Sunday, December 30, 2018

Simeon Sees God's Salvation

A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel (Luke 2:32).

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.[1] Mary and Joseph circumcised Jesus on the eighth day after His birth as the Law of Moses required. Having received this sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, Christ is formally brought into Israel according to the Law. Being the first born male, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple to offer the sacrifices required in the Law to consecrate Him to the LORD, and to redeem Him.[2] By this act Jesus enters into the service of God. All that Jesus did in His earthly life, or that was done to Him by His faithful earthly parents, was so that He could serve His Heavenly Father perfectly under the Law, something mankind was not capable of doing since the Fall of Adam.

At the temple, the Holy Family meets Simeon, who has been supernaturally directed to the infant Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This faithful Israelite had been waiting for the Consolation of Israel.[3] The Spirit of the Lord had told him that he would see the Messiah. When he sees Jesus Simeon sings a song of Joy. His vigil was now complete. He could go in peace, that is, he could now die, because God had fulfilled His promise. Simeon had held the Light to the Gentiles, and the Glory of Israel in his arms.

Simeon had seen the One who was the fulfillment of the covenant. This child whom he held in his arms was the one about whom Isaiah wrote: I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness and will hold Your hand; I will keep you and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.[4] Jesus is indeed a light to the nations. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father who sent Him; whoever believes in Him believes in the Father and no longer abides in darkness.[5] He has freed us from the prison house of sin and made us servants of righteousness. Jesus, perfectly righteous under the Law, was rejected by His own, killed as a ransom for many on the cross, and risen from the dead on the third day.[6]

We who believe, like our brother Simeon, are also waiting for the Consolation of Israel. We await Hs return in glory, to judge the living and the dead. As we wait, we gather faithfully to eat His body and drink His blood, as He calls us to do, for the forgiveness of sins, proclaiming His death until He comes.[7] Each time we receive the gift of Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, we rejoice; we sing Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimittis: Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, For mine eyes have seen Thy Salvation. By these means of Word and Sacrament Jesus gives to us Salvation – He, Himself. Like Simeon, after receiving this pledge of redemption from sin, death, and the devil, and the resurrection to life eternal, we to can proclaim that we are ready to die.

[1] Galatians 4:4-5
[2] Exodus 13:2, 11-13
[3] Luke 2:25
[4] Isaiah 42:6-7
[5] John 12:44-50
[6] Mark 8:31; John 1:11; Mark 10:45
[7] 1 Corinthians 11:10-23-26

Friday, December 28, 2018

Glory in the Highest

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them (Luke 2:15-20).

So, you are a shepherd, and you are out in the fields doing what shepherds do – tending sheep. And, seemingly out of nowhere, God sends a host of angels to tell you and your companions about the birth of the Savior of the word. This is probably just as unexpected and strange to you as it is to those who read the account in Holy Scripture. Being a shepherd was difficult work. It was unpleasant, at least to the other members of the community who weren’t the ones who had to do it. Shepherds had to be out in the elements, staying away for long periods keeping watch for predators, and making sure the sheep were safe. Shepherds were somewhat isolated from the larger community; the very nature of their work necessitated this, and this was just fine with everyone. Shepherds were not despised, per se, but they weren’t exalted either. Shepherds were smelly and dirty, and people looked down on them because of their vocation. Kind of the way we might think of garbage men (No offense to garbage men intended; It’s not a job I’d want to do, even if they did pay me well). So, it is somewhat surprising that God would choose to make the public proclamation of the Messiah’s birth to a group of shepherds off in some fields away from everybody.

