Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kingdom: Righteousness, Peace, and Joy

A brief and useful exposition of Romans 14:7:

St. Paul says that the kingdom of God is a matter 'of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Romans 14:7). Where Christ's righteousness is laid hold of, there is peace of conscience, and where there is peace of conscience, there is a profound joy.

Matthew C. Harrison, A Little Book on Joy, (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2011), pp. 46-47.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ominous Error of Natural Theology

The development of 'natural theology' is the march of history from Luther's primal experience (Urerlebnis) up to the Englightenment. It ended with the ominous error that Christian faith in God and 'natural knowledge of God' are essentially identical.
For the naive apologists, for many a dogmatician, even for many a politician who wanted to 'preserve religion for the people,' this was a comfort and a satisfaction. For the church Philistine, as Tholuck addressed him, it was reason for no longer knowing of an anguished conscience. But then came Ludwig Feuerbach. Then came Karl Marx and Nietzsche. They showed that the knowledge of 'natural' man arives at a totally different result. ... Was it surprising that the generation of the war and the collapse declared the Christian belief in God to be a delusion because it had been refuted by the terrors and the fate that had been experienced? If that generation had heard Luther instead of the theology of the nineteenth century and the preaching that lives on such theology -- it would have understood him and his primal dread (Urgrauen).

Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, pp. 57-58 (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis: 1962).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

World-famous Humble Little Country Doctor

Sidney Herald religion column published December 1, 2013

Many ask, “If God exists, why doesn’t He show himself? Then we would worship him.” Answers have been given from reason, philosophy, and piety, but God is not impressed with that. His reasons are personal.

Linus told Charlie Brown what he was going to do when he grew up. “When I get big I’m going to be a humble little country doctor. I’ll live in the city, see, and every morning I’ll get up, climb into my sports car and zoom into the country. Then I’ll start healing people. I’ll heal everybody for miles around. I’ll be a world-famous humble little country doctor.”

We laugh, but that’s us, and we expect God to be like us and show off. If He won’t, we doubt him.

In Trinity, God is humble in many ways. For today, here is one: the Father is humble towards his Son. The Father glorifies his Son, not himself. That’s his personal reason for not showing off.

When Jesus was baptized, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11). Jesus was not practicing ventriloquism. He was not throwing his voice to sound as if it were coming from heaven. That would be one person saying how pleased he is with himself. That would be vainglory. Because of the Trinity, the voice really is from heaven. The voice really is from another Person, the Father. The Father also is not speaking vaingloriously of himself. He praises the Son.

When Jesus was transfigured, “a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” (Matthew 17:5) The Father directs attention to his Son. He tells us to listen to Jesus.

When the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he said, “If you are the Son of God,” do this and that to prove it. Because Jesus trusted the Father, He resisted the temptation. When people said, “Are we not right in saying you have a demon,” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me.” (John 8:54) Jesus trusted the Father to glorify him. He knew his Father’s humility.

In the resurrection, the Father gave all authority to the Son in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18) In the ascension, the Father seated the Son at his right hand (Acts 2:32), and “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9-11) When the Church is resurrected, she will ascend into heaven. The Father will make something of a production. The production will not center on the Father himself. It will center on Jesus, the Lamb of God, in his marriage to the Church. (Revelation 19:6-9)

Though God does not show off, He shows up. The humble Trinity saves us from our pride through the shame of the cross. That shows enough for us to worship him, and to love him because he first loved us.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Law and Gospel: An Agonizing Contradition within Ourselves

The following is from David P. Scaer, Law and Gospel and the Means of Grace, pp. 4-5 (The Luther Academy: St. Louis, 2008).

According to a confessional Lutheran understanding, the law lays down God's requirements or regulations in such a way that sinful people by themselves cannot fulfill them. Those who understand the law's message in this way are aware they face eternal death for which there is no relief. Such preaching of the law leads them to repent of their sins with sorrow and contrition. In what appears to be a contradiction God offers in the gospel the sweet hope of salvation in Jesus Christ. The gospel creates faith, which in turn lays hold of Christ who is present in this proclamation, and by this faith the believer accepts the promises of eternal bliss with Him. Law and gospel are as complementary as they are dissonant. To use Fagerberg's words, 'Both cooperation and tension are found to exist between law and gospel.' Preaching the law without the gospel leads to despair and hopelessness. Without the prior proclamation of the law, the gospel cannot be appreciated or its terms understood, and therefore cannot accomplish its intended purpose. However, their mutual dependence on each other does not erase their contradictory messages, namely, that what one demands the other gives. Law confronts human beings in the condition of their sins and alienation from God, and gospel offers a completed salvation in Jesus Christ. Both are equally valid words of God, which when preached in tandem make Christians aware that they are sinners and God's redeemed children at the same time. This is known in Lutheran theology as the simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time justified and sinner." Only death relieves Christians from the agonizing contradiction that they find within themselves. In the same moment they are condemned by the law and forgiven by the gospel. Since the law and the gospel penetrate our inner being and uncover who and what we really are, no other Christian doctrine is as existential as this one. By it we learn not only about the God who condemns and saves, but about ourselves as accountable to God and still redeemed by Him. In addition it sets the terms for how all articles of the Christian faith are to be preached and believed.

