To the Seminary, and Beyond!
Follow us as we embark on our journey through the seminary and into ministry to which God has called us!

Don't forget to subscribe to get all the latest updates!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent 1 Midweek: May I Have Your Attention, Please!

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Tonight we continue with our theme of Lenten Customs.  Last week we looked at how ashes are symbols of our sin and repentance, as outwards signs of our inward state.  Tonight we are going to be looking from the inside out.  Another longstanding tradition of Lent is the practice of fasting.  Traditionally, the term fasting refers to the act of abstaining from food for religious purposes, and we can see this practice all over the Bible as well as throughout history.  This is not just a Christian practice; we see a variety of religious traditions abstaining from food for a set period of time.  Most often, this is in order to merit some favor or achieve some righteousness before God.  The church, on the other hand, has used fasting in a variety of forms to help refocus our attention on Christ. 
Our attention is a very fickle thing.  Many of us like to believe that we are efficient multitaskers, but in reality our brains can only process one task at a time.  When most of us multitask, in truth we are simply switching back and forth between tasks, though perhaps seamlessly, because our brain cannot process more than one thing at a time.  This is what makes magic so convincing.  The other evening I was watching a show entitled “Brain Games,” and on the episode about attention the famous magician, David Copperfield, said, “If you can take their attention to another place willingly, then you’ve done your job correctly.”
Magicians exploit the fact that our brains can only focus on one thing to pull off seemingly miraculous illusions.  They know that if they can get us to focus on a single object, our brain will filter everything else out and we won’t notice even the most significant changes in our environment.  To demonstrate, the show set up a counter advertising the opportunity to be on the show.  They positioned a clerk behind the counter and when someone walked up the clerk would hand them a release form.  The clerk would then duck under the counter to get a pen and a different clerk would reappear with the pen.  Since the people were so busy looking at the waiver, they didn’t even notice the clerk was different than before.
Through a variety of other demonstrations and experiments the show made its point clear: we are easily deceived into being distracted and lose sight of the world around us.  But there is one who is far superior to all the magicians and con artists and hypnotists out there, and there is more on the line than just your pride or your wallet.  From the beginning Satan has been known as “The Deceiver.”  He has been called the “Father of All Lies,” “The Corrupter of the Truth,” “The Tempter.”  While scholars and scientists have been studying the mind since Ancient Greece, Satan has been studying humanity since Adam and Eve.  He knows how we work.  He knows how we think.  He knows just how to distract and entice us so that we lose focus on God and shift our devotion and attention to other things.  Satan knows how to turn seemingly harmless objects into idols.  He is so good at this that we often don’t even see our own idolatry for what it truly is.
Luther tells us in his Large Catechism a god is something from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.  Luther wrote, “I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.  If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. ... Now I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”  Satan can work his deception so well that he can replace the one True God with an idol without us even noticing.
There are the obvious ways, like trusting in money or possessions, but even those we exclude ourselves from.  We insist we only trust in God, but what would happen if like Job you lost everything?  What would happen if your house burned down, your bank account drained, your other possessions stolen, your family murdered?  Your faith would likely be hard pressed.  Even more so, what would happen if your health was to fail you and you suffered from a crippling disease?  Would you stand firm in your faith, confidently declaring, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away?”
But these are big things, what about the little ones?  What would happen if you lost access television or the internet or a computer or a telephone?  What would happen if someone hit your car and you had to go without it for a week or two?  How would that make you feel?  How would you respond?  My guess is that anyone in here would at the very least be quite agitated.  You see, Satan offers us so many distractions that our sinful natures feasts upon that we don’t even realize we are being distracted, and we are even resistant to the idea of calling these things that we depend on idols and calling ourselves idolaters. 
Yet there is a way that we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to recapture our attention and refocus it on Christ.  One of the ways we do this is through fasting.  Though traditionally this has been done by abstaining from food, this practice has expanded to include abstaining from a variety of activities, thus the question is often asked, “What did you give up for Lent?”  The “hunger” for whatever we are giving up is associated with our spiritual hunger.  The idea is that when we fast, we feel that desire; that emptiness in our lives that used to be filled by these things we have given up, those idols in our lives, and it grabs our attention.  This is what makes fasting from food is so effective, because the hunger pains can get so bad that they distract us from all other things.  When they do so we intentionally remind ourselves that it is God who gives us what we truly need.  He gives us the true bread and the living water.
When we give things up for Lent we also feel the weight of their absence, and as we are turned to Christ by the Spirit we see how we have replaced God in our devotion with all these other things.  We see how much time and attention we have given to them while neglecting our devotion to God.  Yes, when our attention is turned to Christ we do in fact see our idolatry, but we also see our Savior.  As we confessed earlier, we know we cannot live God’s Law perfectly, but we also know that Christ already did it for us.  As our attention is turned from our own false gods, we see the true God who lived and died for each and every one of us, and when we do that we also see Satan and his distractions for what they truly are: nothing but cheap magician’s gimmicks that are incapable of separating us from the love of God our Father, and Jesus Christ our Lord.  So this Lent let your attention be turned to the cross and know that Christ has taken your sins upon Himself, and rest in peace knowing that even death itself is just a distraction that cannot keep us from our Savior forever.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Why Ashes?

            Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
            Today begins the observance of Lent, the slow and measured journey to the cross, where we see Jesus: the Savior who hangs, bloodied and scorned, for us.  It is a time of reflection and repentance, for us here and for the Church around the world.  Over the next a forty days, not counting Sundays, we will prepare for Easter by humbling ourselves to receive Christ as our Risen Lord and Savior.
Originally, the season of Lent was a period of time when baptismal candidates were taught the faith and questioned, much like our own confirmation students.  In 325 AD, the first reference to the time period of forty days was recorded at the Council of Nicaea, and just a few years later the great church father Athanasius asked his congregation to hold a fast during this time.  Since then other customs have formed as Lent developed more into a penitential season, where we reflect on our own sinful nature and mortality.  While we journey through lent we will explore some of these customs, like fasting and excluding the “A” word from worship, and how these traditions help places our hearts in a more humble, receptive position.
            To begin with, today we are observing Ash Wednesday.  Ashes have a variety of meaning in the Bible.  Doing a quick search you will find that often people put on sackcloth and threw ashes in the air to cover them in order to express grief, humiliation, or repentance.  This custom goes back to the Old Testament and was a common practice all the way up through the Middle Ages.  The idea was that the scratchy sackcloth, like that of burlap, against the skin and the ashes would be an outward representation of the emotional turmoil they felt inside.
One of the best examples in the Old Testament is of Job.  When he was told of the destruction of all his property and the death of his children and when he himself was struck with disease he tore his clothes and went to sit in ashes.  When his friends had come to him and saw the state of grief he was in, they too covered themselves in ashes and sat with him.  Another example includes the king of Nineveh repenting at Jonah’s warning and dressing himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes.  Even God Himself in Jeremiah commanded the people to put on sackcloth and ashes in mourning, yet this was not to mourn something that has already happened but to mourn the coming destruction as the Lord has judged them and is giving them over to their iniquities.
God’s judgment and destruction are another meaning of ashes in Scripture.  One of the best known examples in this case is God bringing down judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah when He brought them down to ashes.  In Ezekiel, God laments and tells the King of Tyre that because of his sin God has brought fire against him that consumed him and turned him into ashes in the sight of all.  And when God condemns Adam for his sin in the garden, God declares, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken: for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  So too, dust and ashes remind us of our judgment and morality.  In our sin, we have been reduced to a heap ashes before God.
Recognizing our humble estate, those same ashes also become a symbol of our repentance.  Job’s complaining turns into sin when He accuses God of being unjust.  God confronts Job and declares that not only did God create the world, but He still cares for it.  Job is reminded of his mortality and lowly estate and confesses to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. …I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. …I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
Daniel recognized the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity as the punishment of Israel by God for their sins and responds, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”  What followed was a confession of those sins and the shame and humiliation that those sins have brought upon them.  Daniel also recognizes that God’s judgment is just and right, for the Israelites did indeed sin against God, and continued to sin even after God had warned them of the coming destruction, yet He appeals to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to His people and pleads for God to remove His wrath from among His people and to restore them once again.  In both cases, in Job and with the people of Israel, after their repentance God does in fact have mercy upon them and restores them.
We are sinful people.  When we acknowledge that sin, it does indeed bring grief and shame.  Our hearts are broken, and so we repent and come before God as broken people.  We recognize that there is nothing we can do and so we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.  But we do not do so as people without hope, but we do so as people with a promise, and as we cling to that promise we trust that God will act in His mercy.  Yet we also know that that mercy has come at a price for our sins could not go unpunished.
So God sent to us His only begotten Son, as He is the only one who could bear the weight of the sins for the whole world.  We rejoice knowing that our sins are forgiven, but we also recognize that we are only forgiven because our sins have been paced on Christ.  He has become our scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb whose blood was slain for the people.  As we acknowledge our sin, we acknowledge our participation in the sufferings and death of Christ.  If He had not gone to that cross, our sins would not be forgiven.  He took the punishment we deserved and experienced the fullness of Hell on the cross so we don’t have to.  And so we place ashes on our forehead to remind us of our sin and as a sign of our repentance, but we make them in the sign of the cross to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice.
Though our sin has reduced us to ashes, God has worked salvation among His people and brings us out of the ashes like a phoenix being reborn.  We declare palmist, “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.” And we proclaim with Isaiah that the Lord has come “to grant [comfort] to those who mourn in Zion, to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”
And so, during this Lenten season, we watch and we wait.  We see Christ making His way to the cross, and we see the grief, the humiliation and shame that he bears for our salvation, and we repent, thanking God for all that He has done.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

From Glory to Glory

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
As we begin, I want you to consider something.  Who is the one who made you?  Who is the one who formed you in the womb and called you by name?  God, our Father, the Creator of the Universe fearfully and wonderfully made you.  He handcrafted you, and because of that you are worthy.  You are worth more than the friends you have on Facebook.  You are worth more than the grades you got on a test.  You are worth more than the paycheck you bring home at the end of the week.  You are worth more than the label on the clothes you wear.  You are worth more than you could ever imagine because in the eyes of the Lord, you are loved, and you are worth dying for.  You are funny.  You are smart.  You are strong and powerful.  You are capable, and any voice that tells you different is from the enemy, and the next time you hear one of those voices you stand up and you say, “Nope, not me Satan.  I’m the child of the living God, cherished and loved and adored above all things by the Creator of all things for the glory of Him who is above all things, and I am…

