Archive for December, 2019

Reading Ramblings – December 15, 2019

December 8, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Advent – December 25, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-15

Context: Strong words of encouragement continue to come from the prophet Isaiah, pictures of a restored and renewed creation made possible only in the Day of the Lord. All other sources of hope ultimately fail, the psalmist reminds us. Which means that we must patiently endure the failures and hardships here and now, which we are able to do knowing that our Lord’s return is imminent. The reality of this is driven home as Jesus works his ministry. Patiently revealing the prophetic fulfillment not just in his own person and work, but in that of John the Baptist as well. The forerunner prophesied by Malachi. Let he who has ears hear.

Isaiah 35:1-10 – We continue hearing from the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century BC as he glimpses a renewed and restored world. Is he speaking with exaggeration about the peace of God’s people when the Assyrians are defeated? When the strength of the Babylonians is broken and God’s people return to Jerusalem and Judea? To some extent yes. But his words clearly go beyond this. He clearly sees more than just restored fortunes in a sinful and broken world. He sees healing and restoration on a scale only possible from God, laying the groundwork for what God’s people should look for in anyone they suspect to be the Messiah. These are the signs John the Baptist has in mind as he sits in prison, wondering if Jesus truly is the Messiah or if he’s tagged the wrong man. Jesus’ response makes it clear John is not wrong, Jesus is the Messiah, and in his ministry is the start of that restoration not just of humanity but all creation to the perfection it was created with.

Psalm 146 – It’s easy to claim to be a savior. Easy to claim you have the answers to the world’s problems and if only you can be given enough latitude, you will set things right. We hear these promises during every election cycle. Only to be disappointed afterwards. Talking is easy. Action is harder. Even the best intentions come ultimately to frustration when someone dies and leaves nothing behind but a legacy to be gradually whittled away but successors and detractors. Only God’s promises can be trusted to be both complete and final. Only God is capable of maintaining faithfulness forever, seeing through is plan of salvation to completion perfectly and completely. Only He can restore creation to the perfection lost in Eden. While others may claim to aspire to this, they ultimately fail, and we would be wise as God’s people not to have our eyes distracted from our Lord’s return by the clamor of politics and human machinations here and now. We exercise our vocation as citizens faithfully and to the best of our ability, but we trust only and ultimately in the God who created us, redeemed us, and sanctifies us.

James 5:7-11 – But the Day of the Lord has not arrived in fullness and completeness yet. With God’s people since Eden, we continue to wait the perfect culmination of God the Father’s plan. Which means we must endure the evil and sinfulness in ourselves and the world around us, and we must wait patiently, trusting in our Father’s timing rather than our own preferences. This patience is something we commit ourselves to actively. It is a choice, a setting of our hearts. We will fail from time to time but we resolve to get back on our feet and remain patient in our endurance, persistent in our hope. After all, we certainly aren’t the first to suffer, and from our American Christian standpoint at least, many others have and do endure far worse as they wait for our Lord than we do. They should be our examples. God provides us with these examples and inspirations, strengthening our resolve and reminding us that we do not wait alone. We are not forgotten and orphaned. Our Lord the Holy Spirit is with us here and now, and so we can wait in confidence.

Matthew 11:2-15 – John the Baptist knows the Word of God. He also saw God the Holy Spirit come to rest on Jesus during his baptism. He knows that Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah. And yet, as he languishes in prison, John has a moment of doubt and sends messengers to inquire. To make sure. What can Jesus say? He knows John’s faith and He knows John’s knowledge of Scripture. Jesus refers to signs given by Isaiah for the Messiah. Luke 7 drives the point home more firmly – as John’s disciples stand there, Jesus performs miracles in front of them. Can there be any doubt? Certainly there can, because John is still in prison, an unforeseen turn of events from his perspective, and one he might reasonably expect to be reversed, as per Isaiah 42. But while Jesus works many miracles to demonstrate his identity, He does not release John from prison. Jesus comes to initiate the kingdom of heaven, but not to reveal it fully. That awaits the Father’s perfect timing. John, like the rest of us, must wait for that perfect timing, enduring whatever hardships are necessary – whether imprisonment or just the challenges of getting older.