From this we glean that, in the theological meanings of the words "law" and "gospel", we are confronted by:
  • two equally valid words of God
  • two words that are
    • contradictory, disonant, in tension
    • complementary, mutually dependent, cooperating
  • law
    • undoable
    • condemnation
    • death without relief
    • exposure
    • sinners
  • gospel
    • gift (what the law demands, the gospel gives)
    • hope of salvation
    • faith created by God acting in his word, not by any power of ours
    • eternal bliss with God
    • saints
So on this side of the grave we are sinner-saints, continually in existential tension under the two words, and understanding all other words in the light of these two words.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Jesus Visted Doc Martin's Surgery

Sidney Herald religion column published November 3, 2013

In the British television show, Doc Martin, the newly arrived doctor in a small village is annoyed by villagers using the waiting room of his surgery as a social club. They assemble without having medical complaints. Doc Martin rudely tells them, “If you don’t have an actual medical complaint, just get out.”

John the Baptist did that too, with people who came without spiritual confessions.

John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People were baptized by him, “confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:6)

But then John saw some coming without confessing sin, without repenting. He said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7) He outdid Doc Martin with that one. Without confession and repentance, John did not baptize. This is important to know later when Jesus came to John to be baptized. What did Jesus need to be baptized for?

John said someone was coming with a greater baptism. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

Who can baptize with the Holy Spirit? Who can baptize with fire? This must be a holy person. John said it was Jesus.

So, when Jesus came to be baptized, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” (Matthew 3:14-15)

Jesus already was righteous. He came from heaven that way. He had no sin, nothing to repent about. What did He mean?

Luther says Jesus accepted baptism from John because “he was entering into our stead … becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism.” (AE 51:315) Jesus came to Doc Martin with an actual problem, our disease of sin.

The atonement already was under way at the river Jordan. Jesus already was carrying our sins. Being substituted into our place as sinners, He substituted himself into the repentance that was due from us. In his state of humiliation, Jesus confessed and repented for us without himself deserving condemnation. He presented his confession and repentance on our behalf to the Father, and the Father credited us with these merits of Christ.

The baptism of Jesus is offensive. It tells us we need to repent. Worse, it says we cannot repent, so Jesus had to do it for us. It says we have to take charity; we are charity cases. That’s what happens when Christ’s beloved Church baptizes us into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In baptism, Christ gives to each one personally the gift of his repentance for us, and then his repentance lives in us, for the forgiveness of sins.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Self-chose Service or Divine Service

Consider the following from John T. Pless:
The liturgy is Gottesdienst, divine service, the Lord's service to us through the proclamation of His Word and the giving out of His body and blood. In the theology of the Lutheran Confessions,
God is the subject not the object of liturgical action. The trajectory is from the Lord to His Church and then from the Church to her Lord. In Luke 22, just after He had established the supper of His body and blood, the Lord says, "I am among you as one who serves" (v.22). This verse embodies the Lutheran understanding of the liturgy; it is the service that Jesus renders to His church, given by grace and received by faith. Rome had reversed the flow with the insistence that the Mass is essentially a sacrifice that the church offers to God. Reformed Protestants likewise define worship as human activity, i.e. the church's obedient ascription of praise to the majesty of a sovereign God.

For confessional Lutherans, liturgy is not about human activity but about the real presence of the Lord who stoops down to put His words into our ears and His body and blood into our mouths. Liturgy, as it is divine service, delivers the forgiveness of sins. The liturgy does not exist to provide edifying entertainment, motivation for sanctified living, or therapy for psychological distresses, but the forgiveness of sins.”[1]

In the worship of Cain, we bring to God our own self-chosen service. In the worship of Abel, we believe God to receive his chosen gifts to us.
  • Contrast the directions:

            from us to God, or from God to us.
  • Contrast the activity:

            working, or believing; giving, or receiving.
  • Contrast the choosers:

            us, or God.
  • Contrast the effects:

            the forgiveness of sins is delivered, or it is not.

1.  John T. Pless, “Divine Service: Delivering Forgiveness of Sins,” ¶¶ 5-6, presented at the South Dakota District Lay/Clergy Conferences, Rapid City, SD May 6, 1995 and Sioux Falls, SD May 7, 1995, then Pastor of University Lutheran Chapel, Minneapolis, MN.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

One Big Wrong Makes Us Right

Sidney Herald religion column published August 18, 2013

As lousy moments go, it was one of the lousiest. It was during a visit to Stordahl Cemetery. Not much there. The church building is gone. Only the bell and cemetery remain. From that forlorn spot of prairie, I could see my grandfather’s homestead across the terrain and my father’s grave at my feet. We had buried him a couple weeks earlier.

Death is bad enough all by itself, but Paul speaks of its sting. “The sting of death is sin.” (1 Corinthians 15:54) “Sin is the point of the spear that kills us.” (TLSB) Who wants to think that his father died because, due to his sin, he deserved it? I hope no one.

Yet, for every one of us, it is the bitter truth. “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) For us to die is not humiliation because we have earned it. Harsh? Yes. Reality? Yes. Every spiritual autopsy comes to the same answer: the cause of death is sin.