Pastor: Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  Vicar, what are you doing?!?!?
Vicar: …worthy.”  …Pastor, do you mind?  I’m preaching here.
Pastor: Are you sure, vicar?  Because preaching requires the proper understanding and proclamation of Law and Gospel, and that’s no Law and Gospel.
Vicar:  Well, pastor, I decided that condemning people for their sin ins just too negative and that not what people want to hear.  I wanted to make people feel good about themselves.  I wanted to make our message more attractive; something that people would enjoy hearing so that they’d keep coming back.  I’m trying to boost attendance, and besides, I want people to like me.
Pastor: We’re not here to make people like us, Vicar.  We’re here to preach the Word in its truth and purity, just like Paul did, and that requires both Law and the Gospel to be distinguished and proclaimed.  Do not put a veil over their hearts so that they do not see Christ and do not see the truth.  Preach the truth, Vicar, preach Christ, because what we preach is not of ourselves but is Christ alone.  We are preachers of the Word for His sake, not our own.
Vicar: Okay, okay Pastor.  I’ll do it your way.”
Pastor: Thank you, Vicar.
            Okay, so the truth.  Well, the truth is that I have been mixing Law and Gospel.  I have been telling you about how great you are and how worthy you are because God has created you.  I told you that because of this you deserve all kinds of good things, but this is not the truth.  The truth is that you deserve hell.  Yes, God has created you, but that is not enough.  We were created in the glory of God, bearing His likeness and image.  We were created to do His will.  God demands that we follow His will perfectly, and anything less He considers nothing more than a pile of dirty rags tossed over in the corner of the room worth nothing more than to be disposed of.  Adam and Eve were created perfect, that they did the Father’s will perfectly…that was until Satan entered the picture.  Satan came and told them that they were worthy of being gods themselves.  He told them that they deserved all kinds of good things, and he pulled a veil over their heart, causing them to lose sight of God and they sinned.  They were no longer perfect and lost the glory of God.  They were no longer worthy.
            Since then humanity has been trying to regain that glory.  Some have lost sight of God altogether and they glorify themselves as gods.  Others who remember God have tried to regain their glory by trying to once again be perfect.  The motivation for doing so is out of terror of being at odds with a holy and perfect God.  In our Old Testament reading today we encounter Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the Law in his hand.  When the people saw him they were terrified because his skin was shining.  This did not terrify them simply because it was something that they were not used to, but it terrified them because in the glowing skin of Moses they were confronted with the reflection of a holy and perfect God, and they knew they were an unholy and imperfect people.  They were terrified not by Moses, but by God Himself, so Moses veiled His face when he was with the people, but when he was before God he left in unveiled.  The only hope the Israelites thought they had, therefore, was to follow the Law that God had given them perfectly.
            Paul says the Israelites were terrified because they did not understand.  They did not see God for who He truly is.  They only saw the perfect and holy God who troubled their sinful consciences, but Moses saw something more.  Moses also saw the gracious and forgiving God who would allow such a sinful man to stand before Him.  The Israelites were blind to this so Moses continued wearing the veil as long as he met with God on Sinai.  In this way the veil remained and the hearts of the Israelites were hardened so that they could only see the God that demanded perfection, even to this very day.  Instead of seeing God for who He truly is, they busy themselves trying to fulfill His Law and earn their own righteousness before Him.  When we refuse to see God full of grace and mercy, we too have a veil over our hearts and continue to try and find our own worthiness and glory before Him.
            But this is impossible.  We will never be able to justify ourselves using God’s Law.  We will never climb that ladder or make that ascent because the Law on its own only condemns us.  It is too much for us to bear because we are weak in the flesh.  When we try to justify ourselves by the Law, the Law finds us lacking and demands God’s wrath.  The work of the Law is only complete when we are condemned and thrown into hell.  This fact is indeed terrifying and should make us feel uncomfortable, yet as long as the veil remains over our hearts we can find no comfort or assurance.  If we live with this veil over our hearts we will continue to try and make our ascent and regain our glory before God by doing enough or being sincere enough or knowing enough or believing enough or whatever, but no matter how hard we try or how pure our motivations it will never be enough.  With God it’s all or nothing, and we will never stand up under that kind of scrutiny.  When we insist that I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay we’re living a lie, for who here is not under the Law?
            One day, about two thousand years ago, a rabbi took three of His disciples up a mountain.  There, He transfigured before them.  His clothes became radiant, intensely white, like nothing else on earth.  And there appeared with Him Moses and Elijah, the representatives of the Law and the prophets and the ones who gave their testimony for God.  These three disciples stood in awe, amazed, even terrified.  They did not know what to say, and then a voice spoke from somewhere within cloud that had descended upon them.  It declared that this was His Son, and to listen to Him.  With that, the cloud vanished, along with Moses and Elijah and the radiant light.  It’s like the veil was lifted from the disciples for only a moment, and they were given a glimpse to see the glory of God.  But a moment later God’s glory withdrew back into its original source, and there, standing in its place, was Jesus only.  The eyes of the disciples were opened, if only for a moment, but they saw the glory of God shining as bright as can be, through Jesus.  This radiance wasn’t a mere reflection, as it was with Moses, but it was the fullness of God emanating from Christ Himself.
            There is no doubt that the disciples did not understand the significance of what they had just witnessed.  As they stood there gazing upon Jesus, Jesus told them to tell no one what they had seen.  That is, at least, not until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  In the very next verse, after our Gospel reading for today, we are told that the disciples kept the matter to themselves, wondering what this rising from the dead might mean.  Fortunately for us, we know what this resurrection meant, and what it says about that day on the mountain.  Dear Christians, we know this story: the fullness of God dwelt in human flesh.  Christ stepped down from His heavenly throne and came as a servant in human form.  He who is above all things submitted Himself to the Law He created.  He obeyed the Law perfectly, showing His glory to the world, yet He handed Himself over as a lamb to be slaughtered.  He did so for our sake, taking our sin into Himself.  In doing so, He received the punishment we deserved, and in exchange given us the glory that was His.
            So, I ask you again, who here is not under the Law?  The answer, brothers and sisters, is that no one here in under the Law.  Christ has fulfilled the Law for us, so we are freed from its burdens.  With Christ’s death and resurrection, the Law has perished and given way to the glory of Christ.  Christ has taken His glory, and has given it to each and every one of us so that you are in fact worthy to stand before God, not on your account but all for the sake of Christ and the blood He shed for you.  When we stand in Christ, we stand before God with an unveiled face and see Him in His full glory, full of mercy and grace, and we see just how far God was willing to go to save us from the clutches of death and hell.  And it is as we bask in God’s glory we are being transformed from a perishing earthly glory to a living glory that has no end.
            As we move in to the Lenten season on Sunday, it is my fervent prayer, that each and every one of you are turned to Christ.  I pray that you do not desperately cling to the veil of unbelief, but that you let it be lifted so that you are confronted with the reality of your sin, for this is the purpose of Lent.  Over these forty days may we stand in recognition of our sin and let the weight of condemnation press down upon us as the Law does its work, so that we more clearly see the glory of Christ and are driven deeper into His mercy.  It is only when we let go of the veil that can we see Christ for who He truly is and appreciate fully what He has done for us as we remember His death on Good Friday and celebrate His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  And remember, in Christ, you are worthy.

