Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
There have been 1,774 confirmed deaths in the Philippines and there are estimates that that number could increase to as many as 10,000. As shared last Sunday, Rev. James Cerdenola, president of the Lutheran Church in the Philippines reported that three of our congregations have been drastically effected.
Last Sunday our parish council has recommended that we support LCP by working through our synodical conduit.
Our LC-MS President, Matthew Harrison, said:
“After hearing of the ‘largest typhoon’ in recorded history and a report from the president of our partner, the Lutheran Church of the Philippines (LCP), that at least three congregations as well as the homes of pastors and church members would need to be rebuilt, the LCMS is engaging its mercy response to find the best way to assist,” said the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the LCMS.
“These funds will provide some immediate relief, and I am deeply grateful to our generous donors for making this grant possible,” Harrison continued.
After leaving the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan traveled westward toward Vietnam.
If you would like to help LCMS Disaster Response in its ministry to support those devastated by disaster:
- make an online gift at lcms.org/givenow/disaster.
- mail checks payable to “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (with a memo line or note designating “LCMS Disaster Relief”) to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- call toll-free 888-930-4438 (8:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday).
For more information about the Synod’s response to disasters, visit lcms.org/disaster.
Tomorrow Sunday, December 1st, 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “Getting Ready For Christmas (Romans 13:11-14)”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Getting Ready For Christmas”
The First Sunday in Advent, December 1st, 2013
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I hope you had a good Thanksgiving, even though it was marred by the invasion of Black Friday when it wasn’t even Friday but still Thanksgiving. While we were in Bakersfield to see family, my wife took my niece to Walmart who had a voucher guaranteeing my niece a purchase of a high-demand item…all she had to do was interrupt her Thanksgiving between the hours of 6 and 7 pm. Traci said that the lines at the Walmart were winding through the regular aisles of the store. It was a complete madhouse. We made it back home to Lake Forest Friday evening, but on Saturday morning as I was writing this sermon, I heard a Walmart television commercial advertising its “Black Friday” sale spilling over this entire weekend. In other words, “Black Friday” extends its tentacles of commercialism both before and after Friday! In the meantime J.C. Penney came up with a jingle that replaces “Fa La La La La, La La La La,” with “Go Go Go Go Go, Shop Shop Shop Shop.” This is beyond nauseating. Of course we’re just warming up, since tomorrow is “Cyber Monday.”
I try to put all of this in perspective. When I was doing my doctorate at the University of Birmingham, the program required a one-month residency for every year I was enrolled over six years, so I ended up spending a lot of time in England. Birmingham is the second largest city in England, so it’s a pretty happening place. I would do my grocery shopping at Sainsbury’s which I believe is the leading grocer in England. It’s a good grocery store with really everything you need, but I noticed a different feel in the store in comparison to our stores here in the U.S. Frankly, the difference is that our stores have an over-flowing abundance that is practically extreme. We are extraordinarily spoiled in our country.
My experience, however, is nothing compared to some of us who have spent time in countries suffering in poverty. In comparison to these countries, a U.S. store has more on their shelves in one of our aisles than the entire inventory in the stores of countries struggling to supply basic needs.
I can’t shake the image of people in the Philippines currently overjoyed just to have food to survive right now vs. the image of Americans with stuff coming out of their ears.
And the particular life distraction that I’ve just described is just one distraction from your walk with God among many. For example on a separate note from the stuff-craze in our materialistic society, we joke about the whole food thing. A report said that the average American will need about 4 ½ hours of cardio exercise to work off the amount of food they ate for Thanksgiving. I told myself that I would take a better approach this year, but that didn’t keep me from a slice of apple pie, a slice of pumpkin pie, and a slice of key lime pie. It is easy to laugh off certain sins, but gluttony is a real problem. So there are two distractions that I’ve now listed, but there are many more.
The one I mention now comes from your pastor who is a huge sports enthusiast: I was reminded that Thanksgiving was an amazing opportunity to foster precious relationships. You know, regardless of how you feel about your extended family, these are people that God has put into your life. He has done so for a reason. We can choose how we will treat these relationships. In many cases, you are God’s chosen instrument for sharing the Gospel with the members of your family. But – while we have these golden opportunities set before us – what so often happens is that our huge, loud, and impressive “entertainment” systems can completely swallow up the atmosphere. On Thursday, the Oakland vs. Dallas NFL game was a game of interest for me, on Friday, the Lakers-Pistons NBA game was a game of interest for me, and yesterday, the UCLA-USC NCAA football game was a game of interest for me, but what are these in comparison to the relationships? Last Thursday, I spoke to one dear family member about what is important and what lasts in life, a conversation that led us to the one thing needful: the Lord; last Friday, I reminded a dear family member that Jesus is her key to heaven…these moments were worth more than the sum total of sports I could ever watch in my entire life.
But these are just three distractions, just three. This is also the season for drink. Even those of us who do not drink much at all, it is so easy to find ourselves at parties where social drinking is as easy as chips and dip. But alcohol quickly takes on a life of its own. At one of the conversations last Thursday, I shared with family members gathered that the wine we shared at that table was complementary to the four uses either described or prescribed in Holy Scripture: the Word of God either permits or directs the use of alcohol for 1) medicinal purposes; 2) to help the bereaved; 3) to celebrate; and 4) the Lord’s Supper. As we drank wine, both my brother Larry and sister Susan added the good addendum: “but in moderation,” to which I replied, “Amen.”
