“I Am Concerned to Know Nothing Else…”

We’re nearing the endpoint of Lent. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and with that, we’ll begin the journey through the city streets of Jerusalem in Holy Week and we’ll find ourselves situated at the foot of Good Friday’s cross.

That’s where we’re going.

In a sense, as Christians, that’s always where we’re going, to the foot of Good Friday’s cross. Each and every day, by way of our baptism into Christ, we are those who stand alongside the preaching of Saint Paul when he declares, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Why does he say it this way?

Because there on the cross, we not only see the results of Mankind’s innermost nature in Sin—the immense cost of all that we are as fallen creatures—but we also see in that terribly grotesque sight the most beautiful of occurrences: the Hope of the nations, the Rescuer of the lost, the Redeemer of the entire cosmos willingly submitting Himself to being spiked to wood as the perfect sacrifice.

This image will never be fully mined of its significance in this life. Countless theologians throughout the ages have tried to get to the absolute bottom of Calvary’s depths, but in the end, have all been forced to settle with the vocabulary and limitations of human language. Still, the power of the image, as it feeds faith, has provided for the right words to be put into the right order in order to create opportunities for the Church to sing hymns like “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” By such sacred hymnody, the Church calls out words like, “Yet, though sin and hell assail me, Jesus will not fail me,” followed by, “Satan, I defy thee; Death I now decry thee; Fear I bid thee cease!”

Only by way of Christ’s outpouring on the cross can we sing these things with the confidence they intend.

Like other theologians in history, Luther tried to simplify the image when he wrote things like:

Look at this picture and love it. There is no greater bondage or form of service than that the Son of God should be the servant and should bear the sin of every man, however poor and wretched or despised. What an amazing thing it would be if some king’s son should go into a beggar’s hut to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth and do all the things which otherwise the beggar would have to do. All the world would gape with open mouths, noses, ears, and eyes, and could never think and talk enough about it. Would that not be a wonderful humility?…But behold, what does it mean? The Son of God becomes my servant and humbles Himself, saying to me: ‘You are no longer a sinner, but I, I Myself step into your place. You have not sinned; I have. The whole world lies in sin, but you are not in sin, but I am. All your sin shall be upon Me, and not on you.’ No man can comprehend it. In this life hereafter we shall have a knowledge of the love of God and gaze upon it in eternal blessedness” (Exposition of John I, W.A. 46. 680 f.).

Of course, Luther is right, and as I said, we’ll never fully understand the vast dimensions of what was happening that day on that dreadful hill outside of Jerusalem’s walls, a Friday we now call “good.” Still, Lent has been helping us. It is in place to keep before us the Word of God, which reveals to us our frailty and offers the supercharged Gospel of salvation through the One who took our place in judgement.

Yes, the message is vast and powerful, but as Luther explained, it can be held so close in relative simplicity. Jesus died for you. By this act, He took your Sins on Himself. Through faith in Him and His sacrifice, all is well and you have eternal life.

Thanks be to God for this! Thanks be to God for the freedom to live in this each and every day by the power of the Holy Spirit!

The Law and Gospel of Fasting

I’m wondering how many of you are planning to fast during Lent. Of course it isn’t a required Lenten practice. I’m going to fast, although I haven’t quite figured out what form it will take just yet. For the record, as I’m sure you already know from my previous messages, I believe the practice of fasting is good. It’s an outward honing of the senses that attempts to keep one foot in the Law of God and the other in His Gospel.

Considering the Law angle to fasting, if I had to select one word in this moment to describe it, I’d choose “imprisonment.” Fasting is a form of imprisonment. It takes us into a place where certain inclinations are purposely inhibited and it denies access to what would normally be enjoyed in Christian freedom.

Richard Wright wrote in his book The Outsider, “Men simply copied the realities of their hearts when they built prisons.” He’s right. According to the sin-nature, the human heart is a prison of thoughts, words, and deeds—things we wish we could wipe clean from our slates by our own efforts, but in the end, we just can’t. We see them through the bars and we know our guilt. We know that the wage for Sin, which is imprisonment to Death, is a just and appropriate punishment for our crimes.

I suppose that in a way, fasting takes us inside the prison, but it doesn’t do so with us as convicts being led in shackles and destined for a cell. We’re guests of the warden, and we’re reminded of what we narrowly escaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re reminded of the immense value behind the redeeming act of the innocent Son of God who exchanged His freedom for ours, who became Sin for us so that we would be free (2 Corinthians 5:21).