John expressed doubt about Jesus but Jesus wants to be sure people have no doubts about John. John isn’t merely a has-been, eclipsed by a more spectacular ministry from Jesus. No, John is a prophet. The last of the Old Testament prophets who points forward to the Messiah that will come after them. He is the Elijah figure Malachi prophesied, Jesus assures the crowds. They were not wrong to listen to John, and because of that, they are not wrong to listen to and follow Jesus.

John must hear the words of his disciples reporting what they saw and heard. Likewise the crowds are expected to hear Jesus’ words and receive them. And you and I 2000 years later are expected to hear and trust the words passed down to us from those who saw them come to pass firsthand. We have ears, and we have the opportunity to hear the good news of the kingdom of God, the redemption of creation through the perfect life and death of the Son of God. The promise of eternal restoration and new life when He returns. We may have our moments of doubt and uncertainty but we are graciously invited into repentance to receive forgiveness and the reminder to pay attention to what we have heard and what we have experienced for ourselves.

Just Cute

December 5, 2019

It could easily be maintained that I have no heart, based on my typical posts that veer (successfully or unsuccessfully) more towards the cerebral than the emotional.

But just to prove I am somewhat human, here is an adorable example of how something can be done well without resorting to excessive expense, profanity, nudity, sexuality, or any of our  other popular marketing gimmicks.

Take a few seconds to watch this if you’re in the mood for something wholesome and sentimental.

Weekly Devotion

December 4, 2019

Romans 15:4-13

A few weeks ago I was leading a Bible study and they requested the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You might remember the three guys in the fiery furnace? If you grew up in the church maybe you remember it from Sunday School. It does stick in the mind as a moment of miraculous preservation but also a miraculous witness to the reality and presence of God at all times and in all situations.

When is the last time you read that story? You may think I don’t need to read that story again. I know that story. I haven’t thought about it in decades, but I remember the gist of it. Isn’t that enough?

According to the Holy Spirit and St. Paul, no, that probably isn’t enough. Paul talks about the encouragement of the Scriptures. In other words, the Bible isn’t simply a moral guide book or a doctrinal handbook, it’s also a book of encouragement. And it is to provide both encouragement and endurance for tangible ends such as living in harmony with one another. Knowing the Bible is one thing. Believing the Bible is another thing. But allowing the Word of God to regularly encourage us? That’s something else as well.

Being able to remember the situation Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found themselves in is important. But remembering their response to the king? Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. What an encouragement! What a tangible reminder that our God is the God of history, and He is everywhere present and more than able to save us from the worst of our fears and realities. Whether He chooses to do so or not is his decision according to his perfect knowledge and will. Faith is proclaiming God’s presence and ability, not a retroactive response to things working out well.

Let Scripture be your encouragement. Let it guide you in living your life and guide you in what you believe and profess. But let it also draw you into greater harmony with one another. The God who created us, redeemed us and sanctifies us is also the God who encourages us each day through his Word!

Sin and Title

December 3, 2019

….But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.

So goes part of the corporate confession I’ve heard off and on either as parishioner or pastor for the entirety of my life, and that Christians have used prior to me.  It addresses one half of a complicated dual identity – that of being a poor, sinful being.  Not poor in the sense of material poverty, but rather poor in a sympathetic or empathetic way.  I am poor in that I am unable to fully change my sinful nature.  I am unable to fully refrain from sin perfectly in thought, word and deed.  I may put on a good show, but my thoughts and emotions betray me to God regardless of my self-control that might fool others.

