Saturday, December 3, 2022

Repentance and Preparation: A Meditation on Matthew 3 for the 2nd Sunday in Advent


In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,

And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying,

The voice of one crying in the wilderness,

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair,

and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

 

Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea,

and all the region round about Jordan,

 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism,

he said unto them, O generation of vipers,

who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:

And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father:

for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees:

therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit

is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance.

but he that cometh after me is mightier than I,

whose shoes I am not worthy to bear:

he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:

Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor,

and gather his wheat into the garner;

but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

 

There are few biblical words that raise hackles in our age quite so quickly as the command to Repent!  The Greek word which underlies the English translation here is a combination of turning or changing, and of mind or thinking—thus St. John the Baptist’s command to all who would hear him was to literally turn your mind! or change your thinking! in light of the reality that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  “At hand” is an old Hebrew idiom brought forward in the Greek and directly translated into English, which means literally that the subject is within reach or immediately in the hearer’s presence.  This combination of phrases in St. John the Baptist’s preaching make inescapably clear that the proper preparation of one’s mind is critical to being in the presence of God—or perhaps more directly, that the condition of one’s mind will determine how one is met by God when He approaches.  While phraseologies of the time sometimes used the imagery of the heart as the seat of the emotions and the head as the seat of knowledge, the mind is here directly related to the convictions and commitments which inform a person’s life, and from which flow their words and deeds.  John made that link directly when he ordered the religious leaders who came to be baptized to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, since a truly changed mind must by necessity bring forth a changed life.  In the immediate context of this passage, Jesus had already come and had been walking among the people of Judea somewhat unnoticed, thus making the Kingdom of God very near at hand, and the condition of meeting Him an immediate reality.

 

In our contemporary context, the Church waits in a liturgical way for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, but in a very real and tangible way, we all know that He has already come.  Roughly 2000 years ago, the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary in the real and gritty town of Bethlehem.  He came as the old Hebrew Prophets had foretold, lived His early years in submission to His earthly parents, and after about 30 years presented Himself to His cousin John for Baptism and the inauguration of His preaching ministry.  We know that path ended about three years later on a Roman Cross, before He emerged three days later resurrected from His tomb and triumphant over every enemy of mankind.  Some 40 days after that, having given His Word and authority over sin, death, hell, and the devil to His Apostles, He ascended into Heaven in preparation for His final return at the End of Days, then sent the Holy Spirit to empower His people until His return.  The indivisible Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has thus been with His people and His Kingdom has come into this world, marked by the gathering of His saints in faith around His Word and Sacraments.  Thus, even as we celebrate another coming Christmas with the trappings of Advent and recreating all the joy of His first arrival, we know that we dwell with Him even more closely at hand than did the first hearers of John the Baptist, and that His final coming is imminent even if presently unknown.

 

Living in the presence of Jesus and His Kingdom come, makes many demands upon our earthly minds, and consequently upon the totality of our very lives.  We are in the presence of the King who spoke the universe into existence, who thundered the Law from Mount Sinai, sent fire upon Mount Carmel, who preached and healed upon the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, who died for the sins of the world upon Mount Calvary, and who breathed out His Gospel of peace and forgiveness to His disciples before ascending into heaven from the Mount of Olives.  This is the very God who will come again in glory as the disciples saw Him go up, returning to make final all that He promised.  The condition of our minds, of our convictions, our trust, our commitment, is the very basis upon which we meet the King of Glory, who is very much at hand.  His Word comes to us demanding the faith which that Word itself creates, and thereby issues the grace which forgives and enlivens all who will abide in Him.  That Word comes to change our minds, to reform our convictions, to make firm our commitments, so that authentic repentance of the mind will become a change in how we act, speak, and perform the duties which God has given us in our time and place.  It is a Word which gives the life it promises, so that fallen men might rise up as children of God who live and move and find the entirety of their being in the unending life of their Savior.

 

And though the command of St. John the Baptist to Repent! and the power of God’s Word to create what it demands are unconquerable, they are not coercive.  There is no one who is forced to love God as their Creator, Savior, and Sustainer, nor to turn their minds from evil to His righteousness, for authentic love can never be coerced.  The appeal of God to man is one of love, and the only way to receive that divine love, is to love and trust Him in return.  There will come a day when all the appeals of God to man shall cease, when the last efficacious preaching of His Gospel will ring out over the corrupted earth, and the Day of Grace will become the Day of Judgment at His final return.  In that Day, those who refused to let their minds be reformed by His Word will see Him as the One

 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor,

and gather his wheat into the garner;

but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

On that Day, there will be no bickering or debating about pointless nuances of theology, politics, philosophy or anything else—only the living reality of God’s Kingdom fully come, those who live by grace through faith in Jesus, and those who do not.  As the old saying goes, there are only two ways to meet God:  either as Savior, or as Judge, and the crux of that distinction rests on faith.

