Sunday, October 30, 2011

Apart From

Reformation Day [Observed]
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2011
 The Epistle reading gives us a good opportunity to make clear what it means that we celebrate the Reformation.

Some people think the Reformation is about Martin Luther, the one that lived some 500 years ago. In our society some might think it’s about the Martin Luther that lived some 50 years ago, that is, Martin Luther King, Jr. Usually Lutherans know not only MLK but also the Martin Luther of the sixteenth century, the one that nailed those 95 Theses on the door. But the Reformation isn’t about Luther, it’s about Christ.

Some people think that the Reformation is about being Protestant. But it’s not. While there are many Christians who identify themselves as Protestants, Lutherans don’t. Or at least shouldn’t. We are not protesting anything. Reformation is about reforming, not protesting. We do not protest. We proclaim. What we proclaim is Christ. Reformation is always about Christ.

In a similar vein, there are many who think that the Reformation is all about not being Roman Catholic. But it’s not that either. We do not exist as the Lutheran Church in order to make clear that we are not Roman Catholic. The Reformation is not about not being something else, but about holding up Christ.

Some people think that Reformation in the Church, that is, the Christian Church, is wrong. They say that the Church is Christ’s Church. Since it is Christ’s Church it is therefore pure, and therefore not in need of being reformed. It’s true that the Holy Christian Church is Christ’s Church and it’s true that it is pure. It is also true that Christ delights in filling up His Church with sinners. Sinners are always in need of reformation, of being reformed. The Reformation is about Christ saving sinners.

There are probably many other notions people have about Reformation. But there is one that trumps all the others. It’s the notion that we’re not in need of it. And by this I mean we’re not in need of it in the way God tells us. We have this notion that we can bring it about. As Paul says it in the Epistle reading, by works of the Law. This is another way of saying, ‘by what we do’. Paul stresses that we are not reformed by works of the Law—by what we do—but apart from the Law, apart from what we do.

He says that this reformation comes about by faith. By this very pitting faith against works of the Law Paul is showing us that faith is not something we do. Yes, it’s true that when we have faith we are believing, we are trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior. But somehow God is the one is taking the credit. In some way God is the one claiming the work that is being done.

Faith. Not works of the Law.

Faith. Not what we do.

Faith. What God does. What He brings about. What He accomplishes. It is what He does, apart from what we do.

This is of so much importance that to miss this misses the entire point of Reformation and of the Christian Church and of salvation. The Reformation as we know it was sparked by Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the castle church door of Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. But this was actually just one event. The Reformation was and is about much more than that. This is what Luther says about the whole matter of being justified by faith apart from works of the Law:

The principle of works of necessity puffs us up and makes for glorying, because he who is righteous and fulfills the Law doubtless has something of which to glory and exalt himself. Now those people… believe that they are of this class, because they have fulfilled outwardly what the Law demands and forbids. For this reason they do not humble themselves, they do not despise themselves as sinners. They do not seek to be justified, they do not cry out for righteousness, because they are confident that they already possess it.
 Hence we must note, as we have said above in quoting blessed Augustine, that “the principle of works says: ‘Do what I command,’ but the principle of faith says: ‘Give what You command.’ ” And thus the people of the Law say to the Law and to God, who speaks in the Law: “I have done what Thou hast commanded, it is done as Thou hast ordered.” But the people of faith say: “I cannot do, I have not done, but give me what Thou commandest; I have not done it, but I desire to do it. And because I cannot, I beg and beseech of Thee the power whereby I may do it.” And thus the former is made proud and boastful, and the latter humble and vile in his own eyes… the one is confident in the righteousness which he already possesses, the other prays for the righteousness which he hopes to acquire.

Taking off on this quote from Luther we might also say that those who seek justification, salvation, happiness, whatever it is that people seek apart from faith, are the ones who stand up to God and tell Him what’s what. Conversely, those who seek justification and salvation in God, in faith, are those who listen to God and have nothing to say to Him. Why this is is because of what Paul in the Epistle reading says of the Law of God: that “it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”

 This is not popular. It’s not feel-good theology. It’s not positive thinking. It doesn’t build up self-esteem. It also doesn’t appear to be a very good theology of hope and of salvation. This is exactly the point. There is no hope, no salvation, no feeling good, at least eternally, in the Law. The other way to say this is, ‘by what we do’. Any attempt at finding what you want for eternity outside of God, that is, outside of His grace in Jesus Christ, is failing to find what you want for eternity. You remain outside of salvation, with no hope, for eternity. Everything God gives us of eternal value is apart from what we do. The Law of God shuts us up. Every mouth is stopped. Everyone is held accountable to God. There is no getting around it.

Although we try all the time, don’t we? It’s okay to miss being in worship now and then because sometimes we just need a break. It’s not a big deal to ignore the consistent study of the Word of God with our brother and sister Christians in the congregation because we already know the basics, and we also have a lot going on. It’s perfectly normal to keep our relationship with our neighbors and friends free of talking about Jesus because it’s really hard to know what to say. It’s beyond the scope of the congregation to tell me that I should consistently and proportionately give of my money and time and abilities to Him and in service to others because these things are very personal.

Why do we think and act these ways? Because we want things our way. We do not want them apart from works of the Law, in other words, by what we do, but rather in accordance with the Law, so that we can be content with what we do and talk to God about what we deserve and what He must do for us.

