Archive for July, 2010

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

One of my favorite lines from the movie “Talladega Nights” comes when Ricky Bobby says a prayer.  He opens, “Dear eight pound, six ounce, newborn baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air…”  At such a sappy, sentimental, and wholly inaccurate conception of Jesus, Ricky’s friend Chip is mortified.  He says, “He was a man!  He had a beard!”  Ricky responds, “I like the baby version the best, do you hear me?”

Ricky’s response to Chip, though humorous, is all too seriously indicative of the way many people treat Jesus.  Jesus is fine with the world, as long as the world is allowed to make Him over in its own image, rather than the people of the world being made in His image.  The precedent set in Genesis is reversed:  “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).  But we want none of this.  So we change the text to read, “So we will have god in our own image and on our own terms.  A macho god, a feminist god, a baby god, a senile, grandfatherly god, we will make him and make him over.”  This, of course, is rank heresy.  But it is widely palatable and even widely peddled.  After all, who doesn’t want a god who always agrees with them?  As Anne Lamott quips, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

But the real God has a funny way of resisting the efforts of those who want to make Him over.  Just ask the Israelites what happened to their golden calf.  It is with this in mind that I found this quote from Michael Horton to be especially salient:

The Gentiles love wisdom, so show them a Jesus who is smarter at solving the conundrums of daily living and the church will throng with supporters.  Paul says that his Jewish contemporaries love signs and wonders.  So tell people that Jesus can help them have their best life now, or bring in the kingdom of glory, or drive out the Romans and prove their integrity before the pagans, and Jesus will be laureled with praise.  Give them some moral wisdom from your own faith tradition that might help them be better parents and spouses, and they might listen – as long as your provide suggestions and not commands on the basis of which God will judge on the last day.  But proclaim Christ as the Suffering Servant who laid down His life and took it back up again, and everybody wonders who changed the subject.  But the church exists in order to change the subject from us and our deeds to God and His deeds of salvation. (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 141)

Now certainly, the Scriptures give us much fine and even transcendent guidance on how to live our lives. Indeed, the Scriptures are replete with ethical concerns. But the Scriptures to do not stop at and with mere ethics. No, the Scriptures find their goal in Christ. And the Church’s job is to proclaim Christ, God’s Son, as He wants to be proclaimed: as the Savior of the world.   For finally, He will be proclaimed as no one less and in no other way.  And finally, we can be saved by no one less and in no other way.  Praise be to God for that.  Praise be to the real God, that is.

July 28, 2010 at 7:56 am 2 comments

Sermon Extra – “Long Time In Coming”

I am not a person who likes to wait.  I can remember standing in the HEB automatic checkout line a  few years back behind a person who was painfully slow as he scanned and bagged his groceries.  He would search intently for each item’s barcode and then carefully slide it across the scanner only to find that it did not register.  So he would inspect the barcode and try it again.  And again.  And again.  It took him a full ten minutes to check out his “20 items or fewer.”  I was furious.  “If these people can’t figure out how to use this machine, they should go to a checker,” I fumed to Melody.  My wife, of course, was embarrassed by my bad attitude and she reminded me that I was a pastor who needed to act charitably.  My anger, however, was not dissuaded.  “This is ridiculous,” I protested, “I don’t have all day!”  My turn finally did come to check out my items.  And so I, employing my best breakneck speed, frantically slide my first item over the scanner just to prove how competent I was in using this machine and how inept the person before me was.  I had to scan the item again.  And again.  And again.  Maybe the machine wasn’t as user friendly as I thought it was.  It took me ten minutes to check out.

In our text for this weekend from Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about ten bridesmaids who are waiting on the arrival of the groom so that they can escort both the bride and groom to the wedding reception.  Jesus makes this simple note about the groom’s anxiously anticipated arrival:  “The bridegroom was a long time in coming” (verse 5).  The Greek word for “long time” is chronizo, from which we get our English word “chronology.”  Apparently, this groom took so long to arrive to meet his bride, it felt to the bridesmaids as if they were waiting through decades long chronological epic.

