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Overlooked

‘Martin Luther was once approached by a man who enthusiastically announced that he’d recently become a Christian. Wanting desperately to serve the Lord, he asked Luther, “What should I do now?” As if to say, should he become a minister or perhaps a traveling evangelist. A monk, perhaps.

Luther asked him, “What is your work now?”

“I’m a shoe maker.”

Much to the cobbler’s surprise, Luther replied, “Then make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.”’ -Tullian Tchividjian

Isn’t it interesting how people want to do something big and extravagant for God?  They put off the small things that they could be doing for the potential of the monument they plan in their mind.  We reason, “I want to demonstrate my love for God in a grand gesture”.  We put off the little things we can do in favor of the greater gesture.

But, sometimes life erodes that grand gesture you were planning.  Other demands and obligations take away what you had been building.

So, when others give more money, or build some fantastic monument (of one type or another) to God, we look at our own meager offerings and feel a bit ashamed.

What is your grand design for God?  Have you been hoping to put in some big offering in the plate?  Maybe you are developing some other grand gesture.

Yet, God is often found in the small things … no, the smallest things that we do.  Making a child’s lunch before school.  Picking up a friend who has a doctor’s appointment.  Calling someone.  Sometimes, we are not even aware that these small things are the very things that God receives the most glory for.

When the Son of God became incarnate, He set aside His glory to do so.  He didn’t come in great pomp and celebration.  He came as a lowly baby born in a stable.  God became man.  Jesus talked to people, He touched people, He ate with people, He traveled with people, and He lived with people.  What’s more to the point, Jesus is one of those people, He’s one of us.

Then, He descended further into the inglorious muck.  He took your sin and mine on to Himself.  “He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf”.  Only to be crucified on a Roman cross and be buried in someone else’s tomb.  He appeared lowly, weak and defeated.  Even any human glory that He may have had was stripped from Him just as His clothes were.  His shame was public.

There was no greater memorial ever built that could match Jesus’ body pierced, bleeding and hanging from the cross, though.

So, when Luther addresses the cobbler, he looks at it through Christ’s lowly work on the cross.  Although the cobbler thought he could glorify God by serving in a higher, ‘holy’ occupation, Luther saw that the man could glorify God in His mundane occupation.  There was no need for a life-altering career change.  He could serve God by … making a good shoe and selling it at a fair price.

Shielding ourselves from Adam

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From Romans 5:

13for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

I have been listening to the New Testament on CD in my car recently.  I decided to listen to Romans since I have been preaching out of the Gospels, and wanted a break.  This morning, I ran across the above portion of Scripture which gave me pause.

It’s a challenge to Christian thinking to say, “sin … was in the world before the law was given”.  Recall that Adam was given direction not to eat from a certain tree.  God gave Adam that “law” and Adam couldn’t abide by it.  He failed to keep “the law”.

This fits nicely into a theology which uses law as its framework.

I can’t help but wonder if something deeper isn’t at work here, though.  The talk of Adam being our “Federal Head” is intellectually satisfying, yet is that very same language shielding us from the reality of sin.  If we can categorize Adam, then we have a box to put him in.  We can coolly evaluate his standing since we are “outside the box”.  By establishing this safe distance, we can imagine ourselves on a much-improved footing compared to our ancestor.  We can escape the judgment which came down on him.

And, we can escape the consequences, too.  After all, It was Adam who sinned.  It’s his fault, not mine.  I inherited this problem.  I don’t really deserve it.

The author of Romans, Paul, doesn’t quite agree.  He makes the point that sin was in the world before the law.  From Adam down to Moses, there was no law.  Not to say that there was lawlessness.  It’s just that God hadn’t given a code of conduct for His people yet.

As a consequence of sin, Death reigned from Adam to Moses.  Why would death reign if there was no law?  Because, ultimately, it is not about breaking the law at all.  It’s about the relationship God had with Adam.  He expected him to stay away from that tree for his own good.  Adam failed to listen to God’s wisdom.  He rejected it, and with it, rejected God.

In a nutshell, Adam lost faith in God and His word.

So, His descendants try to put the broken pieces back together.  Like the Fairy Tale, Humpty Dumpty, we need to rescue the entire system from it’s fatal consequences.

Have you ever considered that the imposition of a Law framework is actually the sinful self’s efforts to restore ourselves?  You and I prefer an infrastructure which supports our efforts to become better.