But how easy is it for us to slip and go too far? Even the strongest Christian never matures past the possibility of falling on account of drinking too much. The strongest Christian has the ability to get carried away, drink too much, and then do or say something they will later regret. It has happened among Christians in the body of Christ and it can easily happen again.
Why I am taking this real-life inventory? Because the combined distractions are formidable in threatening to completely erase from our view what is really important: living in faith, hope and love. And what is perhaps the most serious distraction is one I haven’t even mentioned yet: the holiday’s are a time of stress. In my 22 years in pastoral ministry, I know this seasonal dynamic like the back of my hand: family conflicts are heightened, financial burdens are magnified, personal struggles with depression are easily aggravated, time-management is tested to the limits. That is – unfortunately – the season of “peace on earth” through our Savior Christ is often morphed into the season of anxiety and stress. This is the season for blow-ups and blow-outs and I’m no longer talking about big sales in the stores.
Put all of these distractions together and now we know why Saint Paul addresses the Christians in Rome this way (of course we have to make adjustments for cultural evolutions), but the words are quite applicable to us as well:
Romans 13:11a: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.”
This is not an admonition for unbelievers to come to faith. No, again, Saint Paul is writing to Christians. These people are already converted, these people know that their sins are forgiven and they know that they have eternal life in Christ. At the same time, they are encumbered by serious worldly distractions. Our distractions are capable of lulling us to sleep. Obviously, this sleep is metaphorical and Saint Paul does not mean actual sleep. This is the symbolic “sleep” of getting so distracted by the world that your faith seems to get lost in a maze. In the face of the world’s distractions, your faith can seem to disappear as if it were sleeping. The priorities of the faith can easily take a back-seat to the priorities of the world. And if our faith falls asleep on account of these, then we become “lukewarm” Christians who are in danger of losing our relationship with the Lord!
This is the sin being revealed in today’s epistle. Take it to heart Christian. Think about it: how does materialism, food, entertainment, drink, and stress impact your faith? How often do these things -- and the many other distractions of this world described as “the night” in verse 12 -- make you so tired, so busy, so encumbered that frankly, it’s easy to feel like you’ve run out of time and energy for prayer, for worship, for serving others who are less fortunate, for taking the time necessary to apply forgiveness to that relationship, and/or for taking the time necessary to share the Gospel? From the perspective of sin, the evil influences in the world, and the devil, these distractions are designed to make you ineffective in your faith so that you will sink into despair and not only be of no good to others, but even be an instrument of pain and further distraction to others. These are the things of “the night” that Saint Paul is warning us about and it’s as real as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but unfortunately these things of “the night” pervade all seven days of the week, all year round; and these things wind up and down souls far worse than the winding lines in Walmart.
Thanksgiving Eve Tonight Wednesday, November 27th at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine at Concordia University Irvine Good Shepherd Chapel 7 pm
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Tomorrow Sunday, November 24th, 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “‘What’s In It For Me? and Other Such Questions As The Last Day Approaches (Malachi 3:13-18)”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“‘What’s In It For Me?’ and Other Such Questions As The Last Day Approaches” (Malachi 3:13-18)
Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 24th, 2013
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. It is a fact that people speak “hard against God” as our reading from Malachi 3 says this morning. That is people are supremely smug in their criticism against God, especially as they use these criticisms as rationales for not believing in God. When people do this they justify – or at least try to justify – living life as if there is no God. This makes things supremely convenient for the sinful flesh, so that we are also justified in doing whatever we want. Which is to say to disbelieve in the true God is to reinforce our justification for being our own god (a very unwise path to say the least), but this is the reason that the saying is true: everyone – in their own way – is quite religious; everyone follows something, even if that something is themselves.
But when arrogance takes over, people – mere mortals – speak “hard against God.” To speak “hard” is to speak critically. As easy as it is for some to complain about our government (even though we are called to pray for our governmental leaders, 1st Timothy 2:2), some find it just as easy – or easier – to complain against God. The original word in Hebrew for this speaking “hard,” is to be speaking “strong,” or in a way that is insolent, presumptuous, wicked, godless, and rebellious. This is the spirit that is completely resistant to God and puts oneself over God. In fact when God in Malachi 3:13 points out the problem, these insolent men talk back and become argumentative towards God: “How have we spoken against you?”
You might think to yourself that right about now we should be relieved that the Scriptures here are about the prophet Malachi speaking to a very specific audience: to the priests and people in Judah, and – “whew” – not to me! After all, I am certainly not so insolent as that! But be warned dear Christian: do not lose the application of this word to you and me today. Our sinful flesh is still with us and it knows full well the way of insolence and the resultant hardness towards the Lord! Malachi’s words are just as applicable today when it comes to our sinful nature…we do not want God telling us, we want to tell God! And for this we just plain deserve to die, because it means that we fight against the very Author of Life Himself! So Solomon taught: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12).”
How can we be so sure of the contemporary application to us today? Because our flesh tempts us daily to focus on the critical analysis as elaborated upon in the next verse at Malachi 3:14 which seeks to justify our hardness and criticism against God:
“You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?’”