            May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Disciplined for Freedom

            Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Recently, for a variety of reasons, Marie and I have made a commitment to live a healthier lifestyle.  We have made goals for ourselves, and we have big challenges to overcome.  We knew that although we ate healthy, we’d have to be more intentional in what we put in our bodies and how much.  Even though I already had a gym membership, I’d have to take my exercising more seriously and be dedicated to a regular routine.  We have set our minds, and our bodies, to this task and have given up a lot of our freedoms in food selections and free time to serve this cause.
            Today is the second to last Sunday in the Epiphany season.  We have slowly been peeling back the layers to see Christ for who He truly is.  First, we’ve seen it with others.  We’ve seen the Magi travel from distant lands to come and honor a newborn king.  We’ve seen John, baptizing in the wilderness and witnessing to the coming Light.  Then, we’ve seen it with Christ Himself.  We’ve seen Jesus come to the Jordan to be baptized while a dove descended upon Him and a voice boomed from heaven, “This is my beloved Son!”  We’ve seen Christ using His divine foreknowledge and calling together His disciples, declaring that they will become fishers of men.  Last week we saw Christ teaching with an authority of His own and casting out demons from among the people.  Today, we see Christ healing many and continuing to cast out demons as He preaches throughout Galilee.
            The deeper we get into the Epiphany season, we see the Light of the world glowing brighter and brighter.  Christ coming to oppose the darkness that has settled upon the earth.  This is the purpose of Epiphany; that we see Christ revealed to the World, but this purpose is twofold.  First, that we see Christ revealed through Scripture, as each event points more and more at His divinity until, finally, as we will see next week, His transfiguration fully reveals to us His divine identity to us.  Yet Epiphany is also about the revelation of Christ in our world today.  In Epiphany we are given the opportunity to stop and ask, how is Christ being revealed?  How is Christ being revealed to our family and friends?  How is Christ being revealed to our neighbors and co-workers?  How is Christ being revealed to the teenage girl down the street who just had an abortion?  How is Christ being revealed to that teenager at school who is struggling with his homosexual feelings?  How is Christ being revealed to that man sleeping under the overpass?  How is Christ being revealed to that woman who is selling herself on the street corner?
            In our Epistle today, Paul boasts that he is able to preach the gospel freely.  Paul boasts that he is able to become all things to all people so that some may be saved for the sake of the gospel.  Paul was zealous in his mission, desiring to share the gospel with anyone and everyone he could.  He tells us that to the Jews he became a Jew, to those who placed themselves under the old covenant he submitted himself to the covenant, and to those apart from the covenant he became like one apart from the covenant.  Paul understood the freedom and blessing that the gospel gave him, and he made full use of his freedom by becoming a servant to all.  He knew that the only Law he was under was the Law of Christ, and being under grace he could meet people where they were, to share with them the love of Christ and all that He has done for us.  So I’ve got to ask you a question: when was the last time you forsook your pride so that you could be all things to all people?  When was the last time you reached out to that teenage girl and told her that in Christ her sins are forgiven, even abortion?  When was the last time you walked beside that teenager at school and told Him He has been given a new identity in Christ and doesn’t have to be defined by his feelings?  When was the last time you asked that man to come with you to lunch and told him about the treasure he has in Christ.  When was the last time you went to that street corner and told her that she has been bought with the blood of Christ?  When was the last time you became a servant of all so that you might win some?
Paul makes it look so easy.  I’m often convicted when I see the lengths to which he went in order to win people over to Christ.  As for me, I always find myself boiling with rage and having to restrain my tongue and not say what I want to in reply to those who insult me and my faith.  I always find myself looking at someone and thinking, “They’ll never trust in Christ,” or “They won’t understand,” or “They’ll only mock and ridicule me.  So why even bother?”  I continually find myself piling excuse upon excuse of why I don’t have to go out there and do that.  I know it’s not only me; I hear it from you as well.  I hear people say that they aren’t equipped and don’t know what to say, or that they don’t know how to bring it up and don’t have an opportunity.  I know your excuses because they are my own as well.  We’re so afraid of being made to look like a fool or of being rejected that we are unwilling to put ourselves on the line, much less put ourselves in submission to others. 
