Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fire Communion

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Driving down Morgan Ave. in Evansville, IN I passed by this Unitarian Universalist Church and noticed that their sign said, "Fire Communion". Perplexed by this I had to pull into the parking lot to think about what this could possibly mean and, of course, snap a quick photograph. Perhaps this is a common thing among the UU's; I must admit that I was hitherto unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism and it's beliefs (which it sort of denies having...), and it was the first time I had been exposed to that particular phrase. All sorts of strange visions began dancing through my head, most of them requiring the use of flame retardant vestments and copious amounts of burn cream.
My exotic visions were quickly dispersed, however, when I did some quick research on the internet. According to the church's (term used extremely loosely) website, the Fire Communion service is a ritual used to usher in the new year:
Come help us celebrate the New Year with our Fire Ceremony. In this service, congregants burn pieces of paper containing brief descriptions of something they most wish to leave behind and light a candle for a new hope for the coming year (Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville, 2013).

So, people get together and burn up slips of paper with their failings and annoyances written on them in a symbolic, and I suspect ultimately fruitless, gesture of self-improvement. And with what, finally are you communing? Each other? I suppose, being Unitarian Universalists, that is left up to you:
Ours is a religion with deep roots in the Christian tradition, going back to the Reformation and beyond, to early Christianity. Over the last two centuries our sources have broadened to include a spectrum ranging from Eastern religions to Western scientific humanism. Unitarian Universalists (UUs) identify with and draw inspiration from Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Earth-Centered Traditions, Hinduism, Islam, and more. Many UUs have grown up in these traditions—some have grown up with no religion at all. UUs may hold one or more of those traditions’ beliefs and practice its rituals. In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart (Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 2013).

Not exactly what you would call orthodox Christianity. They could have saved me some time by calling this gathering what it is to begin with - a service of New Year's resolutions.
The problem is, this kind of "service" doesn't do anything to help anyone. All of those things we write on the piece of paper, that we want to leave behind in the old year - the anger, the hate, the gluttony, the laziness, the whatever-bothers-you - that is what God calls sin. And even though we'd like to think that we are able to cure our sin by an assertion of our will and the performance of some work, we all, deep down, know differently. We can't do it. Someone has to take care of these things for us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
That is the beauty of Christmas. At Christmas the one who would graciously redeem us from sin came into the world. Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became also true man. He did this for the expressed purpose of dying on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of mankind. This is what Christianity is all about. He resolved to do this, in obedience to the will of the Father, before all eternity, and before man could do anything to earn God's favor. While we were enemies, scripture says, Christ died for the ungodly:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
In the Sacrament of the Altar, also called Holy Communion, Jesus gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink in a way we cannot understand, in, with, and under the visible elements of bread and wine. It is truly a communion, not only between those who gather to hear his word and receive his sacrament, but between those believers and Christ himself. He gives us the forgiveness of sins he won for us by his death and resurrection. The bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, connected with the promise, "Given and shed for the forgiveness of sins," are a pledge of that forgiveness and eternal life we already have in Christ by faith. Communion is spiritual food which nourishes our faith and assures us that, by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus, our sins are forgiven, and we have been declared righteous before God for Christ's sake.
Just about every year I make a resolution to eat more healthfully, to exercise more, to be nicer, blah, blah, blah. There's nothing wrong with resolutions, necessarily, it's just that, more often than not, I've practically broken them before they've been resolved. And furthermore, simply learning how to eat better, or less, or how to control our tempers better, or even to do more volunteer hours will not cure the disease of sin from which we are ailing. Only Christ can take away our sin.
He has taken it away. Once you repent and believe in him you stand declared righteous before God. After he has made you into a new creation in Christ, God's Law, which previously condemned us by showing us our sinfulness, will now also serve as a guide to our behavior. As we grow in Christ, he will assist us in conforming how we do act with how we "should" act, and Fire Communion ceremonies will seem to us as ridiculous and unnecessary as they are. 

God will indeed deal with mankind's sin using fire. This will happen on the Last Day, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, when every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Christ is Lord:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells....Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire (2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 20:11-15).
Praise be to God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment we deserved on the cross of Calvary, so that our sins would be washed away by his blood, and our names would be written in the Book of Life.
O Lord, our God, in the name of whose only-begotten Son we have been called to be Christians and have been blest with Baptism for the remission of sins, make us, we pray, ready to receive the most holy body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins and to give thanks with grateful hearts to you, O Father, to your Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (Lutheran Worship, 1982)

Works Cited

"Are My Beliefs Welcome?" Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.

"Fire Communion." Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.

Lutheran Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1982. Print.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents - Gustave Dore
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:13-18).
The murder of the children of Bethlehem by Herod is, to be certain, a despicable and sinful act. It is usually depicted as taking place on the scale of a genocide, and we tend to get the impression that a lot more babies were murdered than probably actually were.
Don't misunderstand me, I am in no way going soft on infanticide. One baby-murder is too many. Liberal Bible scholars, as well as those outside of the faith who seek to diminish the credibility of Christianity, often use this story as one of their arguments. "If the madman Herod murdered all of the toddlers and babies in and around Bethlehem," they argue, "would there not be contemporary accounts of the massacre?" One would assume so, if the event happened as we often imagine it to have. And, actually, there is a reliable, contemporary account the murders - the Gospel of Matthew. Archeology has always proven itself the friend of the New Testament, and has shown it to be historically reliable, much to the annoyance of the few liberal scholars who are willing to acknowledge the evidence. That, however, is a debate to be saved for another day.
Herod the Great, or Herod I, has been described as a madman and a murderer, even apart from the Slaughter of the Innocents. He murdered his own family and was "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition" (Herod the Great, 2013). He was hated and mistrusted by the Jews over whom he ruled, and he hated and mistrusted them right back. Not only was he viewed by his subjects as a collaborator with the hated Romans, from whom he received his kingdom, he was also not a "real" Jew. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau (Herod, 2013). He did all kinds of terrible things to insure his grip on power. If he thought that the rightful Jewish King of the Jews had been born sometime in the last two years near Bethlehem, and that he had to murder all the babies in that place to keep his throne, there is little doubt that he would do so (France, 2007).