This isn’t the kind of thing we expect. It certainly isn’t what we would do, and doesn’t make sense according to human logic. The birth of the Messiah is a royal birth. This is David’s Son whom David would call, “Lord,” by whom David’s throne would be established forever. Royal births are not announced like this. Announcing Jesus’ birth this way would be akin to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in announcing the birth of Prince George, posting the customary formal bulletin at the garage where the garbage trucks are parked, rather than on an easel outside Buckingham Palace. The Magi from the East expected King Herod to know about the birth of the King of the Jews. That’s why they went to Jerusalem to Herod’s palace to find out where the child was. But God has made it clear in His Word that He doesn’t operate according to the thinking of man: For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are my ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.”[1]

Mary probably understood this attribute of God better than anyone. She understood that God operates in a way foreign to man’s thinking. We are impressed and fearful of the proud and mighty, but God scatters them, and puts them down from their thrones. God instead exalts the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.[2] Scripture tells us that God has chosen the foolish things of this world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.[3] So God announces the arrival of the Messiah to foolish shepherds, rather than to proud and mighty kings. He comes to be with us in human flesh through the womb of the humble Virgin Mary, and is born not in a palace, but in a peasant’s home, and laid in a lowly manger. All of this is to accomplish the most unexpected thing of all: This Jesus lying in a manger – who is God, with us – will defeat the proud and mighty devil, and destroy sin and death once and for all in what the world would see as the most foolish and absurd way possible. He will die on a cross as a despised criminal, bearing your sin, and mine. For God made Jesus, who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.[4] Jesus’ death is the propitiation for our sin and the sin of the world;[5] He gave His life as a ransom for many.[6] After three days, He rose from the dead for our justification.[7] He did this for you and for me, while we were still sinners, before we had done anything to earn His favor. He did it because He loves us. How foolish! How illogical! How wonderful! Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out![8]

[1] Isaiah 55:8-9
[2] Luke 1:46-55
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:27
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21
[5] 1 John 2:2
[6] Mark 10:45
[7] Romans 4:25
[8] Romans 11:33

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christ Brings Division

I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49)

The Jesus speaking to Peter in this verse bears little resemblance to the Jesus familiar to popular culture. This is not Hallmark Jesus. This is the Jesus who called the Pharisees vipers and blind guides, who overturned the tables of the move changers and drove them out of the temple with a whip. What does He mean by this? Jesus appears to be saying something quite different to Peter here than the angels said to those shepherds in the fields, who were watching their flocks on the night Jesus was born. These words are shocking, even frightening, especially when you consider their source. Jesus, God with us in human flesh,[1] the image of the invisible God through whom all things were created,[2] says that He is eager to burn the world with fire. Kyrie Eleison! These words call to mind judgment. They bring to mind Peter’s description of the Day of the Lord: But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat: both the earth and the works that are in them will be burned up.[3] They remind us of John the Baptist, as he baptized people in the wilderness, pointing those whom he baptized toward the coming Christ, saying: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.[4]

But it isn’t just that Jesus wants to destroy the earth. If God wanted to destroy the earth and mankind, He could have done that immediately after the Fall and started over from scratch.[5] But He didn’t do that; He wanted to redeem His creation instead of throwing it in the garbage. In this verse, Jesus is expressing His eagerness to fulfill the divine plan of redemption He was sent to complete by God the Father. That plan includes fire: Fire on the Last Day, at the Second Advent of Jesus, burning up the elements to make way for a new heavens and a new earth; a lake of fire into which the defeated devil, along with all his angels, will be thrown to be punished for eternity.

But, before there can be a Second Advent, there must be a first one. Therefore, the plan included the telling of the good news that a savior would come to crush the head of the serpent who deceived Eve. The plan included God cultivating a nation out of whom this promised savior of mankind should come; planting them in their own land to flourish; pruning back the diseased branches so that it could grow and thrive. And it ultimately included God taking on human flesh, becoming a man, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; being crucified as the ransom for many, rising from the dead, and ascending back to His heavenly throne. This is the thing which Jesus refers when he says that He came to send fire on the earth, and He wishes it were already kindled.