We can shield ourselves from Adam and his foolishness.  Although the law looks like a life-ring which will keep us from drowning, it is actually a lead weight that drags us into the murky depths.

And once you turn relationship into a set of rules to follow, you no longer have a relationship, you have a contract with contractual obligations.  Law-keeping to restore oneself is fundamentally a lack of faith.

So, Christ came.  He came under the Law to fulfill the Law for us, thus setting us free from the Law.  It is not that the Law is not to be used; it’s that the law is to be used  lawfully.  That is, it is to be used to reveal God’s Holiness and our sinfulness, and to drive us to the one who came in love to restore us, Jesus.

Whether you are a law-breaker or a law-keeper (law-breaker under self-deception), Christ is your only hope of escape from both sin and death.  He restores faith and relationship.   Thank God for that!  Without Jesus, we would become slaves of law, sentenced to death.  Now, we have been set free in Christ, given his righteousness and sentenced us … to Life!

Give me proof!

People who have even a cursory knowledge of the legal system will be familiar with the concept of proof.  In my mind, proof is the indisputable culmination of evidence against a defendant determining guilt or innocence.

At other times, we think of proof as a synonym for evidence.  Proof is necessary to believe something is true.

Yet, I can’t help but think that there is a certain mindset behind the inclination to use proof-texts in Christian circles.  It’s the presupposition that one must employ a particular verse to create, sustain or strengthen an argument.  There is little thought of whether or not the verse is true in context.  In fact, the context may completely militate against the verse being used in support of the argument the person is making.

Let me illustrate my point.  Let’s assume for a moment that someone employs “do not be drunk with wine .. but be filled by the Spirit” to argue against alcohol usage.  Take the verse as a stand-alone.  Is it saying you should not drink alcohol, no matter what amount?  How about if we compare that to the entire breadth of the New Testament?  Did Jesus turn the wine into water?  Does Paul tell Timothy to drink a little soda for his stomach?

Or, how about the broader context of the Bible?  What about Jesus sharing the last supper with His disciples?  What about Luke 7:34 (proof-texting now)?

How about the cultural and era context?  How would a first century middle-eastern person view Paul’s words from Ephesians 5:18?  And how about church history?  Does any of this come in to play?

I am not trying to be argumentative over drinking.  I am simply illustrating the neglect of the vast breadth of Scripture in favor of supporting presuppositions by myopically applying verses.

It is a sad state.  Some people greatly admire those who can employ a verse for this issue or a verse for that issue and even give you the address.  They appear to be defenders of the faith.

This very approach has overtaken many a conservative Lutheran, too.  They employ the Lutheran confessions quoting chapter and verse in an attempt to prove the correctness of their argument.

I don’t admire proof-texters.  Being good at something that makes you sound like an arrogant a-hole is not something to be proud of .

Instead, I admire those who could distill understanding.  People like Martin Luther who could boil down theological assertions into two camps: Theologians of Glory and Theologians of the Cross.  And, if I had to bet, I believe Martin Luther would put proof-texters in the category of Theologians of Glory.  Anyone who gets their worth and meaning from throwing out Scripture verses to justify their argument is engaged in self-idolatry.  Is that really admirable?

Finally, the practice of proof texting obfuscates the depth of God’s word and inoculates the self from ever having to question one’s own understanding.  It leaves the individual in a state of superficial faith.  I would rather have a conversation with a pastor who questioned God’s very existence in the depth of soul-struggle than engage in a debate over communion with an evangelical know-it-all.  The pastor in this scenario is challenged to his presuppositional roots, and would put everything on the table.  The evangelical would try to hide his roots, scalp and all, preferring the safety of what “he knows” to the threat of what he’s hiding.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is absolutely dangerous to our ontology.  Ask Peter.  Ask Paul.  They walked away transformed.  But, they had to die ontologically, first.  That is Christ’s work.  He is all about death and resurrection.  Ultimately, the defense the proof-texter puts up is not against someone arguing against his/her position.  The defense is against the radical nature of the Gospel.  It is a defense of the self against Jesus.

Please, Lord, set us free from behaviors and approaches which cloud the proclamation of Christ Crucified for the redemption of the world.

Amen.