Jesus’ parable, of course, is meant to give us insight into His Second Coming.  He too will be “a long time in coming.”  And indeed He has been.  2,000 years after His first advent, we are still awaiting His second.  But already in the first century, people were becoming impatient as they waited for their Lord.  They were not people who liked to wait.  Thus, the apostle Peter must remind them that Jesus has already promised to be “a long time in coming.”  Peter writes:  “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  The Lord’s slowness in returning is not really slowness at all, Peter argues.  Rather, it’s an opportunity for repentance and faith.

In 1910, a German theologian and physician named Albert Schweitzer published a book titled The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In it, he portrayed Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet who believed that the advent of God would come sooner and quicker than it did.  Thus, Schweitzer estimates Jesus’ ministry to be a failure and the belief that Christ will come again to be delusional.  Schweitzer cynically states:

The whole history of “Christianity” down to the present day, that is to say, the real inner history of it, is based on the delay of the Parousia, the non-occurrence of the Parousia, the abandonment of eschatology, the progress of the “de-eschatologis-ing of religion which has been connected therewith. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 358)

The Church, Schweitzer contends, has deliberately downplayed and dismissed the urgent eschatological expectations of Jesus and His first century followers.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  For we remember Jesus’ words:  “The bridegroom was a long time in coming.”  Our Lord is a long time in coming.  But make no mistake about it, He will come.  And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20), no matter how long that coming may take.

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July 26, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – Faith and Fear

My wife and I have very different sleep habits.  I can fall asleep in five minutes or less with the lights on, the television blaring, the cats meowing, and my phone ringing.  My wife, however, has to have complete darkness, total silence, and at least thirty minutes to get to sleep.

From conversations I have had with my married friends, it seems as though, many times, men have a much easier time falling asleep than do women.  But, then again, I have always slept easier and better with light and noise than I have in darkness and silence.  I can remember, even as a little child, finding complete darkness and total silence to be far too creepy and frightening for me to sleep soundly.  And so, I would turn on my nightlight and my radio and settle down for a good night’s rest.

Though my fears of darkness and silence have long since passed away, I still prefer light and noise to silence and darkness, partly because, when our bedroom is completely dark, I have been known to crash into and fall over more than a few things!  But as a child, darkness and silence petrified me.

Everyone fears something.  It could be an unknown future, or a bank account that never seems to have enough money, or even a person – a bully or a parent – whose approval you can never seem to earn.  Fear is a reflexive response programmed into every human being.

In one sense, then, I suppose that it was only natural for the disciples to be scared out of their wits at the situation they were facing in Matthew 8:23-27.  A sudden storm had just descended on the Sea of Galilee.  The winds were raging.  The sea was rolling.  Lightning was striking.  Their boat was sinking.  And Jesus, who was along for the ride on this trip, was…sleeping?  Yes, sleeping!  Upon being awoken by His disciples, Jesus gently chastises them for their fear in the face of this furious squall:  “You of little faith,” Jesus says, “Why are you so afraid” (verse 26)?  Shouldn’t the answer to Jesus’ question be obvious?!  The disciples are afraid because their lives are in danger!  The disciples are afraid because the storm surge is sure to spell their imminent doom!  Wouldn’t anyone be scared in this situation?

Yes, it is only natural for the disciples to be afraid.  But the disciples’ natural reaction in the face of this storm is not appropriate with a supernatural Savior on board the boat.  Matthew explains:  “Jesus got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm” (verse 26).  There was no need to fear because Jesus was here.

In his commentary on this episode, the great English theologian Matthew Henry remarks, “Jesus does not chide the disciples for disturbing Him with their prayers, but for disturbing themselves with their fears.”  In other words, Henry asserts that it was perfectly acceptable for the disciples to cry out to their Savior to stop the storm.  It was not appropriate, however, for the disciples to cripple their faith with their fears.  They should have trusted in Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and His character as their loving Lord to take care of the storm.  Their fear betrayed a lack of faith.  And a lack of faith is always a problem.

Fear often is a symptom that we are trusting in ourselves and our own ability – or our own inability, as the case may be – to handle a situation or face a challenge.  What are you scared of?  Rather than letting anxiousness and fear take root in your heart, cry out to Jesus and ask him to quell your fears and meet your challenges.  For the one who can conquer the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee can also conquer the fears of your heart.

