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Blame Jesus …

Sermon for May 22, 2022

  1. The Christian faith was always important to my mom. She took us to church every Sunday. She put me into C.C.D., which was the Roman Catholic version of Confirmation class.

          She took me to class once a week, every week after school. I completed the course. The church then had an evening service where they celebrated and confirmed us.

          It was a great occasion. It was a rite of passage. My parents and sister came. It was my day.

          As we went home, my parents gave me two gifts. One of them was a barometer with a thermometer. I had been interested in science, and they thought it would be a nice reminder of my confirmation.

          For some reason, I opened the gift and said something like, “Did you get this at ‘Pick ‘n Save’?” which was a discount store like the 99-cent store.

          I don’t know why I said that. It was rude. I sounded like a spoiled brat, not a grateful son. It ruined the spirit of the moment and hurt my parents. Usually, I said “thank you” for gifts. Something came out of my mouth that I didn’t recognize.

          I don’t remember how my parents responded. Soon afterwards, I felt guilty for having said that. I felt sorry for it. I don’t remember if I apologized. I should have been grateful for any gift they gave me.

          I was confirmed that day in my Christian faith. I also confirmed the fact that I am a sinner, in need of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness He won for me.

2. The Gospel reading for today is the alternate for this Sunday. It is supposed to end at verse nine. But, as with other readings in the Scripture, there’s “more to the story”.

          This is a well-known passage. Jesus comes to the Pool of Bethesda where a “multitude of invalids” are hoping to be cured. It’s like a covered courtyard with and open-air pool in the middle. They were all hanging out in the covered areas around the pool.

          Jesus comes up to only one man. This man had been paralyzed for 38 years. He had probably been by the pool for a long time, maybe even decades. But, his hope seemed futile. He was paralyzed and had no one to help him into the pool.

          At this pool, it was first come, first served. It was a race to be healed.

          Jesus looks right at this man and says, “Do you want to be healed?” If I asked you that question here, you might just say yes or no. If you have been waiting in the hallway of a hospital on a gurney after nine hours of waiting for a doctor, you might say, “I have been waiting for the doctor to see me for many hours.”

          And so, the man responds that he has no one to put him into the pool. He didn’t really answer Jesus’ question. Jesus was asking if he wanted to be healed. But, the man was blind and deaf to what Jesus was asking.

          Then, Jesus gives the command to the paralytic’s body, “Get up, take your bed and walk”. Almost involuntarily, the man does just that.

          Now think about this; here is a man who no doctor can cure. He has been paralyzed for 38 years. That means the muscles in his legs had probably wasted away. He probably didn’t even remember how to walk.

          And, after this, he didn’t need months or years of physical therapy and rehab. He was immediately fully cured. Instantly, He was made whole. Christ spoke and the miracle of full restoration happened.

          Did the man thank Jesus? Did he jump up and down for joy? Did he ask to follow Jesus or fall down at His feet and worship Him? Nope.

          He was ungrateful. He had an entitled attitude.

          I mean, a miracle just happened to him. He completely overlooked it.

          You and I look at this and judge the man for being ungrateful. And, that is right. Yet, Jesus has done something even greater for you and me.

          In the waters of your baptism, He made you a child of God. He forgave your sins; past, present, and future. He gave you His righteousness. He gave you eternal life. Jesus gave you the whole enchilada, as they say.

But, we have become numb to this great miracle. We have forgotten who we are. We live as if nothing has changed.

          Instead of thanking God for “so great a salvation”, we complain and grumble when we pray. Are we ungrateful for the tremendous gift God has given us? Do we overlook it?

3. The day that Jesus healed this man was the Sabbath. It was a day of restoration and rest. When the Jewish leaders saw the man, they judged him superficially. They didn’t marvel at the fact that this paralytic had been healed after 38 years of living with the affliction.

          They said to him, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed”. He told them that the man who healed him had given him a new command. He shifted the blame to the healer.

Then, they asked who the healer was. You probably know people like this. They don’t own their own problems. They blame others when cornered. Psychologists call these people, “externalizers”.

          Jesus then finds the man. He warns him with these words, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”

          The man immediately disobeys Jesus and betrays Him to the Jewish religious leaders. He turns to people he knows want to destroy Jesus.

          One of my favorite movies of all time is The Matrix. The story is that the reality we live in is just a digital imaginary world. People are used as batteries to power machines.

          The real world is a place where men and women fight the machines. It is a difficult life and even the food is not very good. A group of people free a man named Neo and bring him from digital imagination world to the real world to help fight the machines.

          But not all the members of the group want to live in the real world anymore. One of them, named Cypher, betrays the others. He wants to become a battery again and live in the imaginary world where food and life are better.

