Exegesis and hermeneutics

If I could send one message back in time to my younger self, entering seminary immediately after graduating college, I would advise that new seminary student to cultivate a relationship with one member of the seminary faculty and to be mentored by him. Knowing what I know today, two members of the faculty stand out as men that I wish had guided me during my student days. Both men are (and were then) very intelligent, bold in their theology without contradicting the faith of the Church—very Christian, very Biblical, very Lutheran, and very solid academically.

I was assigned a counselor from the faculty. He was one of the professors about whom my pastor had warned me: having gone straight from student to instructor, he had not spent time in the parish. Now, forty years later, he was continuing to lecture in the classroom, quite probably delivering the same lectures he had developed forty years earlier. They had been safe during the time of controversy and debate, so undoubtedly they remained safe at that time. Outside the classroom, he was sometimes referred to as “Doctor Sominex.” In my own spare time, I developed a different reaction to his teaching manner: I made him spokesman for a brand of beer that was unlike the common beers sold with energetic commercials. His beer was a calm beer, a soothing beer, a settling beer, sold with the motto, “because life is exciting enough already.”

Other members of the seminary faculty also clung to the tried-and-true methods of instruction, those that could not be challenged as liberal or progressive, since they were older than the hills. In Bible translation, these methods consisted of labeling words in the fashion of Aristotle. Words were first identified as nouns or verbs or adjectives, etc. (which is of course proper); then nouns were labeled by case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative (still proper). A third level of labels further framed the word. There were, for example, eighteen types of genitive case, including genitive of possession, genitive of source, genitive of material, and so forth. We were expected to memorize all the different kinds of genitives and datives and accusatives and to apply them to nouns as we translated the Bible into English.

In a similar way, we were expected to recognize figures of speech, or “tropes.” Most passages of the Bible were to be interpreted literally, but we were warned that the Bible sometimes uses tropes, and these also were to be matched to a list of labels: similes, metaphors, synecdoche, hyperbole, irony, and a dozen more. Old Testament prophecies of Christ were assumed to be rectilinear—pointing directly to Christ and having no other meaning—unless a New Testament passage specifically uses a different kind of interpretation for an Old Testament passage. (For example, in Galatians 4:21-31 Paul uses “typology” to discuss Hagar and Sarah and their sons as images of God’s people under Law (Hagar and her son) or under Promise (Sarah and her son). Paul, an apostle inspired by the Holy Spirit, was allowed to interpret a passage from Genesis in this way. We, as seminary students, were not.)

We were taught a few principles of hermeneutics (Bible interpretation): the simplest meaning was best, although that simplest meaning might be a trope rather than a literal interpretation. The Bible interprets itself—when we were puzzled by one passage of Scripture, our best resource was to find another passage of Scripture which discusses the same topic. Each passage of Scripture has only one meaning. We are not translating and interpreting God’s Word correctly when our version is open to multiple meanings. This last principle counters a medieval approach to hermeneutics which claims that each Bible passage contains four meanings: literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical. To find all these meanings in each passage, scholars frequently produced creative, tortured, and even bizarre interpretations of Bible passages. I have recently encountered a powerful Lutheran defense of this principle of only one meaning for each passage, written by a current Lutheran seminary professor. His defense follows the “slippery slope” argument, saying that if any passage is affirmed to have two or more meanings, then the entire Bible becomes subjective, with each reader feeling free to invent his or her own meaning to any passage of the Bible.
In one of my first assignments as a seminary student, I was required to translate a passage from the Gospel of John, chapter one, about the light and the darkness. The professor was particularly interested in our approach to one Greek word, “katalambano,” which has a range of meanings, including, “obtain, attain, come upon, overtake, attack, seize, catch, realize, understand, learn.” So John 1:5 reads, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not katelaben it.” Some translators favor, “the darkness has not understood it,” while others say, “the darkness has not overcome it.” I felt that John deliberately chose a word that covered a range of possibilities; if he wanted to be precise about understanding or about overcoming, other words were available to him. So my translation was, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it,” a translation which maintains both meanings. The professor said I was precisely wrong. Each Bible passage has one meaning and one meaning only, and the translator and interpreter must find that one meaning and express it clearly, without allowing any ambiguity or multiple meanings.

