Sunday, May 30, 2010

Who Do You Make Yourself Out to Be?

The Holy Trinity
First Sunday after Pentecost
May 30, 2010
John 8:48-59

The Jews in today’s Gospel reading ask this question of Jesus: Who do you make Yourself out to be? His answer is that He makes Himself out to be God.

Jesus was a man. He was a person who walked and talked and had a job. He interacted with people, He laughed, He cried, He loved, He got angry. He was one person among a world full of men and women.

And yet, He made Himself out to be God. He lived fully as a man just we are fully men and women. But His beginning wasn’t in the womb of Mary. Before Abraham was, He said, I am. He is, He was, and He always will be. He’s God.

If a particular person made himself out to be God, we might think he had a demon. It just doesn’t fit into our understanding of reality that one man among them all would be a man like every other one but also God. Anyone who makes himself out to be God has serious issues.

But this is precisely why this is such a serious issue. Why, if you’re going to deal with God, you have to deal with the person of Jesus Christ. That long creed we just got through confessing, the Athanasian Creed, goes into painstaking detail to confess the true God as the Triune God, the one in three and three-in-one. And yet, it is as if the Creed can’t wait to get to the heart of the matter, which is that the true God became incarnate. The one true God became flesh and dwelt among us. The details of the incarnation are given in all their glory as well, the reason God became flesh: to suffer, die, and rise.

It is because of who we have made ourselves out to be. We have made ourselves out to be God. No, we don’t go around telling others that’s who we are, we don’t seek for others to give us all honor and glory. But we live as if we ourselves are our own God. This is why God became a man. God, who created men, became a man in order to save man. God the Creator, became part of the creation in order to redeem creation. We, who make ourselves to be like God, who would like to be our own God, are eternally separated from God because of our sinful aversion to submitting to the one true God. The people in today’s Gospel reading were doing the very same thing the people in the Old Testament reading we heard last Sunday were doing in attempting to build a tower to the heavens.

We do the same thing in our lives as we don’t submit to God’s authority and will in every aspect of our lives. We covet things that belong to other people as if those things should belong to us. And the thoughts of our hearts betray us as we even design ways we might get those things, already breaking the commandment against stealing in our hearts. We put ways to gain more money ahead of ways to serve others in simple ways in our lives, or fear what will happen if there ends up not being enough. God is a nice religious thought but not a real and practical help in those times where things aren’t coming together in our lives. We make ourselves out to God.

In our country tomorrow we commemorate those who gave their lives in service to our country. This is a great gift of God. It is His design of having leaders who serve to protect our welfare. This includes those who serve to protect our welfare by serving in the military, their service often abroad. And sadly, their service at times includes giving their very lives. Now if God loves the people He created so much to give them gifts like leaders and people to serve in the Armed Forces, how much more does He love us in giving us His very own Son to give His life on the cross for the sin of the world?

The Triune God is the very essence of selfless love and giving. Those of us who haven’t served in the Armed Forces marvel at the cohesiveness of the fighting unit in which those who serve fight. Without that cohesiveness there would be no real service to country. It would be every man for himself. It wouldn’t be selfless serving but serving oneself.

Now with God you have a fascinating thing because God is not a created being. He is the Creator. He is God. He is one and yet has revealed Himself in three Persons. The three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are not separate but are distinct. And to the point of who God is, the Person of the Trinity are not “every man for himself”, but selfless in their service to their creation—you and me and the whole world. We are the recipients of the selfless love of the Triune God, the love that brought Jesus to the cross.

Jesus does not balk at the prospect of being the one to become a man. Of being the one to suffer and die. The Holy Spirit does not have sour grapes that He is the one who is sent as merely a helper. The Father Himself does not shy away from the agony of giving over His only-begotten Son to suffer and die on the cross. The Triune God is the true God, the all-powerful God, the one to whom belongs all glory, and yet is the one who is humble and merciful. He is merciful towards us, we who would make ourselves out to be God.

Daily you will fall into this sin. But your merciful God has given you a gift. Instead of asking yourself, Who do I make myself out to be?, ask yourself who God has made you out to be.

You were Baptized into the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are of the devil except that God has saved you from that eternal corruption, making you His own child in Baptism. You were dead in trespasses and sins but have been joined in Baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, united with Him.

You are renewed by your merciful God often in the Holy Supper of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He gives you His body and blood, the Holy Spirit delivers to you forgiveness and strengthens your faith. It pleased your Heavenly Father to offer His Son as the sacrifice for all of your sins on the cross, even as it pleases Him to offer Him to you in Holy Communion.

God and the fact that He is Triune is not a doctrine to be understood or debated. God is God. He is the only God and He is at His essence merciful. God is the eternal being who wants to be in relationship with you. That’s why He restores your relationship with Himself through becoming flesh and dying for the sins of the world.

