpile their wealth at the expense of caring for the poor. Over and over, the prophets pointed to the root of the problem. It was neither the existence of poverty nor a lack of resources. The problem was a land filled with people who simply cared more for themselves than they did for their neighbors.
In the New Testament, Jesus echoed Moses’ words and reminds us, “You will always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26.4, HCSB). Again, the problem presented is neither the existence of poverty nor a scarcity of resources but a problem of the heart. As many writers–most notably Richard Stearns–have pointed out, American Christians alone possess the wealth to virtually eliminate poverty in the world for the poorest of the poor. We have the resources to provide clean water and basic health care to the entire population of the world.
The problem is not God.
The problem is not poverty.
The problem is not resources.
The problem is that we do not care enough to act.
I have to learn that the aim in life is God’s, not mine. God is using me from His great personal standpoint, and all He asks of me is that I trust Him, and never say—‘Lord, this gives me such heartache.’ To talk in that way makes me a clog. When I stop telling God what I want, He can catch me up for what He wants without let or hindrance. He can crumple me up or exalt me, He can do anything He chooses. He simply asks me to have implicit faith in Himself and in His goodness. Self-pity is of the devil; if I go off on that line I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world.
– Oswald Chambers
photo credit: Creative Commons | Leland Francisco
Temptations are granted to reveal our hidden passions, to be combated against, and thus heal our soul. They are also a sample of divine mercy. For this reason trust in God and ask for His help, in order to strengthen you in your fight. Hope in God never leads to despair. Temptations bring humility. God knows the resistance of each of us, and grants temptations according to the measure of our strength. However, we must make sure to be vigilant and careful, that we do not put ourselves into temptation.
Trust in God the Good, the Mighty, the Living, and He will lead you into rest. After the trial follows spiritual joy. The Lord monitors those who endure trials and tribulations for His love. Therefore do not become despondent and do not flinch.
– St. Nektarios of Aegina (via Mystagogy)
Temptations reveal our desires and are an opportunity to receive the grace of God in Christ. How rarely do we view temptation this way! Instinctively we all recognize the former, and in our mislead zeal to put on the veneer of perfection and demonstrate to others how much we ‘have it together’ this is a large measure of what frightens us so much about temptation. “What if others find out what I really struggle with and what I’m really like?”
Let us not forget the latter, more important point. Temptations are an opportunity to receive the grace and mercy of Christ to strengthen and sustain us in their midst. They are opportunities, not to show how strong or mature we are, but to experience and demonstrate our utter dependence upon God.
photo credit: Creative Commons | Behrooz Nobakht
(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)
Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural. Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.
Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking. If you haven’t read it, you should. You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy. While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.
read: A Church of Mercy
My absence around here has been extended, and I’m not apologizing because I’ve started working on something that really excites me–a new website/blog titled, simply, Christian. Here’s what it’s all about:
simply, Christian is about choosing to live simply in midst of busyness in order to free our time, resources, and desires that we might focus on what is truly important and simply live.
It is about taking seriously Jesus’ world-changing, life-redeeming good news to address not only people’s spiritual condition but also their physical condition. It is about daring ourselves to address the most pressing calamities that face humanity today in order to bring real, lasting transformation to others’ lives. It is about making small changes in our daily activities that we might bring large changes to others, especially those…
- who are orphans
- who are affected by disease, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria
- who lack clean water
- who have not been shown mercy
It is about challenging one another to live simply, Christian.
My name is T.C. Judd, and these are my thoughts. Of late, my life has been dramatically impacted in two completely different ways by two completely different writers. With respect to simplicity, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits (and more recently, Everett Bogue of Far Beyond the Stars) has helped me to see the clutter and chaos that fills much of life and has challenged me to simplify. With respect to living the whole of the Christian life, Richard Stearns, in The Hole in Our Gospel, brought to my attention the immensity of the social crises facing our world today and challenged me to make a difference. Over time, I realized that the two blended well together–truly living a simple life (not a minimalist one, in my case) as a vehicle for truly living a Christian life.
So that, in a nutshell, is what it is to live simply, Christian.
I’d appreciate if you’d head over to simply, Christian and check things out over there. I’ll still be blogging here, though I expect the pace to remain slow for a while until I’ve gathered some momentum.
I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone…Next to the Word of God, music deserve the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions–to pass over the animals–which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found–at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate…what more effective means than music could you find?
…the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.
Martin Luther, LW 53:321, 323-324
[Last Friday I had the privilege of seeing one of our Texas Air National Guard units off to war. For their security and that of their families I won't mention the unit name, deployed locations, dates, etc.]
At once, I have the strangest and most wonderful “job” in the military. I am a chaplain. It’s part of my “job” to talk to people–to be there for them, to get to know them, and just to be with them. They call me ‘padre,’ ‘ preacher,’ or ‘our chaplain,’ which are all titles I am proud to bear because I am proud to serve them and to serve with them. I genuinely enjoy being with my troops.
Today was different.
It was different, because today I sent people that I know and love off to war. I visit with these folks each time we assemble. I see some of the full-timers during the week at Ellington. I joke with them. I cry with them. I drink coffee with them. I talk of serious events and about their favorite ball teams. I lead them in worship. I pray with them and for them. I read them the Word of God. I offer them the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament.
It was different, because today I met many of their families for the first time–wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Today, I played with their kids as Mom and Dad embraced for the last time for a while. Today, I held hands and prayed with husbands and wives who were prepared for this day but not ready for it. Today, I exchanged hearty handshakes and smiles with those who looked forward to the adventure, and I gave tissues and a shoulder to those who were afraid. Today, we all bowed our heads in prayer together–those who are faithful to attend chapel and those whom I’ve never heard utter the Lord’s name without a closely-attached expletive. Today, in the midst of the deployment chaos, we stopped what we were doing and asked God’s protection to be upon those who were leaving and those who were left here at home.
Today was different.
It was different, not because it was the beginning of another deployment, but because it was a new kind of deployment for many of our troops. A deployment “outside the wire” where our folks are almost certain to come under fire. “Outside the wire” is the domain of the Army and the Marines, a place unfamiliar to many Air Force folks. “Outside the wire” is where in the harsh reality of war, people kill and are killed.
After we prayed, there was the call to say goodbye and the hurried shuffle of boots and bags out the door. There on the flightline, in Hemingway-esque fashion, our troops waved a final goodbye in the pouring rain and climbed on board the waiting C-130. As the dull drone of the Herc’s four engines revved to life, the plane gracefully lifted off, where it was soon engulfed in the low-hanging clouds and out of sight.
Some saluted. Some waved. Some sobbed.
There is a part of everyone who wears the uniform that wishes they were going too–and an even bigger part that wishes no one had to go at all.
With our Ethiopian adoption underway, I’ve begun researching and reading about this ancient nation–its Christianity, its heritage, its history, its people, its politics, etc. I want to know whence our children will come and a bit of their background. In so doing, I’ve come across recent blog posts by Michael Halcomb and Xavier Pacheco on the Ethiopian city of Korah. As the title here indicates, Korah is a city of outcasts–lepers, prostitutes, orphans, HIV/AIDS sufferers, and others–75,000 people who live on the trash discarded by the nearly 2.7 million other residents of Addis Ababa.
In other words, Korah is seventy-five thousand people who have, themselves, literally been thrown away by society.