I was talking with my parents this weekend and they were relating one pastor’s disagreement with this statement.  His argument is that we are no longer slaves to sin but rather we are free in Christ.  We live in the kingdom of grace rather under the tyranny of Satan.  This is who  we are, he  says.  And he’s half right.  Because the complicated, aforementioned dual-identity consists of this other reality.  Because of the sacrificial death of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus  the Christ, and because of the faith worked in me by God the Holy Spirit that this historic and objective reality is also subjectively true and real and efficacious for me, I am now washed in his blood and raised from death to  my sinful nature with him.  I am now, this moment, perfect and holy and righteous.  This is how God the Father sees me.  Or more accurately, God the Father sees me this way through the blood of Christ, so that his perfect sacrifice becomes part of my identity.

So we can emphasize one part or the other of this dual-identity.  And one day, this dual identity will no longer be.  The sinful part of me that I confess daily and weekly privately and in corporate worship will be gone, and all that will remain is the holy and perfect and righteous me.  I look forward to that day.  I try to emphasize that reality here and now to myself  and my parishioners.  But I also know the sneakiness of  sin, and some of the dangerous tactics of Satan.  He can’t change the sacrifice of the Son of God on my behalf.  He can’t take away the grace and forgiveness that are granted to me in faith through my baptism.

But he could convince me I don’t really need these things.  He could convince me to ignore and neglect these realities until they are no longer my subjective reality.  Until I’ve committed the unforgivable sin of declaring sin to be righteousness, rejecting the good forgiveness of God as something evil and intrusive.  And because I believe – based on Scripture – that these tactics are deadly real and effective, I will  insist  on continuing to address both aspects of my dual-identity.  Because Satan is always prowling about, internally and externally.  And he isn’t always blatant and obvious about it.

This morning I returned to the office from taking Holy Communion to Suzanne and her sister as I do nearly every Tuesday, augmented with another visit on Thursdays to share another Word from Scripture but without Communion.  Her pattern now  at this care facility is to be lifted into her wheelchair for 45 minutes or so of fresh air and a cigarette outside.  A small freedom she dearly enjoys.  So if I arrive and she’s not in her room, I know to search for her outside.

And outside I found her this morning, surrounded by several friends and co-residents at this care facility.  They gather for cigarettes and coffee, to laugh and shoot the breeze and catch up on the latest goings on.  They feed the pigeons as they smoke and chat.  A few weeks ago I invited one of the other residents to join us.  This morning, he was back along with another two women, at least one of whom was Christian.  It was a beautiful time of sharing God’s Word with an unexpected number of people, and then figuring out how to make the Eucharist available to them when I only expected to commune two.  God is good and things worked out.

Which is all secondary to the whole point of this post.

When I got back to the office there was a car parked in the parking lot that I didn’t recognize.  Sure enough, when I got out, so did the man in the car.  He was sharing flyers for an ecumenical conference in 2020.  I’m generally skeptical of these things but didn’t want to be rude.  I flipped through the brochures as he pointed out the keynote speakers.  I presume he assumed I would know who they are and be somewhat impressed.  He then went on to list off some of the other people who have presented at this conference over the years.  Again, a list of names he assumed I would know and be impressed by.  I didn’t know any of them.  Doesn’t mean they’re bad or not worth knowing, but it’s just not my thing to get into the whole name dropping stuff.  I’ve run into this recently with several different evangelical Christians in different contexts.  Oh, you know so-and-so don’t you?  They’re starting up a new church plant.  Oh, I used to study under so-and-so but now I’m over with so-and-so.  I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or my own weirdness, but I don’t know these people.  I don’t care, frankly.  If they’re serving God faithfully, thanks be to God!  I don’t need to know  their names.  I probably don’t need to read their books or attend their workshops either, which are oftentimes – in my limited experiences – just a chance for social or professional networking and more name-dropping.  When the conference ends I never hear or see these people again.

Apparently I’m not notable enough for follow-up contacts – unless it’s a mass e-mail advertising the next conference.

Which brings me back to confession.  You know, where we started a few hours  ago?

