December 4, 2018 By Faith, Jesus was Born of Mary-Matthew 1:18-25

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Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) (which means, God with us).

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV)

We share a common ground with Mary. Like her, we are saints.  Like her, we are sinners.  Like her, we have our life and being and our salvation in Jesus, our Savior. Mary is indeed blessed among women, because God chose her for a very special as well as a very daunting mission.  She is not immaculate, nor is she the co-redemptrix with God. She is a human being like us.  She is a human being through whom God worked.

By faith she received the gift of Jesus as not only her Savior, but also her firstborn son. By faith, Jesus, became fully human, as well as fully God. He shares His humanity with us.  The only difference is that Jesus alone of all humans is free from the curse of sin.

We learn from Scripture that we, like Mary and all of the saints who have gone before us, are saved by faith- not by what we do or even by who we are, but by faith in God.

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of countless generations. Mary acknowledges in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that in Christ the promise of Abraham is fulfilled.

God has a history of working in and through His people. He even chose to do His greatest work- the bodily incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus- through human flesh.

We have to wonder about the faith of Joseph as well. Certainly he may have faced accusations from the family or the community that either Mary or both of them had engaged in immoral behavior. It’s understandable that it would take an angel of God to convince him of what in every other situation would be a biological impossibility- a virgin carrying a child.  God made a way for him to believe, and worked in him the faith necessary for him to trust God and trust that Mary’s child was indeed the Son of God.

In Christ we are given the gift of faith. We are given the gift of God’s faith at work in and through the saints, like Mary, whose faith in Jesus was her righteousness.

God provided the lamb for Abraham, and God provides the Lamb for us. In Jesus we have God-with-us. We cannot come to faith in and of our own reason or power. God works great and wonderful gifts in and through the faith He gives us.

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)

 

November 1, 2018- For All the Saints, Together in Christ- 1 John 3:1-3, Revelation 7:9-17, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

 

saintsSee what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-3 (ESV)

The celebration of All Saints’ Day traditionally is a somber holiday in which we remember the saints (meaning all who lived and died in Christ) who have gone before us. On Ash Wednesday we are made aware of our mortality as we remember that we are dust and will return to dust. (Genesis 3:19)  On Good Friday we are reminded of our mortality again as we remember Jesus sacrificing Himself, taking the punishment of a cruel death and paying the penalty we deserve for our sins in our place.  As Jesus breathed His last and gave up His Spirit, the curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Temple where the Presence of God lived was torn open as salvation and redemption was bought and paid for all, once and for all.

The celebration of All Saints’ should make us aware of our own temporary existence and mortality but this remembrance should also point us to the joy that those who have gone before us are already living in. We are in Christ now, but we are still living with one foot in the “not yet,” in hope of the promise to come.  While we are on this earth we will always grieve those who we loved, but we can take comfort in knowing that they have stepped over into the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.  We can take confidence and radiant hope in the knowledge that death is not the end for those who are in Christ.

While the Book of Revelation is apocryphal literature and it uses great imagery and allegory, it also gives us a vision of the new world to come in which we will be with our fellow saints again, but with an important distinction. We will be made holy and whole and clean, without sickness, sin or death, in the presence of God forever. The simul Justus et peccator (saint and sinner at the same time, as we are now) will finally be made a pure saint.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:9-17 (ESV)

Even though our hearts hurt when we think of those who have gone before us in Christ, we thank God for their witness and for the legacy they have given us. Death is not the end and we are not in the same position of despair as people who do not know of hope in Christ. As the apostle Paul teaches:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (ESV)

It’s easy to be discouraged in this life. The older we get, we are more touched by the deaths of our loved ones and it is easy to get mired in grief and longing for them. There is no shame in grief. Yet we have confidence that those who have lived and died in Christ are already in the joy of eternal life with Him. We thank God for their witness and example, and we take great hope and joy in knowing that death is not the end. We will be with Jesus and we will be together again.

October 19, 2018 “Sin Boldly?” Matthew 5:17-20, John 14:1-7, Romans 3:21-31

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“Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe in and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”- Martin Luther

Martin Luther is known for the quote, “Sin Boldly.” It is a bit taken out of its original context.  Properly understood, Luther is simply underscoring the Scriptural truth that Jesus forgives us our sins, and that our righteousness before God is through faith in Jesus.  Jesus has already paid the price of death that we have earned. By faith, Jesus forgives our sins and failures.  So our focus should be on believing in Jesus rather than living a legalistic and fearful life.

(Jesus taught: ) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)

The Ten Commandments are not the “ten suggestions” or the “ten good ideas.” God put His Commandments in place for our protection and benefit. The penalty for law-breaking (even one teeny tiny bit of it) is still death. There is only one person who ever lived (Jesus) who was able to obey the Law 100% perfectly.  Through faith in Jesus we have life with God forever. Apart from Jesus we are dead in trespasses and sins.  There is no other way to life and salvation except for faith in Jesus.

(Jesus said : )“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:1-7 (ESV)

The scribes and Pharisees were very careful to (attempt to) obey the letter of the Mosaic Law, which includes the Ten Commandments and a whole lot more (see the entire book of Leviticus…) but they ended up setting themselves up as legalistic, self-righteous hypocrites.  In Jesus’ day the Pharisees made great displays of religiousness and piety that were just outward displays.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. Romans 3:21-31 (ESV)

The apostle Paul knew better than most – having been a Pharisee himself- what the Law required, and how utterly impossible it is for people to keep it. Paul knew he was condemned under the law. Paul also knew that Jesus came to keep the Law perfectly, and that He was the sacrifice to cover the sins and iniquities of not just Paul, but of the entire world.