Jesus is not eager for our destruction, like some bloodthirsty general laying siege to a fortified city. He wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.[6] This is the reason His second coming is, from our perspective, delayed. It means forgiveness, and faith, and life everlasting for more people.[7] Make no mistake; the One who made the promise is faithful. Christ is coming soon. For those who are connected to Christ, to His death and resurrection through baptism, Christ’s Second Advent is not a thing to be feared. It is something to be eagerly anticipated: For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.[8]

[1] Matthew 1:23
[2] Colossians 1:15-16
[3] 2 Peter 3:10
[4] Matthew 3:11
[5] Genesis 3
[6] 1 Timothy 2:4
[7] 2 Peter 3:7-9
[8] Philippians 3:20-21

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Thou Shalt Not Kill... but why not?

Derek was a British television series starring Ricky Gervais.
Derek says to be good, and I agree. How does one do that? By what standard does he measure his goodness?

Some New Atheists will rely on convoluted arguments to try to prove that man can have absolute morality (right and wrong) without an absolute source (God). One might suspect that the argument behind this meme is not quite so complicated. Ricky Gervais, whose character Derek gives us the sage advice to “just be good,” seems to be like so many average people who are de facto atheists; they say they don’t believe in an absolute system of right and wrong, but live as though they do. This standard of “good” which Derek calls his fellow man to live up to is supposed to be understood by all people. Indeed, I believe it is understood by all people; I simply disagree with the New Atheists regarding the reason why that is the case.

This is one of the problems with New Atheism that people don’t seem to want to acknowledge: We are supposed to accept the conflicting ideas that 1) there is no absolute truth or morality, decreed by God and built into mankind, and 2) everyone automatically knows what “good” is. For all the talk of the irresolvable paradoxes of Christianity, this problem of morality is significant for the New Atheists. If there is no absolute standard by which to judge morality, then all morality must be relative to the culture out of which it arises. Even if there are similarities between cultures, one cannot claim that there is an absolute standard. How, then, can one say that a given thought, word, or deed is good inter-culturally? How can one society apply its standard of “good” to another society, absent a universal standard? At least the Christian points to God, and says that He ultimately understands the religious paradoxes, if we cannot.

Or, looked at another way, how can we judge any given thought, word, or deed as “bad” if there is no absolute standard of morality? New Atheists like to point this out to Christians who condemn sin and call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of those sins; the point applies equally to them. And, contrary to how it may seem based on the circulation of internet memes, the New Atheists condemn quite a lot as bad. Christianity, for starters. Richard Dawkins believes it is child abuse to teach children the Christian faith;[1] so did the late Christopher Hitchens. In fact, they despise all religion as evil. This includes Islam.

Their hatred of religion made for some strange bedfellows during the war on terror. After the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center some leftist atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, supported aggressive war against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside the likes of, well, me. This was because terrorism is bad. The oppression, abuse, and subjugation of women is bad. Murdering political and religious minorities is bad. Oppressing and murdering homosexuals is bad. All these things are bad according to the New Atheists, and I agree. I must again, however, ask the question: by what standard? Clearly, the Islamic terrorists don’t think those things are bad. Why is their standard different? Where did it come from? Do they not have the innate sense of right and wrong, good and evil, which all men are supposed to have? Absent a universal standard of right and wrong, what makes them evil?

The Christian has an answer: the God who created the universe has set an immutable standard of right and wrong for mankind and expects us to keep it. We cannot. In fact, we ignore and suppress it. We turn away from God and His moral standard. We fail to keep it. And, when we do not keep it, that is called sin. And, because we cannot keep this moral standard perfectly, He took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so that He could destroy sin, its inevitable result – death, and the one who brought it into the world – the devil, once and for all. He accomplished this by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. He did it by living up to the standard, and dying as the sacrifice for sin on man’s behalf. Then, after dying on the cross, He rose up from the dead. We benefit from this sacrifice when we are brought to penitent faith in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the means of God’s Word and Sacraments. That is our explanation. What is theirs?

