Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Kingdom of God is at Hand

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, is often seen as a strange and rather mysterious figure. He announced to all who would hear that the kingdom of God was at hand. He called the people to repentance. He dressed in odd fashion, ate strange food, and lived in the desert, separating himself from the population at large and conventional, mainstream culture. To the people with whom he interacted, and certainly to most people today, John the Baptist seems to be slightly unhinged. He was not, however, ignored by the people or the religious leaders of Israel. They wanted to know exactly what he meant by his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” It is a familiar image in our culture – the man on the street corner frantically proclaiming that the end of the world is near. He is often depicted as an unshaven, dirty, crazy person, dressed in rags, carrying a sign or wearing a sandwich board, proclaiming that the kingdom of God is nigh. His is dismissed as a lunatic, and his calls for repentance are scoffed at and dismissed by the erudite and sophisticated passers-by.

When Jesus emerged from his temptation in the wilderness, he preached a message similar to that of John the Baptist’s. Jesus’ message was different from John’s, however, in one significant way. Jesus proclaimed that, “The time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God is at hand.” The thing to which John was looking forward – the coming of God’s kingdom – was indeed at hand; the time is fulfilled. Jesus announced to the world that God’s kingdom had now arrived and was being established among them. Jesus had come to fulfill all of God’s promises regarding the salvation of the world.

What is the kingdom of God? In the minds of many, the word kingdom conjures up images of castles, knights, kings and queens, and thrones. We think of sovereigns ruling over their realms, enforcing their authority with the power of arms. And, though the kings of human history may have claimed their authority by divine right, few of their kingdoms remain. All you need to do to see the truth in this is to look at a map of Europe. The Greeks, The Romans, the Franks, the various barbarian tribes, the Byzantines, the Islamic caliphate – they all ruled over much of the same real estate – and those kingdoms are all now gone. Only ruins and relics of them remain.

God’s kingdom is different from man’s idea of what a kingdom should be. The kingdom of God is not a confined geographical territory; it is wherever people are ruled by God through their faith in His Son (Engelbrecht, 2009). Scripture tells us that God certainly rules the entire universe and everything within it[1]. There are, however, three distinct aspects to the kingdom of God described by Holy Scripture – the kingdom of power[2], the kingdom of grace[3], and the kingdom of glory[4].

The kingdom of God is His ruling as king over the whole universe (kingdom of power), the church on earth (kingdom of grace), and the church and angels in heaven (kingdom of glory) (Luther, 1986).

The kingdom of God is synonymous with God’s reign. It is a divine action which occurs where Jesus is, and through his words and deeds. The phrase “God’s kingdom”, or “kingdom of God”, is equivalent to God’s authority to rule. It exists, not in a place that can be pointed out on a map, but in the hearts and minds of believers (Engelbrecht, 2009).

The phrase isn’t really used in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for king, “malkut”, however, often carries with it this abstract meaning, when used in the Old Testament (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999). When this word is used of God, it almost always refers to his authority, or his rule, as The Heavenly King[5]. Old Testament believers were made members of God’s kingdom when they, like Abraham, believed the promise God made[6]. The fulfillment of the promise is Christ.

In the New Testament, the phrase “kingdom of God” or some other variation thereof appears nearly 100 times. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul calls Satan the king of this world[7]; Jesus states, however, that his kingdom is not of this world[8]. Jesus is not referring to his realm; Jesus is saying that his rule was not derived from earthly authority but from God and that his kingship would not manifest itself like a human kingdom but in accordance with the divine purpose (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999).

The kingdom of God, however, is not abstract in nature, simply because there are not geographical boundaries. As we were taught to pray by Jesus[9], the kingdom comes. For the kingdom of God to come is for God’s rule to actively invade the kingdom of the “prince of the power of the air”, as St. Paul eloquently writes[10]. John the Baptist proclaimed and Jesus announced after his baptism and temptation, God’s sovereign rule made manifest in the Messiah.