A second example, one which I did not have to discuss in seminary, is found in I Corinthians 7:9. Paul expresses his wish that all Christians could remained unmarried, like Paul, and focus their attention on Christian living, service to the Lord and his Church. But Paul acknowledges that not every Christian can keep his or her desire for marital relations unmet, so Paul permits marriage, saying, “It is better to marry than to burn.” Does he mean “to burn with passion” in this lifetime or “to burn in judgment” eternally for breaking a commandment? I would say that Paul skillfully includes both possibilities while addressing this complex topic. But, if every passage has one and only one meaning, then the translator and interpreter must select one or the other.

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to respond to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Bible as a whole shows that we cannot earn eternal life. It comes only as a gift from God, not a reward for anything we do. The very word “inherit” suggests that theme. But the usual Lutheran interpretation of this parable, in the context of its conversation, suggests that Jesus was revealing the strictness of God’s Law, forcing the man asking the question to learn that he could not inherit eternal life, because he could never reach God’s standards of perfection. The lesson concerns Law, not Promise. But one might notice that the Good Samaritan resembles Jesus. We are like mugging victims, lying helpless on the road, unable to rescue ourselves; Jesus comes and rescues us from our sins and from all evil, paying to grant us life. I have heard seminary professors say that, as hermeneutics, we must say that the parable is about Law, about God’s high standards which we cannot meet. They then say that, as preachers, we can indicate that the Good Samaritan reminds us of Jesus, and then we can proclaim the Gospel. This preserves the principle of one and only one meaning, but at the cost of making the Gospel seem like an afterthought, something the preacher adds to Jesus’ parable even though Jesus never intended that lesson and that application. To me, the responsible interpretation and application of this parable is both—Jesus shows the sternness of God’s Law, which we can never achieve, but he also shows how he fulfills the Law for us and rescues us by grace. In my opinion, this reading is faithful to Jesus’ explanation of why he told parables, found in Matthew 13:10-12 and parallel verses in Mark and in Luke.

As a professional theologian, I would acknowledge that most passages of the Bible have one and only one meaning. I would add that God can use language as skillfully as any human writer and that sometimes he has a double message in a single passage, whether a short verse like “it is better to marry than to burn” or a longer passage like the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a translator and interpreter usually treats the message of the Bible literally but also acknowledges and deals with tropes, so the translator and interpreter usually handles each passage of the Bible as containing a single message but also sees a few passages where the best interpretation contains more than one message.

Isaiah 7:14 is a controversial example. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son”: who is this virgin? Matthew 1:22-23 says that this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary gave birth to Jesus. By the principles I was taught at the seminary, this is a rectilinear prophecy with one and only one meaning. Isaiah was talking about Mary, and that is all that can be said about his prophecy. Whether King Ahaz and others who heard the prophet speak this promise understood the doctrine of the virgin birth is immaterial. Mary was a virgin; she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Isaiah foretold that miracle seven hundred years before it happened. But what if Christian hermeneutics allowed this passage to have a second meaning, also centered upon Christ and his rescue mission? The promise of Isaiah was fulfilled in Mary’s pregnancy and delivery, yet something bigger was happening at the same time in the same event. Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are the people of God. In a frequent trope, the people of God are treated as a bride, with God (or Jesus) as husband. The wedding and marriage have not yet happened; that comes on the Day of the Lord at the dawn of the new creation. Old Testament Israel and the Church, taken together, are the virgin bride awaiting the coming of the bridegroom for the wedding. But, when the time was right, God sent his Son, born of a woman within the chosen people of God. He was born, not to any virgin, but to a virgin of Israel, making the Son a descendant and heir of Abraham and of David. Does any passage in Scripture endorse this reading of Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1? Look at Revelation 12, where a woman gives birth to a Son who is the promised Savior. This woman, the queen of heaven (clothed with the sun and with a crown of twelve stars) is protected in the wilderness. Is this woman, the mother of the Savior, the queen of heaven, to be seen only as Mary, or does this woman represent all the people of God, Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church? I answer that she is, and that this picture from the last book of the Bible completes our understanding of the promise in Isaiah 7:14 as well as other Old Testament promises, including Genesis 3:15.