From this Law perspective, the Gospel is by no means robbed of its luster and given a penny price tag, but rather it’s seen as it should be seen. It’s an act that we didn’t deserve, and this side of the prison bars, it’s nothing less than priceless.

But this is the very point where we meet with the bright beaming Gospel that shines in the midst of the act of fasting. While we didn’t deserve the rescue, moved by an indescribable love, God gave it to us anyway. Ultimately, Christians fast as a way to keep their spiritual wits attuned to the immensity of the sacrifice Christ made by His suffering and death for the salvation of the world. That’s definitely Gospel. That’s the good news of Christ’s work to save us.

Whether or not you decide to fast is completely up to you. If you’re undecided on it, I say go ahead and give it a shot. Just remember that as you do, you’re not doing anything to win God’s favor. You’re doing it because you already have His favor by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ. With that, you’re fasting because you don’t want to become spiritually lazy. You’re fasting because you’re intent on never losing sight of the enormity of the events leading to and being accomplished on the Lord’s cross. You’re intent on recalling as Saint Paul recalls:

“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Whatever you decide to do, I pray it will be of benefit to you. Know that I’ll be traveling alongside you in the practice for the next six weeks, and I’ll be trusting that God will both prepare and enlighten our hearts for meeting the holiest of days—the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter) and then Easter Sunday—with the integrity of those who know with joy the price of salvation and are glad to live in and proclaim that same joy to others.

A Christian Leader

I saw the sun this past weekend! I love the sun! Did you see it, too? I was pretty excited by it, that’s for sure. I’ve read about the sun in books, but living here in Michigan, I’ve rarely caught a glimpse of it. It sure made my day to see this cosmic phenomenon that others talk about so fondly. I even saw a sunbeam on dry pavement. Dry pavement!  Can you believe that?! It didn’t have any snow on it!

Okay, so I’m being a little facetious. The point is that the warmer weather has finally poked through the pall of a long Michigan winter, and with that, some relief is upon us.

Besides a big and brightly beaming sun casting its happy light upon us, do you know what else I love? The leaders in in this congregation. And why? Because they truly do fit the Biblical depiction of what it means to emanate Godly authority in the church. In other words, they see themselves as both responsible and accountable.

With regard to accountability, the Word of God is pretty clear that anyone serving in a sphere of authority over others will ultimately give an account to the One who is the source of all authority (Luke12:42-48; 20:9-16). And we know who that is, right? Read Matthew 28:18 if you don’t. But if you guessed Jesus before reading Mathew 28, then give yourself a high five, because you’re right. All authority in heaven and on earth is His, and so even the authority that leaders in the church and world wield, they do so, technically, as stewards in faithfulness to Christ.

With regard to responsibility, believe it or not, the scriptures suggest that Godly character is essential for anyone seeking to be a leader.  Maybe you have heard the phrase “Character is your true self when no one is watching.” In the Bible, the traits of Godly character are almost always intimately paired with “truth.” Even more interestingly, character is treated as a fruit born from conviction, which is at the heart of the positions we hold on certain issues in accordance with truth. A leader with character seeks after truth—God’s truth—and wants it to be communicated to the people he or she is leading. (Prov. 6:16-19; Psalm 1:1; 1 Cor. 11:1-2; Romans 5:4; 1 John 2:3-4; John 6:67-71; Prov. 22:1; Prov. 8:14; 2 Thess. 2:14-15; James 4:8; Eccl. 7:1; Phil. 4:5; Eph. 5:1; 2 Cor. 5:17)

In Titus 2:15, Saint Paul takes time to point out how a Christian leader’s authority is founded on character. Paul encourages: “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” Now, Paul does not mean that Titus ought to flex the muscle of his authority as a leader in a way that shows he’s the boss and folks had better understand that he’s the boss, but rather a few verses prior, Paul explains how Titus’ authority would be established, displayed, and subsequently acknowledged and accepted: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” Titus’ authority is substantiated not just by his official title, but by a life that displays worthy character that seeks after and is set upon Godly truth. This instruction from Paul is not just for Titus. Paul gives the same encouragement to young Pastor Timothy: “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

So, in other words, Godly character commands respect, and the chances are good in any particular congregation that a steward of such Godliness who holds respect will also end up serving as a leader with certain measures of authority.

