Posts tagged ‘Redemption’

Put Down Your Sword

When I was in seminary, I took a road trip with some buddies to the tiny west Texas town of Marfa, famed for its “mystery lights.” These lights appear regularly at dusk and before dawn on Mitchell Flat, just east of Marfa. Strange orbs hover in the night sky – joining with and separating from each other, appearing and disappearing, and changing colors. For decades, researchers, scientists, and curious onlookers have tried to figure out the mystery of the lights. Some say they’re a mirage caused by sharp temperature gradients between cold and warm layers of air. Others say they’re headlights from nearby U.S. Highway 67. Others have paranormal explanations.

The night I and my buddies saw the lights, we made it our mission to solve the mystery once and for all. We took my friend’s Camaro off-roading across the plain to catch the lights. Shockingly enough, we did not. We did, however, raise the hackles of some very annoyed locals who did not like us leaving tire tracks across their land. They let us know in no uncertain terms that the plain was off-limits and it was time for us to leave.

When Adam and Eve stray from God’s command to not eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and go off-roading into evil, God lets them know in no uncertain terms that the idyllic Garden of Eden in which He has placed them is now off-limits and that it is time for them to leave. In fact, just to ensure they never enter the Garden again, He installs what is quite literally a “flashy” security system:

He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)

Adam and Eve were able to eat from the tree of life before their fall into sin because they were designed to live eternally. But now, that tree and God’s garden is blocked by a sword that will bring about their death if they try to breach it.

The night before Jesus goes to the cross, He, like Adam and Eve, finds Himself in a garden – the Garden of Gethsemane. After He spends some agonizing moments in prayer about His impending torture and death, a coterie of Jesus’ enemies comes to arrest Him and drag Him away to a series of show trials to try to convict Him of heresy against Jewish theological teaching and treason against the Roman government. Peter, who is with Jesus, boldly brandishes his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, who is part of the seditious mob. But Jesus, instead of thanking Peter for his loyalty, rebukes him:

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

It was a sword that once guarded Adam and Eve from a garden. But Jesus will not allow a sword to guard Him in a garden.

Jesus, it turns out, has come to cast out the sword from the garden. As He makes His way to the cross, He is systematically disarming the curse of sin that blocks us from eternal life and threatens our eternal death. The sword is disarmed. The garden is open. As Charles Wesley says in his great Easter hymn:

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!

Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!

Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!

Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

The paradise that was once closed by a curse to Adam and Eve has been opened to us by a cross. That most certainly deserves our hearty, “Alleluia!”

April 12, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Fig Tree Undone

Yesterday began Holy Week, which commemorates the final days of Jesus’ life along with His crucifixion and resurrection. On the Monday of Holy Week, Jesus performs one of His most puzzling acts:

Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to find out if it had any fruit. When He reached it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then He said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And His disciples heard Him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree You cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)

What an odd episode. Jesus fierily curses a fig tree for no apparent reason. What is going on?

When Adam and Eve fall into sin after disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Genesis records:

The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

An old Jewish tradition claims that the forbidden fruit itself was figs, with a Talmudic rabbi writing:

That which caused their downfall was then used to rectify them.

In other words, Adam and Eve tried to use the fruit with which they sinned to cover their sin.

But Adam and Eve’s pitiful fig leaf getups prove useless. They cannot hide their sin from God. God confronts them in their sin, curses them because of their sin, but then blesses them despite their sin:

The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

God sacrifices and skins an animal to make a garment far better than anything they can make for themselves.

Jesus’ strange fig tree curse hearkens back to Adam and Eve’s fig leaf failure. Our pathetic attempts to hide our sin never work. So, on His way to the cross, Jesus graphically condemns every human attempt to fix ourselves in our sin when He curses a fig tree and its leaves. But in its place, God sacrifices His Son and gives us a garment infinitely better than anything we can come up with by ourselves – “a robe of His righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10)

Jesus’ curse on the fig tree undoes the curse of our sin and reminds us that there is a better tree – not a fig tree that brings death, but a cruciform tree that grants life.

