John Chrysostom Day

John Chrysostom was a presbyter and preacher in the fourth-century church at Antioch.  He eventually was made patriarch of Constantinople and was a revered preacher and teacher of God’s word.  His sermons are famously Christ-centered and wonderfully direct.  These words today come from a homily on First Timothy:

“He gave Himself a ransom,” he said, how then was He delivered up by the Father?  Because it was of His goodness.  And what does “ransom” mean?  God was about to punish them, but He did not do it.  They were about to perish, but in their stead He gave His own Son and sent us as heralds to proclaim the cross.  These things are sufficient to attract all and to demonstrate the love of Christ.  So truly, so inexpressibly great are the benefits that God has bestowed upon us.  He sacrificed Himself for His enemies, who hated and rejected Him.  What no one would do for friends, for brothers, for children, that the Lord has done for His servants; a Lord not Himself such a one as His servants, but God for men, for men not deserving.  For had they been deserving, had they done His pleasure, it would have been less wonderful.  But that He died for such ungrateful, such obstinate creatures, this is which strikes every mind with amazement.  For what men would not do for their fellow-men, that has God done for us!

Awesome stuff!  Our God in Christ is a “God for men, for men not deserving.”  Amen.

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The New Iconoclasm

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)
God is the original icon maker, and the original icon (image) of God is humanity.  Sadly, our society reacts toward these icons created of flesh and blood in exactly the same way as the Iconoclasts reacted against the icons created of gold and paint–with violence, hatred, and rage.   Murder, abortion, rape, verbal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, hatred, racism, genocide, pornography, and violence / abuse of all kinds…these are the “new iconoclasm.”
The legacy of religious iconoclasm, according to Fr. Stephen, is secularization.  But what of the legacy of this “new iconoclasm”?  May God have mercy upon us…
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.

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Luther on Living in Christ

There is no doubt that Martin Luther was tormented regularly by sin’s accusations against him, especially in his early years as a monk.  As mentioned previously, I share this struggle from time-to-time, which quite honestly was part of the initial enticement to read Luther.  Fortunately, Luther received some wise counsel from his Father Confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, who repeatedly pointed him back to the cross.  Luther ran with this advice and repeated it to his hearers again and again.

Luther asks, “What should you do when the thought of death frightens you and your conscience bothers you?”

Continue to live in Christ.  You must believe that you can accomplish nothing by your own works and that the only way is through Christ’s righteousness.  John 6.29 says that the work of God is believing in the one he has sent.  So when Nathan corrected David, and David confessed his sin, Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin.  You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12.13).  David simply lived in grace.  He didn’t even think about trying to satisfy God with his works.  When Nathan said, “The LORD has taken away your sin,” he was proclaiming the message of grace.  And David believed it.

After Adam sinned, he could do nothing that would bring him into a state of grace.  But God said that one of his descendants would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3.15).  It was by this promise Adam was made alive.  Because he believed in this word, he was saved and justified without any works.  Our nature struggles fiercely against being saved without our works and tries to deceive us with a grand illusion of our own righteousness.  So we may find outselves attracted to a life that merely appears to be righteous.  Or because we know we aren’t righteous, we may be frightened by death or sin.  Therefore, we must learn that we should have nothing to do with any way of becoming righteous except through Christ alone.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 30:263)

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Luther on Hard Sayings of Scripture

When it comes to God’s Word and how God deals with us, we shouldn’t worry whether or not it makes sense.  If you want to be a Christian and understand the teachings of the Christian faith, you shouldn’t judge the Christian doctrines with your mind to find out whether or not they sound correct.  In stead, you should immediately say, “I’m not asking how it all makes sense.  All I need to know is whether it is God’s Word or not.  If God said it, then that decides it.”  Often I have warned you not to argue about lofty, spiritual matters or try to figure them out.  For as soon as you try to make sense of them and put them in terms you can understand, you slip and fall…These teachings transcend our reason.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 23:78)

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Luther on Pouring Our Sins on Christ

One of the greatest struggles in the Christian life is that against the torment and accusation of sin.  Those without a well-developed understanding of the great horrors of sin are sometimes free from this burden, but others can be tormented by their sins to the point of despair.  I admit, I tend to gravitate toward despair…and therefore, I find great comfort in these words of Luther.  Writing on 2 Cor 5.21, he says:

When you become aware of your sin and frightened by it, you must not allow the sin to remain in your conscience.  This would only lead to despair.  Rather, just as your awareness of sin flowed to you from Christ, so you must pour your sin back on him to free your conscience.

