Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Art of Interruption

Third Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2010
James 5:7-11

Recently Steve Martin was interviewed at a place in New York called the 92nd Street Y. It’s known for its focus on the arts and the tickets aren’t cheap. Steve is an avid art collector and he recently wrote a novel called Object of Beauty. He and the interviewer were having a grand time talking about his book, his art collection, and his love of art and the art world. Apparently many in the audience weren’t as thrilled with all this talk of art. They wanted to hear about Steve. They wanted one of the most famous and funniest comedians to talk about his career. Halfway through the show, the people in charge of this event took matters into their own hands, as they apparently felt the same way. They handed notes to the interviewer with such things as, “Talk about Steve’s career.” This threw both of them off and the evening kind of fizzled, with some forcing of letting audience members ask questions themselves.

Afterward, the Y sent out a letter of apology as well as a full refund. They wanted people to know that they would see to it in the future that they could count on the quality they had come to expect in events at the Y. Needless to say, Steve Martin wasn’t happy about how it all transpired, including the way the Y handled things afterward. He wrote an editorial in the New York Times called “The Art of Interruption.” In it he expressed his frustration at being interrupted, but because you never know how things are going to unfold. He stated his case that here you had a consummate entertainer being interviewed by a seasoned interviewer and that given time something memorable could happen. When people are antsy they don’t want that time given, they feel like their time is being wasted.

When we’re impatient we interrupt. We attempt to stop whatever it is we’re bored with in its tracks. But there is an art to interruption. I’m not sure if any of us are very good at it. I’m as impatient as anyone. Every day for about a month and a half I have been thinking about what is under the tree in my home. If I could interrupt things and open up my presents now, I would. So during this time of Advent when I have an opportunity to focus on the Gift God has given, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, I am thinking about how great it will be to get home from church Christmas Eve and open up those presents! I can only imagine what kids are going through right now.

But it’s not that there shouldn’t be interruption. That’s why I like the title to Steve Martin’s editorial. There is an art to interruption. Finding that art, achieving that art, that is the challenge. In fact, I think that may actually be the brilliance of the season of Advent. It is itself an art of interruption. What happens during this time of year? Wherever you go, people are wishing you a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. They are talking about the Christmas season. You drive around and see lights on people’s homes and on buildings. Offices are decorated, Christmas music is played, some people actually are in a better mood, just because it’s the time of the year for peace and goodwill toward men.

I don’t want in any way to imply that these things are wrong. Or even that they shouldn’t be done. In the Willweber household we got up the tree and the decorations right around the same time the neighbors did. And if people wish me a Merry Christmas I don’t correct them by telling them that it’s Advent. But when we come here we see it’s different. When we come here we’re not saying Merry Christmas yet. When we come here we’re doing a thing called Advent.

The reason I love Advent is not so much because I love it. It’s because it forces me to focus. It forces me to see Christmas for what it really is. Just as we don’t celebrate Easter without Lent and Good Friday, we don’t celebrate Christmas without Advent. It is, in a very practical sense, an exercise in patience, just like what Steve Martin was talking about. Instead of interrupting the Church Year and going right to celebrating Christmas, we patiently go through Advent. And yes, that might even mean that we’re bored. Or we’re just going through the motions, waiting for our celebration of Christmas on the 24th and the 25th. It might mean that others look at us as if we’ve forgotten what this time of year is about, when everybody is celebrating Christmas and we’re still talking about things like repentance and the Second Coming of Christ. But there is an art to this. Patience is hard. Sometimes we need help to be patient. Do we even dare to say that sometimes we need to be forced into it? That’s one of the things Advent can help us with.

It’s tough for us Lutherans to slosh through the Book of James. So much Law. So much focus on what we are to do. And here is another example, our Epistle reading today. Be patient. Establish your hearts because the Coming of the Lord is at hand. Don’t grumble against one another. And the scare tactic: the Judge is standing at the door. Try laying those sentiments on people when they wish you a Merry Christmas. Don’t you know the Judge is standing at the door? Be patient. Prepare your hearts. Don’t grumble.

This is what Advent does. It forces us into a mode where we see we need to be patient. When we want to talk about peace on earth the Bible is telling us not to grumble against one another. When we just can’t wait to tear open those presents under the tree the Word of God impresses upon us the need to establish our hearts, preparing for that Day when our Lord will return in glory. I know whatever gifts I get under the tree won’t compare to the Day when Christ Returns to take me to the eternal glory of heaven. So why is it I think more about what presents I’ll get than about Christ coming again? It’s so easy for us to think about the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and not have to think about what that means for us in our daily lives. That the notion of Peace on Earth means things like repenting of our own grumbling against one another, our impatience with one another, let alone God bringing about His last and ultimate promise: Returning in Glory on the Last Day.

This isn’t about us being in some private club where we know we’re observing in a better way this time of year. Advent isn’t about thinking higher of yourself, but rather cutting you down to size. Patience requires humility. It requires repentance. It requires your focus to be outside of yourself, not within yourself.

This is why James goes on to give examples. As much as we Lutherans would love to put the Book of James into a box of Law and exhortation to right living, we can’t do that, because he himself doesn’t do that. He gives his exhortations in light of the Gospel, not the Law. What are his examples? The prophets. Job. If we think patience is hard, we’re in good company. If we’re not hot on repentance, join the club. These things are never easy. They are hard by their very nature. Why would there need to be exhortation of things that are easy? It is the hard things we need to forced into.

His example of the prophets, he says, is of suffering and patience. He then says we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. When you walk into this church on Good Friday you expect to hear of suffering. If you can remember a whole year from now, you should expect to hear it also on the Third Sunday in Advent. Suffering. Patience. Remaining steadfast. These are things we so often need to be forced into because we want to jump right to, well, what we want. What do you think the prophets thought when they were being persecuted? God, it would be really nice if we could get beyond this. It would be great if this could go a lot more smoothly. I’d really appreciate it if this weren’t so hard. And that’s saying it in polite ways. The prophets weren’t always so circumspect in praying to God.

But here’s what James is getting at: God got them through. Here’s how he tells us this: you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. God was patient with those prophets. He remained steadfast to them. They weren’t strong enough on their own to make it. They needed God. James gives another example that has become the quintessential example of suffering: Job. How did Job make it through? God. God got Job through the intense suffering he endured. This is one of the greatest gifts our Lord gives to us: faith. When He gives faith we can endure. The prophets were patient because God granted them the faith to endure. Job was steadfast because God imparted to him faith that relies on God alone, as the one who is more powerful than hardships and the one who delivers us from hardships. And we could add the one from today’s Gospel reading of John the Baptist.

There is an art to interruption. At its simplest, it’s knowing when not to interrupt. It is having the patience to let God carry out His plan and will. God’s people in the Old Testament constantly tried to interrupt the plan and will of God. If God had not had the patience to endure His people’s obstinance, He never would have sent His Son. If Advent shows us anything it’s that we try to interrupt His plan and will. Thank God He is patient with us. Just as He sent His Son to take on human flesh in His birth and carried out His eternal plan to send Him to the cross, He has promised to send Him again. Don’t interrupt that Plan, it’s a good one. Contemplate it. Meditate on your sins but even more your Savior. Don’t think so much of peace on earth as you do your patiently enduring others’ faults and even their sins against you. Don’t grumble against them, love them as Christ has loved you!

When you look to the examples James gave, you see the purpose of the Lord carried out. He knows what He’s doing. That’s why He went to the cross. That’s why He was willing to endure the insults, the pain, and patiently suffer your sins and mine, humbly submitting to the punishment you and I deserve. That’s why He stepped forth from His grave. If He has done that, we know He will make good on His promise yet to be: to come again in glory on the Last Day. On that Day will be the glorious interruption. Our Lord bringing to a screeching halt the affairs of this world, the sin, the evil. He will raise all, some to eternal death, some to eternal life.

What you know now is the end. Do you have to wait for it? Yeah. But you know. You know God’s promise—you know His love for you in His Son, you know He steadfastly keeps you in His care. It’s because of that we interrupt our daily lives to hear His Gospel proclaimed. To take into our mouths the body and blood of Christ. To daily meditate on His Word and repent of our sins. This is the art. Don’t interrupt Him. But when He interrupts you, that’s a good thing. Amen.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Veni Emmanuel

Midweek in Advent 2
December 8, 2010
Matthew 1:23

A nno
D omini In the Year of Our Lord—Luke 4:18-19
V eni
E mmanuel O Come, Emmanuel—Matthew 1:23
N ovum
T estatmentum New Testament—Luke 22:20

Of course, we don’t need to know Latin to know that our Savior has come. Most of us don’t even need to know Hebrew and Greek—the original languages of the Bible—to know that God has come to us for our salvation. But even if most of us don’t know these languages, we know, even if we don’t think about it often, the value and importance of language. Language is the way we communicate. God has communicated to us through language. The way we know God has come to us and is our Savior is that He has told us in His Word. Those who know both Hebrew and Greek as well as English have translated the Word of God into English. And it has been translated into many other languages.

Part of communication is the process of explaining meaning. We don’t even have to go from one language to another to see this. Sometimes we use a phrase or a word and the other person doesn’t understand what we mean. So we explain what we mean so that they understand. Communication is a constant back and forth—saying, responding, explaining, understanding. We all know what happens when communication breaks down. It makes things worse. Good communication clarifies things. It makes things better. Communication that is meant to muddy things makes things worse. Communication that is just not very clear does the same thing, even if it’s well-intentioned.

