Sunday, December 30, 2012

Don't Make New Year's Resolutions

The trouble with New Year's resolutions is that they attempt to do by human power under the Law what can be done only by the Holy Spirit under the Gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
At the beginning of a new year, many people have nothing better to do than to make a list of bad deeds and resolve from now on -- how many "from-now-ons" have there already been! -- to begin with better intentions, but they are still stuck in the middle of their paganism. They believe that a good intention already means a new beginning: they believe that on their own they can make a new start whenever they want. But that is an evil illusion: only God can make a new beginning with people whenever God pleases, but not people with God. Therefore, people cannot make a new beginning at all; they can only pray for one. Where people are on their own and live by their own devices, there is only the old, the past. Only where God is can there be a new beginning. We cannot command God to grant it; we can only pray to God for it. And we can pray only when we realize that we cannot do anything, that we have reached our limit, that someone else must make that new beginning.

We are dependent on the Holy Spirit, and He works when and where He wills. The Apostle John said,

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8)

In accord with the Apostle, the Augsburg Confession says:

The Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. (AC, Article V.)

Our reason and strength can do nothing. Only the call of the Holy Spirit can do anything. Martin Luther said:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.)

We are dependent on the Holy Spirit, so what we must do is pray for the Holy Spirit. Jesus said,

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)

Let us pray believing that the Father will give us the Spirit gladly. He desires to give us the Spirit more than we desire to receive him.

Many are so wounded, so defeated by their sins that they hardly dare to pray for the Holy Spirit. They hardly dare to believe. Helplessness does not impede prayer. Helplessness qualifies us to pray. Prayer is for the helpless. Ole Hallesby said:

As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed, the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer.

This is not only true of us before our conversion. Prayer is our last resort also throughout our whole Christian life. I know very well that we offer many and beautiful prayers, both privately and publicly, without helplessness as the impelling power. But I am not at all positive that this is prayer.

Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray.

Listen to this, you who are often so helpless that you do not know what to do. At times you do not even know how to pray. Your mind seems full of sin and impurity. Your mind is preoccupied with what the Bible calls the world. God and eternal and holy things seem so distant and foreign to you that you feel that you add sin to sin by desiring to approach God in such a state of mind. Now and then you must ask yourself the question, "Do I really desire to be set free from the lukewarmness of my heart and my worldly life? Is not my Christian life always lukewarm and half-hearted for the simple reason that deep down in my heart I desire it that way?"

The honest souls struggle against the dishonesty of their own being. They feel themselves so helplessly lost that their prayers freeze on their very lips.

Listen, my friend! Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas. He hears it from the very moment that you are seized with helplessness, and He becomes actively engaged at once in hearing and answering the prayer of your helplessness." (Ole Hallesby, Prayer, pp. 18-19 (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis 1931.)

"Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6)

Don't make New Year's resolutions. Pray helplessly for the Holy Spirit, trusting that the Father, for Jesus' sake, will give you the good gift.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Today, Heresies Begin in Earnest

It is Christmas, so today, heresies begin in earnest.

Our desire for self-justification cannot abide the Incarnation. It is a scandal that we should need God to come to us in this way to save us. Did it take all this? Are we so bad? Are we so powerless?

See the Christ child with our eyes, not with the mind's preconceived notions. What does He do? He cries one way when hungry, another when tired, and another when He has messed his diaper. He cannot walk, speak, or see past two feet. He has no teeth, cannot digest adult foods, and he nurses. He burps, teethes, crawls, and toddles, and he ruins things in the house because of his childishness, like every other child.

He was humiliated by being born in poverty, living a life of relentless suffering, being crucified, dying, and being buried.

The human body is corruptible. Was it necessary for God to corrupt himself for us?

All this floods us with scandal. This offends, drives away, forces to stumble, pushes into betraying and deserting, and causes us to sin the one sin of refusing God's mercy as it is in Jesus.

Maybe our desire for self-justification has gotten lucky. Maybe one scandal of the Incarnation can save us from the other. The first scandal is about our needing Christ this way. The second scandal is about how God becoming man could be true. Have we taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it?

Ah, that's our out. We can use the second scandal to make the Incarnation implausible, saying, God could not become man. Then we won't have to face the first scandal of our sin demanding such humiliation of God (not that the Incarnation itself is part of his humiliation, though to human reason, it seems to be).