When in your daily life you often seek to make yourself out to be God, you can pause and give thanks that God, who is forever the Lord of all, made Himself out to be a man. To live under the Law and abide by it in perfect harmony with God’s will and to suffer in the place of sinful humanity so that we might share a place at the heavenly Banquet of God. He is infinite and all-glorious and yet desires nothing more than to come to us right where we’re at so that we may be with Him forever. We may rejoice that He makes us out to be worthy of His eternal love and mercy. Amen.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Going from Here

The Day of Pentecost
Confirmation Day
May 23, 2010
John 14:23-31

There are four people in this whole place who are sitting up here in front. That would seem to indicate that today is all about you. Since you, Allison, Savannah, Jeffrey, and Ryan, are getting confirmed today, that we’re here to celebrate you.

And that wouldn’t be wrong. Today is about you. We are here today to celebrate your being confirmed in the faith. We rejoice that today will be the first day that you will receive the Lord’s Supper for the rest of your life.

But you will walk away from here today when it’s over and drive home. Will you want to go away thinking that today is about you? During this week will you want your excitement to be about Prince of Peace having had a day where you were in the spotlight?

Or, will you go away from here knowing what you have learned for two years in Confirmation Class that it’s always and only about Jesus? What I would like to do today is encourage you to take your cue from Him. Jesus says in the Gospel reading today: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” You know this, that you love Jesus and abide in His Word.

But what I really want you to see is how Jesus takes this. He doesn’t say to His disciples, and to you: It’s all about ME. I’m Jesus, do what I tell you.

What He does is the opposite. He doesn’t sit in the place of honor, He goes to the back. He doesn’t say, I’m God, you must do what I tell you. In exhorting us to love Him and abide in His Word, He says: “the Word that you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me.” He submits to His Heavenly Father. For Him, everything is not about Him. It’s true that He doesn’t need anyone, or anything. He does have it all.

But God doesn’t act that way. He doesn’t go around making sure everyone knows that because He is God that it’s all about Him. Jesus instead defers to His Heavenly Father. That’s what I want you to know for today. That’s what I want you to remember the rest of your life. Jesus came, not for Himself, but for you. That’s why you’re here today. It actually is about you. In Jesus’ eyes, it’s all about you. Not Him.

God sees Himself differently than we would imagine ourselves to be if we were God. In two years of Confirmation Class you learned all about God. He’s almighty, He knows everything, He’s present everywhere. But that’s not what you really needed to learn about Him. You needed to know who He is. He can do anything—but He’s not wrapped up in Himself. What you learned about God is that He is humble. He stoops down to you and me, right where we’re at. Jesus defers to His Heavenly Father. The Holy Spirit, who is God, is also very happy to be called by Jesus the Helper, as Jesus says in the Gospel reading: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit doesn’t have issues that He is being sent as a helper. He is willing and ready to get out and help us. He rejoices in bringing forgiveness, life, and salvation to us in our Baptism and at this altar when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. He will always work on your behalf to bring you renewal, to strengthen you, to bring to your mind those things you have been taught in Confirmation Class, and as you continue to grow in His Word.

There will be times where there’s a lot going on in your life. Times where you may be frazzled. You may not be able to concentrate on God and His Word. You’ll have a lot on your mind. In those times and at all times remember that to Jesus it’s not about Him but about you, which is why He gives you His peace. Peace not as the world gives. He says in the Gospel reading: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” In the world you can have peace of mind. You can relax, put your feet up, and get a little relief now and then from the pressures of life. But you cannot have true peace, not eternal peace. When you face death you cannot have certainty that you have measured up to God’s perfect will. You cannot look into your heart and find there comfort that doesn’t end.

Only Christ Himself can give you that. And only He does. For Him, it’s not about Him, but about you. He came not to be served but to serve. He came not to reap the rewards of His brilliant creation but to give His life as a ransom for the world. He came not to live it up but to offer up His life for the sins of the world. He offers Himself to you today also. He gives His very Body that was delivered on the cross, for you to eat and receive. He gives His very Blood that was poured out on Calvary for you to drink and receive. He died once for all, He gives His body and blood to you often. Receive it often. You’re going to need it, because for Him, it’s all about you and what you need.

You will go from here and forget that at times. You will wonder about it at times. You might have doubts about it at times. People will ask you why you believe “all that stuff in the Bible” and you’ll find yourself wondering if you learned anything worthwhile in two years of Confirmation Class because it all has suddenly seemed to be wiped clear from your mind. Some of your teachers in school will offer up compelling evidence of why the account of Creation in the book of Genesis is just a story, a myth for people who don’t think for themselves and don’t rely on the hard evidence of science. In those times you might find yourself wondering if the Bible really is true. You might wonder if God really is who He says He is and if everything you learned in Confirmation Class is the truth.