I encourage you to visit the Help Korah blog to prayerfully read and think how we, as the body of Christ, might come together, pool our resources, and address this horrific situation and others like it elsewhere in the world. I am still mulling this over and trying to fully grasp the reality of the situation these many people find themselves in everyday–I will definitely be writing more on this later.
Let me leave you with two videos from Michael and Xavier.
- Watch them
- See the poverty like you’ve never imagined
- See the smiles on these people’s faces
- See the hope offered by those who have realized the need
- Let your heart be broken
- Forward them to others
- Friends and family
- Brother and sisters in Christ
- Let’s make a difference
The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners. The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God. The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails on the cross on Golgotha. As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life, and blessedness to all people.
On account of this, the cross is both holy and blessed! Once nothing but a dry piece of wood, it was changed, like Aaron’s staff, into a green branch full of heavenly blossoms and fruit. Once an instrument of torment for the punishment of sinners, it now shines in heavenly splendor for all sinners as a sign of grace. Once the wood of the curse, it has now become, after the Promised Blessing for all people offered Himself up on it, a tree of blessing, an altar of sacrifice for the atonement, and a sweet-smelling aroma to God. Today, the cross is still a terror–but only to hell. It shines upon its ruins as a sign of the victory over sin, death, and Satan. With a crushed head, the serpent of temptation lies at the foot of the cross. It is a picture of eternal comfort upon which the dimming eye of the dying longingly looks, the last anchor of his hope and the only light that shines in the darkness of death.
– C.F.W. Walther (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 622)
Last night, my son and I were enjoying our nightly ritual of reading books and bible stories before bedtime. The bible story we were reading was the birth of Jesus–yes, he’s in the Christmas spirit early–and we paused at the end on a picture of baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, Joseph and Mary. As a good young boy is wont to do, he started asking questions:
“Who is that?” he asked, pointing at the baby.
“Baby Jesus,” I replied.
“Isn’t he God?” he asked.
“And when he got big, he died on the cross, right?” he asked, pointing to his baptismal cross on the wall.
“Yes, you’re right,” I said.
“Why did I get baptized?” he asked again, stream of consciousness kicking into high gear.
“That’s a great question!” I told him.
At this point, I had to come up with an illustration of what baptism is all about and what God does in baptism. For those who don’t know, we adopted our son from Ukraine a little over two years ago, when he was three. Though he doesn’t remember a lot about when he was “a tiny baby,” he remembers many details about our initial visits at the orphanage, our days of playing with him in the orphanage before we could bring him home, and the adventurous trip back to Texas. With those things in mind, our conversation continued…
“Remember when Mommy and I came to get you in Ukraine?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied.
“You were very little then, but we still loved you. Could you have found us and come home all by yourself?”
“No way,” he said with a laugh.
“Well baptism is kind of like that. God comes to get us when we can’t come to him.”
“Oh!” he said as his eyes lit up with understanding.
“And now, you’re our son, right?” I asked.
“And just like you’re our child, you’re God’s child, because he came to get you just like we did.”
He paused for a minute and then said, “Jesus loves us a lot, right, Dad?”
“Yes he does,” I said with a smile. “Yes he does.”
The whole conversation was a joy, but it was most fantastic to watch my little one, who had never heard the name of Jesus just over two years ago, connect the dots in such a way as to realize–quite tangibly, since he remembers his baptism–how great is God’s love for us!
My recent post on justification by faith in Galatians has sparked some good conversation here, on Twitter, and via email…but it all begs the question, “What is this justifying faith in Christ?” Not surprisingly, Luther asks and answer the question beautifully, illustrating it with the bronze snake in the wilderness:
Some people imagine that faith is a quality that sticks to the heart on its own, with or without Christ. This is a dangerous error. Christ should be placed directly before our eyes so that we see and hear nothing apart from him and believe that nothing is closer to us than Christ. For he doesn’t sit idly in heaven but is continually present in us. He is working and living in us, for Paul says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20). He also says that you “have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3.27). Therefore, faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone. He is the conqueror of sin and death and the one who gives us righteousness, salvation, and eternal life.
This is beautifully illustrated by the story of the bronze snake, which points to Christ (Jn 3.14). Moses commanded the Israelites, who had been bitten in the desert by poisonous snakes, to look at this bronze snake with an unswerving gaze. Those who did so were healed, simply by steadily gazing at the snake alone. In contrast, others who didn’t obey Moses looked at their wounds instead of the snake and died. So if you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing by grasp Christ in faith and say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me. In his wound and death, I see my sin. In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil. I see righteousness and eternal life as well. I want to see and hear nothing except him.” This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe. (26:356)
Take that, all who accuse Luther of disparaging the Old Testament (grin).
My last post took a quick look at God’s providential use of means in the life of Israel during the wilderness wandering and in our lives each day over against idleness in the name of ‘faith.’ My point there was that we mustn’t use faith as an excuse for inaction when God has clearly provided means by which to accomplish his promises. On the contrary, in faith, we utilize these plain, ordinary means God has graciously given us instead of expecting (or dare I say demanding) God to respond through some extraordinary means.
Is this a real shift in thinking for us? For many of us it is not. For some, however, especially in the Word-Faith movement, this might be a huge shift in understanding. While I appreciate their openness to God’s extraordinary means, i.e. miracles, there is much in the movement that is deeply troubling–from the pragmatic problem of expecting God to heal by miracle in lieu of seeking medical care to the theological problem of turning God into a jinn/genie at our beck and call. While God certainly can and does use extraordinary means, they are just that, extra-ordinary.
Back to my focus…more from Luther on God’s use of means, plain and ordinary, to accomplish his will:
We aren’t supposed to question if God in his unchangeable wisdom is willing to help us and give us what we need. Instead, we should say with conviction, “I believe that God will take care of me, but I don’t know his plan. I don’t know exactly how he’s going to fulfill his promise.”
So we must take advantage of the opportunities we have at hand. We have to earn our money through hard work and diligence. In order to stay alive, we have to have milk, food, clothes, and so on. This means we have to cultivate the fields and harvest the crops. Providing for ourselves is a God-given responsibility. We can’t use God’s promise to take care of us as an excuse for not working diligently. That would be wrong. God doesn’t want us to be lazy and idle. He tells us in Genesis, “By the sweat of your brow you will ear your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken” (Gen 3.19). He also says of the ground, “It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (v.18).
The Lord is saying, “I promise that I will take care of you and give you food. But to the best of your ability, I want you to take advantage of the opportunities I have made available to you. Otherwise, you will be testing me. However, if you are in need and have nothing available to you, at that time I will take care of you and give yo food in a miraculous way. But keep this in mind: if any opportunities aren’t available to you, don’t forget that I am the one who gave them to you so that you would be able to take care of yourselves.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 7:219)
Last night during family devotions, we studied Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4). As we were reading and discussing this passage, I saw that the NLT Study Bible contains the following note regarding Jesus’ first temptation, “Israel complained constantly about hunger in the wilderness, but Jesus depended on God’s strength to sustain him.” While I agree with what the writer says in contrasting Israel and Jesus, if not careful, one could take this notion of God’s providence to the extreme and arrive at a completely unbiblical passivity. Such thinking goes well beyond any scriptural description of providence and preservation into the realm of a radically unscriptural fatalism and determinism.
