November 7, 2018 The Undeserved Faithfulness of God- Psalm 36, Hebrews 11:1-3

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Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord.

 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

 Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright of heart! Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the evildoers lie fallen; they are thrust down, unable to rise. Psalm 36 (ESV)

King David wrote many of the Psalms, including Psalm 36. We see the concept of simul Justus et peccator (we are saints and sinners at the same time) lived out in David’s life as well as it is spelled out beautifully in this Psalm.  We are wicked transgressors- blatant sinners- who do not fear God. We flatter ourselves and we make excuses for and cover up our sins.  We like to think we are OK because, “well I didn’t do what THAT guy did,” even though in reality we are just as bad if not worse than those we disdain. We are all prone to gossip and slander. We wish evil on our enemies, and we openly plot revenge on those who do us wrong.  Save by the mercy and love of Jesus we have absolutely nothing good or worthy about us.

God on the other hand, keeps His end of the covenant, His promise to Abraham and his descendents, (and we are descendents of Abraham by faith in Christ) even though we are not capable of believing and trusting God in our own strength. In our baptism, in the preaching of God’s Word, and at the communion table, through these means of grace, God gives us the gift of faith. The completed work of Jesus on the Cross is redemption, deliverance and restoration, not just of His people, but of creation itself. We can’t trust our own fickle and often evil hearts, but we can trust that God is faithful to His promises.

God has made Himself our refuge, our safe place. Apart from God there is no rest, no safety, no provision, no hope and no light.  By faith we trust that God provides for all of our needs.  We trust that He loves us and that He will not forget us- even though we do not and cannot earn or deserve His grace.

We pray that God would transform our hearts. We pray that we would live in humility, knowing that anything good is a gift from God alone.  We pray that God would spread around the good news of Jesus in and through us, even though we wrestle with the saint/sinner paradox (see Romans 7) every day of our lives this side of eternity.

We also pray that God would restrain evil- that we would not be the ones spreading evil around, and that those who are working evil in the world would be stopped in their tracks.

We learn in this Psalm that God is our refuge. Jesus laid down His life for us as a perfect sacrifice (Isaiah 53:1-5) so that our sins are forgiven, and when God looks at us He sees only Jesus.  Even though we are born with evil and death all over us, through the gift of faith in Jesus and His death on the Cross to save us from our sins, we belong to God, made descendents of Abraham and inheritors of the covenant of faith that God made with Abraham.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Hebrews 11:1-3 (ESV)

 

March 28, 2018- Judas in the Mirror? John 13:21-30

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After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”  His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.  Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”

 Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.  As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him.  Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor.  As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:21-30 (NIV)

Who among us has betrayed a friend at some time or another? Whether we betray others to save our own hides, or for personal gain, or even from our own fear, the sin of betrayal has a special kind of sting to it.  It is a violation of an intimate understanding between friends, a breach of trust.

Jesus is fully human as well as He is fully God.  Judas’ betrayal had to be painful for Jesus just as it is painful for us to be betrayed by a friend or a family member.  The ones closest to us have the greatest power to hurt us, because they are the last ones who should.

It is easy for us to think that we would never betray Jesus the way that Judas did- selling the Holy One of God down the river for less than the equivalent of what it would take to fill up a Toyota Camry. The reality is that any one of us could have been Judas given the right set of circumstances.

We sell out Jesus every day. We betray Him in our actions. Like Peter we try to stay strong and we plead our allegiance and our love for Jesus, but in our moments of crisis we deny Him. (Matthew 26:69-75) Like the disciples, we aren’t able to stay with Him and pray an hour in the garden without falling asleep.  (Mark 14:32-42)  In our fallen humanity we are not even able to come to faith in God, let alone stand strong for Jesus.  The Holy Spirit must intervene on our behalf.

The good news is that Jesus still loves us. He still went willingly to Caiaphus and stood before the Sanhedrin, who had plotted to kill Him.  He was handed over to Pontius Pilate and was chosen for crucifixion by the people, while Barabbas was set free.

Thankfully Jesus does not betray us. He is faithful even when we are not.  We can always trust Him and we are set free, knowing that because He took our place on the Cross that we are free to share in abundant and joyful life now, as well as we enter into His eternal life.

We want to stand strong with Jesus. We want to pray with Him in the garden, but we are weak.  Jesus walks the path with us and for us because we cannot endure it alone.  He alone was able to bear the cost of our sins- and the sins of this fallen world.  He will not betray us.

 

September 1, 2017 – Vindication- Psalm 26:1-8

Vindication

Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.

 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.

 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.

 O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.

Psalm 26:1-8 (NRSV)

On the surface this looks like the Psalmist is praying a pretty arrogant prayer, but his focus is not on us or our good deeds. His focus is on God’s love and our response to it.

What integrity do we have in and of ourselves? Absolutely none.

What ability do we have to be steadfast or loving of our own accord? Again, absolutely none.

Apart from the intrinsic value we have as children of God, and assuming that transplant organs are not sold for a dollar value, what exactly are the materials that comprise our physical bodies worth? About $5.

How many human beings are hypocrites? 100%.

How many human beings do evil and are wicked? 100%.

The Psalmist does speak of his integrity, his trust, his steadfastness, his faithfulness, and his innocence, but all the while his focus is on vindication, which can only come from God.  If we have any integrity, trust, steadfastness, faithfulness or innocence, these are not inherent to ourselves, but given to us as gifts from God.

 Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines vindication as: the state of being vindicated; specifically :  justification against denial or censure.

