Sunday, April 11, 2021

As the Father Sent Jesus: An Easter Season Meditation on John 20


Then the same day at evening,

being the first day of the week,

when the doors were shut

where the disciples were assembled

 for fear of the Jews,

came Jesus and stood in the midst,

and saith unto them,

Peace be unto you.

 

And when he had so said,

he shewed unto them his hands and his side.

Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Then said Jesus to them again,

Peace be unto you:

as my Father hath sent me,

even so send I you.

 

And when he had said this,

he breathed on them,

and saith unto them,

Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them;

and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

 

I think it is easy in our day for churches to forget why they are sent, and what they are sent to do.  To step back for a moment and examine the churches around us in our communities, nation, and world, is to see a profusion of mission statements, doctrinal convictions, political posturing, and merchandizing.  Some fellowships sell their members books and services, including coffee, pastries, and trinkets in the fellowship hall, or perhaps online through a virtual marketplace.  Some offer child care and youth programs for every age and every persuasion, while others might offer a dizzying array of adult programs that focus on whatever categories appeal to various ages and professions of adults.  Some organize marches for social justice, and recently have lent their hands and defense to violent mobs who burned down cities.  Some feed into specific political parties to see their doctrinal ambitions turned into law, and reflexively turn political policy into their doctrine preached from their pulpits.  Some are primarily focused on feeding the poor in Haiti or Ghana or another far flung place, while some are focused on the homeless and hungry on their own city streets.  Some hock get-rich quick schemes (just send the leader a dollar and God will send you two…) which only seem to enrich the people at the top of the pyramid, while the poor keep piously shouting out bumper sticker theology slogans and shelling out their regular contributions.  If these fellowships are even remotely Christian beyond some historical or linguistic tie to Christians who formed them generations ago, they must retain some element of Biblical fidelity and the Gospel of Jesus.  However, many of these fellowships are little more than social clubs of various sizes and demographics, and Scripture takes a distant back seat to any other mission focus that happens to capture the current leadership’s attention.

 

Is it any wonder so many people in our time and place have grown dismissive of the “institutional church”?  When so many church fellowships have adopted mission statements that make them pale shadows of other worldly associations, what interest is that to any thinking person?  If you really want to influence politics, you can join a political group; if you want wealth and prosperity, you can learn a trade, work hard, build a business, and join the chamber of commerce or the Rotary Club; if you want to feed the hungry, you can send your money to a host of charities or government institutions who do that for a living; if you want child care and programs and hobby groups, you can buy them or join them at will.  Civic institutions and associations which gather for all kinds of reasons, some better than others, tend to be a lot better at doing their mission, because they know what their primary mission is.  Your local Elks Club, or biker club, or Good Will, or Habitat for Humanity, or American Legion, or thousands of other variants do their thing, and do it pretty well.  If the Church is trying to compete at being a better civic or social club than what’s out there, it’s going to lose… and in point of fact, fellowships that are trying to do so, have been losing members and general respect of the population for decades.  The brass tacks of the analysis that our generation has awoken to, is that if churches are no more than weak echoes of these secular clubs and associations, they are not worth anyone’s time, effort, or money.

 

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t establish His Church to be a vapid, distracted, self-righteous, ridiculous caricature of worldly associations.  Rather, Jesus sent His disciples just as the Father had sent Him.  That’s a point that needs to sink into our modern church fellowships, and sink in deep.  Jesus didn’t build a single house or sign a single political petition to house and feed the poor… and when He did miraculously feed the poor after preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins to them, often the people forgot the message and just clamored for more food, until Jesus had to leave them behind.  Jesus spent no time trying to influence the political structure of Jerusalem, Israel, or Rome.  Jesus didn’t sell a single trinket or bauble, nor build any pyramid schemes to dupe people out of their money.  Jesus didn’t create an international supply chain to send food and medicine to distant lands, nor promise that if people just gave their money to Him and His ministry, God would bless them in return with more material wealth through some cosmic money printing service.  What He did do, however, is something no earthly association could accomplish:  He sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world, rose again from the dead, and gave to His Church a mission to preach the Gospel, make disciples of Jesus by teaching and baptizing, and declare the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to all who would repent and believe in Him.  The converse was also true, that the Church would proclaim the Law of condemnation which threatened the eternal destiny of all people apart from faith and repentance in Christ.  These are the Keys of the Kingdom Jesus referred to in Matthew’s Gospel, and which John describes Jesus clearly giving to His disciples on that first Easter Sunday after He won them through His Cross.

 

What the Church has been given, is something that no other human institution on earth can do:  preach with power and authority the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation from sin, death, hell, and the power of the devil, all by grace through faith in Jesus.  Sin and death are plainly written in the faces, hearts, and minds of all people, and so all people need this Gospel of grace—all people need Jesus.  All people need to hear the Word of the Lord which endures forever, which tells them where they came from, where they are going, and what God has done for them.  All people need to be born again from above by Water and Spirit, that they might walk in a new life that never ends, and which persists forever beyond the shadows of an earthly grave, destined to rise again in glory on the Last Day, just as Jesus rose again that first Easter.