Our faith in God and his providential care for us should give us great comfort in the face of any and all situations. We mustn’t let our ‘faith’ paralyze us or lead us to inaction where God has provided a clear avenue to accomplish his ends. In other words, we must realize that God is a god who uses means, both in the ‘big things’ and in the ‘little.’ As Luther writes:
Those who assume God will take care of everything and don’t think it’s important to make use of what’s available should carefully note this example [of Rebekah and Jacob in Gen 27]. These kinds of people sometimes don’t take any action, because they believe that if something is meant to happen, then it will happen with or without their help. They even put themselves in unnecessary danger, expecting God to protect them because of his promises.
But these kinds of thoughts are sinful, because God wants you to use what you have available and make the best of your opportunities. He wants to accomplish his will through you. For example, he gave you a father and mother, even though he could have created you and fed you without them. This means that in your everyday life, you have the responsibility to work. You plow, plant, and harvest, but God is the one who provides the outcome.
If you stopped giving a baby milk, reasoning that the baby could live without food if the baby were meant to live, then you would be fooling yourself and sinning. God has given mothers breasts to nurse their babies. He could easily feed children without milk if he chose to. But God wants you to use the resources he has provided.
So we plan diligently and labor vigorously, all the while knowing that our Heavenly Father is working his will in and through our efforts. “So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens” (Jas 1.16-17, NLT)
Where do you turn in time of anxiety, fear, or uncertainty? The world tends to turn to their accomplishments, their bank accounts, their talents, their vocations, their friends/family, their government, their (fill in the blank). At face value, these sorts of things might seem to make sense until we realize that someone can always do some things better than we can, our bank accounts can bottom out in no time, someone else will always be more talented than we are, our jobs can be gone in a flash, our friends/family can forsake us, our governments can fail, and so on. In a nutshell…there is absolutely nothing, inside or outside of us, we can depend on to ease our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties…not our accomplishments, our bank accounts, our talents, our vocations, our friends/family, our governments…even our faith. There is nothing, that is, except Christ. Speaking on John 14, Luther writes as eloquently as ever:
Christians can depend on nothing except Christ, their Lord and God. For the sake of Christ, they surrender everything and declare, “Before I deny or leave my Christ, I will abandon food and drink, honor and possessions, house and property, spouse and child–everything.” A Christian’s courage cannot be fake or weak. It must be genuine and certain. For Christians cannot encourage themselves with any temporary thing on this earth. Instead, they cling only to the Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died for us. So Christ will say, as he promises in this passage [Jn 14.16-17], “Because you acknowledge me, you have this advantage and this comfort. Your courage won’t mislead you, for your Helper is the Spirit of truth.” All other courage comes from the spirit of lies–a false spirit that cannot please God. But whatever Christians do, or suffer, for their faith in the Lord Christ is done for the truth. They have done what is proper and right. They can boast truthfully and joyfully that what they have done is pleasing to God and the angels. Christians can feel so confident that they don’t have to fear the devil or the world. They don’t have to be afraid of any threat or terror. Let this encourage you, for nothing on earth can comfort you more during times of need than a confident heart.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:119)
The anxiety, fear, and uncertainty of this present day is unlike any faced by many of us before. While economic downslides, job losses, foreclosures, etc. certainly pale in comparison to the suffering and hardship faced by countless millions around the world every day, for many around the world, these days are grim. Let us not cling to “any temporary thing on this earth,” for if we do we shall surely find ourselves disappointed. Let us instead “depend upon nothing except Christ” and realize that in him we truly have nothing to fear.
Growing up in the Reformed tradition, we did not observe the season of Lent. As with crucifixes, vestments, and other traditions within the Christian church, Lent was simply ‘too Catholic’ to be observed within our circles. At first blush, I suppose such an objection may seem valid, but it really won’t hold up to any scrutiny, especially if we, like many, reject Lent but accept Christmas as a valid Christian observance.
Am I overstating my case? I don’t think so. Here’s why…
First, considering history. I am not aware of any scholars or writers who would deny the impossibility of accurately determining the exact date (day/month) of Christ’s birth from Scripture. The oldest dates for the observance of Jesus’ birth appear to be in the Spring, only changing to December, in the West, under the rule of Constantine during the mid-fourth century. The first ‘hard evidence’ for the observation of Christmas on December 25th comes from a Roman calendar called the “Chronography of 354,” dated AD 354. Prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, any celebration of Christmas as a church holiday was at best sporadic (cf. Clement of Alexandria) but, more commonly, not mentioned (cf. Tertullian) or simply rejected outright as a pagan notion (cf. Origen [mid-3rd cent] and Arnobius[early 4th cent]). In short, the celebration of Christmas was not widely observed until the mid-fourth century.
In contrast, the history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection (i.e., Easter) is much older than the history of Christmas. In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season, though it was not the 40 day season we observe today. His mention of what we now call Lent is not a remote example. Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation. There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance. Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.
From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.
Second, considering theology. Any celebration of Christmas at all as a Church holy day (holiday) comes solely from tradition, as there is no express biblical warrant, command, or example. I mention this point only in response to those who reject Lent and other Christian traditions because they ‘aren’t in the Bible’ or should not be considered permissible under the Regulative Principle of Worship. Quite honestly, you cannot have it both ways, rejecting one tradition over another on what I would argue are purely subjective grounds. To reject one and retain another is inconsistent.
So, if you do not observe Lent, why not? I’m not trying to suggest that Christians must, but I’m also poking a little at those who suggest that Christians may not. I should think we would all benefit from a deliberate season of preparation for Easter–reflecting upon our own sins/need for a Savior as well as preparing ourselves to be of further service to our merciful God.
Yesterday, Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm. In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the theology behind them, and a brief outline of the history of iconoclasm (“icon smashing”). Though he doesn’t develop the point further, as it does not pertain to the thrust of his article, one line has been running around my mind since I read it. He says:
The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
Throughout history, but especially since the time of the Reformation (at least in the West), people have reacted violently against icons and have worked themselves up into a frenzy at times to destroy them with great violence and rage. This iconoclasm, Fr. Stephen writes, is “a spirit of hate and anger…[mistakenly] attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance.” It is a sad testimony to Christian history, that brothers and sisters in Christ have reacted so violently against one another, especially in the name of piety and purity.
As unfortunate as religious iconoclasm is, my contemplation has not focused on God’s work and iconography but on God’s work and humanity. Judaism and Christianity have always maintained that men and women (i.e. all of humanity), are wonderfully made in the image of God, the imago Dei. In Genesis 1, we read:
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”
So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1.26-27, NLT)
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.
Today is the celebration of the Feast of Epiphany in the Western Church, that day when the Magi from the East (aka. ‘wise men’) are to have finally found the infant Jesus. Writing on the events surrounding the journey and visit of the Magi, C.F.W. Walther writes:
God chose to lead the Wise Men to Bethlehem, not exclusively by the star, but also via a detour. The Jewish king, with his chief priests and scribes, first had to show them from God’s Word that Bethlehem was the place where Christ could be found. We cannot imagine that the all-wise God would have done this without a most important reason. God wanted to show all future generations that He did not lead the Gentiles to His dear Son by miracles, by stars, by angels, or by some other extraordinary heavenly appearance. Instead, He directed them by means of men, His already existing church.