 

In this Advent season, hear the Word of God come to you, that your mind may be changed from fascination with evil, earthly things, to an unassailable trust in the loving promises of God.  May His Word so transform your heart and mind into the image of His Son, that your whole person cannot help but bring forth fruits worthy of so great a repentance, reflecting outward the divine love which His Word pours into all who will trust in Him.  Hear the Incarnate Word calling to you across the expanse of eternity, so that you might dwell with Him forever in the blessedness of His presence.  For even more urgent today are the words of St. John the Baptist:  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, turn to Him, believe His Word, and live forever in Jesus, forgiven and free.  Amen.

 

Saturday, November 19, 2022

He Makes Wars to Cease: A Meditation on Psalm 46 for the Last Sunday of the Church Year


God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed,

and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled,

though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

 

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God,

the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved:

God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved:

he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

 

Come, behold the works of the Lord,

what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth;

he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder;

he burneth the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God:

I will be exalted among the heathen,

I will be exalted in the earth.

 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

 

If there was anyone in Judeo-Christian history that understood the rigors, dangers, and calamity of war, it was the author of our appointed Psalm for this week.  Not only was David the second King of Israel, a shepherd and giant slayer in his youth, but he was also a soldier, a poet, a musician, and despite his many flaws, a man whom God described as having a heart like His own.  David was not perfect by a long shot, but he did have tremendous faith in God as His Savior, not only prophesying of the coming Messiah but foreshadowing Jesus in many ways.  David knew that war was an ugly reality of life in a fallen world, where evil people would bring forth disastrous effects as they worked out their wicked will upon their fellow men.  But just as surely, David knew that God was the King of the Universe, the omnipotent Savior of all who put their trust in Him, so that no one who fought for righteousness and the Word of God in this world would ever fight alone.  The Lord of Hosts is with us, David writes, even if the world itself is thrown into calamity and convulsion, which makes the God of Jacob our refuge and strength so that we will not fear though the earth is removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.

 

David was not a man who loved war, but he was accomplished in its art and strategy.  He faced so many enemies that he often described the perils in his Psalms as being completely surrounded by forces that sought his destruction.  He was the target of both internal political intrigue (the first king of Israel, after losing his mind tried to kill David on numerous occasions, and later in his life even some of his own sons tried to take the crown from him) and international conspiracy, not to mention the demonic forces which sought to tear down Israel and David altogether so as to blot out any witness to the Word and Will of God among men.  David went to war as a servant of the Living God for the good of the people given to his care, and to keep the yoke of evil off the neck of his nation.  Just because David was accomplished at war didn’t mean that it was his life’s obsession, or that war was what David desired.  On the contrary, it is the same David who wrote in the 23rd Psalm of his love for green pastures, still waters, and of living without the depravations of food and comfort which come with life on the battlefield—the good into which David knew His God would shepherd him both in this life and the next.  David was a man fitted for war, but his heart remained with His God and Savior, who he knew would be his strength, victory, and refuge over every evil foe.

 

Wars have not declined in the nearly 3000 years between David and our own time, nor have the enemies of God, His people, and His Word.  Still today, those who would seek to live after God’s own heart by abiding in His Eternal Word, face intrigues, persecutions, and assaults from forces near and far.  Time would fail to name every enemy of the Living Word at work in the world today, who spend their time, energy, resources, and evil minds upon the task of wiping out, subjugating, or corrupting everything in their path.  While the names and movements and leaders of the enemies of God have changed many times over the course of history, God has not changed at all.  His Word has remained among His people as their strength and refuge in every age, including our own.  That Word which became flesh and dwelt among us, which the Apostles beheld as full of grace and truth, who overcame the worst that wicked men and demonic angels could throw at Him through His life, death, and resurrection, is still the Lord of Hosts and the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.  Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever, is the God whom David confessed as Savior and Shepherd and Lord.  The same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges, the God of Samuel, David, and Solomon, the God of Elijah, Elisha, and the Prophets, the God of Peter, James, John, and the Apostles, is the same God who abides with us today.