What I want you to remember today and when you hear those things is that you have learned from Christ Himself. It is His Word which in His eyes is never about Himself but about you. Many people are trying to just get through each day with all their struggles and pressures and problems. But going from here you will know and have one thing that the world cannot offer you: Christ Himself. You will go from here having received Him into your very mouth and heart in His Holy Supper.

In a few moments you will come to the altar for the first time to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. As you come up to the altar you will walk right by the Baptismal font. As you come forward God will know who you are. That’s because He made you His at the Baptismal font. Remember who you are. You are Baptized. Know that you come forward as a child of God. You don’t approach God’s altar with your mental list of how well you obey your parents and what a good student you are in school. Jesus isn’t going to give you His body and blood because you have done really well over the last two years in Confirmation Class. You come forward simply as a sinner. But a sinner who has been Baptized.

You may not remember it anymore, but two years ago I told you and your parents that Confirmation is not the end but the beginning. You are embarking on a lifelong walk with Christ. The Gospel reading today is all about going, being on the way. Jesus says: “You heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” We know exactly where He went, He went to the cross. He suffered so that we may not suffer eternally. He walked the path to the cross so that we may walk with Him in our lives as we bear our crosses and are strengthened by Him through them.

He says: “And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.” You know what took place at Calvary, and if you know that, you can also know what took place at the font when you were Baptized: you were united with Christ in His death and resurrection and were given new and eternal life. Since you know that Christ suffered and died and rose and ascended into heaven, and that He sent His Helper, the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, you know what happens here at the altar: you receive the very Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

But you will go from here. You’ll go home today. You’ll be back in school this week. Someday you may move away, going to college or getting a job somewhere. You may not always be here. But you’ll always be in the Holy Christian Church. You’ll always be part of the Body of Christ. Jesus finishes speaking to His disciples by saying “Rise, let us go from here.” In a little while, you will rise and go from there to this altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood and be strengthened in your faith.

After having received it, you will go from there back out into the world. You will be tempted, you will falter, you will fail, you will sin, you will struggle. Jesus warns that “the ruler of this world is coming.” But Jesus also says that he, that is, Satan, has no claim on Him, that is, Jesus. Jesus reminds us that He does as the Father has commanded Him. He is always God but always humble. Always reaching out to us, serving us. That’s why you will go from here having been strengthened. You will go from here having been given Christ Himself, for you, for your forgiveness, for your life. You will live in Him. You will live out the life He has called you to live, obeying your parents, being the best student in school you can be, coming faithfully to the House of God for worship and Bible Study. Someday you may have children of your own and you will raise them in a Christian home. You will realize what a blessing it is to serve God by serving others in whatever job you end up doing. You are hearing all this ahead of time so that you may know that this is not what you will accomplish, but what your Lord has called you to. So that you may know that as you go from here you go with the blessing of the Lord upon you. You go as a Baptized child of God, one who is strengthened often in His Holy Supper. One who is sustained by God Himself who always looks at you and believes in His heart of hearts that it’s always about you, which is why He has prepared a place for you in heaven forever. Go in this knowledge, hope, comfort, and grace. Amen.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

All Theology Is Plagiarism—Part 3: All Theology Is Basic

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 16, 2010
John 17:20-26

Most people upon hearing an in-depth scholarly presentation of an esoteric theological doctrine would cause their eyes to glaze over. They would wonder what it has to do with anything. It’s true that most people don’t need to hear or understand theology in such a detailed way. In fact, those who do might need to be reminded that all theology is basic. Coaches often need to remind their athletes that no matter how good they are and how far they’ve come, they always need to go back to the basics. The fundamentals can never be ignored or taken for granted because there’s always someone who will work harder at mastering the basics in order to achieve the highest level of accomplishment.

We have seen how all theology is repetition. You can never hear enough the Gospel, especially since your sinful flesh constantly wants to revert back to its own notions. We have seen how all theology is communication. Thank God He has made known to us the Gospel and that we may respond to Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

We must also know and remember that all theology is basic. It all comes down either to me or God. Your theology is going to come from yourself for from God. This is theology at its most basic and its most important. If you don’t get this right then you’re not going to get the rest of it right. If you don’t realize this fact then your theology is going to come from yourself.

When it comes to theology the way God does it, there’s no better place to begin than where it begins for us personally—at Baptism. This morning Whitley is the recipient of theology the way God does it. He brought her into His everlasting Kingdom through water and His Word. Water is the basic necessity for life. It is through this simple thing that God does His most basic work: He forgives our sins. Where there is forgiveness, there is life and salvation.

Whitley is a cute little baby. But she’s going to grow up like we all do. She will go through the challenges of life the way we all do. Things will seem very complicated at times. Theology won’t seem so basic when she’s faced with temptations and challenges to the Christian faith and hardships. But it’s in those times that she can take comfort in stealing from the pages of God’s Word. The Word that tells her she is a Baptized child of God. The Word that tells her that at the most basic level God loves her and has forgiven her of all of her sins. That’s why she can continue to go back again and again to the Word of God and take what He says and make it her own.