          He wants to return to the way things were. He ends up betraying three of his friends who are killed and wounding another. He left a trail of destruction before one of them kills him.

          Jesus warned the former paralytic. He told him not to continue in sin or something worse would happen to him.

          That is what happens when people reject the Gospel. When they live as if it meant nothing at all.

          That happens with us, too. Gossip and slander betray those who are trying to do good in the church and elsewhere. It undermines service and ministry. Words become weapons of destruction.

          As James writes,

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

          Christ warns us, “Sin no more that nothing worse may happen to you”. Destruction is the price for those opposed to the work of the Gospel.

4. When the Jewish leaders come to Jesus and persecute Him, he responds by saying, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

          Jesus is not stopped by the paralytic’s unbelief and betrayal. He is not stopped by the Jewish leaders’ persecution. He is not stopped by the fact that it was the Sabbath day which was a day of rest and restoration.

          He continues to work salvation in this world. Nothing can stop Him.

          Jesus was betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas Iscariot. The religious leaders captured Him. But, they played right into God’s plan.

          That’s because Jesus was commanded by God His Father to go to the cross. His life’s purpose was to become a sacrifice for all human sin.

          He went to the cross and became the betrayers. He became the gossips. He became the slanderers. He became those who use words to undermine others. Jesus became the destroyers.

          And, filled with their sin, God the Father made Him pay for that sin. Jesus took the blame. The Father poured down wrath on Jesus until His judgment for sin was satisfied. Christ was destroyed for their sin. Their destruction is destroyed in His body.

          It is finished.

          Christ declares to them, “You are forgiven”.

          As Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

God the Father accepted Jesus’ payment for sin. The proof of that is Jesus was resurrected three days later. He overcame the destruction of death.

          Christ took the blame and gave you His honor.

5. Jesus also came for the ungrateful, the entitled, the overlookers and the spoiled kids. Nothing stopped Him from going to the cross for our sin.

          He took all of it in His body. He became all our rotten attitudes and died for them on the cross. He died for you and the sinner in this pulpit, too.

          You are forgiven this morning. Jesus Christ is the God who worked your salvation at the cross. His passive work of dying for sin and paying your penalty was finished that day.

          When He was later raised, Jesus became your gratefulness to God. In fact, every day, every moment, you are perfectly grateful to God in worship because Christ is your gratefulness and perfect worship of God for you.

          Christ took the blame and gave you His honor.

          And, nothing can stop Him from continuing to save and restore you. As you go through life, you will find that you fall back into old sins. You will live as if nothing has changed. You will forget the great salvation Christ has won for you.

          At times like these, you can confess ungratefulness and Christ is faithful to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from ALL unrighteousness. He will restore you again.

          He is always interceding on your behalf before God the Father. In fact, He never stops advocating for you. He never sleeps, He never tires, He never fails to intercede for you.

Christ took the blame and gave you His honor.

          And the benefits of His cross washed over you in your baptism. It is there that you were made a new creation. You were given a heart of flesh. You were adopted into God’s very family.

          You now live in the Easter reality of resurrection life. You have the same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus Christ from the grave. And He is working on your behalf, too.

          Now, we come to the table of thanksgiving for all He has done. We demonstrate our thanks by receiving the forgiveness and restoration He gives us in His body and blood.

          Come and be restored. Come and be forgiven. Come and be a new creation in Jesus Christ, your savior.

Amen

A Hen in the fox house

Luke 13:

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s like the fox guarding the hen house?”

Think about that for a moment. What does it mean?

Some examples of that might be having a bank robber running a bank. Or having the worst student running a class while the teacher is out. Or having a cat guard the mice.

In our lesson today from Luke, the Pharisees tell Jesus that the governor of his area is going to kill him. His name was Herod. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”

Jesus wasn’t afraid of the fox. He still had to stay on His course to the cross.

Then Jesus says something surprising. He says that He has wanted to gather the people of the city of Jerusalem for a long time. Jesus has wanted to gather them like a hen gathers its children.

Hens do that. They gather the chicks to protect them.

But, what do you do when the chicks don’t want to be gathered? When they run away from their mom?

That doesn’t scare off the hen. She goes looking for her chicks. And, that’s what Jesus does, too. He went straight into the Fox’s house and started stealing all the chicks. Jesus was the Hen in the fox house.

And Jesus didn’t just take the good people. He took the sick, the demon-possessed and the bad people. Jesus raided the fox’s house.

And the fox’s house was emptied. And the Pharisees’ house was emptied. Jesus Christ has gathered an uncountable number of people over the last 2,000 years. He keeps raiding the worst fox’s home, too. He keeps stealing people from the devil’s house and bringing them into His own house.