And we know that our prize does not hang on the line; in the Gospel we are free.  It does not matter one bit to our salvation if we go out into the world spreading the word of Christ or stay at home, comfortable in our recliner.  We know that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, so why would we walk out into a world that is eager to swallow us up?  We know that the doing of God’s Will and the coming of Christ’s kingdom does not depend on us.  We are free to do whatever we want to do, and we’re even free to do nothing.  So why in the world would we go out there, why would we go outside of our comfort zone and get our hands dirty?
Thankfully, Christ did not feel the same way.  We owe our freedom to Him.  God could have rightfully looked at us and said, “Well, they brought it upon themselves.  Let them lay in the bed they made.”  He not willing to be content with that, however.  The Father’s love compelled Him to send His Son, and the Son’s love compelled Him to come down and get His hands dirty.  Christ, the Word of God, God Himself, wrapped Himself in human flesh.  He submitted Himself to the Law like those who were under the Law.  He fulfilled the law perfectly in our place, and He, who knew no sin, became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.  Not only did Christ come down to earth to be among sinners, but He Himself became sin so that He could stand in our place and receive our punishment.  He loves us so much that He was willing to go through the pain, the agony, being forsaken by God and literally experiencing Hell on that cross, so that we could be reconciled to the Father.  It was that love that compelled Him, and it’s that same love that compelled Paul, and that same love that compels us.  So, why should we get our hands dirty?
Paul gives us his answer in our Epistle: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share with them in its blessing.”  Paul is free to do whatever he wants to do, but in his freedom Paul has chosen to run the race as if there was only one prize, so that he can share with them in its blessing.  He has chosen to discipline his body and exercise self-control so that he himself is not disqualified, so that he can share with them in its blessing.  Paul knows that no matter what He is going to get the prize, his salvation is not on the line, but he also wants to reap the benefits of that blessing here and now.
Marie and I made the decision to live healthier so we could live a higher quality life, so we have sacrificed our freedom in what we put in our bodies and our time so that we can work towards our goals, one of which is to have the energy to keep up and share life with Levi.  When we aren’t disciplined, we lose sight of the goal, of those benefits that we can have now.  In January I saw gym attendance explode to the point where I had to wait in line for a treadmill.  Here, only a month later, over half the people have already disappeared.  They know they are free, but if they do not put in the work and the effort they will not partake in the benefits here and now.  As some of you know, Marie started a new business venture last month, and she is free to run that business however she would like.  If she does nothing there is no penalty, but if she disciplines herself, if she puts in the hard work and makes those phone calls and follow ups she will reap the benefits here and now.  But she disciplines herself because she wants to share with others her love of books and joy in reading.
This is very similar to our lives as Christians.  If we do not discipline ourselves, we will lose out on the benefits here and now, and all we will be reduced to desperately waiting for Christ to return so we can finally live in a state of blessedness.  But we don’t have to wait, for Christ has given His Kingdom to us now.  Today, we experience the eternal blessings by living in Christian fellowship here and now, and the more that are added to our numbers, the more we experience the sweetness of the Gospel in this life.  Paul disciplined himself to receive the benefits of the Gospel by living in Christian love and fellowship here and now.  Remember, when we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” and “Thy Will be done,” we of course know that God’s kingdom and will are established even without us, but we pray that it too might be done in, though, and among us so that we can experience the eternal blessings of God here and now with each other.
In just a few moments, we will experience of those blessings, so now, let us now prepare ourselves to gather around Christ’s table, a foretaste of the feast to come.  Let it strengthen our faith as we cling to that promise.  Let it motivate us and give us the strength and the confidence to go out into the world and proclaim His love to others.  And let it give us the peace and assurance in the Gospel of our own salvation.