I can heartily attest to the fact that the Christian leaders here at our Savior are mindful of the ultimate source of their authority—Jesus Christ—and with that, they are not self-seeking, but rather are serving all of you in faithfulness as they serve the Lord in faithfulness. And the substance of that authority is fed and owned by Godly character—character itself being fed and owned by the capacity to abide by Godly convictions built on the truth of Christ and His Word even when faced with the temptation to forsake God’s Word because their own reason appears to make more sense.

These are the folks serving here at Our Savior. You can be gladdened by this. God is very good to us in this regard, and just like the sunbeams of a springtime sun, He casts the bright beams of His love upon all of us through the diligent work of these faithful people.

You Have Weapons. Take a Stand.

For those who were in the Sunday morning Bible study, maybe you’ll recall that there was something very Lenten-esque that we happened upon during the discussion. You’ll remember that we talked a little bit about the Greek word ὅπλα (hopla), which is translated in both the ESV and the NIV as “armor” and yet is also reliably translated as “weapons.” The verse in particular where we met this term was Romans 13:12 where Paul boldly encourages us to be rid of the works of darkness and to put on the ὅπλα of light.

From this, there were a few very important points made during this discussion.

The first is that when Paul speaks of “putting on,” he is using the exact same word he used in Galatians 3:27 where he said that all who have been baptized into Christ, have been clothed in or put on Christ. That is important for us to know. It is a hint as to the source of the ὅπλα of light. In our baptism, we are clothed in the victory of the One who is the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, and His life, death, and resurrection. Baptized into Him, we are divinely armed.

In Ephesians 6:10-18, Paul gives definition to the armament, calling it the πανοπλίαν (the full weaponry) of God.

Another point of the discussion was for us to keep within the framework and consistency of Paul’s words. What I mean is that whether we use the word “weapons” or “armor,” both are defensive and offensive in nature. Visiting again with Ephesians 6, verse 11 in particular, Paul describes the motion of those who are dressed in these wartime accessories. Very specifically does he say that to be clad in the armor/weapons of God, is to be made ready for engagement—that is, “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” But again, there’s an interesting word being used here. The phrase “take your stand” (στῆναι πρὸς—stand toward) isn’t a shaky description of stance. It is an expression of confident strength. It infers forward momentum—the digging in of one’s posture and pressing into what’s coming. In other words, it isn’t reactionary. It means to face off with the foe, to lean into his attacks. Again, in a military sense, it carries a substance of being both defensive and offensive.

So, what’s the point?

It all comes back to baptism. Your baptism is a powerfully re-creative thing. Not only have you been joined to Christ—having been made a member of that great body who stands before the throne of God’s grace, having a washed robe made bright white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7)—but you have been fortified as one ready to engage in the world with a posture of unearthly courage and strength that proves unbending against the evil schemes of that old evil foe, the devil, who would see the Gospel light dimmed and your hope extinguished.

Pay attention to the readings during Lent. In one way or another—whether prominent or tiptoeing around the scene in concealment—the devil is present in each one. He had to be. As Jesus made His way to the cross, the devil wanted nothing more than to thwart the Lord’s efforts. And not just to stop His saving work, but to keep everyone the Lord met from putting their faith in Him. It’s the same for us. The devil is scheming to keep us from the Lord, and he’s using every weapon at his disposal to do it.

But we have weapons, too. Paul pointed to our baptism as the heavenly weapons cache. Interestingly, when Luther considered some of the same texts, he said that the most deadly of the weapons in that baptismal cache for use by the Christians, the ones capable of slaying the devil, are the Word of God and the regular study of it.

Who can argue with that? In essence, Luther just said that the frontline for the supernatural warfare is played out in Holy Worship, the event where we are immersed from head to toe in the verbal and visible Word of God; and then Bible study, the place where we dig into and embrace that Word for the benefit of salvation and for leaning into the earth shaking might of the oncoming forces of this present age each and every day of our lives.

A lot of folks practice fasting for Lent, that is, they give up something. How about giving up your after-worship routine and attending the adult Bible study with so many others in your Christian brigade?

It will be worth your while. Although, don’t feel as though you need to take my word for it. Take the encouragement of Saint Paul and Rev. Dr. Luther.