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July 19, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

For Women Only (But Men Can – And Probably Should – Read Too)

I have recently taken note of a trend which troubles me.  In many a conversation, I have met with a husband and a wife in crisis.  Their marriage is usually on the rocks, barely hanging by a thread, and steadily heading – if not speeding – down the road to divorce.  Although marriage trouble is almost always the product of both parties sinning against one another, I have noticed that, in these situations, the husband often lacks the fortitude to faithfully lead his marriage and his family according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  His interest in the things of God is weak if not non-existent.  Indeed, it is often the woman who seeks biblical answers to important questions while the man is interested only in satisfying his own fleeting desires and infatuations.

To be fair, there are many men out there who are faithful, Godly leaders of their homes.  I praise God for these men.  But I want to speak for a moment to the women, for I know there are many, who are in relationships where the man does not dependably steward his mantle as the head of the household.

Through probably apocryphal, St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.”  Certainly this maxim cannot be used to excuse us from clearly and cogently proclaiming the gospel, for Holy Scripture mandates just such a proclamation, but sometimes, a quiet witness to the gospel is a faithful one.  Indeed, this is precisely Peter’s argument to wives when he writes:  “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2).  As the apostle pens these words, he is addressing a group of women whose beliefs do not match those of their husbands, probably because they have converted to Christianity while their husbands have not.  Peter recommends holy living as a way to witness to these men who refuse to be the spiritual leaders of their households.

It is important to note that Peter’s direction radically contradicts the standard thinking of the first century.  For a woman to defy her husband’s sensibilities was considered an affront to his masculinity.  If the husband lived as a pagan, the wife was to live as a pagan too.  The first century Roman historian Plutarch explains:

A wife ought not to make friends on her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him.  The gods are the first and most important friends.  Therefore it is becoming for a wife to worship and know only the gods that her husband believes in, and to shut the front door tight upon all peculiar rituals and outlandish superstitions [such as Christianity].  (Moralia 140D)

According to Plutarch, a wife is to believe only what her husband believes.  Thus, if a husband worships at the altar of football or lust or alcohol or crassness, the wife is to worship there as well.  Put Peter directs ladies differently.  A wife’s first and foremost responsibility is to the Lord, even when her husband refuses to honor and worship the true God.

Ladies, I know it is hard witnesses to men who do not know or care for the Lord.  And yet, there is hope!  For Peter’s guidance concerning a quiet witness to unfaithful husbands actually works!  Perhaps most famously, it worked with the father of St. Augustine.  Augustine writes of his mother:

When she had arrived at a marriageable age, she was given to a husband whom she served as her lord. And she busied herself to gain him to God, preaching God unto him by her behavior…For she waited for God’s mercy upon him, that by believing in Him, he might become chaste…Finally, her own husband, now towards the end of his earthly existence, did she gain over unto the Lord. (Augustine, Confessions, IX:19,22)

This woman’s dear faith proved persuasive to her husband…and to her son as well.  Indeed, her faith proved so persuasive that she raised one of the greatest theologians ever to serve the Christian Church.

Ladies, even in difficult circumstances, continue to serve your Lord faithfully.  Lead by your behavior if your husband will not lead according to his responsibility.  Know that I am praying for you.  Gentlemen, if you have fallen short in spiritually leading your household, repent and ask forgiveness from your family.  Then teach and live the faith.  Know that I am praying for you as well.  For there is nothing more important, heavy, and joyous than to teach and live out than the gospel of Jesus Christ!

July 15, 2010 at 8:39 am Leave a comment

Weekend Extra – Seminary Training

My graduate alma mater is Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  In 2004, I walked away with a Master of Divinity.  The classes I took there and the lessons I learned there have proved invaluable to me over the course of my ministry.  They prepared me to make a solemn pledge of fidelity to the Word of God and the Gospel of Christ.  And, by God’s Spirit, I intend to keep that pledge through my ministry and through my life.