And here we see what the flesh, the sinful nature in all of us does with religion and faith. To put it plainly our sinful nature makes a grandiose presumption about why we are alive, why we are here. That presumption and assumption is that we are here to be pleased on the basis of our own standard, our own desire; we are here to have what we want. Rhonda Byrne wrote a little book in 2006 entitled The Secret which was hugely successful. Here Ms. Byrne explains her basic premise:
There is a truth deep down inside of you that has been waiting for you to discover it, and that Truth is this: you deserve all good things life has to offer. You know that inherently, because you feel awful when you are experiencing a lack of good things. All good things are your birthright! You are the creator of you, and the law of attraction is your magnificent tool to create whatever you want in your life. Welcome to the magic of life, and the magnificence of You! (p. 41)
Our flesh likes the worldview that we are the creator of ourselves. That we have a right to take what is pleasing to us. If we believe something is good for us, then that becomes our birthright; that becomes what drives us. Now there are many things in this life that we have freedom to desire or not to desire. If you have interest in certain forms of entertainment (I recommend the Lakers) or if you have an interest to pursue a certain hobby, or if you have preferences in the civil realm when it comes to cultural traditions or political systems, that’s fine, but we cross a line when we presume that our source of peace, our source of identity, our understanding as why we are alive becomes about what we want. This is a grandiose assumption and it is easily applied to faith in the minds and hearts of many. And the moment we permit ourselves to think this way, to expect this way, we set ourselves up for bitter and discouraging disappointment, because this is not why we are here and this is not what the Lord has called us to live for (unless you understand that the desire of faith is the desire for the Lord Himself and His will).
And yet even Christians are tempted to play this game. To go back to Malachi 3:14 again: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?’” And this time we add the consideration of the next verse, verse 15: “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” And this thought-line of the seeming unfairness of living in faith compared to those who do not believe and yet so often seem so strong, rich, and successful in this life, can be a great source of discouragement for God’s people. Psalm 73 is an amazing elaboration of this very observation that can fill our souls with frustration and tempt us to think that the Lord is permitting an unjust and an unfair situation. We must be very careful against this way of thinking most especially when we take into consideration what will happen in the End when the Lord comes to judge, but first things first.
Malachi 3:14-15 teaches us about two HUGE mistakes people make about what faith is, and what the life of faith is about:
Tomorrow Sunday, November 17th, 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “Do Not Grow Weary of Doing Good (2nd Thessalonians 3:6-13)”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Do Not Grow Weary In Doing Good”
(2nd Thessalonians 3:6-13)
26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 17th, 2013
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. As we have now come to the second-to-last Sunday in the Church Year we are especially cognizant of the end times. Let us be clear about what the Lord teaches in His Word: you are living in the end times. You are -- right now -- living in the last days. That’s a fact. It is also a fact that Scripture teaches – clearly – that no one knows when Christ will come again (Acts 1:7) and it is also a fact that these last days may come to an end today or tomorrow, or long after you and I have died. We just don’t know when the end will occur and God makes it clear that it is not for us to know anyway. In spite of this clarity on the matter, however, it is simply incredible to observe the unceasing fanaticism regarding the end that we see all around us.
Many of you are aware that this area of eschatology (end time teaching) and apocalyptic (the kind of genre represented by Revelation and Ezekiel) -- esp. as it is employed in popular American theology -- is my favorite area in sacred theology. My concern for this grew out of a childhood experience: my big brother Robert (a good reader his entire life) had a fascinating collection of books in our room. One of those books was Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. That book was the #1 best-seller of all books, of all genres and types in the decade of the 1970’s in the United States of America, selling about 30 million copies. The theology represented by that book which fully claims to accurately represent the teaching of God’s Word is both wrong and scary. All of the 21 plagues described in the book of Revelation -- which we understand as representing what sin has already brought into the world and already remedied by Jesus -- are said to be coming in our future (keep in mind that this is a gross mishandling of the book of Revelation). In Lindsey’s book The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon Christians were to consider the likelihood that the decade of the 1980’s would be the last of history as we know it, and in a later Lindsey book Planet Earth – 2000 A.D. Christians received a revised and updated prediction that by the year 2000 they should not anticipate being on earth.
But predictions of the end are nothing new. Like Harold Camping who predicted that the end of the world would occur on May 21st, 2011, and then adjusted his prediction to October 21st, 2011, William Miller before him first predicted March 21st, 1843 and then revised his prediction to March 21st, 1844 (Rowe, God’s Strange Work, 176). When Jesus did not come as predicted, this led to what historians refer to as “The Great Disappointment.” “There is no doubt that many Millerites, as reported, gave away or sold their possessions, stopped working, paid off debts, and settled old quarrels (ibid, 190).” But when the prediction failed, do you think that was going to stop predictions of the end? Not even close!
Hal Lindsey belongs to this tradition (as did the late Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel and of course as my favorite example Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame does). These Christian teachers believe that when Jesus in Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32 referred to “this generation,” that that generation is the generation that is connected to the modern state of Israel coming into existence in 1948. Now if a “generation” is about 40 years, one can see why someone like Hal Lindsey would like 1988: 1948 + 40 years in a generation = 1988. One of the in-house debates of those who think this way is to try to establish what is meant by “a generation.” Is it 40, 60, or 80 years or more? Or should the counting begin not with 1948, but 1967 when Israel took Jerusalem during the Six Day War? Tim LaHaye has given himself more wiggle room and has warned us that the rapture – as they understand it – will occur before the beginning of 2025 (Are We Living in the End Times, 61). Once again, the predictions just keep coming. It seems inevitable for example that just as December 21st, 2012 received immense press, that when 2029/2030 and 2032/2033 roll around in relation to the crucifixion of our Savior, we will see all of the excitement all over again…but I’d better be careful now, because now I’m making predictions!