 

When the church tries to be a day care, a civic club, a public charity, or a political action committee, it trades eternal blessings for worldly vanities, rightly inheriting world derision.  The power and perseverance of the Church resides not in her good works, but in the Word and Spirit which gives her life and mission, which reaches into the darkest recesses of the human soul with the light of God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy, all given freely through Jesus.  There is no parallel to this in all the world, or across all human history, because mankind cannot save itself, no matter how hard it works in delusions of grandeur toward such aims.  Only the love and mercy of God tames human passions twisted toward the destruction of self and neighbor, and empowers those who are born again to love others as they have been loved by Jesus.  And only the Church has been given this awesome power, to proclaim freedom to the captives who sit in darkness, and to speak the saving Word of Jesus to all who will repent and believe in Him.

 

This Easter, may the Christian fellowships gathered everywhere remember the power of what they are given, and the mission they are sent to accomplish.  There is no other effort, regardless of how noble or useful it may seem, which rises to the majesty and imperative of preaching Christ Crucified for the sins of the world, of declaring the forgiveness of sins to all who turn and believe, and warning all of the eternal Judgment which awaits those who refuse God’s grace.  This is a mission cast in Word and Sacrament, where the power comes not from the works of men, but from the Spirit of the Living God who established such means in our world for the salvation of sinners, reconciled to the Father by the Blood of the Son.  Let the Church of Jesus Christ shed her soiled and sodden linens of worldly manufacture, and return to the robes of righteousness and grace which only Jesus can provide.  For as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent us—and there is no power in heaven, or earth, or under the earth, which can stand against the Word and Spirit of God.  Amen.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Waiting on the Promises of God: A Holy Saturday Meditation on Psalm 22


My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

why art thou so far from helping me,

and from the words of my roaring?

O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not;

and in the night season, and am not silent.

But thou art holy,

O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.

Our fathers trusted in thee:

they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.

They cried unto thee, and were delivered:

they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.

 

The Holy Triduum of Easter begins with Maundy Thursday commemorating when Jesus established His Holy Supper with His disciples during the Passover feast.  It moves quickly into Good Friday, as the Gospels record Jesus’ betrayal in the dark morning hours, His mock trial, brutal scourging, and execution by crucifixion later that afternoon.  On the morning of the third day, He rose again from the dead and showed Himself alive to His disciples, victorious over sin, death, and hell.  Soon the Church shall gather all over the world to celebrate the resurrection of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who gave His gracious gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation to all who would repent and believe in Him.  Easter is the highest, most holy day in Christendom, and for good reason—it is the first day of the New Creation, inaugurated by Jesus as the New Adam by whom all who live in His grace by faith live forever.  It is the reason the Church gathers and worships on Sunday, not to abrogate the ancient Sabbath, but to show it fulfilled in Jesus.  Soon the bells will ring, the songs be lifted up in joyous celebration, and the Gospel be proclaimed to all who will hear it.  For God has so loved the world that He has given His Son to save it, to take our place under His judgement for our wickedness and corruption, and give to us through His Easter Resurrection, eternal life reconciled to God.

 

Yet between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there is an often forgotten day from which the Church can learn much.  Holy Saturday, the vigil kept by the disciples of Jesus while His body lay in the cold stone tomb, was one of great fear, darkness, and dwindling hope.  They had heard Jesus from His cross utter those mournful words, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” not long before He gave up His spirit.  They knew the Hebrew idiom, that to quote the first line of a Psalm was to quote the whole, and so their minds would be filled with the ancient prophecy of King David who saw forward nearly 1000 years to the Cross of Christ when the Holy Spirit inspired him to write it.  Jesus did not despair upon His Cross, but in His dying breaths, taught His disciples to wait upon the Lord according to His promises, even through the worst agonies of death.  Jesus had already told them this was going to occur, and that He would rise again.  Jesus pointed His disciples, surrounded by the same wickedness and evil that was unjustly taking His life, to the promises of God, so that like all the ancient saints of Israel, they might wait in faith upon the Lord.  From an earthly perspective, death seems final and triumphant over every creature, but it is not so for God, the Creator and Savior of the universe.  For God, death and hell were simply the last of humanity’s foes that He would conquer through the Vicarious Atonement of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world.  While people may have trouble trusting in the Word of the Lord in the face of death, God shows us that His Word rules all things, and cannot be stopped, even by death.  Thus it is that Jesus could reveal to His disciples that Abraham, who lived 2000 years before Him, rejoiced to see His day; that Moses and Elijah could meet with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration centuries after their earthly walk was done; how Lazarus could walk and dine with them after having been dead and buried for four days, raised by the power of His Word.