Communication not only is vital to our lives, clear communication is. We all probably learned somewhere along the line that you communicate not only with words but also actions. Non-verbal communication can communicate just as much, and even more, than our words do.

So what do we learn from the phrase “Veni Emmanuel,” the prayer, “O Come, Emmanuel”? We see that it is answered by God in a way where He doesn’t just tell us He loves us. His Word tells us, no doubt, but His Word also becomes flesh. He is Himself His very Word. Jesus is the Word made flesh, He is God in the flesh. Matthew brings this out with a little bit of communicatory translating when he quotes Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” and then he says, “which means, ‘God with us’.”

He doesn’t want there to be any confusion. He makes it clear that the boy born of the virgin Mary is God, specifically, God with us. God having come to us. God among us. God for us. God in the flesh.

When you pray, O Come, Emmanuel, you look to Jesus where God has answered your prayer. Look to God, but specifically to God where He has most wonderfully made Himself known, in the flesh, in the baby born of Mary. In the first reading we heard this evening God said that He Himself would give a sign: the virgin would conceive and bear a son, and His name would be called Immanuel. The sign pointed to what it said. What it said is what happened. We look back on that as the actual event that happened. How we know who God is is that He came in the flesh. He became “God with us.” Before the fall into sin God was with Adam and Eve. Since the Fall we are separated from Him. His way of restoring us to a relationship with Him is by coming to us. He has done that in Jesus, God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

We’re accustomed on Sunday morning to hearing the Benediction known as the Aaronic Benediction. It is a Trinitarian blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace,” the Lord placing His name on us three times. There are times when the apostles end their New Testament letters with some form of a Trinitarian blessing. It’s easy to pass right over the last words of these New Testament letters. It’s a simple sentence, but it’s amazing what Paul says to the Corinthians at the end of his Epistle to them: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” This is after he has taken them to task for a number of serious issues. How is God with us? Because Jesus is with us. He has come in the flesh.

How is this a Trinitarian blessing? It doesn’t mention the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or repeat the Lord’s name three times as in the Aaronic Benediction. It is Trinitarian in that it is a blessing of the Lord, of God. That is, it is a blessing of the Triune God. How is the Triune God our God? In Jesus. God is with us in Jesus. Jesus is God with us. Jesus is how we are blessed by God. So the apostles are freely able to bless the people of God with a Trinitarian blessing, as in Father, Son, Holy Spirit, or a Trinitarian blessing with just Christ named, as we have it in our second reading: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” Notice what Paul is saying. He is saying nothing else than, “God be with you.” Nothing else than what God commanded Aaron to bless the people with and the same blessing that is so familiar to us. When the grace of the Lord Jesus is with us God is with us. That’s because the grace of the Lord Jesus is with us when Jesus is with us. And when Jesus is with us God is with us. That’s what He would be called, after all, Emmanuel, God with us. That was the promise in Isaiah and that was the fulfillment in Matthew.

But Matthew doesn’t say, Jesus was born and that was God with us, so have a great day! He goes on. This is only the twenty-third verse of his Gospel account. What Matthew goes on to tell us about is what it means that God is with us in Jesus Christ. Just this: that Christ was born in order to suffer on the cross and die for the sin of the world and rise from the grave so that we might have eternal life. In other words, life with Him forever.

It makes sense, and sounds wonderful, for Matthew to say that when Jesus was born that is God with us. And it’s true. But Matthew also shows us in his Gospel account that when Jesus is on the cross procuring salvation for the world that that is most truly and wonderfully God with us. That’s what God’s sign in Isaiah ultimately was pointing to. It’s what Matthew ultimately was showing us when telling the birth of Christ. When we look at the cross we see Emmanuel, God with us. We know God is with us because of the cross. Our prayer, Veni Emmanuel—O come, Emmanuel—is answered in and because of the cross. Just as He came at Bethlehem and went to Calvary, so He will come again in glory so that we may be with Him forever. Amen.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where Do You Look for God?

Second Sunday in Advent
December 5, 2010
Romans 15:4-13

If you know where to look you will be able to find it. If you know what you’re looking for you’ll be able to see it. Otherwise you would go right on by never knowing it’s there. Never seeing it.

One day my family and I were on a hike in Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, just above Glacier National Park in Montana. A ranger was taking us on a nature hike. Through one portion of the hike, all I saw was old, dead, dried up, burnt bark. Nothing to see there. I would have walked right on by. But the ranger knew where to look. She knew what to look for. Let’s take a look here. I would just have soon continued on by but she wanted us to see the new growth. Before I could think too long about how I wondered if she was really qualified to be a ranger, she pointed out to us the new growth that was coming out from underneath all of that dead stuff, all of those trees that had been destroyed in the fire. It was very pretty. Green shoots coming from underneath a brown blanket of what used to be tall beautiful trees. But there they had lain, providing a warm moist blanket for the ground beneath it, a fertile sphere for new life, new growth to shoot forth.

When I am in nature I am drawn to the grandeur, the magnificent scenery, those things that are easy to see because they stand out with their obvious beauty and glory. What I learned on that day is that there is a lot more beauty than what at first meets the eye. I learned that to see some of the most amazing things you need to know where to look. You need to know what to look for. And you need to know that it’s sometimes in the places you wouldn’t expect.

Maybe that’s the problem with us. We don’t know where to look. We don’t know what to look for. We rely on what we see at first glance. We’re looking for the grandeur, the glory, the powerful. We’re wanting the God who will swoop into our lives just when we need help and magically, powerfully take care of our situation, and then give a wave and a wink as He goes back to sitting on His throne and keeping everything under control. God is the God of glory, is He not? So where’s the glory? We look for it, but it isn’t always apparent. Most of the people in Allied Gardens aren’t waking up every Sunday morning to join us here as if to ignore the obvious: that here is where there is the glory and grandeur of the Almighty God and His abundant blessings. If anything, they look at our little church and wonder what the big deal is. Many people look at the trials and tribulations of Christians and wonder why we would believe in a God who would allow us to go through such things. Where’s the glory? Where’s the grandeur?

Have you ever chopped down a tree and just left the stump there? You got that problem taken care of, the tree had gotten too big, it was in the way, you needed the space for something else. Months went by. One day you looked at that stump just sitting there, useless now. But from it you see something not dead, not useless, but something green. A little shoot. Coming from that stump. The tree came from the ground for life and even chopping it down to a stump wasn’t going to prevent it from fulfilling its purpose.

Paul says in the Epistle reading that the Root of Jesse will come. He will be the one who arises to rule the Gentiles; in Him will the Gentiles hope. What kind of God, what kind of Savior, do you think the people of God in the Old Testament were looking for? What kind of God do you think would catch the attention of non-believers, Gentiles? Wasn’t a mighty, powerful, glorious God, one that the Israelites should have been expecting? Isn’t a God who erases all the things that make life tough for us the kind of god non-believers would think to look for?

But the Old Testament makes a promise of the God who will come as Savior, and one that doesn’t necessarily fit the description of what we might look for. We heard it in this morning’s Old Testament reading: “There shall come forth a Shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The promise is of the Almighty, Glorious, Lord of All coming as a little sprout. A sprout that comes from an old stump. Some glory. Some grandeur. Some power. God’s people might have wondered about their God. The Gentiles might have thought those Israelites, and now the Christians who were believing in that same God, were a little crazy, or at least people they should feel sorry for.

Isaiah was a great prophet. Many times He speaks of the greatness of God. Why here in the portion we heard in today’s Old Testament reading does he then refer to God the Savior as the Root of Jesse? Jesus was descended from the line of King David. That’s King David, the powerful king, the one who was glorious and a great leader for the people of God. But Isaiah tells us of the promise of the Savior as coming from David’s father. That’s Jesse, the simple man from the country. The man who raised sons to help out on the family farm, to serve King Saul in the army against the Philistines, to be simple men who would serve God in ordinary ways as most of God’s people do. These are the humble beginnings of the Savior. From King David, yes, but also from Jesse, a man who never thought his youngest son who tended sheep would be considered to be the king of God’s people.

From this prophecy in Isaiah we see the pattern. God likes to come in ways where you wouldn’t think to look unless He showed you. Would you have thought the Savior would be born in a stable? Would you have looked for the woman to give Him birth in a simple peasant girl? Would you have walked all the way out to the country as Samuel did to Jesse’s house to find the next king? Samuel did because God directed him there. I don’t think he would have thought of Jesse on his own, let alone know who he was.

If Isaiah used such a humble description of the Savior to come, Paul had the opportunity to paint a portrait of the glorious, powerful, Almighty God who had come in his appeal to Gentiles. But he picked up on the theme of Isaiah. The Root of Jesse. The one who came from a stump. The one who thought it was a grand plan to come in as Savior as a sprout rather than a Sequoia.

John the Baptist had quite a time trying to get people to see that his cousin from the backwater town of Nazareth was the Savior of the world. There are some who would never believe. Some who would mock. Some who would simply feel sorry for those of us who believe in such things. Yes, there are those of us who look to things like a dead stump for a glimmer of growth. For a sign of life in a little sprout coming forth. Who look to a stable and among smelly animals for a Savior. And not just a Savior, God Himself. We would never have thought to look for God and our Savior in one who was so beaten that He couldn’t carry His cross to the hill where He would be crucified. We would never have thought to look to one who would die in such a way, among common criminals. That’s just not the way we think. When we think of God we look for glory. He says for us to look among the weak and ordinary things of this world.