All of this dear Christians is precisely the trouble that Saint Paul was dealing with when he wrote the letters to the Thessalonians. We have end-time mania now, we had it in the 1900’s, in the 1800’s (and throughout history), and it was very much alive and well in the first-century A.D. when Saint Paul wrote the first verse of our epistle this morning (2nd Thessalonians 3:6):
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
What does it mean to “walk in idleness” and to do so “not in accord with the tradition [that is apostolic teaching]?” The spectacular and extremely practical teaching coming out of our epistle is on how our work, our labor, our vocations, our jobs, our careers -- what God has given us to live on, by which and through which we are able to take care of ourselves -- these are the God-given gifts that occupy our time in God’s service in the world and in society. Your labor, your work, your living keeps you – as the saying goes – “out of trouble,” it keeps you “busy” in the best sense of the word so that you are productive in using the gifts, the skills, and abilities that God has given you in order to help people around you. That is, the best way to avoid worrying about the end of the world and avoiding a religious fanaticism about predictions and such is to work, to labor, and to provide for yourself…this honors God, it serves people, and it provides clarity for living.
Religious and spiritual fanaticism, however, was taking over the hearts and minds of some of the members of the church in Thessalonica. “In view of the nearness of the [second coming of Christ] (as they thought) they were refraining from doing any work. They would find such conduct all the easier in view of the Greek idea that labor was degrading (Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary On The New Testament: The First and Second Epistles To The Thessalonians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Co., 1959:251).”
Tomorrow Sunday, November 10th, 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “The God of the Living (Luke 20:27-40)”
Dear Brother and Sisters in Christ,
“The God of the Living” (Luke 20:27-40)
Twenty-five Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. We are quickly moving towards the end of the Church Year and today is the 25th Sunday after Pentecost and also the third-to-last Sunday of the Church Year. Themes of the end are properly put before us and our Gospel this morning from Luke chapter 20 records some of the events before the end of our Lord’s public ministry. It seems surreal that the precious Son of God sent to save all people, full of love and mercy; full of compassion and grace would be attacked by so many trying to trip Him up, trap Him in his words, and discredit Him. The assaulters of the Lord line up in this section of Saint Luke’s Gospel. And though the scribes or Pharisees opposed the teaching of the chief priests or Sadducees; the two parties nevertheless found common ground in their goal to kill Jesus.
In our particular Gospel at Luke 20:27-40, it is the Sadducees who are taking their shot at Jesus. These particular Jews traced a proud lineage to the high priest under King David, they included lay people from wealthy and privileged families devoted to the temple cult and cut off from other Jews. At the same time they had a tendency to be “free thinkers” and “loose livers” (Lenski, 992), embracing Greek culture and were at the end of the day theological liberals. As a result of their weak Scriptural understanding they rejected the teaching of the bodily resurrection after death and they also rejected the teaching of the existence of angels, both of which of course are major teachings of the Christian faith.
Why would they reject such things? That’s a good question, but the ancient testimony of Ephrem the Syrian states that as “Sadducees” meant “the just [ones],” they had a tendency to take pride in their self-image that did not need a reward in order to trust in God (Ancient Christian Commentary, New Testament III, 312). Resurrection is a reward. It is also certainly true that angels are of great benefit. The Sadducees prided themselves, however, on needing none of this. They were the just ones who believed in God without needing any reward or benefit!
That is to say they were very proud of themselves and it is this of course that is the basic reason for their rejecting Christ and the teaching of God’s Word. They considered themselves above the Lord and above His Word!
But the more specific explanation for their rejection of the resurrection is revealed in the way they tested Jesus as recorded in Luke 20. The basis for their hypothetical scenario about the woman and the seven brothers all of whom became her husband was for them to be able to ask Jesus a climatic question which they believed was unanswerable and would in the final analysis demonstrate why Jesus was not be followed: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”
Furthermore, the other characteristic of the Sadducees was to hold to the code of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses). Moses was authoritative, not Jesus. They had in mind Deuteronomy 25:5-6 which is part of the Mosaic Law that was simply given to not allow the dead, childless brother’s line to die out; the first son of the new marriage would be regarded as the dead man’s child and thus his name and heritage would be preserved. But the Sadducees stretched this teaching out to the extent that they made a grand assumption and this is the real problem revealed: they assumed that the conditions of this world dictate the conditions of the next. If all seven husbands rise from the dead, then you face a ludicrous situation because the woman would have seven husbands after the resurrection! They therefore rejected the bodily resurrection.