 

When the celebration of Easter is done, like the Gospel itself, the lesson of Holy Saturday will remain.  In every age of the People of God, there are forces which mount their opposition to all that is holy, who use violence and death to move forward their evil machinations, hoping to intimidate and crush the faithful through fear.  Regardless of our local communities’ relative experience of peace or conflict in any given time, Jesus teaches His disciples to trust in the Word of the Lord, for His Word endures forever.  There is no challenge of man or demon which can unseat His divine promises, nor pluck any of His children from His almighty hand.  Like our Savior, we will all pass through the valley of the shadow of death, but our Lord who has conquered death shall be with us forever.  And when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, to make the final separation of all evil from His renewed creation, the resurrected saints shall shine forth from every generation as one holy fellowship like the stars of heaven, in eternal testimony to the wonders of His love and grace.

 

Be of good cheer, for just as our Lord’s resurrection made faith become sight to His disciples, so faith believes the Word which has already been fulfilled, and looks forward in certain hope to the Word yet to be fulfilled.  For what the Word of the Lord has freely given us by His grace through faith—forgiveness, life, and salvation—He will bring to fulfillment not only for us, but for the whole world.  For Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.  Let us always hear Him from His Cross as He teaches us to wait in faith upon His Word of promise, even as we hear Him speak His Gospel triumphantly from His empty tomb.  For the Word of the Lord shall endure forever, as will all those who abide in it by faith— thus we wait upon the Lord in a sure hope which enlightens every darkness, quickens every heart, and dispels every fear, no matter our time and place.  Amen.

 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Hour is Come: A Palm Sunday Meditation on John 12

 

And Jesus answered them, saying,

The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.

Verily, verily, I say unto you,

Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die,

it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

 

He that loveth his life shall lose it;

and he that hateth his life in this world

shall keep it unto life eternal.

If any man serve me, let him follow me;

and where I am, there shall also my servant be:

if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.

 

With Palm Sunday we begin again the Church’s high feast days of Holy Week which culminate in Easter Sunday.  While Jesus’ path to Calvary began with the promise of redemption and salvation which God gave to Adam and Eve after our race’s Fall into sin, the final steps begin here less than a week before His betrayal and crucifixion.  He came into Jerusalem in fulfilment of the ancient prophecies, accompanied by crowds of people who sang His praises, not least of which were for the resurrection of Lazarus who accompanied Him.  Even the Greeks who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover wanted to see and talk with Jesus, and the rulers of the Temple found themselves powerless to stop what was coming.  The hour had come—a time echoed in Law and Gospel down through the ages and made present in the Incarnate Word as Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem.

 

Of course, not everyone was pleased with this hour that had come.  Religious and political leaders had their own concerns, plots, and schemes, none of which required a Messiah.  There was money to be made, deals to be struck, and masses to be manipulated.  There was power to seize and to maintain, there was ceremony and pomp and pageantry to present, and there were thousands of visitors to fleece.  Passover in Jerusalem was a time of great performance for the religious and political leaders, as they cemented their control over the faithful.  Their system was lucrative, and they enjoyed their power, turning the House of God into a corrupt house of merchandizing and trade.  Jesus’ presence among the people threatened to lift the veil of darkness from the people’s eyes that they might see their leaders for the frauds they had become, and that their relationship with their saving God might be restored.  The Light was with them for a little while longer, as Jesus’ Word pierced their darkness, broke their chains of slavery to sin, death, hell, and the power of the devil, and revealed the clownish machinations of their faithless leaders who presented themselves as the wisest and most pious among them.  Here, at the center of the world’s history where thousands of years of prophecy and promise came barreling toward confrontation with the corrupt systems of fallen man at every level of society, the denizens of hell and their corrupt disciples schemed for a way to get rid of Jesus, and preserve their gaudy fa├žade of piety as they crushed all people into spiritual slavery.

 

Then, as now, Jesus’ coming is not stopped by the wicked intentions of darkened souls.  Then, as now, the corrupt ruling class of political and religious leaders, hell bent on maintaining a system of manipulation, control, and slavery, cannot withstand the presence of the Incarnate Word.  Then, as now, those who abide in darkness fear the Light because their deeds are evil, and their judgment is that they loved darkness in spite of the Light which had come to set them free.  Then, as now, Jesus moves inexorably to the Cross which will cost Him everything, so that mankind might live forever, forgiven and free.  Then, as now, no plot or scheming of dark forces infesting every level of the world’s ruling classes can stop the coming of Easter, and with it, the proclamation of the lifegiving Gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

 

Jesus’ Words of grace and mercy echo down to us today with the same saving power they held when first He uttered them.  His kernel of wheat, once laid in the cold earth as dead and buried, rose again that He might dwell in the company of all those who abide in His eternal life by faith in Him.  Jesus offers no schemes, no manipulations, no angling for power or political control; He makes no Faustian deals of quid pro quo to fool the witless into servitude; He creates no system of economics where His grace might be bought or sold in ecclesiastical treasuries.  Rather, Jesus gives His life as a ransom for many, that all who would repent and believe in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.  He has not come into the world to judge the world, but to save it, for His Word alone will judge the living and the dead on the Last Day.