And now may that same pace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Matters of the Heart

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
            Many parents remember the first time they heard the heartbeat of their yet-to-be-born baby.  The experience is powerful, full of emotion.  The rhythmic beat that begins the symphony of life brings so much joy.  That beat is vital as it determines the tempo and demeanor of the music.  After a baby is born doctors continue to listen to that beat as the symphony marches on, as children grow into adulthood.  It’s amazing how this beat that brings so much joy also brings so much sorrow comes when that symphony reaches its conclusion and that rhythmic beating finally comes to a rest.
            We can imagine what it must have been like when God breathed life into Adam and heard his heart beating for the first time.  What joy our Heavenly Creator and Father must have felt when He witnessed His creation come to life, yet how much sorrow He must have felt when He witnessed Adam choose death over the life God had given him.  Satan’s words taunted and tempted, “You will surely not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Sure, on that day their hearts did not cease beating inside their chest, but the beat that once was a beautiful symphony strayed from the sheet music God had written and was reduced to a cacophony of volatile notes and off beat measures.
This is because we are more than mere physical beings.  God fearfully and wonderfully created us with not only a physical existence, but a spiritual on as well.  In all creation, we are unique because God carefully crafted us in His own image.  He gave us an intellect to know Him and a will to follow His.  He gave us a heart by making us intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual beings so that we could love and adore and worship and praise Him, yet when Adam ate that fruit in the garden, he rebelled against God in the heart that God gave him.  In that moment, both his will and his intellect were corrupted.  His heart no longer aligned with God’s.  He lost the reflection of his Creator by rejecting the life that God had given him, and in doing so condemned himself to a life of misery and suffering.  God cast Adam and Eve out from the garden, barring them from the tree of life, lest they eat of it and live forever in their desolate state, forever dying yet never truly living.  In this merciful act, God allowed their suffering to end in death, but He took no pleasure in their dying.
In His foreknowledge, God knew that Adam and Eve would, condemning all humanity with them, so before He even created them, God planned for their salvation.  He refused to let sin and death have the final word over His creation.  He refused to let the life He gave and loved so dearly be lost forever.  This is the Gospel that we know and cling to, for it gives us life once again.  God sent His only begotten Son into the world, not to condemn, but to redeem.  Christ took on our flesh, submitting Himself to the Law of God, and lived a perfect life so that He was the perfect sacrifice.  God cast all our sin upon Him, condemning them in the flesh and putting sin to death once and for all.  In doing so, Christ set us free from the burdens of the Law and gave us a new life, creating in us a clean heart and renewing a right spirit within us.
But the question remains, what now?  What do we do with the freedom earned for us on the cross?  What have we been freed from, and what have we been freed for?  Last week we read in Romans.  Paul asked, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
In our baptism we were united with Christ not only in His death, but also in His life.  We live in grace, not so that we may keep on sinning, but just the opposite.  As Paul says, the death Christ died He died to sin, so in His death we too die to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God, and so the lives we live we also live to God.  The freedom we gained on the cross was the freedom from sin, and though we have been freed from sin we are not our own.  As the redeemed, we have been bought with a price: the holy and precious blood of Christ and His innocent suffering and death.  Freed from the bondage of sin we now belong to Him, and as our Master Christ would have us do His Father’s will.
Just as Christ did not come to condemn but to save, Christ also did not come to abolish the Law but uphold it.  Though we have been freed from the burdens of the Law, God’s Law is still written on our heart.  When challenged by the Pharisees, Christ declared the greatest commandments are loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets, He says, hangs on these two things.  In other words, the grace we receive through Christ does not send us out with a blank check and a get out of jail free card, but He wants us to live with God’s Law always before us, for following the Law is the Father’s will for our lives.
We look towards God’s Law then, not for our salvation, for our salvation was and is made complete through Christ alone, but instead as a guide to show us how to live godly lives here in time in light of our salvation.  Though our good works do not earn us favor from God, they do serve as a testimony before men.  In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ instructs His disciples, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Our works witness to our faith.  They show others the new heart God has given us, a heart that loves because God first loved us.  They are an expression of our thankfulness toward the gift we have been given.  They reflect what Christ has done for us on the cross.  Since we have been reconciled with God through Christ, we seek to reconcile with one another and bring others to the love of God in Christ Jesus.
It makes sense, then, that Christ continues on teaching about our relationships with one another.  He begins by teaching the fifth commandment.  How appropriate for the Sanctity of Life Sunday: You shall not commit murder.  Even more, this commandment does not simply forbidding taking another’s life.  Christ explains “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”  While this commandment forbids murder, it is also a matter of the heart. 
Luther explores this commandment further in his Large Catechism.  He comes to the conclusion that this commandment concerning life has two parts.  In the first part we must not hurt or harm anyone by our words or deeds.  In the second part it requires us to do good to our neighbor and prevent any evil from befalling him.  At first this seems simple, but Luther explains that the first part forbids even putting anyone in a position where they may be harmed, by our words or deeds, by our means or methods, or even hating them or being angry in our heart.  The second part includes see those in need and clothing and feeding them or seeing them suffering or in danger and intervening.  If we withhold our love in any way, we break this commandment.
In this way, we are called to serve God and obey His commandments.  We are to use them to serve one another and bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.  This is our calling.  Just as God called Samuel and the disciples in their own callings to serve Him, God also calls each one of us to lead a godly life in light of our salvation.  This can be hard though as our rebellious hear constantly struggles against the will of God, but we, as the redeemed, know that our Father and Christ our Lord has not left us alone to do this task, but They have sent to us a helper, Their Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all our sins and cleanses our heart so that each time we fail He picks us back up again and gives us the strength to go on.
Sin no longer has a hold on you.  Your sheet music has been wiped clean, and Christ has stepped in as your conductor.  Under His guide your symphony returns even more beautiful and majestic than it was before.  Where sin once ruled, you now have the desire to do what is good, what is right.  As a church, we have great ministries: we support Interfaith Ministries, we are partners in education, we serve vision clinics in Kenya, we fund foreign missionaries, we aid seminary students, we reach out to hospice and the fire station, we do a bunch of great things here at Our Redeemer that help advance the kingdom of God.  Yet there is always more work to do, there is always a need for workers in the harvest.
So ask yourself, particularly on this Life Sunday, is there anything more you can be doing: at home with your kids, at work with your co-workers, among family and friends, here at church, or anywhere else you may be to honor the gift of life that God has given us?  Are there conversations you can have?  Items you can give?  Things that you can do?  People you can support?  In this broken world there is always need; opportunities to serve our neighbor and advance God’s kingdom are always surrounding us.  Don’t be afraid to jump in and help out, because YOU are the redeemed and this is YOUR calling, for these are matters of the heart.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