Still, there is something worse: the death of a righteous man, an innocent man. For Jesus to die is quite a different thing than it is for us to die. He had not earned death. Death was not due him. For Jesus, to die was an injustice. “In his humiliation justice was denied him.” (Acts 8:33)

Practically everyone knew it. “He went about doing good,” (Acts 10:38) Yet leaders sought testimony to put him to death. They found none. Many bore false witness, but their testimony did not agree. (Mark 14:55-56) While Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man.” (Matthew 27:19) Pilate said, “I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod. Nothing deserving death has been done by him.” (Luke 23:14-15)

But Pilate’s judgment contradicted his verdict. Jesus died under condemnation of guilt, and He was counted with transgressors “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.” (Luke 23:32)

Judas told the authorities, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They replied, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” (Matthew 27:4)

When Jesus died, “the centurion … praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.” (Luke 23:47-48) R. C. H. Lenski says, “They came to witness a show, they left with feelings of woe.”

Jesus volunteered to humiliate himself in the death we deserved. He volunteered for the injustice of it. Only because He was our substitute, justice slayed him. ”Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:8) “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)


Monday, July 29, 2013

Combining Was Pretty Rough on Jesus

Sidney Herald religion column published July 28, 2013

The combine, originally called the combine harvester, is a machine that harvests grain. It combines three harvest operations: reaping, threshing, and winnowing.

Winnowing uses wind to separate chaff and dust from grain. In ancient farming, harvesters gathered the crop onto an outdoor threshing floor. They tossed the mixture into the air with winnowing forks. Wind blew away straw, chaff, and dust. Grain, being heavier, did not blow away. It fell to the threshing floor and was saved.

Combines use a fan to make wind. They blow chaff and dust out the back of the machine and save the grain into the hopper. Farmers still use the ancient expression to talk about the job a combine is doing, “saving grain.”

John the Baptist used winnowing as an illustration of God’s judgment on sin. He said about Messiah, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)

The Bible compares destruction to being made “like the dust at threshing.” For example, “There was not left to Jehoahaz [much of] an army … for the king of Syria had destroyed them and made them like the dust at threshing.” (2 Kings 13:7)

Dust refers to the curses for sin. Because the Devil sinned by tempting Adam and Eve, God cursed him. His curse was to eat dust. “The Lord God said to the serpent: ‘Because you have done this, you are cursed … on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust.’” (Genesis 3:14)

For Adam’s sin, God said, “Cursed is the ground for your sake.” (Genesis 3:17) He cursed the dust from which Adam came and to which Adam would go in burial. Under the curse, the field brought forth weeds with the crop. (Genesis 3:18) Jesus used weeds as symbols of sinners sewn by the Devil. (Matthew 13:24-30) After pronouncing this curse, God next said, “For out of [the ground] you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

For Jesus to be buried is to go the way of dust, sin, curse, and judgment. Jesus volunteered to be buried for us. He hid his holiness in the grave, under dust, under our sin. “He assigned His grave with wicked men.” (Isaiah 53:9).

Combining was pretty rough on Jesus. It blew him out the back of the machine like dust, returning to the ground. In burial, Jesus underwent the winnowing of God for us. He went to the place of dust and was under the judgment of God for our sins, while we, like grain, were saved.

Burial did something to Christ’s glory. Burial humiliated him for our salvation. Because Jesus went to our grave for us, He has sanctified our graves, removing sin, curse, shame, and judgment, and making our burials in him holy and blessed.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Silver Spoon Jesus Left in a Drawer

Sidney Herald religion column published June 23, 2013

Before 1700, common folk had wooden spoons. Well off people had silver. The saying, "He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth," views a high-born person as knowing nothing about the struggles of life.

As the Son of God, Jesus has a silver spoon, his divine powers. But He was born under the law and usually left his silver spoon in a drawer.

Paul says, "God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law." (Galatians 4:4-5) The church teaches that his life under the law was part of Christ’s suffering and humiliation.

Scoffers say, "Man is born under the law. Jesus was a man. It’s no big deal that he should be under the law like the rest of us. How can you say this was suffering and humiliation?"

Believers also have difficulty understanding Jesus’ life under the law. We know Jesus is both God and man. We are prone to thinking it was easy for him to obey from his divine powers.

Jesus always had divine powers. We see them break forth at times, as when He fed thousands, raised Lazarus from the dead, cleansed lepers, and cast out demons.

Usually, however, Jesus voluntarily laid aside his divine powers and did not use them. While He could walk on water, he usually used a boat. While He could turn water into wine and multiply loaves and fishes, He usually used food and drink that were furnished naturally.

As Mediator, Jesus came "to redeem those who were under the law." To mediate, Jesus needed to be under the law in the same way as those He would redeem were under it: as humans. So, in matters of temptation and obeying the law, Jesus "humbled Himself and became obedient." (Philippians 2:8) While still having full divine powers, He voluntarily did not use them. He fought temptation under the law only by human power.

Jesus fought from weakness, in his humanity. He had to watch. He had to pray. He had to defeat the Devil and the world every moment. We face temptation for a little while, and then give in. Jesus suffered all the way, and He suffered using only humble power.

Beyond that, He suffered what we never do. He was tempted right at the point of his humility. He was tempted to quit using only his human powers. He was tempted to pick up and use his divine powers to save his holiness, to show his divine glory. He had an easy way out. He could have quit his office as Mediator. He could have abandoned us in our sin. He stuck with the hard way, all the way. He humbled himself for us, and kept humbling himself, to the bitter end that gives us a new beginning.