The fact that a mad and murderous king committed murder was still sad, but not as shocking as it maybe should have been. It certainly wouldn't have been front-page news. This situation is akin to murders in modern American cities such as Detroit or Chicago. They are committed with chilling regularity and in such a frequency that, to cover them with the attention they deserve would be to dominate every column of every magazine and newspaper in the city every day. This is in contrast with how a murder would be treated if it happened in some affluent suburban enclave where such things rarely occur. Today a murder in Chicago, unless it was particularly gruesome or involved some high-profile person, scarcely gets more than a one-minute mention on the evening news.
But Bethlehem wasn't Chicago or Detroit. It was small. So small, in fact, that it was considered insignificant by worldly standards, as the writings of the prophets suggest:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).
Traditional Bible scholars believe that, given population density in that area during that time (all estimated, of course), no more than twenty babies and young children were made Herod's unfortunate victims (Hagner, 1993).
But why are they called innocents? Certainly they are not innocent, at least not in the biblical sense. They are sinful human beings, just like everyone else, with a sinful human nature, and they are subject to sin and death. I suppose that they are innocent in the sense that they received a punishment they did not deserve. The death they suffered was intended for the Christ child. In this way they could be considered martyrs as their deaths testify to the Christ, and foreshadow his own suffering and death.
The Holy Innocents teach us that there is no such thing as innocence before God, since the Fall of Man. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one is righteous, not even one, all of us having been conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity. No thing or person has escaped the corruption that entered the world through the sin of Adam. Herod demonstrates the depth of this corruption by his depraved sinful desires, his willingness to act on those sinful desires, the horrific act itself, and its intended end - the murder of God's Anointed One; the death of the Holy Innocents demonstrates that all - even "innocent" babies - are subject to sin and death, and are in desperate need of a savior. As members of the nation of Israel through circumcision, we trust God that the babies murdered by Herod were forgiven sinners because of God's promise, just as we who have been adopted into God's family through baptism are.
Almighty God, whose praise was proclaimed this day by the wicked death of innocent children, giving us thereby a picture of the death of your beloved Son, mortify and destroy in us all that is in conflict with you that we who have been called in faith to be your children may in life and death bear witness to your salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (CPH, 1983).

France, R. T. "The Gospel of Matthew (Google EBook)." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod (king of Judaea)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod the Great." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
Lutheran Worship. St. Louis (3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis 63118): Concordia Pub. House, 1983. Print.
"Massacre of the Innocents." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The True Light

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:9-13).

At the risk of stating the obvious, I'm going to go on record and say that the invention of the electric incandescent light bulb was a big deal. To be certain, mankind had means of creating light before electric lighting, but we weren't truly illuminated until Edison invented the light bulb. For all of human history mankind's productivity was governed by the natural rhythms of day and night. But, with the coming of electricity and the light bulb, man's day was expanded and, as author Mark Steyn puts it, night was abolished. Life post-light bulb would never be the same as it had been.

St. John writes that "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world," and that is the man about whom John the Baptist testifies. From Adam's Fall through Malachi it's been all spiritual candles and gas lamps, but now, prepare yourself world, the true light is about to be revealed. In Christ Jesus man is given the spiritual equivalent of Edison's electric light bulb. Just as Edison's light had the power to "abolish night" and help to usher in a new age of productivity and human innovation and invention, so Jesus, God in human flesh, has the power to "enlighten all men," and cut through the hitherto impenetrable darkness of sin and death in which mankind was mired.

God promised that he would give this light to man all the way back when our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned and chose darkness, and were expelled from paradise. Through Adam sin and darkness entered and corrupted all of God's perfect creation. Through Christ, however, came life which, St. John writes, was the light of men. Adam and Eve, along with all the faithful from that time until the coming of Jesus in the flesh, would live by the lamplight of faith in God's promise of a savior and redeemer. With the birth of Jesus, God fulfilled his promise to rescue mankind and to crush the serpent's head in a historical context.

Sadly, though Christ came for everyone, not everyone trusts in him. Jesus came to his own people, St. John writes, and they would not receive him as the savior promised to them and described in prophetic scripture. The world which was created by him did not know him, such is the state of rebellion in which the creation stands against it's creator. Yet Jesus, born to a virgin and laid in a manger, heralded by angels and worshiped by shepherds, would go on to atone for the sins of mankind on the cross, and open the kingdom of heaven to all those who believe in him.

Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world which no darkness can overcome, let your light scatter the darkness of sin, death, and the power of Satan by the means of your holy word, and illumine and expand your church.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Winter Solstice from the Christkindlemarkt!

So, we went to the Christkindlemarkt in Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago this afternoon after church. I was terribly disappointed, as there were so many people crammed into the plaza that no one could move. We couldn't even press our way through the crowd to get a mug of Gl├╝hwein. I was ticked off about this, and then I came across an interesting display on the east side of the plaza, near the nativity scene

It's a big wire-framed "A" lit with red "holiday" lights (calling them Christmas lights seems somewhat inappropriate). It says "Happy Winter Solstice". It says that Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) is the reason for the season. The display brightened my day, even though about half of the lights were dark, and I had to take a picture of my kids in front of it.

The display was placed by the atheists of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You can read a short news article about the "A" here. They make a big deal saying that there can be no freedom of religion until government is completely separated from religion and it's influences. I agree. Sadly, as those on the political left often do, this group attempts to equate the public expression of religion and public displays of religious symbols with the government sanction and/or establishment of religion. We Christians often try to duck this argument, opting to go along to get along. If we allow what the Establishment Clause means to be redefined, however, we will wind up without the freedom of religion or the right to express our religious beliefs publicly.

Much is made of the fact that there is a “separation of church and state” built into the U.S. Constitution. This is not exactly true, at least not in the way those on the left purport it to be. The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. The term is an offshoot of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state," as written by Thomas Jefferson in a now famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The original text of President Jefferson’s letter reads, in part:

"... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Jefferson of their concerns regarding the lack of explicit protection of religious liberty in their own state constitution, and against a government establishment of religion. As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might establish a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities. Jefferson assured them that the U.S. Constitution would in no way permit such an establishment, and that “…religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…” This separation of church and state, as understood by Thomas Jefferson at least, had nothing whatsoever to do with public expressions of religion. To Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, separation of church and state had everything to do with the establishment of a national/state religious body, and avoiding the national/state oppression of religious minorities.