So Monophysitism could be an out. We could say, instead of Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, that Christ's divine nature absorbed his human nature in such a way that human nature has been changed into Deity. Then we wouldn't have to take his human nature seriously. Scandal erased. Problem solved.

Or Julianism could be an out. We could say that somehow Jesus' body was incorruptible before his crucifixion. We could say that there is no more to the humiliation of Christ than there is to the humiliation of others. Scandal erased. Problem solved.

Or Sacramentarianism could be an out. We could say that the divine and human natures in Christ are united in such a way that neither has real communion with the other. We're on a roll.

Or Nestorianism could be an out. We could say that Christ is not one person, that the Son of God is one, and the Son of Man is another. The humiliation, again, evaporates, and our problem about justification is solved. We can justify ourselves.

Or we could say that God and man are only titles, not natures, or that to say God has become man is only a manner of speaking, not a reality.

In fact, our ingenuity, fueled by the deepest motivation of all, self-justification, will know no bounds in inventing ways to just undo Christmas. And since we must undo it, or die, die to self and live to Christ, we might as well take the most direct route, Arianism, and just deny the deity of Christ outright.

That's right. Then we could get back to saving ourselves, mercilessly. Heresy begins in earnest today, because Christ Jesus has disturbed our comfortable world by letting himself be born to a milk giver, to save us from our sin, and bring us home to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus Is the Real Nowhere Man

Sidney Herald religion column published December 23, 2012

The Beatles sang:

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody

They weren’t singing about Jesus, but if we leave aside for a moment what we know about him because of faith, their words make a picture of his life. Jesus looked like the real nowhere man from a real nowhere land. He came to earth because of what looked like his nowhere plans. His plans were for nobodies, like us.

Jesus was born in a barn. Mary wrapped him in strips of cloth, not regular clothes. When Jesus' parents appeared for Mary's purification in the Temple, they offered a pair of turtledoves, the usual offering of the poor who could not afford a lamb.

King Herod knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That was walking distance from Herod’s palace. Herod had a chariot. He didn’t visit. Jesus was beneath him. The only ones who visited were poor shepherds and a handful of foreigners.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, population no more than 480. Nazareth was mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, by Josephus (the noted ancient Jewish historian), or in the Talmud (a central text of mainstream Judaism).

Nazareth had a no-account and evil reputation. When Philip told Nathanael that the disciples had found Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The region around Nazareth was Galilee. The Jews wouldn’t even claim it as their own. They called it “Galilee of the Gentiles” or “Galilee of the Nations.”

Jesus warned a scribe who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” When Jesus was challenged to pay the Temple tax, he did not have a shekel. When he died, he had no will, no burial plot, no tomb. He could not provide for his mother. From the cross he put her into the care of John.

This nowhere man came to earth because of his nowhere plan to save nobodies from their sin. He planned to go to the cross, the place of shame, guilt, weakness, foolishness, and condemnation, which is to say, into our place, into our nowhere land of sin.

When the Canaanite woman, who was not among the children of Israel, wanted Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon, He said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Kneeling, she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She made herself a nobody, a dog. She called Jesus her master. She believed He would give her what she needed. Jesus called that faith and delivered her daughter immediately.

By faith, the Nowhere Man delivers nobodies from the nowhere land of sin into the Kingdom of Heaven, the forgiveness of sin, and righteousness before the Father. “Though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9)


Friday, December 21, 2012

Trinity in Luther Christmas Sermon

From a sermon of Martin Luther for Christmas Day, reprinted in Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. I, pp. 181-83 (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, USA: 1983)

And the Word was with God.

21. ... But here he clearly distinguishes the persons, so that the Word is a different person than God with whom it was. This passage of John does not allow the interpretation that God had been alone, because it says that something had been with God, namely, the Word. If he had been alone, why would he need to say: The Word was with God? To have something with him, is not to be alone or by himself. It should not be forgotten that the Evangelist strongly emphasizes the little word “with.” For he repeats it, and clearly expresses the difference in persons to gainsay natural reason and future heretics. For while natural reason can understand that there is but one God, and many passages of Scripture substantiate it, and this is also true, yet the Scriptures also strongly oppose the idea that this same God is only one person.