So, let us not scoff or be confused, but believe and adore him, and receive the redemption He earned for us through his innocent, humiliated, suffering life.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who Volunteers for Humiliation?

Sidney Herald religion column published May 26, 2013

At Landsberg, Germany, as the U.S. Army occupies and loots the defeated German town, Capt. Lewis Nixon carries on his quest for Vat 69, a Scotch blended whiskey. He has become a drunk, but will drink only the best. He finds a house that looks rich enough to have some. Inside, the home is well appointed. He sees a framed photograph of a high-ranking officer, looks at it, and drops it. The officer’s wife appears behind him. She looks at the broken glass, then at Nixon. She glares at him defiantly.

Outside Landsberg, the army liberates a concentration camp of wasting survivors and corpses. Local civilians deny knowing anything about it. Gen. Maxwell Taylor orders them, ages 14 to 80, to clean it up and bury the dead.

Nixon sees charred corpses carried one by one. He sees the same woman, finely dressed, doubled over, trying to drag a dead body from a pile. She meets his gaze, still with an air of defiance, the arrogant kind that festers into impotent rage.

When an exalted person is forcibly brought low, that is humiliation, but the person is not necessarily humble. He is humiliated by force, not by his own humility. Nixon saw that in the woman of rank.

Although Jesus came from heaven and ranks with the Father and the Holy Spirit, He was humiliated in five stages: birth in poverty, life of suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial. But Jesus is different from the officer’s wife because his humiliation was voluntary. His own humility brought on his humiliation. No one forced it on him. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Jesus knew He was going to be humiliated. “He began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “They will ... mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.” (Mark 10:32-34)

When Jesus was arrested, “One of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. … Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled?’” (Matthew 26:51-54)

Laying aside twelve legions, Jesus volunteered. He said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:17-18)

When Jesus spoke that way, “Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?’” (John 10:20) With them, we are tempted to think we are above needing him to humiliate himself for us. The Holy Spirit calls us to contrition and faith. He calls us to see the enormity of sin, and the humble power of Jesus to save.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Who Goes with You into Surgery?

Sidney Herald religion column published May 5, 2013

One of my vain ideas was to reach 60 without being an inpatient of a hospital. Didn’t work. Two Januaries in a row, I was hospitalized. I was a suffering puppy, though still nothing like many around me. My condition meant many trips to Billings this past year for surgeries.

It’s amazing how nurses and doctors, besides providing medical treatment, comfort their patients. As great as they are, I hope none of them will take offense when I say, they can’t hold a candle to Marilyn, my wife. She is my companion in suffering. She goes with me everywhere I hurt. She is there in every emergency room, every surgery room, every hospital room, and in my heart.

Probably more than anything else, suffering causes us to doubt or question God. Why must people suffer, especially those we consider to be good people. We want answers. In my medical sufferings, Marilyn gave me a lively experience of the truth that there is something better than an answer: a companion.

You can’t hold hands with an answer. You can’t share a pillow with an explanation. Reasons don’t shed tears with you.

But Jesus sheds tears with you. Yes, He does. In that He has suffered, He knows you in your suffering. Jesus defines sympathy and companionship. Jesus suffered continually in body, mind, and soul. He said, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

As bad as most sufferings are, worse is the suffering of temptation. As unfair as sickness is, our being sinners from conception forward seems more unfair. We have inherited sin from Adam. This inherited sin nature, to say nothing of our particular sins, brings defeat, guilt, condemnation, the wrath of God, and his threats to punish sin. Death is no escape, because eternal hell follows. I’ll admit it. I have questions.

But, what is true of other sufferings also is true of the suffering of temptation. Better than an answer is a companion. Jesus suffered from relentless and fierce temptation. In that He suffered temptation, He knows you in your temptations. He is able to save you, and a Savior is better than an explanation.

“We do not have [in Jesus] a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18)

The question of suffering is answered in the sufferings and sympathy of Christ. Jesus goes with us in all sufferings, even into the surgery of temptation.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

How Can We Expect Baptism To Work?

The first time my Dad sent me out seeding alone, a feeling of pessimism overcame me. That night I said, “How can we expect a green, leafy, lush crop from this? We are dropping dry seed through dead iron machinery into dirt.” He said, “It’s made to work.”

That gave me something to think about. There is a Maker. He made seed and soil. He made them work. He could have made things some other way, but He chose this. In creation, “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed.’” (Genesis 1:11). God’s Word made it happen.

It is the same with baptism. The natural question is, “how can new life come from plain water? How can water do such great things?” Had it not been for God’s Word, it wouldn’t.

God could have said whatever He wanted. But once He did say, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), it does. The Word makes baptism do what it does. Without the Word, there would be only water and no baptism.

The Word does in the new creation what it did in the first creation. In the first creation, the Word created life. In the new creation, the Word creates new life when by faith we use the means God said to use. He told the Apostles to baptize in the whole world.