So be careful you don’t become like the misguided people who allow their sin to bite at them and eat at their hearts.  They strive to rid themselves of this sin by running around doing good works.  But you have a way to get rid of your sins.  You throw your sins on Christ when you firmly believe that Christ’s wounds and suffering carried and paid for your sins.  As Isaiah said, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53.6).  Peter said Christ himself “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2.24).  And Paul said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5.21).

You must rely on these and similar verses with your whole heart.  The more your conscience torments you, the more you must rely on them.  For if you don’t do this and try to quiet your conscience through your own sorrow and penance, you will never find peace of mind and will finally despair in the end.  If you try to deal with sin in your conscience, let it remain there, and continue to look at it in your heart, your sins will become too strong for you.  They will seem to live forever.  But when you think of your sins as being on Christ and boldly believe that he conquered them through his resurrection, then they are dead and gone.  Sin can’t remain on Christ.  His resurrection swallowed up sin.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 42:12)

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Why Do We Need Ongoing Forgiveness?

Over at Chaos and Old Night, Fraiser has a great post asking and answering the question, “Why do we need ongoing forgiveness?”  As another refugee from Evangelicalism, he eloquently points out the flaws in much of the contemporary Christian thinking about the necessity of confession and demonstrates the grace of God in action through our justification and sanctification.

Read it…mull it over…enjoy it…

Thanks, John!

Thoughts on the Feast of Epiphany

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)

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Still More Luther on Prayer

For the Christian, prayer is part of what we are.  It should be more than second nature, it should be first nature…and yet, for many of us, we struggle throughout our lives trying to develop our “prayer life” to the point of our own satisfaction.  Many times, especially in times of backsliding, we often hesitate to pray, thinking that our prayers will not be heard on account of our complete lack of personal righteousness.  This line of thinking, however, is incorrect.   Our prayers are never heard because of anything inherent in us, but are heard and answered solely because of the faithfulness and mercy of God.  As Luther says, writing on Luke 18.9-14:

Some say, “I would feel better about God hearing my prayer if I were more worthy and lived a better life.”  I simply answer:  If you don’t want to pray before you feel that you are worthy or qualified, then you will never pray again.  Prayer must not be based on or depend on your personal worthiness or the quality of the prayer itself; rather, it must be based on the unchanging truth of God’s promise.  If the prayer is based on itself or on anything else besides God’s promise, then it’s a false prayer that deceives you–even if your heart is breaking with intense devotion and you are weeping drops of blood.

We pray because we are unworthy to pray.  Our prayers are heard precisely because we believe that we are unworthy.  We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.

As usual, Luther totally nails this, “We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.“   Yes!  Prayer is risky business, not because of our unrighteousness but because of our complete and utter dependence upon God!

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Thoughts on the New Year (from Walther)

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)

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What if Starbucks Marketed like Evangelicals?

This is so funny, I almost had my non-pretentious, non-Starbucks coffee coming out of my nose!  Too bad it requires a parody (not too far removed from reality) to show the silliness of it all:

HT:  LPC

Luther on the Danger of Public Praise

In many liturgical Christian circles, the rites of Morning Prayer or Matins often begin with these words from Psalm 51:

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

As innocent as this invocation may sound, Luther suggests that there is quite a bit more to David’s request than may first meet the eye.  He writes:

By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God.  This is something God demands of us (Ps 50.14).  Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this.  If we could see all of Satan’s traps, we would know why David prayed for the Spirit’s strength and asked the Lord himself to open David’s lips.  He wanted to tell the devil, the world, kings, princes, and everyone about the Lord.

Many things can keep our lips shut:  the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends.  The devil uses these ways to stop us fromoffering thanks to God, as I have often experienced in my life.  And yet, at important times, when God’s honor was threatened, God stood by me and opened my mouth in spite of the obstacles…

Whenever Scripture talks about praising God publicly, it’s talking about something extremely dangerous.  This is because announcing his praise is nothing other than opposing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature, and everything evil.  For how can you praise God without first declaring that the world is guilty and condemned?  All who condemn the world are asking to be hated and put themselves in a very dangerous situation.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:393)

While many will no doubt agree that praising God publicly is sometimes risky,  I confess that I have never thought about praising God in this manner…never made the link betweeen my praise of God being an explicit condemnation of the world, etc.  And yet, as usual, I think Luther got it right here.  For us to open our lips to speak of Christ is to ally ourselves with him and his word, which is first a condemnation of the world (Law) before it is ever a consolation to the convicted (Gospel).