This proclamation about the nature of the kingdom of God and that it was at hand was not missed by everyone. There were faithful Jews who, having heard God’s word from faithful teachers, and having believed it, understood that the nature of the Kingdom of God was spiritual and religious, rather than simply worldly and political. Even at Jesus’ presentation at the temple Simeon is described as waiting for the consolation of Israel[11]. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see the Christ before he died. Prophesying by the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon reveals the spiritual nature of God’s coming kingdom by illuminating two aspects of the work that Christ would accomplish – revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

The manner in which access to the King of this kingdom is gained also indicates that God is not speaking of the establishment of a worldly kingdom. Jesus, as John the Baptist did, calls people to repent and to believe the good news. This is how people become members, or citizens, of the realm. Through spiritual means – repentance and faith – we have access to the benefits of citizenship in God’s kingdom.

Repent means “to have a change of heart as far as sin is concerned and in this connection points to the good news concerning the one in whom they would find forgiveness of sins. Jesus called on his listeners to turn away from the service of sin, to be sorry they had fallen away from God, and by faith to trust in him who alone offers forgiveness. Surely that is the good news mankind needs, whether in Galilee or in our own hometowns (Wicke, 1988).

God’s kingdom will be manifest physically at the end of the age, to be certain, and this will result in the transformation of the material world:

Jesus said to them [the disciples], “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses our brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Matthew 19:28-30).

Some churches teach that there will be a literal 1,000 year period, commonly known as the Millennium, when Jesus will set up his kingdom on earth. Along with this view, it is also taught that, at some point before the Millennium, Jesus will return secretly to resurrect or rapture all true Christians. There will then be a seven year “tribulation”, where Christians are persecuted. The battle of Armageddon will take place, culminating in Christ’s visible return to bind Satan, and the beginning of the Millennium. Following the Millennium, Satan will be released from the pit. The wicked will be resurrected for final judgment, Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, and the new heavens and the new earth will enter into eternity with Christ (Millennialism, 2011) (Engelbrecht, 2009). Scripture seems to indicate, though, that the kingdom of God has already been established when Christ came to earth and issued the official proclamation after withstanding Satan’s temptation in the wilderness:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).

Jesus, who had been baptized by John the Baptist, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and confirmed by the voice of God the Father, proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, and that he is its anointed sovereign. Jesus’ baptism is a royal coronation, of sorts. At his second coming, Jesus tells us that all things will be new again; the old heaven and earth will have passed away and been replaced by the new. Creation will be restored to its perfect condition, and sin, death, and the devil will disappear forever. In this way Christ will establish a kingdom which includes the world, newly restored. Just as his mission at his first coming was to redeem mankind, his primary mission at his second coming, however, will be to judge mankind, not to set up an earthly government:

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day…For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (John 12:48; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

All Christian denominations may not agree on an interpretation of God’s word concerning exactly how he will establish – or has established – his kingdom, or how and when Christ will return. As Christians, however, we must always discuss these issues beginning from a position of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and loving concern for those who are not yet citizens of heaven[12] with us. We must remember that what binds the body of Christ, that is, the church, is not when Christ is coming, or how, but that he is coming. And that, if one is to appear before God to give account, as every man will, he needs to acknowledge his sin, repent, and cling to Christ before that day, if he hopes to stand.

This is what we can all agree on concerning the end: Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day[13]. Christ will return to judge the world[14]. Christ will return on a specific day known only to God alone[15]. Before Christ returns, there will be increasing turmoil and distress for the church and the world[16]. The return of Christ is a source of hope and joy for the Christian[17]; we are citizens of the kingdom of God through Christ. Here, in this world corrupted by sin – Satan’s kingdom – we have no lasting city; we seek the city that is to come[18].

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Millennialism. (2011, February 27). Retrieved February 27, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennialism

Wicke, H. E. (1988). The People's Bible: Mark. Milwaukee, WI, USA: Northwestern Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Psalm 66:7; Daniel 5:21

[2] Psalm 103:19

[3] John 3:5

[4] 2 Timothy 4:18

[5] Psalm 22:28; 103:19; 145:11; Obadiah 21; Daniel 6:26

[6] Genesis 12:7; 15:4-6; Galatians 3:15-22

[7] Ephesians 2:1-3

[8] John 18:36

[9] Matthew 6:10

[10] Ephesians 2:1-3

[11] Luke 2:25

[12] Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20

[13] Matthew 24:27; Luke 21:27; Acts 1:11; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 1:7

[14] Matthew 25:31-32

[15] Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:32; Acts 17:31

[16] Matthew 24:7, 22; 1 Timothy 4:1

[17] Luke 21:28; Hebrews 9:28; Titus 2:13; Revelation 22:20

[18] Hebrews 13:14

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5: 1-5).