But if we’re having trouble with this notion of plagiarizing from God, and it’s only natural, because our sinful nature has big issues with taking its cue from God, then let’s take a look at how God Himself handles this situation.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus did a very simple thing: He prayed. It was the hour He would be delivered over. It was already the time He began suffering on hour behalf, His soul sorrowful even unto death. His agony manifesting itself with drops of blood flowing from His brow. His weakness already apparent in needing angels to come minister to Him, just as at His temptation in the desert three years earlier at the outset of His Ministry.

He prayed there in that Garden. In the hour before being delivered over, hours before He would be hanging on a cross, He prayed. Did He know the words to pray? Yes, the petition He lifted up was that His Heavenly Father’s will would be done. Jesus was not concerned about His own will, which was sorrowful, weak. If there was any other way. But if that way were to go against the way—the will—of His Heavenly Father, then He wouldn’t want it. His will was His Heavenly Father’s will. It is this same petition He has given us to pray in His Holy Prayer, but not only in that Third Petition but in the entire Lord’s Prayer. We know what God’s will is for us because He has given us the things to pray for in the Lord’s Prayer and His entire written Word. We know what His will is because Jesus prayed that it be done in the Garden of Gethsemane and He landed on the mount of Calvary.

Jesus prayed there, too—on the cross. Among other things He said as He hung on the cross, He quoted Scripture. He plagiarized Himself, Him being God and the author of those very Scriptures He inspired. My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? That is straight out of Psalm 22. It was the cry of being the recipient of the wrath of the holy God. But it was also a prayer. Speaking the Scripture. Being in line with the perfect holy will of God. Even the merciful will of God, as in this very act of forsaking His Son, God the Father was reconciling the world to Himself. This is why Jesus prayed as He did, plagiarizing the Scriptures—it pleased Him to endure the cross, scorning its shame.

What about His temptation in the wilderness? Couldn’t He have come up with some impressive rejoinders to counter Satan? But no, He was content with simply quoting the Scriptures. In each instance Satan tried to seduce Him, Jesus did not concern Himself with speaking something original, He simply quoted what had already been written down in the Bible. (Of course, it was original with Him as He is God.)

We’ll notice that the devil caught on to this trick and began quoting the Scriptures himself. The problem of course is that he was plagiarizing not God but himself because he was twisting the Scriptures. All our prayers, as well as beliefs, that originate with ourselves end up being this, a twisting of the Word of God. We too often use the Scriptures in order to conform them to what we want rather than bending our will to them. But Jesus’ use of the Scriptures was perfect. He was quoting them because that’s all He needed. Man does not live by bread alone, but by the very Word of God. Keep that in mind the next time you’re struggling in your prayer life. Man prays not by the things he needs but by the very Word of God.

And what about Paul? What did he have to offer the Christians he was called to serve? Well, he had a lot going for him. He was very well-educated and talented. But in terms of being an apostle, in terms of proclaiming the Gospel—he had nothing of himself to offer. He had nothing except for what he himself received from the Lord is what he said to the Corinthian Christians. What I received is what I delivered to you. What do we have to offer God? Nothing. Nothing but what He has given us. Nothing but what we have received from Him. This is why our prayers must consist of what we have already received from Him, and we simply offer up to Him what He has already delivered to us.

All of this with Jesus and Paul is plagiarism of what God had His people do in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 “…And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” [ESV]

They weren’t to teach their children what they dreamed up but what God had given them to say. How much more so with their prayers? How do you think they learned how to pray?

The Word of God teaches us that it plagiarizes itself. God submits Himself to His own Word and therefore we can be in no better position than to do the same. Our prayers are a natural outgrowth of that. Our beliefs, what we say to others, they also grow out of God’s Word.

This is an enormous consolation when you can’t think of what to say. Go to the Word of God. Be drawn in to what He has to say to you. Don’t worry about having to come up with spontaneous prayers or speaking from the heart. Let God’s Word take you through what is on your heart and mind, as you have a new heart and mind in Christ given you in your Baptism. Using the liturgy as a guide for prayer, using a prayer book of time-tested prayers that are formed by the Word of God, learning the Catechism, meditating on the Word of God, this is the pattern set forth by Christ Himself. Jesus took times out in His Ministry to pray to His Heavenly Father. His prayer that not His will be done but His Heavenly Father’s was the basis and substance of His prayers. Being in the Word of God, having a rich prayer life that flows from the Word of God, will then be the basis for what you say to others in their struggles. It will be the very basis for what you believe and take comfort in.