It goes without saying that such an alliance, at all times and in all places, is a dangerous business indeed!

Merciful and everlasting Father, You did not spare Your own Son but delivered Him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross.  Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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Walther on the Crucifixion

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

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How Can I Find Peace With God?

“How are we made right in the sight of God?”  “How can I find peace with God?”  ”How can I right the many wrongs I have done in my life?”  Left to answer these and similar questions from reason or some other faculty, man inevitably conjures up some sort of works, either to accomplish or from which to refrain, in hopes of finding peace with God.  All human efforts to find favor in the eyes of God surely fail, as we are all corrupt in heart and soul, word and deed, thought and desire.  Martin Luther rightly recognized from the Bible that the answer to all of these questions is found only in Christ Jesus, in whom (by faith) is our hope, peace, trust, joy, and salvation.  He writes:

As St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.

And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ.  Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glories, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well.  We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true. (Smalcald Articles, XIII)

The simple truth of the Christian faith must never be obscured and can never be compromised.

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Luther on Christ’s Victory

Peace is something for which we all strive, hope, and long.  A lack of peace from physical troubles, emotional troubles, and spiritual troubles is something that plagues each of us from time to time or season to season.  Jesus spoke of giving us peace–peace that was possible because of his victory over the world; victory that came as the cost of his perfect life, suffering, death (cf. Jn 16.33).

His victory is our hope.  Luther writes:

We should learn to remind ourselves of Christ’s victory.  In Christ, we already have everything that we need.  We live only to spread this message of victory to other people.  With our words and example, we tell them about the victory that Christ secured for us and gave to us.  Christ, our victor, accomplished everything.  We don’t need to add anything to it.  We don’t need to wipe away our own sins or try to conquer death and the devil.  Everything has already been done for us.  We’re not fighting the real battle.  We’re only suffering now in order to share in Christ’s victory…The battle must have been won already if we are to have any comfort and peace.  Christ says, “I have already won.  Accept my victory.  Sing about it and glority it.  Take comfort in it.”…

May God help us to hold onto to Christ’s victory during our troubles and when we’re dying.  Even though we don’t understand these words of Christ completely, we can still believe in them in times of trouble and reassure ourselves: “My Lord and Savior spoke thse words to my heart.  In Christ I have a victor over the world, death, and the devil.  It doesn’t matter how small and weak I am.  Amen.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:421)

Let us comfort ourselves with these words…we have a victor in Christ Jesus, no matter how small and weak we are!   Amen.

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Luther on Vocation

As mentioned previously here, Luther possessed a revolutionary understanding of individual vocation that ran counter to the medieval understanding of his day.  For his contemporaries, some callings, jobs, positions, etc. were inherently more holy and/or pleasing to God than others.  A priest, for example, was held in higher esteem in the Christian community because of his overt service to God, while a housemaid would have been looked down upon as a merely common. 

Though separated by several centuries, this same sentiment is alive and well in some circles of Christianity today, including some parts of Evangelicalism.  How often do we speak of those who have ‘surrendered to vocational ministry’ as though they are somehow living lives that are more pleasing to God than, say, a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet and care for her children?  Why is it there such great pressure in some circles to steer young people towards missionary work, full-time church work, or other ministry-related vocations?  Is this phenomenon truly the result of a clear need within the church, or is there some part of us that still thinks like our medieval predecessors?  Luther will have none of this thinking!  He writes:

Everyone has a calling in life.  Believers serve God when they whole-heartedly take care of their responsibilities.  An official who governs well serves God.  A mother who cares for her children, a father who goes to work, and a student who studies diligently are all servants of God.

Many overlook this God-pleasing lifestyle because they consider simple, day-to-day work insignificant.  They look instead for other work that seems more difficult and end up becoming disobedient to God…God requires that believers work hard at their callings without worrying about what anyone else is doing.  Yet few people do this…

Few people are content with their callings.  However, there is no other way to serve God except simply living by faith, sticking to your calling, and maintaining a clear conscience.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 3:128)

Are you a mega-church pastor, small-church parson, unappreciated youth minister, or some other church worker?  Great–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

Are you an engineer, factory worker, retail sales associate, or fast food server?  Wonderful–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

Are you ‘just’ a father, mother, or single-person seeking to honor and glorify God in your daily walk?  Thanks be to God–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

See the similarities?  I hope so.