 

History has a way of making people forgetful of the glories and calamities of their past, with modern iconoclasts always trying to tear down any memory of prior ages which testified to undeniable truth of God at work in the world to save His people.  Yet God remains the Lord of Hosts, the God of Sabaoth, who is a greater master of war than any human general has ever dreamt of being.  It is He alone who could conquer every enemy of mankind through His Vicarious Atonement upon a Roman Cross, leaving sin, death, hell, and the power of the devil a heaping wreckage upon the sands of time.  He plotted His strategy from before the foundation of the world, worked it out through all the generations from Adam to Noah to Abraham to David to Jesus’ time, preserving His people and His Word from every evil design.  He guided the course of history from Creation to the Cross, and He is guiding it even now toward the Last Day.  He is not only the omniscient strategist who can account for every variable of every material and spiritual entity in the entire cosmos, but the omnipotent King who makes His victory certain by His own unconquerable power, and abides as omni-present with each and every one of His people in every time and place.  He is not a distant commander or conniving bureaucrat, but the ever living and imminent God, accomplishing all that He promised for those who abide in Him by grace through faith.

 

Like the saints before us, we are called to live in faith and courage, knowing our God to be exactly who He has revealed Himself to be through His Eternal Word:  the Lord of Hosts, the Creator, Savior, and Sustainer of all those who put their trust in Him.  It is He alone who will cause all wars to cease through His victory over ever evil thing, and He alone that will gather His people to Himself from every tribe and tongue, every culture and civilization, every age and place, into His Kingdom which has no end.  He is the God of our Salvation who calls us, like David before us, to contend with His power for the faith once delivered to the saints, to bear witness to the Word of His Gospel Promise wherever we are sent, and to know that any privations of war we now experience shall be swallowed up when He invites us to His Table where our cup shall overflow forever in His glorious banquet hall.  Hoist His colors high, and rally to His banner on every field of battle, all you His saints, who live forever in His power and grace!  All glory, laud, and honor be to our Redeemer King, now and unto ages of ages!  Amen.

 

Friday, November 11, 2022

Peace Amidst Convolution: A Meditation on Luke 21 for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost


And as some spake of the temple,

how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts,

he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come,

in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another,

 that shall not be thrown down.

 

 

And when these things begin to come to pass,

 then look up, and lift up your heads;

for your redemption draweth nigh.

 

This text in Luke 21, and its parallel in Matthew 24, record a startling discourse between Jesus and His disciples near the Temple in Jerusalem.  There were few symbols closer to the heart of the Jewish people than the Temple, even if some of those running it in Jesus’ day were corrupt.  Though it was not the Temple Solomon built before the Babylonian Captivity, it had been restored recently under King Herod’s reign, and was the center of the Jewish sacrificial system.  The Temple was where sacrifices for sins were made with the blood of animals according to the Law of Moses, and it foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice Jesus was preparing to make on Calvary for the sins of the whole world.  When Jesus said that despite the beauty of this central edifice of Jewish identity not one stone of it would escape the judgment to come, His disciples could only muster a question about when such a horrible calamity would occur, and the signs of its approach.  Jesus responded by giving them warnings about not being deceived by false teachers, about terrific suffering and social upheaval, and consolation that even as they would see these terrors, their salvation would arrive, too.

 

In a practical sense, Jesus gave His disciples a dual warning.  First, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans did happen within their generation, about 40 years after Jesus’ Ascension.  Many Christians who walked with Jesus would live to see their nation, capital city, and Temple utterly destroyed, and their people exiled to the far corners of the Empire.  Many Christians during this cataclysm remembered Jesus’ words, and when they saw the armies converging on Israel, they fled and escaped the onslaught while thousands of Jewish rebels were cut down.  Though the Roman destruction of Jerusalem was one of the greatest massacres that bloody land had ever seen, Jesus preserved His people by His Word, so that many of them escaped by trusting Him.  Secondly, there is a sense in Jesus’ warning about the final calamity coming upon the whole world.  Like the fall of Jerusalem, it would be a divine judgement upon the evil which would run its course and come to full, festering flower.  At the End of Days, it will seem that evil has prevailed, that it has corrupted and overtaken everything, and that the saints of God are abandoned to obliteration.  It is at that time that Jesus tells His disciples not to flee to the mountains, but to lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.  The final cataclysm will dwarf the regional calamities which came before it, but the totality and completion of salvation with the final revelation of Jesus Christ in all His divine glory will outshine it all.