When I was growing up, one of the church experiences I remember explicitly is the imposition of ashes at worship on Ash Wednesday. I remember those worship services as being reverent, solemn, and slightly disconcerting. The part that made the biggest impression on me was walking to the front of the church with the rest of the congregation to receive ashes. It was a curious and extraordinary thing to hear the pastor’s pronouncement upon us all as we each received the ashes on our foreheads. Old and young, rich and poor, we were all told the same thing. I can still hear the voice of my childhood pastor speaking those words, “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” There was no difference between any of us standing there in God’s presence. We were all dust. It didn’t matter what kind of car you drove, how big your house was, or how much money you had in the bank. Unto dust you shall return. Not that I grasped the full significance of that ceremony as a child; on some rudimentary level, though, I got the message, and it stuck with me.

When I went away to college in western Kentucky, there were relatively few Lutherans or Roman Catholics, and so the practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday was not as familiar to the general public. I was asked on more than one occasion by perplexed acquaintances, “Why do you have dirt on your forehead?” I would explain that I had gone to church and this is what we did on Ash Wednesday. It was the beginning of Lent. Some people thought it was an odd practice. Others were curious. They all knew, however, that I was a religious person because I had taken part in a solemn, and somewhat mysterious (at least to them), ceremony. I am ashamed to say that I enjoyed that feeling. My church is so much cooler than their church; we have to do more stuff than them. Now I am embarrassed of how I thought and acted then, no better than a Pharisee, whose hearts were far from God, though their lips praised him[1]

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 fast days before Easter. The name, as you probably figured out, comes from the practice of the ancient church of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents as a physical act of contrition and repentance for their sin. Ashes are a symbolic mark of humiliation[2], contrition[3] and mourning[4] (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999). During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxury as a form of penitence. Many churches strip their altars of candles, flowers, and other devotional offerings, while crucifixes, statues, and other elaborate religious gear may be veiled in violet (Lent, 2012).

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. During this period of fasting he endured temptation by Satan. Thus, Lent is described as being forty days long. Different churches calculate this forty day period differently. Generally, however, most churches do not count the Sundays during this period as a part of Lent.

My personal understanding of the significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent has deepened significantly from the days when I was in college. This is how Lent and Ash Wednesday are described in the devotional book, “Treasury of Daily Prayer”:

During the forty days of Lent, God’s baptized people cleanse their hearts through the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time in which God’s people prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast (Easter). It is a time in which God renews His people’s zeal in faith and life. It is a time in which we pray that we may be given the fullness of grace that belongs to the children of God (Kinnaman, 2008).

As an immature Christian, though, all I got out of it was a pharisaic feeling of self-righteousness and spiritual superiority. Nice. Like many others – most notably the Pharisees – I had taken something that was intended to point me toward the Savior and turned it into a vehicle, or a good work, for earning my own righteousness.

God’s Law indeed commands us to do good works of thought, word, and deed. It also condemns and punishes sin. It is by the Gospel – through faith in Jesus – that God gives forgiveness, eternal life, and the power to please him with good works (Luther, 1986). The words of St. Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans could not be clearer. St. Paul assures the Roman readers of his epistle, and us as well, that it is not through any deed we do with our hands that God forgives our sinfulness, but through faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of God.

Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:37).

In asking this question, Jesus makes it painfully obvious that there is nothing that we can give to ransom our soul from damnation. This is the idea that St. Paul echoes in verse six of Romans chapter five when he writes, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

St. Paul describes us as “ungodly” and “powerless”. Because of our sinful disobedience, we are ungodly. When Adam and Eve knowingly chose to disobey God, in order to obtain knowledge which they sinfully thought God was denying them, human nature was corrupted. Our parents had lost the ability to know and please God, and this corrupt nature has been passed on to us.

Fasting and other acts of worship are not in and of themselves harmful. On the contrary, when they are employed properly, practices such as fasting can greatly enhance one’s spiritual life[5]. There are many instances of fasting recorded in Holy Scripture[6]. Jesus himself, as discussed earlier, fasted in the wilderness while contending with Satan[7]. The danger arises when we, in the manner of the Pharisees, become self-righteous, seeking to gain God’s gracious forgiveness by our deeds, and substituting these deeds for real repentance.