March 29, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Name-Calling

Credit: Craig Adderley / Pexels.com

One of the most common responses to last week’s vice-presidential debate that I heard was that of a sigh of relief. It was noticeably mild-mannered compared the first presidential debate held a week earlier. Both President Trump and Vice-President Biden came under sharp critique for their name-calling of each other. Check out these headlines:

‘Will you shut up, man?’: Debate devolves to name-calling as Trump derails with interruptions

First Trump-Biden Presidential Debate Devolves Into Interruptions, Name-Calling

First Presidential Debate Turns Into Fighting and Name-Calling

Quite apart from politics, name-calling, in general, concerns me. As anyone who has been badgered or belittled on a school playground knows, sticks and stones may break some bones, but names can also hurt you.

Last week, as I was preparing to lead a study on Isaiah 1, I came across this passage:

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to Me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure.” (Isaiah 1:10-11)

Isaiah encourages the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah to hear the word of the Lord. Historically, the prophet writes these words around 740 BC. The towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, however, were famously destroyed by fire and brimstone some 1,300 years earlier. They no longer exist. So, to whom is Isaiah speaking?

Here, the famed cities are being invoked metaphorically to refer to the rebellious people of God – the Israelites. Isaiah is making the point that the wickedness of the Israelites has become so great that they might as well be the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – cities renowned for their depravity. In other words, Isaiah is calling the Israelites names.

Name-calling seems to be an awfully unbecoming behavior for a prophet of God. And yet, what sounds like disrespect at first is actually an act of desperation. He asks earlier:

Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. (Isaiah 1:5)

Isaiah longs for the Israelites to repent before they become afflicted by God. Isaiah’s name-calling, then, is not meant to insult, but to implore. The prophet is imploring people of Israel to understand just how precarious their spiritual situation really is. So, he uses the most jarring example of systemic and sanctioned sin he can think of: the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Of course, this is not the only time Isaiah calls the Israelites names. Later in his book, he writes:

But now, this is what the LORD says – He who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

God calls the people of Israel names to help them understand their sin. But He also calls them a name to promise them redemption from their sin:

Mine.

I’m not big on name-calling, but that’s a name I’d love to be called by God any day. Because of Christ, I know I am. And because of Christ, you are too.

October 12, 2020 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

The Reformation of the Church

Luther95theses

Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

Tomorrow, many corners of the Christian Church will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  And though the Reformation of the Church was larger than any one event and any one man, the beginning of this grand theological and historical watershed is traditionally traced to October 31, 1517, when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, outlining his grievances against some of the abuses that were rampant in the Roman Catholic Church of his day.

At the heart of Luther’s protest was the Church’s sale of indulgences.  Indeed, in his 95 theses, Luther uses the word “indulgence” some 45 times!  An indulgence was a partial remission of punishment for sin, issued by the Church, and could be used either to lessen a person’s future penalties in purgatory, or to shorten a deceased loved one’s current intermediate period in purgatory.   Indulgences took both the form of personal good works, such as pilgrimages and acts of devotion, as well as the form of a payment to the Church by which, it was said, one could have some of the good works of one of the Church’s canonized saints imputed to him to counterbalance his sin.

In Luther’s day, a preacher named Johann Tetzel shamelessly peddled the second type of indulgence, claiming that paying for an indulgence could breezily and easily excuse a sin for which one would otherwise have to suffer terribly in purgatory.  With clownish flamboyance, he declared:

Consider, that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in purgatory.

How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in the whole extent of life! They are well-nigh numberless, and those that commit them must needs suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of purgatory.

But with these confessional letters you will be able at any time in life to obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed upon you …

Are you not willing, then, for the fourth part of a florin, to obtain these letters, by virtue of which you may bring, not your money, but your divine and immortal soul, safe and sound into the land of paradise?

According to Tetzel, one sin buys a person seven years of suffering in purgatory.  If a person commits only one sin a day, which, according to Tetzel himself, who invites his hearers to ponder “how many mortal sins are committed in a day,” is an unrealistic underestimation, this would mean that, for one year’s worth of sins, a person would spend 2,555 years in purgatory.  If a person lived to be 75, they would have to endure 191,625 years of suffering in purgatory.  But, Tetzel continues, “for the fourth part of a florin,” one can purchase an indulgence letter, which allows the bearer to “obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed on you.”  A florin was an Italian gold coin worth around $144 in today’s currency.  A fourth of a florin, then, would be worth around $36.  Thus, Tetzel’s message was this:  for $36, your sins can be taken care of, and you can enter effortlessly into paradise.  What a deal!