For ALL People

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The day after Christmas, we went to Dallas for some much needed relaxation and entertainment.  We began making our way back after nightfall, and being the inexperienced Texans we are, we missed our exit and wound up driving down the lonely Jacksboro Highway.  A curtain of clouds held back the moon, preventing it from shinning any light on our surroundings.  Needless to say, it was dark.  The darkness consumed everything.  The only relief we had were our headlights as they fought back the encroaching darkness.  I kept thinking about how awful it would have been if something happened and we were trapped out there.  I would have been terrified stuck out in that overwhelming darkness with no hope of rescue.  The only comfort was the trust I had that my car lights wouldn't go out.
I am sure you can all relate.  There is just something terrifying about the dark, for darkness is something that is unknown to us.  In darkness our imaginations run wild.  We imagine all kinds of creatures running about with ill intent wishing us harm.  We envision boogie men stalking us, vampires chasing us, ghosts haunting us, and on and on.  Many stories and legends live on about creatures of the night, and cautionary tales have made their way into our folklore about the dangers of the dark.  This isn’t just a coincidence.  Even Scripture itself speaks about the evils of darkness.  Paul declared to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This present darkness is the same darkness that Isaiah disclosed, the darkness that covers the earth and the thick darkness that covers the peoples.  In the fall, Satan exploited the weakness of flesh and caused all creation to be covered by this darkness.  In this darkness, we could no longer clearly see God or know His will.  It is in this darkness that Satan and his demons work, doing whatever they need to turn our hearts and minds away from our God.  It is in this darkness that our sin is done, that we ourselves become creatures of darkness.  This is our fallen state as humanity, but this darkness is much more personal.  It touches each one of us as it tortures and oppresses us: through sin that we struggle with, through pain and suffering we endure, through sickness and disease that overwhelm us, through death that overtakes us.
The dark is a dangerous place indeed, and all the while Satan and his horde torment us further by whispering to us that we've been lost, forgotten, abandoned by God.  That we are stricken, smitten, and afflicted by Him, and that this darkness is our punishment, condemned to never see the light again.  While it is true that this darkness is our own doing, God was not content to leave us here alone.  From the very beginning, God set into motion a plan for our salvation, to bring His people out of darkness and into His marvelous light, so once again we may know our God and to know His will toward us, that He plans for our welfare and not evil, that He assures us of a bright future, full of promise.
Today, we celebrate Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany is one of light and revelation, as the mystery of God’s salvation is unfurled before the eyes of a dark world.  Until now the Christ child has been revealed only to the people of the promise, the people of the covenant.  But now, today, we hear of the revelation of the Christ child to the wise men, representing the whole of the Gentiles.  Yet, as you might expect, there is more going on here than it seems.
As we read in Matthew, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.”  They were searching for the One who was born king of the Jews.  They arrived in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the palace of Herod, for naturally that would be where the king was born.  Yet Jesus was not there, and when Herod heard of his birth he was troubled, for he knew that this king must be the Christ and would one day challenge his own authority.  So he gathered the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Christ was to be born.  Referring to the prophets, they sent the wise men on their way to Bethlehem.  They set out and the star reappeared overhead, leading them to the very house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.  When they saw the child, they fell down and worshiped, presenting him with gifts fit for a king.
In order to fully appreciate this narrative, however, we must ask ourselves just who these wise men are.  Matthew does not tell us much about them.  He doesn't even tell us how they determined the significance of the star.  It is often assumed that these men had access to at least some of the Jewish writings that went out with the people during their exile.  Some believe they were philosophers or learned scholars seeking enlightenment.  Others believe they were pious kings seeking truth.  However, these ideas of tradition came about quite late and have no basis in Scripture.  In fact, when we look at the Greek, the word used for these men is μάγοι, most correctly translated as magi.
This reveals more of the puzzle, as we know this is the same word from which we get magic and magician.  Μάγοι also appears in other places in Scripture.  First, in Daniel 2, we see the king calling together his sorcerers, astrologers, and his μάγοι.  These μάγοι are the court magicians; practitioners of the occult; masters of the mystical.  From the testimony of Scripture, these are the kinds of people that directly oppose God and His people.  Even in the New Testament, we read of one μάγος who opposed Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 as they shared God’s Word on Cyprus.  Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked at this magician and declared, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”  Then the Lord condemned the magician to blindness and a darkness fell upon him and he could not see the light.
These were the magi.  There was nothing noble or wise about them.  In fact, they were the direct enemies of God.  The very mention of them would have brought disgust in the hearts and minds of Matthews hearers.  So why?  Why did God reveal Christ to His enemies?  Not only did He reveal Christ to the Magi, but through the Magi He also revealed Christ to Herod, the one who sought to kill Jesus to avert the threat to his own throne.  And why was this revelation even recorded?  And why is this the revelation that we read on Epiphany?
We remember this revelation, because it is the very heart of the Gospel that we have received.  Paul declares himself a prisoner of Christ on behalf of us, the Gentiles.  He was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.  It was his mission to bring the light to everyone, the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, that this Gospel is not a Gospel of the Jews only, but one for all people.
As I said before, our sin made us creatures of darkness.  In our sin, we were made enemies of God.  In or sin, we oppose Him and rebel against His will, and as a consequence are left in darkness, and while we remain in darkness we are helpless and hopeless, but God sent Christ into the world to bring us into the light, to be our help and our salvation.  As Paul declares in his letter to the Romans, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.  And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
One of my professors told us he refuses to engage in conflict resolution, because it if focused only on eradicating the conflict.  His goal, then, is reconciliation, for we were in conflict with God, but thankfully God was interested in more than conflict resolution.  If He was, He could have resolved the conflict by wiping us out of existence.  Instead, God Himself was interested in reconciliation.  He wanted to unite all people to Himself, so He sent Christ to us and revealed Him as our Savior.  The punishment that was on Him brought us peace, so that we are reconciled to God through Christ, as Paul says, “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence though our faith in Him.
This is what the revelation to the magi reminds us, that though a darkness covers the earth, and a thick darkness over the peoples, a light has shined for us in Christ, and that His glory is seen by all peoples, gathering them together before the Lord as sons and daughters gathered from afar.  This is the mystery of salvation, as Paul declares, that we are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  Though we were creatures of darkness, through Christ we have become children of light.  This is the Gospel that gives us peace.