When there’s so much in this world that paints a picture that God obviously cannot be in control, obviously does not have the means or the power to bring us out of the mess we’re in, God says, Be still, and know that I am God. Be still and look into that very mess and you will find Me. Be still and believe that My glory and salvation come through the cross, through the weak and ordinary things of this world.

The world can offer plenty of glory and power and enticement. Only God can offer salvation and the true glory. If you know where to look and you know what you’re looking for you’ll see it. If you look to the font you will see that there is where you were brought into the eternal care of the Almighty God. Whatever you face, whatever doubts you have, whatever knocks you down, God has you in His care. He won’t let you go. He will carry you through the trials to the eternal glory.

If you’re looking in the wrong place or for the wrong thing you might pass right by it. If your Lord thought it was a great idea to come from a backwater town, to be born in humble circumstances, to come from a line that started off in the simplest of circumstances, He will in the same way come to you in ordinary bread and a sip of wine. There’s life in that bread and that wine because your Lord is present where you wouldn’t expect Him. His Body and Blood are in and with that bread and wine to give you growth in faith. And if a shoot from the stump of Jesse can bring life eternal then our Lord’s Body and Blood in and with the bread and wine can do the same.

The really great thing about all this is that you don’t have to look for God at all. That’s a human-centered way of looking at it. He comes to us. He finds us. He meets us where we’re at and rescues us in our lost state. You don’t need to search for glory, you don’t need to look for great things to come your way. Rest in your Baptism. Rejoice in hearing that your sins are absolved. Know that bread and wine are humble means of delivering to you the glory that compares with nothing else: Your Lord in all His fullness and glory. When He comes He brings with Him forgiveness and the true glory of life forever with Him. Amen.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Anno Domini

Midweek in Advent 1
December 1, 2010
Luke 4:18-19

A nno
D omini In the Year of Our Lord—Luke 4:18-19
V eni
E mmanuel O Come, Emmanuel—Matthew 1:23
N ovum
T estatmentum New Testament—Luke 22:20

I have just what you need this Advent, a little Latin for you. I’ve taken the word ‘Advent’ and divided it up three ways, for our three midweek Advent worship services. Each pair of letters stands for a Latin phrase that helps us focus on the work of our Lord coming to us with His gifts.

The three Latin phrases we’ll be drawing from are fairly familiar to us, at least the idea behind them if not the exact translation. The last one, Novum Testamentum is so similar to its English equivalent we could easily guess that it’s New Testament. The second, Veni Emmanuel, may not be as easy but we could probably make a good guess, if only for the fact that we’re pretty familiar with the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. And that’s what it means, O Come, Emmanuel. And the first one, Anno Domini, even though a lot of people may not know the actual translation, will probably know that it stands for the time we’re in now and have been in since the first Advent of Jesus. We’re in the year 2010 A.D. It means “In the year of our Lord,” so the proper way to say it would be: In the year of our Lord, 2010.

The word ‘advent’ itself comes from Latin. It means ‘coming’. The season of Advent has a dual focus, one a preparation for our celebration of Christ’s coming in humility at Bethlehem and one of our continual preparation for His return in glory on the Last Day. It’s quite remarkable that our whole calendar system is based on the entrance of Christ as a man into this world—the time before Christ and the time since Christ was born. There’s nothing in the Bible about it, but whatever year we are referring to in this era is ‘in the year of our Lord’. In other words, in the year of the era of the time when our Lord came to earth. We Christians know why He came to earth. It is the basis not only of a calendar system but our belief system. It is far more important than the basis for how we mark time, it is the very basis of our salvation.

The way the Bible talks about time is as a means by which our Lord brings about His salvation. Our second reading we heard this evening described it this way: when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman. God had it all planned out. Paul goes on to say the reason God sent His Son: He was born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. He brought His salvation into the time of our existence. In that sense, every year in history is the year of our Lord in that history revolves around God and His salvation in His Son Jesus Christ, whether that be in the era God’s people were looking ahead to the time when He would be born of the Virgin, or the time we are in now when we look back on that historical event.

In Advent we look back to the Old Testament and see how what was promised there was fulfilled in Christ. In the first reading we heard this evening from Isaiah we hear of the promise of the Anointed One. The one who was sent to bring salvation. The one who came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. In the third reading we hear from the lips of Jesus Himself that that Scripture from Isaiah 61 was fulfilled in the hearing of the people who heard Jesus read that Scripture. They had waited for the Lord’s coming and now they were face to face with Him. They were living in the year of the Lord’s favor because Jesus had come. Jesus was bringing salvation, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.

Because we live in time we talk and think in terms of time. But think about it from the perspective of God. When He promises in Isaiah and when Jesus says in Luke that He was sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, is He talking about a unit of time? Namely, a year? No, He’s talking about eternity. That’s what Christ came to bring to us who are in time and who are mortal. Jesus came into this place of time and space, He who is eternal and spiritual. Jesus came to this place as one who had to get around as we do, by walking or taking some sort transportation. He did this to bring us from this place into the place that isn’t a place as we can understand it. Because it’s heaven, it’s eternal. It’s not a place of time and space. We will rise bodily on the Last Day and live in heaven there but it won’t be a place like we understand being in a place while we’re living in this life.

As Christians we live in this world as everyone else does but at the same time in a different way from everyone else. Like everyone, we are mortal and subject to the laws of time and space. We are born and at some point we die. Perhaps more aware than everyone else, we are sinful and can’t escape the selfish desires that infect our heart.

But we are also people who, as the Bible describes us, are not of this world. We are in the world but not of it. We live here but at the very same time heaven is our home. Even as we have been born here and live out our lives here we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth. While non-Christians are very much at home in this life, we Christians are in one sense out of place. Have you ever heard someone say to you that they feel like they should have been born in another time in history? That they don’t quite fit in in the world of today? Maybe you feel that way yourself. In one sense that’s the way it is for us Christians. We’re here, when and where God wants us to be, but we feel a little out of place. On the one hand, we have been called by God to live out godly lives here on earth, in this time and place, and bring the Gospel to those in our lives, where we’re at in our daily lives. On the other hand, we should never get too comfortable with this world because God has also called us to our ultimate home.

He has called us to this here in time so that we may be with Him in eternity. Jesus, when the fullness of time had come, was born of a woman to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. How He proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor was by coming as He did, in the flesh. How He did it was by going to the cross as He did, in the flesh to suffer on behalf of the world. How He did it was by stepping forth from His grave as He did, in the flesh, never again to be bound by space or time or death or the grave.

He lives and reigns eternally, but not just to reign. To continue to serve. To continue to grant His gifts, shower down on us His favor, His grace, His mercy, His peace. The year of our Lord’s favor is here and now, eternally present for us in His Word and His Sacraments. The very Body and Blood that walked the earth, that suffered on the cross, that emerged from the grave, given to us in His Holy Supper. Himself preached into us when we hear His Word read and proclaimed. Faith imparted to us in those gifts. Strengthened in us by those very means. In the year of our Lord eternity is the measurement of time. In other words, there is no time. There is nothing finite about it. Nothing that comes to an end. Nothing that can be measured. Nothing that can be defined or described of as time. There is only Christ and our being united with Him forever. Amen.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Commemoration of Noah

Today is the Commemoration of Noah. Here is the summary from the Commission on Worship of the LCMS (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) on Noah:

Noah, the son of Lamech (Genesis 5:30), was instructed by God to build an ark, in which his family would find security from the destructive waters of a devastating flood that God warned would come. Noah built the ark, and the rains descended. The entire earth was flooded destroying “every living thing that was on the face of the ground, both man and beast” (7:23). After the flood waters subsided, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. When Noah determined it was safe, and God confirmed it, he and his family and all the animals disembarked. Then Noah built an altar and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for having saved his family from destruction. A rainbow in the sky was declared by God to be a sign of His promise that never again would a similar flood destroy the entire earth (8:20). Noah is remembered and honored for his obedience, believing that God would do what He said He would.

Collect for the Commemoration of Noah:

Almighty and eternal God, according to Your strict judgment You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, yet according to You great mercy You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all. Grant that we may be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, so that with all believers in Your promise, we would be declared worthy of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Slave, Soldier, Son

First Sunday in Advent
November 28, 2010
Romans 13:8-14

In the Church Year we don’t wait till January to begin. We begin now. The Church Year isn’t just a way to mark time, it’s a way to focus our attention on Christ. So we start before everybody else. We start now. We begin with a season of preparation and move into a season of celebration. We prepare in Advent for our celebration of the birth of Christ in Christmas.

But there’s one other thing we do in Advent: we prepare for what we should always be preparing for in our lives—the day when Christ will come in glory. In our Epistle reading Paul says it’s near, nearer now than when we first believed. So what kind of lives should we be living? What kind of people should we be? “So then let us cast off the works of darkness,” he says, “and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime.”

The way Paul talks here and elsewhere in the book of Romans, as well as in some of his other letters in the New Testament, we see imagery of who we should be as Christians. There are three ways we should be as Christians who live in this world and who prepare for the Last Day: as a slave, as a soldier, and as a son.

Take today off and plan on starting tomorrow. Wake up and take a deep breath. Begin with a positive attitude. Now that you’ll be prepared and ready to go, go about your day. Live the godly way the Epistle has described. Go the day without sinning.

You won’t make it past your attempt at a positive attitude. Not only will you sin, you will stand in the sight of God as a sinner in whom there is nothing but sin and contempt for His perfect Law.