It wasn't until 1947 that the Supreme Court, albeit nebulously, defined just how the “wall of separation” was to be built. As a result of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), Neither state or local government can: 1) set up a church, 2) pass laws that aid one religion, all religions, or favor one religion over another, 3) force a person to attend or stay away from church, or believe in any religion, 4) punish a person for holding or professing religious beliefs, 5) levy a tax, in any amount, to support any religious activities or institutions, 6) openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organization, or vice-versa.

A second important test established by the Court, known as The Lemon Test, is taken from the case Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The test consists of three parts: 1) whether the law or conduct has a secular purpose, 2) whether the law or conduct has as its primary or principle effect advancing or inhibiting religion, and 3) whether it fosters an excessive entanglement of government with religion.

To the chagrin of the New Atheist movement, The Court has ruled that public displays of religious symbols, such as the Christian nativity scene or the Jewish menorah, do not constitute a breach of the Establishment Clause when they are all displayed together, and along with secular holiday symbols, in celebration of the national holiday of Christmas (yes, it is a national holiday, believe it or not).

The Christkindlemarkt (Christ child market) which is set up in Daley Plaza every year in Chicago is clearly a Christian event, complete with nativity scene. Alongside the nativity scene during Hanukkah each year is a large Jewish menorah. Any citizen or group who wishes to exercise their freedom of religious expression in this public space may do so (as the atheist group has demonstrated by the presence of their display) and the event is not in breach of the Establishment Clause. Should any religious or secular group be prohibited by government from exercising that freedom of expression at the Christkindlemarkt, however, it would then violate the Establishment Clause.

To say that there is no place in American society for public displays of religion or religious symbols, strictly because they are by nature religious (the so-called freedom "from" religion), is simply not justified by the U.S. Constitution, or by case law.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissenting opinion to the McCreary County, Kentucky, ET. Al. Petitioners v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky ET.Al. case, observed that the same week Congress submitted the Establishment Clause as part of the Bill of Rights for ratification by the States, it enacted legislation providing for paid chaplains in the House and Senate. Justice Scalia goes on to remind his fellow justices that, “The same Congress also reenacted the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, 1 Stat. 50, Article II of which provided: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’” And, it should not be overlooked that the First Amendment itself accords religion – and no other manner of belief – special constitutional protection. I am sure that the atheist activists at the Freedom From Religion Foundation would not agree that these early actions of Congress are equally valid today, since those on the Left generally consider the U.S. Constitution to be a “living, breathing document”, meaning that its interpretation changes as American society changes, and that moral values simply evolve along with society and culture and are therefore not absolute.

The views of American citizens, however, have not changed significantly where this issue of public expression of religion is concerned. Justice Scalia rightly points out that our Presidents continue to conclude their oath of office with the words, “So help me God.” The Congress opens each session with a prayer; those prayers are lead by official congressional chaplains. The Supreme Court opens its sessions with the prayer “God save the United States and this Honorable Court”. We have the phrase “In God We Trust” on our currency. When we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States we corporately acknowledge that we are one nation, under God. Justice Scalia finishes his thought with these words:

“As one of our Supreme Court opinions rightly observed, ‘We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’ Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952), repeated with approval in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 675 (1984); Marsh, 463 U.S., at 792; Abington Township, supra, at 213.”

I have no problem with the atheists, secular humanists, and free-thinkers exercising their right to free expression. I tolerate their "A". Whether they like it or not, the atheists have to tolerate my public nativity scene. It establishes Christianity as a national religion about as much as their half-hearted display establishes Sol Invictus as America's supreme being.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 7

Sealing of the 144,000 from the Ottheinrich Bible.
The 144,000 of Israel Sealed

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads." And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

A Great Multitude from Every Nation

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice,"Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:1-14).

The four angels prepare to harm the land, sea, trees but are told to wait by the angel from the east. This angel was bearing the seal of the Living God. His order to restrain the other angels should give Christians comfort. Nothing will take place without God sealing his servants. This doesn't mean that Christians will necessarily avoid the coming tribulations, but it does mean that, no matter what terrible things take place, we who believe have been sealed and identified as belonging to God. No one can remove us from his hand.

144,000 are sealed - 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. This doesn't mean that only 144,000 people will enter paradise as some non-Christian cults teach. It does, at first reading seem to suggest some limit on those to be saved. That is, however, until you read the next section.

John describes "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language" standing, dressed in white, before Jesus' throne. Rather than showing that God limits salvation, the figure of the 144,000 assures us that all of those who are God's Elect, whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life, will be saved and not one person will be lost or forgotten.

1000 is a number that reflects completeness, or sufficiency (10x10x10 - 10, the number of completeness multiplied by three, the representative of the Trinity). 12 calls to mind the human Church - both God's Old Testament people (the 12 tribes of Israel) and God's New Testament people (the 12 apostles). God is showing John that, even through the terrible tribulations that will precede the end of all things, all those people to whom God has granted repentance and faith will assuredly receive the gift of eternal life they have been promised, and will be gathered together with Christ and live and reign with him forever.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:1-11).

There is a children's song sometimes used to teach Kindergartners about Advent. The children are supposed to learn the words, "Advent is the time of waiting, waiting/Advent is the time we wait for him; Advent is the time of waiting/We also have to wait for...." The children are supposed to then say something that they have to wait for. The answers I tend to get are things like "lunch" and "cupcakes". Advent, however is much more than simply a time of waiting for something trivial like a snack. It is certainly a time of waiting, but it is also a time of preparation - preparation to celebrate Jesus' first coming at Christmas, as well as his second coming at the end of the age. The word Advent comes from the Latin "adventus", which means "coming".

The text from Matthew 21 culminates with Jesus coming to Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples begin going up to Jerusalem in Matthew 20. This is after the large crowds had followed him into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River from Galilee[1]. The crowds had been healed and had witnessed miracles. Jesus taught them and his disciples through parables. The Pharisees disputed with him and, most significantly, Jesus had told his disciples exactly why they were going to Jerusalem:

As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed (Matthew 17:22).

Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to die. He and his disciples had gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and for other feasts, before. This time, however, Jesus was going to die. He told his disciples this and they didn't understand. They didn't understand that Jesus was the true Passover lamb for whom they had been waiting[2], and that all the Passover lambs they had eaten during their lives were shadows of Jesus[3]. They didn't yet understand that Jesus was the propitiation for their sins, and the sins of the whole world[4], foretold by the prophets of old. They didn't understand that Jesus, who was true God in human flesh, would be that propitiation for sin by dying a horrible death hanging on a Roman cross, and that he would defeat sin, death, and the devil once and for all by his resurrection from the dead[5]. They understood that they were going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, as they had done before, but they did not understand that they had brought with them the true Passover lamb, for which the faithful had waited since man had been cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Matthew explains to us why the donkey is significant; it fulfills Old Testament prophecy. Zechariah wrote:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

The coming king of Zion would not enter his city as the triumphant conqueror. He would not be clad in armor, seated atop a strong and noble steed, with a mighty army at his back. Zechariah wrote that the coming king, the Messiah, who would speak peace to the nations, who would rule from sea to sea, who would set the captives free because of the blood of his covenant and save his people, would be humble and would come to his people riding on a humble donkey.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem claims an authority that the people of that time and place would have quickly recognized. By entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus was recreating the kind of royal inauguration experienced by Solomon, also David’s son and king of Israel. Jesus was, by his actions here, announcing that he, the King of Israel, had arrived in Jerusalem. The crowds that were with him hailed him in the appropriate manner. Kretzmann writes the following about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as told by Matthew:

But the climax of the exultation was reached at the summit of the Mount of Olives. Here the ranks of the early singers were swelled by great crowds of newcomers, and while the latter turned and marched ahead, the others followed behind the Lord. And in antiphonal shouting the joyous acclaim of the people rose up to heaven as they chanted sections from the great Hallel, with the doxology used on great festivals, Ps. 118, 25. 26. They openly proclaim Him as the Son of David, as the true Messiah, they wish Him blessing and salvation from above. Far and wide, the people joined in this demonstration in honor of the lowly Nazarene (Kretzmann, 1921).

Hosanna means “help” or “save”; a plea for divine help or deliverance, found frequently in Psalms 113 – 118, that became a general acclimation (Engelbrecht, 2009). The crowds hailed Jesus as savior and king, and the Pharisees became worried that the world was going after him[6]. Unfortunately the people, like the Pharisees and even the disciples, were expecting a political savior who would establish the nation of Israel in the physical world by force, delivering them from the tyranny of the enemies around them such as Rome. This praise Jesus received from the fickle crowds would vanish. They would come to realize, as Jesus told Pilate, that his kingdom was not of this world[7], and that the prison from which he was going to free the captives would be that of sin and death, not worldly strife and hardship[8]. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, they did not understand that the blood of the covenant by which the King would save his people[9] would not be that of some sacrificed animal, but it would be Jesus’ own blood shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.

This Advent we prepare to celebrate the humble arrival of the Christ at Christmas, who took on human flesh and dwelt among his creation. This he did not by some spectacularly glorious process befitting the Almighty Creator of all things, but by being born of a virgin in a cattle shed. He would not be draped in royal purple and surrounded by servants, but would be lying in straw and worshiped by unclean shepherds. This seems to be how Jesus operates. He comes to his people in the time, place, and manner which he chooses, not in the ways we think he should. During this Advent we remember that this is the case not only with his coming to earth as a babe lying in a manger, or with Jesus coming to his people, entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey. We must also keep this in mind as we look forward to his coming as supreme judge of the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end:

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen…When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…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 (Revelation 1:7; Matthew 25:31-32; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

As we anticipate and prepare for Jesus' second coming, we can take comfort knowing that he has not left us alone as we wait. He comes to us in bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. He comes to us in water and word in Baptism. He comes to us where two or three are gathered in his name around these gifts of Word and Sacrament, the pledges he has given us, his means of coming to us, creating faith in us, and sustaining us during this time of waiting. We may not know the day or the hour of his second coming, or how it will appear to us as it happens. Still, we wait, as did the faithful of old. Even so, we who believe in him and have thus through faith been justified by his blood on the cross say Lord Jesus, quickly come![10]

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 19:1-2
[2] John 1:29-34
[3] Hebrews 8:1-7
[4] 1 John 2:1-3
[5] Philippians 2:4-11
[6] John 12:19
[7] John 18:36
[8] Isaiah 61
[9] Zechariah 9:11
[10] Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 10:19-25; Revelation 1:4-8

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Law of Love Toward the Enemy - II

Two police recruits run through
a felony traffic stop scenario at PTI.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45).

The Pharisees grew out of the movement for independence during and after the time of the Maccabean revolt. Their faction of Judaism arose out of a reaction against Hellenism (Packer & Tenney, 1980). The Pharisees wanted to protect the Jewish culture from Greek influence. They were also profoundly concerned with rightly keeping Gods law. In an effort to be sure that they did not transgress Gods law, the Pharisees superimposed a network of regulations over the top of Gods law. The idea was that, if Gods law commanded not to take the name of The Lord your God in vain, we will teach that you just can't say Gods name. After all, if you don't say Gods name, it should be pretty hard take it in vain, right? Besides, what does it mean to take Gods name in vain anyway? Better to be on the safe side and just not say it. 

In this manner did the Pharisees build a "protective hedge" around Gods law. They told themselves that they were doing it to protect Gods commandments. In reality, they were building not a hedge to protect the law, but a wall which separated them from, and thus nullified, the law. This is the same reason that we do it - so that we are not confronted with just how inadequate we are when measured according to Gods standard. 

See, St. Paul explains that the whole point of Gods law is to show us our sin. When we look into that mirror of Gods law and see how ugly we look, it isn't easy to accept. This is just as true for us as it was for the Pharisees. Rather than building a hedge of protection around the law, they were actually replacing Gods law with man-made commandments which would a) look impressive to other men and cause them to appear "godly", and b) give them rules that they would actually be able to keep. One of the problems with this plan, though, is that the laws we construct out of our own mind bear little, if any, resemblance to the kinds of things God constructs out of His mind. 

In this last section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses one of our favorite bricks that we use in constructing our wall to trap Gods law: Love for our neighbor. Jesus begins by quoting scripture. The passage he cites comes from Leviticus:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:17-18).