If this weren’t true we wouldn’t treat the things of God and the things He gives us to do with such apathy. We would seek them out. We would look for every opportunity to hear the Word of God and receive the Sacrament. We would rejoice in the opportunity to read and study and inwardly digest the Word of God. We would take extra time out of the day to devote to prayer and meditating on the Word of God. We would actively make time to help and serve others and share the Gospel with them. We would look at our money and our possessions not as our money and the things we possess but rather as things God has given us and indeed entrusted to us. We would see that they are, as wonderful as they are, but a minor slice of the amazing pie that God has given us in granting us gifts. We would see that to give to Him of our time, our talents, and our treasure is really only a minor way of glorifying Him and giving Him thanks. We would see that we can never do enough but that since He has done all there is to do our giving of our time, talents, and treasure is simply response. It’s simply a thank you.

But it’s also, as with faith, something He accomplishes. It’s what He does in us and through us because He has called us to serve. He has called us to eternal life and eternal life to Him is not something in the future but something right now. This is the way Paul speaks in the Epistle reading: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law.” He further says that though “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” they “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This is present tense action on the part of God. This is real world stuff on the part of God. It is not hopeful but full of hope. It is not a pipe dream but actual and effectual. It is redemption and it is reformation. It is new life and eternal life. It is justification and salvation. And it is all by God through Jesus Christ, apart from works of the Law, apart from anything you and I can do or anything you and I actually do.

There is a reason we celebrate the Reformation. It’s not because we think Luther is a such a great theologian or the father of the Lutheran faith or even that he’s right about the Gospel. We celebrate the Reformation because we celebrate the fact that we put our sinful flesh to death in admitting that the Law of God silences us. We admit that the Law of God is right and true that we cannot stand before God and say anything to Him that matters because there is nothing good within us, only what separates us from Him. We admit that we are in need, we have no hope of ourselves, we continually try to do things according to our own ways.

So where does the rejoicing and the celebration come in? In the Gospel. That’s what the Reformation, and what continual reformation is all about. Remember at the beginning we said it’s always about Christ? That’s the Gospel. He’s the one who justifies us. He’s the one who saves us. He’s the one who gives us eternal hope, eternal salvation, eternal life. And He does it all apart from works of the Law, by what we do. He does it by what He does. He does it by fulfilling the Law Himself. He does it by He Himself being the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He does it by offering Himself up as the pleasing offering to God that turns God’s wrath away from us sinners and onto His only-begotten Son. This is all by faith, by what God has done, not by the Law, not by what we do.

We could see all the things we do as Christians, being in worship, being in Bible study, giving of our offerings and our time, serving others, sharing the Gospel with them, as drudgery. Or we could see them as what God has given us to do to live by faith. Not by what we do, by what God does in us and through us. He is constantly reforming us through His Gospel, through His Sacraments. He is constantly forgiving us and renewing us. Constantly forming us and equipping us to be light in a world of darkness, good in a world of evil, humble in a world full of itself, servants to the world; a world in need of a Savior, in need of reformation.

We all need it. We’re blessed if we admit it, if we get on our knees and rejoice in the fact that, yes, we do need reformation. We need salvation. We need forgiveness. We need God. We need Christ. We need faith.

God gives us Himself. He gives us Christ. He forgives. He renews. He reforms. He grants us faith and we live knowing that we don’t live by the Law, by what we do, but by grace; by His work in us and through us. By the waters of Baptism that began our new life; by the bread and wine we receive where He gives us the Body and Blood of Christ.

Celebrate the Reformation for what it is: For Christ. For who He is and what He has done for us. That’s really nothing different than what we will be celebrating forever. Amen.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Word at Work

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr
October 23, 2011

If you open a present and it’s empty you’re let down. There’s supposed to be something in there. But if someone hands you an empty jar and tells you to stuff as many ten dollar bills as you can into it, well, that empty jar is suddenly a very good thing.

The word Paul uses for his having come to the Christians of Thessalonica is literally ‘empty’. He says it was not empty. As the version we have it in our bulletin says it, it was not in vain. That’s the way it is when you come with the Gospel. It’s never in vain. Paul’s march to Damascus to stamp out Christianity, that was in vain. God turned him around. Not literally around so that he found himself on his way back to Jerusalem. Spiritually. God turned Paul around. Now Paul was marching, on a mission, to stamp out unbelief. His weapon was the Word of God. His sword was the Gospel. These weapons are never used in vain. They never come up empty.

When Paul was opposing Christianity he saw results. But never like he did when he was proclaiming Christianity. Results that come from the Word of God are results that God brings about. Paul declares that his proclamation of the Gospel was not in vain, despite receiving harsh treatment for doing so. His conviction that the Gospel did not come up empty was boldly asserted in the face of opposition to that Gospel. Paul came to this conviction because he very quickly saw in his new call from God that it was to God that he would answer, not people. He quickly saw that it was an amazing thing, this new life God had given to Paul. Forgiven of his assault on Christ and the followers of Christ. He was now given a new call: to preach the Gospel to those Christians as well as to all who would hear. There was also this amazing thing: God entrusted Paul with the Gospel.

Paul knew the Scriptures. He was a Pharisee. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures. Paul could argue and discuss and motivate as well as anyone. Now God was giving to Paul something simple. The Gospel. It was as though Paul stood there with an empty jar and God filled it with the Gospel. Entrusting him with it. “Here. Go with this. Make it known. Bring it to others. Proclaim it. Wherever you go, proclaim this Gospel.” His motives for bringing the Gospel to the Thessalonians were not for his own benefit but rather, as he says, “…our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.”