God says what He does in baptism repeatedly because it’s important. “He saved us ... by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5) “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)

It works because God is at work. “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses ... God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” (Colossians 2:12-13)

The story of Naaman pictures baptism. He had leprosy. He came to the prophet Elisha to be cured. Elisha told him to wash in the Jordan River seven times. The Jordan was a dirty river. Naaman was angry. He could not see how that would work. But his servants said, “it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you.” (2 Kings 5:13) Naaman was looking only at the water. His servants were looking at the Word with the water. “So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5:14) Because of the Word of God, the water of baptism does this for us spiritually, even though it looks as foolish as washing in the Jordan River.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

One Word in Absolute Darkness

Sidney Herald religion column published 3-10-13

With the oil boom, it seldom is dark anymore at our farm. There is usually some light from gas flares. It’s not like the experience of darkness we used to have in the field when walking back to a truck or the yard. On nights with no moonlight, the going could get tough. One night the sky was overcast and a fog rolled in. My eyes were little help, but the lay of the field through the soles of my boots gave enough sense of where I was to make it back.

Blacker still was the night I learned that the wife of someone close to me was going to divorce him. The suffering coming on him gripped me. I was trapped for some hours staring into a bottomless pit of darkness that both pressed in and fled away at the same time. It was the menacing horror of being forsaken.

Much of Christ’s suffering on the cross was in daylight. People saw what was visible to the human eye. But then, there was an eclipse of the sun, and it got dark. “From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” (Mathew 27:45; Mark 15:33) During those hours, the sufferings of Christ were out of sight. They were invisible transactions within the Trinity. It is impossible to look into them.

But, in the darkness, the word of God was spoken. Near the end of those hours, when it was about the ninth hour, Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1, crying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) R.C.H. Lenski says, “The darkness and the agonized cry of Jesus go together.” Darkness and forsakenness.

Because of the Trinity, because the words Father and Son are not just two titles for one person, Christ’s cry of forsakenness is not just negative psychological self-talk. It is not a cry of self-alienation. This is the Father, who praised his Son when He was baptized, and who praised him on the Mount of Transfiguration, forsaking him. The Only Begotten Son of God, who had always been in the bosom of his Father (John 1:18), is deserted in darkness.

The Father did not forsake him because of any loss of faith. Jesus still called his Father, “My God.” Not long after that He said, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” These are words of faith, just as in Psalm 22 where Messiah believes that God will deliver him in the end.

What, then, caused the Father to forsake his sinless, faithful Son? This was the forsaking that our sin deserved. “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) This is mystery upon mystery: the mystery of Christ’s forsakenness explained by the mystery of Jesus being our substitute.

We cannot see in the darkness, but we can hear and believe the Word.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Do We Seek at Church?

If we see ourselves as sinners (damned by our thoughts, words and deeds) we will go to church to hear the Gospel Word and to be gifted the forgiveness of sins in Christ. However, if we reject original sin and see ourselves as morally neutral, we will go to church to be encouraged in our pursuit of being more moral. In the first scenario, the churchman goes to church hungry knowing that he will receive free warm bread. In the second scenario, the churchman goes to church denying both his need of the free bread and the gift of the free bread, yet wanting recipes and pointers on how to make the warm bread himself.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Saddest Face I Ever Attempted To Paint

Sidney Herald religion column published January 27, 2013

Artist Francis B. Carpenter said Abraham Lincoln had “the saddest face I ever attempted to paint.” His law partner said Lincoln’s “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” His life was an unceasing litany of sorrows, tragedies, and dangers leading to the Civil War. With many assassination threats, finally he was shot on Good Friday, 1865.

Jesus died on Good Friday. He too was a man of sorrows. His life was constant suffering, opposition, and threats.

Jesus would “suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” (Mark 9:12) People said He was a sinner, glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, was insane, and had a demon.

In his home town, people ridiculed Jesus for his family’s low station. Authorities ridiculed him for lacking education. A Samaritan village refused him lodging. The Gadarenes begged him to leave their region. “Not even his brothers believed in him.” (John 7:5) His own family “went out to seize him … saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:20-21)

During infancy, King Herod tried to kill him. In his home town, “They rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.” (Luke 4:29) Crowds picked up stones to kill him. (John 8:59; 10:31) After a trip to Judea, he “would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.” (John 7:1)

The Pharisees conspired how to destroy him. (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6) When he healed a man with a withered hand, the scribes and Pharisees “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (Luke 6:11) “The scribes and the chief priests sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.” (Luke 20:19-20)

A crowd cried crucify Jesus and give us Barabbas. That name says two things about the rejection of Jesus. “Bar” means “son of,” and “abbas” means either “his father” or “the father.” Translating it as “son of his father,” what man is not the son of his father? That name signifies the most generic man, to say “Give us anybody but Jesus.”

Translating it as, “son of the father,” once more, the Trinity is at the center. “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because … he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18) They hated Jesus for revealing the truth of the Trinity, the truth that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, though three persons, are one God and equally divine. To choose Barabbas as “son of the father” is to reject Jesus as Son of the Father and to reject the Trinity.

The saddest face is the Savior’s, when people refuse the forgiveness of sins through the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

You'll Have To Draw Me a Picture

Sidney Herald religion column published January 13, 2013

I almost flunked out of high school. The first time was in algebra, trying to solve polynomials. “Solving” means finding the roots of many terms. My translation? Trying to make sense of a heap of concepts. Good gravy.

After my algebra disaster, it was surprising how well I did in geometry. It’s not that geometry lacks concepts, but geometry drew me a picture. I could see it.

Just as surprising, my best friend, who’d been an ace in algebra, did poorly in geometry? He learned better from concepts. I learned better from pictures.

