December 26, 2019 No Peace, but a Sword- the Holy Innocents – Matthew 10:34, Matthew 2:1-18

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“Do not think that I (Jesus) have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34 (ESV)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:1-18 (ESV)

As much as we are enraptured by the Christmas story, the very next chapter is tragic. Herod sends the wise men (or more accurately “magi” or astronomers) to find this king of the Jews, not because Herod had any plans of worshiping the infant Jesus, but because Herod wanted to take out the threat.

What Herod didn’t realize is that God has ways around the sinister designs of man.

What the people of Israel didn’t realize was that Messiah wasn’t coming as a bread king or as a military conqueror. He was coming to heal the sick and raise the dead, but also to turn over the moneylenders’ and temple vendors’ tables. He was coming to tear the temple curtain in two, to judge the living and the dead, and to defeat sin, death, Satan and the hordes of hell.

The fallout from the Incarnation of the Holy One of God- destruction by the sword -would begin with the male children of Bethlehem, and it continues to this day.

The Child in the manger would be the cause of the deaths of countless other children- slaughtered simply because of Herod’s desire to keep himself in power.

The Child in the manger- Christ, the Lord, calls us to die as well. Life in Christ is death to everything the world holds dear. We willingly forfeit power, influence, and comfort and in certain circumstances, our own lives, to follow Him. In some places in the world today to proclaim Christ is literally asking to lose one’s head. Martyrdom is still happening in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Do we really understand the purpose behind what appears to be the senseless destruction and waste and death and sorrow in this world?

Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more.

The church has historically called the little boys killed by Herod’s mobs, “the Holy Innocents,” yet there are no humans on this earth untouched by the corruption of original sin. Those little boys were innocent of temporal crimes, but were still under the curse of the Fall. The truly Innocent One was also put to death, thirty years or so later, but His death was the end of death.

Jesus brought- and still brings- a sword. The sword that split the temple curtain so that we could be in the presence of God is the same sword that divides families and nations.

Today’s rude awakening right on the heels of the amazing blessing and wonder of Christmas seems a bit harsh, but in the middle of the valley of the shadow, He is with us.

Emmanuel, God with us does not abandon us, even in those times and places when our pain and mourning is beyond words.

Emmanuel, God Who took on human flesh, knows the agony of sorrow and of physical torment.

Emmanuel, God does bring a peace beyond all understanding- peace that can override the chaos, peace that knows that God is in control even when we cannot see how.

Jesus isn’t done yet. He is returning- returning for those who believe and trust in Him. He is coming back to remake the heavens and the earth. He will wipe away every tear and sorrow will be no more.

October 7, 2019- The Question of Evil – Praying for Retribution and Justice? Psalm 94:12-23

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Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord,
and whom you teach out of your law,

to give him rest from days of trouble,
until a pit is dug for the wicked.

For the Lord will not forsake his people;
he will not abandon his heritage;

for justice will return to the righteous,
and all the upright in heart will follow it.

Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?

If the Lord had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.

When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.

When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.

Can wicked rulers be allied with you,
those who frame injustice by statute?

They band together against the life of the righteous
and condemn the innocent to death.

But the Lord has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.

He will bring back on them their iniquity
and wipe them out for their wickedness;
the Lord our God will wipe them out.

Psalm 94:12-23 (ESV)

The Psalms are generally where we go when we seek comfort, to pray and praise, to find the words to reach out to God when we have no words of our own.  The full range of human emotion is expressed in the Psalms- joy, grief, thankfulness, longing, despair, and even anger.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the existence of or the harsh language of the imprecatory psalms.

(imprecation: the act of calling down a curse) 

In the imprecatory psalms the prayer is that God would curse the enemies of the people. There’s a “God, please get this bad guy, and by the way, he deserves to die,” sort of theme in these psalms that just isn’t there in the more commonly known psalms. The imprecatory psalms are cries for justice- that wicked rulers be brought down, and that evil people would be punished for their crimes, and that injustice would be put to a stop. We are invited in to rally behind the psalmist’s rage.

We can relate to the psalmist’s angst here when we see unfair legislation passed or the powers of government used in improper ways.   When life or the world is unfair it is easy for us to understand where the psalmist is coming from and to chime right in.

