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).