And guess what? He has gathered you here, into the church. Look around you and see all the other chicks. Jesus Christ has gathered all of us under His wings (outstretch your arms) through His death and resurrection.

The fox’s house has been raided. And Jesus has stolen you into His Kingdom.

Amen

Inconceivable

Inconceivable!

          It is hard to imagine. The year has gone by so quickly. So much has happened. It seems inconceivable that we are already in the Advent Season for this year.

          The readings focus on expectantly waiting for the Messiah. It will also focus on our preparation for the coming of that Messiah.

          For Joseph, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel account, what transpired was inconceivable:

18This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

Joseph probably felt shocked, hurt and disappointed by Mary’s pregnancy. He could only believe that she had been with another man and had committed adultery.

          Although they had not gone through the marriage ceremony, their betrothal was considered marriage at that time. Mary’s pregnancy would have been a great scandal.

          And Joseph found it inconceivable that she could become pregnant without another man.

          Joseph was a man of great character and kindness. He was going to divorce her quietly. He knew she was in a position of shame. He loved her enough not to expose her to any further shame. In his mind, their relationship was as good as dead. I’m sure his heart was dying, too.

          Then what happens? An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph! This angel informs him that what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit (of God). Inconceivable! Joseph was thrown for a loop.

          Furthermore, Joseph is told by the angel to call His name Jesus (the Greek for Joshua), which means “God is salvation”.

          Mary’s conception was inconceivable. Joseph was not prepared for this at all! How could he be? How could you be?

          Sometimes, we don’t react with quite the character and kindness to those who are caught in scandal. How often do we quickly pass judgment on those who we really didn’t like in the first place?

          Or, when it is a friend or family member, we feel the shame of being associated with them. Maybe we even move to quietly cut off contact with them. We don’t want to be associated with their scandal.

          If it’s someone with great moral character, we find it inconceivable that they would do something so scandalous. We might deny that it could happen. When we find out it did, we feel shock, hurt and disappointment. It’s hard to recover from.

          That’s when we need to hear God’s word from a messenger of Grace. We need to hear that God uses scandals to proclaim His Gospel. Inconceivable!

          But, true!

          A virgin with child who is the HOLY God? Inconceivable. A twelve year-old who understands God’s word better than Rabbis? Inconceivable! A man dying on a cross that is reserved for the execution of criminals to bring the forgiveness of sins to the crucifiers? Inconceivable! That same man placed in a tomb and three days later rising from death in glory? Inconceivable!

          Yet, it happened! God uses those things we find to be scandals to deliver His honor and righteousness to sinners. How did He do this? Jesus, the God who became man, the Holy One, became sin. He became all sin. On the cross of crucifixion, God punished His Own Son(!) for the sin of the world. Scandalous! Inconceivable! And true.

Joseph needed a preacher. He got one in an angel of the Lord. It changed his heart. It changed his attitude. It changed his direction. It repented him. Joseph then lived by faith alone in the promise alone.

          So as we prepare for Advent, just remember this, you will never be prepared for the grace of God. It is alien, strange and inconceivable. It is the mercy of God given for people who cannot conceive of forgiveness, mercy and righteousness being given through the scandal of the cross.

          Scandalous behavior cannot prevent God’s mercy. In fact, as you think about those who have been caught in scandal, those are the exact people God wants to give grace. Think of Mary. Did she need grace?

And maybe, today, He will speak to those who have been caught in scandal through the scandalized. He will speak to those through you.

          Because, Jesus Christ is your forgiveness. He is your salvation. He is your righteousness and honor before the Holy God. He is theirs, too.

And the scandal is … He has done it all in the most scandalous way. Inconceivable! That is good news; from this messenger to you.

To the glory of His Holy name,

Amen

The religion of competition

Over the last few months, I have been listening to the Jocko Podcast with Jocko Willink. He is a retired Navy Seal who has made a career out of teaching leadership skills.

I scrolled through the list of podcasts that he has and found an interview with Rickson Gracie. Rickson helped popularize Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the United States.

During the interview, Rickson related how he learned Jiu-Jitsu. He was one among many brothers and cousins. His father would bring him to the academy where he was exposed to Jiu-Jitsu. His father never pressured him, though. Instead, His father, Helio, just wanted the kids to have fun with it. They learned along the way, but weren’t put into competition more serious situations until much later.

Rickson contrasted that with how children are learning Jiu-Jitsu today. Their parents put pressure on them to be competitive. They want them to win. They are tough on their kids when they are just beginning. Rickson commented that the parents are trying to put their own aspirations onto their children. Rickson says this isn’t healthy. The kids will learn to hate Jiu-Jitsu.