And may this peace, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Morning: Song of Simeon

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
Oh, what a blessed day!  Did you see Him!?!?!  Did you SEE Him?!?!?!  That little baby, the one that I just held so tenderly in my arms, and did you hear His name?  They called Him Jesus, meaning “God Saves!”  How appropriate, because God will indeed save through that child, for He is the Lord’s Anointed One, the Redeemer of the world.  And I, Simeon, a simple man of Jerusalem, had the privilege, the honor, the blessing of holding God’s own Son in my arms!  Oh, please excuse me.  I must sound absolutely crazy to you.  Let me explain.
            Shalom.  God’s peace to you.  My name is Simeon.  I have anxiously anticipated this day like the watchman waits for the morning.  You see, like many I have been eagerly waiting for the consolation of Israel, that is, I have been waiting for the long expected Messiah to appear.  Years ago the Lord revealed to me that I would see His Anointed One with my very own eyes before I die.  Little did I know I would be able to hold Him in my arms.  Oh, what a blessed day!  I have thought about this day and what would be like many times.  But I have to be honest, I did not expect it would happen in this way.  I don’t quite know what I was imagining, but I definitely did not expect to see the Savior of the world come as a baby.  It’s hard to imagine that child being the Lord’s Christ, but I digress.  Let me tell you about what I experienced today.
            Today, I was simply going about my business when the Lord spoke to me, and told me to come to His temple.  I didn’t quite know what awaited me, but I hurried as fast as I could.  When I first arrived, I was a little disappointed.  It seemed like business as usual.  People were coming and going, bringing their offerings to the Lord.  The priests were going about their temple duties paying no attending to the crowds surrounding them.  I was just about to ask God why He had brought me here, but then, I saw them; three figures making their way anonymously through the crowd.  No one was paying any attention to the small family as they approached, for there wasn’t anything special about their appearance.
They looked like any other poor peasant family would.  With the tiny baby in their arms you could tell that they were coming for the purification of the mother and the dedication of their firstborn son as required by the Law of Moses.  They brought with them two pigeons as an offering, the alternative sacrifice for those who could not afford a lamb.  Nothing in particular made them stand out from the faceless crown surrounding the temple.  Even when they caught my eye, I didn’t notice at first, but then the Lord spoke: “This little child, this infant, is My Son, My Anointed One.  He is the glory of Israel and the light to the Gentiles.”  And with that my eyes were opened to see what the masses couldn’t. 
I couldn’t help myself and rush over to them.  I asked His parents if they would let me take Him in my arms.  They were surprised at my request, but willing to do so.  When I took Him, I felt…I felt alive in a way that I never have before.  I felt the Lord’s Spirit stirring within me as I looked upon this little child.  There was a beauty, and innocence, and majesty in his eyes that I couldn’t even begin to describe.  I knew, as I stood there holding Him that I was now holding the coming Christ.  My eyes have seen God’s salvation, as He revealed to me by His Word, and I was at peace.  I am free to depart like the watchman who sees the rising sun, for the Son has finally been revealed.  My days of waiting are over.  OUR days of waiting ARE OVER.
As Isaiah foretold of old, God is doing a new thing.  Through this child, He will establish a covenant of peace for all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike.  Through His Christ, God will gather all nations to Himself, bringing justice to the oppressed, giving sight to the blind, making the lame dance and the mute shout for joy.  All knees will bow and all tongues confess that He is God alone.  To those who sit in darkness He brings this marvelous light of revelation: this child will deliver the world from our sins.  Surely, God’s Spirit rests upon Him in a way like never before, for when this child entered the temple God Himself returned to His Holy House.
For when I looked into His eyes I saw much.  I saw life, and I saw death.  I saw hope, and I saw despair.  I saw the beginning, and I saw the end.  In Him, I saw everything there was, and is and is to come, for in this little baby, I saw the very presence of God.  The heavens sing for joy and the earth exalts Him, for the one who has stretched out the heavens with His hand and laid the foundations of the earth has come to redeem His people!  The Lord has returned to Zion!  His salvation is here!  This is the news that I declare to you today!  As Isaiah declared, “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
There are no words to describe the moment I realized what child this is all that lay before Him.  At first, I was amazed that God would choose such a birth, but as I gazed into His eyes the words of the prophets rang in my ears.  “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.  As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.”  
Who will believe me?   Who has seen the arm of the Lord revealed?  For this child is God’s servant.  He will be great before the Lord, obeying all He has said, but He will be despised and rejected by men.  As Isaiah predicts, “Surely he will bare our griefs and carry our sorrows; yet we will esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he will be pierced for our transgressions; he will be crushed for our iniquities; upon him will be the chastisement that brings us peace, and with his wounds we will healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He will be lead like a lamb to the slaughter, and on account of His suffering and anguish we, who have gone astray, will be counted as righteous.  For our sake, he will bear our sins so that we might be inheritors of His kingdom.  It is for this reason that the Christ child has been born.  No doubt He will cause the fall and rise of many, for He is a sign to be opposed.  But for those who have faith, we will be redeemed and with everlasting love the Lord will show compassion on us.  His steadfast love will never depart from us and His covenant of peace will never be removed.  We shall be with the Lord forever.  And we shall have all this for the sake of this child.

So did you see Him?  Did you see the Christ child?  Did you see Jesus?  He is the Anointed One, God’s Salvation come at last!  Now, please excuse me, as I must go tell all that will listen!  Shalom.  Oh, Anna!  Anna, I’ve got something to tell you!