The fact is, you are a slave. You were born into slavery. You are a slave to sin. You can try to escape. You can try to not sin. You can attempt to justify yourself, which usually is in the form of rationalization—Well, it wasn’t that big of a sin; it was only a white lie; there are worse things I could have done. These attempts to see ourselves as anything but purely sinful prove that we are slaves to sin.

There are a lot of people throughout history, including in our own American history who have a particular distaste for slavery. It’s not something most people would choose. And if you are born into it, well, you don’t have much of a choice, do you?

Think about this, Paul was writing to Christians, including all Christians of all times and places. So why did he have to remind them of the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment”? Why did he have to stress that love does no wrong to a neighbor? Could it be because we are slaves of sin? That we in fact do commit adultery, do murder, do steal, do covet, and do wrong our neighbor? That our heart is full of desires that defile the sacred bond of marriage created by God, that our thoughts gravitate toward wishing ill upon others when they harm us, that we do not always seek to help our neighbor keep his possessions, that we instead often whish that it were us who owned them?

Why is it that Paul in speaking to Christians must give this exhortation? “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” Could it be because our default position is to engage in these behaviors? As much as we don’t want to be slaves, we are. Even more painful to be shown and to admit, as much as we loathe being slaves, we revel in our slavery. We do not seek freedom from our sin but from the Law which constricts our behavior and brings the hammer down on us when we make provision for our flesh’s desires.

We are slaves, we cannot free ourselves. But listen to these words earlier in the Book of Romans: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. [6:16-18 ESV]

Even though God in His Word gives us the news we would like to dismiss, He also gives us Good News. There is another kind of slavery. But this doesn’t sound like good news. Why would we want to trade one kind of slavery for another? How is that better? It makes sense that we think that way because, guess what, we’re slaves to sin. Our sin has corrupted our minds, the way we view and understand spiritual matters. Only God can truly say what is what in spiritual matters.

The amazing thing is that He frees us from our slavery to sin and the slavery we are brought into is a slavery in which we are free. We are free because we are free from the condemnation of the Law. We have escaped the punishment we deserve. Even though we are slaves of righteousness, slaves of Christ, we are free. We are not bound.

There are two ways Paul depicts this. One is love. It’s actually a pretty simple thing, although it’s the hardest thing in the world because of our sinfulness and selfishness. But as slaves of Christ, we love others. You’ve no doubt experienced the freeing feeling you have when you help someone out who really needed it. You don’t just feel good, you are empowered because you know that you could have helped the person just the same if you had been forced to do it or did it simply out of obligation, but you wouldn’t have done it out of love. When you do it simply because you see a person in need and you can fill that need there is freedom there.

The other way he depicts it is with battle imagery. We are not only slaves, we are soldiers. A soldier in one sense is not free. A soldier voluntary places himself under the authority of the military. He chooses to serve in this capacity, to abide by the commands of the authority above him. A soldier wears armor. This limits him. He is not free to dress any way he likes. But the armor protects him. It is much better to submit to this condition than to face harm from the enemy. Without the protection he is actually becoming a slave, letting the enemy have power over him.

When you are a slave of Christ you are a soldier of Christ. You are wide open for the assault of the devil. Every time you sin his arrows are piercing your soul. You have no chance against him without the armor of light Paul tells us about. You are a soldier of Christ, so put it on. I guess I don’t really need to tell you to be here since you’re here. But I can exhort you to continue. You need to be here, week in, week out. You need the protection your Lord gives you in His Word and His Sacraments. Without His protection you’re a sitting duck. Satan has you within his sights and he never misses. He knows your weaknesses and he attacks at will.

But he can be stopped. No, not only stopped, he has been. But what can we do to stop him when we are slaves to sin? When we so often leave the armor our Lord has given us by the wayside? We can’t. We can’t do anything. We are powerless against Satan. The only hope we have is in one who is stronger, one who in fact does not seek our downfall but our freedom and rescue. One who does not save us only to turn us into slaves, but of a different kind. One who does not rescue us only to turn us into soldiers, albeit ones who are fighting the good fight against Satan.

Our Lord has also called us out of darkness into His marvelous light as sons. We who are slaves of Christ and soldiers of Christ are also sons of Christ. He has brought us into His eternal Kingdom, His eternal family, as His very own sons and daughters, His children. It would have been something if Paul had exhorted us to put on the armor of light and let it be at that. But he goes farther: Put on Christ. Wear the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is your clothing now.

He who is the Lord, the Master, the King Almighty, the creator of the universe, and the servant of all. The one who became a slave by taking on flesh, by humbly going to the cross, by being buried in a tomb. If being a slave is distasteful to you, take a look at Christ and put Him on. He did not give a second thought at becoming a slave, because for Him it’s not about what He could get out of it—He has everything—it’s purely about love. Love for you and me and the whole world. He became a slave to free us from our sin and the condemnation of the Law.

Put on the Lord, the one who fights for you. The one who is the commander, the one who holds the highest rank, the one who to whom all others answer, and yet willingly became a soldier. Defeating Satan on the ground, not from the control room. Jesus went to the front lines, even giving up His life. If you are not keen to the idea of being under authority and engaging in a war on Satan and your sin, look to Christ and wear Him as your armor. There’s nothing standing between you and Satan but Christ. You are protected. Christ is your armor, your Lord is your clothing. You are clothed with Christ.

Wrap yourself in Christ. You are His son, His daughter, His child. You are Baptized. You are an heir to the Kingdom. A mansion is prepared for you in the heavens. The day will come when your Lord will welcome you into it for eternity. As you await that day put on the Lord. Daily walk in your Baptism. Daily repent. Daily wrap yourself in the forgiveness delivered to you when you were washed with the waters of your Baptism. Daily live under grace, under mercy, under strength, under protection—the love of Christ from the cross, delivered to you in Baptism and placed into your mouth in the Holy Supper of your Lord.

He is a gracious Lord and Master, a strong and beneficent commandant, and a loving Brother and Savior, clothing you with Himself so that you may rejoice in your Heavenly Father’s grace and mercy forever. Amen.


Another Year, Another Perihelion

Do you know what the anomalistic year is? It is the average interval between consecutive passages of the earth through the perihelion, equivalent to 365.26 days. All clear?

Now that you know what the anomalistic year is you might be wondering what in the world is the perihelion. The perihelion is that point in the orbit of a planet at which it is nearest to the sun. [It comes from the Greek words ‘peri’- around, and ‘helios’- sun.]

We usually don’t make a big deal about that point at which we are closest to the sun (okay, astronomers do) but it happens nevertheless. We’re constantly going around the sun, every year in fact, and the perihelion happens only once a year.

The purpose of our calendar year isn’t to mark things like the perihelion (and astronomers could tell you a lot of other cool stuff that happens throughout the year), but to make it easy for all of us to mark the passage of time in a coordinated way. On January 1 we will begin that again with the year 2011.

In the Church we mark time differently. Everything in the year the Church revolves around the Son. It’s not just once a year that we come to the point where we’re nearest to Him. It’s in every season and festival and commemoration. Everything in the Church Year is meant to bring us to the point where we’re nearest Him.

Whether it’s Christmas, where we mark the birth of the Savior who would accomplish His work of salvation on the cross, or Pentecost, where we mark the sending of the Holy Spirit in a specific way to equip the saints of God to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus’ salvific work on the cross, or the Commemoration of John the Baptist, where we mark the grace of God in sending a prophet to point the way to the Savior who humbly bore the sins of the world on the cross.

In the calendar year we mark time. In the Church Year we mark our continually being drawn to Christ and the cross. Astronomers will jump at the chance to tell you about the perihelion, and many other things that are indeed cool and amazing. After all, God created the universe and the way the earth revolves around the sun where once a year the perihelion is marked. You could think of the Church Year as the way the Church jumps at the chance to tell you about the most amazing thing of all: the Son who is the Lord who created life and suffered death that we may live.

Since the Church Year is defined by every part of it drawing us close to Christ, the Son, I thought I would take the liberty to make up a word, also drawing from the Greek: periHion. The word ‘hios’ comes from the Greek word meaning “son.” Observing the Church Year is our way of revolving around the Son. We don’t just mark time, we mark, in all its vastness, the Person and Work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who accomplished salvation in His life, suffering, death, and resurrection.

The Church Year begins with Advent—look for the Son and His salvific work in that season. It continues with Christmas—look for the One who was born in order to die. It moves on with Epiphany—look for the Son who came to enlighten the world with His true Light shining forth from the cross. It goes from there to Lent—look for the Son who in humility walked the path of the cross for the sins of the world. It bounds forth in Easter—look for the risen Son who conquered death in His death and the grave in His resurrection. It flows from there to Pentecost—look for the Son in whom we have life, forgiveness, and salvation. Another year, another opportunity to revolve around the Son. God’s Blessings to you in the coming Church Year.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reason 14,732 to Be Thankful

Day of Thanksgiving
November 24, 2010
Luke 17:11-19

The 14,732nd reason to be thankful is that the sun rises every day. It may not always be shining, but each day you can count on it. You could easily think of several more reasons to be thankful off the top of your head. If you put some time into it you could come up with many more. I was glancing at a sports columnist’s analysis of the teams in the NBA and sometimes after analyzing a team he would say, Reason 17,435 why I love the NBA, or some other massive number. Some people may have no reason to like America’s professional Basketball league, others can’t get enough of it. But those who love it love it for many reasons. Taking a cue from him, I thought I would pick one reason we can be thankful. Reason 14,732 to be thankful: the sun rises every day. There are thousands more, perhaps millions. I don’t know, I haven’t tried to count.