This had a profound impact on Paul. He now saw Christians not as enemies of God but as the people of God. He saw that they were people who were in need of this Gospel. This thing to which he had been entrusted was the very thing that would change their lives just as it had changed his. How would he be among them? He says, “…we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” He loved them as God had loved him. He cared for them as God had cared for him. He made known the Gospel among them as God had made known the Gospel to him.

He was with them as one who was there for them, not for himself. He was among them not because he had a job to do but because God had called him to love them and care for them spiritually and it grew into a relationship that was more like family.

What kind of an effect does this have on those who are the recipients of such action and love and proclamation of the Gospel? We all know people who very politely tell us that they’re not interested in hearing about the Gospel and Jesus and His love for them. Many of us probably know of people who are nasty in their making known to us that they want to hear nothing of the Gospel or Jesus or His supposed love for them. Closer to home, we ourselves at times may harbor doubts about the Gospel and Jesus and His love for us. Some of us may wonder if it’s all really true. Some of us may wonder how it all makes sense. This is opposition. Our sinful flesh opposes what God brings to us.

This is what Paul said about his making known of the Gospel to the people of Thessalonica: “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the Gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” What do you suppose that conflict might have been? Ever been in a congregation that had conflict? I’m not sure if there’s anyone who could say they’ve been in a congregation that did not experience conflict. We probably know of several congregations that have had or are experiencing conflict. As if it’s not enough that we are sometimes conflicted with our family members at home or our co-workers at work or our neighbors down the street, we show up here at church and sometimes we go through it all here.

Part of this is due to the Gospel. The Gospel naturally stirs up opposition. Sinners do not like hearing the Gospel. Sinners like hearing how good they are. Or what they can do to be good or to get better than they already are. Sinners don’t want to hear the Gospel. The sinful flesh is opposed to the Gospel. Here’s a test of this. What do you hear when you hear the words of the Lord in the Old Testament reading? “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be holy. Be perfect. No more sin. No more selfish desires or actions. Have your mind set on Me, the one true God. The holy God.” The sinful flesh rails against this. I don’t deserve to be demanded upon by God. I should be able to go about my way and be the good, decent person I generally am. And besides, nobody’s perfect, so why should God demand that of me?

The sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear the Gospel. The sinful flesh wants safe harbor in its own merit. The sinful flesh does not hear those words of the Lord as they ultimately are—not as a command, “Be holy!”, but as a statement of what God brings about. Namely, holiness. When God says, “Be holy”, He brings it about. He makes it happen. He speaks it into existence. When He says, “Be holy”, what happens is that He is declaring you, and thereby making you, holy. You are His. You are a person created in His image and now re-created in the image of His Son, in holiness.

That’s how the proclamation of the Gospel works. It pierces through the hardness of the heart of the sinful flesh and brings about holiness, newness of life. It’s true, that this comes hand in hand with the Law of God. The Law hammering through the heart of stone. But the Gospel nevertheless does the effective work of making sinful human beings into the people of God. It is never in vain. The Gospel never comes up empty.

That’s why it’s not an overstatement that Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.” Paul can thank God constantly because of the effects of the Word of God. The Word that was made known to them was the Word that always goes forth from God and there was all the more reason to rejoice in their receiving it as the Word of God.

Paul was talking to the Thessalonian Christians but we’re listening in. We hear the very same Word proclaimed. What do you hear when you hear the words of your Lord as He spoke them in the Gospel reading? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.” Do you hear a burden placed on you that you can’t achieve? Or do you hear the words of your Lord that release you from your own attempts at convincing yourself that you’re a pretty decent person? Because loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind is really the best way to go. The First Commandment is nothing other than fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. If you really did this things would go so much better for you than you could ever realize.

The amazing thing is, you really do. In Christ. In Christ you do. On these two commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor, depend all the Law and the Prophets. What has Christ done? He has fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. He has loved God perfectly and in holiness. He has loved His neighbor as Himself, selflessly and perfectly. He is holy for He is the Lord. He is the one who paid the penalty for not being holy as the Lord God is holy.

Why this is is because of what Paul says to the Thessalonians: they were receptive of the Word “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.” This is the crowning glory of what Paul is talking about and what he rejoiced in. The Word is at work. It is never in vain. It doesn’t come up empty. It goes forth and accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. The reason you fear, love, and trust in God above all things is that the Word of God is at work in you. You are in Christ. Jesus works substantially, not abstractly. His work in you is of substance. You are an actual new creation in Christ. You have actual new life in Him. You actually “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The Word is at work in you. God brings this about in you through His Word. You in actuality “love your neighbor as yourself.” The Word is at work. God brings it about in you.

Think about this statement that Paul uses: the Word is at work in you. It sounds kind of cool. It’s a little catchy. The Word is at work in you. You could think of that phrase in your head throughout the week: the Word is at work in you. But once you think about it a little you might find yourself thinking that it’s also a bit strange. What exactly does it mean that the Word is at work? How is the Word at work in you? It’s cool and maybe even catchy, but what exactly is going on?

What’s going on is God at work. God is not just God. Anybody can talk about God or think about God. But God is active. He is at work. And He is primarily at work through His Son. Jesus is the way God is at work. He became flesh. He dwelt among us. He fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. He suffered at the hands of men and the punishment we deserve at the hands of God. He rose on the third day. He is at work. He is God who became man. Jesus is the way the Word is at work in you because He is the Word made flesh. When you receive the Word of God you aren’t receiving the words of men but what it really is, the Word of God which is at work in you. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Scandal of Particularity

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 16, 2011

There’s a scandal in the Church. In our country the political races are heating up and candidates are trying to get the upper hand on their opponents. Sometimes when a candidate becomes aware that an opponent is embroiled in a scandal, they may use that to try to bring their opponent down. In the Church, we’ve heard all too often of scandals rocking individual congregations, whether through larceny or adultery or bigotry or any number of ways to scandalize the Church. But there is one scandal in the Church that is different and God is the source of it. This scandal rocks the Church, that is, the holy Christian and apostolic Church, and it offends the world at large.