When Jesus hung on the cross He prayed, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Isn’t that so true? We don’t even know how to pray as we ought! Paul says so much in Romans 8:26 “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” [ESV] So if the Spirit is interceding for us we may as well just go all the way and plagiarize every last iota of God’s will. He forgives us and forms in us a new will, one that seeks His and one that prays according to it.

WWJD is something you still hear now and then—What Would Jesus Do? In our circles we spend a lot of time pointing out how WWJD is not exactly where Jesus was going when He said, Follow Me. That He Himself did what we could not do and we don’t gain salvation by trying to do what Jesus would do. Nevertheless, when it comes to prayer it would be helpful to ask: What would Jesus do? Well, He would pray. That’s what He did. And if He did, we certainly need to. And not only that, but He would pray what His Heavenly Father would give Him to pray.

So, What Would Jesus Pray? The Lord’s Prayer. That’s what He would pray. What did He say? “When you pray, say OUR Father.” And before you want to catch me in the trap that He would never pray “forgive us our trespasses,” because He had no sins of which to confess—yes, it’s true, He didn’t. He is sinless and remained sinless in His walk on the earth and is forever the spotless Lamb of God. But He also took our place, remember? He hung on the cross as the Sinner in our place. He was stricken for our iniquities. He never sinned but He stood in our place as the Sinner who was condemned. He didn’t need to be baptized, and yet, He did need to in order to fulfill all righteousness. That would be His righteousness credited to us. It’s an amazing thing that Jesus submitted Himself to be humble. To be beholden to the will of the Heavenly Father. In Baptism our Lord gives us His righteousness. He gives us a new will. A will that desires to submit to the will of our Heavenly Father.

The Large Catechism says that “nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and drum into his ears our prayer that he may give, preserve, and increase in us faith and obedience.” [Tappert, T. G. (2000, ©1959). The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (420). Philadelphia: Fortress Press] What better thing to drum into His ears than His own words?

You can’t outgrow the Word of God. You can’t come to the point where you have mastered it or where it is merely a simple thing to be understood. It is basic, and yet encompasses all of theology. Even if it were just a simple thing, there would be nothing greater in praying to God than saying to Him what He has given us in His Holy Word.

When you pray, take a bold approach. Hold God to His Word. Tell Him what He said. He loves to hear it. Be in His Word. Tell others what God Himself will give you to say. Pray what He Himself gives you to pray. If you wonder whether God answers your prayers, wonder no more. Praying to Him what He has given you to pray you are assured He not only hears but answers your prayers according to His good and gracious will.

If we look at this objectively, or maybe we should say, from God’s perspective, we will see that all theology is plagiarism. What you believe and the things you pray for are either going to be plagiarized from the sinful nature or from God. Jesus’ prayer in today’s Gospel reading is that all would hear the Gospel through the bold proclamation of it through the Christian Church. He died for everyone, He wants everyone to be saved, He provides for the Gospel to be made known to the ends of the earth, to all nations. There is nothing more basic than that. That’s why He wants us to fill our prayers, our thoughts, and the things we share with others with what He has given us in His Word. For what He will give us is eternity in heaven with Him. Amen.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

All Theology Is Plagiarism—Part 2: All Theology Is Communication

Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 9, 2010
John 16:23-33

Perhaps because it’s so much an ordinary part of our daily lives we don’t realize how important communication is. But if you do doubt it just don’t call your mom today or give her a card. You’d really find out how important communication is if you went the whole day today without talking with her on Mother’s Day.

Of course talking with your mom, telling her you love her, giving her a card, maybe some flowers, doing something nice for her, all this isn’t communication for communication’s sake. Communication is the vehicle used to actually love your mom, to show her you appreciate her and all she does for you.

What happens between us and God? We communicate. He gives us His Word. We pray to Him. We use words to offer our petitions to Him even as He uses words to express His love toward us. And how do we share the Gospel with others? We communicate it. We tell others. We express God’s love toward them by putting into action His love toward them. We help them and are kind to them.

At the backbone of all this communication is the Word of God. Whether it’s our prayers, or what we say to others in evangelism, our communication with God and with others about Him must rest in the Word of God. Last Sunday I kind of slighted the notion that the book of Psalms is the Prayer Book of the Bible, emphasizing that the entire Bible is fundamental to our prayer life. But it really is genius what God did in giving us the psalms. The Psalms are the Word of God. The Psalms are also prayers. Here we have the Word of God, what God has given to us. And here we have the words of human beings, the prayers God’s people lift up to Him. The Psalms are prayers even as they are the Word of God. They are the Word of God even as they are the words Christians lift up as prayers. God communicates this to us in this form. When we struggle with what to pray for, God gives us what we need to be praying in His Psalms.