 

There is some gritty reality baked into Jesus’ words that we are wise to consider.  Not least is the realization that there is real evil in the world, and it will do real damage.  It is not that Jesus desires evil to flourish, but in the reality of a world where people are free to either accept or reject Him, the consequences of freedom can be as bitter as they might be sweet.  Only in a universe of freedom is true love possible, so that divine love might shine through broken creatures who willingly accept the grace of their Creator, and thus receive Him as their Savior.  But also in such a universe are the heights of evil a potentiality, where fallen creatures may reject their Creator’s overtures and make of Him a terrible Judge.  Not shying away from this reality, Jesus set the frankness of their situation before His disciples so they could grow into greater maturity.  Jesus didn’t gild the lily regarding human nature, nor hide the consequences of humanity’s poor use of freedom—instead, He helped them see that He would be with them and save them through the midst of this crazy world.  Jesus didn’t offer them pleasant lies or escapism, but the promise of walking with them and leading them through every tumultuous age yet to come.

 

We would be wise to consider Jesus’ frank address to His disciples in our time, as well.  We should not be tempted to think better of human nature than it is, and to realize that human freedom apart from God can only result in ever greater atrocities.  There is no political solution to the world’s problems, no matter how fond we may regard our own camps, parties, associations, or movements.  Every attempt to build an earthly utopia on the merits of man’s impulse ends in disaster, blood, and flame.  The best political systems we have are not models of perfection, but tools of practicality, aiming to recognize the depravity of man and dividing his ability to wield power over his neighbor… but this is no solution for utopia, only a restraint upon rampant evil.  Likewise, we must not despair at the rise of evil in our age, as if somehow God has abandoned His people or has been overthrown by the kings of Silicon Valley.  Evil will rise from time to time, and God will crush it from time to time, as well.  And even if we are destined to live in the final conflict of rising evil against the Triune God, to see every terror and persecution and ravage of war, our God is still our Savior in this world and the next.  Not the final Antichrist, nor the Devil, nor the Beast of the Apocalypse, nor countless hordes of demons swarming over the fruited plains, nor tyrant states of murderous Marxists, can separate us from the redemptive, saving love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  There is real evil in the world, and thank God He has given us a real Savior.

 

As the Church listens and learns from Jesus in these final days of the ecclesiastical year, hear again the real truth of our salvation made present in this world by Jesus and His Eternal Word.  Today there is real evil running amok around us, but there is also a real King of the Universe who has done the real work to seek and to save all who will hear Him, repent, and believe.  And to all those who will abide in Him by grace through faith, He will abide in and with them, to give them rescue, provision, and guidance in every perilous hour.  The peace we have been given through our reconciliation with God in the Blood of the Lamb outshines every terror, and the fall of every vaunted icon.  In Jesus is the rest and work and redemption of the saints, never fearful nor pollyannish, never despairing of the promise of eternal life, nor the mystery of that blessed life already at work in us now.  The stones of our temples and cities and monuments may topple, but the people whom Jesus has made into living stones shall never be overthrown in this age, nor the age to come.  He is our peace, our courage, and our strength, just as He is our faith, our hope, and our love.  Soli Deo Gloria!  Amen.

 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Blessed Are They: An All Saints Day Meditation on Matthew 5 and Revelation 7


And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain:

and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness:

for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake:

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you,

and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven:

for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

 

 

And one of the elders answered, saying unto me,

What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?

 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me,

 These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes,

and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Therefore are they before the throne of God,

and serve him day and night in his temple:

and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;

neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.

 For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them,

and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters:

and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

 

The Feast of All Saints, which is officially November 1st on the church’s calendar, is often marked on the Sunday either immediately prior or after.  It is a time to reflect on eternal realities that can sometimes escape notice in the cacophony of daily life, and particularly the realities of eternal life.  Regardless of modern dalliances with atheism and materialism, every soul of every person will live forever, and there’s something deep inside every person that knows this is true.  That sense of eternity is what gives life meaning, informs our sense of human value, and the very nature of ethical obligations we have toward each other.  If man had no future beyond his short span of temporal life, then actions and thoughts wouldn’t matter in the least, and there would be no more appropriate axiom to life than the Epicurean ideal to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die… without meaning, consequence, or purpose.  To the contrary, God speaks to all people that their lives have meaning and accountability far beyond the handful of years spent toiling away under the sun, and that for His people who abide in Him by grace through faith, that eternal state is one of blessedness.  Yet for those who reject Him, it is not their eternal destiny which is denied, but their blessedness and joy in His presence.  All people will live forever, and those who live forever in God’s fellowship, will live forever in joy.