Their explanation for morality seems to be that morality has developed in man’s psyche as a product of evolution. The late Christopher Hitchens said:

I think our knowledge of right and wrong is innate in us. Religion gets its morality from humans. We know that we can’t get along if we permit perjury, theft, murder, rape. All societies at all times, well before the advent of monarchies have forbidden it. Socrates called it his daemon; it was his inner voice that stopped him when he was trying to take advantage of someone… Why don’t we just assume that we do have some internal compass?[2]

This view is almost comically simplistic. We just all should know what good is, because good comes from inside man. I see much evidence in man’s history that, far from being innately good, man is innately evil. Mr. Hitchens sets up this straw man: religion teaches that men only do good things, return lost property, give blood transfusion, etc., because they fear divine punishment and, if they didn’t have that threat hanging over them, they would act like the worst psychopathic criminal.[3] Perhaps other religions teach this idea; Christianity does not. In fact, Christianity teaches that, outwardly, and because of the conscience, men can and do live outwardly good and decent lives. Men can choose not to steal, rape, or murder their fellows, but this civil righteousness does nothing to justify a man before God. The Book of Concord has this to say on the issue:

Our churches teach that a person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and do things subject to reason. It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is spiritual righteousness… This is what Augustine says in his Hypogonosticon, Book III: We grant that all people have a free will. It is free as far as it has the judgment of reason…It is free only in works of this life, whether good or evil. Good I call those works that spring from the good in nature, such as [sic] willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself… For all of these things depend on the providence of God. They are from Hm and exist through Him. Works that are willing to worship an idol, to commit murder, and so forth, I call evil… Although nature is able in a certain way to do the outward work (for it is able to keep the hands from theft and murder), yet it cannot produce the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, and so on.[4]

Christianity also teaches that this innate morality is objective and immutable, created by God. It is perfect, and requires perfection. And, no matter how many good deeds one may do, no matter how “good” a person may be in the eyes of the society, it is impossible to keep this moral standard perfectly, as God requires. Our relationship with God, therefore, must be repaired in some other way than by being good, or doing good deeds. On the contrary, our relationship with God is repaired by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who died as the propitiation for the sins of the world; and we receive those gifts of forgiveness and life eternal through the gift of faith, which God creates in us through the means of His word.

I see man, when left to determine what is right and wrong for himself, holding his neighbor to a separate, higher standard than the one to which he holds himself. This phenomenon manifests itself from the individual level to the societal level. The Godless [sic] principle that the strongest is always right has been openly declared as recently as the twentieth century in Mussolini’s Italy and operated in practice in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and many other states.[5] The evidence shows us that, unless man’s moral code is instituted by an authority higher than himself, he will, when it is advantageous to himself or his societal group, alter it. The unregenerate individual says to himself: it might be wrong when other people perjure themselves, steal, murder, or commit rape, but when I did those things, I had a good reason, and am therefore justified. Man can always reason out why their bad deed was not bad, but his neighbor’s was. Christopher’s brother Peter Hitchens, makes this point:

Left to themselves, human beings can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities, the mass deportation – accompanied by slaughter, disease, and starvation – of inconvenient people, and the mass murder of the unborn. I have heard people who believe themselves to be good defend all these things and convince themselves as well as others. Quite often the same people will condemn similar actions committed by different countries, often with great vigor.[6]

You see, morality cannot be absolute and relative at the same time. We cannot say that the sense of good and evil it is innate in all of humanity, and at the same time, say there is no absolute source of that morality other than ourselves. If all morality is relative to the individual and to the individual’s culture, and there is no absolute standard for it set by God, the only way to determine right and wrong, good and bad, is ultimately by the sword. Might makes right, as they say. And why shouldn’t it? Why shouldn’t the unarmed give way to the lightly armed, and the lightly armed give way to the heavily armed?[7] Should not all societies, from the primitive to the advanced, decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong? Should not every individual decide for themselves their own religious beliefs (which is just another way of saying the same thing as morality)? This all sounds high minded and enlightened until you put it into practice. If what was just described was actually the type of world in which we lived, on what basis can one group of people condemn another group of people for, well, anything?