In actuality, there is one reason to be thankful. All the thousands and even more are all because of the one reason we can be thankful. The one reason we have to be thankful is Christ. And I’m not just talking about for Christians. It would be easy enough for us to say, You know, non-Christians have a lot of reasons to be thankful even though they don’t believe in God, but we Christians know the one reason to be thankful. That’s close, but it’s actually that even though non-Christians don’t know the one reason they have to be thankful they nevertheless have the very same reason to be thankful that we do: Christ.

When God created the universe everything was perfect. Adam and Eve didn’t really have to set aside times to be thankful, they were in a perpetual state of gratitude toward God. God was the reason for all that they had. It all was due to God’s grace and favor. His love toward them moved Him to lavish all of His blessings on them.

What happened when they threw it all away? More grace. More love. All of His favor lavished upon them in mercy. His love was the same but was now applied in a specific way. In Christ. In Himself, God the Triune God, pouring out His blessings upon them in the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. He is the one reason to be thankful, because God acting toward us apart from Christ is God acting toward us according to His holiness and justice. Because of the Fall into sin, because of our inbred sin and the actual sins we commit, God must act toward us in judgment, eternal punishment. Without Christ this is what we would have. We would not be here. We would be in hell for eternity. We would not have discussions about what we are thankful for. We would have eternal agony and torture. Thank God He acts toward us in Christ instead of His wrath and judgment!

God did not put the account of the ten lepers in the Bible to give us a little lesson on being thankful. Look how nice God is to you, so you should be thankful like that Samaritan was. Or conversely, you ought to be ashamed of yourself that you are ungrateful, haven’t you learned anything from those nine lepers who didn’t say Thank You to Jesus?

This is the reason Jesus healed the lepers: because of His suffering and death on the cross. No, He hadn’t suffered and died yet, but that’s what He came for. He healed those men in view of His promised suffering and death. It’s exactly the same thing that took place at the Fall when Adam and Eve sinned against God. He acted toward them in mercy, in view of His only-begotten Son’s promised suffering and death. Adam and Eve didn’t know the name ‘Jesus’ but they were thankful to God because of Jesus. It was in fact immediately following their fall into sin that God promised the Savior. That’s why they could be thankful.

It’s also the reason those men who were lepers could be thankful. It wasn’t just that they were healed. They were healed because Jesus was going to suffer and die on the cross, whether or not they knew it or believed it. It appears that nine of those men didn’t have a clue, or didn’t care, that there was a reason to be thankful to the one who healed them. The one who came back to Jesus in gratitude received something from Jesus in addition to being healed of leprosy: Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well. Jesus said this to the man in view of the cross. In view of His own suffering and death He would endure on the cross. Jesus could have taken on the man’s leprosy but had come for something so much more, so much greater! He came to take on the man’s sin. The man’s life was burdened with a disease that was sickness to his soul. His body having been rotting away was really a manifestation of the sickness we all share. That is what Jesus took on Himself, not just leprosy.

There are plenty of non-Christians who are thankful people. There are many people who do not believe in Christ who realize that they have many blessings. We know that the reason they have many blessings is because of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. We know that everything for which we are thankful is purely because of Christ. Without the mercy of God in His Son Jesus there would be nothing we have, let alone anything for which to be thankful. So while it’s a blessing on Thanksgiving Day and often throughout our lives to think of all the many things to be thankful for, as Christians we have the bonus of knowing the basis for our blessings. Even if God hadn’t granted us countless blessings we could still look to the cross and give thanks for the greatest blessing of all. Amen.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

How Do You Approach the End?

Last Sunday of the Church Year
Sunday of the Fulfillment
November 21, 2010
Luke 23:23-47

How do you approach the end? I’d like to submit to you today that how you approach the end is dependent on how you approach Jesus.

On the Last Sunday of the Church Year we are met with the reality that things come to an end. Sometimes people meet their end suddenly, perhaps in a car crash where they die instantly. Sometimes people enter the hospital and never go home, but wake every day in that place knowing that their end will come soon. Sometimes people are told that their end will come soon but it becomes prolonged and they’re left to wonder what plans God has through this. Sometimes we face the end when someone we love is coming to their end. Even though they are the ones dying we are facing that end with them.

How will we face the end? Even if we ourselves are in good health, we know one day our end will come. If Christ returns in glory before we face death our end on this earth will coincide. If not, then we know we will die in some way—an accident, an illness, someone taking our life, or simply old age. How do you approach the end that you know is coming, soon or far off in the distance?

When there doesn’t appear to be any reason for our end to come soon it’s easy not to have to think about it. When it appears imminent, we can become consumed with it. To help us approach the end in the way our Lord would have us approach it, He gives us in His Word examples of how certain people approached the end. In the case of three of these groups of people it wasn’t their own end but the end of Jesus. In the case of all four it was an approaching of Jesus in His end.

The portion of Scripture for us today on the last day of the Church Year is the moments leading up to the actual end of Christ, at least in His body. It is bookended by the approach of a group of women to Jesus and a criminal who approached Him. In between this is a group of soldiers and their torturing of Him linked with a group of religious leaders who mocked Him.

The two approaches to Jesus that bookend Jesus’ imminent death show us in their approach to Jesus how they approached death. The women were godly in their sorrow over Jesus. They loved their Lord and were brought to despair over His end. Even in their faithfulness to Him they could not see past the end. All they saw was the end; the end of their Lord whom they loved.

The criminal saw one who should not have had such an end. He realized that He deserved to be hanging on that cross but the one who was being crucified next to him did not. He approached Jesus as one who was not worthy to ask but did—remember when You come into Your Kingdom.

On the one hand, we learn how to approach the end from these four approaches to the end and to Jesus. We certainly can appreciate the loyalty and compassion the women had for Jesus. We certainly should learn to face death in such a manner. In this respect there is a stark contrast between them and the group of soldiers and the group of religious leaders. They had no regard for Jesus, as a person and certainly as Lord. However, the women fell short in their approach to the end because they fell short in their approach to Jesus. Where was their faith? Where was their trust in His Word that He would meet His death but be victorious in it? That He would follow up that victory by putting a stamp on it in dealing a death blow to the grave by stepping from it. Where was the compassionate approach to Jesus that was coupled with conviction that this was in fact not the end, the ultimate end anyway?

On the other hand, we learn how not to approach the end from the unconscionable attitude and action of the soldiers and religious leaders toward the end of one who was coming to His end, and specifically their approach to Jesus in His end. Aside from their not believing in Him as Lord, they had no regard for Him as a person who was brought to a brutal end. But they show that their approach to the end is one in which they want to avoid any notion of judgment that relates to death. They are in the driver’s seat so it’s easy for them to ignore their own end. They know it’s coming eventually, but right now they don’t have to deal with it. It’s much easier to live in their own worlds they have created where they can ignore the Word of God and live by their own understanding that whatever good will come to them at their death rests on themselves. This makes perfect sense to them because what they have to rest on in themselves seems a whole lot better than relying on this guy who is being humiliated and nailed to a cross. How in the world could He offer them anything of value that is better than what they can offer themselves of their own ability?

This shows the flip side of faith. Faith trusts in this One who is humiliated and nailed to a cross. The opposite of faith looks at the One who is humiliated and nailed to a cross and says that there can’t be anything there in which I trust solely. When you’re facing your own end or that of your loved ones, in what do you put your trust? It’s true that God is the author of many blessings, including sending angels to guard you in danger, medicine and medical workers to attend to your illnesses or injuries, amazing technological advances to help you in your needs. We can and should give thanks to God for these and may freely make use of them. But they are not what gets us through when we are facing the end. We should not approach the end by depending on those things. It is Jesus Christ and His end at Calvary that is our sole help in time of trouble and facing the end. Whether we live or die it is Christ and His cross that gives us hope.

Now is this just a pious thought? No, it’s what our Lord shows us in His end. It’s not just the people who approached Jesus that helps us learn how we approach the end. It’s also and especially how Jesus responded to them. The women wept for Him—His response: Don’t weep for Me. Yes, He is the one suffering, but He is doing it for them. Jesus on the cross was not Jesus defeated, meeting His ultimate end. Jesus on the cross was Jesus for the world, delivering the world from an eternal end, an end that is eternal suffering in hell. This is a remarkable truth: when facing the end we may approach it in victory. In hope! In a confidence that rests in the end of Jesus at Calvary which really was not an end at all but rather the victory that makes it possible not only to face the end but to get through it. When Jesus gives us permission not to feel sorry for Him but actually to look to Him in hope as He walked that path to the cross then He gives us the truth that since He made it to the cross and from the grave He will get us through anything we face, even our end.

Notice another amazing thing. His love, His help, His promise is not conditional. It is not a promise that depends on our approach toward Him. His response toward the brutal attack of the soldiers and religious leaders was stunning: Father forgive them. He didn’t look down at them and strike up a bargain: Look, if you guys get it together and just believe in Me, I will offer you full and free forgiveness. No, there was no sign whatsoever that those men who crucified Him and disdained Him began to see the light. There was simply the clearest sign of all: forgiveness. Full and free. Offered from the cross to them and to all. The women, the soldiers, the religious leaders, the criminals hanging with Him, and you and me and everyone who has ever walked this earth. Jesus died for sinners.