Father Time

I don’t know about you, but this is the time of year when my calendar starts to fill up.  Back-to-school nights, extra-curricular activities, in-services, family visits, meetings, etc. occupy once vacant spaces.

At first, it is a great feeling to have some things on the schedule “to-do”, but the more full the schedule becomes, the more it feels like a gauntlet.  That gauntlet creates tension and stress because you now realize that there is less room for something that really matters; you.

So the calendar becomes our master.  It rules over us.  Each obligation met is simply another obstacle overcome.  It takes the joy out of living.

The calendar, clocks, mobile devices and the clock in our cars become reminders of our slavery.  In a very real sense, time becomes law.  It expects, demands and even condemns (think of being late for dinner!) for failure to fulfill its commandment.

Yet, there are times we wish we had more of it.  More of it with a loved one.  More of it in self-reflection and self-restoration.  More of it spent doing things you and I enjoy.  Vacations just don’t seem long enough.

Eventually, we all run out of it, though.

It is into this slave-driving world dictated by time that the Son of God was born.  think of that.  The God-man was born on a certain date at a certain time.  The Eternal God did this to rescue you from the clutches of ‘Father Time’.

It’s hard to comprehend this, but the God who created time became subject to it.  He was born, went through puberty, and became an adult.  The Scripture says he “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).  His life was cut short by those who executed him on a tree sometime around 30 A.D.  The clock ran out.

After His death, though, Christ Jesus was resurrected.  He was victorious over the grave.  For forty days, Jesus ate with, spoke to, touch and was touched by His disciples.  Jesus was in overtime.  And overtime is a great place to be.  He wasn’t suffering any pain.  He wasn’t struggling with fear.  His body is not subject to decay or death anymore.

Now, the author of time is Lord over it.  Time does not determine His days.  His joy is real, and He is really looking forward to sharing this joy with us.

So, the next time you look at the calendar and lose heart over the gauntlet that is before you,  remember your savior has lived through His own gauntlet and came out the other side victorious over it at the cross.  Time is Jesus’ slave now.

Amen

Exceptionalism and alarmism

Have you ever heard the phrase, “American exceptionalism”?  It is the assertion that the United States of America was uniquely formed as a democracy in an age of Kingdoms.  The government was to be ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’ was revolutionary.

As the country was developing an identity, another attitude was taking hold; alarmism.  At it’s root, alarmism is an ideology which promotes action to defend oneself.  “The British are coming, the British are coming”, was a call to arms for a very real threat.  And, once a person has been threatened, they tend to retain the reactionary tendency.

So, it has passed on from one generation to another.  Many Americans are modern-day minutemen with arms at the ready for anything that threatens what they hold precious.

It’s useless trying to calm people down who are in that agitated state.  They are unwilling to listen to reason.  They hold to their particular ‘threat’ as a religious belief, even if they think they are not particularly religious.

The threats could be real or imagined, but often, they are exaggerated.  Think of the Mayan Calendar’s supposed prediction of the end of the world in 2012.  Who cares what the Mayans thought?  So what, they invented the number ‘0’?  We don’t follow their social and cultural behavior in other areas, so why do we care what their calendar says?

Yet, many in the U.S. have this reactionary strain living just below the surface.  A virus that blooms when the slightest issue could possibly threaten them.

It could be GMO’s, Global Warming (cough, cough; Climate Change), the rapture of the Church (a modern strain of American Evangelicalism), or air conditioners.  Any number of things cause people to go into a frenetic state, tipped over with the help of a fragile psyche.

And, once one threat diminishes, they move on to the next.  There is an endless supply of people willing to provide threats (remember all the Y2K propaganda?): “The end is nigh”.

How is the church to behave in the midst of a culture of alarmism?  Matthew reports Jesus’ words in chapter 24:

23“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. 24“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25“Behold, I have told you in advance. 26“So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. 27“For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.

In other words, don’t run around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Christ has already ascended to the throne (Colossians 3:1).  He’s in total control.  He’s also in control of the future.  In fact, He has told us what the future holds, and that He will be victorious.  We are called to rest in the victory of the cross, with an eye to His final victory.