It is the same way when getting to know Jesus. During Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of Jesus. Jesus is introduced to us. Who is He? Because people learn differently, the Bible uses many teaching methods to reveal Christ. It uses concepts, but it also draws pictures.

In John 1:1-3, John writes, if I may say, to the algebra students, using concepts. He says that in the beginning, Jesus was God and Jesus was with God. There are 13 terms in the Greek New Testament that are translated into English as “with.” See the polynomial. Withness is a polynomial concept. Try to resolve the root of that! The upshot is in the question, does it make any sense to say that one person is “with” himself? It could, if we make an error in resolving the root, but considering which term John used, the answer is, it doesn’t. So those verses reveal that Jesus is a person of the Trinity, because he “is” God, and yet is “with” God.

I’m pretty happy with that, but I still like pictures better. Only a few verses later, John pictures Jesus as “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father.” Bosom. Here is a picture we can see. Jesus is in the bosom of the Father.

By this we understand the Trinity for sure. John could not be saying that the words Father and Son are just two titles for one person, so that the Father is in his own bosom. No, one person is in the bosom of another. God is the God of bosom, the Triune God.

The prophet Nathan, when confronting David over his sin with Bathsheba, used the word bosom in a tender image. He told David a story about a poor man who “had nothing, except one little ewe lamb … and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-3)

That lamb lay in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Jesus, Lamb of God, is in the bosom of the Father, and He is the Son to Him.

Either from concepts like “is” and “with,” or from pictures like “bosom,” John gives an epiphany of the Trinity, and the Trinity reveals who Jesus is.


Monday, January 7, 2013

We Must Receive an Eye: Glory or Cross, Nature or Faith

In the Treasury of Daily Prayer for January 8, the text from Romans talks about a natural knowledge of God from the glory of creation. This knowledge should exist, but because of man’s fault, it does not. By sin, man suppresses the natural knowledge of God, and only paganism results.

To reveal himself, God turned to a different revelation, the Cross. The Cross is set over against glory as its opposite. The Cross is a revelation of God to faith, but without faith, God is hidden in the Cross. Faith is set over against reason, wisdom, speculation, metaphysics, philosophy, and all other human powers of knowlege.

As the reading in TDP from the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord says, citing Isaiah 28:21, God hides himself and does an alien work, a work foreign to himself, a strange work, or what could be called the work of a stranger. The SD says, "He must do the work of another (reprove), in order that He may [afterwards] do His own work." His own work oftentimes also is called his proper work.

For God to be seen in this revelation, in which He is hidden, strange, alien, and crucified, in the words of Walther von Lowenich, “We must receive an eye.” God is not seen in glory. God is seen in the cross by the received eye of faith, contrary to reason and wisdom.

Following is an excerpt from Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, pp. 28-28, (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis 1976) (citations omitted), in a section on the Heidelberg Disputation.

A. The Heidelberg Disputation

The idea of the hidden God appears here [in the Disputation] in a strict inner connection with the program of the theology of the cross. The theology of the cross is a theology of revelation. The “wisdom of invisible things” is expressly rejected. The “invisible things of God” should really become clear from the works of creation. In these works God has manifested himself. There should be something like a natural knowledge of God. For this the pagan world provides the best demonstration. A knowledge of God that does not understand itself properly is the root of all idolatry.“ But, in fact, there is no such thing as a natural knowledge of God. Men have abused the “knowledge of God on the basis of his works.” Through man’s fault the direct way has proved itself unable to lead to the goal. The visible God was not recognized. The revelation of God in creation failed its purpose. For man it became not a revelation but rather a concealment of God’s essence and will. Yet God wants to be known, his being seeks revelation. How, then, shall God reveal himself so that his revelation might really become a revelation for man? Men have failed to honor the God who was manifest in his works. And so God now chooses a different way to reveal himself to man. The cross now becomes the revelation of God.“

But what do we see when we see the cross? There is “nothing else to be seen than disgrace, poverty, death, and everything that is shown us in the suffering Christ” These are all things that in our opinion have nothing divine in them but rather point to man’s trouble, misery, and weakness. There especially no one would of himself look for God’s revelation. Into such a concealment God enters in order to reveal himself. If there is to be revelation of God, the visible God must become the hidden God. God becomes “hidden in sufferings.” As God hides himself, the “visible things of God” become manifest: “His human nature, weakness, foolishness”

Thus God becomes visible as he conceals himself, and only in this concealment does he become visible. “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross” (ibid.). Hence, even if the theology of glory should arrive at a knowledge of God, it is of no value. God wants to be recognized only in the humility and shame of the cross."

If God himself is hidden in sufferings, it is clear that also the Works of God, in which his activity confronts us, bear the same character. The “works of God are always unattractive”, deformed. They are so deeply hidden that they only appear “under the opposite form”. God’s power reveals itself in weakness. God’s help remains invisible to man who considers himself most forsaken by God when God’s help is nearest. God’s wisdom is indeed wisdom, but it seems like foolishness to us. It is “God’s wisdom in concealment, a wisdom which is in secret things”. As such We must seek to know it, we must receive an eye for the hidden character of the divine properties and works, for God will never disclose himself to direct, metaphysical contemplation.“ If man is not to go astray here, the wisdom of the cross must be granted him. This wisdom, however, is considered foolishness by the World. Therefore, “he who Wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. . . . This is the wisdom which is folly to the world”.