Are you having trouble praying? Spend some time in the Psalms. You will find them inspiring, challenging, even troublesome at times. But you will find there the Word of God even as you will find the words to pray, because they are right there before your eyes, right there in your mind and heart as you pray them, right there on your lips as you speak them. Reading the Psalms, praying the Psalms, will lead you into a deeper understanding and praying of the Lord’s Prayer. Our Lord’s Holy Prayer doesn’t stand on its own. It is not given or prayed in a vacuum. It flows out of and is at the heart of the Psalms. We could also say that the Psalms flow out of and are at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer. That’s why He’s given us His Holy Prayer to pray. That’s how our Lord works, He’s happy to plagiarize. Especially Himself.

You might have heard the saying that as you pray so you believe. I’ve always thought that it makes more sense that as we believe so we will pray. That, if you believe a certain thing, it will inform the way you pray. That’s true. But it’s also true that the way you pray informs the way you believe. If you keep praying a certain way you will end up believing according to what you’re praying. The way you pray will actually form the way you believe.

This really helps us out when it comes to what we should pray, how we should pray, what words we use, and where we come up with the words. It informs also what we say to others when we are sharing the Gospel with them.

When Christians gather for worship how that worship is done impacts what they believe. If you worship in such a way where the focus is primarily on yourself, guess what, your beliefs will primarily focus on yourself. Your prayers, also, will primarily focus on yourself. Even what you say when you evangelize to others will focus on yourself. If you worship in such a way where the focus is primarily on God, then your beliefs will focus on Him. In the same way, your prayers will also.

This brings us back to plagiarism. If we pray what God has given us to pray, then we will be praying in line with His will. We will be speaking the Gospel to others as He has given it rather than simply what we feel. The reason the Church down through the ages has drawn from the Word of God in the forming of the liturgy is because if a bunch of theologians or church councils got together and tried to be creative who knows what they would have come up with?

Actually, we do know. They would have come up with something that focuses on man. Something that appeals to our sinful nature. Something that is all about me and what I want and what I need and what things I’d like God to do for me. That’s the way our prayers naturally are, that’s the way our worship naturally is.

In the liturgy we have the Word of God. The liturgy is formed by the Word of God. Our prayers should be too. As we gather for worship, the liturgy forms our prayer life, focusing on God, receiving what He has to give us, and responding to Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving by saying back to Him what He has said to us. That’s why God has given us His Word, the Bible; it’s why He’s given us His Word, His Son. The liturgy forms our prayers and we learn to pray according to God’s will because in the liturgy God is blessing us with His gifts, the opposite of our trying to offer anything to Him of value.

We can never exhaust the Word of God. Our Lord teaches us to pray throughout our lives. Each day God builds us up with the words to share with others. When it comes to the Word of God plagiarism is a good thing. When we are in the Word of God and we pray we are praying according to His good and gracious will. Praying according to what He says, not what we think. What He desires, not what we want. What He has come up with, not what we dream up. What He has creatively brought about, not what we tiredly revert back to in our sinful flesh.

For example, in the Bible our Lord gave us the Lord’s Prayer. His prayer is meant to be plagiarized. He didn’t say, Hey, here’s some good ideas for you to base your prayers on. He said, This is how you pray. You take what I have said and you say it. And you don’t just say it, you pray it. You believe it. You take it to heart. You meditate upon it and take refuge in it. Because it’s not what you can’t know for sure to be of value or the right thing to say. It’s what you do know to be what He Himself wants for you. You can see this in each petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

You know the Father’s name is holy and that it is holy among you because of Christ and His Cross. And so you pray it.

You know His Kingdom comes and that it has come to you in the incarnate Son of God who has joined Himself to you in your Baptism. And so you pray it.

You know that God’s will is perfect and holy and that it is done among you because of His mercy in His Son Jesus Christ who lived and suffered for you on Calvary. And so you pray it.

You know that God gives you your daily bread and that He gives it to you because He has given you all things in giving you His Son to suffer all, even death on a cross, and conquer the grave in His resurrection. And so you pray it.

You know He forgives you of your sins and helps you forgive others theirs and that He forgives you because He has separated you from your sins as far as the east is from the west in forsaking His only-begotten Son. And so you pray it.

You know God does not lead you into temptation and that He guards you in the time of temptation because your Lord Himself has endured temptation beyond what you have experienced and has overcome temptation in the Holy Word of God and in suffering for our sin of falling into temptation. And so you pray it.

You know that God delivers you from evil and that it is so because He delivered you from the punishment you deserve, delivering His own Son over to the punishment in your place. And so you pray it.

You know that His is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever and that it is so because Jesus rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and reigns on high forever, coming to you in His Word and Sacraments to forgive you and sustain you in faith. And so you pray it.

You know it’s all true and so you say “Amen.”

There’s no shame in this kind of plagiarism. There is only the glorious prayers of the saints of God lifted up to the eternal and merciful God who has given His saints the freedom to go against their stifling and short-sighted sinful nature. Freedom from our harmful desires and wants. Freedom to plagiarize straight out of the God’s own Word.