 

In the Gospel text from Matthew 5, Jesus uses a Greek term for “blessed” that could just as easily be translated “joyous.”  Transliterated as Makarioi, it is a declarative term that those who abide in His Word will in fact be full of joy, if less manifest in this world than the world to come.  The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those yearning after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for keeping Jesus’ Word—all will experience trouble and tribulation in the present world, but will be filled with His joy in the world to come.  Jesus noted that such was the fate of the prophets who came before them, who in ages prior had lived struggling to abide in the Word and grace of God, suffered much at the hands of evil people and the wicked designs of malicious demons, only to find their names written indelibly in their Lord’s Book of Life.  Like the prophets before them, many who suffered tremendously for their testimony and faithfulness to God, would find that their eternal rewards in heaven far outstripped their temporary suffering.  In the presence of God their Savior, those who pass from this world to the next find joys unspeakable by mortal tongues, and a fulfillment of their created purpose inconceivable to dimmed earthly intellects.  It is as John glimpsed in His Apocalypse, where the white robed saints, forever washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb, abide with and are led by their God and King, no more to suffer nor weep.  The blessedness and joy of such an eternal fellowship is what the best of earthly fellowships strain to approximate, and it is the future toward which all Christians press by grace through faith in Christ alone.

 

Yet is important to remember how a person becomes blessed, inducted into such a great and unending fellowship.  It is not by powers native to fallen man, for no fellowship of man can achieve such joyous camaraderie.  Every fellowship of men in this world is marked by the sin and weakness of those men who form it, and pressed upon by the evil desires of those who are outside it.  To be sure, there are better and worse human associations in this world, those which do greater or lesser good, and those which do greater or lesser evil.  But the limits of fallen man prevent him from ever building utopia on earth, as every failed attempt at doing so in human history has demonstrated.  However, the fellowship which God creates in this world presses toward fulfillment in a world without sin, without evil, and without the associated pain and judgement evil brings forth.  When God calls people into His fellowship, He begins to transform them into His likeness, renewing the image of their Creator in them which was so horribly deformed by sin.  By the power of His Word and Spirit, He begins to transform their pride into humility, their warmongering into peacemaking, their gluttony into a hunger for righteousness, their vengefulness into mercy, their corruption into purity.  In the end, He even transforms the world’s persecution of them into marks of eternal accolade, where in His eternal Kingdom, those who suffer and are despised the most in their faith are elevated first among all.  It is God alone who makes the saints, and to God alone belongs the glory of their service.

 

As if fellowship with the King of the Universe were not enough, it is His good pleasure to pour out grace upon grace by creating and extending that fellowship outward among His people.  In the Creed we confess this as the Communion of the Saints, acknowledging the Cloud of Witnesses described by St. Paul in the book of Hebrews, and the heavenly hosts described by St. John, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others.  The fellowship of God is a communion of all who abide in Him, knit together in the same divine love, grace, hope, faith, and joy that enlivens each individual soul.  It is a mysterious union shared across time and space between all who are grafted into the Vine of Jesus, an eternal reality that presses into the temporal realm of our daily lives.  Each baptized and faithful person in this world is in fact a part of the Body of Christ, numbered among His people with their names written in His Book of Life just like those who have gone on to glory before us.  In this fallen world the bonds of fellowship can be hard to see, but we recognize the same Holy Spirit at work among us through the same Word of Holy Scripture, bringing about faith and repentance in all who will believe and live in Him.  And what we see partially and imperfectly in this world, God is making pure and perfect in the world to come, so that when we press from this veil of tears into the glories of eternity, we press into the fullness of His Gospel made perfect in us forever.  We catch glimpses of this eternity in the signs He has given us according to His Word, of Holy Baptism, of the Body and Blood of the Eucharist, of Absolution for our sins, of the preaching of His Law and Gospel, and of the Spirit at work in us through our various callings and vocations bringing forth fruits of divine, sacrificial love.  It is a reality we can only now approach by faith, but to which God gives the surety of His promise both now and forever.

 

This is the joy which passes all understanding, which is being prepared for the saints of every time and place.  The fallen world will always be at war with the Word and Spirit of the Living God, and while they may exact their toll of suffering and mayhem in this time bound world, they can never overthrow the King of the Universe.  His Word of Gospel grace—that we are reconciled to the Father for the sake of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit—cannot be broken or undone by any force of man or devil.  The gift of grace, received by faith in Jesus, is what makes the saints Makarioi, full of joy with life unending in the fellowship of God their Savior, and with the countless hosts of those white robed saints who have pressed into eternity before us.  Glory and thanksgiving be to God, now and forevermore, who has built His Kingdom on the Word of His Promise, and called all people into fellowship with Him.  Soli Deo Gloria!  Amen.