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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On Loving Our Neighbors

Loving our neighbors is one of the greatest challenges in both the Old and New Testaments.  Our sinful nature and selfishness make us naturally put ourselves first, in direct contradiction to the command of God.  Added to this, our contemporary American culture and its infatuation with the supremacy of the self has lessened any cultural emphasis on selflessly helping others in need.  Sadly, contemporary American Christianity is following our culture’s emphasis on the infatuation with self and has done little to sound the clarion call to love and serve our neighbors.

Historically, however, this self-centered approach is foreign to a Christ-centered understanding of Christianity (and a conservative approach to Judaism).  Writing on Galatians 5.14, Luther says:

No one should think they fully understand this command: “Love your neighbor.”  Certainly this command is very short and very easy as far as the words are concerned.  But where are the teachers and learners who actually practice this in life?  These words, “Serve one another humbly in love,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are eternal words.  No one can think about, urge, and practice them enough.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I had the wonderful opportunity to head to Galveston with several other members of the Texas Air National Guard and help serve lunches at Moody Memorial UMC.  The church, together with Lighthouse Charities, has been preparing and serving lunches free of charge to anyone in town since folks were let back on the island after Ike.  Though we still have a ‘blue roof’ and much of our fence blown down in the back yard, our lives have largely returned to pre-storm normal.  Going to Galveston, however, I was reminded that a great number of people will be feeling the effects of Ike will be felt for many, many months to come.  This was my first post-Ike trip to Galveston and the devastation, though expected in my mind, was still shocking.  As resiliant as folks on the island are, it will still be a long, long time until life settles into a “new normal.”  Until then, as everyday if we will simply look around, there are countless opportunities to love and serve our neighbors…if we will only practice the words we know so well.

A new friend, Randall, going through the damage in Galveston after Ike.

 

Luther on God’s Ways

Anyone who has been a believer for any time at all will soon come to a point in life where they simply wonder why God has acted the way he has or allowed things to play out the way they did.  I suppose there is comfort in knowing that, “Why?” is one of the universal questions of the Christian life.  Luther says:

God leads and directs his people in mysterious ways.  In the Bible, we read, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen” (Ps 77.19).  Christ himself told Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (Jn 13.7).  Christ seems to be saying, “You want to see me and want me to do what seems good and right to you.  But I will act in a way that will make you think I’m a fool rather than God.  You will see my back, not my face.  You won’t understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.  Then I’ll be able to mold you and remold you the way I would like.  My methods may appear as foolish to you as if they were from the devil himself.”

We need to learn how God guides his people as they grow and develop.  I too have often tried to dictate to our Lord God a certain way in which I expect him to run things.  I have often said, “O Lord, would you please do it this way and make it come out that way?”  But God did just the opposite, even though I said to myself, “This is a good suggestion that will bring honor to God and expand his kingdom.”  Undoubtedly, God must have laughed at my so-called wisdom and said, “All right, I know that you are an intelligent, educated person, but I never needed a Peter, a Luther, or anyone else to teach, inform, rule, or guide me.  I am not a God who will allow himself to be taught or directed by others.  Rather, I am the one who leads, rules, and teaches people.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 7:103)

Oh, how often have I prayed in this way?!  “God, please make this happen in just this way…”  Why must I need reminding that my seeming intellect is foolishness in the sight of an omnipotent God?  There is some consolation that, just as God never needs me to enlighten him, so too he “never needed a Peter, a Luther, or anyone else.”  At least if I’m getting a great lesson in humility, I can enjoy good company!

In all seriousness, when events play out exactly opposite of the way they think, why do I question God, his goodness, or his wisdom?  Should I not be reminded that even Job, who was “blameless and upright…who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1.1) did not receive an answer when he asked God, “Why?”  What should I, a much greater sinner, expect when asking the same question?  Should we not be reminded that God has said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55.9, ESV)?  There are times when I need to be reminded more personally that God has spoken these words to me, “So are my ways higher than T.C.’s ways and my thoughts than T.C.’s thoughts.”  As much as anyone, I need to be reminded that those pieces of paper on the wall that the world puts so much faith in are really laughable in the wisdom and sight of God…

True wisdom comes not from education or the reading of many books (or blogs!) but from humbly walking with Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Luther on Hard Questions

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.

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Worthless Things

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,’

and

“‘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!