 

This is how we understand that to follow Jesus, is to follow Him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to walk with Him through Good Friday, and to emerge with Him on Easter morning.  Here we find the truth of His injunction that to love a sinful life in this world is to court eternal condemnation and a living death in hell forever, but to love the eternal life He gives despite the rigors and sacrifices of life in this corrupt world, is to have a blessed and eternal life in His gracious Kingdom unto ages of ages.  This is the Gospel which no tyrant or heretic or apostate can quell, and which presses forward into every time and place to shatter the gates of hell, bringing light and life and freedom to all who will receive it.  Come, let us walk with Jesus in His Hour of sacrifice and victory, which secures for us and for all generations the free gift of eternal life which can never be taken away.  Hear Him as He calls to you through this Holy Week, that we might together sing His praises on an Easter morning whose dawning day of grace knows no end.  Amen.

 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Rise and Fall of Solomon: A Lenten Meditation on 1st Kings


3:5-14

In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night: and God said, Ask what I shall give thee.  And Solomon said, Thou hast shewed unto thy servant David my father great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with thee; and thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day.  And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in.  And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days.  And if thou wilt walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days.

 

11:4-12

For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.

For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice, And had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the Lord commanded. Wherefore the Lord said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant. Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it for David thy father's sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son.

 

To my reading, the story of Solomon is one of the most tragic in all of Scripture.  The son of the great King David, Solomon is chosen by God from among his brothers to inherit the throne, builds upon the kingdom by establishing the Temple and unparalleled wealth in Jerusalem, and by his gift of wisdom draws kings and queens from all over the eastern world to hear him speak.  He authored at least three books contained in the Old Testament canon (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon,) and various others alluded to in his historical accounts.  The prosperity of Israel was never again so great as it was under King Solomon, because God blessed him to lead the people in His Covenant established through Moses over 400 years earlier.  Solomon had all the blessings of God anyone could dream of, from power and wealth, to health and safety, to wisdom and the accolades of the world.  And yet, after ruling for 40 years in the providence and grace of God, Solomon’s later sins of idolatry and unfaithfulness condemned Israel to bloody civil war after his son ascended the throne.

 

For all of Solomon’s gifts and wisdom, he did not abide in the will and Word of God.  He yielded to his disordered passion for women, having gathered to himself nearly 1000 wives and concubines from pagan lands, who eventually did what God warned Moses such marriages would do:  they drew his heart away from God.  Unthinkably, the wisest man whom God ever raised up in the history of the world, surrendered to his passions and the persuasions of his consorts, and raised up pagan worship in the land which God alone gave to the children of Israel as an inheritance.  God alone saved them from slavery in Egypt and delivered the corrupt land of Canaan into their ancestral home, with the covenantal promise that so long as they abided in Him, the people would abide in the land.  With the fall of Solomon began the centuries long slide into war, subjugation, and captivity by foreign powers.  Despite the gold and opulence of the Temple and the kingdom under his reign, it would eventually be plundered and destroyed by those whom God raised up to condemn them, even as God preserved His remnant for the coming of His Messiah.

 

Solomon’s fall is more than a tragedy of antiquity for us to marvel over, but a cautionary tale for each of us to remember.  Solomon was of the same flesh and blood we are, and received from the Lord the same Word of Law and Gospel:  to abide in God by faith and repentance before His Eternal Word is to have life everlasting, and to reject God through unbelief before His Eternal Word is to invite eternal condemnation.  Solomon’s great warning to every believer of every time and place is not that we should fear missing the heights of his wisdom, but that in knowing the Word and will of God we might abandon His Gospel and be cursed under His Law.  Solomon inherited from his parents, as we have all inherited through Adam and Eve from our own parents, a sinful nature which is twisted and weak, inclined toward evil and away from God, because of that first great Fall of mankind in the Garden.  While wisdom is good and a blessing from God, it does not alone heal the heart of its fallen nature, for faith and grace are more than wisdom and knowledge.  As St. James would warn so many years later, even the demons know who Jesus is, and they fear God according to their knowledge of Him, so we know that saving faith is not merely knowledge.  Faith is a living trust in God above all things, which can only come as a gift through grace.  Solomon could no more save himself by the powerful gift of his wisdom upon the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, than Moses could save himself by the Law given to him on Mt. Sinai.  Wisdom and the Law of God are good and holy, but we being sinful and unclean, cannot be saved by them, but rather, only find ourselves condemned in the light of them.