(from God Grant It: Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 99-100)
I would only add to these words the observation that God not only lead the Magi to Christ by the means of his church but by the means of his word. Though these seemingly ordinary means tend to be marginalized or slighted in favor of the miraculous means to which Walther refers, and though God certainly can use the miraculous to draw others to Himself, we must recognize that the Word of God (sacramental, preached, and otherwise shared) proclaimed by the people of God (ordained and laity) has been and continues to be the usual means by which God leads us to Christ. Let us not forsake the simplicity of the means of grace for the sake of novelty or entertainment!
(Update: Rev. Cwirla has just posted an excellent piece on Epiphany here)
For all of those living along the Texas Gulf coast, looking back on 2008 cannot fail to bring to mind thoughts of stormy weather (Tropical Storm Edouard and Hurricanes Dolly, Gustav, and Ike). Those who stayed endured several frightening and sometimes dangerous days. Those who fled were left worrying about friends, family, and property. Some lost everything. All lost something. With Ike’s memories still burned into my brain as fresh as in early September, C.F.W. Walther’s writing for this last day of the year was even more poignant for me that it may have otherwise been…though reflections of God’s marvelous grace in spite of our own actions are suitable for each of us, every day.
Today, the last day of the year, is an important day in our life. We stand, as it were, on the border between two great regions though which the way of our life, the way to salvation, leads us. Today we leave the one through which we have already traveled and to which no return is possible. The past is past. We will soon enter, full of expectation, the other as a land that is completely unknown to us.
Could we have allowed this day to pass without taking a look back before stepping forward into the new year? It is not possible. But what do we see when we look back? First, we consider what God has done. We see nothing but evidence of His goodness, His love, His mercy, His long-suffering, and His patience, and we are bound to thank and glorify Him for all of it. How many times during the year were we and our families in need of nourishment, clothing, and shelter? And behold! The Lord never let us lack what was necessary. Yes, He has blessed most of us with excess. We must day, with Saint Paul, “Yet He did not leave Himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14.17). Furthermore, how many dangers were we exposed to during the year? How many kinds of misfortune could have befallen our bodies and souls? But behold! As on the wings of an eagle, He carried us above all dangers. He stood by our side when we awoke, and He was on guard when we slept. His eye was always upon us. He has proved Himself to be the guardian of Israel, and we must cry out, with David: “Sing praises to the LORD, O you His saints, and give thanks to His holy name. For His anger is but for a moment, and His favor for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30.4-5).
We may begin to think that the Word of grace did not resound to many millions in the past year, but how richly God let is be proclaimed to us, both by mouth and in writing! How kindly He always offered us His grace anew, showing us the way of heaven and inviting us into His holy kingdom! Mustn’t we cry out: “Lord, how shall we repay You for all Your mercy and faithfulness You have shown us? Oh, if only each pulse were thanks and each breath a hymn!”
Yet what do we see when we look back at what we have done? Is there one commandment that we have not transgressed? Is there one day in which we have not sinned? Is there one gift for which we have been perfectly thankful and which we have used in complete accord with the will of the heavenly Giver? Is there one rescue from trouble for which we have offered the proper praise to God? Is there one vow we have kept perfectly? Is there one sermon, one exhortation to repentance, one call to faith, one encouragement to holiness with which we have fully complied? At each of these questions, must we not cast our eyes down in shame before the most holy God, beat our breast and say with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18.13)? With David, must we not sigh, “If You, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps 130.3), and “Enter not into judgment with Your servant, for no one living is righteous before You” (Ps 143.2)? Must we not agree with Daniel, who says, “To You, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame” (9.7)?
Hearty thanks and deepest humiliation are the two things required of us today as we review the past year. No one of us is excluded. May all of us, then, end this year as reconciled children of the heavenly Father. Only the ones who do this will make a joyful and blessed close to the year.
(from God Grant It: Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp 85-86)
The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (John 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners. The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God. The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails of the cross on Golgotha. As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life and blessedness to all people.
C.F.W. Walther, God Grant It
One of the areas I wrestled with most over my years in Reformed theology was its insistence on not only asking but attempting to answer some very ‘hard questions’ about God, his will, and his ways. As much as the hidden will of God was discussed, there was always lots and lots of speculation about the hidden things of God, especially among contemporary Reformed types. For example, these often unanswerable questions are invariably raised in discussions about the Fall (Gen 3). As usual, Luther brings his wise counsel to the table:
This passage (Gen 3) raises a lot of questions. Some people become curious and ask, “Well, why did God permit Satan to lute Eve into sin? Why did Satan appear to Eve in the form of a serpent instead of some other animal?”
No one can explain why God permits things to happen. No one understands what he does or why he does it. So we should remember the lesson that Job learned: no one can summon God into court to account for what he does or allows to happen. We might as well argue with him about why the grass and trees aren’t green all year long. It’s enough for us to know that all these things are under God’s power. He can do as he pleases. Idle curiosity causes guessing and questioning…
As much as there is still a part of me that wants to answer these sorts of difficult “Why?” questions to vainly prove my mastery of theology and philosophy (read with a great dose of sarcasm), I’m reminded by my son that “Why?” is often an immature response to situations we dislike. Very rarely, even (or perhaps especially) in the area of theology, do we attempt to ask and answer “Why?” questions out of a spirit of humility and childlike wonder. Instead, we concoct great speculations which often serve only to puff up.
Added to this, in times of great personal tragedy, there really is no good pastoral answer to the question of “Why?” Then is not the time to speculate on the mysteries of Providence. Instead, it is the time to grieve and pray with our hurting brothers and sisters in Christ. “No one can explain why God permits things to happen,” Luther writes. We can, however, surely know how God feels about us, his children–one glance at the cross yields the unmistakable answer! Amen.
I love it when my daily lectionary readings come together and really punch me in the chest! This morning’s Psalter reading (from BoC) and Gospel reading (from LSB) did just that…and it was awesome.
In Psalm 119, I read:
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways. (Ps 119.37, ESV)
That line was enough to get and keep me thinking about the worthless things of the world that so often entice us away from what is truly important. Surely we could all provide a litany of these sorts of things that almost continually threaten to pull our attention away from Christ and his kingdom. Quite honestly, I was driven to repentance over all the times that I wander, pursuing these worthless things instead of clinging to Christ–and pleaded with God for grace to focus more on him than the world.
Then in Matthew, I read:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4.1-11, ESV)
No sooner was my prayer uttered than it was answered in this account from the life of Christ! Here he faced temptation to chase after what are clearly ‘worthless things’:
- Necessary (but mundane) necessities over which Christ has taught us not to worry
- Spectacular and miraculous manifestations, which can actually be sinful tests of God
- Personal glory and honor, which clearly is wrong when sought out, esp. through sinful means
To beat the temptations of these worthless things, Jesus relied continually on the Word of God to focus on the revealed will of God.
Sure, it’s simple. Sure, we’ve heard this countless times. Sure, we know these things to be true…
…and yet, like all the blessings of the God in Christ Jesus, we cannot hear these words too often. Thanks be to God for his grace!
iMonk has written a powerful piece on the true cost of discipleship for some of the students to whom he ministers. As I read and re-read his words, I could not get some of his pointed words out of my head…
As I am standing in front of this young woman, and I’m thinking how easily we present Christ to these students; how we sing songs and have fun; how our biggest obstacle is boredom; how we never give a thought to real persecution; real cost or real suffering.