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Luther on Crying Out to God

In my little corner of the world, there has been much talk recently about calling on God for help in times of trouble.  While many want God to come to their rescue at a moment’s notice, few seem willing to struggle and wrestle in prayer…instead praying haphazardly or ‘as if you’re shouting into the wind.’  “In this case,” Luther says, “it would be better not to pray at all.”  Instead, teaching on Psalm 118, Luther says:

You must learn to call on the Lord.  Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you.  Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are.  Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum!  Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven.  Read a psalm.  Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.”  This passage [Ps 118.5] teaches us to call on him.  Similarly, David said, “I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble” (Ps 142.2).  God wants you to tell him your troubles.  He doesn’t want you to keep them to yourself.  He doesn’t want you to struggle with them all alone and torture yourself.  Doing this will only multiply your troubles.

God knows you will be too weak to overcome your troubles by yourself.  He wants you to grow strong in him.  Then he will be the one who receives the glory.  Out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.  Without troubles, people talk a lot about faith and the Spirit but don’t really know what these things are or what they’re saying.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 14:60)

The point is quite simply this:  In his great mercy, through Christ Jesus, God has provided us:

  • An ear for our complaints
  • Companionship in times of loneliness
  • Strength in times of weakness
  • Perseverance in times of impatience
  • Help when we are overwhelmed
  • Growth in times of struggle
  • Relief in times of inundation

That said, as earthly fathers often restrain themselves from helping their children until asked in order to teach their children trust, reliance, and hope, so our Heavenly Father teaches us to cry out to him in our time of need.  And he will answer us through reassurance from his Word, a gentle word from others, physical aid from others, the peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4.7), or another means.  Even if he delays, we may continue to hope, knowing that “out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.”

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Luther on Hurricanes (and Trusting God)

By no deliberate choice of my own, I read the following words from Dr. Luther the morning after Hurricane Ike had ravaged our part of the world between Galveston and Houston.  In fact, while reading this, the wind was still blowing, our roof was still leaking, and shingles occasionally left their happy abode on our roof and drifted to the ground.  Writing on Matthew 6, Luther says:

We can’t seem to let go of our anxieties and worries as long as we live.  Yet God gives us everything we need hour by hour, without needing any assistance from us.  So why do we keep on having foolish fears and anxieties about trivial little needs, as though God can’t or won’t supply us with food and shelter?  We should hang our heads in shame when people point out this foolishness to us.  Yet foolish is the only way to describe those rich, well-fed people who are always worried about having a full pantry.  They have plenty of food on hand to serve nourishing meals, but they never share a meal with anyone or invite dinner guests.  They have empty beds but never ask anyone to spend the night.

Accordingly, Christ is plainly telling us what foolish people we are.  It should be enough to make us want to spit on ourselves in utter disgust.  Still, we continue to grope along in our blindness, even though it’s obvious that we’re incapable of providing for our basic needs without God.  This alone should be enough to make us Christians and to keep this thought in mind: ‘Undoubtedly, I never held in my own hands even one fleeting moment of my life.  If I must trust God for my very life and limb, why should I worry about how I’m going to find nourishment from day to day?’  Not trusting God for our daily needs is like having a wealthy father who is willing to lavish thousands of dollars on us, yet not being able to trust him for money in an emergency.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 21:195)

There have been only a few times in my nearly 35 years when I have been totally conscious of my utter dependence upon God “hour by hour” for not only ‘the big things’ but for my very existence.  The evening Ike made landfall and plowed up Galveston Bay was one of those times.  For the span of what seemed like days, the wind howled in anger, rain pounded our house trying (not entirely in vain) to get inside, trees bent over prostrate in deference to the tempest, and shingles beat continually against the roof before their silence betrayed their absence.  The experience was a twelve-hour long total sensory overload intensified by the fact that it all occurred at night, which denied me the ability to see what was happening as it also denied me the ability to sleep for almost 40 hours.

It has been years since I have been acutely aware that, “Undoubtedly, I never held in my own hands even one fleeting moment of my life.”  If you have never been in such a situation, be it from disaster, combat, illness, accident, etc., unfortunately I can neither adequately describe it to you nor can you truly completely comprehend (beyond theological or mental assent) the truth of Luther’s statement.  For those who have been here and returned to the normalcy or ‘new normalcy’ or life post-event, you know exactly what Luther is saying.  Even when losing the entirety of our material possessions, as so many in this area have…or perhaps I should say especially when losing our possessions, we can answer in faith Luther’s rhetorical question, “If I must trust God for my very life and limb, why should I worry about how I’m going to find nourishment from day to day?”  The answer, of course, is quite simply this…in my own words:

I should not worry.  My God, who provides us life and existence from moment to moment will not fail to provide us everything we need.  His provision may not come in ways we expect, ways we are accustomed to, or ways that we necessarily enjoy, but his provision will come.  Of these things we can be sure.  He has proven himself faithful time and time again.