Beyond “Therefore”

I suppose that many of you have the day off from work today in celebration of the national holiday remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. It certainly is a worthwhile day of remembrance honoring a man of diligent service to humanity. He accomplished much, and he did so in a way that was shocking to his enemies.

When they threatened him with violence and death, even the death of his wife and children, he spoke to peace.

Interestingly, while Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t necessarily align with the Lutheran theologies that would have put us in altar fellowship, his theological understandings of what to do in the midst of persecution and his fundamental thoughts on being a slave to Christ as opposed to a slave to man should leave most of us in awe. He got those things so incredibly right, and for that, he is to be wholeheartedly appreciated.

We just heard in yesterday’s preaching (which focused primarily on the Epistle reading from Romans 12:6-16) that quite a bit hinges on Paul’s usage of the word “therefore.”  It was noted that the word wasn’t in the actual reading, but had we gone back and collected Paul’s thoughts from the beginning of the chapter (as well as other chapters), we would’ve heard it, and we would have been situated to see that the long list of “do’s” and “do not’s” in chapter 12 isn’t necessarily an exhortation, but rather a description.

The texts that come before the “therefore” are ones that speak of God’s mercy to us. This teaches us that what follows the “therefore” is not a list of demands, but rather a portrait of who we are because of what Christ has done for us and works through us by His grace.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, God creates a different kind of person, a person who fits the description and is capable of seeing himself as one who is no longer in bondage to the world, but rather serves Christ and is capable of doing so in ways that simply flabbergast the world around us.

We are made into those who can have hope in the midst of struggle. We can pray for our persecutors. We can love our enemies. We can confound the world in these ways, and in so doing, we are found to be lights of Christ leading others to Him even in the midst of sin’s darkness.

If anything, Dr. King understood these things, and I appreciate his unbending fervor for living it out and being a real, tangible, national icon of this biblical truth. It certainly would seem that his cause is being lost on so many, nevertheless, history’s record unarguably stands in favor of a man who sought faithfulness to Christ in his effort to rid the world of the tarry and vile tendency to see others according to the color of their skin and not the content of their character.

Few come along with a willingness to do what he did. Maybe it’s because few are called to do so with such a courage in a public way. Nevertheless, each of us has been recreated to be God’s people in the simplicity and normalcy of our daily vocations. This, too, takes courage, and in the end, is never to be considered small. In fact, it’s really quite grand. It’s grand because of the gravity God attaches to it. It’s in these daily interactions that others behold the Gospel of Christ at work in a real person, and by this, onlookers are affected (Matthew 5:13-16). Not necessarily changed into believers. The actual message of the Gospel does that. But still, they are affected in a way that turns their attention to God. They are found curious, thoughtful, concerned, questioning—interested. And God worked this out by you just being you.

May God bless your day and week as you stand in His grace and beam this mighty and courageous love to the world around you. I know he will. As I mentioned in the sermon yesterday, I see this each and every day through so many of you. I have no doubt that Romans 12 is a description of our little church.

By God’s Grace, You Are Full of Goodness

Saint Paul wrote something rather interesting in Romans 15. Here’s what he said…

“I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” (v.14)

What did he mean by this?

Well, first he meant what it sounds like he meant—that by the power of the Spirit at work through the Gospel in each of them, they were full of goodness—and this means that even while they wrestled with the sinful nature each and every day, through faith in Jesus they had an ability to produce the fruits of faith made ready by the Gospel. We know what those fruits are, since Paul already told us that the fruits of the Spirit are peace, patience, kindness, goodness, etc. These particular fruits produce thoughts, words, and deeds in the world around us that emanate in a variety of ways.

The second thing he meant—at least partially—is that we are gathered together as a fellowship which knows these things and are fully competent for encouraging one another and building one another up according to faith in Jesus.

This is no small thing in our midst, especially since we are more and more taking the lead in our local and broader communities for standing immovably upon the Gospel of Christ in an ever-changing and often threatening world.

We need one another. We need each member to work together—to take the gifts of knowledge and skill that has God has seen fit to give and to share it where appropriate throughout the church. If you are a carpenter, ask how you might put those skills to use in the church. If you are a skilled seamstress, let us know. We have vestments that could use your help. Are you wise with finances? Teach us how to reach out within the fellowship in order to gauge our directions and make sturdier long term plans.

As a believer, by God’s grace, you are full of goodness. This is an uplifting truth, and for that I am grateful.