We look back at the Nazis and their systematic, state run genocide of the Jews and call it horrible. It was horrible. But on what basis can we condemn Nazi genocide of the Jews if there is no absolute truth that, “Thou shalt not kill”?[8] There is none. You may appeal to the innate sense inside of man that it is wrong to murder all you like; the Nazis would not call what they were doing murder. The only alternative that remains is that their actions were no better or worse than any other actions; we were simply stronger than they, and wanted to end their social, economic, and cultural system because it conflicted with our own, and so we did.

But it is wrong to murder people, especially on account of their race! Why? Says who?

Our culture takes a dim view of killing a person, generally speaking, unless one has a reasonable belief that one is in imminent danger of receiving great bodily harm, or death from them. In Nazi Germany, Jews were considered to be sub-humans, and therefore exempt from “normal” moral considerations. To turn a Jew in to the state, and thus mark him for persecution and death, was, in that society, to do a good work. But who are we to judge the society that has a different view of this matter? The National Socialists (Nazis) were quite deliberate in creating their society and culture, all based on the philosophical beliefs of Adolf Hitler. Are those beliefs, and the resulting consequences, not just as valid as our society’s contention that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights? If you say they are not equally valid, you must answer why, and relative morality does not help your case. If you say they are equally valid, you are ignoring that impulse inside of mankind that does tell us that murdering another human being is wrong, and that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. It isn’t so much that religion gets it’s morality from man, as Christopher Hitchens contends; rather, the New Atheism, living as it does in the afterglow of the western Christian society, benefits from the fact that Judeo-Christian morality has served as the foundation for western society and culture and remains, for the time being, dominant and familiar to the vast majority of people.

In the afterglow of western Christian society, Peter Hitchens writes, where God’s moral standard served as the basis, it is convenient for the New Atheists to speak of an innate morality, which has its origins in man through evolutionary processes.[9] Morality is indeed imprinted on the heart of man. It is there because God put it there. It is His law, or at least a shadow of it; it convicts us of our sin when we transgress it, but it has no power to help us live up to its rigorous, unalterable standards. If we, as the New Atheists do, usurp God’s place as lawgiver, we become the one who sets the standard, if only in our own deluded mind. And, if we set the standard, we can change the standard. We can set the bar just high enough that it looks rigorous to other men. We can set the standard to define our behavior as good, and change it when we deem it expedient. We can do nothing, however, to hide our deficiency in living up to God’s moral standard from He, who is the true and only judge between right and wrong. We can only repent of our sins, because God has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.[10]

[1] Hitchens, Peter. 2010. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[2] “Christopher Hitchens: The Morals of an Atheist.” 2007. Broadcast. Uncommon Knowledge. PBS.
[3] “Christopher Hitchens: The Morals of an Atheist.” 2007. Broadcast. Uncommon Knowledge. PBS.
[4] McCain, Paul Timothy., et. al., eds. 2005. Concordia: the Lutheran Confessions: a Readers Edition of the Book of Concord. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House. AC XCIII 1-9
[5] Hitchens, Peter. 2010. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 145.
[6] Hitchens, Peter. 2010. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 141-142.
[7] Hitchens, Peter. 2010. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[8] In the Fifth Commandment, thou shalt not kill, God forbids us to take the life of another person, or our own life. This includes murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
[9] Hitchens, Peter. 2010. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[10] Acts 17:31-32

Friday, December 14, 2018

Pressing on Toward the Goal

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind (Philippians 3:12-16).

A person could look at what Paul has written here and take it as an admonition to earn one’s justification by works. This passage must certainly be classified with those others that Peter had in mind when he said of Paul’s letters that Paul had written some things that were hard to understand.[1] Paul is not writing to the Philippians about earning their salvation, however. He is talking to them about sanctification.