The problem with Tetzel’s deal, of course, is that, ultimately, he cheapened both the penalty and the payment for sin.  As harrowing as 191,625 years in purgatory may sound, the true penalty for sin is even more terrifying, for it is not a finite time in purgatory, but an infinite eternity in hell.  And the true payment for sin that rescues us from this eternity in hell is certainly more than a measly $36.  The true payment for sin is nothing short of priceless.  As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Without money you will be redeemed” (Isaiah 52:3).  The true payment for sin is nothing less than the priceless blood of Christ.

The truth Luther rediscovered is that the penalty for sin is much steeper and the payment for sin is much deeper than an indulgence preacher like Johann Tetzel ever let on.  And this is the truth that launched a reformation of the Church.

Tetzel passed away in 1519, only two short years after the Reformation began.  By this time his ministry had been discredited, and he had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child.  When Luther heard that Tetzel was near death, he wrote his old theological sparring partner a kind note, begging him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”

Luther was known for preaching grace as a theologian.  It turns out that, for all his protestations against and sometimes harsh critiques of the Catholic Church of his day, at times, he was also gracious as a person.  And grace is better than any indulgence.  This was Luther’s message – and, most importantly, this is the gospel message.  And that’s a message worth celebrating, which is why the Reformation is worth celebrating, even 500 years later.

“Indulgences are in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.” (Martin Luther)

October 30, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Egalitarianism That Oppresses

Equal SignThe Christian gospel is egalitarian in its effect. In the words of the apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In Christ, Paul argues, divisions between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free men, and males and females have been broken down. Social strata have no bearing in the economy of God’s salvation.

It is important to note that the locus of Paul’s egalitarianism is explicitly and specifically redemptive. In other words, Paul is not arguing that all societal differences between people should disappear. Rather, he is claiming that such differences have no bearing on whether or not Christ saves a person.

When Paul penned Galatians 3:28, the egalitarianism of which he spoke was nothing short of radical and, I would hasten to add, good. I am concerned, however, that Paul’s redemptive egalitarianism has been coopted by another kind of egalitarianism – one that is not so good.

In his book, To Change The World, James Davison Hunter speaks of a populism that:

…is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinction between higher and lower or better and worse. At its worse, it can take form as “tyranny of the majority” that will recognize no authority, nor hierarchy of value or quality or significance.[1]

Though it seems oxymoronic to speak of an “oppressive egalitarianism,” this is where, culturally, I fear we have arrived.

With the rise of postmodernity, Paul’s redemptive egalitarianism was traded for an ethical egalitarianism that eschewed distinctions between right and wrong, higher and lower, better and worse. Of course, such a refusal to place an ethical stake in the ground inevitably undermines traditional, historical, biblical morality. But it was this ethical egalitarianism, free from the nagging and wagging finger of traditional ethical commitments, that paved the way for another kind of egalitarianism – the populous egalitarianism of today that picks and chooses new ethical standards by simple majority vote (with a little front-end help, of course, from elite opinion leaders who not only shape, but sometimes shoehorn, certain elements of public policy). This is why serious ethical issues are regularly framed as little more than political squabbles with nothing more than polling data needed to solve them. This is what Hunter means when he speaks of the “tyranny of the majority.”

What happens to those who do not share the ethical sentiments of the majority? They are ridiculed and caricatured. They are philosophically discredited, even if by logically dubious means, and intellectually castigated. They become victims of an “oppressive egalitarianism.”

In the apostle Paul’s redemptive egalitarianism, egalitarianism is a gift, granted by Christ’s work on the cross. In today’s populous egalitarianism, egalitarianism is a locus of power – a way to oppress transcendent, historical ethical commitments with the fickle ethical commitments of the masses. Populist ethics, however, are never far from social chaos. After all, no matter what “we the people” may want ethically, transcendence has a funny way of eventually getting its way.

A populous egalitarianism that battles transcendent ethics is doomed to fail. Conversely, a redemptive egalitarianism that saves people regardless of their social standing is a promise from God. And, as such, it is destined to emerge victorious.