How true! How often do we bicker, argue, or even change congregations because we are bored?! Bored with the preaching. Bored with the teaching. Bored with the fellowship. Bored with the worship. Though there are real problems with many churches, many times we are quick to ‘jump ship’ or even imagine (i.e. rationalize) problems are more serious than they really are, to the point where we break fellowship without giving it a second, or first, though. We can come up with many, many excuses, but they all fall short and ring hollow in the face of real crises of faith.
You never thought about it, because it never cost you much to follow Jesus, but that’s because you are following Jesus in the world of the comfort addicted, tolerance intoxicated west, not the world where parents and family can justify your exile and even execution for being a Christian.
Amen. Many of us in the West would be hard pressed to truthfully say we had given up anything to follow Christ. Maybe we’ve suffered some ridicule. That’s probably about it. Big deal. The notion (let alone the reality) that following Christ may result in family ostracism or death is as far-fetched to us a science-fiction novel.
We should follow Michael’s lead in praying for those who live in need of Christ as well as those who believe at great personal risk to family and self. We should also pray for those of us who are so woefully naive and detached from the reality facing our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.
Last week I picked up Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this work, but I did anticipate a satisfying challenge to wrestle again with this 20th-century theological giant. Having only read his Cost of Discipleship, however, I was unprepared for the struggle that lay ahead of me…this book is not an easy read!
While I’m not yet finished with the first chapter, I came across the following thought-provoking quote today in my reading:
“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the will of God” (Rom 12.2). “I pray that your love may about yet more and more in knowledge and discernment, that ye may prove the different situations (i.e., what is in each case right)” (Phil 1.0 and 10; cf. Rom 2.18). “Walk as children of light…proving what is acceptable unto the Lord” (Eph 5.8ff.). These sayings show the error of the view that the simple recognition of the will of God must take the form of an intuition which excludes any sort of reflexion and that it must be the naive grasping of the first thought or feeling to force itself upon the mind, the error, in other words, of that psychologizing misrepresentation of the new life which has begun in Jesus. It is not said at all that the will of God forces its way into the human heart without further ado, charged with the accent of uniqueness, or that it is simply obvious, and identical with whatever the heart may think. The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of available possibilities. The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task.
In short, I think Bonhoeffer is saying, “In any given situation, the will of God is not necessarily an easy thing to discover.” How far this is from what we often read and hear in the contemporary Church!
So what does anyone think? Is Bonhoeffer on to something here? I plan to write more later but wanted to throw this quote out to whet the appetite…
Lord Jesus, when you were about to depart into heaven, you lifted your hands in blessing and promised to be with us always. Even though your word confirms your presence in our lives, we are a sinful people, in need of your forgiveness. We confess that we have been indifferent and forgotten your blessing. Instead, we have sought things of this earth. We have focused on our own loneliness, though you have promised to be with us always. You have promised to return, yet we have grown impatient and earthbound and fail to set our hearts on things above. We have not always been a people of anticipation and need a return to joy.
During worship last night, I first made this confession and moved right on without giving it much more thought…but I ended up returning to this prayer for some serious meditation and realized that its words were indeed true!
How often have we forgotten the blessing of Jesus promised continual presence with us, opting to seek instead some perceived material ‘blessing’ as a sign of God’s favor? What could be more of a true blessing than the very real, true presence of Immanuel in Word, Sacrament, and through union with the Holy Spirit? Why are we so tempted to trade what is undeniably the best possible blessing for what appeals to our flesh but is really gaudy and fleeting?
How often have we lamented our own loneliness–in the sense of not being able to be with those we love (for whatever reason); despising co-workers; ignoring friends and family; or failing to spend time with God through Word and prayer–while all along failing to remember that Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us? As believers indwelt by the very Spirit of God, we are never alone, yet we pile up self-pity much faster than we ever store up treasures in heaven.
How often have we focused like lasers on the temporal things (treasures, cares, burdens) of this world and neglected the things of heaven? We can no more see many of our earthbound cares than we can see our Father’s kingdom, yet these temporary cares come to dominate us to the very core of our beings. Why?
Lord Jesus, we do need a return to true joy, that joy which only comes from you by remembering that you have promised to be with us always and to one day return bodily in the manner in which you ascended so many years ago. Make us ever mindful of what is our true joy, true fellowship, and true hope!
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48, ESV)
While writing on Jesus’ words from John 6 about judging by external appearances, Luther writes the following very poignant words describing the contrast between Christian attitudes and those of the the world:
No one views his neighbor with clear eyes except the Christian, whose sight is bright and pure. He looks upon his enemies with the eyes of mercy and compassion, and wishes them no evil. Even when his enemy is wroth and angry with him, he thinks to himself: “This bigwig is a wretched person; he is damned already; why should I wish him further evil? If my enemy continues on that course, he is the devil’s own.” He feels compassion for him and would gladly see him saved. The others behold their neighbor with eyes of hatred, envy, and pride. Thus they look upon us as malefactors. About this the Lord says: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment; that is, look fairly at My work and at Me.” (LW 23:240)
Jesus speaks many words about compassion for our enemies, seeing others as God sees them, and loving others in spite of themselves. None of these passages is easy to live out in the world, at least not for me…and I doubt completely that I am alone here. As if Jesus words weren’t powerful enough, Luther’s explanation really socked me in my oft compassionless gut. “This bigwig is a wretches person; he is damned already; why should I wish him further evil?” Oh how I wish this were my first reaction to folks of this type, but too often my flesh kicks in and I react in a manner belying my confession! All I can do is cry out those words I so often hear myself say…
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.
In times of “dark providences” (as a former pastor used to call them), many times our circumstances seem to be in complete contradiction with what we think they ought to be, or even what we have read as promises to us by God in Scripture. No one, I think, experienced this more than Jacob. If there was ever anyone certain to inherit blessing, he was one–child of Isaac, grandchild of Father Abraham, benefactor by faith of God’s promises (even as the younger son…remember the whole Esau episode?). Yet just when he is seemingly about to marry and settle down within the land, Isaac kicks him out, sending him to Paddan-aram under orders not to marry a Canaanite (Gen 28).
At first blush, especially as those reading from the other side of history who know just how wicked those nasty Canaanites were, this request doesn’t sound too horrible…unless we stop to think about all that Jacob had to leave in order to marry a woman (actually women) who were simply different kinds of pagans than the Canaanites! He left his family, his household, his inheritance, his means of support, his God (seemingly)…essentially everything he knew and had…and would not return for nearly 80 years. Surely Jacob must have asked God, “Why me? How can this be? What about your promises? What’s the deal!!!”
Writing on this account in Genesis, Luther has some wonderful words of counsel for any of us who face circumstances where it seems God has forsaken his promises…or even forsaken us. In a nutshell, this lengthy and wonderful passage exhorts us to believe God’s Word, trust in his invisible work, and cling to him by nurturing our faith in Word and Sacrament. It is definitely worth reading in its entirety:
This, then, is one of the wonderful examples of the divine government by which God shows that He requires confidence in His Word and promises, even if the opposite of what is contained in the promise happens. He does so in order that we may accustom ourselves to trust in God in things that are absent and are placed far out of our sight. For Jacob has the promised blessing, but he has it in accordance with faith, which is a matter of things that are hoped for, not of things that are visible (cf. Heb. 11:1). Thus I believe that God, who promises, loves me, has regard for me, cares for me, and will hear me; and this I regard as something present and at hand, although it is not visible. Therefore Jacob lives in faith alone. He is wretchedly cast out, is lonely and destitute, and has nothing in his hand but a staff and a morsel of bread in a little sack.