Thanks be to God for his great faithfulness, mercy, and grace in Christ Jesus!

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Still More Luther on Prayer

Writing on Matthew 6, Luther says:

You might wonder, “Why does God insist that we pray to him and tell him our problems?  Why doesn’t he take care of us without our having to ask?  He already knows what we need better than we do.”  God continually showers his gifts on the whole world every day.  He gives us sunshine, rain, good harvests, money, healthy bodies, and so on.  But we often neither ask God for these gifts nor thank him for them.  If God already knows that we can’t live without light or food for any length of time, then why does he want us to ask for these necessities?

Obviously, he doesn’t command us to pray in order to inform him of our needs.  God gives us his gifts freely and abundantly.  He wants us to recognize that he is willing and able to give us even more.  When we pray, we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t already know.  Rather, we are the ones gaining knowledge and insight.  Asking God to supply our needs keeps us from becoming like the unbelieving skeptics, who don’t acknowledge God and don’t thank him for his many gifts.

All of this teaches us to acknowledge God’s generosity even more.  Because we continue to search for him and keep on knocking at his door, he showers us with more and more blessings.  Everything we have is a gift from God.  When we pray, we should express our gratitude by saying, “Lord, I know that I can’t create a single slice of my daily bread.  You are the only one who can supply all of my needs.  I have no way to protect myself from disasters.  You know what I need ahead of time, so I’m convinced that you will take care of me.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 21:144)

“You know what I need ahead of time, so I’m convinced that you will take care of me.”  In the path of the storms of life, even the literal ones (i.e., Ike), we can take great comfort in these words!

Amen.  Thanks be to God.

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Counting the Cost

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.

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Luther on the Genuine Gospel

In a word directed to preachers/pastors, Luther provides some wonderful counsel we can all use to evaluate the content of the sermons we are hearing and books we are reading.  The touchstone?  Jesus Christ, of course:

The book of 1 Peter is a wonderful letter and a model for us.  Peter begins by explaining who Christ is and what we have received through him.  he says that God has given us a new birth to a living hope through Christ’s resurrection.  Likewise, the Father out of pure mercy has given us everything, apart from our merit.  These are genuinely evangelical words that must be preached.

May God help us.  How little of this message we find in other books!  Even among the best, such as those written by Jerome and Augustine, we find hardly anything.  Therefore, we must preach about Jesus Christ, that he died and rose from the death and why he died and was resurrected.  We must preach so that the people will believe in him and through faith be saved.

This is what it means to preach the true gospel.  Any preaching that is different than this is not the gospel, no matter who preaches it.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 30:9)

If, in our churches, devotional lives, and personal reading, we find that our preaching/teaching centers on anything other than Christ crucified and risen for us…we would do well to seek out the genuine gospel elsewhere!

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Luther on Freedom and Considering Others

Luther is famous for, among other things, his writing on Christian freedom.  Rare indeed is the seminarian, pastor, or interested reader who is not familiar with his words in “The Freedom of a Christian,” where Luther famously writes, “Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  I have come into contact with many Lutherans who tend to flaunt Christian freedom as the (practical) hallmark of their faith.  Some of these folks came from strict Fundamentalist backgrounds where seemingly everything was verboten but.  Some were raised Lutheran and know nothing else.  Most all, unfortunately, who focus on freedom tend to do so with an attitude of arrogance and asininity.

Luther, however, will let us off the hook so easily.  While refusing to focus on “Thou shalt not” as the paradigm for the Christian life, he rightly reminds us that the true focus of the Christian life–with respect to good works–is the benefit of others.  Commenting on the first section of Galatians 5, he says:

The weak are offended when something is done that they don’t understand and can’t distinguish from evil.  Romans 14 deals with this situation at length.  For example, when the weak saw that others were eating foods forbidden by the law as unclean, they did not dare eat these foods because they were inhibited by their consciences.  Yet they could not disapprove of what the others did.  Here Paul became a Jew with the Jews, a weak person with the weak to serve them through love so that they would become strong in Christ.