A further excerpt, p. 27:

The theology of the cross rejects speculation as a way to knowledge. Metaphysics does not lead to a knowledge of the true God. For Luther all religious speculation is a theology of glory. He condemns this theology of glory because in it the basic significance of the cross of Christ for all theological thinking is not given its due. The cross of Christ makes plain that there is no direct knowledge of God for man. Christian thinking must come to a halt before the fact of the cross. The cross makes demands on Christian thought—demands which must either be acted on or ignored. If Christian thought ignores the demands of the cross it becomes a theology of glory. If the cross becomes the foundation of Christian thought, a theology of the cross results. For the cross cannot be disposed of in an upper story of the structure of thought.

What is the meaning of the cross for the idea of God? We have said that it forbids every attempt at a direct knowledge of God. God’s essence cannot simply be derived from the works of creation. The knowledge of God must disclose itself to us in the cross of Christ. But even there we at first see nothing of God. For the moment, the riddle of the cross makes only one thing perfectly clear to us: Our God is a hidden God. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (Isa. 45:15).


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany: Trinity Reveals Incarnation

January 6 begins the season of Epiphany.

The Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 1094,  tells us what Epiphany is, as follows:
The feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord commemorates no event but presents an idea that assumes concrete form only through the facts of our Lord's life. The idea of Epiphany is that the Christ who was born in Bethlehem is recognized by the world as God. At Christmas, God appears as man, and at Epiphany, this man appears before the world as God. That Christ became man needed no proof. But that this man, this helpless child, is God needed proof. The manifestations of the Trinity, the signs and wonders performed by this man, and all His miracles have the purpose of proving to men that Jesus is God. Lately, especially in the Western Church, the story of the Magi has been associated with this feast day. As Gentiles who were brought to faith in Jesus Christ, the Magi represent all believers from the Gentile World.

Our view of Christ is clearer when we keep the Trinity and the Incarnation close together.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

When God Takes Christ from You

The Gospel text for January 4 is Luke 2:41-52.

After God gives Jesus to Mary, He seems to take him away from her. When she loses him on the return journey from the Passover in Jerusalem, she and Joseph search for him for three days.
Are they able to sleep during the intervening nights? When they find him, Mary asks Jesus why He treated them so, saying they searched in great distress. (ESV) The King James uses the word sorrowing. The word speaks of sinking grief. What thoughts must Mary have been plunged into during these days, nights, and hours?

Luther says in a sermon on this text:

We may well imagine that thoughts like these may have passed through her mind: “... God has entrusted him to me and commanded me to take care of him; why is it then that he is taken from me? It is my fault, for I have not sufficiently taken care of him and guarded him. Perhaps God does not deem me worthy to watch over this child and will take him from me again.” ... She had reason to fear that God was angry with her and would no longer have her to be the mother of his Son. [Sermons of Martin Luther, vol II, p. 17 et seq. (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1983) (this volume is a reproduction of The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, volume 11, Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands, 1906).]

The loss of Christ and the loss of faith occur together. Luther says in the same sermon, "Thus God deals with his great saints, whom he sometimes deprives of Christ, that is, of their faith and confidence."

God gives us the examples of Mary and many others, some of whom Luther discusses in the sermon, so that when He deals with us in similar ways, we may understand his purpose and method with them, and know his purpose and method with us are the same.

God uses both fear and trust with his saints. In his explanation of the commandments, Luther says of each one that we should fear and love God so that we keep each commandment. Of the First Commandment, he says we should fear, love, and trust God above all things.

God uses love and trust, but He also uses fear. This is neither a popular nor understood teaching today. Most say fear does not mean fear; it means respect. Many deny fear in any sense, even the washed out sense of respect, outright and altogether. In the sermon, Luther elaborates on fear and trust, and how God uses both. Therefore this is a highly valuable sermon.

9. But God does all this out of his superabundant grace and goodness in order that we might perceive on every hand how kindly and lovingly the Father deals with us and tries us, so that our faith may be developed and become continually stronger and stronger. And he does this especially so as to guard his children against a twofold danger which might otherwise threaten them. In the first place, being strong in their own mind and arrogant, they might ultimately depend upon themselves and believe they are able to accomplish everything in their own strength. For this reason God sometimes permits their faith to grow weak and to be prostrated, so that they might see who they are and be forced to confess: Even if I would believe, I cannot. Thus the omnipotent God humbles his saints and keeps them in their true knowledge. For nature and reason will always boast of the gifts of God and depend upon them. Therefore God must lead us to a recognition of the fact that it is he who puts faith in our heart and that we cannot produce it ourselves. Thus the fear of God and trust in him must not be separated from one another, for we need them both, in order that we may not become presumptuous and overconfident, depending upon ourselves. This is one of the reasons why God leads his saints through such great trials.

10. Another reason is, that he wants to give us an example. For if in the Scriptures we had no examples of saints who passed through the same experiences, we should be unable to bear our trials and would imagine that we alone are thus afflicted, that God never dealt with any one in this manner; therefore my suffering must be a sign of God’s displeasure with me. But when we see that the Virgin Mary and other saints have also suffered, we are thereby comforted and need not despair, for their example shows that we should calmly and patiently wait until God comes and strengthens us.