 

Thus it is that Solomon’s hope is not his earthly majesty or renown, but the grace of Jesus Christ.  Only He who is the Eternal Word of God could become flesh and dwell among us, satisfying the Law on our behalf, and giving to us the grace and mercy He won through His Cross.  Only He who is the Word and Wisdom of God can lead the sinless life required by the Law, and give His life as a ransom for many.  Only Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, could be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—both Solomon’s and ours.  No matter how many or how few the gifts of God are to each and every one of us, there is no gift greater than the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Whatever our strength of arms or cleverness of wit, our insight or our innovation, our wisdom or our education, there is no gift we have so precious to us than the grace of Jesus.

 

So too, during Lent, do we meditate not upon our strengths, but upon our weaknesses, so that the strength of God might be manifest toward us.  We are a people who are called to abide in the Word and will of God where alone is found life and salvation, and lean not upon our own perceived strengths or accomplishments.  For Jesus did not come to applaud the victorious, the magnificent, or the righteous, but to seek and to save the lost.  This is what Solomon knew, then forgot, and perhaps by his later testimony in Ecclesiastes returned to before his death:  that God alone saves, and that His Word is the life, light, and wisdom of all who abide in it.  For though sin and death is the common inherited fate of all mankind in this fallen earthly realm, grace and mercy and eternal life abound to all who abide in Jesus.  May the tragedy of Solomon call us likewise to faith and repentance, that we might not wander from the source of our life, in this world or the next.  Amen.

 

 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Meditation on Lent through the lens of Romans 5


Therefore being justified by faith,

we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:

By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand,

and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

 

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also:

knowing that tribulation worketh patience;

And patience, experience; and experience, hope:

 And hope maketh not ashamed;

because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts

 by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

 

For when we were yet without strength,

in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die:

yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that,

while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

 

 Much more then, being now justified by his blood,

we shall be saved from wrath through him.

For if, when we were enemies,

we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,

much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

 

Lent is a good season for the Church to meditate on the mysteries of God and the fallenness of our own human condition.  It is an echo of Biblical accounts in which the people of God were prepared in the wilderness; 40 years Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house, and 40 years he spent in exile tending sheep in the wilderness; 40 years the Hebrews were prepared in the desert, awaiting their next generation’s readiness to enter the Promised Land; 40 days the Lord Jesus Christ was tested by the devil in the wilderness before He began His three year preaching ministry that culminated at Calvary.  The recurrence of 40 (either days or years) as a preparatory and penitential season in Scripture has been repeated in the historic rhythms, liturgies, seasons, and calendars of the Church, and individuals as well as Christian communities have used them to good effect.  In the bustle of everyday life, it’s easy to forget to make time to meditate on God’s Word, to reflect deeply on who we are before Him, and what a life of true Faith and Repentance should look like in our own lives.  We might find it easy to locate the need for judgment and repentance in others, as our modern social media driven mobs of “cancel culture” have made the moralistic destruction of other people a daily public spectacle.  Yet the inclination to deeply meditate on one’s own short comings, to sit humbly before the light and mirror of God’s Law to allow the Holy Spirit to prick our own conscience and drive us to authentic repentance, is an act of faith which easily slips by each day… until days become months, months become years, and years become lifetimes.

 

Even so, there is a danger in such seasons of which all must be mindful.  When Lent becomes a moralistic discussion of, “What did you give up this year?” it can seem to be an exercise in self righteous comparisons.  One may look down their nose on the person who gave up chocolate for 40 days, knowing that they instead gave up coffee; another may look down on both, knowing they gave up meat; another might feel triumphant in giving up time to do service of ostensibly good works, another in giving up money, another in giving up comfort, and so forth.  Such comparative exercises assume greater piety with greater sacrifice, and infer a greater reward for the most pious.  Such shortsighted experiments are not honest penitential preparation to encounter God, but prideful exercises in elevating one’s self, or one’s community, above others.  While temporarily giving up chocolate or coffee or money or time might help address personal sins of gluttony and avarice, even these sins are often only laid down for a time, with the expectation of picking them all up again when Easter comes. And the greater sins of the heart, of the pride and covetousness and hatred which form an individual’s own self-worship and violation of the First Commandment, go unaddressed and ignored.  Such an impenitent soul clings to their self-imposed works of righteousness, thinking these dirty, polluted rags can be used to rub away the stains of sin from their own soul, all the while being driven further and further from saving faith.  Self-sacrifice can be good in its season, but never when used to bolster pride, or to attempt to earn grace.