 

 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Christ at the Center: A Reformation Day Meditation on John 8


Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him,

If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

They answered him, We be Abraham's seed,

and were never in bondage to any man:

how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?

Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you,

Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.

And the servant abideth not in the house for ever:

but the Son abideth ever.

If the Son therefore shall make you free,

ye shall be free indeed.

 

There were many influences on the 16th century Reformation, just as there were many characters and players involved in it.  The backdrop was a semi-united western Holy Roman Empire, though factions of political and religious leaders vied for control of the levers of power all across Europe, the Middle East, and the broader Mediterranean region… even as Islamic armies attacked the eastern boundaries of Europe, with much of Eastern Christianity under the boot of Islamic potentates.  There was a rising tide of nationalism, particularly in England and across the continent, where local leaders began questioning their political subservience to the Bishop of Rome.  There was also a Renaissance budding in academia where Enlightenment Rationalism was applied to the sciences, arts, law, and humanities, with calls to re-discover and expand upon the ancient sources of history, philosophy, and social dynamics bequeathed to the West through Greek and Roman classics.  It was an age of exploration and colonialism, with different nations seeking to rule the seas and bolster their royal treasuries, while also seeking dominance over each other.  Yet at the cradle of the Reformation, in the midst of this terrific societal maelstrom, one German Augustinian monk, an ordained Roman Catholic priest in practical ministry, and a Doctor of Holy Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, ignited a firestorm by proposing that Jesus and His Word should be at the center of Christian life.

 

When Luther read the Scriptures, like many of the Church Fathers who came before him (including St. Augustine, who’s religious order Luther was educated in) he saw that Jesus put Himself at the center of the Scriptures, because Jesus alone was the Incarnate Word of God.  To abide in Jesus was to abide in His Word, which meant everyone needed to hear that Word clearly and consistently.  Of course, this ancient approach to the Scriptures earned Luther both friends and enemies; friends in those who celebrated a return to the Word of God for not just clergy but also the whole Christian people, and enemies of those who wanted something other than Jesus at the center of everyone’s life.  Whether they were politicians, or popes, or bishops, or scientists, or philosophers, or hedonists of various shades and foci, those who were content with Jesus as an affectation to their ambitions but not at the center of life, were vehemently opposed to Luther and the Reformation he ignited by pointing people back to Jesus and His Word.  At the root of Luther’s appeal was a conviction that Jesus really is who He said He was, really did what the Old Testament Prophets predicted He would do and the New Testament Apostles declared He had accomplished, and that eternal life depended on whether one would meet Jesus as Savior or Judge.  To Luther, every other matter of politics or philosophy or human ambition fell short of this most foundational question, and he devoted his life—writings, ministry, teaching, and livelihood—to it, no matter the personal cost.

 

This brought Luther to the foot of the Cross.  He did not deny or diminish all the other teachings of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, but He did declare that we find the fulfillment and clarity of the whole Scriptures in the Cross of Jesus Christ.  The Word which first formed the cosmos out of nothing, which thundered from Mt. Sinai to Moses, which whispered to Elijah in the desert, which produced all the prophecy and psalms and wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, showed up in Roman-occupied Israel to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world.  That same Word, forever incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of the Father, descended into death and rose victorious over it on the first Easter morning, giving the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation to everyone who would repent and believe in Him.  Thus the Cross of Jesus formed the primary lens through which to see all the writings of the Prophets and the Apostles, as well as the whole history of the Christian church, and the life of every individual Christian in every age.  The Cross is where the Word of God stood in humanity’s stead, that He might make the Vicarious Atonement which placed our sins upon Him, and His grace upon us.  To Luther the Cross was everything, because there Jesus did the work that saves the world, and showed forth the immeasurable love of God for His people by overcoming the curse we had earned under the Law.  The Cross of Jesus was to Luther the Everlasting Gospel of salvation, written and proclaimed in the shed Blood of the Son of God.