It is the scandal of particularity. It is not some deep dark secret that God has been trying to hide. It doesn’t uncover some character flaw in God or moral failing on His part. It is not some devious and sadistic action on His part that brings Him joy in bringing upon people needless pain and harm. What it is is simply the way He does things. What He does and how He does it is scandalous. It is offensive.

The reason is it is? Because it is specific. So specific, in fact, that it is exclusionary. Not meaning that His love is exclusionary. His love is anything but. His love is inclusive. His salvation is for everyone. God loves everyone. He has offered salvation to every person. Jesus died for everyone. So, no, it’s not His love. It’s the way He brings about His love.

And here is the scandal of particularity. God’s love is in His Son Jesus Christ. It is in Him alone. That’s the scandal. That’s the particular nature of it. If you casually read the Scriptures you may not see it. If you read them carefully and take them to heart you will see more and more the scandalous nature of God and how He relates to us. You will see that no matter how you would like to view yourself God sees you in your sin. No matter what you think that you think of God, God knows that as you stand He is your enemy. No matter how you would like to shy away from your sin and the consequences that go along with it, God doesn’t shy away from it, He meets it straight on.

The world likes to talk about love and tolerance and all the religious roads ending up in the same place and you believing what is right for you and I’ll believe what is right for me and not believing in anything at all and an array of ways to explain basically the same thing: can’t we all just get along? In comes God with His scandal of particularity. It’s in Jesus. Take away all the religious platitudes, all the appeals for tolerance, all the pleas for being loving of our fellow man and there’s one thing you must face: the man Jesus Christ.

People do deal with Jesus all the time. But notice how they do it. Everyone comes at Jesus with an agenda. Everyone. Some would like you to believe that they are willing to give Jesus a shot, but they really have no more use for Him than a staple you find lying on the floor. This includes a lot of people who say a lot of good and even true things about Him. It’s what the people in the Gospel reading did. “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for You are not swayed by appearances.” If you didn’t know who was saying this to Him or of Him you wouldn’t be able to tell that they are really scandalized by Him and want only to get Him out of the way so that they can continue on in life without having to deal with Him.

But He’s there. In the flesh. A man. A person that must be dealt with. Why? Because He said that your eternal destiny must go through Him. No one else. Nothing else. Nothing. Only Jesus. The scandal of particularity. It is so particular that if you say all the great things about God you can think of and even believe them but do not look solely to Christ for eternal hope than you do not believe in the true God and you do not have eternal salvation.

It honestly is very easy to miss this when you’re reading the Scriptures. But it’s there. God doesn’t just say He loves us. He says He loves us in Christ. It is in the suffering and death and resurrection of Christ that He loves us. Not in anything else. Nothing. The scandal of particularity. You must look to that one man and His death on the cross to see who the true God is and that that is how He loves you. If it’s not in this way then you have no God, you have no hope, you have no salvation.

Why does Paul talk the way he talks when he writes to the Thessalonians? Because of Christ. When he writes to the Christians in Thessalonica He writes to them in God the Father. Scandal of Particularity. It’s funny, though. That doesn’t sound particularly scandalous. It may not even sound particularly particular. But it is. It so very is. Paul isn’t just writing to his brother and sister Christians in God. It’s in God the Father. What that means is that God is not just some ethereal spiritual ‘thing’, but distinct. Not just God; God the Father. What that means is that He is the Father of someone. And it’s not just any someone. It’s a particular, distinct, person. As Paul says it, it’s the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now what does this mean? It means that it’s only in Jesus, the one who is Lord, the one who is Christ, that we know who God is. Because God is very particular. He’s not just God. He’s God, the Father. God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one. Only one God. Only one Lord. The only God is the one who is the Father of the Lord. The only Lord is the one who is Jesus. That’s the scandal. That’s the particularity of it.

Jesus is a man. Jesus, however, is the man who is the Lord. He’s the man who is the Christ. The Messiah. The Anointed One. The one who was anointed by God to be the Savior. That’s how God loves us. In His Son. The one He appointed. The one He chose and sent to be the Savior. It was this one who stood before those people who said all those nice things about Him that were very good and very true, and as Jesus pointed out, utterly hypocritical. Hypocritical because they wanted God without Him. They wanted religion apart from the one in whom only true religion and salvation is known. The one who is the man Jesus. The Lord. The Christ. That’s the scandal. That’s the utterly particular nature of it.

God works this way. Scandalously. Particularly. He’s not floating around up there. He’s specific. Revealing Himself in His Son. His Son, the one who is the Lord; the one who is the Christ. God works in what seems strange ways to us. But they’re really not strange at all. They are scandalous. We would cry false doctrine if someone else were appointed Messiah, the Anointed One. The Christ. But that’s exactly what God does. It’s right there for all to see in the Old Testament reading. Cyrus. The pagan. The king who worshiped false gods. The king who rejected the true God, the Triune God. This is the one God chose to be His Anointed. His Chosen One to bring His people out of bondage in Babylon. You think the people of Israel were scandalized? Sure, they were glad to be going back home. Happy finally for the chance to worship back in their own land. But Cyrus? Why should it have to come about through a pagan king giving them release from their captivity and safe harbor back to their homeland?