 

The truth of the matter is what St. Paul sets forth in his epistle to the church at Rome.  We do not save ourselves by our works, no matter how pious we may think them to be.  Rather we are saved by the grace which comes from Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection alone—a grace already earned by Him through His Cross, and which we can only receive as a gift by faith.  Of the great lessons of preparation and penitence we could learn in Lent, not least is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Humanity had not prepared itself to be saved, let alone earned righteousness before God.  On the contrary, humanity as a whole, and every individual human being, had earned death and destruction through the wickedness which corrupted them to their core.  Jesus didn’t come to help good people get better, but to save lost and wicked people who didn’t even know how bad they were.  While we were yet sinners, lost in our damnable pride, our irrational philosophies, and murderous passions, Jesus gave His life as a ransom for ours, that we might be reconciled to the Father through Him.  Jesus knows all too well what our condition is without Him and His grace, and what our final sentence will be if we stand before Him to be judged according to the Law on the basis of our own works.  Jesus’ perfect knowledge and wisdom, motivated by His perfect love and compassion, and empowered by His divine omnipotence, moved Him to dwell among us, full of grace and truth; to suffer persecution, rejection, and false conviction at the hands of evil men; to be murdered upon a Roman cross by the urging of His people’s religious leaders; to be buried in a stone tomb, descend into hell, and arise the third day never to die again; to ascend to the Father as our Intercessor at His Right Hand, our High Priest who offered Himself as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world; to send the Holy Spirit by His Word of Law and Gospel to enlighten all who would hear, repent, and believe in Him; to give His people new life from above, an eternal life that could never be extinguished no matter what happened in this world.

 

This is the truth and the penitence of Lent, which prepares one to see Easter with new eyes.  Not a false piety of works righteousness in which there is no hope, but a true piety that hears the Word of God and believes it.  Such a piety is born of faith, which itself is a gift of God through His Word and Spirit, that no one may boast as if they were the authors of their own faith or salvation—a piety which receives the Law as an honest and true witness against our sinful nature demanding our repentance, as well as receiving the Gospel promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ alone.  The heart which knows and grieves that while they were yet a sinner, Christ died for them, is the heart which is prepared to receive and rejoice in the blessing of grace by faith in Christ alone, the heart which arises each day in faith and repentance to love as they have been loved, and to walk in the light of God’s Word which has become in incarnate to save them.

 

Regardless of how or whether you keep Lent this season, may the truth which the Holy Spirit uttered through St. Paul inspire you to know most deeply that while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you, and that the love of Christ reaches to the depths of every sinful heart to wash it clean by His own shed blood, that His life might be your life forevermore.  Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Respecting our Leaders: A Lenten Meditation on 1st Samuel 24


And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines,

 that it was told him, saying, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.

Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel,

and went to seek David and his men upon the rocks of the wild goats.

And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave;

and Saul went in to cover his feet:

and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave.

 

And the men of David said unto him,

Behold the day of which the Lord said unto thee,

Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand,

that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee.

Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul's robe privily.

 

And it came to pass afterward, that David's heart smote him,

because he had cut off Saul's skirt.

And he said unto his men,

The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master,

the Lord's anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him,

 seeing he is the anointed of the Lord.

So David stayed his servants with these words,

 and suffered them not to rise against Saul.

But Saul rose up out of the cave, and went on his way.

 

The humility, restraint, and mercy which David showed Saul would be remarkable on their own, but it is easy to forget the context in which this act of mercy was given.  Years before, God declared His withdrawal from Saul as king of Israel because he rebelled against the Word of the Lord through the Prophet Samuel; David was anointed by Samuel when he was still a young lad, to eventually ascend to the throne in Saul’s place, and the Spirit of the Lord was upon him; Saul was suffering from bouts of severe depression, hostility, and irrational rage, some of which came from demonic oppression due to his wandering away from God; David, once welcomed by Saul into his armies and as a champion against his enemies, was now on the run being unjustly hunted by Saul in the desert; David, with 400 men, lived the lives of refugees, having lost all the comforts of community life in the cities of Israel; Saul, in his quest to hunt David, murdered hundred of priests for the sake of one who showed him mercy by giving him bread and the sword of Goliath whom he killed years before; in the immediate context, David’s 400 desert warriors were being encircled by Saul’s 3000 choice troops, and the odds of his escape were almost nil.  In the context of all that evil and peril which Saul brought directly upon David and his men, David chose not to take Saul’s life when circumstances gave him the opportunity in that cave, because he knew it not to be his place to stretch out mine hand against the Lord’s anointed.

 

Oddly enough, the Prophet Samuel warned by the Word of the Lord that these kinds of things would happen to the people if they brought upon themselves a human king.  Samuel was the last of the Judges, a period of over 400 years where the people had no king but God alone, and their destiny was wrapped up in the Law and Mercy of God; when the people kept faith in the King of the Universe, God Almighty secured them against their enemies and prospered them in their land; when the people abandoned the King of the Universe, He allowed their enemies to triumph over them, and took away their prosperity; when the people repented and came back to the King of the Universe, He forgave, delivered, restored, and blessed them again.  And yet, in their collective rebellion to be more like the pagan kingdoms around them, they rejected the King of the Universe and demanded they be given a human king to rule over them.  God gave them what they wanted, but warned that human kings would become corrupt tyrants over them, and that regardless of their human king, their fate as a people was still bound to the Mosaic Covenant—grace by faith would save them, or judgement by unbelief would condemn them.  No human king could change the divine Covenant, any more than they could alter the Natural Law of the cosmos in which they were created.