When we understand that our faith is precious to God, and that trial is not just generic suffering, but the trial of faith, then trial becomes the precious possession of the Christian.

"The most severe trial comes upon a person when he believes he has been forsaken and rejected by God." (Walther von Lowenich, Luther's Theology of the Cross, p. 136 (Augsburg Publishing House: Minneapolis 1976) "It is God himself who attacks man through trials." Id., p. 137. This view of Luther explodes the soft piety that God allows the Devil and the world to persecute us. In trial, the Devil and the world have no part, except as a wrench has a part in the work of a mechanic. The mechanic is God.

We are deep within the theology of the Cross. von Lowenich says:

What kind of advice can Luther give in such cases? None other than that one must cling to the Word. And the Word, for Luther, is nothing else than Christ. We are in trials when that Word has been torn out of our heart. The trial is overcome when Christ again speaks to us, when we again hear the Word. Alongside the appeal to the Word is the insistence on the sacrament, especially baptism.

But what if God should want to withdraw his word of grace, if he would want to cancel his promise to me? Even then, says Luther, we must hold fast to the word of promise. Luther dares to make the audacious statement: We must fight against God himself. That is the faith that presses through from the alien work to the proper work, from the hidden to the revealed God in his highest form. For at the basis of the contrast of God’s Word and God himself there is no other contrast than the one between the revealed God and the hidden God. Thus the turning point in the trial has clearly arrived when faith recognizes the trial as an alien work.

Trial is the alien work of God that He uses to bring about his proper work, a heart that clings to Word and Sacrament, a heart where faith resides.

The audacious fight against God sounds impious, but consider the alternatives. All the alternatives laud anyone or anything but God as the one with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:13) Those pieties demote God and exalt others. They also exalt ourselves, since we imagine that we have the power to defeat our enemies, so long as the enemy is not God. And that is just the point. We cannot defeat God. He must defeat us, which He does, when we are in the fight with him. He defeats self-confidence and restores Christ-confidence.

God attacks us to give us the victory. Or, to change the analogy, the Surgeon wounds to heal.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Bright and Shining Sin of Good Works and the Service of God

In the Treasury of Daily Prayer, one of the texts for January 3 is Luke 2:21-40. A sermon of Martin Luther on this text is loaded with so many gems it is difficult to select one for consideration here. The two that struck me most tonight (1-2-13), are the section on how Simeon is a preacher of the cross and against glory, and how works and respectability can be a snare against faith. Here is a piece of the latter:

"51. Finally Simeon says that all this will happen that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. What a blessed and necessary fruit of this falling and speaking against! But in order to understand this we must notice that there are two different kinds of temptation among men. There is the temptation to gross sins, as for instance to be disobedient to parents, to kill, to be unchaste, to steal, to lie and blaspheme, etc., which are sins against the second table of the law. The people who do these things need not take offense at a sign which is spoken against; their thoughts are sufficiently revealed by their evil life. The Scriptures speak little of this temptation.

"52. But the most dangerous temptation is prefigured by Cozbi the daughter of Zur, a prince of Midian, because of whom twenty-four thousand were slain in Israel, as Moses writes in Numbers 25, 15. This is the temptation through the bright and shining sins of good works and the service of God, which bring misfortune upon the whole world and against which nobody can guard sufficiently. These are the sins against the first table of the law, against faith, the honor of God and his works.

"53. For a life of good works, blameless conduct and outward respectability is the greatest, most dangerous and destructive stumbling-block. The people leading such lives are so upright, reasonable, honorable and pious that scarcely a single soul could have been preserved or saved, if God had not set up a sign against which they might stumble and by which the thought of their hearts might be revealed. Thus we see their hearts behind their beautiful words and good works, and find that these great saints and wise men are pagans and fools; for they persecute the faith for the sake of their works and will not suffer their ways to be rebuked. Thus their thoughts are laid bare and they become manifested as trusting in their own works and themselves, sinning not only continually against the first commandments, but endeavoring also in their enmity against God to exterminate and destroy all that belongs to God, claiming to do this for the sake of God and to preserve the truth. ...

"54. The whole Scriptures speak of this stumbling-block, and God with all his prophets and saints contends against it. This is the true gate of hell and the broad highway to eternal damnation, wherefore this harlot is well called Cozbi, “mendacium meum,” my lie. Everything that glitters lies and deceives, but her beautiful ornaments and embellishments deceive even the princes of Israel, and so she is not merely called “mendacium,” but “meum mendacium,” my lie, because with her deception she attracts and tempts almost everybody.

"55. But in order to protect us God has set up his Christ as a sign, at which they might stumble and fall and which they oppose, so that we may not be seduced by their works and words, nor consider them good and imitate them. We should rather know that before God no moral life without faith is acceptable; where there is no faith, there is only Cozbi, nothing but lies and deception. This becomes manifest as soon as we preach against them and consider their works worthless in comparison with faith. Behold, then you must be a heretic with your faith; they reveal themselves and disclose their heart before you unwillingly and unknowingly. Then you perceive the shocking abominations of unbelief hidden behind that beautiful life, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the harlot adorned with the wreath, impudently demanding that you consider her disgrace and vice, her honor and virtue, or threatening to kill you."

Sermons of Martin Luther, vol I, pp. 277-78 (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1983)(this volume is a reproduction of The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, volume 10, Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands, 1905).