Why? The Scandal of Particularity. This is the way God works. Not strangely. Not mysteriously. Scandalously. With specificity. Not in all of that. Or in everything. Or in any old way you’d like. This way. In the way He chooses. The way He appoints. If the Israelites were going to have any notion that they could have anything to do with the accomplishing of their release, the breaking of their bondage, of their salvation, that was all shattered in the pagan that would make it come about. If you want salvation, people of Jacob, sons and daughters of Israel, look to the true God, the only one who can bring it about. But be aware, you may not like it. Be warned, you may be offended. Take note that you may question His ways. Consider that you may end up as those in the Gospel reading who said all right things about God but ended up walking away from Him. Did He just say we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s? What kind of a God would teach that? He can’t be the true God. The scandal of particularity.

Jesus comes in the flesh. And He says to render to God what is God’s. What is God’s is His own Son. He Himself is the one who renders Him unto Himself. That’s the scandal. That’s where salvation is found. In the Son. In the one who was rendered to God on the cross. If we then are to render to God what is His we come quickly to the realization that we can’t do it. How can we? He places His judgment on us that we are sinful. Utterly corrupt and unable to render anything to Him of good. What we must do, rather, is simply look to Christ. He’s the one who does the rendering. Anything we do for God, everything we give to Him, is solely by and because of and for the sake of Christ. Jesus, the one who is the Lord and the one who is the Savior.

The scandal of particularity may seem like a great concept for talking about the big things. Salvation. Your eternal destiny. Etc. Etc. But what about now? What about this life? What does the scandal of particularity mean for this life? For what we do? It means that you are who you are because of the God who is the only God. In the Old Testament reading He can’t say it any clearer: I am the Lord and there is no other. What He also can’t say any clearer is that we are who we are because of Him. “I have named you. I am the one who calls you by your name.” The reason this is so? His Son. Jesus. The one who is the Lord; the one who is the Christ. This why Paul said that he “gave thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in my prayers.” Was it because they were so wonderful of people? Well, in a sense, yes. The reason is because of, guess what?, that’s right, Jesus. The scandal of particularity. They were wonderful people because of Jesus. Paul said he remembered them in his prayers, “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

These aren’t just fine platitudes one Christian is saying to others. They are realities. The Thessalonian Christians were the people of God because of God the Father in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is who we are. It’s not because of you. It’s because of Christ. The one who went to the cross and walked out of the tomb. This is it. This is not just the main thing, it’s the thing. If people have a hard time coming to terms with it, it’s not a surprise. There is a reason it is the scandal of particularity.

This isn’t to say that’s it’s a dark, awful, message. It’s the most glorious message there is. It’s the reason Paul has to give thanks. Just as God said to His people, as we heard in the Old Testament reading, Paul says of the Thessalonians, and of us, that God has chosen us. Who we are, as with those Paul was writing to, comes about by the Gospel. Paul describes it as the “Gospel which came to you not only in Word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” To our ears the Gospel may not seem powerful but when the Holy Spirit is involved there is power beyond what our eyes can see. God the Father is the one who sends His Son. He is the one who also sends His Holy Spirit. So if it seems scandalous that you need to hear the words spoken that you are forgiven then it at least shouldn’t surprise you. It is, after all, the scandal of particularity.

The more you dig into the Scriptures and see how God works, the more you see that it never quite seems to be the way we would think it should be. Why would the Thessalonians have needed to receive, as Paul says, “the Word in much affliction”? Because of the scandal of particularity. The Gospel strips away all our notions of who we are and what we must do so that we can clearly see Christ and who He is and what He has done. But the affliction is never without what comes with it, as Paul says, “with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” It is through the experience of affliction that we can better see that others are in need and that is how we are able to help and serve them. It is how, in the same way as with the Thessalonians, the Word of the Lord sounds forth from us to the community and even everywhere.

The scandal of particularity ultimately comes down to this: there is one God. That is, there is one true God. That we place our trust in so many things of our own making or desires shows how steeped in sin we are. Paul rejoices in how the Thessalonians turned to God from idols. We must also see ourselves here. Anything in our lives we look to for help and hope and fulfillment apart from God is in the end an idol. As they turned from idols  to serve the living and true God, so do we. We see that the living and true God is not some nebulous god but the one who has given us His Son. This is specific. It’s particular. If it’s a scandal to us, we can rejoice with Paul that it is so to our sinful nature and in being renewed by God’s mercy and grace we, as Paul says, “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Amen.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reason for Rejoicing

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Abraham
October 9, 2011

Rejoice in the Lord always.

That’s worth repeating. Again, I say, Rejoice!

Sometimes we emphasize things by putting stress on a part of the sentence: Rejoice in the Lord! Sometimes we emphasize things by repeating them: and so Paul says, Again I say, Rejoice! Paul isn’t just telling us to rejoice. He’s emphasizing it.

Ecclesiastes 3 is a great passage, isn’t it? There’s a time a time to be born, and a time to die; and it goes on from there with many things in life that are the opposite but are part of the very fabric of our lives. Among them are these two: a time to weep, and a time to laugh;       a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

It’s natural that we all have times where we cry. You’re reeling from the stinging words of your spouse, your mother faces a rare form of cancer, you lie awake at night with tears filling up your eyes because your children have strayed away from Jesus and His eternal blessings. There are many times we weep in this life. At the same time, there is a time to laugh. Life is filled with fun or enjoyment or simply good old fashioned comedy. We laugh at our mistakes, we laugh at Uncle Ray’s dumb jokes, and we laugh at the comedians who can find humor in the most ordinary circumstances of life.