Seminaries have a long and storied history in the annals of Christianity.  Tradition has it that Basil of Ancyra, who gathered around him a group of students to professionally train them in Holy Scripture, started the earliest known seminary.  The term “seminary” fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, but resurfaced at the Council of Trent, which mandated that a seminary be opened in every diocese:

The holy council decrees that all cathedral and metropolitan churches and churches greater than these shall be bound, each according to its means and the extent of its diocese, to provide for, to educate in religion, and to train in ecclesiastical discipline, a certain number of boys in their city and diocese, or, if they are not found there, of their province, in a college located near the said church or in some other suitable place chosen by the bishop. (Council of Trent, Twenty-Third Session, Ch. XVIII)

The council continues with stern rebukes of those dioceses which refuse to open or adequately maintain their seminaries.

Even though the advent of the modern seminary is generally attributed to the above declaration of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the notion of a seminary is as old as Christ Himself.

In Mark 6, Jesus encounters a mob of hungry people.  Although very few of us are confronted face to face with the tragedy of hunger because of our stations in life, hunger was widespread and commonplace in the ancient world and, indeed, is still widespread and commonplace in our world today.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over 1.02 billion people suffer from hunger.  In Mark 6, 5,000 of these 1.2 billion are together in one place.

So what does Jesus do?  How does Jesus respond to such a pressing need?  He starts a seminary!  “Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties” (verses 39-40).  The Greek word for “groups” in verse 40 is prasia, meaning, “seed plot.”  Interestingly, this is also what our word “seminary” means.  It is from the Latin word seminarius, meaning a seed plot in which men are planted to grow in knowledge of God’s Word and to be trained to share that Word with others.  Thus, before Jesus feeds the masses with loaves and fish, He plants and prepares them in seminaries so that they may properly receive the blessings that He will soon give them.

By means of His Word, Jesus desires to give you a seminary education.  His desire is that you are planted in groups of Christians, being planted and prepared to receive the good gifts which He has prepared for you.  Time in worship, small groups, Bible study, and prayer are all seminary training!  And it is in these times that Jesus comes and feeds you – not just with loaves and fish, but with the sustenance of His Scripture.  And make no mistake about it, we sorely need this feeding from God’s Word.  For God’s Word gives us life.   As Moses reminds us, we do “not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3)!  May you join with other Christians this week to be trained in Christ’s seminary!

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July 12, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

What’s Worship?

Worship is fundamental to the church’s life.  The other day, I came across a paragraph from Ben Witherington III in his book The Indellible Image, where he comments on 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Witherington’s comments on this passage iare helpful in illuminating what is of first importance in worship:

There is no basis in the New Testament for the idea that Christian[s] offer vicarious sacrifices for others or for the world, nor is there any reoffering of Christ to God…One has to import all sorts of Old Testament ideas into the New Testament practice to come up with what some have in “high church” practice.  This is a questionable hermeneutical leap at best.  Nor is the Lord’s Supper seen as a sacrifice; rather, it is like Passover.  It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.  The main sacrifice that believers offer to God in worship or in particular in the Lord’s Supper is what Paul suggests in Romans 12:1:  themselves.  However, we must remember that even this offering in itself is not acceptable; as 1 Peter 2:5b suggests, it is acceptable only through Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice. (356)

There are several aspects of Witherington’s statement worth noting.  First and foremost, biblical worship is primarily about God meeting His people with His gifts rather than people meeting God with their gifts.  The primary direction of worship is from God to man, not from man to God.  This important point is lost in many theologies of worship.  Indeed, Witherington’s opening statement about “reoffering Christ to God” is a reference to Roman Catholic theology, where the worship service, and especially the Eucharist, is conceived of as an event during which the priest reoffers Christ to God in an “unbloody sacrifice.”  The Council of Trent explains:

Forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. (Council of Trent, Twenty-Second Session, Ch. 2)

The Council of Trent could not be clearer.  Worship in Catholicism is believed to be a re-sacrifice of Christ by a priest, albeit in an “unbloody” manner, for the forgiveness of the worshipers’ sins.  This is a patently false view of worship.

Second, it is important to take to heart Withernington’s statement concerning the Lord’s Supper:  “It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.”  In more traditional parlance, we would say that the Lord’s Supper is a “means of grace.”  The great Lutheran dogmatician Francis Pieper explains thusly: “[The means of grace are] the divine transmission of the grace which Christ has gained for all men [when] it joins immediately to the objective reconciliation or justification of sinful mankind” (Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3, 105).  In other words, the means of grace are the ways in which God’s grace gets “delivered” to His people.  The Lord’s Supper is certainly one of these ways as Christ comes to us with His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Thus, rather than re-sacrificing Christ to God as Roman Catholic theology teaches, the Lutheran Church confesses that Christ is giving His already sacrificed and risen body to us!  Thus, once again, we see that worship is primarily about God meeting us and not about us meeting God.