But, then, I never became a seminary professor. J.

Faith, reason, and politics in the Church

Creative tension between faith and reason has been part of philosophy and of religious thinking for many generations. Some thinkers demand that all propositions of faith be put to the test of reason and rejected if they fail that test. Others say that statements of faith rise above reason, that reason can be used to assemble clear understanding of the world and our place in it within the boundaries set by faith, but reason cannot judge those propositions upon which faith is founded. Few believers follow the stereotype of empty-headed followers who cling to faith but abandon reason. Many more people in the modern world cheat themselves by clinging to reason while abandoning the deeper truths known only by faith.

During the so-called Enlightenment, which followed the religious wars of the Reformation in Europe, some prominent philosophers and scientists advocated a life in which reason takes the lead and faith must follow. Wars continued to be fought in Europe and around the world, but they were fought for political reasons rather than religious reasons. Science had begun in medieval Europe as examination of God’s creation. Now some philosophers tried to separate science from religion. Over time, myths came into being featuring Galileo, Darwin, and other scientific figures who supposedly led an attack upon religious faith in general and Christian beliefs in particular. Christianity and organized religion were labeled enemies of knowledge, truth, and progress. On the defensive, Christian philosophy sometimes surrendered ground to the legions of Reason. Church leaders always include some who treat the Biblical accounts as metaphor and analogy, not to be treated literally. Among many branches of Christianity, this approach became more prominent, as theologians who proclaimed literal truth from the Bible were called “fundamentalists” and “bibliolaters” and were dismissed from serious theological discussion, pushed to the sides of the room and silenced in the conversation about reason, faith, and truth.

Christianity was very fluid in North America in the nineteenth century. Many branches of Christianity were imported from Europe during that century: Roman Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and others. New variations of Christianity arose in the New World: Adventists, Churches of Christ, Latter Day Saints/Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a bewildering array of Baptists and non-denominational sects. By the twentieth century, rapid transportation and communication allowed some scattered groups to congeal. Often, in the process of uniting assorted congregations and schools and theologians, theological compromises were accepted in the name of Christian unity. Frequently, these compromises included acceptance of European Biblical interpretation, which treated the Bible and its message scientifically and allegorically, casting away faith in a six-day creation, a world-wide flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, Jonah swallowed by a fish, and other Biblical accounts of miraculous events, times when God personally intervened in his creation for the sake of his chosen people.

Many Protestant Christians in North America continued attending the same congregations while their leadership carried them into what is called mainline Christianity—organizations that call themselves Christian, base their teachings upon the Bible, but also reject many sections of the Bible, being guided by reason first and faith second. Not only does mainline Protestant Christianity dismiss descriptions of miracles from the Biblical record; the same movement feels free also to edit out of the Bible any commandments or instructions that the surrounding world considers antiquated, old-fashioned, and not progressive. At times discussion of particular issues can become heated within these groups, but generally, sooner or later, the world’s leadership is followed by these groups, as faith-based thinking and living must surrender to world’s latest fashions and fads as set by human science and human reason.

 In most cases, smaller groups broke away from the mainline groups and formed associations of congregations that continued to teach and believe the Bible. Only two large North American groups remained under the control of traditional, Biblical, faith-ful Christianity. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) endured emotional, political, and theological arguments and debates in the 1960s and 1970s; in both cases, leadership of these groups was held by supporters of the Biblical message, and the leaders and congregations and other entities that left were those who favored reason over faith.  Southern Baptists and the LCMS remained in the hands of those who treat the entire Bible as God’s Word rather than defining their task to sift through the human messages of Scripture to identify and proclaim a few genuinely inspired words from God.