On the other hand, the strong are offended when they become annoyed by the weak and grow impatient with their slowness and clumsiness.  Without consideration for others, they overuse their freedom in Christ, resulting in weak people becoming offended.  It would be better for them to keep all the laws before offending one person.  This is what it means to live by the Spirit.  What good does it do to use the Spirit of freedom against the Spirit of love?

But you may insist, “We are free to do this,”  Certainly.  But you must put the weakness of your brother or sister ahead of your own freedom.  It doesn’t hurt you if you don’t exercise your freedom.  Yet it hurts them if they are offended by your freedom.  Don’t forget that the task of love is thinking of what’s best for others.  Rather than finding out how much freedom you can exercise, find out how much service you can give to your brother or sister.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 27:382)

His last two lines are poignant and truthful challenges to live our lives of faith with others’ interests and well-beings squarely in view.  “Don’t forget that the task of love is thinking of what’s best for others.  Rather than finding out how much freedom you can exercise, find out how much service you can give to your brother or sister.”  We would do well to enjoy our freedom while living to serve instead of merely focusing on ourselves…like much of the rest of pop-Christianity.  Lord, help us!

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More Luther on Prayer

Writing on Psalm 51, Luther says:

I have learned from my own experience that praying is often the most difficult thing to do.  I don’t hold myself up as a master of prayer.  In fact, I admit that I have often said these words coldly: “God, have mercy on me.”  I prayed that way because I was worried about my own unworthiness.  Yet ultimately the Holy Spirit convinced me, “No matter how you feel, you must pray!”  God wants us to pray, and he wants to hear our prayers–not because we are worthy, but because he is merciful.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:314)

“…not because we are worthy, but because he is merciful”  Beautiful reminder!

Luther on Making Time for Prayer

More good advice from Dr. Luther:

It’s good to let prayer be the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night.  Be on guard against false, deceitful thoughts that say, “Wait awhile; you can pray in an hour  First, you must finish this or that.”  For with such thoughts, you turn away from prayer toward the business at hand, which surrounds you and holds you back so that you never get around to praying that day.

Of course, some tasks are as good as or better than prayer, especially during an emergency.  Nevertheless, we should pray continually.  Christ says to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking (Lk 11.9-11).  And Paul says that we should never stop praying (1 Th 5.17).  Likewise, we should continually guard against sin and wrongdoing, which can’t happen if we don’t fear God and keep his commandments in mind at all times.  In Psalm 1 we read about the one who is blessed: “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he mediates day and night” (v.2).

We shouldn’t neglect the habit of true prayer and get caught up in necessary work–which usually isn’t all that necessary anyway.  We can end up becoming lazy about prayer, cold toward it, and tired of it, but the devil doesn’t get lazy around us.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 43:193)

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Luther on the Prosperity Gospel

It’s no secret that American Evangelical Christianity is obsessed with prosperity, health, wealth, material blessing, and positive self-image.  (Your honor, exhibits A, B, and C:  TBN, Joel Osteen, and Lakewood)  That statement isn’t even scandalous enough to draw a reaction on the blogosphere…it won’t even raise the readership of this post.  Unfortunately, such heresy is not new.  Preaching on John 6 and Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, Luther said:

Christ tells the people that they’re following him, not because of his teaching, but because of their stomachs, which they hold dear.  They were thinking to themselves, “Jesus is a great teacher for us!  He’ll give us freedom.  We will all be full and satisfied, getting whatever we want.”  In this passage, the Lord reveals what type of followers the gospel will attract.  Even today, the gospel attracts people who think it will fill their bellies, satisfy their desires, and help them here in this life.

This idea is so common today that I have almost become tired of preaching and teaching it.  People, pretending to be sincere disciples, come to hear a sermon.  But under this guise, they come only for personal gain.  However, the gospel wasn’t sent from heaven in order to allow people to fill their own bellies, take whatever they want, and do whatever they please.  Christ didn’t shed his blood for this purpose!
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 23:5)

Woe to us for focusing on solely material aspects of the abundant life (Jn 10.10) instead of recognizing the plentiful abundance we have at the cross through the complete forgiveness of our sins in Christ!  Let us not be blinded by the selfish desires of our sin but focus on the true mercies our Father showers on us each day through our brother and Savior, Jesus Christ!  Hallelujah!