I thanked the man and made my way to my office, where I flipped through the brochure.  It actually looks halfway interesting.  Focused on youth ministry and reaching young people, the Holy Grail of church focus these days.  But it struck me odd that instead of talking about the purpose of the conference, he chose to emphasize the cool people leading it and previous cool people who had led it.

And a little green voice reared up inside my head wondering why I wasn’t speaking at such conferences and having people drop  my name.

There it is.  That subtle little nudge.  Nothing over-the-top or too noticeable.  Something designed to cruise in under the radar and lodge in the mind and slowly begin taking root.  Did God really say….?

It’s easy to say I’m not speaking at conferences because I have nothing to say and have done nothing notable.  And this is true.

But it’s also true that I just communed five people in a care facility in varying stages of waiting to die.  I brought them the Word of  God.  I brought them the body and blood of their Savior in with and under the bread and wine.  I managed to drop half a wafer and feed it to the pigeons.

And that is something.  It’s not about me, of course.  And so I pretend not to hear the one person complimenting me to one of the other people as I’m nearly out of earshot.  But the ear pricks.  The imagination flares.  Conceit and vanity are stoked.

It’s  not about me.  And that’s ultimately why I reject the popular Christian cult of name-dropping and professional networking.  Perhaps if we had more people focusing on bringing the Word of God to the least of these, the Church might be in a different situation in our culture.  Or perhaps it’s because that’s what the Church is doing that we’re in this situation of free-falling  membership levels.  It could work either direction, and I suspect Satan enough is experienced enough to tack into whatever breeze happens to be blowing.

Perhaps if more people focused on what’s important without thinking about themselves, like me, things would be better and the Church would be healthier.  And there’s the seed of sin and pride and vanity again.  It never stops.  Never goes away.  Not until I die in faith or my Savior returns.  And at that point, all those weed seeds will die off and I won’t have to worry about vanity and conceit or any other type of sin again.  I’ll be holy and perfect and righteous.  Just like I am right now.  Not because of me and my theories but because of the Son of God and his blood.  Because of the Holy Spirit pursuing me with faith that connects me to the grace and forgiveness of God.

But I still struggle with sin right now.  Sometimes I know it and see it.  Sometimes I don’t.  So I continue to confess.  Also imperfectly and incompletely, but as faithfully as possible.  To call  my sin out as sin rather than pretend it’s not.

….But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.

 

 

 

 

Apocrypha: Baruch

December 3, 2019

Sometime after 587 BC and the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, this piece of writing was crafted.  It claims to be written by the Biblical figure Baruch (Jeremiah 43:6).  However the Biblical record has Baruch relocated to Egypt, rather than Babylon as he claims in this writing (1:1).  Baruch also claims to take up a collection for continuing sacrifices and prayers to be made in Jerusalem on behalf of the exiles.  Scripture nowhere mentions this practice and actually claims that all feasts and the cycle of sacrifices and prayers were eliminated during the exile (Lamentations 2:6-7; Era 3:2).

While it’s possible that Baruch was first in Babylon and later in Egypt, or visa versa, it also seems reasonable that this was not written by that Biblical figure but attributed to him.  While this book doesn’t contain anything contrary to Scripture, it does seem to borrow heavily from many of the Old Testament prophets, rendering it derivative to a large extent.

Essentially it’s an acknowledgment of God’s righteous disciplining of his people by allowing them to be conquered and scattered in exile.  It also is a confession of sin and an acknowledgment that it’s their own fault this has happened to them.  It asks God to complete his cycle of discipline now that they have learned their lesson the hard way, and ends with assurances that God will indeed restore his people to their land and heritage.

Again, as with many of the other books of  the Apocrypha, this at best is repetitive.  And while it doesn’t contradict Scripture, it doesn’t really add much of any real value, either.