Conservative victory in the LCMS did not produce a happy, healthy, smooth-functioning synod. The bitterness of the “Battle for the Bible” left some church professionals looking over their shoulders, as if they might be the next victims of a church-wide purge. Disagreements over worship styles and other internal controversies were treated as if their issues were as vital as questions about Biblical inspiration. Even political competition within the LCMS took on the flavor of a Crusade to defend truth and overthrow error. In one seminary, students joked that the cafeteria tables were bugged by both sides: microphones heard the in the office of the seminary’s president were hidden in the saltshakers, and microphones heard in the office of the synod’s president were hidden in the pepper-shakers. The academic environment was tense, unsettled, and uncertain.

Some students felt the pressure stronger than others. One student in particular struggled to find his way in this new (to him) environment. J.

Sermon on the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-9)

16 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

              Life is not fair. We live in a world that is not fair. Bad people do bad things, but they get away with them and even profit from them. Good people try their best to do good things, but they still suffer from the things that go wrong in this world. Other religions teach about karma. They say that what comes around goes around, that you will be rewarded some day for the good things you do today, and that you will pay someday for all the wrong things that you do today. To make karma work, those religions have to assume that we live more than one lifetime. If you were born into a lifetime of wealth and comfort and privilege, you must have done good things in a past lifetime. If you were born into a lifetime of struggle and pain and poverty, you must have done bad things in a past lifetime. You harvest what you plant, you get what you deserve, and so all the things that happen now must be the consequences of things that happened in the past, even if we do not remember those things that happened.

              The rest of us believe in only a single lifetime, and we must admit that life is not fair. For some people, the random evil in this world proves that God does not exist. For them, life and the universe and everything are a string of random events, gradually building up to the world we know today with no plan, no purpose, and no reason for us to be here. Most of us are convinced that life has a purpose. We are here for a reason. God created the world that exists, and God sustains the world. God has a plan for the world, and each of us has a place in God’s plan.

              But what kind of God would make a world like the world where we live? When we describe God, we say that he is almighty—he has all power, and he can do anything. We also describe God as good. We say that God is the source of light and that evil comes from the darkness. We say that God gives us rules, commandments about how to live, and judges us according to those rules. We describe God as loving. We say that God wants the best for each of us, that he watches over us and cares for us, that he provides for us today and promises us better things in the future.

              When people look at the world logically and look at God logically, they say that we must change our description of God. Perhaps he is not all-powerful; perhaps evil exists because God is unable to prevent evil. Or perhaps God is not good, at least not in the way we understand goodness. Perhaps he enjoys suffering and pain and death; perhaps he is content to reward sinners for their bad deeds and to make his good people suffer. Or perhaps God does not love us. He might have forgotten about us, or he might be angry at us for our sins. Maybe the world is not unfair; maybe we deserve every bad thing that happens to us in our lives.

              Christians deny those maybes. Christians are convinced that God is Almighty. He can do whatever he wants—the bad things that happen have his permission and somehow are part of his greater plan for the world. God is loving. He desires all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. He does not want to judge and punish sinners; he wants to rescue sinners. He takes no pleasure in pain and suffering, but he allows them for a reason. God loves us. He has rescued us from our sins and from evil in this world. He has forgiven all our sins, and he plans to bring us to a perfect world where we will live with him forever in joy and peace and righteousness.

              For some Christians, then, the problems of this world are temporary troubles, something to be endured on our way to greater glory. Paul writes to the Romans that the problems we face today are nothing when compared to the glory that will be revealed. A few even go so far as to say that evil and suffering are imaginary. God is good. Everything he creates is good. We only think some things are bad because we cannot see them the way God sees them.