This is one of the major issues which led to the Reformation. Over time, the church developed complex regulations about fasting and holy days. The people were taught that by following these rules, they earned God’s grace and good favor. They thought that the more things they did, such as fasting and giving money to the church, the more holy they were. Philipp Melanchthon wrote in the Augsburg Confession:

First, the chief part of the Gospel – the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith – has been obscured...The Gospel should stand out as the most prominent teaching in the Church, in order that Christ’s merit may be well known and faith, which believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, be exalted far above works...Christian righteousness is something other than such works[8]. Christian righteousness is the faith that believes that sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005)[9].

Jesus spoke plainly[10] to his disciples about how he would pay for humanity’s sinfulness:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).

Jesus lays out God’s plan of salvation to the disciples and they, yet again, fail to understand it. Peter has the dubious distinction of rebuking the Savior later in this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Doubtless the disciples, who, at least at this point, saw Jesus as a political Messiah who would lead the revolt against Roman oppression, were greatly shocked to hear Jesus say that he must be killed and rise again after three days. St. Paul, again in the fifth chapter of Romans, sums up Jesus’ teaching:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him (Rom 5: 8-9).

The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work at all. It happened, as St. Paul wrote, while we were still powerless. There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, no ceremony we can perform, in order to merit God’s forgiveness. God has given us forgiveness as a gift, and he sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts and enable us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his grace – but to glorify his most holy name.

But how could the blood of one man make atonement for the sins of mankind? Psalm 49:7 says, “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him.” The answer is found in the pages of Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ is not only truly human but also truly God.

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3).

Again Scripture records the deity of Christ:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form… (Col. 2:9).

Christ had to be true God in order that his fulfilling of the Law, His life, suffering, and death might be a sufficient ransom for all people (Luther, 1986).

You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1: 18-19).

Through his suffering, death and resurrection, Christ has triumphed over death. He has acted as mankind’s substitute, taking the punishment for sin that was meant for us. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have been given the gift of eternal life.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. However, many reject the Word and resist the work of the Holy Spirit. On Calvary’s cross Jesus, God in human flesh, stretched wide his arms to embrace mankind. Do not turn a blind eye to his sacrifice and a deaf ear to his call – what He did, He did for you. This is what we acknowledge on Ash Wednesday. During the fast days of Lent, we come before Him in repentance, acknowledging our sinfulness. We, by the working of the Holy Spirit, refocus and follow Christ on his journey to the cross, and prepare to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s salvation plan at Easter.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 15:8-9

[2] Isaiah 61:3

[3] Daniel 9:3

[4] Matthew 11:21

[5] 1 Corinthians 9:27

[6] 1 Samuel 7:6; Nehemiah 1:4; Joel 2:12; Acts 10:30; 13:3; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27

[7] Matthew 4:2

[8] Romans 14:17

[9] Augsburg Confession XXVI 4-6, “The Distinction of Meats” 

[10] Mark 8:32

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Kinnaman, S. A. (Ed.). (2008). Treasury of Daily Prayer. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Lent. (2012, February 22). Retrieved February 22, 2012, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lent

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"

Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day on which we reflect on all the times when we feel the way that Eliot describes. The cold, gray times come upon us, when all we sought, all we hoped, all we wanted seems far away. We know there were crossroads we passed where a different turn might have produced something more like what we had desired. But we are here, and it is now. Those turns are behind us, and we cannot turn again.

Jesus, in the Ash Wednesday lesson, has left the glory of the Spirit descending upon Him and His Father acknowledging Him to all who would hear, and the Spirit has led Him out into the desert, where He fasted. It is His cold, gray time. There is no returning to Jordan; there is no glory; there are no crowds before whom He can announce His Gospel. He is hungry, thirsty, and alone.

In that moment, the devil comes upon Him, and shows Him that if He displays His power and glory in ways that are not appointed for Him, He can be full again; He can have the kingdom, the power and the glory. All Jesus has to do is this one little thing--kneel before the devil. Turn from His appointed course to embrace what He should not, and He will have rich presents.

So, too, the devil comes to us in these cold, gray moments. Are you in need? Do this, and you can eat your fill. Are you alone? Do this, and you will have the companionship of one whom you desire. Are you helpless? Do this, and you will have power, even perhaps power over those before whom you are now helpless. All you have to do is one little thing.