 

There were other paths taken by other Reformers, with some who emphasized the majesty or glory of God over all others, and some who focused on inner experiences of God’s presence, and some who focused on intellectual or political independence from foreign ecclesiastical interference.  Some focused on trying to build a utopia on earth, some focused on the terrors of the End Times; others focused on intellectualizing the faith by marriage with Reason, while still others elevated emotion and Mysticism.  Yet the beginning of the Reformation was far simpler and deeper than the many movements which sprang from it, because it beckoned people back to the old idea of Jesus and His Word at the center of everything.  Regardless of theological emphases or eccentricities that have emerged across the centuries, Jesus and His Word have remained the same.  Jesus is still the only Son of God, the only Name given under heaven whereby people may be saved from the calamity of their own sins.  Jesus is still the only One who died for the sins of the world, and rose victoriously over sin, death, hell, and the devil, so that He could speak peace and forgiveness to all who would receive Him by faith.  Only Jesus is the Living and Eternal Word of the Father to whom the Holy Spirit testifies, in perfect harmony with the written Word of Scripture which He breathed out by the power of the same Holy Spirit.  Only Jesus is the Savior of the world, so that only by His grace could anyone be set free and abide in the house of the Lord forever.  And grace, to remain authentically grace, can only be a gift received in living faith, and never be the reward or wages of inferior human works.

 

This is how the Reformation of the 16th century started, and how it continues.  It is the declaration that our life in this world and the next are found in Christ alone, by His grace alone, received by faith alone, declared reliably and infallibly by the Word of God alone.  It is not a political movement, though it has affected politics; it is not a philosophical movement, though it has informed better philosophical systems; it is not a program of personal piety, though it has informed many pious practices; it is not a systematic theology, though it has helped build better ones; rather, this is the path of life, and light, and truth which comes to enlighten and enliven all people.  The Reformation was not begun as a means to define new teams and clubs and societies and denominations all pitted against each other, but to point the world—and every individual soul—to the salvation which only Jesus and His Word can give.  As we give thanks to God on this festival of the Reformation, we do not give thanks that we bear the name of Luther regardless of the blessings God brought forth through him in his time and place.  Rather, we give thanks to God for Jesus and His Word, by which we are reconciled to the Father, set free from evil and condemnation, and made alive in Him forevermore.  Or as the angels sang at Jesus’ birth looking forward to the salvation He would accomplish upon Calvary, Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!  Amen.

 

 

Friday, October 21, 2022

Pride and Humility: A Meditation on Luke 18 for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost


And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted

in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

 

Two men went up into the temple to pray;

the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself,

God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are,

extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

And the publican, standing afar off,

would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven,

but smote upon his breast, saying,

God be merciful to me a sinner.

 

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other:

for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased;

and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

 

The tension between human pride and humility is etched across the Scriptures, and the stories of those who mark their lives with either trait are described with their consequences.  The pride of Adam and Eve to accept the devil’s lie about becoming like God through rebellion against His Law, brought sin and death into the whole human race, including their children Cain and Abel.  Pride went before the fall of King Saul, and humility before the rise of King David.  Likewise, as the nation of Israel humbled itself before God and His Word, they found themselves exalted by God into times of peace and prosperity; conversely, when they resisted God in their own pride, they often found themselves abased in God’s judgment, conquered or enslaved by their enemies.  The truth that Jesus pointed out in His parable about the Pharisee and the Publican matched this Old Testament narrative and brought it into the contemporary experience of those who heard Him teaching.  No matter how pious or righteous a person thinks himself to be, his pride is an offense against his Creator because no man is holy or justified in his own fallen condition.  Likewise, no person is so fallen and corrupt that their humility in faith and repentance will not be accepted by their compassionate God.  It is God alone who is holy and righteous and true, and those who will be accepted by Him must confess their sinfulness in faith, to receive His justifying forgiveness by grace.

 

This truth which Jesus brings forth also helps us in our own time and place, with the contextual challenges of our own contemporary culture.  The fallacy of pride is that no person is worthy on their own merit—no matter how many degrees, trophies, or accomplishments they may have on their resumes—to stand before God and demand anything.  Even if man’s heart and mind were not corrupted by our collective Fall into sin and death, a perfect man could only stand before God in the humility of his own created powers, giving praise and worship rightly to his one and only Creator, since everything he did rightly (and everything he abstained from rightly) would have been merely his duty to perform.  And of course, no man can claim to stand before God on these terms, since no man has lived a perfect life; no one has maintained a perfect mind in purity of purpose and intention; no man has maintained a perfect heart, with emotions always under proper control and a holy orientation; no man has kept his tongue from every evil and empty word, speaking instead the fulness of truth in the totality of love; no man has worked every hour of every day as thoroughly and efficiently as they should have, and abstained from wasting their physical powers on worthless pursuits.  No man is holy and justified before God, because we are a fallen race whose powers of mind and body are inclined to the evil which our God abhors… and even if we weren’t so corrupted, our status as creatures before our Creator would always require of us humility rather than pride.