Fast forward to the 21st century and you soaking all of this in today: In a way, who can blame us for feeling extraordinary detached from this text in God’s Word? After all, the last time I checked our church roster, none of us here are Sadducees and if you really are, then please see me after divine service, but wait a minute, it may be possible that all of us will need to see me after divine service and I’ll need to see my pastor this week as well. Why? Because it is clear that our sinful nature shares all of the key points of concern this Word of God reveals about the Sadducees:
1) They were fundamentally proud and regardless of their peculiar cultural and biblical positions, their sinful nature is a reflection of our own: we look for ways to qualify God’s Word in order to justify ourselves…both our core beliefs and our core behaviors. Ancient Sadducees aren’t the only human beings who have ever done this. We do this whenever we decide that defending our pride is more important than following God’s Word. I once had a parishioner who did not remain a parishioner for long who very carefully and sincerely explained to me why it was ok for her to commit adultery since she loved the man she was having an affair with and did not in fact (feel) love for her husband. Our flesh engages in this insanity. We are all in this respect happy Sadducees by a different name in 21st century America.
2) But this isn’t the only way that we relate to their situation: once God’s Word is qualified to suit our own agenda: we miss out in the power of God that is intended to be known and lived out through His Word. For example when the teaching of the forgiveness of sins is embraced, we experience “the power” and the liberation to share that forgiveness with those who offend us, and even if they do not confess their sin -- and we are forced to wait until we can give absolution -- we can still rid ourselves of the bitterness in our hearts and forgive them in our hearts as we pray this liberating power coming from our Living Lord who forgives us every day: “and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But when we change the Word, we forsake its power. In the case of the Sadducees, their pride against God’s Word caused them to reject the resurrection! Does this happen anymore? I would like to suggest that it happens more often than we care to admit. No, we cannot say that this is always the manifestation of the sinful flesh, but it is certainly a very common one, because to reject the resurrected Christ is to accept compromises of what happens after death.
Tomorrow Sunday, November 3rd, 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “Blessed Are You (Matthew 5:1-12)!”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Blessed Are You” (Matthew 5:1-12)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Jesus saw “great crowds” (Mt 4:25) – some of whom came to hear Jesus (Mt 7:28) as they saw him sit down (as Rabbis typically did when they taught), his disciples also came to Him (Mt 5:1) and at this juncture in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus spoke the very first words of His public ministry; the very first words out of His mouth to reach all people (members of the crowd back then), as well as those already following Him (disciples = mathetes means “learner,” or “hearer,” and translates into one who follows); and these very first words are to the “crowds/all people” today; and to His present-day disciples like you…these are the very first words which mark Jesus’ ministry, which reveal why Jesus came! What would they be? What words would set the entire tone and main content for His saving ministry and the reason for His coming into the world?
Jesus’ first words are nine sentences declaring and imparting His blessing upon sinners. These “blessed” (markarioi) statements proclaim and impart grace dear Christians, they are Gospel words! Much to our great shame, however, we treat them over-and-over again as Law words, as man-made, cause and effect words: “If you are this, then you are blessed.” This is wrong and treats Jesus as a new Law-Giver. This false understanding implies that Moses once went up to the mountain for the first set of tablets called the Ten Commandments, and now Jesus goes up to this New Testament mountain to give us a new set of tablets, this time containing a more spiritual law in the Beatitudes.
So plain and simple: the words of grace and blessedness are mistreated as ethical prescriptions like these:
“If you are poor in spirit, then you will get the kingdom of heaven.”
“If you mourn, then you will be comforted.”
“If you are meek, then you will inherit the earth.”
“If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, then you will be satisfied.”
“If you are merciful, then you will receive mercy.”
“If you are pure in heart, then you will see God.”
“If you are a peacemaker, then you – with other faithful ones -- will be called sons of God.”
So again with this orientation -- and according to this misinformed view -- Jesus is teaching you and me how we can earn the kingdom of heaven. That is, He is teaching us about how to train our attitudes. “I need to be more humble, more contrite, more righteous, more merciful, more pure, more apt to make peace…and if I am these, then I shall be blessed.”
But if this is anything “blessed,” then it is a blessed catastrophe in interpretation and we totally misunderstand our Savior! If this were the case, then the true beauty of poor sinners beholding their gracious Savior – as they will also do in heaven (Rev. 7) and at the end of the world (1st John 3) – and receiving His free love and mercy is denied and replaced with a picture that isn’t about beholding Jesus, but is a picture of beholding ourselves: looking upon ourselves, and our potential for moral improvement. This view, however, is an affront to everything that our Lord meant in starting His saving ministry with the nine declarations of “blessed.”
Besides can you imagine the hypocrisy involved if we actually took the view that our sinful flesh wants to take? How lowly and humble do you make yourselves in service to others really? Perhaps there is a level of some sort of humility in how you treat others, but only when they are kind to you and especially if they agree with you! But how lowly and humble are you towards those who disagree? How lowly and humble are you to those you’ve determined ahead of time don’t serve your lowliness and who do not deserve your humility? And how much do you hunger and thirst for righteousness when you hunger and thirst for the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions (1st John 2:16)? And how merciful are you towards those you’ve convinced yourself are not deserving of mercy so that you can be like the unforgiving servant who received mercy, but then tried to choke out of another servant what was owed him (Mt 18:21f)? How pure in heart are you when by nature you easily permit the things of this world to become the idols which command your time and energy? If this was the message of Jesus in the commencing His ministry, then He is surely a “Savior” we do not want to know; that is He would be no Savior at all, but only a new task-master intent on magnifying the misery of helpless sinners!