This is the beginning of the blessing, for what is begun through faith is not yet in one’s possession but is hoped for. Thus God has promised us eternal life and has given absolution and Baptism. This grace I have at hand through Christ; but I await eternal life, which is promised in the Word. Those who live by this Word are saintly and blessed; but the godless live only by bread, not by the Word. Therefore they do not believe and do not wait for eternal life. Jacob waited 77 years for the blessing that was to come. Now, after he has obtained it, he is forced to go into exile and begins his rule and priesthood with a very great cross, with a very great calamity, and with extreme poverty. He is forced to be cut off from his very dear parents, and his parents are cut off from their dearly beloved son for such a long time.
If a person looks at and hears this only in passing, he considers it unimportant and easy. But one learns by experience how difficult and full of trials it is to leave parents, a blessing, and an inheritance, and to flee to a place of wretchedness and poverty. This is the wonderful government of God which the flesh can by no means bear, for it is a government that consists in faith. But this is written as an example for us in order that we may learn to depend on the invisible God and to be satisfied with the fact that at all events we have the comprehensible Word of this invisible and incomprehensible God. And let us order our lives in such a way that we have nothing from our invisible Creator but the Word and the sacraments, likewise parents and magistrates, through whom this life is governed in accordance with the Word. And let us wait for the promise itself in hope and long-suffering, for God will not lie. Nor will He deceive us. To be sure, the flesh believes with difficulty; for it is accustomed to things that are at hand and is moved by the things it feels and sees. But the flesh must be crucified and mortified; it must be withdrawn from the things perceived by the senses and must learn, in order that it may be able to live and act in accordance with the things that are invisible and are not perceived by the senses. (Luther’s Works, 5:183)
Amen! Thanks be to God!
As my reading turns toward others among the Apostolic Fathers, let me present one final post from the Epistle to Diognetus, regarding the distinctiveness of Christianity and of Christians living in the world:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship:
They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents;
they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.
Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.
They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they to do not expose their offspring.
They share their food but not their wives.
They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh.
They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.
They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.
They are unknown, yet they are condemned;
they are put to death, yet they are brought to life.
They are poor, yet they make many rich;
they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything.
They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor;
they are slandered, yet they are vindicated.
They are cursed, yet they bless;
they are insulted, yet they offer respect.
When they do good, they are punished as evildoers;
when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.
By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greek they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.
In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world…
Again, I am amazed by the beauty of the writer’s language. While the other two passages on which I wrote discussed the grace and wonder of God’s revelation to humanity through Christ (here and here), this passage…actually earlier in the Epistle…discusses an array of stark contrasts between the lives of Christians those of the unbelieving world. “In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world…” Wow!
At another level, it also points out the difference in lives lived according to the flesh and lives lived according to the Spirit, in essence painting a picture of Luther’s doctrine of Simul Justus et Peccator–simultaneously righteous and sinner:
- In my flesh, I do not want to obey the law, I want to do my own thing…
- In my flesh, I do not want to love everyone, just those who will love me in return…
- In my flesh, I do not want to bless those who curse me, I want to strike back…
- In my flesh, I do not want to be respectful to those who insult me, I want to slug them…
And yet, by the mercy of Christ Jesus and through great struggle against the flesh, I am able to do these things that in the flesh I do not want to do, to the glory of God. To no credit of my own, I am able to live a life of obedience, love, blessing, respect, etc. All the while, I still sin and repeatedly fall short, only to be repeatedly pardoned and forgiven.
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.
Amazing…thanks be to God for his great mercy and grace!
…not where I started out to go at all…sometimes the journey is like that (grin).
I am now re-reading the Epistle to Diognetus for the fifth or sixth time and picking up something I previously missed each time I pick it up again. Last time, I quoted extensively and wrote some thoughts on Diognetus’ discussion of Christ as the gracious self-revelation of God to humanity. Similarly, we read later in the letter of Christ as the merciful atoning sacrifice for humanity–sent by the Father to reconcile the world to himself:
So then, having already planned everything in his mind together with his child, he permitted us, during the former time, to be carried away by undisciplined impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy of life might now by the goodness of God be made worthy, and having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God’s power.
Thoughts…the author is clearly familiar with the writings of the Apostle Paul. Echoes of Romans 1-2 are unmistakable here. I also find it interesting that Diognetus presents an understanding of Law and Gospel that is very Lutheran. Though the Law is not explicitly mentioned here, the reference to humanity’s conviction “by our own deeds as unworthy of life” must refer to the traditional Jewish understanding of the Law (and Paul’s understanding, contra the New Perspective)…but I digress…the indisputable point here is that human attempts at salvation have failed, and salvation is wholly a graceful work of God. Continuing:
But when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that is wages–punishment and death–were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!).
He did not hate us,
or reject us,
or bear a grudge against us;
instead he was patient and forbearing;
in his mercy he took upon himself our sins;
he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us,
the holy one for the lawless,
the guiltless for the guilty,
the just for the unjust,
the incorruptible for the corruptible,
the immortal for the mortal.
For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone?
O the sweet exchange,
O the incomprehensible work of God,
O the unexpected blessings,
that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person,
while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!
More thoughts…again I have reformatted the text into verse, even though the text in my copy is not formatted that way. I can’t help but read this almost as a hymn of praise to God for his great love and mercy. To be blunt, this is great stuff, especially the last stanza…I love it! And now wrapping it up:
Having demonstrated, therefore, in the former time the powerlessness of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed the Savior’s power to save even the powerless, he willed that for both these reasons we should believe in his goodness and regard him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, healer, mind, light, honor, glory, strength, and life, and not be anxious about food and clothing.
As I said above, the more I read this letter, the more I like it. It is at the same time apologetic and suitable for worship. It is a magnificent work that I wish were in the hands, hearts, and minds of more Christians today as we ponder continually the mercies that the Father showers on us through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit every instant of every day! Amen.
During my morning prayer / Bible reading / quiet time / meditation this morning, I found myself confronted with two radically different depictions of God’s presence that resulted in the same human response. The psalm reading appointed for this morning (per the lectionary in LSB) was Psalm 99, a stirring, and lofty depiction of our transcendent Sovereign Lord, ruling in majesty over all the earth:
The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he! (Psalm 99.1-5, ESV)
The gospel reading for this morning was from Luke 5, specifically the account of Jesus healing a leper. Here we see another account of God, still sovereign over creation, but this time immanently close, touching the body of one disfigured by disease and bringing healing:
While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5.12-16, ESV)
In both accounts, God demonstrates his sovereign rule over creation–in Psalm 99 over the whole cosmos and in Luke 5 over the disease of a single man. Similarly, in both accounts the human response is identical, worship–in Psalm 99 the whole of humanity worshiping at the footstool of his throne and in Luke 5 a single man on his face before Christ Jesus.
Here God’s transcendence and immanence stand side-by-side, not requiring reconciliation or explanation. Our God of infinite majesty is the same God who ‘got his hands dirty’ as the incarnate Messiah.