Right off the bat we run into one of Pharisaical bricks in the wall. The "love your neighbor" part of that sentence is part of scripture; the "hate your enemy" clause was a teaching added by the Pharisees. Kretzmann explains:

The first injunction is found in the Law, Lev. 19, 18. The second part of the sentence is an addition made by the rabbis. They understood the word "neighbor" of the members of their own nation only, arguing from the many passages of the Law in which God had commanded the children of Israel to destroy the heathen nations. But in all those instances the children of Israel were merely carrying out God's penal justice. Their argument would therefore not stand, especially in view of Ex. 22, 21; 23, 9; Lev. 19, 33; Deut. 10, 18. 19; 24, 17; 27, 19. Jesus insists that all hatred is contrary to humaneness, opposed to the spirit which He was striving to foster (Kretzmann, 1921).

The problem is that we’re really good at hatred. Not only that, it feels really good when we are immersed in it. We love giving people “a piece of our mind”, or confronting that person who has done something – whether perceived or real – to hurt or offend us. Heck, we even love telling other people, those whom we “love”, all of the hateful things our enemies have done to us behind our enemies’ back. We can totally relate to what the Pharisees were getting at when they taught, “hate your enemy.” This is our default setting. We automatically feel this way. It feels natural and right to be nice to the people who are nice to us and hate the people who treat us badly. A Pharisee from Jesus’ day might even argue that, though it is not explicitly stated, the injunction to hate one’s enemies is implied. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Even the secular world understands that these instinctual reactions must, in certain circumstances, be trained out of us.

The University of Illinois Police Training Institute was established in 1955. PTI is one of the largest and longest-serving police academies in the United States (Police Training Institute). Thousands of police officers and correctional officers have received their training from retired and active law enforcement officers at PTI since its inception. In addition to the classroom work, the physical training, the self-defense training, and the weapons training, one of the most important things to which police recruits are subjected is practical, or scenario-based training. This is where recruits are dressed up in their uniforms, given a scenario, and expected to apply all the things that they have learned to bring the scenario to the appropriate conclusion. As everyone must surely know, practical application of theory never goes as smoothly as expected, especially the first time it is applied to a real-world situation.

It is for this reason that police recruits at PTI are subjected to mock traffic stops and mock 911 calls. The instructors and role-players with whom the recruits interact attempt to recreate as closely as possible the real-world situations in which the recruits will soon find themselves. These scenarios range from the mock stolen bicycle report, to the mock active school shooter situation, complete with projectile-firing weapons. Before entering the scenarios, however, instructors attempt to instill in their students one maxim above all others – If it feels good, don’t say it. You see, the role players are instructed to take their cues throughout the scenario from the police recruit. This is to make tactically wise, safe, and legal behaviors habitual with the recruit. Consequently, if a recruit leaves himself vulnerable to attack, the role player is to exploit his advantage. It is easier, however, at least at the beginning, for a recruit to remember to protect their weapon from a potentially dangerous individual, than it is to remember to avoid getting into a shouting match with a belligerent motorist to whom he is giving a citation. It is a human’s natural reaction to argue with people, especially when we are right and they are wrong. There is so much we relish saying to them just in order to “get our digs in”. It makes us feel good. A police officer on the job, however, must act contrary to his instinct when it comes to this circumstance. If it feels good, he must not say it, but remain professional and courteous lest he escalate the situation. Some officers are more successful than others. Some Christians, are more successful at this than others as well.

Christians, being aware that we have a corrupt, sinful human nature, should all be a little wary of those things that “just feel right”. More often than not, those things that just seem right and feel natural to our flesh are contrary to the spirit of Christ living inside us, if indeed we are regenerate men. When you think about it, it is easy to see how mankind could twist God’s word that tells us to love our neighbors into an excuse to hate. 

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:46—48).

Jesus knocks down the man-made wall surrounding God’s word and reveals it to us. He tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us; since we are his sons, we should take after our father. He tells us that God our heavenly father, in his gracious providence cares for evil people as well as good people, and that this attitude of loving only those who love you in return is a product of our sinful nature, since this is how even the hated tax collectors and Gentiles act. He commands us to be perfect.

That is, however, only part of the lesson. We know that we can’t be perfect. Jesus isn’t giving us a goal to meet so that, if we meet it, we will be “good” and therefore right with God. Quite to the contrary, he is using the law to show us our sin. He is showing us that the perfection required of us by God is impossible for us to reach. He is calling us to repent of our sin. As Martin Luther wrote regarding this, “At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands...You will find out that you will be occupied with the practice of this work for the rest of your life” (Engelbrecht, 2009). You will also find, to finish Dr. Luther’s thought, that it is an impossible task.

We try, like the Pharisees, to set up our own moral codes to live by that we think we can keep. In the end we don’t even live up to them, so we have to keep changing our morals to fit our lives. If we do well by our own standards we pat ourselves on the back; when we fail, we console ourselves with the lie that, as long as we do the best we can, God will be happy with us. The words of Jesus, however, remain – You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

So here we are. God commands us to love our fellow man, “friend” and “enemy” alike. We fail. We are guilty of sin, guilty of missing God’s mark, and no amount of perceived good works we do will make up for that fact. Nothing we do can offset that. We are told to feed our enemies when they are hungry and to give them drink when they are thirsty but we do not[1]. We are told to forgive those who sin against us but we do not[2]. We are told to be kind and compassionate to each other and to forgive each other, just as we have been forgiven by God through Christ but we do not[3]. No subtle rewriting of God’s word will hide our sin or assuage our guilty consciences for, if we have spent any time looking into our hearts, we know that what God’s word says of us is true. We are conceived in iniquity and born in sin[4]; the thoughts of our hearts are evil from our youth[5]; our hearts are filled with evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander[6].

Left here, we would fall into despair, and rightly so. We certainly do not deserve any of God’s gifts, especially forgiveness for these sins of thought, word, and deed. Thankfully for mankind, God does not think or operate like we do. While we are sinners, God has called us to repentance and faith in Jesus through His holy word. In the Law God shows us who we are, sin and all, and we see His wrath. In the Gospel God shows us what he has done, and continues to do, for our salvation (Luther, 1991).

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:5-10). 

Because God the Father loves mankind he sent Jesus, his one and only Son, into the world to bear our sin and to be our savior. Jesus, God in human flesh, demonstrated for us the very thing he taught in the Sermon on the Mount by his willingness to be put to death on the cross. You see, we did not do anything “good” which attracted us to Jesus and compelled him to save us. He loved us, his enemies, while we were still wretched and condemned sinners. St. Paul writes in Romans:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Roman 5:6-11).