In the same way there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Even as there is a time to be born there is a time to die. When there’s a death in the family there is a time for mourning. When there’s a birth in the family there is a time for dancing and rejoicing. Life is full of these opposite conditions and we naturally encounter them. We don’t need to shut ourselves off from the weeping and the mourning even as we shouldn’t refrain from the laughing and the dancing.

But Paul makes a point about rejoicing that we aren’t just to rejoice, but to rejoice always. First off would be the question of, how can we literally do that? We have to sleep. How do you rejoice when you’re sleeping? Then there’s the issue of natural cycles that our emotions and even our activities go through. We can’t always be up, emotionally or physically. And then there’s the matter of Ecclesiastes 3. There are times of weeping and mourning. How are we to rejoice in the Lord always when there are times we’re in sadness and grief? How are we to always be rejoicing when we sometimes face a barrage of events that leave us in no mood to rejoice?

This seems to be one of our problems as Christians who nevertheless remain sinners. We hear the command to rejoice in the Lord always and immediately wonder how it’s possible. For one thing, Paul concludes this Epistle reading for today with the grandiose claim: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” So there you go. It is possible. You can rejoice in the Lord always because of the Lord who strengthens you.

But it’s not even just that. It’s that you’re not just rejoicing. You’re rejoicing in the Lord. And rejoicing doesn’t consist only of being happy or being on an emotional high. Rejoicing is not something that is dependent circumstances. It’s not based in emotions and feelings. The rejoicing enjoined upon us here is not, Be happy all the time. It’s rejoicing. And it’s rejoicing in the Lord. Being happy is wonderful but it has more of an emotional and circumstantial aspect to it. Rejoicing is being in a state. It is knowing you have true joy. Where does this joy come from? The Lord. That’s why we rejoice in the Lord. Despite or even in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We rejoice in the Lord because of who He is and what He has done and what He does.

And what is that? He prepares for us something that gives us reason to rejoice. Behold, all things are ready. The Old Testament gives about as good of a description of it that we have in the Bible: He prepares a feast that is the very best, the very finest of food and drink. And it’s not just a party, it’s doing away with all the things that would crash the party. Satan and death are overthrown. Death is swallowed up. The pall that covers every person is itself covered up. God breaks out the best serving ware and food to go along with it and celebration is the only thing that one can think to do.

In the Gospel reading the King prepares the very best party for the wedding celebration of His Son. “Everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast,” He says. That’s the reason for the rejoicing. But we don’t get it. Of course we’d rejoice if we were a part of that! What we don’t get is that we are! This is what our Lord has prepared for us. We are invited into His eternal celebration. Our rejoicing is rejoicing in Him. It’s based in the state we are in, forgiven and saved, that we rejoice always. Do we possess it in the fullness of its glory? No, we don’t; and maybe that’s why we discount it as we do. We won’t realize it in the fullness of its glory until we are actually in heaven, but we can be assured that we have the fullness of forgiveness and salvation even now.

There is reason for rejoicing. Who Jesus is, what He has done, what He does, has tremendous implications for us in our daily lives. Paul says, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” You know those times where things are getting tense and someone will say, “Let’s be reasonable here.” Sometimes that just ends up setting the person off even more. But what lies underneath the plea for being reasonable is the need to be forbearing. To give a little. Or maybe even a lot. In rejoicing in the Lord always we can better see how we don’t always have to insist on our own way, we can be reasonable, or even better, forbearing of others. In the same vein as rejoice in the Lord always Paul leaves no one out as the recipient of your forbearance. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” is his exhortation. How do we do this?

Again, his answer is Christ. It so often is. We might even say it always is. What does he say? The Lord is at hand. This is reminiscent of the Lord’s words Himself when He came on the scene beginning His ministry: the Kingdom of God is at hand. The way Paul literally says it is the Lord is near. He is speaking in a way that sounds similar to our Old Testament reading: “It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’” He is near, at hand if you will. He comes to us. He spreads the feast. He delivers the goods. He is the one who makes it all happen. If you wonder at how you’re able to be forbearing of those who are driving you nuts, think on the Lord Jesus Christ and His forbearing spirit.

That’s how Paul is able to continue in this way: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” When it comes to being a Christian Paul is not interested in exhorting us in a “realistic” way: Rejoice more than the heathen... Let your reasonableness be known most of the time because there will be times you just can’t be very reasonable... Don’t be anxious about most things… No, it’s rejoice in the Lord always. Be forbearing of everyone. Do not be anxious about anything. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

If the fantastic spread our Lord displays seems to a distant hope then look to the places where He delivers the sure salvation He won to you in the here and now. You are Baptized. You are washed clean in the wellspring of life. You feast on the bread and wine your Lord gives you to eat and drink in His Holy Supper. In that Feast He doesn’t hold back but rather delivers to you all the blessings of eternal salvation and peace that surpasses all understanding in giving you Himself in that bread and wine—His very Body and Blood. The very body and blood that was given up on Calvary and that is now delivered to you for your forgiveness and to strengthen you.