              That answer is not acceptable. Suffering and pain are real. Death is real. Sin and rebellion are real. Evil is real. Evil is not eternal, as God and goodness are eternal. Evil and sin are good things twisted, changed from their original good shape and purpose. Goodness can be pure, because God is purely good. There is no pure evil, because evil is only good things twisted. Evil will not last forever, but good will last forever, because God’s solution will eventually remove all evil from creation. But pain and suffering, sin and rebellion, evil and death exist in this world, and we must accept them as real even as we call to God for help and for solutions to our problems.

              God is Almighty, but God is not power. Other things matter to God more than his strength and his power. God is good; he is just and fair, but God is not justice. Other things matter more to God than being fair and just. God is loving, and also God is love. Eternally, love is God’s nature. In creation, love is God’s nature. Being made in his image means that we also love, even as God loves. When God responds to sin and rebellion, he responds with love. When he sees his good creation twisted and transformed, he answers with love. When we struggle and suffer in this world, our greatest strength comes not from the power of God, or even from the goodness of God, but from the love of God.

              Jesus describes a manager who faces trouble at work because he has wasted the possessions he was supposed to manage. He is about to lose his job. He does not want to beg, and he does not want to dig ditches, so he decides to be dishonest while he still has his job. He has the people who owe money to his master change their bills, reducing their debts. In this way, he wins friends that will help him after he has lost his job with his master.

              Jesus says that the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. He tells us that we should make friends with unrighteous wealth, friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings after the wealth of this world has lost all value.

              This parable puzzles us. It does not sound like the Jesus we know so well from the rest of the Bible. The Bible tells us not to steal. It also tells us not to bear false witness. Jesus is the Truth, but the devil is the father of lies. We should be honest with our neighbors. We should be honest when dealing with wealth and possessions. We do not cheat to get through life. Because we love God, and because we love our neighbors, we are honest and truthful with our possessions and (especially) with the possessions of other people.

              This is called “stewardship.” We take care of the things entrusted to us. Often pastors use the word stewardship to talk about money and other gifts given to the Church. But stewardship covers everything in our lives. It covers our responsibilities to pay our bills, to take care of our families, to use our resources wisely, and to be responsible as we care for the world God created. Nothing we call ours today will be ours forever. We take none of this world’s wealth and property with us into the grave and beyond the grave. Yet, when we stand before the judgment throne of God, we will be questioned about our stewardship. God will ask us what we did with the blessings he entrusted to us. Did we meet our responsibilities wisely? Did we care for our neighbors, especially the poor and the weak and the vulnerable? Did we make the world a better place? Or did we use our wealth, our possessions, our abilities and our time only for ourselves? Did we love ourselves first and spend on ourselves first, leaving God and our neighbors with the leftovers when we were content and comfortable?

              Jesus uses this parable to help change the focus of our priorities. When you remember that life is short and that heaven lasts forever, the things God has given you today have a different meaning. We should consider the wealth, the time, the abilities we each have been given in terms of eternal dwellings and not just merely in terms of our comfort and happiness today. Rather than lowering ourselves to the standards of this world, we should raise our standards so we are faithful to the God who made us, the God who can welcome us into eternal dwellings or who can keep us locked out of heaven forever.

              Yet we also know that we cannot earn a place in heaven. We cannot buy God’s love with worldly wealth, because the entire world already belongs to him. We cannot put God in debt to us, because we already owe him everything. We cannot make ourselves friends of God by our good deeds in this world. If God welcomes into heavenly dwellings, his welcome will be based on his goodness and his love, not on anything we try to contribute to our salvation.

              Jesus was perfect. He lived a sinless human life in this sinful world. While we are dishonest managers who deserve judgment, Jesus is without sin; he should be welcomed into heaven by his Father, even if he is the only human being there. The rest of us have sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory. Only Jesus is righteous; only Jesus can claim a home in heaven by his own good deeds.