Christ went to the cross in our place. And, because he rose from the grave, we who trust in him will also rise. This is the attitude we are to strive for when dealing with our neighbors. And, because Christ has been victorious over sin, death and the devil, he enables us to do good works – including loving our neighbor – by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther, M. (1991). Luther's Small Catechism. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Packer, J. I., & Tenney, M. C. (Eds.). (1980). Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN, USA: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Police Training Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2013, from Police Training Institute University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

End Notes

[1] Romans 12:20 
[2] Matthew 6:15 
[3] Ephesians 4:32 
[4] Psalm 51:5 
[5] Genesis 8:21 
[6] Matthew 15:19

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Happy Atheist...he has Issues (ETC)

Below is the text of a letter I wrote to Rev. Todd Wilken, host of Issues ETC, following the fascinating interview he conducted with P.Z. Myers, author of The Happy Atheist. To hear the interview, click on the link below. This is a great exposition of the doctrine of the "New" Atheism, in the words of one of their own:


Dear Pastor Wilken,

I listened to your interview with the Happy Atheist today and am thankful that you took to time to interview him. The so-called "new" atheists have attempted to cover their hostility toward God with the veneer of reason, science, "reasonableness", glued in place with the bonding agent of elitism. I believe that your straightforward conversation with Dr. P.Z. Myers exposed that, and helped to illustrate that New Atheism is nothing new. It is the same hatred for God and defiant opposition to God's moral standard written on the very fabric of human kind that it has always been since man's fall into sin.

I realize that you had a limited time with Dr. Myer and to address specific issues would have had the potential to turn the interview into debate. That being said, a few points from the interview did stick in my mind, and I would have liked to have heard Dr. Myers' answers.

At the beginning of the interview Dr. Myers asserted that there is absolutely no historical basis for the New Testament documents. I'm sure that you had to bite your tongue to let that one go by, as we know from the very best and most recent scholarship that the New Testament documents are supremely reliable as historical record. As stated numerous times on Issues ETC, archaeology continues to support the validity of the New Testament accounts.

You asked Dr. Myers how he would react to all of the positive contributions to the world which seemed to have sprung from a Christian ethos, citing abolitionism, hospitals, orphanages, universal education, etc. Dr. Meyer said (I paraphrase) that it was a revision of history to talk about Christianity/religion as a force for good in history; He specifically attacked Christianity's role in the abolition movement and the position of slavery within the Christian worldview in general. He did not, however, answer the other examples you raised. I have seen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim hospitals, schools, and orphanages. I cannot recall seeing, or ever hearing of any such charity founded by a movement of secular humanism. I'm sure humanistic charities exist. They do not, however, exist as the norm of compassionate giving and human care and relief - they are the exception. Christian, and other religious charity, however, is the rule.

Dr. Meyer also stated, echoing the position of others within New Atheism, that there is no absolute moral authority. All morality is arbitrary, and to be based on "man's interaction with man" as man must live in community to survive. He conceded that different communities would come up with different community rules and standards, and that destructive "community moralities" (my own term) should be discouraged. Who is to determine what is destructive and what is constructive? Do opposing forces inside the community battle it out until one side or the other is dominant? The National Socialist worldview was considered constructive by those people who believed and implemented it. This worldview, justly implemented by a community of people (according to the argument made by Dr. Myers), is responsible for the destruction of millions of people considered to be sub-human, and a world war was fought to bring about it's end. Is Nazism simply wrong because the Allies were stronger than the Axis and won a war (ie a higher/stronger community standard)? Without some kind of absolute moral standard, what right did the Allied powers have to deem the Nazi's worldview as destructive and impose their own will instead. This seems to revert to the axiom, "Might Makes Right".

In the most ghastly segment about human rights and abortion, Dr. Myers stated that, "...personhood emerges gradually..." This view seems to echo that of Dr. Peter Singer, professor of Bioethics at Princeton who believes that right to life is tied to a beings capability to hold preferences, and that killing a newborn baby is not equivalent to killing a person because babies lack the essential characteristics of personhood. If "personhood" does indeed emerge gradually as Dr. Myers states: 1) Who determines when someone has achieved personhood, or when someone has lost the personhood they once possessed? 2) If a newborn baby is not immediately a person at birth (as Dr. Myers implied) but rather develops into a person at some indeterminate time during it's physical growth and cognitive development, what implications does this have for so-called women's rights? Would a mother have the right to "abort" her "non-person" newborn just as she had the right to abort her "non-person" fetus when it was in the womb? 3) Do human rights apply to human beings, or only to persons? If human rights apply only to "persons" then the application of those rights depend on whether or not that human being is a person. That determination is made according to the human beings size, level of development, environment, and/or degree of dependency and is essentially arbitrary, being totally subject to the "community", which could change its standard as it desired, unless some other "community" that developed was stronger and asserted its dominance.

Fortunately, the world does not function this way. God's law is written on our hearts. There is no one righteous, not one. What's more is that we know our state, and how helpless we are. Thanks be to God that he has provided redemption, pardon, and peace to us through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. The Happy Atheist is nothing more than a real world example of what St. Paul writes about the depravity of unregenerate humanity in Romans:

"Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them," (Romans 1:28-32).

Thank you for straightforwardly exposing Dr. Myers' beliefs and letting his words show the depravity of New Atheism. God bless you also for firmly confessing your faith to him toward the end of the program, and rightly proclaiming law and gospel to him as you did so.

God's Richest Blessings to You in Christ!
The Hodgkins Lutheran

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Law of Love Toward the Enemy - I

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matthew 5:38-42).

Nearly everyone has heard the phrase, "An eye for an eye." People, however, often have a mistaken notion of what it means. Gandhi is famously, even if probably erroneously, credited with saying, "An eye for an eye will make the world blind," as an argument for pacifism. This jejune use of the phrase "an eye for an eye" demonstrates the worldly misunderstanding of what it actually means in context. This phrase "an eye for an eye" is often used by people to justify retaliation against another person to get even for some wrong that was done to them. After all, the Bible says, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But that isn't really what that phrase means at all. Jesus, in Matthew chapter five, is referring back to what is written in Exodus 21 before making his point:

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:22-25).