Instead, he offered that even adults should simply learn body dynamics and awareness for the first year. They should work with a partner, but not in competition. That way, the academies can retain a greater number of practitioners.

This got me to thinking. It isn’t just Jiu-Jitsu that brings out a competitive spirit in people. It happens in little league. It happens in Youth soccer. It happens in cheer and gymnastics. Parents pressure their kids beyond their psychological ability. It happens in school, too. The demands placed upon children stunt their psychological growth. They come to believe that they are only worth something if they are achieving. They come to believe that their parents will only love them if they succeed.

Back to Rickson. When he started competing in Jiu-Jitsu, his father told him, “If you win, I will give you a gift. If you lose, I will give you two gifts!”. Rickson learned compassion and kindness from his father. He learned that His father loved Him no matter what. He learned the meaning of unconditional love.

And, he competed without the toxic pressure of a parent’s unfulfilled dreams.

You may have had a parent (or parents) like this. They demanded too much of you. They withheld approval if you didn’t achieve. Your relationship with them was conditional. And now, it is non-existent.

It is not the same for your relationship with God. That relationship is not conditioned on your behavior, achievements or success. It doesn’t depend on the number of awards or how you “punished” the other team.

Your relationship with God the Father is founded on Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son. The truth is, we were born failures. We were conceived in sin. Before God, we were not just losers, but enemies.

So, God sent His only Son to become man. Jesus was given one mission; to save sinners. He didn’t come to bolster your weaknesses so that you could achieve and success. He came to live and die for your sin. He came for your failures. He came for your disappointments. He came for your losses. And Jesus went to the cross carrying all of them.

Then, He was crucified. God the Father took out all His wrath on our sin upon His own Son. Jesus was punished for the sin of the world. And, looking upon the cross, Jesus looked like the biggest loser in the history of the world. The God who was crucified? The God put to death by men? The God who gave up His life for the under-achieving failures of the world?

You bet!

But, though His cross looked like defeat, it actually was the greatest victory in human history. There, lifted up in humiliating defeat was Jesus Christ victoriously paying for the sin of the world. There He was dying your death. There He was, defeating the Devil who is the accuser.

He died and was placed into a tomb.

But even the tomb didn’t have the final victory. On the third day, Jesus Christ rose from death. The great Defeated was now the greatest victor ever.

And, He gave you this victory freely. You didn’t have to train for it. You didn’t have to maintain your motivation or keep hydrated. Jesus won. His victory over sin and death is now your victory over sin and death.

It was washed over you in the waters of your baptism.

And if you find yourself as the competitive parent of a child, Jesus is your savior, too. Your savior from having to fulfill unrealized dreams through your children. Your savior from the damage you have done to your kids. Jesus Christ tells you now, “You are forgiven.”

You have been set free. Set free even from the competition religion.

Now go and live in the Victory Christ has won for you and your family.

Amen.

A fireside reformation

flame, black, fire pit, Fire, Flame, Carbon, Burn, Hot, Mood, fire, campfire | Pxfuel

I was 32 years old. I was going through a major transition in my life. I was reconnected to a friend of mine through my roommate. He had gone to the same church that I had a few years earlier.

This friend was going through an even bigger transition than I was. We shared stories of our former church and what we were doing at that time. After an hour or so, we decided to meet on Friday night to read a book. He suggested Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will. I had it and always intended to read it, so it was a welcome opportunity.

Now, I was exposed to some John Calvin and Martin Luther at church we attended a few years earlier. I understood what the Gospel was. Even so, it wasn’t entirely clear in my mind. I had a sketch of the Gospel, you might say.

Reading Luther’s work seemed a little daunting, though. I had never really read a theological work from a major theologian before. I thought it would be technical and dry. That belief would be erased by the second page of Luther’s writing.

Luther wrote theology like a conversation or a story. His words came to life. I couldn’t believe it was written some five hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther wrote it as a response to Erasmus’ Diatribe on Free Will. Erasmus was a famous humanist of the day. He was a great intellect and scholar. Since Erasmus wrote it as an argument against Luther’s method of reforming the church, Luther wrote a public response. He evaluated Erasmus’ work on the first page of his introduction:

‘… your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having
defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an
indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in
ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or
dung, should he carried in vessels of
gold and silver

If that was the first page, I couldn’t imagine what the other pages would say. I was hooked.

My friend and I continued to meet, Friday night after Friday night around a chiminea on a self-constructed porch behind my friend’s apartment. We talked for three hours or more each night, drinking a beer and smoking cigars. Sometimes, others would join us. It was probably the best time of my life.

Little did I know it at the time, but the more I read Luther, the more I changed. Luther was answering questions I had from my childhood upbringing in Roman Catholicism (since College, I had been a Presbyterian, a Baptist and a Congregationalist, in order) At one point, I looked up and said to my friend, “This is what I am!” If we stopped there, it would have been time well spent.