What that one little thing is differs with each of us in the details, but never varies in what it really is. What is more--we have all done whatever that one little thing, not once but again and again in our lives. But for Christ's intervention, we would be in the devil's grasp, his slaves, held there by whatever it is that we think we cannot do without. We would be utterly lost. Without Christ, we are utterly lost.

Jesus, however, would not do that one little thing, whether it be turn bread into stone, cast himself down from the point of the Temple, or fall down and worship the devil. By the way, notice that what the devil wants Him to do is progressively worse. It is hard for us to see the evil in turning bread to stone; the evil there is simply that the devil wants Jesus to do it; it's just taking the easy way out. From there, the devil suggests to Jesus recklessness. Whether or not angels will swoop in and catch Him, it is simply crazy to throw oneself off the top of a large building. Finally, the temptation is to outright evil--the worship of Satan. In Jesus' case it's even worse because it would be the repudiation of His own Godhead. The one little thing gradually becomes the one very big thing.

That is how temptation usually comes to us, too. The first temptation is something that hardly even looks bad, and really looks rather sensible. Then come gradually increasing evils. Prudence turns to imprudence, to carelessness, to recklessness, to intentional misconduct, to real crimes, to out-and-out evil. And it is, as C.S. Lewis says, the gentle, grassy slope, without signposts, without milestones. And the time when the devil is most certain to come with these things is when we are tired, miserable and frustrated.

Being tired, miserable and frustrated is not an excuse. Jesus, when He was hungry, thirsty, and tired, still withstood the temptations, and we have no excuse for breaking God's Law. But these times are also an opportunity for some of the greatest growth in Christ.

At these moments, we do not have the other temptations, of glitter, of comfort, of glory. There is little room for pride at such times. Any pride we had has been shattered in what has happened to us to bring us to this cold, gray moment--or it well should have been. There are, of course, those who, when such a moment comes, become Achilles sulking in his tent, nursing wounded pride. That is not the way of a Christian, and it should not be our way.

Instead, we, with all else gone, turn to Jesus, and sing:

Jesus, refuge of the weary
Blest Redeemer whom we love
Fountain in life's desert dreary
Savior from the world above
Often have Your eyes, offended,
Gazed upon the sinner's fall;
Yet upon the cross extended,
You have borne the pain of all.

(Jesus, Refuge of the Weary, by Girolamo Savonarola, tr. Jane F. Wilde. From The Lutheran Hymnal)

With our eyes turned to Him, we turn to Him completely. The Lenten fast is not an idle show, nor is it a meritorious act that gains His favor. Instead, it is setting aside the other things that would get our attention and may serve to distract from remembering that He, too, walked through the desert, tempted by the devil, as He prepared, not to rule the kingdoms of the world, but to found His Kingdom on a cross, despised and scorned, yet King of all. In Him, and only in Him, is our trust. Amen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Good Old Days

“Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years’ ” (Genesis 6:3).

Ah, the good old days! Anyone who has had a Grandparent has probably heard that phrase, or at least some variation on the theme. Talk to any “old timer” about current events and you’ll soon be regaled with tails from “the good old days” that will serve to illustrate to you just how bad things have gotten over the years. Things just ain’t like they used to be…

We’ve cured polio, walked on the moon, and seen evil empires rise and fall - but things just aren’t as good as they used to be back in the good old days. As I grow older, I even find myself slipping into this annoyingly amusing stereotype, especially when confronted with some unexpected change, or the thought of society‘s relentless, entropic moral decay.

Noah, though, had he commented on the decay of society, would have had a much better case than any of us living today. Holy Scripture tells us that, after the Fall of Man recorded in Genesis 3, things sort of just kept going from bad to worse. In chapter six, we are told that the situation had reached critical mass:

The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (Genesis 6: 5-6).

What an incredible thought. God, the creator, who had formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed life into his nostrils, was so disturbed by the sinful state of man that his “heart was filled with pain”. God made plans to wipe man from the face of the earth.

So the Lord said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created from the face of the earth - men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air - for I am grieved that I have made them" (Genesis 6:7).

What does this sad scene teach us? Two important things we should all come away with here are, 1) The Spirit of God works in the heart of fallen man, and 2) There is a limit to God’s patience.