Let’s make sure we’re on the right side of the right kind of egalitarianism.

_______________________________

[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 94.

April 27, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – One Barley Harvest From Redemption

Depression is epidemic in our world.  According to the latest statistics available, major depression affects approximately 15 million American adults, or about eight percent of the U.S. population.  And these statistics pertain only to people 18 years of age and older.  This does not take into account the severe depression that plagues four percent of adolescents.  Interestingly, the fastest growing demographic for anti-depressants is toddlers.  Experts estimate that at least four percent of toddlers – over one million tikes – are clinically depressed.  Yes, depression is a major problem in our world.

In Adult Bible Class this weekend, we tackled the problem of depression and looked at the story of Naomi.  There can be hardly a doubt that Naomi was a depressed woman.  In the first five verses of the book of Ruth, Naomi has to move from her hometown of Bethlehem to the foreign and pagan land of Moab where she loses her husband as well as her two sons.  If I lost my home and family, I would be depressed as well!

Naomi’s depression manifests itself first in the way in which she treats her two widowed daughters-in-law.  She, as a worshiper of the true God of Israel, actually encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their former paganism (cf. Ruth 1:15), a suggestion that would have shocked and revolted any ancient Israelite.  Moreover, Naomi blames God for her tragic plight.  She declares, “The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:21).  In the Latin Vulgate, the Hebrew word for “Almighty” is Omnipotens, from whence we get our English word “omnipotence,” a word which references the all-powerful nature of God.  Thus, Naomi is accusing God of using His omnipotence not for her welfare, but for her harm.  Indeed, the Hebrew word for “misfortune” is ra’a, meaning “evil.”  Naomi, then, goes so far as to accuse God of being the author of evil in her life.

As I mentioned in Adult Bible Class, Naomi’s response to hardship is not exactly the pinnacle of piety.  Her response to trouble differs vastly from Job’s more famed response to his trials:  “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21).  Job’s response, in the opinion of most people, seems to be the more dignified and pious response to affliction.  And yet, our responses to suffering more often mirror Naomi’s than they do Job’s.  I know that mine do.

Still, there is hope.  For just as God restores the fortunes of Job, He also restores the fortunes of Naomi.  He does this not on the basis of her faithfulness to Him – for she acts faithlessly – but according to His grace and care for her.  Indeed, even as Naomi is accusing God of bringing evil on her, the biblical text clues us into the fact that God is working behind the scenes to care for this desolate and despondent widow:  “So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning” (Ruth 1:22).  It is at this barley harvest that Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth meets a man named Boaz who is exceptionally kind to both her and her mother-in-law, providing them with food, and eventually marrying Ruth and providing an heir to carry on Naomi’s family name.  While Naomi is complaining about God, God is all the while working through something as inauspicious as a barley harvest to redeem Naomi’s tragic circumstances.  Naomi was only one barley harvest away from being redeemed by God – and she didn’t even know it.

Interestingly, the barley harvest in ancient Israel was also known as the Feast of Firstfruits.  The Feast of Firstfruits was an opportunity for the Israelites to bring the first and best of their harvest before God in thankfulness to Him (Numbers 15:17-21).  Notably, this was also the day on which Jesus rose from death, for He too is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The Feast of Firstfruits, then, was a time to celebrate the redemption of God and, finally, how that redemption is expressed fully and finally in Christ, even as Paul writes:  “Christ was delivered to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  For on the Feast of Firstfruits, Christ, risen from the dead, redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil.

In Ruth 1:22, the barley harvest is beginning.  And though Naomi cannot yet see it, she will soon be celebrating the redemption of God, just as she should be at the Feast of Firstfruits.  She is only one barley harvest away from having her tragedy redeemed by her Lord.

In your times of trial, do you believe that God can redeem you out of tragedy?  You should. Scripture exhorts us to “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).  There is a Day coming when our Lord will appear and redeem us out of all our trouble, heartache, and pain, for the older order of this sinful world will pass away.  This day is the Last Day of Christ’s return, sometimes pictured as a harvest (cf. Matthew 3:12).  Thus, like Naomi, no matter what we face today or tomorrow, and no matter how much depression it might bring us, Scripture promises that we are only one harvest away from redemption.  I hope you hold fast to this precious promise.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

May 10, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment


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