We are not able to make ourselves perfect for God. No matter how hard we attempt to obey the rules we can’t do it. Ironically we often make ourselves even worse when we think that we can earn our way to God by what we do or don’t do.

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.”- Martin Luther from the Small Catechism, on Sanctification, the Third Article of the Creed.

Faith in Jesus is the New Covenant. Not faith in our own law-keeping abilities, but faith in knowing that Jesus has already done for us what we cannot do.

So why should we take the Commandments seriously? First of all, even though we break them with regularity, they are still God’s standard and will for humans to follow.  They help us to keep order in society.  We know that even though we aren’t the greatest at law-keeping, that the Law is good and right.

The Commandments show us how we sin, and through that knowledge, and in our confessions, we see our desperate need for Jesus. We come to Jesus in our brokenness and need and knowledge of how we fall short, not like the Pharisee who thinks he has done everything right, but as the tax collector who cries, “forgive me Lord, as I am a sinner.” (Luke 18:9-14)

We can’t save ourselves. We can’t live in a way that pleases God.  But we are made right in God’s sight by faith- faith that believes that Jesus has taken the punishment that we deserve in our place (Isaiah 53) and that when God looks at us He sees Jesus.  Jesus has paid the price for us.  By faith, we trust Jesus, and live.

August 18, 2018 – Be Wise About What is Good- Romans 16:17-20

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Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,

 Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from telling lies.

 Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it. Psalm 34:9-14 (ESV)

 

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.

The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. Romans 16:17-20 (ESV)

Unfortunately human history is a timeline filled with fallen, fallible people getting it wrong. Dogs bark because that’s what dogs do. Cats meow because that’s what cats do. People sin because people are sinners. It’s what we do.

No sooner than Moses had turned his back and returned to Mount Sinai to hear from God after he came to the people of Israel with the tablets of the Law, the people turned away from God and bowed down to a golden calf they had made. (Exodus 32)

We have been given all kinds of warnings against breaking God’s Law, but we still do it. We can’t help ourselves.

Even David, who wrote Psalm 34, wasn’t able to do as he instructed, and David was a man after God’s own heart.

Christians are no exception to the sinner rule. While we are also saints because of the offense of the Cross- that Jesus died for our sins and took the punishment we deserve- our sinful nature is evident in everything we do and that we don’t do.

The apostle Paul warns the people in Rome about believing bad teaching and wrong ideas just as he warns the Galatians and the Corinthians. There are people who teach doctrines that are contrary to what we learn in the Bible, and often these are teachings that lead people either to serving their own interests (prosperity “gospel”) or to lining the pockets of their “teachers.”  Sometimes bad teaching can be made to sound logical or good, but it does not point us to Jesus. We are warned because there are many things in the world that can lead us away from the truth.

There is no such thing as a perfect church. We are at best a collection of fallible and imperfect sinners.  If we rely on any one particular person or doctrine, we are going to encounter errors.  There will be disagreements and conflicts. We are not going to “do it right.”

God has given us holy Scripture so that we can hear and read His Word and know the truth. The more that we read, study, know and talk about the Bible the better equipped we are to see what is the real deal and what isn’t.

We are called to discernment- to test the spirits-  and to hold on to the good news of Jesus, as the apostle John teaches us:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”- 1 John 4:1 (ESV)

We are called to ask questions and to find answers.  We can do this knowing that even though we are never going to get it right in this world, we have the written Scripture God has given us. We have each other, and we have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us.  We are invited to confess our sins, to be forgiven, and to live in the sweet assurance that in our baptism we have been named, we have been claimed and we belong to God because Jesus died for us.

September 5, 2017 – Justice vs. Mercy and Life Together- Romans 3:21-25, John 8:5-7

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Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced. Romans 3:21-25 (NRSV)

(Jesus said, speaking of a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and who was brought to the scribes and Pharisees for judgment): ”Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:5-7 (NRSV)

It’s not easy trying to do the right thing. There is a fine line between justice and mercy, and a vexing paradox between, “should we dish out what they deserve,” or “should we just forgive it all and move on?”

Part of us wants to seek out vengeance and justice and not be merciful at all. Here in the earthly kingdom we necessarily categorize- and levy sanctions for- individual transgressions based on their impact and the damage they do to society. The purpose of law on earth is to maintain order in society. When there is no consequence for breaking the law, anarchy, rioting, looting and all sort of debauched behavior become the norm.

“Everything goes” is not a good way for humans to live. This is why God gave us the gift of the Law, and the Ten Commandments, to put protective boundaries around our behavior so we don’t hurt ourselves and others.

When forgiveness becomes enabling and we make excuses for our bad behavior as well as for others’, we are not living the life that God has intended for us.

We are called to forgive. We are called to leave judgment to God. But we are also called to encourage each other (in love) to strive to become the people God created us to be. In the earthly kingdom we have an obligation- if we respect the rights and livelihoods of others- to administer justice and to keep people safe from those who would do them harm. Those who commit crimes against others should face the consequences of their crimes.

Martin Luther speaks in depth of the obligation of society to maintain order and safety in his explanations of the fifth, sixth and seventh commandments in the Large Catechism.

Even though we must have order in society to live together, we must always be willing to help, to forgive and to encourage each other.

How do we encourage in love? How do we find that balance between justice and mercy that we need to have as Jesus followers?

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?