 

Saul would not be the last king to turn evil in Israel, nor in the history of the world writ large.  Political power and wealth are alluring to fallen humanity’s cravenness, often drawing the worst out of those who achieve it, or drawing the worst kinds of people to seek it.  This was true in the ancient world for Israel and the nations around them, even as it was true of Babylon, Greece, Rome, the Huns, the Mongols, the Vandals, the French, the English, and the Americans… and every other place in which politics aggregate power and wealth into the hands of the few over the many.  This is no mystery to those who study history.  Only the most self-deluded, ignorant, or deceptive would argue for political utopia on earth produced by the hands of fallen men, if only people would give up their rights and property and power to the leaders who say they—unlike their predecessors—will take power and rule others well.  While it is certainly true that there have been better and worse leaders of countries over time, the experience of Israel is normative for all others:  the evil far outnumber the good, and even a good human politician will eventually hand over the reigns to someone who will do great wickedness with their power.  Some political structures attempt to slow this progression by separating powers and declaring constitutional boundaries, but to those who seek power and wealth through politics, such trifles rarely bind them for long.  Great power and great wealth draw great numbers of wicked hearts to pursue it, and often the strongest, most wicked of them all will seize it.

 

It is tempting to think that God has lost control of this process, and that the world which is so obviously under the sway of the devil and those who emulate him, is a lost mess of Darwinian evolutionary chaos and Nietzschean will to power.  But God is still the King of the Universe, and this little blue ball on which we live out our short lives is still part of His Kingdom, ruled by His Word regardless of who recognizes it.  No matter what political structures we build for ourselves, which wicked people will use, twist, and abuse in their pursuit of power and wealth, God’s Law and Gospel still frame the reality of the universe, from the farthest reaches of space to the deepest recesses of our own souls.  There is no other true King, as there is no other true Creator of the universe, and no other Judge before whom we shall all stand, be we mighty or weak, rich or poor, or any shade in between during our time in this world.  The truth is that God is still in control, His Word still reigns eternal, and the leaders we have are either a blessing of His grace which we receive by faith and repentance, or a curse of His Law based on our rebellion and unbelief.  Either way, they are the Lord’s anointed, be they good or evil, and they with us will stand before the Judge of the Universe to give an account of our lives.  God has not lost control of the world, and it will move toward its end, with each of us playing our small part in that great revelation.  While God calls all to eternal life through faith and repentance in His Son, crucified for the sins of the whole world, His Law remains for those who reject him and ultimately find their place imprisoned among the demons.  The devil makes his charade of earthly power, manipulating the evil inclinations of fallen men to do great harm in every age and place, but the devil is bound by the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of God Almighty, so that he flees before those who abide in the providence and grace of the King.

 

David saw this, with the Spirit of the Lord upon him.  He knew that Saul was not an accident, but a judgement upon him and the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness to God and His Word.  But he also knew that his deliverance was from God alone, and despite the suffering and persecution which he and his people had duly earned, he trusted in God’s grace to ultimately save them.  In that desert cave it was tempting to reach out and take by force what God had not yet given, but in David’s faith and repentance, Israel saw future times of refreshing and restoration.  Such faith rested in the promises of God, knowing that His Word was more sure and steadfast than any evil manipulation of men in any office of power or wealth.

 

So, too, we wait in faith through the season of Lent.  The adversaries of the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are multiplied in our land, but it is not our place to deny either the Law or Gospel of God by dishonoring our leaders whom God has anointed for their times and places.  If our leaders are wicked, it is a just judgment upon us.  If we see restoration through faithful leaders, it is unmerited grace by faith and repentance in Jesus Christ.  And as it is in our families, our communities, our churches, our nations, and our world, so too it is in every human heart.  The answer to our tyranny under the devil and his minions, be it in our own soul or in our land, is not to rise up in our own fallen powers to be manipulated by him into ever greater evil, but to repent, to turn from our evil, to acknowledge our need for salvation, and to cling to the promises of God in Jesus.  We may have much yet to suffer as we walk with Christ toward Calvary, even as David had many more days and years to suffer in desert exile, but we know the Word of the Lord endures forever, and His goodness and His mercy are from everlasting to everlasting.  Let us strengthen our hearts in the promises of God, returning to Him by faith, that we may see times of refreshing after these times of sorrow are past.  And even though like David we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil, for the King of the Universe is with us, and we shall by His grace dwell in the House of the Lord forever.  Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Times of the Judges: A Meditation for the Last Week of Epiphany


And the children of Israel departed thence at that time,

every man to his tribe and to his family,

and they went out from thence every man to his inheritance.