If the women loved their Lord and yet fell short in their trust in His promises and if the soldiers and the religious leaders had no regard for Jesus as Lord, the criminal who heard the reviling of the other one was seeing that this was all wrong. He and his fellow criminal deserved to there. That was right. But the one between didn’t deserve any of this. This was all wrong. If there was any hope it was in the one who did not deserve to be there and yet was, in all of His humiliation, pain, suffering, and offering of forgiveness. So if you want to see a picture of how you approach Jesus you look to that criminal and see one who deserves to be there. You see one who approaches Jesus unworthily and yet, strange as it seems, confidently. Fully as a sinner and yet fully in the trust that He will remember him when Jesus comes into His Kingdom. To this one Jesus speaks the results of the bestowing of forgiveness: Today you will be with Me in paradise.

That is our Lord’s approach to those who see that their only defense before Jesus is to confess their sins and appeal to His having taken on their sins in His suffering and death. How we approach the end, whether that be our own, our loved ones, or the imminent return of Christ on the Last Day is to look to the end that brought to an end Satan’s hold over us, sin’s power over us, and death’s grip on us. Jesus approached His suffering and death in humility and compassion. We ought to face the end in the same way. Humbly, compassionately, in the peace of knowing that our Lord has taken the path already before us. Knowing that He has come through it in victory. What lies ahead is not the end, but a moment in which there is loss that marks the point where there is no more ending, sin, sorrow, and fear. You don’t know when your end will be, but you know that eternity in heaven is on the horizon. Amen.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

What Do I Get Out of This?

All Saints’ Day [Observed]
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 7, 2010
Luke 20:27-40

Jesus didn’t really care who He was speaking to. He would go up to people and talk to them just as He would engage in conversation with those who came up to Him. He was there to talk, to give them of Himself. He didn’t draw lines of saints or sinners or any other category people might draw up. If you had ears He’d be happy to talk to you. If your ears didn’t work He’d open your ears so that you could hear Him.

This is the kind of free life Jesus has and the kind of life He came to bring to us. When you are in Christ you have this kind of freedom as well.

Now today has a somewhat unusual focus for as we are observing All Saints’ Day, which was seven days ago, November 1. But today you also are going to hear something that you usually hear about this time of year but a week earlier than normal. Next week is our Commitment Sunday but today you’re going to hear the “Stewardship Sermon” you’d normally hear on Commitment Sunday.

If we consider who we are in light of who Jesus is all of this fits together. Jesus is ready and willing to engage with everyone. You, me, other Christians, non-Christians. His freedom to meet us on our turf says something about who He wants us to be. He wants us to have the kind of life that He has. In the case of non-Christians, it’s evident that they don’t want this kind of life He offers freely. However, in our case, it becomes clear in our daily lives that we too often want nothing to do with it also.

What is the reason for this? It’s because we defy category. If you were to say of your fellow Christians that they are saints someone could just as easily point out that they are sinners. And if you were to explain that your fellow Christians are sinners, someone could just the same defend the fact that they are saints through and through. But no matter, Jesus is not interested in categorizing us. He’s much more interested in what we need. He’s intent on giving us life.

Think for a moment about what kind of people were coming up to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. They were upstanding religious people. They were actually religious leaders. But what was the state of their belief system? Well, they denied a fundamental doctrine, the resurrection from the dead. Sound familiar? I am always amazed when I run across a Christian, especially a pastor, who denies the resurrection. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, that belief has been around a long time.

But what strikes me about their approaching of Jesus is not that they really want something out of Him, it’s that they want to engage Him on their turf. So, actually, they do want something out of Him. They want Him to conform to their reality. They’re not interested in what He has to offer them, they’re interested in how they can get Him to bolster their own notions of how they view themselves and what they want for their lives.

But more to the point, every person approaches Jesus with the question: What do I get out of this? What do You, Jesus, have to offer me that I can put my stamp of approval on? The good thing for us is that Jesus knows this already. It’s not like He came to earth and discovered a bunch of self-absorbed people running around. He knew the condition of the hearts of everyone. That’s actually the reason He came. So He came not to find out where we’re at, but to deliver us from where we’re at. He knows who we are. And to Him it doesn’t matter. He’ll take us where we’re at. He’ll engage us in our own self-absorbed little world we’ve created for ourselves.

When we ask Him, What do I get out of this?, His answer is: Me. We want what we want for ourselves and He gives of Himself for us. And that’s exactly where we see then how people react. For some, Christ is not enough. For some, Christ is a quaint idea but there’s got to be more to what we need than some man who claimed to be God and died on the cross. Most of the people who are in church every Sunday are Christians, we do believe that Christ is our Savior, that He died for our sins. But is He enough? Do we need more than just His suffering and death and resurrection?

Ask yourself this: is this enough for you when you are lying flat on your back in the hospital? Is Christ and Him crucified all you need when you’re on the outs with your teenager? Is Jesus and His salvation won for you in death sufficient when you’re battling depression?

If you say that it’s not enough then you are denying that what Christ gives you is what you really need. When He gives you everything, which is what He gives you through His suffering, death, and resurrection, and you are wondering what you get out of it then you are still wanting Jesus to come over to your side rather than seeing that you already have everything in Him.

This impacts every aspect of your life. It impacts how you interact with your family, with your neighbors, your co-workers, the cashier at the store. It impacts how you spend your time at work, at home, with others, by yourself. It impacts what you do and what you don’t do. It impacts how you see your life and how you view others.

Instead of wondering what you’re going to get out of it, you’ll begin to see how you can offer to others what you have been given by Christ. And that is, simply, life. Life not as we know it. Life not as we so often pursue. This is life beyond what we so often seek. This is life that goes beyond what we normally try to get out of life. If only I had this or if only that weren’t standing in my way or if only I weren’t saddled with this then my life would be the way I want it to be. It’s all about what I want to get out of it.

But Jesus doesn’t give you what you want. He gives you what you need. He doesn’t satisfy your desires, He fulfills your needs. He gives you life. That’s why you are a saint. Even while you are a sinner, He makes you a saint because you have life in Him. But I suppose it’s still fair question to ask what you get out of it. In fact, I think it might even be a good question to ask. What you get out of it is a life in which you are free to live in Christ. You are free from the shackles you place on yourself by wanting what you want to get out of life and Christ’s gift to you. You are free to live in a way where you entrust your life solely to Christ. Where His suffering, death, and resurrection is enough for you, no matter what you’re facing in life, no matter the smallest thing you’re doing in your day, no matter who you talk to.

Imagine what a little congregation in Allied Gardens would be like if we approached everything we did as a congregation in this way. Instead of saying, where are we going to get the money to stay in the black, we stepped out in faith and did all that we do for the sake of the mission, to go and make disciples of all nations. Instead of wondering how certain things we do for the sake of the mission are going to be accomplished, we simply set out to accomplish them with the means God has given us, namely, our time, our talents, and our treasure. Instead of seeing this buildings and property we own and what we do here as something we have to figure out how to upkeep, we saw them as an opportunity to use them for the glory of God in bringing Christ to others, no matter who they are—saints, sinners, everyone. Instead of wondering where the money is going to come from to fund the mission of this congregation, and yes also the bills and the salaries and the expenses, we look at ourselves and realize that we are the people of God and the ones God has called upon to fund the mission with our offerings. If we rely on an outside source of income then we are not relying on God. If we see that God has given us new life and in that life a freedom to entrust our lives, our congregation, and all that we are and do to Him, then we will see that we won’t have time to think about what we get out of it. We will be getting so much out of it we might start feeling guilty about how much we enjoy living in the fullness of life our Lord gives us.

The Sadducees went to Jesus denying something He brings about—resurrection from death. Will we go to our Lord denying that He can bring about His mission in our lives and in our congregation through the simple things He gives us in the new life He has given us—our time, our talents, and our treasure? Or will we say: This is who we are. This is why we are here. Prince of Peace is a light of the Gospel in Allied Gardens and beyond. Prince of Peace exists to make known the life that all people need and that only Christ provides in His suffering, death, and resurrection. It is enough. Amen.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Today Salvation Has Come to This House

Reformation Day
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 31, 2010
Luke 19:1-10

Today is a great day. Going on 500 years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31 Lutherans continue celebrate the Reformation. This sparked what people have called the ‘re-discovery’ of the Gospel. So of course it’s a great day, an important celebration.

But that’s not primarily why it’s a great day. You could pick any day of the calendar year and celebrate it as a great day for the same reason today is. The reason it’s a great day is that today salvation has come to this house. We may be Lutherans but we don’t follow Luther. We may attach special significance to Reformation Day but our reason for celebration is not in what a man named Luther did.

What we celebrate today and every day is that salvation has come to this house. In a sense there was a re-discovery of the Gospel in the Sixteenth Century. For too many years peoples’ consciences were being burdened with the Law rather than their consciences being convicted by the Law to drive them to the Gospel. But the Gospel, through the providence of God, has always been made known. So any re-discovery has more to do with us than it does with Jesus. It’s not like He has refrained from making Himself known during certain times in history. We are so much like Zacchaeus, needing Jesus to come to our house to discover us. Jesus is always present. The Gospel always remains. We’re the ones who are in need of reform, and thus the name Reformation.

We can seek Jesus all we want but it’s not until He comes into our life that salvation comes to us. We can seek Jesus apart from the way He comes to us but it’s not until we seek Him in repentance that we can be reformed.