22. Thus arose the heresy of Sabellius, who said: The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are only one person. And again Arius, although he admitted that the Word was with God would not admit that he was true God. The former confesses and teaches too great a simplicity of God; the latter too great a multiplicity. The former mingles the persons; the latter separates the natures. But the true Christian faith takes the mean, teaches and confesses separate persons and an undivided nature. The Father is a different person from the Son, but he is not another God. Natural reason cannot comprehend this; it must be apprehended by faith alone. Natural reason produces error and heresy; faith teaches and maintains the truth; for it clings to the Scriptures, which do not deceive or lie.

The same was in the beginning with God.”

25. The Word was with God, with God, and yet God was the Word. Thus the Evangelist contends that both assertions are true: God is the Word, and the Word is with God; one nature of divine essence, and yet not one person only. Each person is God complete and entire, in the beginning and eternally. These are the passages upon which our faith is founded and to which we must hold fast. For it is entirely above reason that there should be three persons and each one perfect and true God, and yet not three Gods but one God.

26. The Scholastics have argued much pro and con with their numerous subtleties, to make this doctrine comprehensible. But if you do not wish to become entangled in the meshes of the enemy, ignore their cunning, arrogance, and subtleties, and hold to these divine words. Press into them and remain in them, like a hare in a rocky crevice. If you come out and deign to listen to human talk, the enemy will lead you on and overcome you, so that you will at last not know where reason, faith, God, or even yourself are.

27. Believe me, as one who has experienced and tried it, and who does not talk into an empty barrel; the Scriptures are not given us for naught. If reason could have kept on the right road, the Scriptures would not have been given us. Take an example in the case of Arius and Sabellius. Had they clung to the Scriptures and disregarded reason, they would not have originated so much trouble in the church. And our Scholastics might have been Christians, had they ceased fooling with their subtleties and had clung to the Scriptures.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas: God Was an Embryo

... and, John the Baptizer worshiped him from womb to womb -- Luke 1:39-45.

Who is human?

Who may be baptized?

What is worship?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bonhoeffer's Advent Illustration: Miners Waiting for Rescue

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Advent sermon in a London church, December 3, 1933.
You know what a mine disaster is. In recent weeks we have had to read about one in the newspapers.

The moment even the most courageous miner has dreaded his whole life long is here. It is no use running into the walls; the silence all around him remains. ... The way out for him is blocked. He knows the people up there are working feverishly to reach the miners who are buried alive. Perhaps someone will be rescued, but here in the last shaft? An agonizing period of waiting and dying is all that remains.

But suddenly a noise that sounds like tapping and breaking in the rock can be heard. Unexpectedly, voices cry out. 'Where are you, help is on the way!' Then the disheartened miner picks himself up, his heart leaps, he shouts. 'Here I am, come on through and help me! I'll hold out until you come! Just come soon!' A final, desperate hammer blow to his ear, now the rescue is near, just one more step and he is free.

We have spoken of Advent itself. That is how it is with the coming of Christ: 'Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.'"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christ's Birth Is Your Birth

From a Sermon for Christmas Day by Martin Luther, reprinted in Sermons of Martin Luther, vol I, pp. 144-45 (Baker Book House Company 1983).

We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ's birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ. Whoever does not believe this, or doubts, is no Christian.

O, this is the great joy of which the angel speaks. This is the comfort and exceeding goodness of God that, if a man believes this, he can boast of the treasure that Mary is his rightful mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. For these things actually occurred and are true, but we must believe. This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it. Christ must above all things become our own and we become his, before we can do good works.

But this cannot occur except through the faith that teaches rightly to understand the Gospel and properly lay hold of it. This is the only way in which Christ can be rightly known so that the conscience is satisfied and made to rejoice. Out of this grow love and praise to God who in Christ has bestowed upon us such unspeakable gifts. This gives courage to do or leave undone, and living or dying, to suffer every thing that is well pleading to God. ...

Therefore see to it that you do not find pleasure in the Gospel only as a history, for that is only transcient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith; but see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Prison Letter from Bonhoeffer

Be brave for my sake, dearest Maria, even if this letter is your only token of my love this Christmas-tide. We shall both experience a few dark hours – why should we disguise that from each other? We shall ponder the incomprehensibility of our lot and be assailed by the question of why, over and above the darkness already enshrouding humanity, we should be subjected to the bitter anguish of a separation whose purpose we fail to understand… And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives. – Dec. 13, 1943

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth. – December 1, 1943

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Maybe We Shouldn't Invite Them

Sidney Herald religion column published October 28, 2012

“Maybe we shouldn’t invite them to our church.”