From the time of The Fall, God strove to regain mankind. His plan, as explained to Adam and Eve in the garden, was that one of Eve’s “seed” would crush the serpent’s head - defeat Satan once and for all and restore mankind’s relationship with God. From that time, the Spirit of God worked in fallen man to lead him to repentance and trust in God’s promised redeemer. Indeed, when Eve became pregnant with her first son, Cain, the very name given to him evidences Eve’s faith - “Cain” means “I have the man, the Lord”, according to Luther’s translation. Eve believed that her son was the fulfillment of God’s promise. Unfortunately, Cain would not live up to his mother’s expectations. A few other examples, besides Eve, of those who began, after the Fall, “to call on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26) are Abel, Seth, Enoch, and eventually, Noah.

The majority of mankind, however, resisted the Spirit of God. Over time the world slipped into the depths of depravity and wickedness described in out text. The “good old days” of Eden were long gone. By the time of Noah, God’s patience had reached it’s limit.

Things work pretty much the same way today. God’s Spirit is at work, calling sinful fallen man to repentance. Everyone who hears the Gospel of Christ - the redeemer promised to Adam and Eve - is called to eternal life through that Gospel. The Spirit, just at it did in the days after the Fall, struggles with man and urges him to turn from sinfulness and seek forgiveness, and true righteousness in Christ.

Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).

God’s Spirit is doing this work right now through the words of Holy Scripture, creating faith in the hearts of men who do not reject Him. He is striving with the heathen - and with the believer - calling them to repent, to trust the Savior, and to follow Him.

…his [man’s] days will be a hundred and twenty years (Genesis 6:3).

None of us knows how long we will live; Our Lord could return at any time. Today is the day of salvation, as scripture says. Just as in the days of Noah, when God declared there would be an end to the grace period, so it is with mankind today. There will come a day when the opportunity to take advantage of God’s offer of Grace through Christ Jesus will be gone. Do not be left outside of the ark.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

He Commands Even the Unclean Spirits

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee (Mark 1:23-28).

Jesus, in his sermon at the synagogue, had already claimed the authority of God by the way in which he taught. Now he would confirm his authority by displaying his power. Jesus is confronted with a demon-possessed man at the synagogue. This man with “an unclean spirit” called Jesus out in front of everyone, identifying him as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes and silences the unclean spirit and drives it out of the man with a simple command, demonstrating once again that he is Lord.

To understand the significance of this display of his divine power we must first understand what a demon, and demonic possession, is. The original Greek word "daimon" does not carry the negative connotation of the Koine (New Testament Greek) daimonion. This negative connotation was later ascribed to any cognate words sharing the root. The original word was intended to denote a spirit or spiritual being (Demon 2012). In the New Testament, a demon is a messenger, or ministering spirit, of Satan. They are not simply impish or mischievous, but actually evil. These beings are not autonomous, but subordinate to Satan and do his bidding. Demons are able to afflict man with mental, moral, and physical distempers (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1999).

We are all more or less familiar with demonic possession from William Peter Blatty’s stark depiction of the subject in his novel-turned-motion picture, The Exorcist. Popular culture generally uses this film’s portrayal of possession as a frame of reference; the image of Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair) doing spiritual, and sometimes physical, battle with Father Merrin and Father Karras has become something of a cultural icon. It has also caused great consternation among Christian and non-Christian alike. Is demonic possession real? Why do people become possessed? Why does God allow it? Can a Christian become possessed?

First off, let me begin by saying that I am in no way the definitive authority on the subject of demonic possession; I do not claim or seek that distinction. Furthermore, I do not claim to speak for 1) The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 2) My home congregation, or 3) anyone else in general. This article is intended to be a discussion of the subject in light of the text, from the perspective of one Evangelical Lutheran, and nothing more. I am, as I have done in the past, asking questions that have come up in my mind while studying scripture.

That being said, the first question to enter my mind when reading about something as disturbing as demonic possession is the obvious: Is possession real? Being a Bible-believing evangelical, my immediate answer is a resounding, if not slightly anxious, yes. If something was a reality in so-called “Bible times,” I believe that something is a reality today. For instance, the Bible tells us that God communicated with his people through prophets in ages past. Just because he does not communicate with us in modern times through prophets does not mean that he can’t, or won’t again at some time in the future[1]. Likewise, if demonic possession was a spiritual reality in Jesus’ time, I believe it is a spiritual reality today, and something with which Christians should be familiar, to the extent it is dealt with by Scripture. The trick is to deal with the subject appropriately. People tend to become either obsessed with, or dismissive of, supernatural things. C. S. Lewis summarized this sentiment best:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight (The Quotable Christian 2012).