It would be easy to celebrate this day and go away grateful for the action of a young monk. It would be gratifying to go away from the Lord’s House today satisfied with our great churchly and theological heritage. But that is not what this day is about. That’s the same with what every day is about. Every time we enter into this, our Lord’s House, it’s about salvation coming to this house. Jesus said to Zacchaeus that He must stay at his house today. By entering it He made it a holy place. And He did something else. He brought righteousness to Zacchaeus, a man who, in the words of the religious leaders, was a sinner. That’s what that day was about. Jesus said it: Today salvation has come to this house. It came to that house because Jesus came to that house. Where Jesus is, there is salvation.

And that’s why we come here. Jesus comes to us with His salvation. He walked into Zacchaeus’ house, He comes to us here through words that are proclaimed and bread and wine that is given to us to eat and drink.

Even though it’s great that there are a lot of people and a lot of churches that celebrate the Reformation, there’s often a misunderstanding of it. Too many think of it as the festival of the Protestant Church. But the Reformation was not about protesting anything. It was and always is about declaration. The Church through the ages has always declared the Gospel so that all may hear it. There’s nothing to protest, but everything to declare. That is what Jesus did when He saw Zacchaeus. Sure, you could think of His declaration of Zacchaeus and many others’ sin as protesting against sin. But it’s really not protesting. It’s calling sinners to repentance. It’s the declaration of the Law that paves the way for the Gospel. Without the Law there is no Gospel. Without repentance there is no forgiveness.

There is no true celebration of the Reformation if it’s a celebration of a monk who made a declaration of the Gospel. There is a celebration of the Reformation every day if it is a celebration that today salvation has come to this house. That, as Jesus said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That’s really why we come here. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but Jesus said, I’m going to come to you. That’s what continues to happen today. Salvation comes to this house when our Lord comes to us in His Word proclaimed and His Body and Blood given in His Holy Supper.

There is no celebration of the Reformation if all we’re doing is celebrating some sort of protest. We don’t protest, we repent. We confess our sins as ones who are not worthy to enter the holy ground of our Lord’s righteousness. But we repent as Zacchaeus did, seeing that new life—reformed life, renewed life—comes out of the salvation that comes to this house. We see as he did that our Lord gives us an opportunity to live in the freedom of being forgiven by making restitution with those we’ve sinned against. If we are unwilling to forgive others we are bound in our sin. But if we look to Christ who was raised up on the cross for the salvation of the world we will see the world in a different light. We will see that others are just as we are, sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We will see that Christ suffered on the cross so that we may be free: free from sin, free to live in selfless, generous, merciful, forgiving love.

If we were to raise up Luther on this day as our reason for celebrating we would miss the point of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses. We raise up Christ alone. We look to Him alone, just as Zacchaeus did. Just as Luther did, for that matter. If we were to celebrate some sort of protest, we would miss the point of the Reformation. If anything, our protest should be against our own wretchedness, our utter sinfulness. That’s what Zacchaeus saw in himself. For that matter, it’s what Luther saw in himself. That’s why Christ comes to us with His declaration of the Law which brings us to repentance. That’s why He then declares the Good News: Today salvation has come to this house.

He comes to us in this way, granting sinners salvation. Proclaiming His Gospel through his called and ordained servants. Giving often His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins in His Holy Supper. If you ever wonder what the big deal about the Reformation is, just take a look at today and what is going on here, what we’re celebrating. What’s going on is Christ coming to us for salvation. What we’re celebrating is that. Our constant need for reform, for repentance. And our unworthy prayer of thanks to a Lord who comes to us with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. Amen.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Parable of the Two Gods

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-17

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…

And you thought Jesus was telling a parable of two men. Nope, His parable was of the Two Gods. There’s the god who will make you feel good about yourself and the God who will actually do you some good.

Two men went to the temple to pray and each one prayed to a different god. The Pharisee was praying to the god he felt very comfortable with. This was the god who made himself feel good, told him what he wanted to hear, gave him comfort when he needed a lift in his spirits. This god was always around. The Pharisee could look up and not fear because his god would love him as he was. And why not? There was a lot to love. He was not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over in the corner. In case there was any forgetfulness on the part of his god, there was this helpful reminder: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

With a god like that, it’s smooth sailing. You can keep comparing yourself to others who aren’t nearly as righteous as you are, if at all. Is there any reason not to have contempt on them? After all, they are not living as God would have them live. If only there were more people in this world like the Pharisee, the world would be a better place. And God would be so pleased. It’s the way God wants it, but sadly so many do not live as He has commanded.

This god is the god you’ll hear about the most. He’s the god that does a lot of good, if by good you mean that you will be able to feel good about yourself and stand in the comfort of knowing that you really are a good person. This is the god of every religion but one, Christianity. It’s even the god of every religion that people don’t want to think of as a religion. Even atheism, the religion that supposedly doesn’t believe in God, even atheism has this god that the Pharisee was praying to.

One of the basic things we learn as we grow in the faith is that there is only one God. In terms of how many gods being truly God, there’s only one, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All other gods are not the true God, they are false gods. The Large Catechism says that your god is whoever or whatever you look to for all good. If you believe in the Triune God you believe in the true God. If you don’t, you believe in a false god. The Pharisee went to the temple but prayed to the wrong god. He prayed to a god in his own image, a god he could count on to make him feel good.

Who was this god? It was himself. Luke says that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” He was telling a parable to those whose god was themselves. They look at themselves and are pleased. Look how good they are! Who needs God, I’m very capable of myself in being a good person. But to make themselves feel even better they set the true God up as their god. The only problem is that they don’t look to him for all good but to themselves. You know the great thing about this god? You can always count on him. Because you will always be able to find someone who is worse than you. Someone who certainly isn’t as good as a person as you. Someone God certainly isn’t as pleased with as He is with you. And there’s great comfort in that. It makes you feel good. If you got inside the mind of the most wicked person you could think of I’ll bet you’d see a person who has convinced himself that he’s a really good person. So how can you go wrong with a god like that? When you’re your own god you call the shots. You get to determine how you need to be in order to be in good standing. And there’s always the added bonus that you get to look down on others who aren’t at your level.

So if this is what you want, there’s really nothing you need to do. You’re already doing everything necessary, you’re just being yourself. Looking at yourself in the mirror and being satisfied that, overall, there’s a lot to be pleased with. And when the doubts come, you can turn your gaze from the mirror onto other people—and you will never run out of people you can plainly see are worse people than you are. What comfort this sweet rationalization gives! Just by being you you have excluded the Triune God—the true God—because you have all you need in yourself, the god you really want.

It’s always one of the hardest things to come to terms with when it comes to evangelism. When you want to tell someone the Good News of salvation, when you share with them what a great opportunity we have at our church for worshiping the true God and receiving His many blessings, and when they show up they hear words that we are poor miserable sinners. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. We are unworthy and deserve only eternal and temporal punishment. That’s not quite the uplifting, feel-good message a lot of people want to hear. They want to hear good things about themselves. They want to hear things that will make them feel good about themselves. Imagine that. And that explains why there’s a lot of people who go to other religions or to Christian churches that tell them what they want to hear, that say things that make them feel good about themselves. It brings in the people, but it’s not evangelism.

The thing Jesus really wants to tell us about in His Parable of the Two Gods is the second God, the true God, the Triune God, the God who doesn’t make us feel good, but does us a world of good, even an eternity of good. He’s the God the second guy prayed to. The one the miserable tax collector couldn’t even lift his eyes up to, he was so ashamed. The God that that guy couldn’t even bring himself to go forward to the altar to, he was so aware of his sinfulness, his unrighteousness. The God to whom the guy tried to show some way of communicating his unworthiness that he beat his breast.

The Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” The tax collector prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Pharisee prayed to the god who was himself, because he put his trust in himself. The tax collector prayed to the true God because he knew that there was nothing within himself that was of any eternal worth or value or goodness. He might be able to convince himself he was a pretty good person, but where would that really get him? How far would it really take him? His life was already consumed with himself, was that really the kind of life he wanted to live? Not thinking of others, not helping them in their need, not serving them for the simple joy of serving them, not putting others before himself, so that he could see that without that he really would be left with only himself and all of his wretchedness, the stain of his sin, the pride that was bringing about his downfall.

Jesus says that one man was justified—declared righteous, right with God—and that one man was not. The one who put his trust in himself felt good in his own mind, the one who cried out for mercy to One who was outside of himself actually received something good, something that lasts. Something that gives true comfort when all you can see in your life and your heart and your thoughts is selfish desires and sin. So you could think of this parable as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in which case you’d be focusing on two men. Which one are you more like? Which one should you be like? And you would be missing the point. If you hear Jesus’ words, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” and think that the lesson you need to learn is that you shouldn’t be like that Pharisee and exalt yourself but be more like that tax collector and humble yourself, you will not have heard Jesus’ parable. It is about God, not about the two men.

Jesus really wants you to see the true God, the one who does you real good. When you see the tax collector you should see a picture of Jesus. I’m not saying that Jesus was saying He was the tax collector in the parable. But I am saying that He is giving us a picture of Himself in the tax collector. Jesus Christ came to us as a man and suffered in our place. He took upon Himself our sin. He hung on the cross as a sinner before God, not receiving mercy from Him but wrath. This is not some cosmic injustice but Jesus willingly bearing our guilt in our place. It is because of this that our cry to God can be, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is the one who is exalted and yet has humbled Himself so that we who are poor miserable sinners may in the mercy of God be exalted to eternal glory.