This passage, far from being an authorization to exact revenge on those who wrong you like some kind of Biblically sanctioned Beatrix Kiddo, comes from Israelite civil law. The government has this authority from God, through his law, to punish wrongdoing and exact retribution. In this passage from Exodus we see the guide which the civil authorities were to follow - "An eye for an eye." Or, as we might say today, "The punishment must fit the crime." The Pharisees interpreted this passage in the selfish and individualistic way common wisdom prods us all to - that each individual has the right to take revenge and to exact compensation for himself (Kretzmann, 1921). Jesus, however, brings us back to the proper perspective. It is not the duty, or even the right, of an individual to exact revenge for himself. To the contrary, Jesus' explanation of how individuals are to act toward each other provides the basis for another familiar saying - "turn the other cheek". Jesus' interpretation is supported by the Word of God as recorded in Leviticus:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:17-18).

Rather than being a pronouncement of civil law dealing with how individuals relate to each other in the civil realm and mediated by the civil authorities, this passage from Leviticus governs the attitude individuals are to have toward one another as, well, individuals. God explains that he his holy and that he wants his holiness to be reflected in the lives and conduct of his people. God pays back evildoers, so thoughts of personal revenge and violence are prohibited (The Lutheran Study Bible, 2008):

The LORD is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth...The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies (Psalm 94:1; Nahum 1:2). 

Kretzmann provides the following explanation:

There is a climax in the examples chosen by Christ; injury goes from bad to worse. There will be times and circumstances when love will be ready patiently to suffer the repetition of the same injury: the disgrace of being struck with the palm of the open hand, the humiliation of giving up the more costly mantle or toga together with the tunic or undergarment, the demand and even the compulsion, coming probably from a soldier, to accompany him for some distance and assist him with his baggage. A Christian will, so far as his person alone is concerned, render such exacted service cheerfully and do more than is asked, rather than submit to the inevitable in a sullen manner. On the other hand, of course, such passive behavior must cease as soon as it comes into conflict with the law of love. A disciple of Christ has duties toward his family, his community, his country, which will sometimes compel him to protect and defend them against injustice and insult. But for the individual it is true: he that magnanimously bears, overcomes. Rather than harbor evil, vengeful thoughts and desires, the Christian will be ready to render assistance whenever this is needed (Kretzmann, 1921).

This attitude of Christ, however, goes against every instinct we have as human beings. This should not surprise us, though, since our instincts, just like every other part of us, is corrupt and sinful. We are not supposed to retaliate against our neighbor for the wrongs committed against us, but we do. Rather than fighting with the one who would argue, we should settle out disagreements, even when that means giving up more of what is rightfully ours. When people say things about us that are not true in an attempt to hurt our reputation, or they tell us lies, it is our natural instinct to respond in kind - to "tell them off" or start airing their secret sins as well in order to hurt or embarrass them. When they are hurting the way we are hurt because of what they have done to us, then we will feel good. We will be vindicated. It feels so good, at least to our flesh - to our sinful and depraved human nature - which should be our first clue to stop and think about our reaction. This is not how Jesus reacted to those who persecuted him. St. Peter writes:

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued trusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:22-10-23).

If anyone has a case for retaliation because of wrong-doing, it is Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that he, Jesus - God in human flesh - committed no sin. Not only did he suffer the injustice of being falsely accused, tried, and punished by men, the sinless son of God was made to be sin so that we could escape God's wrath. Though he was mocked by his lying accusers, Jesus never responded in kind. Instead he relied on God the Father who will justly punish the wicked and reward the righteous (The Lutheran Study Bible, 2008). The sinless Jesus bore the sin of the world and suffered the punishment that rightly should belong to us sinners on the cross, as the wages of sin is death. St. Peter continues:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:24-25).

No one in this sinful, fallen world is immune from suffering, and Christians especially are not. Jesus, while he was on earth, suffered unjustly; we may also face unjust suffering and death (The Lutheran Study Bible, 2008). But, "Vengeance is mine...", as the saying goes. The thing is, we must remember that it was God who said it. Contrary to exacting vengeance upon those who sin against us, we are called to repent of our sin and be forgiven by the grace of God, through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and, by the working of the Holy Spirit within us, turn away from sin and the works of the flesh, and produce the fruit of the Spirit:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25).

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Kingdom of God - Part 3

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot - they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all - so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17: 26-30).

As previously discussed, Jesus had told his hearers that the Kingdom of God was in their midst, referring to his rule as Messiah. Here Jesus explains how the physical manifestation of the Kingdom of God will come about at the end, on Judgment Day. On that day this present, corrupt world will pass away and Jesus will make everything new, bringing into existence a new heaven and a new earth[1]. The character of the kingdom's physical manifestation will not be gradual, and it will not involve rehabilitation of the kingdoms of this present world. Things are not going to get better, and better, and better in this world until, at some point, the Christian religion reigns over all the earth and we enter the golden age of the Millennium, as some Christian theologians teach[2]. The physical arrival of Christ and God's Kingdom will bring with it utter destruction as evidenced by the examples Jesus gives. The great flood at the time of Noah destroyed all life on earth, except that which was preserved by God in the Ark. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was absolute, with no trace of the cities or survivors remaining - again, with the exception of those whom God preserved out of his grace. God's kingdom will come quickly, but with plenty of warning, just as the flood came upon the world of Noah, just as the fire rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah in the time of Lot. Kretzmann writes about how the people during the time of Noah and Lot were stubborn and, despite being given plenty of time and warning about the impending judgment, refused to repent:

The distinguishing characteristic of the time just preceding the final advent of Christ, the Son of Man, will be an indifferent carelessness. The days of Noah are an example. The warning had gone out through the mouth of this preacher of righteousness that the people should repent of their foolish ways. But they gave so little heed to the warning that they continued in all the manner of complete abandon in the desires of the flesh up to the very hour of the cataclysm: they ate, they drank, they married, they were married; men and women, the entire generation, past all hope of redemption. And then, with the sudden frightfulness that has characterized the judgments of God in similar situations, came the day on which Noah entered into the ark; then came the Flood and destroyed them all. And the days of Lot are another example of the utter, blind heedlessness of the people. In Sodom and Gomorrah the inhabitants continued in the delights of the flesh as well as in all their lines of business, work, and endeavor: they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, up to the very hour of the catastrophe that overwhelmed the cities, when it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed them all. The people of the last times will not have learned their lesson from the previous calamities; when the Son of Man will be revealed before their astonished, horrified eyes on the last day, He will find them as unprepared for His coming, as deeply steeped in the foolishness of the Noachites and of the Sodomites as any generation ever was (Kretzmann, 1921).