With that, there is a ‘finally’. But I’m reminded of the stories of pastors who will say in their sermons, “And finally,” …and then go on for another 20 minutes. Well, this finally here isn’t mine, it’s Paul’s. Maybe he was one of those preachers who didn’t know how to conclude a sermon, because what he says next is “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

You could understand this ‘finally’ here as ‘in addition’, or something along those lines. At any rate, you can look around in this world and see a host of negativity, of corrupt morals, shameful behavior, and let that overwhelm you, losing sight of the peace of God which guards your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It happens easily. That’s why it’s a concerted effort to think on these things. The good things, that is. The things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, if there is anything of excellence, anything worthy of praise, those things. In the south they reckon things will happen. “I reckon it’s gonna rain.” It’s not just that they see the clouds in the sky. They know the patterns of the weather and the seasons. There is thought behind their reckoning of “it’s gonna rain.” And that’s the way it should be with us. We should reckon those things that are good and true and worthy of praise. We should put time and thought into those things that God gives us in His Word.

How do we know what those things are? We follow the example Paul gives us. And that example is himself. “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things.” True, Paul was an apostle, and we don’t have any of those around anymore. But Paul serves as an example for us still as a brother in Christ. We all know brother or sister Christians that serve as models for us. A grandmother who quietly prays for people as she is too frail to do much else. A businessman who remains firm in Christian principles in an often morally complacent workplace. A mother who so often puts herself in the background so that her children can grow and experience so much of what will benefit them throughout their lives. A child who refuses to join in on the taunting of another child and even risks the same by standing up for that child.

We could think of countless examples of Christians who serve others in a way in which others are actually being served by Christ, because it is Christ who is working in the Christians who are serving. That’s the reason Paul uses the language he does: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” It’s all stuff we receive. We receive it from God in Christ. We are blessed by Him through others. And we see again because He can never leave Christ out of the picture that Paul follows up his exhortation with the promise: “and the God of peace will be with you.”

All of this is to say there is reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the Lord. We help each other out. We serve one another. We bear with others. We give thanks in all things. We rejoice in the Lord. With Paul we learn what it means “in whatever situation we are in to be content. We know how to be brought low, and we know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, we have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And if we still aren’t always sure of this, we follow it up with Paul in saying, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Rejoice in the Lord always. There’s reason to. Amen.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Surpassing Loss

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2011

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Don’t you want what surpasses all? If you could give up everything in order to gain what surpasses everything, wouldn’t you do it? Paul would. And he did.

Understand that Paul had a lot to give up. He gives his resume and it’s impressive. You and I may not know much about Pharisees, but if we had been living back in his time we would understand exactly what Paul is talking about when he boasts of his being a Pharisee. And Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees. It was doubtful there was anyone who could claim a higher pedigree or accomplishments. You can see it all there in the Epistle reading.

But to him that was nothing. Compared with Christ, it is nothing. And so he would give it all up in a heartbeat. But even that was not what gained him, as he calls it, the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. Rather, it was of the surpassing loss of Christ. What Christ gave up was for our gain. Our surpassing gain is at the cost of Christ’s surpassing loss.

The way the Bible tells it, though, is that the Surpassing Loss that Christ suffered is of the highest value and glory. That’s why we must always direct ourselves back to the Surpassing Loss of Christ. His agony and suffering was for glory; the glory of our restoration. His taking upon Himself our sins was for what is of highest value to God; our being restored to Him for eternity.

Without the surpassing loss of Christ there is no gain. The surpassing glory that God has in store for us only comes at the loss of His own Son. Listen to the way Paul talks about his connection with Christ: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” With all of Paul’s accomplishments and adherence to the Law of God, he could easily have said that he was deserving of glory from God. But instead he realizes that sharing in the sufferings of Christ is the way glory comes about.

Think about what occurred with Christ. He rose because He suffered and died. In other words, there would have been no resurrection if He had not died. The glory of the resurrection only came because of Christ’s willingness to suffer and die. This is glory that is greater than if Christ had never suffered and died. Why? Because we could not have shared it with God. Without the suffering and death of Christ there would be no resurrection for you and me. God would still be glorious of course. But His greatest glory is to bring us into the glory of the resurrection, the glory of eternal life.

That only happens through the Surpassing Loss of Christ on the cross. His losing and suffering all for our sake. In an amazing exchange, what He gained was our sin and the punishment we deserve and the wrath of God poured out on Him. This was the Surpassing Loss that is beyond anything else anyone has ever accomplished. People can try to determine what is the greatest thing ever but nothing compares to the Surpassing Loss of Christ on the cross. What He accomplished was what no one could ever accomplish on their own. Paul pretty much makes this clear in laying out his pedigree. If Paul couldn’t stand before God and say, “Let me into eternal glory,” no one could.

Christ didn’t come with a pedigree. He gave all that up. He came in the opposite way. He came to show us that it is in His giving up all, becoming a servant, suffering on our behalf that salvation is found.

What did this mean for Paul as he continued to live his life on earth? What does it mean for you and me as we await the day we will join Paul and the others saints who have gone before us? It means that we say with Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” We press on.

When Jesus was alive on earth He pressed on toward the goal. He pressed on toward the cross. He never wavered, always looking toward the glory of the cross. Knowing the Loss would be great, the suffering severe, the glory seeming to be swallowed up in stinging insults and biting attacks and vicious hits. Knowing that worst of all would be the sins poured out upon Him and along with them the punishment for sinners upon Himself, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He pressed on because what drove Him was love. It wasn’t honor, or doing the right thing, or any other noble reason. It was simply pure love. Grace, mercy, unconditional love. Love that knows no bounds. Love that brought Him to the Surpassing Loss. He would much rather suffer than see us suffer eternally in hell.