But the true Savior, the real Jesus began His great sermon with this portal of grace: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is a proclamation of universal grace to you sinner and to all sinners (like me and the rest of humanity). The “poor in spirit” is a description of the status of human beings, it is a description of what we are: spiritually deprived. The poor in spirit have not the spiritual resources to save themselves. On account of sin, they are spiritually bankrupt and lost; they are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). But in your lost and spiritually dead – spiritually poor – condition, Jesus comes and the very first words out of His mouth is to bless you! And there is but one reason: for YOURS is the kingdom of heaven. The first beatitude and the eighth beatitude are distinct from the 2nd through 7th beatitudes. The 2nd through 7th describe blessings to come in the future; but the 1st and 8th describe THE blessing that is already yours: the kingdom of heaven is yours right now sinner! Why? Because the King of the kingdom has come FOR YOU! Jesus was presenting Himself back then as the Savior of sinners and Jesus is presenting Himself right now – right this moment – as the Savior of sinners. The King comes to you – as helpless as you are – to save you.
And this is the significance of the word “blessed,” it is not an attitude – like “be happy” – but a status: you’re saved! You’re rescued! You’re forgiven! You’re given the kingdom with all of its blessings in tow! Not because you’ve made yourself poor in spirit, but because Jesus came for what you already are: Jesus has come for sinners. This message is 100% unadulterated grace for sinners! It is the Good News that saves and blesses us while were enslaved to the sin that made us spiritually bankrupt. You are blessed because Jesus comes for the helpless, period!
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Constant Reformation and Knowing the Truth”
Reformation Sunday, October 27th, 2013
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. A highly influential figure in the Church of England, John Henry Newman stunned the Anglican community in 1843 when he left his position as vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford, to join the Roman Catholic Church. He was an accomplished theologian who desired to identify himself with the truest tradition of the Christian faith. In his mind the question was between the Anglican tradition which took its stand upon Antiquity or Apostolicity vs. the Roman tradition which took its stand upon Catholicity. That is the Anglican Church holds that its true church status comes through their holding to apostolic tradition whereas the Roman Church is confident in her fidelity based on the fact that they view themselves as never having left the original church itself. In the meantime -- in Newman’s mind -- Lutheranism was a Protestant heresy (Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, New York: Dover Publications, 2005: 94).
It is perhaps somewhat understandable that the Lutheran Church might be viewed this way since we have not bound ourselves so much to the traditions Newman was concerned about per se, as much as our striving to rely on the apostolic tradition and the catholic foundation that both of the other two traditions also claim: the holding to the Word of God. But for us Lutherans we say a little more than the others do: we say “the Word of God alone,” is the basis for our Reformation emphasis also known as sola Scriptura. We believe that nothing is more apostolic since it was this Word that the apostles themselves lived and died for; and nothing else is more catholic (as in representing the universal church) than this Word of God which true Christians throughout all ages have always confessed with their mouths and believed on in their hearts!
So on April 17th, 1521 Luther was ushered into the Diet of Worms at about 4:00 pm. “He was visibly awed by what he saw. There was Emperor Charles V himself, heir to a 1000-year-old empire. Near him on the raised dais were his advisers and the representatives of Rome. All around were Spanish troops decked out in their parade best. The rest of the hall was filled with the politically powerful of Germany – the seven electors, the bishops and princes of the church, the territorial princes, the representatives of the great cities. In the midst of this impressive assembly there was a table, piled high with books (Kittelson, Luther The Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, 160).” Those books were written by Luther and had gotten him into a lot of trouble to the extent that his very life was on the line at Worms. The books contradicted the evolving doctrine of the Roman Church. This was considered an insidious sin so in front of all to hear, Luther’s examiner declared, “you must give a simple, clear, and proper answer to the question, Will you recant or not?” Luther did answer, and it was an answer that, in his words, was without “horns or teeth”:
“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning – and my conscience is captive to the Word of God – then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.”
He then added: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen (ibid, p. 161).”
This is what we know and confess as Lutheran Christians: the Word of God as our source of life and truth because it is that Word which reveals the Lord Jesus Christ our light and our life; and it is only Christ who truly reveals God and His heart towards us which is one of love and mercy leading us to the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in and through His Son Jesus Christ. If you take away this Word, you take away Christ and if you take away Christ, you take away the only hope for sinners in a Gracious God.
But my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what does it mean “to know?” It’s easy to throw these words around. Some folks want to equate knowledge with awareness, but that won’t cut the mustard when it comes to really knowing something. The word “know” is used for example to describe the intimacy between a husband and wife. It would be insulting to a wife for her husband to say that he was “aware” of his wife. Or – as another example – let’s say someone asks you if you “know” how to do something. They are probably seeking out detailed knowledge and expertise. If a person’s car breaks down and you come along to help and then you’re asked if you “know” about fuel injection systems, it should be easy to answer that question. Most people would never say that they know fuel injection systems if they had simply heard of them. We are all to a certain extent, experts in that we know about something that we experience or do on a regular and frequent basis. This is true even of children who could teach many of us about a game or two that we would have no clue on how to play. This is real knowledge; it is intimate in that it is so familiar that it amounts to substantial insight into whatever it is being discussed.
Well this word “know” is the word Jesus used in our Reformation Gospel today in John 8:31-32: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
Jesus is saying that there is something every disciple; every follower of Jesus just “knows.” And he was not talking about sophisticated theology, but about what is most important to know from the Word of God; that which is the very center of Scripture. Whether that follower of Christ is in high school, is a real estate agent, runs a restaurant, is a professional athlete, works at Cosco, Walmart or Target, is a preacher, a nurse, an attorney, or is a full-time domestic engineer, what all disciples of Christ have in common is this: they KNOW the teaching of Jesus; they know the truth!