Sanctification is the special work of the Holy Spirit, by which He brings men to penitent faith in Christ through the means of Word and Sacrament, and directs and empowers those believers to lead a godly life.[2] In baptism, we have put on Christ.[3] Our sins have been washed away by the washing of regeneration through water and the word.[4] We have been born again, from above.[5] This means that what Christ has promised us, the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life, is ours already. It belongs to us right now. We cannot, however, fully enjoy it. Kretzmann writes: Christ is his [the believer’s], in all the fullness of His grace and mercy, and he is an heir of salvation but it’s completion, it’s consummation is not yet in his possession. That perfection, when he shall put off all the weaknesses of the flesh… will be attained in heaven, when the actual blessings of salvation will be enjoyed without any outside interference.[6]

Paul writes of this outside interference elsewhere, most notably in his letter to the Romans: I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.[7] The outside interference with which we must now struggle will be done away with in heaven, in the eternal state after the resurrection, when believers in Christ, raised to life with glorified and imperishable bodies will live in the new creation, and serve Christ forever in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

This resurrection is our hope. It is what Christ has won for us by His death and resurrection. It is what He pledges to us when we eat His body and drink His blood as he tells us to do. Therefore, we should not let sin reign in our mortal bodies, that we should obey it in it’s lusts.[8] We should not gratify the desires of the flesh;[9] we should not use our freedom in Christ as a chance to sin, but to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit and to do good works.[10] It is important, however, that we pay attention to the order of things: first conversion, by the grace of God through faith in Christ, then good works, as we are sanctified, proceeding naturally out of our new nature as good fruit grows from a good tree.

So, Paul encourages us to strain towards our goal, the resurrection and the life everlasting. But we aren’t working toward this goal as though it is something uncertain. This straining is more of an eager anticipation of an outcome that is certain. It is our present possession, just as we are united to Christ in our baptism. Kretzmann writes: His [Paul’s] one thought is to reach the end, the fulfillment, the victory, and that as quickly as possible… with a strange of every fiber of his body, therefore, he looks forward, because his goal is a prize and a premium, a precious and beautiful gift, far above all human understanding.[11]

[1] 2 Peter 3:14-16
[2] Luther, Martin. 2005. Luthers Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. Number 156, pp. 149-150: What is the special work of the Holy Spirit?
[3] Galatians 3:27
[4] Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:25-28
[5] John 3:3-8
[6] Kretzmann, Paul E. 1922. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 2. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
[7] Romans 7:21-23
[8] Romans 6:12
[9] Galatians 5:16
[10] Galatians 5:22-23
[11] Kretzmann, Paul E. 1922. Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament. Vol. 2. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Addressing the Areopagus

Areopagus Sermon, by Rafael, 1515.
Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter” (Acts 17:29-32).

Paul demonstrates here what he means when he writes to the Corinthians that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. Paul spends his time in Athens talking to the philosophers and thinkers, preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus. God works through His preached word. He wants all men to be savers and to come to the knowledge of the truth. So, He brings the means of grace to the people of Athens through Paul.

The Areopagus today.
The Athens in which Paul was preaching looks a lot like the society and culture in which we live today. We may not speak Greek or wear togas, but those types of things are only superficial. Paul looked around at Athens and saw a city filled with idolatry. We too are indeed very religious. We don’t worship statues of the gods of Olympus, but we are the same type of idolaters as the ancient Athenians nevertheless. We, like them, and like all of mankind since the Fall don’t fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We are curved inward on ourselves. We have made ourselves our god, the object of our worship. The Greeks carved images out of stone to represent their gods, but they all suspiciously had the characteristics of men. Those gods were proud, they were jealous, they were vain and capricious. They blessed you when you pleased them, and they punished you when you offended them, generally speaking. They understood quid pro quo.

Today, we may not have giant statues of Zeus in the center of our towns, but we don’t need them. We do just fine worshipping ourselves without the formal paganism. The worship of self is characterized by man feeling some vague need for redemption, and trying to assuage that feeling by some outward act or work. We spend our days sacrificing to the idol of self our time, our talent, and our treasure, to borrow the language of Christian stewardship. We don’t sacrifice animals to the gods, but we do sacrifice just about everything else to try and please the god of ourselves.