On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot's wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:31-37).

In this passage some see evidence of the rapture, the spiriting away to heaven of all Christians from the earth either before, during, or after a period known to millennialist Christians as the Tribulation. Images of the Left Behind book series by Tim LeHaye are called to mind; images of driverless cars abandoned in the roadway and pilotless airplanes auguring into mountainsides, their Christian drivers and pilots gone on to heavenly glory without any hint or warning. This is not, however, the thing to which Jesus is referring. Dispensationalism and the doctrine of the rapture are not borne out by scripture. It is of relatively new invention, in fact, being only developed over the last 200 years or so[3]. Instead, Jesus is describing the suddenness of his coming on the Day of Judgment, and the futility of all things temporal when it comes to redemption. Just as it was too late for anyone in Noah's time to escape God's judgment by the waters of the flood after he had shut Noah, his family, and the animals inside the ark, so too will it be too late to repent when Christ appears. Likewise, Lot's wife is turned to a pillar of salt when she hesitates to trust in God's redemption and turns back to see the fate of her former home (Engelbrecht, 2009). Regarding this passage, Kretzmann writes the following:

The suddenness of the breaking of Judgment Day will take every person where he just happens to be at that time. A man will be up on the flat roof of the house. He will neither have, nor should he attempt to take, time to go down and get any instruments or possessions. A man will be out in the field. He also should not turn back behind him for anything of this world's goods that he may have valued. As when an army of the enemy makes a sudden successful assault and only precipitate flight will save the inhabitants, he that turns back for money, clothes, or other goods is lost, so the person whose mind is still attached to the things of this world on the last day is beyond hope of salvation. The example of Lot's wife should be before the minds of the believers at all times. Had she not turned behind her to satisfy her curiosity, she might have saved her soul with the rest. Her hesitation proved her destruction. Cp. Matt. 16, 25; Mark 8, 35; Luke 9, 24. He that in the last emergency will have nothing in mind but the saving of this earthly life and the goods that are necessary for its preservation, will lose forever the true life in and with God; but he whose desires are free from all love for this world and what it has to offer, that has denied himself and all that this life might have given him, he will save his life, the life in God, his soul and its eternal salvation (Kretzmann, 1921).

The Disciples, needless to say, are stunned at Jesus' teaching. As discussed earlier, they still seem to expect the same type of political Messiah as the Pharisees. They ask the question, "Where, Lord?" Jesus, as he was wont to do, answers them in enigmatic fashion. His answer is unmistakably ominous: "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." This may seem like a sarcastic non-answer to the disciples' question but it does give us an idea what the world will be like by the time of the end - worthless and unclean, like a dead and rotting corpse. Kretzmann explains Jesus' words this way:

In awe and fear, they [the disciples] barely breathe the question: Where, Lord? Where will all this happen? And He told them: Where the dead body is, there will the eagles gather themselves together. The world, especially in the last days, will be, and to-day is, like a decaying carcass, whose stench rises up into the heavens. And judgment and destruction will come upon the entire spiritually dead and morally rotten human race. It is a strong, but fitting figure, revealing the world as it is, in its true condition, without a redeeming feature to recommend it in the sight of God (Kretzmann, 1921).

God is purposely ambiguous when describing for us the signs of Christ's second coming and the signs of the end of this present age. He leaves no doubt, however, that Christ will come a second time to establish the eternal kingdom. If we human beings could calculate the time of Christ's return, we would live as reprobates until the last possible moment before repenting of our sin, such is the depravity of our sinful human nature (Engelbrecht, 2009). St. Paul, in fact, warns us against living in such a way. He tells us that we should put on the new self and live as the new creation of Christ that we are, not in order to earn God’s favor, but as a response to receiving God’s undeserved mercy through Christ Jesus. St. Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect…If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (Romans 12:1-2; Colossians 3:1-8).

To delay repentance, to turn away from God and live according to the desires of our sinful flesh, to disregard the law's revelation of our sinful state and the call of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel is to run the risk of ending up as those who ignored God in the days of Noah and Lot.

The message of Christ's teaching here is unmistakable: today is the day of salvation and repentance must not be delayed[4]. Through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, sin, death, and Satan have been defeated (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation, 1986). Christ died as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world[5]; those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ have the forgiveness and eternal life he won for mankind by Christ on the cross. Furthermore, we who trust in Christ must not live as if his return is far off and we are secure among our earthly possessions, because we are not. Our wealth, possessions, our status among men and our good works will be of no avail to us when Christ returns on the Day of the Lord to judge mankind and establish his kingdom physically. The only way we can hope to stand before God on that Day of Judgment is if we have been clothed with the robe of Christ's righteousness won for us by his death and resurrection, given to us freely, by his grace[6].

Works Cited

Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. (1989). The "End Times" - A Study on Eschatology and Millennialism. St. Louis: The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. (1986). Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Revelation 21:1-8

[2] While there are numerous variations in millennialist teaching today, a fourfold categorization has been widely accepted: 1) dispensational premillennialism; (2) historic premillennialism; (3) postmillennialism, and (4) amillennialism. Of the first three categories, all of which hold to a millennium or utopian age on this earth, the most commonly held view is dispensational premillennialism…The less common postmillennial view places Christ’s second advent after (post) the millennium. Only then will the rapture, the general resurrection, the general judgment , and the eternal states occur. The millennium is not understood to involve a visible reign of Christ in the form of an earthly monarchy, nor is the millennial period to be taken literally as necessarily 1000 years long. In these respects postmillennialism corresponds closely to the amillennialist position (Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, 1989).

[3] Dispensational premillennialism, or simply dispensationalism, is a theological system having its origin among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland and England in the early 19th century. This system’s originator was John Nelson Darby (1800-82), one of the chief founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Dispensationalism arose as a reaction against the Church of England and the widely held view of postmillennialism (Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, 1989).

[4] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:15; 5:19; 5:21; Hebrews 2:17.

[6] Isaiah 61:9-11; Revelation 21:1-2