              But Jesus, in love, chose to be unfair. He chose to take the burden of the world’s sins upon himself. Our Redeemer transferred our debt to his account with his Father. He did not have us change our bills to eighty percent or fifty percent of the debt; he personally wrote a zero on each of our accounts. He had our bills marked “paid in full,” and he assumed all of our debt. More than that, he transferred his good works to our accounts. God the Father looks at us and sees his Son; he sees Jesus. He treats us accordingly. The heavenly paperwork has been altered, and the change that Jesus made is entirely in our favor.

              Anyone who demands that the good and almighty God be perfectly just and fair must be offended by this exchange. Satan himself stamps his foot and screams, “That’s not fair.” But God’s love is greater than his fairness and justice. God willingly is unfair on our account so he can claim us as his children and bring us into his eternal kingdom of peace and joy and righteousness.

              Because God wanted to be unfair, he permitted the world to be unfair. Often we suffer because of the sins of other people. Often we have problems for no reason we can discover. We suffer in ways we do not deserve to suffer, but this makes it possible for Jesus to suffer on the cross, even though he does not deserve to suffer. The world is polluted by sin. We suffer because of sin and evil in the world. But we never suffer for our own sins. The problems we face are not punishments from God. Christ bore our punishment and paid in full for all our sins. Now, if God allows us to suffer and have problems today, we can use those problems as reminders of the cross of Jesus Christ. We can let today’s problems keep our attention focused on the cross where Jesus paid for all our sins. The devil wants us to blame God for our problems. Instead, we let our problems remind us that God is unfair to us, adopting us as his children and giving us a home in his eternal dwellings.

              Because God is unfair to us, we also can be unfair. We forgive those who sin against us. They don’t deserve forgiveness, but we forgive them anyhow, because Jesus has paid for their sins on the cross. We pray for other people, for those we love, and for those who have authority over us. We do not always agree with those other people. They might not deserve our prayers. But we pray for them anyhow, because God wants us to live peaceful and quiet lives in this world, protected from at least some of the problems of evil and rebellion in this world.

              Prayer itself is not fair. God knows everything; he does not need our advice. Logic says we should trust God, accept whatever happens, and not speak with God about the world and our lives. But God tells us to pray. He wants to hear from us. He promises to hear our prayers and answer them. Because God is love, he entrusts us with power, inviting us to pray and assuring us that our prayers matter to him and matter in the things that happen in this world.

              Jesus is our Mediator. He brings our prayers to his Father and promises to answer those prayers. He pleads our cases before his Father and promises us forgiveness and new life. He pays the debt of our sins and claims us for his kingdom forever. To our King, our Redeemer, our Mediator Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                   Amen.

A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-7

             

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

As Christians, we know that faith is important. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. We repeat the slogan of the Reformation:  Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone. We understand that we cannot please God without faith. Through faith, we are right with God and our entire lives are pleasing to him. But, using the word “faith” so often, we sometimes forget to stop and define the word “faith,” to understand what we mean when we use the word “faith.”

              Searching the Scriptures for a definition of faith, some Christians have settled upon Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.” This verse is a good description of faith, but a good description is not a definition. For example, I could describe a golf ball as small, round, and with a hard surface. I could also describe a chicken egg as small, round, and with a hard surface. Those descriptions are accurate, but we had better not treat a golf ball like a chicken egg, or treat a chicken egg like a golf ball. In the same way, hoping for things and being convinced of unseen things describes faith, but not all hope and conviction is saving Christian faith.

              To some people, it does not matter what you believe, so long as you believe something. To those people, all religions are the same. Jews and Christians and Muslims all believe in a God, so they must all believe in the same God. Hindus and Buddhists also have faith, so their faith must be just as good. In fact, if someone chooses to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that faith is equally valid as any other religion. Most people who begin with that vague description of faith end up believing in themselves. They trust their own minds to tell them what is true. They trust their own hearts to tell them what is important. They trust their own actions to earn rewards for them on earth and in heaven. This faith, they think, is good enough. As long as they have faith, they have everything they need.