While both of these passages were familiar to me before this morning, I doubtless had never read them in tandem like this. The discipline of lectionary to guide my reading has again proven to challenge, stretch, and reward from its use.
Not long ago, I picked up the third edition of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (ed. and trans. by Michael Holmes). What in the world are the Apostolic Fathers? As stated in the introduction:
While, to some of you, this volume may sound like a surefire cure for insomnia, I have long since wanted an excuse to read some primary texts from early church history and expand my Greek beyond that of the New Testament. Not knowing what to expect, I opened my copy and began to read…within minutes I was hooked! I spent time flipping through Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the Didache, and others before finally settling on the one text I had never heard of or read about, The Epistle to Diognetus. Let me say, I was not disappointed by this wonderful and previously unheard of letter.
The Epistle to Diognetus is a marvelous example of early apologetic work, discussing the superiority of Christianity over paganism, but it is a bit of a mystery with respect to its author, recipient, and date. As Holmes points out in the letter’s introduction, “The author is anonymous, the identity of the recipient is uncertain, the date is unknown, the ending is missing, and, rather suprisingly, no ancient or medieval writer is known to have mentioned it.” That said, Holmes and most others would date the letter between 150 and 225 AD and agree that the Diognetus to whom the letter was written was a tutor to Marcus Aurelius. In addition to its apology against pagan idolatry and Jewish worship, Diognetus describes the distinctiveness of Christians in the world, the gracious revelation of Jesus as God’s son and Savior. He sounds a call to imitate Christ and ends with a short ‘homily’ on the Word of God. While I will hopefully write on several of these topics over the course of the next few days/weeks, in the midst of reading and mediating on the Easter Passion narratives, I have been especially fascinated by the letter’s explanation of the hidden God revealed in Christ.
As we take up Diognetus, we read of the gracious self-revelation of God to humanity (Note: while not formatted as poetry in this edition, I have taken some license to do so here as the language is so poetic I think it is warranted:
not as one might imagine,
or one of those who manage earthly matters,
or one of those entrusted with the administration of things in heaven,
but the Designer and Creator of the universe himself,
by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds,
by whose mysteries all the elements faithfully observe,
from whom the sun has received the measure of the daily courses to keep,
whom the moon obeys as he commands it so shine by night,
whom the stars obey as they follow the course of the moon,
by whom all things have been ordered and determined and placed in subjection, including the heavens and the things in the heavens,
the sea and the things in the sea,
fire, air, abyss,
the things in the heights,
the things in the depths,
the things in between–
this one he sent to them!
Thoughts…God, in his mercy, sent his Son–the Designer, Creator, Ruler, and Sustainer of all things–to reveal himself from the heavens to the depths of our hearts. This Sovereign King could have sent any emissary he chose, in fact we would expect a lower ranking emissary to be sent to such as us, but he sent his own Son, the very second person of the Trinity, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (as the Nicene Creed puts it). Continuing:
More thoughts…unlike the gods of the pagan nations, Christ’s first coming was not as warrior-king or tyrant, but in meekness as an infant. He came to call the sick, the lame, and the sinful to true healing, wholeness, and cleansing–to redemption from sin and death! But for those who reject him, let them beware his second coming in judgment, for “who will endure his coming?”
There is a lot to love about this Epistle, but I am captivated by the poetic language here, by the wonder of the incarnation and the condescension of Christ, who took humanity upon his deity and dwelt among us, Immanuel (God with us). Amen!
Earlier this week, this post got me thinking about crosses and crucifixes…
As one recently come from mainstream Evangelicalism, one of stark contrasts of Lutheranism is the use of a crucifix (i.e. a cross with Jesus on it). What is a bit of a paradox is that while Evangelicals of all flavors love to sing about the cross, they are amazingly quick to reject crucifixes outright. What is more, some of the best hymns (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts) and worst hymns (“There is Power in the Blood,” Lewis Jones) sing of Jesus’ crucifixion…but in the same breath, Evangelicals can sing these words and then quip something along the lines of, “My Savior isn’t on the cross anymore!”
Call me crazy, but isn’t this just a bit inconsistent? How is it perfectly suitable to sing of the cross again and again while so vehemently rejecting its depiction?
Some folks thoughtlessly reject the crucifix as being ‘too Catholic.’ Whatever. Some argue that it violates God’s commandment against graven images. Though this objection sounds plausible on the surface, I reject it too–another topic for another day. What I think is at the root of our objection to crucifixes is the offense of crucifixion and the scandal of the cross itself. No, we won’t admit to it, but deep down there is a part of us that recoils at the horror of crucifixion and wonders how and why a loving God could subject his own son to such a torturous death for crimes (sins) he did not commit. The non-believing world rejects the Passion as folly or madness. Unfortunately, many of us try not to think about it too deeply, lest we be taken aback as well.
The cross is not a thing of beauty, it is an item of torture and capital punishment. What makes if ‘wonderful,’ to quote Watts, is that there is where Law and Gospel collided for all of time. There is where the only sacrifice suitable for washing away the sins of the world was made, once for all. It is scandalous…but it is also completely gracious. The cross is our salvation.
Unfortunately, the folly of those who reject the use of crucifixes comes to the fore during the other major festival of the church, Christmas. As pointed out here and here, why are those who reject Jesus’ depiction on a crucifix so quick to depict him in a nativity scene? He is neither on the cross nor in a manger. If we’re concerned about commandment breaking, both would equally violate God’s law. I fall back on my position, stated above. We reject crucifixes because we recoil from having that unimaginable pain and suffering displayed before our eyes–even that pain and suffering that wrought our very salvation. A baby in a manger, on the other hand, is cute, sweet, and relatively tame.
May your Good Friday not be Christ-less but Christ-filled as we mediatate on the Passion of our Lord and our gracious salvation from sin and death!
O Christ, Lamb of God, slain for the sin of the whole world, with penitent heart I come to Your cross, pleading for mercy and forgiveness. My sins–and they are many–have added to the burden of Your suffering and have nailed You to the accursed tree. For me You tasted the agony of the utter darkness that I might not perish, but have everlasting life. Have mercy upon me.
O Christ, Lamb of God, embrace me with Your love, and forgive me all my sins. Your death brings healing to my soul, peace to my mind, cleansing to my heart. If You would mark iniquity, I could not come, for my hands are unclean, my lips are sullied, and my heart is blackened by sin. But beholding You bleeding, despised, forsaken, dying, pierced, I come to be cleansed and forgiven.
O Christ, Lamb of God, grant that I may hate sin and wickedness more and more as I behold You in Your great agony. My gateful heart today finds hope in Your words, comfort in Your promises, and salvation in Your finished work on the cross, by which You have overcome sin, Satan, and death.
O Lord, have mercy. O Christ, have mercy. O Lord, hear my prayer. Amen.
(from Lutheran Book of Prayer, Concordia, 2005)
For starters, I cannot believe how busy the past few weeks have been! It seems I came off of working STS-122 and never stopped in preparation for STS-123. I am the lead from our group for this flight, and the compressed schedule has kept me more than gainfully employed…but onto more lofty things…
One of the joys (and challenges) of our foray into Lutheranism has been learning a completely new hymnody. The lyrics are wonderfully rich, more so even than many of the Reformed hymns that I know and love from childhood. The music has proven rather difficult to learn as I’m not that terribly acquainted with 16th and 17th century German tunes (Bach aside). Overall, however, it has been greatly rewarding. Not being familiar with the hymns has forced us all to slow down and actually read what we’re singing…even Ali has asked questions about some of the vocabulary, etc., which I think it great.