 

Pride, however, is not a uniquely human failing.  It’s actually an idea our first parents learned from Lucifer, and passed along to all of us ever since.  Lucifer was, as Scripture and early Church tradition describes, one of the greatest created angels (his name actually reflects the idea of brilliant light.)  For some reason unknown to us, Lucifer desired to be like the Most High God and take worship to himself, though he was only a creature before his Creator.  Also for reasons unknown to mankind, roughly one third of the heavenly host—those once created as holy angels, with various authorities, powers, and responsibilities—chose to follow Lucifer in his prideful rebellion against their Creator.  For this crime against God, against nature, and against reason, Lucifer and his following of pride-corrupted angels were cast out of heaven and condemned to an eternity in the fiery prison of hell.  Yet this final condemnation will not fully be realized until the Final Judgment of the world, and so Lucifer and his minions continue to wreak havoc in the world through malice and temptation and the ruin of men.  Lucifer then took other names, such as Satan (in Hebrew, a name meaning adversary or accuser) and the Devil (a Greek derived name meaning accuser or slanderer) and a slew of other descriptive titles that reflected his now distorted and evil nature.  It was pride which transformed one of the most magnificent angels of light into the most wicked and horrifying personification of evil, and pride which transformed his followers from holy angels to diabolical demons.

 

It is important that we remember whose lounge in which we sit when we dabble in personal pride.  Pride is the original sin of the hell-bound horde of spiritual entities that are committed enemies of all that is holy, good, beautiful, and true.  Pride is what once turned creatures far more powerful than men into irredeemable and hopelessly twisted beings whose primary language is deception, and whose sole aim is destruction.  It is pride that the devil used to deceive and corrupt our first parents, and had it not been for the providential intercession and sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, all men would become what the demons already were:  hopeless and condemned.  When we succumb to pride, we enter the sphere of irrationality and self-destruction which is home to the accuser and adversary of our race, and we find fellowship with the dark forces who could not accept the reality of their relationship as creatures before their Creator.  Pride is not just a sin of minor inconvenience or something cute to pillory in story and cinema.  Rather, pride is the root deception which gives rise to avarice, greed, lust, hatred, murder, theft, covetousness, gluttony, sexual perversion, treasonous rebellion, and every other foul activity among men.  Pride may seem innocuous to our generation since our generation is awash in it, but the insanity of a creature presuming to rule over their Creator, to deny the very ground of existence and logical premises of rational thought, can result in no other end than the unhinging of the mind, and the corruption of both body and soul.

 

It is to heal and to forgive this sin of pride that Jesus came to us in humility before God and men, taking on our human nature, living the life we should have lived, and dying the death we had rather earned.  Jesus, though in reality God Incarnate, submitted Himself to the Father’s will, and in the community of the Holy Spirit as one indivisible and eternal God, suffered and died for the sins of all men.  The lie of pride we received from the devil was overwhelmed by the truth we received from our Savior, so that we might once again stand before God redeemed by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  Such living faith cannot stand before God as the Pharisee in our parable above, haughty and self-justifying while condemning others.  But rather, living faith stands before God with eyes cast low, confessing our sins before Him, trusting in the shed Blood of Jesus for our forgiveness, and saying like the Publican, Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.  Only humility before God can stand before Him in faith, and only faith in humility can bring forth repentance and life by His grace.  The God of all Creation has condescended to us, that He might lift up the fallen, forgive the guilty, and give life to the dead, swallowing up pride in the immeasurable riches of His love and grace.  Our saving God has shown us the power of humility and truth, that He might lift us up to the proper honor and distinction He has created us to be as His people in Jesus.

 

Hear the Word of God as it comes to you this day, stripping you of the fallacious pride which has deceived you, and giving you instead the humility and faith to receive the riches of His forgiveness, life, and salvation.  There before the Cross of Jesus Christ, let your eyes be caste low and your breast be beaten for the guilt of your own sins, your mouth give voice to the Publican’s prayer for mercy upon a poor, sinful being, that the Lord of your salvation might reach down to lift you up unto wonders and mercies never yet dreamed by the minds of fallen men.  For it is an eternal truth that everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted, that before the Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier of the World every knee should bow and tongue confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Soli Deo Gloria!  Amen.