It is in the rest of assured victory that we can love the fanatics within and outside of Christ’s church.  The wild-eyed zealots cannot be won over with reason alone.  Their real and imagined fears can only be assuaged with love.  1 John 4:18 states:

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

It might take a while to talk a fanatic off of the cliff’s edge.  They will passionately rant and rave over what they perceive as a threat to our well-being.  Every once in a while, though, you can calmly drop a seed of wisdom which will grow into a tree of life.  That seed is Jesus, who came into the world to save … fanatics.  Even fanatics like you and me.

Pastor John

Jesus is the problem

Over the years, I have seen t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc., which express a simple thought about Jesus in order to appeal to the un-churched.  One of them goes like this; ‘Jesus is the answer’.

While I don’t disagree with this statement, it doesn’t do too much to connect everyday people with their Savior.  Most people probably read this and then go about their day.

Let me offer an alternative, ‘Jesus is the problem’.

At first blush, this looks blasphemous.  Yet, let’s consider how Jesus was received by the Pharisees of his time:

 10Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9, NASB).

They had a problem with Jesus.  He wasn’t holding to the Law in the way that they were.  They were holding Him to a standard that focused on outward righteousness and adherence to the Law.  They expected Him to be ‘squeaky clean’.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Jesus touched the sick.  This was enough to make a person unclean!  An unclean rabbi?!! Perish the thought!  Jesus was their problem.

The Pharisees were caught up in their own righteousness defined by external law-keeping.  Instead of leading them to Christ, they were offended, no, scandalized by Jesus.  They couldn’t conceive of a God-man who was able to infect the sick with health, infect the blind with sight, infect the dead with life.

Their Law-observance led them away from the God who gave them the Law.  Law observance leads to two main directions: 1. Self-righteousness and unwillingness to become unclean, or 2. Despair and rejection of God’s Law (rebellion).  It lead the Pharisees to condemn Jesus and plot how they might destroy Him.  That’s one way to get rid of the problem!

You would think His disciples were better at understanding who Jesus was.  But, they were constantly jockeying for position:

35James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” 36And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory” (Mark 10, NASB).

They believed Jesus would enter Jerusalem and fulfill the ascension Psalms (1 and 2).  They were about to have a great king, and they were on the inside!

So, Jesus corrected their thinking with the Servant Songs from the last portion of Isaiah (just read Isaiah 53).  Jesus had to become the scapegoat for human sin before He ascended to the throne.  Jesus was their problem.

Both the Pharisees and the disciples were Theologians of Glory.  The Pharisees were invested in their self-righteousness, position and power to be pleasing to God.  The disciples were invested in their sacrifice and in the ‘big pay off’ from following Jesus.

But, Jesus introduced a new Theology into the world.  Jesus was THE Theology of the Cross.  His death meant the end of the Law because He fulfilled the Law and swallowed the consequences for law-breakers.  The Pharisees who had believed that they were ‘pulling it off’ could now find the consequence to their behavior on the Cross that Jesus hung on.

The disciples, hopelessly defeated at Jesus’ death would find out that the truth was much deeper and greater than their own ambitions.  Jesus’ resurrection was the demonstration of the power of God.  It also meant that they lived in the reality of a new life; a new creation.  And, as the Spirit was poured on to them, they experienced the beginning of this new creation.  They became self-less, pouring out their lives in true sacrifice, rather than self-serving ambition.

We don’t want to think about this.  Christians don’t want to believe that they have a problem.  They’d rather go to their Christian chiropractor, their Christian dentist, and their Christian plumber and keep clean.  This is much easier than finding our righteousness was never ours from the start.  So, we return to our own vomit.

That’s why Jesus gets in the way of the things we really want to believe.  He gets in the way of what we really want to do.  All of the religious observance meant to earn God’s favor.  All of the brown-nosing ambition.  It’s all rooted in the same beetle-ridden dead tree; the self.

So, Jesus came.  The only way to end our self-idolatry was to die for it.  And in His death, at His cross, He frees us from bondage to law-keeping and selfish ambition.    He did this by becoming sin, being crucified and crushed for your sin and mine by God the Father.  He buries you with Him in Baptism.  And, the coup de grace was that he was justifying you in His resurrection.  He has made you a new creation through this work.

Therefore, there is no reason to return to the Law for righteousness.  Christ, Himself is your righteousness.  Live in the light of the Son of God who gave Himself for you.  The problem has become the answer.

Amen

 

Bound or free?

Why do I do what I do?