Without that vindication, if not for God choosing to justify us, we are the worthless, the hypocrites, the evildoers, and the wicked. End of story, perhaps.

We live the paradox of being saint and sinner (simul justus et peccator– the teacher and theologian RC Sproul, while not a Lutheran, explains Luther’s concept very well here) so we are all of these terrible things…but we’re also not.

The Psalmist is affirming in this prayer and song (for a Psalm is a prayer originally meant to be sung) how God envisions us, and he is giving us the definition of who God created us to be.

We trust in Jesus’ integrity, Jesus’ trustworthiness, Jesus’ steadfastness, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ faithfulness, Jesus’ worth- all the things that we do not have save by His grace.

Because Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice for many, we are made into saints- even as we are still sinners.  He is continually calling us to Him, and turning our hearts more and more toward Him.

Do we desire what God desires, and freely gives, to us?  Do we have (in Christ) the confidence to join the Psalmist in his prayer?

May 18, 2017 Playing Hooky, and More on Isaiah 53:5

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But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)

I was never much for rocking the boat when I was in high school.  By the time I’d survived it long enough to get to my sophomore year (1983-4) all I wanted to do was to stave off boredom while still keeping up my GPA.  Keeping up my GPA wasn’t much of a challenge, but staving off boredom was quite another issue.  I do have to admit to reading every single issue of  Mad and National Lampoon from 1982-86, along with the works of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and JRR Tolkien, and a somewhat extensive collection of the classics- including Dante’s Divine Comedy, many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as a fair number of scientific publications,  and a plethora of non-fiction historical works on WWII.

I didn’t have too many challenging classes in high school- with the exceptions of AP English and  AP music theory, but I did some major reading, mostly for my own edification and recreation.  Being a geek who stayed quiet and out of the spotlight, I had some advantages. On the rare occasion that I considered bending the rules, I was usually able to do it under the radar and beyond suspicion.  I got away with murder (in a figurative way, of course) when I wanted to- quietly and covertly.

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Every year on Good Friday, since the powers that ran the school system didn’t really care if Spring Break coincided with Holy Week or not, Mom wrote us an excuse to skip the afternoon so that we could go to the Good Friday service at the Catholic church that generally lasted from about 1PM-4PM.   The service that is held in lieu of Catholic Mass on Good Friday is called Tenebrae service, which means “service of shadows.”  The Tenebrae service is also observed in the Lutheran tradition, and includes the reading of the Passion of Christ, and reflections upon His death.  Heavy, heavy somber stuff, as it should be on Good Friday.

We- meaning my sisters and I- were well acquainted with the Good Friday service, but being both teenaged and disinclined toward participation in religious observances on such a delightfully warm day, decided that we would spend the afternoon not in the shadows, but in the bright April sunshine.  We just didn’t have the somber thing going on that day.

That particular Good Friday was very good indeed, weather in the low seventies, bright sunshine without a cloud in the sky, and just a hint of  a light breeze.  Perfect weather in April in Ohio is almost unheard of. My oldest sister (who happened to be driving that day) wasn’t about to spend such a glorious day inside.  The only problem with not going to church was that her car- a bright orange ’71 VW- was readily visible.  We couldn’t hang around in town.

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She managed to find one of my favorite hideaway places- the railroad trestle bridge.  It’s long since been torn down and scrapped for whatever the steel was worth, but in 1984, though the line was dead and the tracks torn up, the bridge was still lingering over the river, a monument to obsolescence, a shadow still standing from a long-ago sphere.

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It’s hard to describe the serenity I found that day.  Even though I was with my sisters, they left me alone for awhile and didn’t attempt to knock me off the bridge where I would surely be sucked into the brackish water and unspeakable muck below.  I would never recommend swimming, wading or touching the water in that part of the Scioto River today (and certainly not back then) but sitting about 30 feet above the river on the trestle bridge listening to the soft breeze and the running water is hard to describe.  It was a slice of rather undeserved, unearned serenity and peace.

The world has moved on since then.  Places like that old trestle bridge, those happenstance cathedrals that stay bright in spite of the crushing hammer of entropy, and in defiance of conscious efforts to unmake them, are harder and harder to find in a world where the new mantra is structure and order.  Even small children have every minute of their days scheduled and dedicated to a specific purpose.  We all know all too well what it is to be locked into the whirlwind of busy- going everywhere and getting nowhere.

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It’s hard to wrap our heads around the grace of God.  As much as I should, at the very least on that long-ago Good Friday, have been in that service of shadows, I was in reality sitting on a railroad bridge without a care in the world.  It’s not so much that dropping out and going to sit on the bridge and watch the world go around is a bad thing, it’s more that everything has a price.  It’s easy for us to say we want to walk with Jesus- until it’s shadow time.  History gives the apostle Peter a bad rap for denying Jesus three times, but isn’t that we humans in our weakness and fallenness do? Yet the reward Jesus bought for us, even though we fail and fall short all the time is that unearned, undeserved grace- the freedom and the ability to find serenity and peace and security in Him.

One of the beauties of the grace of God is that He knows our weakness.  He knows that our bodies are weak and our moral constitutions even weaker.  Although we are also called to carry the cross, like as not we end up playing hooky instead, spending our lives blissfully unaware and disconnected from the suffering our Savior bore in our place.

The good news is that even when we are faithless He is faithful.  He offers us His grace, purchased with His blood and suffering and tears.  He is the Reason why we can have peace and freedom and serenity, because He took the punishment that we deserved.