Finally, it is important to note, along with Witherington, that worship does indeed involve our gifts to God.  But these gifts in no way merit our salvation or gain God’s favor.  Instead, they are only in grateful response to what God has already given us in worship:  His forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Indeed, our gift of ourselves to God would be despicably sinful in His sight were it not for “Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice.”  Christ’s sacrifice of salvation sanctifies our sacrifices to God in worship.

So, the next time you join us for worship, remember, you may have hopped in the car and driven a few miles to come to church, but God has crossed heaven to earth to meet you.  In worship, God is the One coming to you.  God is the One who desires to meet with you.  And God is the one who has His good gifts of grace for you.  And who wouldn’t want to receive those?

July 8, 2010 at 4:45 am 2 comments

Weekend Extra – A Storm Before The Calm

A few weeks back, San Antonio was struck by a bout of severe weather.  Lightning, strong winds, torrential rain, and even some hail all contributed to one of the most damaging storm systems this city has seen in a while.  When the storm rolled into the area, I was on Concordia’s campus with our youth, leading our Fusion service.  I can remember strolling onto campus early in the evening, enjoying the warm and balmy air, and feeling the hot sun beat down on me with nary a cloud in sky.  But when I left an hour and a half later, it was a completely different story.  The sky was full of clouds tinted by sinister shades of green, the smell of rain hung in the air, and everything was dead calm.  But I knew this dead calm wouldn’t last for long. “It’s the calm before the storm,” I thought to myself.  So I hopped in my truck and put the pedal the metal to try to beat the storm back to my house.  I arrived at my front door just as the rain was beginning to fall.

It is not unusual, shortly before a storm, to experience an eerie calm.  But in our reading for this weekend from Hebrews 4, we find the opposite to be true.  The preacher of Hebrews says that when it comes to our lives in this world, there is not a calm before the storm, but a storm before the calm.  As the chapter opens, we read a promise of our coming calming rest.  “The promise of entering God’s rest still stands,” the preacher muses (verse 1).  But right now, we are in the midst of a storm.  For in this world, there is trouble, torrent, tribulation, and trial.  Indeed, the apostle Paul says that we are engaged in a struggle:

Against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (Ephesians 6:12-13)

We are engaged in a storm before the calm.  How are we to engage with this storm of sinfulness and fight this battle of banality?  Paul answers: “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).  Or, as the preacher of Hebrews declares, “The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (verse 12).  God’s Word is our weapon of choice to fight against the storms of this life and world.

For those who refuse to trust the sword of God’s Spirit, the preacher of Hebrews has a stark warning, drawn from the disobedience of the ancient Israelites: “For we have had the gospel preached to us, just as the Israelites did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (verse 2).  Without faith in God’s Word, God’s promise of a coming calm is of no value, for it must be believed to be received.

In this world, we fight many battles and endure many storms.  There are battles over our finances, our relationships, our politics, our nation’s security, and our cultural winds.  But none of these battles are nearly as fierce as the battle which rages for our souls.  Make no mistake about it, Satan desires to drag us away from God and dissuade and prevent us from entering God’s eternal rest.  But we cannot win this battle against Satan by the strength of our bodies, or the whit of our intellects, or the resolve of our wills.  No, Satan can only be beaten by wielding the Word of God.  And so, take up sword of Scripture so that “you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11).  For Satan cannot stand against God’s Word.  As Luther reminds us:

Nothing is so powerfully effective against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts as to occupy one’s self with God’s Word, to speak about it and meditate upon it…Without doubt, you will offer up no more powerful incense or savor against the devil than to occupy yourself with God’s commandments and words and to speak, sing, or think about them…For the devil cannot bear to hear God’s Word. (LC 10-11)

Trust God’s Word!  For after this world’s brief storm of sin, you will enjoy God’s eternal calm of salvation.

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July 5, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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