We finished The Bondage of the Will, and decided to continue on reading other authors. We read CFW Walther’s Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel which unlocked the Scriptures and taught me how to minister to people. We read Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross which further deepened my understanding of the Gospel. We read A Treatise on Good Works by Luther which taught that faith fulfills all of the ten commandments.

My friend talked about how this theology we were experiencing was life-giving. That is a great description. It wasn’t talking about the Gospel, it was giving us the Gospel! Since that time, I have sought out authors whose writings were life-giving.

Our friendship through this book fellowship grew. Eventually, he convinced me to go to the Lutheran church he was attending. I heard the Law and the Gospel proclaimed. I heard Christ crucified. Just as important as this, is what I didn’t hear. I didn’t hear that I was saved or even sanctified by my own works. I didn’t hear the “10 steps to overcoming sin”, or the “7 steps to a better prayer life”.

All of this transformational input lead me to enroll in a Lutheran University to get a master’s degree in Theological Research. I was further shaped by a theology that was Christ-centered and grace-oriented.

Eventually, my friend and I became Lutheran pastors.

Sometimes, I look back on those days sitting around the chiminea with my friend. I wish that every Christian could have the experience of the “Book Club”. I wish that every Christian could experience Martin Luther, C.F.W. Walther and Gerhard Forde in their own words. I wish that they could be given the key to understanding Scripture. I wish that they could hear Jesus is for them, like I did. I wish they could be set free.

I wish that I could experience those nights, once again. Looking at the fire, drinking a beer, smoking a cigar and talking about the Jesus who actually saves us. Experiencing that life-giving salvation all over again. I want to recapture that part of my life.

If I don’t, I will thank God for delivering me from confusion and a sketch of the Gospel to the Life-giving Gospel who is our Savior. I will thank Him for my friend who introduced me to a world I hadn’t known.

And, I will thank God for Martin Luther.

To the glory of His Holy Name,

Amen

Discipleship by the book

Image result for BOOKS and book boxes public domain
books

Years ago, I was in a church filled with young people like me. Almost all of them were engaged in reading Calvin and Luther. It was so important to the leadership to read these great writers and theologians. It caused them to leave their Bible college and start a Bible study on Saturday nights.

The Bible study grew until it was clear that it was a church. As new people were invited, they would have questions as they experienced grace (mostly, for the first time). Members who had been there for a while would direct them to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or to Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Although most of the men who went to this church were blue collar, they read voraciously.

I can recall in one meeting the “pastor” saying that he read these great works of theology like they were devotionals. In fact, a term came through this process that made a lot of sense; the books were “life-giving”.

Since that time, I have pursued theology books that have this quality. They aren’t merely about God or about Forgiveness, or about the Gospel. They deliver the Gospel to you. And, believe me, these books are few and far between.

The older I get, the more I realize the importance of these books for self-discipleship. That sounds strange. Discipleship is usually when an older Christian models theology and behavior for a younger Christian. In other words, there is a discipler and a disciple.

That is not less true when reading these books. These works have a vitality that connects you, even over centuries, to the theologians as they are theologizing. The Gospel is transmitted through their words and adds faith to the one reading it.

This is discipleship by the book.

Don’t get this wrong, though. I am not prioritizing these works over Scripture. Not at all. Scripture is the basis for all discipleship. But it is also true that expansion on and explanation of Scripture can enlighten one even further. It can deepen one’s faith and broaden one’s perspective.

It is much easier to internalize book discipleship when the book is full of Gospel. When it delivers what it promises. When Life is injected into your heart through proclamation on the written page.

In light of this, I would like to offer what I have experienced as meaningful books that will bring life to you. May God feed you through His word and through further discipleship under these writers:

  1. The Bondage of the Will – Martin Luther. This work is a little difficult to get through alone. However, Luther is a lively writer and uses some insulting and funny statements to get his points across.
  2. On Being a Theologian of the Cross – Gerhard Forde. Forde has become controversial in our day among Lutherans. His contributions to theology are significant, though. He reduces all of the theologies in this world down to two: The theology of Glory and The theology of the Cross. The book is just over 100 pages, and it is hard to put down. You will walk away changed.
  3. The Mystery of Christ (and Why we don’t get it) – Robert Farrar Capon. Capon was an American Anglican Priest. Don’t let that fool you. He writes in a conversational and easy style. He make theological ideas accessible. He never talks down to the reader. Having said this, He shines the light of grace in the darkest corners. Through a series of anonymous counseling sessions and subsequent meetings with a diverse group that asks questions and makes comments, he re-aligns our thoughts on who grace is for. You will be challenged and encouraged.
  4. Living by Grace – William Hordern. This book was recommended to me by Rev. Dr. Rod Rosenbladt. Hordern was a Lutheran Seminary President in Canada. He discovered through counseling young men that they didn’t understand or believe in Justification by Faith Alone. This book is an attempt to remedy that problem. His insights and application of Grace are instructive.
  5. Praying Luther’s Small Catechism – John Pless. I purchased this as a Kindle edition, but it is probably better as a paper version book. Through each chapter, John takes you through the journey of contemplating the deeper applications of Luther’s work. As you reach the end of the chapter, you will be moved to pray in light of Christ for you.
  6. Christian Spirituality – Donald L. Alexander, editor. The subtitle of this work is Five Views of Sanctification. Each of the five authors (Reformed, Lutheran, Wesleyen, Pentecostal, and Contemplative) offers their view of sanctification. At the end of their approximately 10-page article, the other four comment on their contribution. Gerhard Forde puts for the Lutheran view. It is also helpful to see how he comments on the other four. A great read.
  7. The Hammer of God – Bo Giertz. The most underrated and unknown Christian fiction writer of the 20th Century. Arguable the best. This work was translated from Swedish. It is three books in one, tracing the history of a church over the centuries. An amazing set of stories filled with grace, failure, repentance and redemption. It is an absolute page- turner. You might go to bed really late on the day you start to read it.

There are certainly other books. I am currently reading “Kingdom, Grace and Judgment” by Capon. This book covers the Parables of Jesus. Again, very insightful and paradigm-shifting.

God’s grace and mercy,

John

God Spoke

Hebrews 1:

1 On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. 2 But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe.

3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 4 So He became as far superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is excellent beyond theirs.

The author of Hebrews starts out with a bang! as he writes about the importance of God the Son. He doesn’t even say “Hello” to the churches as St. Paul did in many of his letters.

Instead, He hits us right between the eyes with Christian teaching. “God spoke to our fathers through the prophets”. It’s clear from this that the author is talking to fellow Jewish-Christians. And the first two words are most important: God spoke.

Have you ever seen one of those videos of an infant who was born without hearing? Someone captures the moment of them just after they received an implant which allows them to hear. One moment, they are playing with a toy or sucking on an object. The next moment their mother speaks.

Each child responds differently. At first, there is shock and surprise. Then, the child might begin to cry with joy. Or, the child has an expression of pure happiness and starts to speak, too. These are the precious moments of life when a word changes the world.

Do you remember when God first spoke? That was a very long time ago. And, when He spoke, He made everything that is. He created life. He spoke light and darkness into existence. He spoke the sun, moon and stars into existence. He spoke people, plants, animals and rocks.

But God didn’t stop talking. He wasn’t finished. He spoke judgment, curses and good news to the first people. He spoke promises to the patriarchs. He spoke release to captives. God spoke the Law to His people. He spoke condemnation and judgment to other nations.

And God warned His own people through the prophets.

With all the events happening around us, many Christians are comparing their situation to the “last days”. They see fulfillment and mystery in the unfolding of history. They long for God to speak again. They want Him to reveal what is happening and what they should do through a prophet.

The author of Hebrews offered a different message. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, He speaks about the past and the present. He tells us that God has spoken again ‘… by His Son’. That’s important. The author was taking them back to the touchstone of their faith; Jesus Christ, Son of God.

By reminding them of all that Jesus was and is, he was reminding them of the Son’s total authority over events in this universe. There is nothing above Jesus.

Here is a list of what the author says about the Son:

  1. He is heir of all things
  2. The universe was made through Him (the Word)
  3. Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory
  4. He upholds all things by His powerful Word (namely, Jesus Christ)
  5. Jesus provided purification for sin
  6. Jesus ascended to the throne at the right hand of the Father
  7. Jesus Christ is superior to the angels

Now, that’s a mouthful!

And if that was where the letter ended, we would have a most encouraging word. But, it is also the creative word. You see, whenever we read or hear the scripture about Jesus, God breathes life into us again. He speaks forgiveness. He creates faith in your heart. With a Word, He changes the world.

And He has changed us. We are no longer what we were. We are new creations in Christ. Our life is hidden in Him.

So as events unfold, hear the words in the first verses of Hebrews: Christ is the Creator, Sustainer and King of the Universe. At all times.

And you are children of this King through His cross, death and resurrection. You are united to Him through baptism. And no one can snatch you out of His eternal hands. Hear the Word and be created again. Because God knows, we could use a good word these days.

Finally, take a moment to open your Bibles today. Read about the Son of God. Consider all He is. Search the word for the Word. God spoke then and He will speak it again to you today. And in that Bible you will find the Word … who changes your world.