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Luther on Ordinary Life

Luther’s understanding of vocation was revolutionary in the face of the medieval monasticism that surrounded him.  In contrast to the prevailing wisdom of the day, which held that some activities/vocations/callings were inherently more holy than others, Luther maintained that the seemingly ordinary life to which most believers were called was, in fact, a God-honoring calling.  Commenting on John 15.5, he writes:

False Christians cannot understand what Jesus is saying in this passage.  They wonder, “What kind of Christians are these people?  They can’t do anything more than eat and drink, work in their homes, take care of their children, and push a plow.  We can do all that and better.”  False Christians want to do something different and special–something above the everyday activities of an ordinary person.  They want to join a convent, lie on the ground, wear sackcloth garments, and pray day and night.  They believe these works are Christian fruit and produce a holy life.  Accordingly, they believe that raising children, doing housework, and performing other ordinary chores aren’t part of a holy life.  For false Christians look on external appearances and don’t consider the source of their works–whether or not they grow out of the vine.

But in this passage, Christ says that the only works that are good fruit are those accomplished by people who remain in him.  What believers do and how they live are considered good fruit–even if these works are more menial than loading a wagon with manure and driving it away.  Those false believers can’t understand this.  They see these works as ordinary, everyday tasks.  But there is a big difference between a believers works and an unbeliever’s works–even if they do the exact same thing.  For an unbeliever’s works don’t spring from the vine–Jesus Christ.  That’s why unbelievers cannot please God.  Their works are not Christian fruit.  But because a believer’s works come from faith in Christ, they are all genuine fruit.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:231)

Thanks be to God for the blessing of our ordinary lives and his pleasure with all of our labors that spring from the vine of Christ!

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Luther on Testing God

On the subject of testing God, Luther writes:

Deuteronomy 6 teaches us to trust that God will take care of us in good and bad times.  We shouldn’t become overconfident in times of plenty, but we also need to patiently endure times of adversity.  God will never leave us.  He will be near us in our troubles.  Unbelievers don’t have this confidence in God, because they put their trust in earthly things.

If what we need isn’t available to us, we have to rely on God’s promises.  If we don’t rely on God, we are testing him.  This is what Moses was writing about when he said, “as you did at Massah.”  At Massah, Israel complained and asked, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Ex 17.7).  The people didn’t trust God’s promises because he didn’t fulfill them in the time, place, or manner they expected.  Therefore, they gave up and stopped believing.  When we try to dictate to God the time, place, and manner for him to act, we are testing him.  At the same time, we’re trying to see if he is really there.  When we do this we are putting limits on God and trying to make him do what we want.  It’s nothing less than trying to deprive God of his divinity.  But we must realize that God is free–not subject to any limitations.  He must dictate to us the place, manner, and time that he will act.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 9:74)

When we talk, think, and write about testing God, we generally think along the same lines Luther discusses here.  At the same time, however, we usually fail to draw the conclusion that Luther rightly draws.  “If what we need isn’t available to us, we have to rely on God’s promises.  If we don’t rely on God, we are testing him” (emphasis mine).

In other words, testing God and/by relying on ourselves is, at its core, a manifestation of the sin of unbelief.  We usurp God’s throne, make ourselves out to be God, and attempt to take control because we do not trust God…we do not believe as we ought.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24, ESV)

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Luther on Trusting God

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!

Luther on Balance in Preaching

Luther clearly understood the difficulties associated with preaching well–truthfully and with doctrinal precision. His words on John 15 are helpful both to pastor and parishioner alike and emphasize the necessity of preaching faith and good works:

“So there are two parts of Christian teaching that we must emphasize daily. Neither faith nor works can be ignored. For when faith isn’t preached–when no one explains how we are joined to Christ and become branches in him–then everyone resorts to their own works. On the other hand, when we teach only about faith, this lopsidedness leads to false Christians. These people praise faith, are baptized, and even call themselves Christians, but they don’t show any fruit or power.

“That’s why it’s so difficult to preach. No matter how I preach, something goes wrong. Someone always goes off on a tangent. If I don’t preach about faith, the result will be useless and hypocritical works. If I only emphasize faith, no one does any good works. The result is either useless, faithless do-gooders or believers who don’t do any good works. So we must preach the message to those who accept both faith and works. We must preach to those who want to remain in the vine, put their trust in Christ, and put their faith into action in their everyday lives.”

(Martin Luther, from LW 24:249 as quoted in Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional, ed. James Galvin)