 

Reading Ramblings – December 8, 2019

December 1, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Context: We think of Advent as having to do with Christmas, with preparation for the birth of the Son of God. But of course, no such preparation is necessary. This event occurred some 2000 years ago. We remember it and give thanks for it, but prepare for it? We can build anticipation for the actual day, but Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival – particularly the arrival of a personage of some importance. And while Jesus fits that bill historically, Advent reminds us that He will return, and that we should be waiting for this. The readings turn our attention slightly from last week’s focus on Jesus’ promised return by reminding us that God already fulfilled his promise to send his Son a first time.

Isaiah 11:1-10 – We look forward to the arrival of a king, but a king like no other. All other, human kings are limited in what they can do, what they can know, what they can bring into effect. But the divine king has no such limitations. Not only will his source be unexpected (v.1), he will be graced with the Holy Spirit of God. A seven-fold description of this Spirit is given (v.2), leading to the outcome that he will be obedient to God (vs. 3-5). The effect of his reign will alter everything. Not just human relationships but all of creation will enjoy the blessings of his reign. The completeness of this king’s perfect rule extends to all aspects of creation, restoring an order we can’t even begin to imagine.

Psalm 72:1-7 – A psalm fit for a king. Or more accurately, a psalm in need of a king fitting enough for it! A coronation prayer, that God would provide his justice and righteousness appropriately through the king, so the king might carry out his duties faithfully and obediently to God, and therefore as a blessing to all creation. A picture of perfect strength and perfect benevolence, no king has ascended to the lofty heights of good rule depicted here. But one will. The king we wait for, the king who will return – he alone bears the righteousness and justice of God perfectly. He alone is feared by evil and our ancient enemy, Satan, as He alone has already defeated Satan and when He returns will finalize this defeat, judgment, and punishment.

Romans 15:4-13 – The king we await is the king of all, both of Jew and Gentile, the chosen people of God as well as those grafted into their story (Romans 11). But perhaps the most powerful reminder in this section is in verse 4. Scripture is written for a purpose. It is written for an audience and we are part of that audience, today, just as God’s people always have been. God’s Word remains true. As such, we are to be instructed by it rather than presuming to teach the Word. As such we must always resist the ever-present temptation to reshape Scripture by omission or addition, so that it says what we prefer it to say rather than what God has said. No other word can be trusted like God’s Word, and no other word can counter it or replace it. The Word endures, and because the Word endures we are encouraged to endure also, knowing the Word will one day summon us from our graves to live forever in the Kingdom of God. But this isn’t an idle encouragement or an idle endurance. And we don’t get to shape our endurance any more than we can shape any other aspect of the Word. Encouragement and endurance should lead towards harmony among the faithful. It should lead to a unity of voices in worship. Would this happened in more congregations, let alone among denominations!

Matthew 3:1-12 – Matthew introduces us to John the Baptist. He summarizes his message (v.2), explains the relevance of it through the prophet Isaiah (v.3), describes him physically (v.4) and describes how he was received (vs.5-6). John’s message is appealing to many, but it turns harsh and condemning of some who feel no real call to repentance. Satisfied in their own righteousness John’s words pass through and over them without affecting any repentance, rendering their desire for baptism pointless. John speaks strongly – there is wrath coming. Wrath against evil. Wrath of the perfect and good king against any who would oppose him and in so doing be hateful or careless with his creation. Repentance is more than something we say. Repentance leads to change. Failure for this to happen – or when this ceases to happen – is a primary way of recognizing that we are in danger in this coming wrath, that we might be among those whom wrath is directed against.

The Word of God convicts us of sin and unrighteousness and offers us forgiveness and righteousness through the Son of God, according to the plan of God the Father and by the power of God the Holy Spirit. If we become so lost in our sin that the Word no longer does this, we are not bearing the appropriate fruits of repentance.

The King will be able to discern this. It is his job to discern repentance from apathy and those who love God from those who find it convenient or fashionable to live as though they did. Much is at stake here! It was appropriate for the people of God to come out for a baptism of repentance, confessing their sins in the water of the Jordan River. To accept the externals of repentance without real inward change is a deadly dangerous place to be.