Therefore, we should study what Scripture has to say on the matter, without allowing fear – or interest – consume our spiritual lives. If we allow either of the two extremes to become a reality in our lives, we will have become ineffective in our Christian mission, something at which Satan rejoices.

So, what does Scripture say on the matter of possession? Why would God allow some people to become demon possessed? Demonic forces were particularly active in opposing Jesus’ ministry. One particular passage in Matthew, however, may enlighten the issue somewhat:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation (Matthew 12:43-45).

Jesus here describes how a person delivered from a demon becomes worse when there is failure to fill the emptiness with goodness. You see, without saving faith in Jesus, which comes by the working of the Holy Spirit as a result of hearing the Gospel, we are still empty houses. Only the Holy Spirit can replace the evil spirits that are constantly seeking someone to devour[2] (Engelbrecht 2009). Baptized children of God need not have fear of demon possession because Jesus has redeemed them from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil (McCain, et al. 2005). The regenerate Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Before coming to faith we all were slaves to sin[3]. Jesus, however, has bought us, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death on the cross, and we who believe are now slaves to righteousness.

No one can claim to know why God allows possession to happen to some people. I can only point to the case where Jesus healed a man who had been born blind and draw conclusions from there[4]. The disciples asked Jesus who had sinned – either the man, or his parents – that he was born blind. Jesus answered that neither of them had committed any sin that caused the man to have been born blind as punishment. Rather, he explained that the man was born blind so that God could be glorified, and then Jesus healed him. Perhaps that is the case with possession; maybe God allows it to happen in some cases so that his power over Satan may be demonstrated, and so that we, his children, glorify him. That certainly was the case when St. Paul was afflicted by the “thorn in the flesh”:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

In healing the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus demonstrated with a display of divine power that the authority he had just claimed for himself when preaching in the synagogue was legitimate. The exorcism Jesus performed here reveals his identity as the Holy One of God. We have no reason to fear, though we may, like St. Paul, be vexed by demonic forces. We are now part of God’s family, cleansed of our sin by the blood of Jesus, sanctified by the by the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our house is occupied. There is no longer any room for demons.

End Notes

[1] The author of Hebrews writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). While God is certainly capable of speaking to his people through selected, individual prophets, his call to repentance and message of salvation has been once and for all time delivered in the incarnate Word – Christ. The Word is the primary means of communication from God to man “in these last days.”
[2] 1 Peter 5:8

[3] Romans 6:15-18

[4] John 9

Works Cited

"Demon." Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. February 7, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon (accessed February 7, 2012).

Engelbrecht, Edward A et. al. The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999.

McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

The Quotable Christian. February 7, 2012.
http://www.pietyhilldesign.com/gcq/quotepages/demons.html (accessed February 7, 2012).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Jesus Preaches With Authority