In the Gospel reading today Jesus is talking about prayer. It doesn’t seem like it because He is talking to His disciples and He is standing right in front of them. But isn’t that what prayer is? Talking with God? Communicating with Him? He communicates with us and we respond, communicating with Him. And to make matters even more interesting Jesus talks about things that only people interested in language and words and communication theory would be interested in: figures of speech. It’s true that many people have no interest in this. But it’s also common that everyone uses them. Most people are also aware that things can be very confusing if figures of speech are being used and the person who is hearing or reading them doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what is being communicated.

He says there will come a time when He is no longer with them. A time when He will no longer use figures of speech, where He will speak plainly. In His Holy Word He not only comes to us but communicates with us. Likewise in Baptism and His Holy Supper.

What we must always remember when it comes to communication in our relationship with God is that He hasn’t simply given us His Word, the Bible, He has given us the Word made flesh, His only-begotten Son. What we must always remember when it come to communication in our response to Him is that there is nothing better that we can do then plagiarize Him, say back to Him what He has said to us. For example, on this day, and really every day, as Christians, we don’t just thank God for our mom, we are grateful to Him for mothers who are godly, who raise their children in a Christian home. We don’t just love our mothers, we pray for them. We don’t just tell them we love them, we communicate to them God’s love for them by how we treat them.

Theology is nothing without communication. Communication is a natural part of life, even as it is in God’s relationship with us. How has God loved the world? He gave His Son. How has He forgiven us of our sins? Jesus suffered in our place. How has He guaranteed a mansion for us in heaven? He raised His Son from the grave on the third day. This is what God has given us, communicating it to us in His very Son, both in His life, suffering, death, and resurrection and in His Word and Sacraments. It is the vehicle as well as the subject of our communication now and always. Amen.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

All Theology Is Plagiarism—Part 1: All Theology Is Repetition

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Athanasius of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor
May 2, 2010
John 16:12-22

Some of you have heard this in a slightly different form. But that’s okay, because repetition can be a very good thing. It can also be bad, if we’re repeating things that are not good. When we begin to learn that all theology is repetition we will begin to see that too often those things we want to hear are the things that aren’t good for us and the things we’d rather not hear consistently are those very things we need to hear.

Do you ever feel like you don’t know the words to use when you pray? Do you sometimes think that you’re not praying the ‘right’ way? Do you struggle with the words to say to someone who is hurting? Do you find yourself tongue-tied when you are sharing the Gospel with others? All our prayers, all our words, all our beliefs come from somewhere. The question is, where? When we learn that all theology is plagiarism we begin to see prayer and what we say to others in a whole new way.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is preparing His disciples for His suffering and death. We know what comes after that, His resurrection and ascension. He says to them: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.”

If you hear this in passing you miss what an astounding statement this is Jesus makes about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as is Jesus and the Heavenly Father, is God. And yet, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak. Now, if this is true of God, how much more should it be of us. The disciples are to repeat what they receive from the Holy Spirit. And guess what? The Holy Spirit simply repeats what He Himself receives from the Heavenly Father.

Repetition is a good thing when we are saying, praying, believing what God has given us. In those times we don’t know what to say, how to pray, or we’re not sure what we believe, our Lord gives us an opportunity to plagiarize Him.

It’s tough to be a Christian. We’re supposed to have all the answers. We’re the ones with the strong faith. We’re the ones who know that God is in control and is working everything out for good. Some people genuinely turn to us for answers, but we are caught like deer in the headlights. Some will scoffingly ask us what good God is making out of the bad situation they’re in and, deep inside, we’re wondering the same thing.

Some of us marvel at those who are creative, how they are able to think up things that no one has before. How are they able to create a work of art, when all we can do is stare at a blank slate and see the blank slate? If only we could be creative. If only we could come up with something no one has before. But we just go through life saying and doing normal things. We pay to see others do the creative and artistic things.

We also have an awareness that that is their own creation. It is their possession. If someone writes a book they should get the money for it. If someone makes a movie they should get paid for it. If someone comes along and says, Look at my book I’ve written, and later on it’s found that he stole the idea or the words from someone else, then he’s in trouble. God even has a commandment against that: You shall not steal. If someone else wrote the book, it’s their book. You passing it off as your own is called plagiarism.

Here is the definition of plagiarism: 1. the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work. 2. something used and represented in this manner. [ Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010.]

When it comes to prayer, what you say to others in their troubles, when you evangelize, what you believe, I want to encourage you to plagiarize. What I’m not going to do is try to convince you that, generally speaking, it’s okay to plagiarize—to just go ahead and steal away! After all, the Bible itself said that there’s nothing new under the sun.