Over the short course of my career as a bi-vocational pastor, my eyes have been opened to the nature of sin.  It is not that I am pre-occupied by it.  The Lord made me in such a way to desire more than the simple answer.  I always want to know the answer to “why?”

It might go something like this; I see someone gossiping.  I understand that gossip is a sin, but if you simply address the surface-level sin, then you are treating the symptom, not the illness.  Other pastors might say, “Well, the root is sinfulness!”  That is true, too, but this statement doesn’t address the issue.

In my experience, it is helpful to consider the factors which lead someone to behave in this way.  I want to understand human behavior.  Buried under the human psyche, the surface sin might be emanating from something much deeper.  Maybe some kind of pain or trauma that the person has had.  Maybe a feeling of vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface.

So, whatever the case, I have come to realize that a person who spends their time gossiping is in bondage.  Just as a person who rebels against God’s Law is not free, but in bondage.  Just as another who judges their fellow man is in bondage.

A person can recognize that they are bound; they can clearly see their own issue(s).  They can even feel guilty or convicted by their behavior.  Yet, they are unable to change their behavior.  They are slaves of sin.  This understanding helps me to be compassionate towards the person.

Hiding from ourselves

It would be easy to separate and divide others outside the church from those inside the church.  We could say, “Yeah, but look at what they do!  They’re much worse than I am!”  Religiosity blinds us from the fact that “YOU are the man!”  We don’t want to admit that we Christians are the ones who need to be set free from the “law (read rule) of sin and death”.

In order to do this, we set up complex structures of excuses, justifications or claims of ignorance.  Sometimes, we just don’t want to see our sin.  To be honest with you, it’s because the old Adam (or Eve) in us doesn’t want to be seen for who he/she is.

We are so bound by desire to preserve the old Adam , that we will pretend to be faithful on the outside just so the old Adam never gets exposed from the inside.  Let’s face it, the old Adam is good at hiding.

As sons and daughters of Adam, we hide behind piety which keep us in control.  Instead of letting God have His way with us, we have strengthened ourselves against the God who would save us from sin.  In reading the Gospels, you will find that it was the religious leaders, so invested in their own piety, who resisted the free Gospel of Jesus Christ.

No Surprise

It comes as no surprise, then, that the most Christian among us display these ‘cracks in their armor’.  Why?  Because they are not cracks at all.  Gossipers, rebels, the judgmental all see themselves as righteous, not really needing God at all.  All of these manifestations of sin are the evidence of bondage to sin.

This principle can be applied to nearly anyone who displays gross sin.  Please understand, I am not saying that we are excused from sin because we are enslaved by it.  All of these behaviors emanate from our own hearts, not someone else’s.  The devil didn’t make me do it.  It’s in my blood and in yours.

Our hope isn’t in our piety or religious observance, in fact, these are contributing to the problem.  You and I are tempted to overcome sin by behaving in a “Christian” way.  It won’t work.  Our good behavior cannot end our bad behavior.  It simply keeps the old Adam in control.  Instead, we need to find outside help.

“Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death?”

Paul the apostle writes the above in Romans 7:24.  In fact, He uses the present tense verb, am in the phrase, “wretched man that I am!”  Paul is describing his present condition in relation to the law.  What is this Holy Apostle to do?

He writes this, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”.  Paul has abandoned himself (and his impeccable reputation) in light of his awareness of depth of sin.  He looks to the outside savior.  He looks not to the old Adam for overcoming sin that he sees in himself.  Instead, He looks to the New Adam, who overcame sin for him.

The experience Paul writes about is meant to help his readers identify with his plight and his salvation.  We are inside the struggling heart and mind of Paul, the Apostle.  And, he is not too proud to share his struggle with us.

His salvation came from the outside.  His Savior came from the outside.  Your Savior is completely outside of you, too.  He is on the cross dying for all of your sin and mine.  He is the only sacrifice for sin.

The church is where the outside work of Jesus makes a difference on our insides.  Not because we are religious or faithful, but because He is faithful to come to us in the proclamation of His Gospel.  He is faithful to be present in, with, and under the bread and wine (or, grape juice).  He is both the author and perfecter of our faith.  His forgiveness is a living forgiveness that is distributed by both word and sacrament.

Start new again.  In fact, start new every week.  Come wicked sinners.  Because, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:15).  And, in the end, He will have His way with you anyhow (Forde).

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

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