That’s how, that’s why, we press on. With Paul, we press on to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has made us His own.” This is the glory of the Surpassing Loss of Christ. If we were to glory in God being all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, and simply being God, where in there would be glory for us? There would be none. There would only be the God who is so far above us we could never attain to Him. There would only be the God who is so holy that we could never attain a righteousness that is not just stellar, but that is perfect. Without flaw, without sin, without any thought or motive that is not centered in and positioned toward the one true God.

That is why God’s greatest glory is in the Surpassing Loss of His only-begotten Son. His true joy is to give up His own Son on the cross so that we may have the joy of being in the good grace and favor of the only God. The Surpassing Loss of Christ must be our greatest glory otherwise we always will remain depending on ourselves and will end up in the most horrible loss of all: the loss of eternal life with the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If we must rejoice, let it be in the Surpassing Loss. If we must seek the surpassing worth of knowing God and having eternal salvation, let it be because we seek our salvation in the Surpassing Loss of Christ. If we ever wonder how it is that we can gain all that God gives to sinners, let it be no wonder at all, except if to simply be in wonder at the Surpassing mercy of God in giving us all the blessings of Christ in simple bread and wine on an altar. Or a simple splashing of water at a Baptismal font. Or even simple words spoken by a pastor of Absolution, or the Gospel proclaimed by those very same lips.

If you wonder why it’s such a big deal that Christ suffered all then look to see that it is in humble means that God likes to come to us to bring us into the glory that only He knows. Bread and wine. Not a whole lot that’s special there. Here in San Diego you can get some of the best fish tacos anywhere. Seafood, Mexican, those are also as good as you’ll find elsewhere. What we eat in the Lord’s Supper doesn’t seem too terribly special, considering there are far better wines you could drink than what is served at this altar. And even the bread is a far cry from what you could get at any decent bakery.

No, if God wanted to show us His glory in a truly glorious way, we would have drawn up a list in a fashion similar to what Paul laid out for us in the Epistle reading. The point is not the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. But actually, in a major respect, it is. Bread. Wine. Simple. Humble. Loss. Jesus doesn’t go for the spectacular to come to us giving us His gifts. In the vein of His Surpassing Loss on the cross He comes simply, in bread and wine to give us His gifts: Himself. His body. His blood. His forgiveness. His eternal salvation. The righteousness only He has and only He won.

And where did He count His righteousness as loss? The cross. He chose to be considered as the Unrighteous. As the one deserving of eternal punishment, and then received it from God His Heavenly Father; the punishment we deserved, laid upon Him. The Surpassing Loss surpasses all because it is there that the surpassing worth of eternal life is won. It is in the Lord’s Supper that this surpassing worth is given to you.

This is why Paul talks the way he talks; saying things like, “I do not consider that I have made it my own.” How could we have made it our own? We could never do enough. We could never give up enough. Christ has accomplished all. He has given up all. He has given all. In the Surpassing Loss we have eternal gain. We do not consider that we have made it our own, but what do we do? With Paul, “one we thing we do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Amen.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Putting It All Together

One thing history shows us is that there have been people who have risen up to make a remarkable impact with their ability to think about things and then to put them all together.

A lot of philosophers and theologians and scientists and many others have tackled the big questions in an attempt to put it all together—as if they were saying, “Here is what it’s all about.”

In October our thoughts turn toward the Reformation. In the time of the Reformation there was a little thing Martin Luther did that in a sense is the thing that puts it all together.

In the early stages of the Reformation one of the things Luther did was to write a catechism. The important thing was not so much in writing it but in attempting to get into the hands of every person a simple thing that is at the same time both simple as well as profound.

Luther didn’t decide one day to write a catechism. What he realized was that the Catechism was being ignored. This was part of the problem in the Church and one of the reasons why there needed to be a reformation.

The Catechism had been part of the Christian Church for centuries and consisted of The Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Since most Christians, including pastors, were woefully ignorant of those core texts of the Christian faith, Luther realized it wasn’t enough just to get them into the hands of people. They needed some guidance.

Thus the famous ‘explanations’ or ‘meanings’ were born that those who have been confirmed in the Lutheran Church will recognize as beginning with “What does this mean?” So Luther didn’t actually write the Catechism, the Church did (except for the Lord’s Prayer, of course—Jesus Himself came up with that one). Luther wrote the ‘meanings’ and coupled them with each portion of the texts of the Catechism.

What we have now, those three core texts (Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer), along with their meanings, as well as the texts and meanings of Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper (and additionally Daily Prayers, Table of Duties, and Preparation for the Lord’s Supper), is what we now refer to as Luther’s Small Catechism.

But really it’s not Luther’s at all. It is in the Book of Concord and therefore one of the confessions of faith of the Lutheran Church. What it really is is a little document that puts it all together.

What it is is a little confession of faith that says it all. What it is is a little book that is our guide throughout our lives. What it is is a little summary of the Scriptures and the Christian faith that can never be exhausted, no matter how great of a thinker you are or strong of a Christian you are.

As Luther himself said in his preface to the Large Catechism (and that is one of my favorite quotes), “As for myself, let me say that I, too, am a doctor and a preacher—yes, and as learned and experienced as any of those who act so high and mighty. Yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism. Every morning, and whenever else I have time, I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc. I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I do it gladly.”

May we gladly remain a child and student of the Catechism and meditate on and pray this thing that puts it all together; that thing which instills in us faith and strengthens us in faith in our Lord, who suffered, died, and rose for us and for our salvation.