When we see those who should be good stewards of society and of the common good made corrupt and people are suffering without cause it should make us angry.  We should cry out to God.  We should be honest about how injustice makes us feel.

Then we remember that God is a just God.  We remember that we are not always the “good guy.” In fact we are the bad guy a lot of the time.  We need to be reminded as Nathan reminded David in 2 Samuel 12:1-15 – “You are the man!”

David was disciplined by God for his transgressions- the loss of his son with Bathsheba and the ever-present sword dividing his house.  Yet David was also beloved of God, the forefather of Jesus, the true King of Israel and of all things.

So we should pray the imprecatory psalms with caution, and with the understanding that even at our best we are simul justus et peccator – sinners and saints at the same time.  While we rail against the injustice and sinfulness of the world we rail against the same sinful things in us at the same time. We ask God to find those times when “we are the man” and reveal them to us so we can confess them to Him- so we can put those impulses and evil deeds that we hate (but we do anyway) to death, and be forgiven.

When I thought, “My foot slips,”
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.

God holds us up.  Even though we fail and even though we must drown the old Adam in the water of baptism on a daily basis, we are free to call out to God.  He will see that His justice is done.  He will defend and hold up those who belong to Him.

But the Lord has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.

 

January 23, 2019- Sacrifice, Vocation, All Parts of One Body- Romans 12:1-8

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:1-8 (ESV)

It has been said that the problem with living sacrifices is that they are always wriggling themselves off of the altar. We do not live the Christian life perfectly. Thankfully in Christ, because we are baptized, and made children of God by faith, we can start each day knowing that He is renewing our minds and giving us hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26) in exchange for our hearts of stone.  We can trust that he forgives our sins and He gives us the strength to face a new day every day.  God works this transformation in us through the Holy Spirit.

We walk a balancing act between being sinner and saint. As Paul said in Romans 8, we do the things we know we shouldn’t do, and we don’t do the things we should do.  Even so, God has created each of us as an individual with a set of strengths and a set of weaknesses.  Everyone has been given a vocation- a reason for being and a reason for doing- which should complement the vocations of others. A farmer grows grain for the baker to bake bread.  Drivers transport raw materials so that factory workers can fabricate and assemble machines and cars and other things.  Police and firefighters keep order and respond to emergencies.  We have vocations in both the earthly kingdom and God’s kingdom.  Sometimes they intersect, but we are made to embrace and pursue our vocations to the glory of God.

Paul has a complementary view of how we are to work together at being the Body of Christ. Some of us are positively not suited for doing certain things.   Not everyone is in the position to volunteer to go do missions in Africa for a year, or to do plumbing and carpentry work, or to bake cookies.  Some people have the gift of hospitality, or the ability to go abroad do missions work, but others may be more able to give financially, or teach, or encourage.  Everyone has equally valid – though necessarily different and varied- vocations that we have been gifted with to serve God.

We have every reason as God’s people to appreciate and thank God for the gifts we have been given. We are also called to appreciate and thank God for the gifts God has given others, especially the gifts they share that with us we do not possess.  We serve others out of a joyful response to God’s goodness, no matter what our gifts may be.

July 3, 2018 Neither Poverty Nor Riches, but Somewhere in the Middle- Proverbs 30:7-9, 2 Corinthians 8:9

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Photo by Chinmay Singh on Pexels.com

Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30:7-9 (ESV)

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV)

When we pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer we agree with and trust God for “daily bread-“ not because we doubt whether or not God provides for us, but so that we stand in agreement with God and that we know the One from whom our sustenance and life come.

Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need, and faithfully provides also for our temporal support. And although He abundantly grants and preserves these things even to the wicked and knaves, yet He wishes that we pray for them, in order that we may recognize that we receive them from His hand, and may feel His paternal goodness toward us therein. – Martin Luther, on the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer

The world surrounds us with messages that implore us to buy more, to upgrade our technology, to be thinner, to be more beautiful, ad nauseam. Advertising teaches us dissatisfaction with what we have so that we will strive for more, bigger and better.  The urge to keep up with the Joneses is written deeply in American culture, as if somehow our value as people is validated by wearing the latest fashion or having the newest smartphone.