Two friends said that to each other. They were heading the showing of a Billy Graham film at the local theatre. They thought about people who might talk to them afterwards. They wanted to refer each one back to churches of their own upbringing or family connections. For those not raised in any church and with no family connection, they talked about inviting people to their own church.

But then, they wondered if they should.

Every congregation has its problems. Theirs was no exception. They talked of how they and their congregation often were disobedient and self-willed. “What if, by hanging out with us, something of us rubs off on them,” one of them asked. “Are we doing them any favors by leading them into being self-willed like us?”

Take it to the next level. Does Christianity have a similar, bigger problem? Is Christ self-willed?

Since Jesus is God, doesn’t He do whatever He wants? Doesn’t God have the prerogative to follow his own will? When we invite people to follow Christ, are we inviting them to imitate a self-willed person? If Christ is self-willed, why shouldn’t everyone be? If everyone were self-willed, the conflicts would beat society to pieces. Community and fellowship would become hopeless.

Once again, the answer is the Trinity. Though God is one, yet God is three persons. The Three enjoy community and fellowship that are beautiful and blessed. They maintain their blessedness in many ways. One of the ways is that the Son is not self-willed. Jesus is God as much as the Father is. Yet, in Trinity, He obeys his Father, and that is what saves us from our self-willed disobedience.

Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:38-40

Obedience is not something God only commands. It is something God himself does. God the Son obeys God the Father. Because the words Father and Son are not just two titles for one person, but refer to different persons, the obedience of the Son to the Father is real.

While the obedience of the Church is not so shiny, still, the Church is where we hear about the perfection of Christ’s obedience to the Father. No one else teaches the Trinity, and therefore no one else shows the hope for salvation, community, and fellowship. The Father wants us to hear the word about the Son, believe in him, and be raised on the last day. So Christians invite everyone to the imperfect Church, and the perfect Christ.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Will We Ever Hear the End of It?

Sidney Herald religion column published October 21, 2012

You have seen a kid like him. One day, he is trying too hard to please everyone. The next, he doesn’t give a rip what anyone thinks. One minute, he walks with ease. The next, the ground beneath his feet turns uneven and rocky.

You’re there one day when he gets into trouble. He “borrowed” his brother’s toy without asking, and he broke it. His parent lights into him. He is grounded and loses his allowance for two months.

Then the parent says, “This is just like when you broke the window, and when you played with matches,” and on and on. The parent drags up past infractions. When will he ever hear the end of it? He feels that punishment never is enough. There never is real restoration. His conscience worries him with intrusive fears of condemnation.

The whole human race was in the same shape. Under Moses, God prescribed sacrifices for sin. Those sacrifices never laid condemnation to rest. Sacrifice had to be repeated. Sacrifice peaked on the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16) Even that had to be repeated again next year. Like that kid, Israel never heard the end of it.

Those sacrifices pointed to Christ. As with the Day of Atonement, when the sins of Israel were laid onto the sacrificial animal, on the cross, the sins of the world were laid onto Christ. Israel’s sin brought death to the sacrificial animal, and our sin brought death to Christ.

But that’s not enough, if Jesus, like that kid and Israel, never hears the end of it. Our only way out of sin is to have him as our substitute. Once He takes our sin, does He ever hear the end of our sin? If our substitute never hears the end of our sin, neither do we. What can clear our conscience from fear of condemnation?

Once again, the answer is the Trinity. The resurrection of Christ is not only his coming back to life. It is also his going to the Father. He could go to the Father because the Father accepted his sacrifice as the end of condemnation for our sin. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, and the Father has put angels under Christ’s authority. (1 Peter 3:22) Jesus is seated while the Father defeats Christ’s enemies. (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:13) That’s acceptance. That’s restoration. That’s hearing the end of sin and condemnation.

Peter says Jesus went to God “that He might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) Our hope of going to the Father lies in the Trinity event that Jesus went to the Father. He went to God to give us a “good conscience,” (1 Peter 3:21) so we could “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19-20) Our conscience is cleared by what happened between the Father and the Son for us. They are steady, even when we feel unsteady. The Trinity makes the resurrection of Christ our justification.