Last Sunday I had an extended discussion with our confirmands that Jesus did not come to be a new law-giver or a new Moses. So many folks think that Jesus came to show us how to live so that in imitating Him we might save ourselves from sin. This is the single most popular and natural concept about Jesus. It is wrong. True disciples rather know the Gospel:
- That Jesus lived for us to keep the Law of God in our stead.
- That Jesus died for us to cover our sins with His blood.
- That Jesus rose for us to have eternal life.
Tomorrow Sunday, October 20th, 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “On Account of God’s Speedy Vindication, We Don’t Lose Heart (Luke 18:1-8).”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“On Account of God’s Speedy Vindication, We Don’t Lose Heart” (Luke 18:1-8)
October 20th, 2013
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. It is so easy to lose heart. I was receiving a prayer request from a Christian friend this past week who told me about his old friend who is going through more than one crisis in his life at this time. My Christian friend tried to encourage his old friend to call on the Lord during the storm (after all it is often the case that people are most willing to seek the Lord when they are going through hard times). But my Christian friend was extremely saddened – and I with him – as he told me how his old friend responded. He said in what sounded like a bitter and hopeless response: “[God] and I are not friends.” Why did he say this? The answer was simple. This man had prayed to God before, but he perceived that his prayer was not answered and so the old friend is acting as if he has lost all hope in God.
This is a shocking state of affairs, but it is probably more common than we realize because the Lord Himself in our Gospel this morning -- Luke 18:1-8 -- is addressing this very problem. This is the only place in the entire Bible that we see this parable of the unrighteous judge and the persistent widow and the evangelist Saint Luke begins the presentation of our Lord’s parable by stating the purpose of the parable up front: “[Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that [the disciples] ought always to pray and not to lose heart (v 1).”
This is a staggering and wonderful gift from God in a very simple and straight-forward manner in His precious Word to us: persistence in prayer is the church’s posture until the glorious second coming of Christ (Just, Luke 9:51-24:53, 671); the Lord was teaching that a “constant prayer life is the opposite of growing weary or tired (Buls, Exegetical Notes: Gospel Texts Series C Luke-John Sundays after Pentecost, 71).” The Word of God is also straight-forward in other places about His divine strategy for keeping us in the kingdom: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer (Romans 12:12).” This constancy in prayer means that prayer in your life Christian is to be regular and frequent and in light of why it is so urgent (as in warding off losing heart) prayer is quite simply presented as a necessity in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ.
We need prayer so that we do not become discouraged or give up if our petitions are not answered immediately (Just, 671). True prayer continues to pray in such a way so as to wrestle with God even as Jacob did as recorded in Genesis 32 and insisting unto the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me (v 26).”
Along these lines of faithful persistence in prayer is the widow in this parable. The scene is absolutely striking (and in a second you’ll see why the word “striking” is so appropriate)! This judge has all the power; and the original audience would have been shocked by this judge’s shamelessness: he did not fear God – he was a real pagan absolutely unmotivated for doing the right thing – and he did not respect man (so he didn’t even care about what others thought about his cold heart). Again, he had all the power, but he was also shameless. What was anyone going to get from this guy? Absolutely nothing!
To make matters worse is that this wasn’t just anyone asking the judge for vindication, but a widow. In the Hebrew culture this meant that the woman – having lost her husband – had also lost all of her rights; she was powerless; she was a nobody. What chance did this widow have in the face of a shameless judge? The ancient church father Ephrem the Syrian is great at this juncture: “These two were stubborn, but persistent prayer was even more stubborn. The persistence of the widow humiliated both the iniquity that was rebelling against God and the boldness that was behaving arrogantly towards human beings…Persistence transformed these two bitter branches, and they bore sweet fruit that was against their nature (Ancient Christian Commentary New Testament III, 277).” Translation? The persistent widow beat up the unrighteous judge! He could not withstand her; she was too much! The verb here at verse 3 “kept coming” is in the imperfect…she came and she kept coming; she wouldn’t stop!
“[This widow] is a different kind of widow. She fights back (Concordia Journal, Vol 24, Num 4, October, 1998: 373).” She was probably widowed as a young woman. She was healthy and strong and would not be complacent in the face of her troubles. Verse 5 uses the words “beat me down”…the Greek concept comes from the world of boxing. This is confirmed by 1st Corinthians 9:27, the only other place in the entire New Testament that uses this same verb. In speaking of what he does to his body to keep it under control while using this verb, Saint Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 9:27 are translated by the KJV as “I keep under my body and bring it into subjection,” by the NAS as “I buffet my body and make it my slave,” by the Williams translation, “I keep on beating and bruising my body and making it my slave,” and the Beck translation, “I beat my body and make it my slave.”
In high school I had a friend who came to me explaining that she was being harassed by some scary guys. I told her that she should let me take her to my former Karate dojo. I met up with her one evening and introduced her to my former sensei. She became an amazing student eventually advancing to black belt and became the California state Karate kumite or tournament fighting champion. I was considerably bigger and stronger than my friend, but there was no way I ever wanted to get into a fight with her!