We need to think about prayer, and sharing the Gospel, and what we believe in an entirely different way from the way that we usually think about them. When it comes to these things, originality is not where you want to go. The creative realm is best left to the movies and to books and the arts. With prayer, evangelizing, and what we believe there’s nothing wrong with not knowing what to say. In fact, it’s a good thing. After all, what you come up with yourself can only be against God’s will since your sinful flesh is concerned only with itself, not God. In prayer, in speaking to others in their difficulties, in our beliefs, it is entirely a matter of plagiarism. You might even say that it’s a God-blessed license to steal.

You could read books on prayer. You could talk to others who naturally gravitate toward those who evangelize. You could seek the wisdom of the many religions of the world. But what we believe, how we pray, what we tell others, all boils down to one source: our sinful nature.

There is another source. The source is God. More specifically, it’s God as revealed in the Bible. We could even get more specific, in that it’s God revealed in His Son. When we say that God is the source for our prayers, what we say, we need to understand that our prayers need to be plagiarized prayers, our words to others, plagiarized words. We can’t just get ideas from God on some things we should pray for. We need to be praying what God wants us to pray for. That means stealing from God. Jesus had this very thing in mind when He gave His people His Holy Prayer to pray. 

Jesus has actually given us the words to pray. He said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” He wants us to plagiarize His stuff! When the disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He gave them the words to say. He’s not impressed with hearing something new. God desires to hear what He’s already given us in His Word. In His Son.

Books on prayer keep coming out. Shelves at Christian bookstores are lined with “how-to’s” on Evangelism. But really, how many pages can it take to say one simple thing: if you want to learn how to pray, get into the Word of God. If you want to prepare yourself for sharing the Gospel with others, spend time in God’s Word. Read it. Dig into it. Study it. Hear it proclaimed. God will give you the words to say. He already has given you the words, they’re in His Holy Word, the Bible. Not that it’s not good to read books on prayer or evangelism. But being formed by the Word of God is how you will learn to pray and what to say to others.

Let’s take prayer as a specific example. No doubt you’ve heard that the Psalms are the Prayer Book of the Bible. And that’s certainly true. But isn’t the entire Bible the prayer book of the Christian? No, it’s not comprised of a bunch of prayers. But it’s a book which teaches us to pray. It forms our prayers. It’s a plagiarism factory waiting to explode.

I’m not saying that the more you’re into the Word of God that you’ll suddenly be a master pray-er. That you’ll be able to fashion beautiful and well-sounding prayers. That people will marvel at your eloquence in lifting prayers on high.

But you will be able to pray in a godly fashion. You will be able to pray according to God’s will. You will be praying what God desires to hear from you. Because you will be growing in the Word of God. You will be saying back to Him what He has already said to you. You will be praying God-pleasing prayers, prayers according to His will.

Think about it. Why did Jesus, in the Prayer He gave us to pray, give us the petitions He did? Why did He have us pray, for example, “Hallowed be Thy name”? Don’t we already know that His name is holy? And even if we didn’t have the Catechism to remind us, wouldn’t we already know that we pray this petition that it may be kept holy among us also? Yes, we do, and yes, we would. But Jesus has given us this petition because we need to say it. We need to say it because we need to say to Him what He has said to us. If we didn’t, what would we say?

Well, I don’t know about you, but my prayers often go a lot like this: Dear God, I would like this, and this, and that, and these other things. There’s the things I want, the things I need, the things I don’t like that, God, You should really take care of, the things I like but don’t have enough of, and there’s these other things on my mind, and… well, you get the idea.

My prayers are all about ME. They’re about what I want because that’s what my sinful flesh excels at. It doesn’t need to plagiarize anybody or anything because it’s already consumed with itself.

But that’s where God comes in and says, Hey, why don’t you stop trying to think about what you should be praying for and just plagiarize. Listen to Me. Hear what I have to say. Concern yourself with My Words, My will. Say back to Me what I have already said to you.

And you know the great thing about this? It’s because He knows what we truly need. So when He shows us what to pray for, we see that it is actually really about us after all. When we think we’re praying for what’s best for ourselves, we’re really praying for what’s NOT best for ourselves. But when we take God’s words and make them our own, we actually ARE praying for what’s best for ourselves.

If Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to bring to us what we will say, then we can be confident in knowing that He will guide us in our prayers, go with us as we give comfort to those who are hurting, bless us as we share the Gospel with those who are without a Savior.

And if we are still struggling then we can know that it is not just words that He has given us but the Word made flesh. His very own Son is who we have by virtue of our Baptism. He is who we have when we feel we are on our own without an idea of what to say to God in our prayers. He is the one who offered up the perfect Word to His Heavenly Father—Himself, the Word in the Flesh. Our Heavenly Father hears us through Him. His prayers on the cross were perfect prayers, offered in our place, offered for us. He Himself was offered for us and there is nothing better that we can hear of or continue to make known. Amen.