To the Glory of His Name,

Pastor John

The Egyptian pregnancy

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“The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologians to swim in without ever touching the bottom” – St. Jerome

Reading and studying the first book of the Bible, Genesis, has been a rewarding experience. From understanding how and where oaths were taken to patriarchs who lied to save their own skins; a different world opens up as one digs deep into the Word of God.

Beyond cultural and social discovery, patterns are also revealed as we read this cornerstone book of the Bible. Noah portrayed as and pre-figuring a second Adam, for example. Or Abram (later named Abraham) hearing the promise of God, believing the promise, and then credited with righteousness without works according the Law. This pre-figures Christian righteousness.

Toward the end of the book, we read about the son of Jacob named Joseph. He went through quite a lot. His brothers thought he was arrogant, so the sold him to Midianite merchants.

He is then taken to Egypt. He has both ups and downs, but two gifts come to the surface: the gift of God enabling him to interpret dreams, and the gift of administration. Both of these play into a meteoric rise to power as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. He becomes the ‘governor’, or chief administrator in Egypt.

When famine hits the world, Joseph had already stored enough grain for Egypt for seven years. He did such a good job of reserving a stockpile of grain that the whole world came to him to survive. Eventually, his brothers came to him, too.

As the account goes, they didn’t recognize him. He uses this to get back at them a little. Finally, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. They go back to Canaan and bring their father, Jacob and all the family and livestock into Egypt.

As if this account weren’t lively enough, in Genesis chapter 46, God meets the traveling Jacob on the way to Egypt. He says:

“Jacob! Jacob!”

“Here I am,” he replied (Jacob speaking).

“I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”

God is assuring that this is a good move. God won’t abandon Jacob because he is going to Egypt. Instead, He will make Israel a great nation there.

At the time Jacob and his sons go down to Egypt, though, they are not a nation. They are merely a tribe. They are shepherds. It’s hard to see what they will become.

Now this is where it gets interesting. God was “seeding” Egypt with Israel. That is, Egypt was impregnated with the tribe of Israel. A gestation period of four hundred years would follow. Then, the painful labor came. This was through the plagues and exodus of Israel as a nation out of Egypt. But, the separation from “mom” wasn’t complete until they crossed the Red Sea. At that moment of separation, Israel was truly born.

Thus, pregnancy is an important motif alluded to through Israel’s growth and birth out of a foreign nation. And, what an unlikely pregnancy and birth this was! Who could grow a nation within another nation but God?

As you read and study the Scriptures, keep an eye out for motifs that run throughout the Bible. You may find that you are swimming in the deep end. Dive in! And may God bless you as pursue understanding.

 

Ministry to the Diaspora

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Social distancing. It seems like an oxymoron. If you are social, you are not “distancing”, and if you are distancing, you are not “social”. Yet, here were are in an era when a virus has birthed new concepts of connecting.

Throughout history, there have been times of plague and disease which have swept through communities. These have resulted in paranoia, fear and anxiety, as people sought to distance themselves from the disease by distancing themselves from others.

In the present time, we are social distancing and waiting for a vaccine to be developed. While we wait, church services are in a holding pattern. We are waiting for word from the control tower to tell us when we can land.

Pastors now have to consider longer-term strategies of how to minister to their congregations. Some will undoubtedly defy the “stay at home orders”. Others have a different conviction of conscience as they seek to protect the members of their congregations from what is a deadly  virus for some (90,000 dead in the U.S. at the time this article is written).

In the larger picture, the virus has created a diaspora of saints from their own local churches. It bears a resemblance to the effects of persecution of the church in the first century as described in the book of Acts. When the hammer came down, the Christians fled.

Some stayed to face the local persecution, but others spread to surrounding and even distant regions. And, when they did, they also spread the Gospel; like a virus.

As communities of Christians were established in the Gentile world, the Apostles would go and visit them. But, they couldn’t follow up with Zoom meetings, so they followed up with the next best alternative; letters. And thank God for that! Those letters contributed significantly to Christian belief and practice.

For the first audiences in the diaspora, these letters were more than dry doctrinal statements. These letters proclaimed life and forgiveness in Christ in the physical absence of the preacher.

Some contain prayers. Some contain sermons. Some rebuke and correct. Some express joy. All of them ministered to the diaspora and to the new churches. They were distributed to other churches, as well. They spread like a virus.

Fast-forward to today. Facing the frustration of not being able to do physical ministry, pastors now have the task of ministering remotely. Yet, it is not “all bad”. Technology has improved connection significantly.

Some pastors are using Zoom to meet with members of their congregations in small groups. Others are calling individuals to find out how they are doing and to pray with/for them.