Paul’s preaching of the law, however, shows us what is really important. God, the true God, is not far from us. We are so curved inward on ourselves that we can’t see Him. And, as Paul said, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Some mocked Paul, when they earn him speak of the resurrection of the dead, just as they do today. Their sinful minds remain hostile to God; they cannot understand the spiritual things because they are stiff-necked, and always resist the working of the Holy Spirit.

But Christ comes to us in His Word and Sacraments. Through His word, He works repentance for our sins and faith in His promise of redemption in us. Through faith in Christ, He makes us sons of God and heirs of the promise. Through baptism, the washing of regeneration through water and the word, Christ clothes us with Himself and joins us to His death and resurrection. Let us be among those who, upon hearing the Gospel, wanted to hear more, who joined Paul, who believed, and who grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Hidden Things Revealed to Babes

At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes (Matthew 11:25).

“These things” of which Jesus speaks, are His teachings, the truth of the Gospel. That as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.[1] These things are the things which Jesus heard from His Father.[2] Jesus’ teachings are not something new. They have always been God’s teachings. Jesus demonstrates this in the synagogue, when he took up the scroll of Isaiah to read: The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”[3] His proclamation was met with anger, and the people tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. It was unacceptable and ridiculous to them that Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, could be the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem mankind.[4]

From before the foundation of the world, God the Father decided to save man in Christ. Indeed, God the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love.[5] He revealed His plan to save mankind from sin, death, and the devil, after Adam and Eve transgressed in the Garden. He told them that the serpent would strike the heel of the woman’s seed; but He, the promised Seed, would crush the serpents head; the Seed would be injured, but He would deal Satan a mortal wound. Then, God killed animals and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins, showing them that only the shedding of blood could cover the shame of their sin. Adam and Eve believed God’s promise of redemption and ultimate victory. They faithfully looked for the promised Seed who would defeat the devil and set everything right. They taught their children this promise as well; some continued in it, some rejected it. Those who were faithful looked forward, though they didn’t know it, to that which would be fulfilled in Jesus, His birth, death, and resurrection.

And God chose to preserve and transmit His Gospel in the lowly, foolish, and despised things of this world. He hid them from the wise, that is, those who are wise according to their own imaginings; He revealed it to babes, those who are helpless, have no knowledge of their own, and are generally viewed by the world as weak and unimportant – not kings and princes, but shepherds, criminals, and fishermen. He chose Abraham, a pagan nomad, to become the father of Israel, the people out of whom the promised Seed would come. He chose as His prophet, not a king, but Moses, a slave and a murderer. When the time came for the promise to be fulfilled, Jesus, the promised seed of the woman, and of Abraham, wasn’t born in a king’s palace, as the Magi expected.[6] He was born in a humble house, and laid in a manger. Though His earthly parents were of the line of David the king, that royal glory had faded. They were a lowly maiden and a humble carpenter, not royalty. We call His time on earth His state of humiliation, but it is better described by Paul, as he calls us to emulate Christ’s self-sacrificial nature: Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not, consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking on the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

He comes to us today in humble ways, to bring us the promise. He has bound His promise of forgiveness and eternal life to the preaching of His word, which creates faith in men, who are dead in trespasses, and who are by nature children of wrath. He has bound His promise to the waters of baptism, through which we are buried with Christ; He has bound His promise to bread and wine by which means we eat His body and drink His blood, as He tells us to do, for the remission of sins. Along with Jesus, and His mother Mary, we give thanks to God for the salvation He has given to men in Christ; we marvel with Mary that He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, that He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.[7]

[1] John 3:14-15
[2] John 15:15
[3] Luke 4:18-21
[4] Matthew 13:55
[5] Ephesians 1:4
[6] Matthew 2:1-12
[7] Luke 1:51-52