Contrast the wisdom of Agur (the writer of the above verses from Proverbs) as it was recorded in God’s word for our benefit. His prayer is more like: Keep us honest. Maintain us materially somewhere in the middle, neither rich nor poor, but having enough for our daily needs. Keep us from either trusting in our own abilities to the point where we fail to see our need for God and thank Him for everything; or from being so impoverished and desperate that we starve and must scrape or even steal to survive.

We are so conditioned to believe in our own ambition- or blame our failures on “bad luck” or our circumstances, but that’s not how God wants us to go about things. He calls us to rely on Him and know that our needs– though not necessarily our wants– will be met.

Agur’s wisdom in the Proverbs, Luther’s teaching on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and the apostle Paul’s reminder in 2nd Corinthians that Jesus sacrificed everything specifically to save us from sin and death, are all contrary to the wisdom of the world.  Scripture doesn’t teach us about how to have the greatest life ever right now. God is not a vending machine, nor is He a celestial scorekeeper, looking for our every failure and flaw. In Scripture we learn about Jesus- what He has done to save us from sin and death.  Throughout Scripture we are pointed to Jesus and His love for us. We are reminded that in our baptism we have received the greatest, most lavish, most precious gift of all- the gift of eternal life with God forever.

Trusting in our own ability to achieve, earn and be self-reliant, and thinking we can do it all and don’t need God, and failing to trust God for our daily bread in difficult times are opposite sides of the same error. We need to trust God that He will give us what we need to live and thrive without leaning to one or the other extreme.

Jesus has already provided for us- forever. In our doubt we succumb to worry that our needs will not be met, and we get trapped in the pursuit of our own wants. May we trust Jesus that He will indeed provide our daily bread as we seek Him and His will for us, and trust Him that He cares for us and provides for us.

June 27, 2018 -God’s Mercies are New Every Morning- Lamentations 3:22-33

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The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.

Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.

 For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:22-33

Suffering is a common denominator across humanity. Whether a person is born privileged or in poverty, all of us are touched by the fallout of the Fall.  Sometimes we would like to think that material wealth is the answer to all earthly problems, but to see the broken relationships, chemical dependence and suicide rates among the “beautiful people,” it’s clear that money alone can only buy the misery one likes the best.  There is no escaping suffering, loss and despair by attempting to do so in burying oneself in the comforts of this material world.

It’s easy to get into a place where we blame God for suffering, but it is a non-negotiable condition of living in a fallen world. Sometimes suffering is the result of our own poor choices, and can be used by God to bring us to repentance, but more often than not, suffering is brought about by something outside of our control or ability to prevent.

The reality of suffering is that we are not the ones in control. If it were up to us we would take it all away. If it were up to us we would try to figure out some higher meaning or noble purpose for suffering.  Sometimes we can see a purpose for it, but most of the time we are simply left to endure it and keep on wondering why. We are challenged by suffering to simply trust God when we do not understand.

It is encouraging to know that no matter what suffering we must endure as a condition of being a fallen creature that Jesus walks with us in our suffering. We are being tried and prepared for life with God forever.  Our bodies will age and decay and wither. We will all know grief and loss. Even so, there will come a day when suffering will end. There is life beyond the limitations of this world.

Jeremiah, the writer of Lamentations, was most familiar with suffering. He was sent to the people of Israel by God as a prophet, set aside to warn the people of God’s impending judgment on them.  The people weren’t terribly thrilled with Jeremiah’s message, even throwing him into a cistern to sink into the mud and die. (Jeremiah 38)  Nobody likes to hear that they are screwing up and that their screw ups are coming back to bite them.

Yet Jeremiah had hope even though his earthly life was rather bleak and he endured a great deal of persecution and suffering precisely because of his assignment from God. Jeremiah points us to the hope he had in God.

Jesus, too was no stranger to suffering.  The prophet Isaiah foresaw His coming as the Suffering Servant. (Isaiah 53:1-5)  Jesus knows the suffering of fallen humanity because He shared in it.