Anyway, yesterday we sang yet another unfamiliar song, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.” It is one of the most eloquent short presentations of the whole story of the Bible–Christ-centered, cross-focused…teaching salvation by faith alone, demonstrating the distinction between Law and Gospel, etc. Beautiful! Theologically correct! A magnificent work, indeed! Where has this hymn been all my life?! Here are all ten verses for your reading pleasure and edification. Enjoy!
1. Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.
2. What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.
3. It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners should themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
4. From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,-
So deep is our corruption.
5. Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God’s anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.
6. Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.
7. Let me not doubt, but trust in Thee,
Thy Word cannot be broken;
Thy call rings out, “Come unto Me!”
No falsehood hast Thou spoken.
Baptized into Thy precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.
8. The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.
9. Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
Yet faith alone doth justify,
Works serve thy neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.
10. All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God that saved us by His grace,-
All glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
Who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed.
The very fact that in my mind it goes without saying is probably reason to say it: as Christians, the Cross of Christ is our focus…our focus for doctrine, praxis, theology, liturgy, life in general, etc.
Over at ‘Glory to God for All Things,’ Fr. Stephen has compiled and reposted a lengthy post on the Cross as the foundation of (Orthodox) ecclesiology. It has taken me several days to read, re-read, and digest it all, but as usual, he makes some wonderful points that we would all do well to ponder. I found the following two points exceptionally helpful:
1. Theology cannot be compartmentalized.
As much as we rationalistic Americans (who are highly influenced by the Enlightenment) like to create nice, discreet ways of packaging, organizing, and presenting just about everything, we must resist this practice with respect to our theology and thinking about our salvation. Unfortunately, the most popular classes and topics of discussion at my seminary were Systematic Theology, which by its very definition compartmentalizes our thoughts of God into nice, tidy, discreet areas. I say unfortunately because, while this approach is well-suited for discussion, Scripture simply does not allow us to break God’s acts (or our thinking about them) into such perfect categories. Much to my discredit, as a young, budding Reformed theologian, I was over zealous to jump right into Systematics, prior to spending enough time on studying Scripture…the right approach would be to study Scripture first, then perhaps Biblical theology, and finally Systematic theology. Many years later, I am still trying to ‘get over it’ and give the testimony of Scripture the precedence it deserves over the proof-texting tendencies of Systematics.
As Fr. Stephen writes:
There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.
Rightly, Fr. Stephen reminds us that all our salvation ‘is encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ In other words, the cross must be the very center of our doctrine and practice. Even more, the cross must be the lens by which we understand the whole of Scripture. Because it may cause confusion, I may not use the exact words he does when he says, ‘All of our faith, is one,’ but I think I read him rightly and would agree with his understanding that, ‘Our salvation is one whole…encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ It is difficult for us to think like this, as Fr. Stephen points out, but it is essential if we are to keep our mooring in the right place…the cross.
2. Theology (doctrine and praxis) must necessarily be cruciform (i.e., cross-centered).
Fr. Stephen uses four points to flesh this out more precisely, but we can profitably look only at the first here. (I encourage those who are interested to spend some time reading his entire post). He writes, “The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.”
One could spend an entire life thinking on this one point! At first we may be inclined to simply nod and assent to this first point. “Of course the cross is integral to understanding the work of Christ,” we say, giving our best Sunday School answer. There is so much more, however, that meets the eye here even in something as familiar as the cross. Perhaps our over-familiarity (if I may be so bold) with the cross, especially in Evangelical circles has made us unintentionally blind to the true depths of wonder going on at Calvary. Think with me for just a minute about all of the amazingly difficult tensions and truths of the cross:
- The cross is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, a ransom (life for life) to pay a penalty and redeem those under a curse…we like to think we have a pretty good handle on this concept, but there is nothing even remotely close in our contemporary world (except perhaps capital punishment) as a blood sacrifice for sin
- God the Father, in his wrath, requires payment of the infinite penalty of sin…a payment that cannot be waived in his justice
- God the Son, in his love and mercy, voluntarily becomes the necessary sacrifice as the only one capable (as God and man) of offering an infinite ransom for an infinite penalty
- At the cross, in a moment in time, an transaction of infinite worth (in its punishment and merit) took place in a finite point in time
- Do I need to go on? I haven’t even touched the mystery of the incarnation, asked how the Trinity can be one in purpose yet seems to be divided here, etc.
The cross is the intersection of Law and Gospel…perfectly demonstrating both the infinite wrath of God against sin and the infinite mercy of God in providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. At the cross, these two seemingly mutually exclusive realities crash together in the world-changing event of all time! Our rationalistic tendencies are to discount the event altogether (atheism), try to explain away the difficulties for our own placation (liberalism), compartmentalize these events to ease explanation, etc. Alas, we cannot do any of these things! We are forced to stand (or better, to prostrate ourselves) in awe of the wonderful majesty of our Triune God.
In his famous sermon on the merits of meditating on the sufferings of Christ on the cross (a sermon found here), Luther speaks to those comfortable in their sins (at times each of us), reminds us of the terrible wrath of God against sin and sinners that necessitated the crucifixion, and points out that one proper response to thinking on the cross ought to be complete terror. At the same time, to those overwhelmed by their sins and despairing of hope (at times each of us), Luther reminds us of the great love of God in Christ who provided the total sacrifice for sin and points out the other proper response to thinking on the cross, complete comfort.
Surely all of these wonderful thoughts, and more, should guide our every thought, word and deed as we sojourn in this world. It must affect all aspects of:
- our theology…as we focus not on the latest vapid fad (Left Behind, Prayer of Jabez, etc.) but on Christ alone
- our ecclesiology, as Fr. Stephen points out…as we strive to imitate Christ (even) in our interactions with one another instead of how we sometimes shamefully treat one another in church
- our worship…as we focus not on amusement and ‘relevance’ but the centrality of the cross and true gospel
- our hope…which in all things can be found truly and only in Christ, nowhere else
Yesterday at Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen posted marvelous words about placing emphasis in our lives on those things that are important to God. In his post, he discussed both the necessity and the aim of theology…to know God:
And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.
Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.
Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.
It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”
These words ring especially true coming from a Reformed background and having attended a staunchly Calvinistic seminary. Especially among the students in seminary, all too often our theological ‘studies’ tended to become little more than cataloging of facts about God rather than an effort to truly know him. Whether formal students of theology or not, we are all guilty at times of the same offense. We forget that God is not an object of study to be observed and researched–the depth of his will is not a divine ‘problem’ to be solved, the wonder of the incarnation not a mundane occurrence that is easily explained, the mystery of grace and sacraments not ‘parlor tricks’ to be explained away.
As analytical and logic-driven as our minds might be, and as Westerners we deceive ourselves if we claim not to be bound tenaciously by reason and logic, we must focus not on our speculations about theology but on truly knowing our Triune God through his gracious revelation to us–centering, of course, on the incarnation and revelation in Christ Jesus. We must be reminded of Jesus’ words, as Fr. Stephen as done beautifully, that to know God is life eternal.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for you timely yet gentle words.