In fact, some pastors are doing the work of a pastor for the first time. They are getting to know individuals in their congregations on a much deeper level. And the members of the congregation are feeling connected to their pastors and to Christ in ways that are personal and powerful. The church is being strengthened.

Additionally, some members of congregations have become activated. They are reaching out to others on their own initiatives. Having seen the need and having concern for their fellow congregants, they are connecting to those who are in need of connection. They are serving as fellow workers with the pastor. If you are in a congregation which has activated members like this, it is a great encouragement.

In fact, the dormant parts of the church have been awakened. They have been looking for an opportunity to serve. Like the call of a nation at war, previously passive participants have answered and are presently serving with joy and thanksgiving.

And, through it all, they are the hands, mouths and ears of Christ to those in need. As the pastor seeks to do ministry, he/she is also encouraged by the rising of co-workers in Christ.

Deeper bonds have been formed. Churches divided by social distancing are becoming closer than ever. The lonely and despairing have compassionate ears who eagerly listen and speak Grace to them.

So, as you continue the work of ministering to the diaspora, take heart! Jesus Christ has given His life for you. He will be with you wherever you go…or don’t go. He is with you in the phone calls, Zoom meetings and pre-recorded services given in empty rooms.

As you bring Him to the members of your congregations, the diaspora, don’t be surprised if you receive Him from those who have been activated from their previously passive state. Christ has given them a call in the midst of this pandemic, too. They are fulfilling their callings as a priesthood of believers.

And dear pastor, you are fulfilling yours.

To the Glory of Christ,

Amen

Do you have a corporate relationship with Jesus?

I have a friend who teaches in a Lutheran high school. When she asked me about my past church experiences, I told her about the several churches I have been a part of. She looked at me and said, “You’re Heinz 57”. At first, I was offended by this. I didn’t want to be categorized as a fickle Christian.

Looking back, she was right. I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. My first reference to what defined church was Liturgy. I never experienced anything else until I went away to University.

There, I encountered people from Campus Crusade for Christ. One of them took me aside and asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. He then shared the Four Spiritual Laws with me. From this point, I became detached from anything remotely Liturgical.

After going through a few other Evangelical/Protestant denominations, I have landed in a Lutheran church as a pastor. I have changed, morphed and moved on from who I used to be. But the question that Modern American Evangelical Christians ask the liturgical-types is still the same, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

What they are getting at is; have you made a commitment to Jesus (by praying a “sinner’s prayer”), and do you spend time alone with God by reading your Bible and praying? Now, there’s nothing wrong with praying and reading God’s Word. In fact, God breathes life into us through His Holy Word. As for the sinner’s prayer, it isn’t found in Scripture and therefore isn’t what gives you a “personal relationship” with Jesus.

The question leads to a couple of thoughts, though. Liturgical Christians can respond with the power of the word of God. First, we were buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:4). That’s a pretty intimate personal relationship. Second, we received His Spirit who lives in us (John 3:5). He lives in us. Thirdly, we eat His body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) at the communion table.

You can’t possibly have a more personal relationship than being buried with, having the spirit of, and eating and drinking the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is as intimate as it gets!

Yet that answer will not convince your modern American evangelical friends. So, after you give that answer, you can ask them a more interesting question, “Do you have a corporate relationship with Jesus?”

That is, are you a member of a church that proclaims Christ and Him crucified? Does the church you attend give you both word and sacrament? Does your “personal relationship” with Jesus preclude you from attending church regularly?

These are all important questions because the New Testament letters were written largely to churches. Some letters were written to individuals (i.e., Timothy, which was written to a pastor), but these were not people who existed as autonomous from the church body. And that is the corporation I am referring to.

A quick glance at the book of Revelation also reveals the importance of corporate affiliation. Read through Chapters 2 and 3. Individuals are not addressed. The body of believers in regions is addressed. They identified as part of a church body. Their character was a corporate character. They weren’t individuals who saw themselves as churches within themselves.

That’s critical. In order to be attached to the head, who is Jesus Christ, you must be and live as part of His body. And that’s a messy business. It isn’t relating to God in a private prayer closet. It’s relating to one another. It’s relating to people who are sinners like we are. It is hearing the Word of God together. It is sharing in the meal of Christ together. It is confessing sin together. It is being forgiven together.

As Jesus said in John 6,

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day …”

There is nothing private about this. It was always designed to be a corporate meal. That is, it is a corporate fellowship with one another and with Jesus. And in that corporate fellowship, the person is both fed and strengthened in their relationship to Jesus Christ, the head of the church.

So, the next time you are asked if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you can turn that question around and ask the surprisingly biblical question, “Do you have a corporate relationship with Jesus?”

To God be the glory,

Pastor John

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