God’s mercy is always fresh and new. God is always listening to our prayers, God the Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf, and in Jesus we have the assurance that He has died to save us from our sins and that we will be made whole and our tears will be wiped away forever (Revelation 21:4.)

We can trust in the compassion of God and know that in Him is comfort and peace, even when our circumstances would argue otherwise.

 

May 14, 2018 – Another Will Take His Office, God Will Decide- Acts 1:15-26

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In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man – Judas Iscariot- acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)  “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; (Psalm 69:24-28) and “‘Let another take his office.’ (Psalm 109:6-8)

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias.  And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. Acts 1:15-26 (ESV)

The Christian church has debated the fate of Judas Iscariot for centuries. Judas was once numbered among the twelve apostles.  He walked with Jesus, lived with Jesus, and shared meals with Jesus.  Even so, Judas, who had been one of the inner circle and who was considered an apostle, ultimately betrayed Jesus.  The remaining eleven had to choose another who had walked closely with Jesus to take Judas’ place.  Their decision was left up to God as they cast lots (Proverbs 16:33) to choose Judas’ successor, Matthias.

The behaviors and the ultimate fate of Judas lead us to an ongoing discussion of predestination versus human free will. If we are predestined to an ignominious fate, that we have no place in choosing, then are we denied mercy forever, even though we were only doing what we were created for?  Could Jeffery Dahmer or Charles Manson have chosen different paths?

How do we know who that child on the playground will become? Is that child a future Mother Teresa or a future Adolf Hitler in the making?  If God is omniscient, then He has to know every decision we make before we make it. He must have a purpose in letting the weeds grow up along with the wheat. (Matthew 13:24-30)  God is the one who judges the injustices others may perpetrate on us. We are called to live peaceably and serve others as Jesus did, regardless if we are put in places that might have a lot of weeds.

The Psalmists made chilling warnings about Judas and to anyone else (namely everyone…) who betrays Jesus. In Psalm 69:24-25, burning anger and desolation are the betrayers’ due.  Psalm 109:8 calls for another to take the office of the betrayer.  All of us are sinners as well as saints, and we are completely reliant on Jesus to keep us faithful and walking with Him.  Only He can deliver us from the snares and traps of sin, unbelief and being distracted by the world.

None of us, even including the apostles, are or were perfect witnesses for Jesus. We aren’t able to witness to Him perfectly, and what witness we can and do give is solely by the grace and power of God.

God does not allow us to be omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. It is not given to us to know God’s plan for anyone.

As far as Judas, or Jeffery Dahmer, or Hitler,- or even the people society sees as being “good,” such as Mother Teresa or Billy Graham, God alone is their Judge. God alone knows what is in anyone’s mind or heart.  All we can do is pray the prayer Jesus taught us- that His will be done, and that our hearts and minds might be aligned with His.

May 4, 2018-Joyful Noise and Automatic Praise- Psalm 98, Philippians 4:4-13

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Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!  Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. Psalm 98 (ESV)

On days like today it’s easy to praise God as we take in the beauty of creation. When the sun is shining and we look around and see the trees and flowers coming to life again after a long winter, the metaphors of the “rivers clapping their hands” and the “hills singing” seem to fit.

Many of our days are not quite so bright. What about days where the weather is dull and grey and we are mired down in pain and buried in cares? What about those days in which the furthest thing from our minds and hearts is singing?

Is praise to God an automatic response for us? Do we praise God only when we experience the beauty and wonder of nature and when we can feel the presence of God?  Can we still praise Him through our pain?  When He seems far away?  When we can see the ways we have fallen short of God’s glory due to our own sins?

Can we see the salvation of our God in a world that very often appears to be beyond saving in so many ways?

By faith we can praise the God of our salvation and trust Him even when we can’t see. The apostle Paul was often in situations where he was exiled or imprisoned and had to trust in the support of others.  He wrote to the Philippians who were supporting him while he was imprisoned in Rome:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (the apostle Paul)—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:4-13 (ESV)

Through the gift of faith in Christ, we can praise and sing and rest in God’s peace even when we cannot see beauty or feel God’s presence. By faith we know He is there and that He never leaves us. May our praise not be connected to what we see or our current circumstances, but may our praise and worship rise up by faith- automatically in response to the promises of God.