In this parable the unrighteous judge met up with a widow with a black belt. The Word of God at verse 5 is that the unrighteous judge is concerned that this widow is going to “strike [him] under the eye.” This is the actual original language translation!
Well, this can be all very exciting and as the Law is always good at doing, you can start to hear the Rocky song “Eye of the Tiger” in your mind as you psych yourself up to be fighting in prayer like this widow (the widow does after all stand for the church and all of her members like you); or to be wrestling in prayer like Jacob, but be careful, because if this is how we leave Luke 18 we are all going to be in a lot of trouble. We’re only half-way there.
Tomorrow Sunday October 13th 2013 at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church of Irvine: “At Jesus’ Feet, Giving Him Thanks” (Luke 17:11-19)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“At Jesus’ Feet, Giving Him Thanks”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. One of the greatest joys and privileges I get to enjoy as your pastor is to make visitations. In my estimation while preparing and then delivering sermons in order to proclaim the life-giving Word of Christ is crucial in the holy ministry, there are certain other tasks which are indispensable for keeping pastors as pastors. If not for visitations, pastors become distant and detached from the people of God. If a pastor does not conduct visitations with his people he loses his identity as a shepherd. Visitations keep the spirit of pastoral ministry alive and I have discovered over the years that no matter how challenging those visitations may be, I am always blessed through them. God’s people bless me when I visit them. You bless me when you permit me to visit you.
It’s an interesting state of affairs, because it’s one of those things that tempts us to say, “Oh, but we’re all just so busy and I don’t want to be a burden!” But the fact of the matter is that when you permit me to visit you; permitting to at least try to answer your questions; and when you allow me to pray with you, to share God’s Word with you while applying it to your unique circumstances, or when you allow me to share God’s holy absolution with you, you bless me; and you help me to remain a pastor and not just someone who stands in front of you on Sunday mornings. I cannot begin to describe how there is really nothing better than spending time with God’s people, esp. from the standpoint that these visitations represent ongoing training to say nothing of living in the Spirit’s love. Think about it: the Holy Spirit who created the heavens and earth and who is the author of the gift of faith lives in His people, He lives in you. So when I see you and we share our faith, the Holy Spirit is molding and training us, refining our faith and making us stronger in Christ. He continues to train me through you.
In our Lutheran Confessions we teach that one of the means of grace – how God comes to us in His Word to feed and strengthen our faith – is through “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren (Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord, Smalcald Articles, IV, p 310).” That is, all that I’ve said about my visiting you, is also true when you visit another brother or sister in Christ. How good it is for us to live as God’s people when fellow church members become friends and meet each other in order to encourage and love one another!
This past week was no exception for me. I was seeing Gladys Geisler and once again I was extremely blessed. Without getting into personal details, let me just say that Gladys has not had an easy go of it as of late. She’s battling with some physical ailments and what confronts many people in their 90’s; she has spent a lot of time in bed. But with all of this going on and while having every reason to complain but refusing to do so, after some hymns and receiving the Holy Sacrament, I asked her for her prayer requests that I could take with me as I left the Geisler residence. She thought about it for a second with a smile on her face and then with sincerity and joy she said to me: “Pray that we would be thankful for all the Lord’s gifts to us.” I’m sure Gladys doesn’t realize what an impact her words had on me. What an example! What a shining light of faith! With all of her troubles and with all of her weaknesses, her concern, her prayer, her meditation was and is thanks to God; thanks for all of His gifts; thanks in-spite of all the hardships, thanks. I was blown away and suddenly felt ashamed that I should complain about anything. I was immediately inspired and trained by my mother in Christ, Gladys Geisler. Her prayer request is that we would be thankful!
This leads me to think more carefully about the spiritual battle we face every day, so I challenge you this week dear Christian that when your own sin and the evil one tempts you to complain: think about what you have to be thankful for. If it helps, take a piece of paper and write down ten things that you’re thankful for and rejoice! There is nothing like thanks to squash the complaints that fill our soul. Saint Paul writes in Philippians 4: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (v 8).”
What is more, I learned from Luther that we can even be thankful when the devil himself assaults us. I continue to love this quotation from Luther:
“When the devil accuses us and says: ‘You are a sinner; therefore you are damned,’ then we can answer him and say: ‘Because you say that I am a sinner, therefore I shall be righteous and be saved.’ ‘No,’ says the devil, ‘you will be damned.’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘for I take refuge in Christ, who has given Himself for my sins. Therefore, Satan, you will not prevail against me as you try to frighten me by showing me the magnitude of my sins and to plunge me into anguish, loss of faith, despair, hatred, contempt of God, and blasphemy. In fact, when you say that I am a sinner, you provide me with armor and weapons against yourself, so that I may slit your throat with your own sword and trample you underfoot. You yourself are preaching the glory of God to me; for you are reminding me, a miserable and condemned sinner, of the fatherly love of God, who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only Son, etc.’ (John 3:16). You are reminding me of the blessing of Christ my Redeemer. On His shoulders, not on mine, lie all my sins. For ‘the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all,’ and ‘for the transgressions of His people He was stricken’ (Is. 53:6, 8). Therefore when you say that I am a sinner, you do not frighten me; but you bring me immense consolation’ (Luther, Luther’s Works, AE Volume 26, 36-37).” Luther practiced being thankful even when he was reminded of his own sins! That’s the way to live!