Unfortunately, those who exalt themselves are not easily brought down. Those who look to themselves for all good are not easily convinced that it’s all about God and not at all about them. So Jesus took the lowly among them to drive home the point. If an adult can point out to others, but especially himself, how good he is and all the good he has done, an infant can’t do any of that. We can’t point to an infant and say, Look at what a good person that is, for all the good they have done. We can say babies are cute. And we can say they bring joy to our lives. But we can’t say that they are able to determine good things to do and then actually do them. And yet, these are the ones who were being brought to Jesus. These are the ones Jesus lifts up as He did the tax collector. These are the ones we are to look to so that we can see who Jesus really wants us to see, and that is the true God. Jesus does not say that it is to children belongs the Kingdom of God, but “to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” And He doesn’t say that they attain it by anything they do, even by anything good they do. He says they simply receive it. It is given them. Whoever receives the Kingdom of God as one in whom there is nothing one can point to within himself for any worthiness, merit, or hope, will enter the Kingdom of God.

Pray all you like how God should respond to your invented worthiness. But you will be setting yourself up as your god, ultimately pleasing yourself. God is pleased in His Son Jesus Christ who alone has done all things well. But God is also pleased in placing your unrighteousness on His Son so that you may live as it pleases Him. This is life now and forever. Amen.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

When God Wrestles with You

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr
October 17, 2010
Luke 18:1-8

Usually when Jesus tells a parable He just tells it. There might be some explanation afterward but usually He just goes into a story and then you can think about what it means. Here we alerted at the outset of the purpose of this parable. Jesus tells us the story to make us aware that as we live out our lives as Christians, God will be wrestling with us.

I know, that’s not what the words say. But what is Jesus communicating to us when Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable so that we Christians would be persistent in our prayers and not lose heart? Well, He’s communicating that being a Christian is not going to be easy. There are many difficulties, as we know. Satan is constantly battling us, the world is continually trying to sway us to its side, and our own sinful flesh is persistent in its own selfish desires. But there’s more. Jesus tells us as much in giving us this parable. God is not going to be always seeming to be on our side. He will at times, and perhaps oftentimes, seeming to be going against us.

Why did Luke say what he did about Jesus’ parable? “[Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Why would Jesus need to direct us to be persistent in prayer? If it were a simple matter of us praying for what we need and God in His love and grace simply gave those things to us, there’d be no need for this parable. But we need to be persistent, is what He says. We need to not lose heart. That’s because God is not our buddy. Sometimes He comes from out of nowhere and wrestles with us. Jacob was just trying to protect his family and out of nowhere God shows up and wrestles with him.

God is not a vending machine where you punch in the number of what you want and it’s delivered to you. God comes to you often at times seeming to be against you. Wrestling with you. Challenging you, not giving you what you want, or even what you think you need. What kind of a God do we have where Jesus so matter-of-factly can compare Him to a pagan judge? Does Jesus really want us to view God that way, that He’s just like that judge in the parable who neither believes in God nor has any respect for others? Evidently, yes, since that’s exactly what He did in the parable. And what He said afterward, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.”

Recently, two sociologists from Baylor researched people’s conceptions of God. They found that Americans have four different views about what God is like. There is The Authoritative God, that God is involved in history and meting out harsh punishment to those who reject Him. Some believe in the Benevolent God, where He is engaged in our world and loves us when we love and care for others. A third conception of God is the Critical God, in which those who suffer in this world often believe in a god who keeps an eye on this world but reserves justice in the next. Finally, there is the Distant God. Here, God started the universe but then left humanity alone.

There is some truth to all of these. God certainly is authoritative, as well as benevolent, and even critical and distant. People have to come to terms with God whether they believe in Him or not and so often our view of Him is pigeon-holed according to our limited understanding. While these four views of God accurately reflect how many people view God, they do anything but accurately reflect who God really is. These four views tell us what people think of God but not much of what God tells us about Himself.

I wonder what those sociologists would do with the Old Testament reading today where God wrestles with Jacob? How would they come to terms with the Gospel reading today which compares God to a pagan and forces His beloved children to wait for His perfect justice? But actually, I really don’t wonder at all about what they think of it. What I really wonder is what you and I do. We really believe in God. Not some Authoritative Supreme Being who calls down rules and regulations and zaps you if you don’t toe the line. Not some Lovey-Dovey Grandfatherly type who loves to see people being kind whether they believe in Him or not. Not some God who sits around checking on the progress in the world but gives only good things in the life to come. And not some God who got the ball rolling only to leave us to our own devices.

There are plenty of religions and non-religions that believe in some form of those kinds of gods. There are plenty Christians who fall into the trap of pigeon-holing God in such a way. Maybe that’s why He wrestles with us. He knows we too easily put Him in a box. He is far greater than we could ever imagine Him. He’s not afraid to give Jacob a challenge that is directly from Him, not just the difficulties in everyday life. Jesus has a twinkle in His eye when He gets to talk about God in terms of a judge that none of us would want to stand before.

And Jesus is nothing if not persistent. He will keep coming at us with the truth about God, even if it causes us to step back and wonder if that’s the kind of God we want. We may want to retreat to the security of the Authoritative God or the comfort of the Benevolent God or the vindication of the Critical God or the easy way out of the Distant God. God Himself will keep coming at you as He is, wrestling with you, challenging your notions of Him, calling you on your sin, going head on with you and your self-righteousness. He will not cater to your needs. He won’t make you feel good just because that’s what you’d like from Him. He will call upon you to call upon Him. He will call you to a life of prayer. That’s a life of prayer. Persistent prayer. Prayer that is not based on whether you think God has answered your prayer, but on simply praying to the God who is your God and Father, your Lord and Savior. He calls upon you to pray for what you need, not what you want. You are invited, of course, to pray to Him for what you want, as He has given you the green light for doing so, praying according to His will.

But mostly we need to see what our real need is. As much as I might not want for God to wrestle with me and bring me through struggles, I am more haunted by Jesus’ words of conclusion to His parable: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” We know that the Christian Church will remain forever. God is clear about that in His Word. So why the speculation of Jesus when He returns in glory on the Last Day of whether or not He will find faith on the earth? This is the wrestling of God with us. It is never easy. You are a Christian, but that doesn’t mean you float easily through life taking God’s grace for granted, what has been described of as cheap grace. You are saved by grace, it’s a gift, it’s free, there’s no strings attached, it’s by nothing you do—but it’s not cheap. It comes at a cost. It’s not cheap grace, it’s the grace of God in which He not only saves you but He engages with you. He even wrestles with you.

Jacob wasn’t the only who wrestled with God. The woman in Jesus’ parable is a picture of each one of us Christians, or at least who we are to be as Christians. One example is Ignatius. Today in the Church Year we observe the Commemoration of Ignatius who was the bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century. His life ended in martyrdom, something that may seem distant and irrelevant to us Christians today, or at least we Christians who are American. Nobody’s banging down our door and dragging us off to the electric chair. But 1900 years ago, near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan, Ignatius was arrested, taken in chains to Rome, and eventually thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.

On the way to Rome, he wrote letters to the Christians at cities such as Ephesus, Rome, and Smyrna. His letters were those of a pastor to his people warning them of false teachings that would lead them astray. In these letters he constantly drew people back to the true doctrine of Christ and His salvation in His suffering, death, and resurrection. How’s that for a God? Not distant or authoritative or critical, but humble and serving. How was Ignatius able to write in this way as he was led off to certain, and agonizing, death? Because he was persistent. His prayer to His Heavenly Father was not that of escape from murder at the hands of those who persecuted Christians. His prayer was that of the woman in Jesus’ parable. He prayed for God’s justice. In His time. In His way. We may not face imminent martyrdom as Ignatius did and countless Christians down through the ages have. But haven’t we all cried out to God as that woman did in the parable? That is the way of life as a disciple of Christ. The reason we need to be persistent is because God keeps wrestling with us.

But if you say, Yes, but why does Jesus say that the whole reason for giving us this parable is so that we may be confident that, in His own words, “will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.” Adults usually learn to be more patient than when they were kids. When they want ice cream, they want it now. As we grow older and gain in wisdom and perspective, we’re better able to see that not everything we need comes to us immediately. So why does Jesus say that God will not delay when we lift our prayers to Him? How is it true that He says God will give us justice speedily?

It’s true because the more we’re in the Word of God, the more we pray, the more our prayers will be conformed to His will and not ours. When we’re praying in conformity with what He knows we need rather than what we would like to see be the case then we will see that God’s answer is always the best answer and His timing is always the perfect timing. We often get so caught up in the here and now, in the day to day, that we lose sight of our eternal existence. Do you live in such a way that Jesus will return at any moment? I specifically worded it as ‘will’ return at any moment, not ‘may’ return at any moment. The truth is, most of us think that way. Yes, He may, but then we go on about our day to day stuff giving it no more thought. That’s because we don’t think He will return at any moment, just that He may.

What Jesus is getting at here is that He will. Will He find faith on the earth? Will He find those who are wrestling with God and driven further and further into His Word in order to receive a blessing? Will He find those are persistently, faithfully praying to Him for justice, what they truly need, instead of just those things that they’d like? The world and your sinful flesh will persuade you to take your pick from the list of four different gods the sociologists can tell you all about. God Himself will simply show you who He is by directing your gaze upon the cross where justice is meted out on His only-begotten Son.

Salvation is accomplished. And if you see your end like Ignatius did, not in the arena where his flesh was torn to bits, but in the eternal glory of heaven, you will see exactly what that woman was praying about and what we have the invitation and privilege to pray about every day of our lives. Amen.