They went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes (Mark 1:21-22).
One of my favorite movies of all time is the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. In the film, Bogey plays an alcoholic riverboat captain named Charlie Allnut in WWI Africa who keeps Rose and Samuel Sayer’s mission in German East Africa supplied. When war breaks out “Mr. Allnut,” as he is called by Rose, tries to get her to leave. When her brother is beaten by a German soldier and eventually dies of a fever, she agrees. Rose comes up with a plan to convert the African Queen, Charlie’s riverboat, into a torpedo boat and sink a German gunboat - the Louisa -  which is effectively blocking British counter-attacks on the large lake down river. Long story short, they have a harrowing adventure and eventually – though not in the manner they intended – blow up the German gunboat.
Charlie is captured and taken aboard the Louisa after the Queen sinks, seemingly failing in its mission. He is questioned by the German captain. Believing Rose to have drowned, he makes no attempt to defend himself against accusations of spying and is sentenced to death by hanging. However, Rose is captured too and Charlie yells her name, but then pretends not to know her. The captain questions her as well, and Rose confesses the whole plot proudly, deciding they have nothing to lose. The captain sentences her to be executed as a spy along with Charlie. Charlie asks the German captain to marry them before executing them. After a brief marriage ceremony, the Germans prepare to hang them, when there is a sudden explosion and the Louisa starts to sink. The Louisa has struck the overturned hull of the African Queen and detonated the torpedoes.
The best part of the movie for me is definitely the marriage ceremony. With ropes around their necks the German ship captain declares, “By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.”
I’m not sure if ship captains actually have some sort of authority to conduct weddings by virtue of their being ship captains, but it has become part of the popular culture. Authority comes from many different sources, and is usually confirmed by some display of power. Whether or not Charlie and Rose recognized the German captain’s authority to execute (or marry) them, he had the power to do both…at least until his ship was destroyed.
When discussing government, the term authority is often used interchangeably with power. The meanings of these two terms differ, however. Power is defined as the ability to make someone do something that they would not have done; Authority refers to a claim of legitimacy, and the justification and right to exercise power. A mob, for example, may have the power to punish a criminal by seizing them and perhaps lynching them. Only a court of law, though, operating as an arm of the legitimate governmental body has the authority to punish said criminal (Authority 2012).
Why were the people in the synagogue surprised by how Jesus taught? Jesus speaks with the voice of God. When the scribes taught, they quoted other authorities. When the prophets spoke, it was clear that they spoke in God’s name and at his direction, and therefore under his authority, not by their own. Jesus, however, does not say, “Thus saith the Lord!” as the prophets did. His is the voice of authority.
The scribes were a class of professional scholars who were learned in the law. The scribes – the “teachers of the law” as they were sometimes called – dated back to the time of Esther (Engelbrecht 2009). In those days, the early scribes were priests. As law and synagogue grew in importance during the “time between the testaments” when the prophets ceased to speak, these priests evolved into a new class of lay biblical scholars. They grew into defenders of Jewish identity during a time of increased Hellenization and became popular with the people.
Their [Scribes] function was not only the elaboration of the law, i.e., making explicit what was implicit, but also the teaching of its requirements to the people and the handing down of legal decisions. In later times the Scribes had the additional responsibility of the careful preservation of the sacred text (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1999).
As their role in Jewish life evolved, so did their treatment of God’s Law. In the process of “making the implicit explicit” something happened. These teachers of the law not only taught their people what the law said, they also added stricter requirements to the law. The purpose of doing so may have been noble, but the practice yielded disastrous consequences. For example, the Mosaic Law forbade the Israelites from boiling a calf in its mother’s milk[1]. This requirement of the law eventually evolved into the practice of not eating meat and milk together, or even serving the two together at the same meal. Today religious Jews may even keep two sets of dishes and silverware – one for meat, one for dairy products – to avoid transgressing and inadvertently mixing the two (Yahoo! Answers 2012).
There was a problem with this, however. The man-made requirements eventually became more important to people than the spirit of God’s actual law. This is what Jesus rails against when he gives his scathing condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)
People became convinced that they merely had to keep the requirements of the law, as interpreted by their teachers, and they would have a right relationship with God. Jesus tells us, though – with the voice of authority – that, compared to the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ failure to keep the weightier portions of the moral law (the commands to act justly and mercifully towards others), their painstaking tithing of garden produce is absurd (Engelbrecht 2009).
Scripture is full of such references that teach that sacrifices by the outward act (ex opera operato) do not reconcile to God. Since Levitical services have been repealed, the New Testament teaches that new and pure sacrifices will be made: faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, the preaching of the Gospel, troubles on account of the Gospel and the like (McCain, et al. 2005).
God desires mercy, not sacrifice[2]. Even though he had prescribed sacrifices and other acts of worship in his law, they are not pleasing to him unless they come from the heart. We do not earn God’s love and forgiveness simply by the outward act of keeping rules and regulations, performing acts of worship, or giving money. These things should be a response to having received God’s gift of grace through faith.
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who were oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:17-21).
This is the message that Jesus delivered with the authority of the voice of God. God had come to his people to rescue them from their sin, from death, and from the power of the devil. The Scribes and Pharisees were about to have their legalistic boat blown out from under them.

End Notes

[1] Deuteronomy 14:21

[2] Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:9-13

Works Cited

"Authority." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. February 4, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authority#Authority_in_philosophy (accessed February 4, 2012).
Engelbrecht, Edward A et. al. The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999.
McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
Yahoo! Answers - Why don't practicing jews eat dairy and meat together? February 4, 2012. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070825023312AAcroLn (accessed February 4, 2012).