 In those days there was no king in Israel:

every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

 

The times of the Judges in Israel, from the end of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua to the transition of Samuel to King David, is captured in the Books of Judges, Ruth, and 1st Samuel.  Often emblematic of these times is the phrase repeatedly written and used to conclude the Book of Judges, every man did that which was right in his own eyes.  While the season of Epiphany often focuses on the light of God’s Word which comes to us through Moses, the Prophets, and ultimately Jesus Christ which illumines the souls of men to everlasting life by grace through faith, the time of the Judges is also enlightening for us in a different way:  it shows us the dark fate of mankind when they cling to their own understanding rather than the Word of the Lord.  As Jesus would remark during His teachings, when the eye or willful intellect of man becomes darkness in his soul, what darkness it can become!

 

It is certainly true that God did not ultimately abandon the people of Israel during their over 400 years of tumult under the Judges.  As the people of God wandered from Him and His Word, God allowed Israel’s enemies to rise against them, persecuting and dominating them as tyrants.  When the remnant of surviving Hebrews would come to their senses, abandon their harlotry with foreign gods and their evil ways, God would raise up among them a savior—a Judge—to beat back the tyranny of their wicked rulers and restore them again to peace in His fellowship.  Even so, this cycle of faithful repentance would last for about a generation until a new generation cast away their fidelity to the God of their Salvation, and began again to prostitute themselves before the infernal pagan deities which once enslaved their forefathers.  In the rising and the falling of the people, plenty of sordid stories are captured of those who tried to solve their problems on the power of their own benighted intellect, with bloody calamity at every turn.  With God the people flourished, unassailable by their foes; apart from God, they flailed about in vain until enslaved by the objects of their lustful desire.

 

This is the portrait of fallen man which is validated in every age, including our own.  The Church, foreshadowed as the fulfilment of the promises of God to Israel in Jesus Christ, has watched the world ebb and flow from seasons of grace to periods of destruction, depending on whether the heart of the people was closer or further from their Savior.  In each corner of the world, one generation grows weary under the boot of tyranny from men and demons, cries out to God in faith and repentance, and sees restoration come to them, though not without sacrifice and tears.  In the aftermath of great conflict, that generation gives thanks to God for their salvation, raises up monuments to memorialize God’s good gifts to men, and teaches their children to remember God’s providence.  And within a generation or two, the children and grandchildren of those who were rescued by grace and providence through faith and repentance wax fat and wonton in their hearts, forget the God who gave them peace, and begin their descent into darkness once more.  It is a story played out more times than history can record, but the recordings of history bear witness that life and salvation are found in God alone, and that apart from Him there is only darkness, slavery, brutality, and death.

 

And yet, this cycle we see playing out before our eyes in our land today, is found within our own souls, as well.  As we begin to think that we are the measure of all things, that our intellect will save and rescue us from the perils of death and disease and discomfort, that the devices of our minds and our hands will forever secure for us the objects of our endless desires, we begin our walk away from the light and life of God’s Eternal Word.  Be it slow or quick, passionate or apathetic, our wandering away from the Light of Christ takes us ever further into the dark wilderness where the ancient tyrannical foes of our ancestors wait in malevolent anticipation for our arrival.  With eyes darkened we make out delusional images in the darkness which are not there, even as those things which are begin to circle us.  With minds deceived and twisted we think we can find our way through the wilderness to a new prosperity, even as our ravenous deceivers lure us deeper into their lairs.  There in the darkness, apart from God and His saving Word, we find ourselves no match for the ancient evil which hunts us, and in whose haunts lay strewn the remains of countless others like us, who have perished in their wandering too far from the Light.

 

As we look forward to Lent, we remember who and what we are in our fallen state—that on our own power we are lost and hopeless in a dying world which remains under the sway of the evil one until the Last Day dawns.  But unto us who sit in great darkness, a Light has come.  To us who lay under the diabolical tyranny of sin, death, and hell which we duly earned by our own most grievous fault, the Lord has raised up among us a Savior and Judge.  To us, so prone to wander from the Light of His Eternal Word and embrace the putrefying decadence of Baal, Molech, Dagon, and Beelzebub, a Victor has come to restore us to wholeness and life.  To us who deserve only condemnation and eternal judgment, has come the Gospel of His forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus.  To us who have wandered far from the Light, the Light has come to lead us back home.

 

Whatever the darkness we are lost in this day, let us remember that our God seeks and saves the lost.  In Him alone is the healing and restoration of our nation, our communities, our families, and our own souls.  It is Jesus who has been raised up among us to save us; who is our pillar of cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night; our gracious Judge who pays our debts upon His Cross and sets our tyrannical captors to flight; whose Holy Name alone is given under heaven whereby we must be saved.  Hear Him in whatever darkness you may find yourself this day; see the Light of His loving countenance and hear the good news of His Word that your sins are forgiven, and your life is restored, by grace through faith in Him.  Return to the Lord our God who has saved us from every evil, enlightened every darkness, and dispelled every wicked tyrant.  Hear Him again, and in faith and repentance, live forgiven and free forevermore.  Amen.