              The same writer who told us that faith is assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen proceeds to give us examples of faith. All these examples come from the Old Testament. The list of examples might remind us of Sunday School or Vacation Bible school, where we first learned about Noah and Abraham and other heroes who trusted God and served God and were pictures of how we should trust and serve God today. Looking at these heroes, we gain more understanding of faith. We gain more understanding of what it means to be saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone.

              But even these pictures can be misunderstood if we study them only for conviction and hope. We try to understand faith by seeing the faith of these heroes from ancient times. We try to understand faith by looking at Christians today. We try to understand faith by looking at ourselves and asking if we have faith. We might see faith and hear faith and feel faith. We see faith in the faithful things done by believers. Noah built an ark. Abraham traveled to Canaan and waited for his promised son to be born. We hear faith in the words people speak. When we study the creeds of the Church, we hear words of hope and conviction being spoken. We might find faith shaping our feelings, as we feel hope and conviction in our minds and in our hearts. But actions and words and feelings might still confuse us. We might continue to struggle, trying to identify genuine faith, trying to separate it from faith in the wrong god or faith in one’s own self.

              To define faith, instead of merely describing faith, we must remember that faith is a relationship between ourselves and God. Those who have faith trust God. We trust God’s promises. We trust that those promises have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We do not begin this relationship. God began this relationship in us. He sent his Spirit to us, so we would know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. God grants us faith so we can be his people, his saints. He grants us faith so we can do the things that saints do as the people belonging to God.

              Consider the example of Abel. He was the son of Adam and Eve, but he had an older brother named Cain. We read in Genesis that Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Genesis does not give us information about why God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. Many writers and preachers have said that Abel gave God the best of what he had, but Cain offered only a portion of what he had, not his best. This sounds sensible, but that answer is not complete. From the letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because Abel offered his sacrifice through faith. His sacrifice, given through faith, made him righteous in the sight of God. Cain went through the proper motions, giving a sacrifice to God, but going through the motions is not good enough. Cain did not have faith, even though he was offering a sacrifice to God. His focus was not on the promises of God, the hope offered by God’s promises. His focus was on himself, on the actions he was performing. For that reason, his sacrifice was not accepted.

              From Genesis, we know the earthly results of that difference. Cain struck out in anger against his brother Abel and murdered Abel. This was the first murder in history and the first physical death of a human being. When God questioned Cain about Abel, Cain tried to hide his sin. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked God. Of course, we are all responsible for the welfare of our brothers and sisters and neighbors. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Cain deserved judgment for his sin, but God marked Cain so that Cain would not be punished by the rest of his family. Abel, meanwhile, was dead. His body was left behind on earth; his soul waits in Paradise for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in a new and sinless world. Because Abel had faith, we have confidence of his citizenship in that new world.

              We know less about Enoch than we know about Abel. His name appears in that line of ancestors that runs from Adam to Abraham and from Abraham down to Christ. We also know that unlike Abel, unlike most people, Enoch did not die. He walked with God, the book of Genesis reports, and then he was not. He left this world without dying, ascending into heaven as Elijah later ascended into heaven. Jesus also ascended into heaven, but only after dying and then rising again on the third day. Those three men had their bodies taken into heaven, while the rest of us leave our bodies buried on earth when our souls depart and go to Paradise. But we know the reason Enoch had this special blessing from God: Enoch had faith in God. Through faith, Enoch was found pleasing to God. The book of Hebrews reminds us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. We can do many good works, but if we do them while measuring ourselves for our own goodness, those good works do not count in God’s records. We see the good works of the saints and know that they have faith; God sees the faith in the hearts of his saints and calls them righteous. Therefore, because of their faith, he rewards their good works. Some people keep score. They want to tell God how many good deeds they have done for them. To those people, on Judgment Day, Jesus will say, “Go away; I never knew you.” But when he welcomes believers into his new creation, he will mention their good works, and those believers will say, “When did we do those good things?” They were not keeping score, because their faith was focused on Jesus and not on themselves. Their hope was in Jesus, not in themselves. Their conviction was in the promises of Jesus and the things Jesus did; their conviction was not about their own actions or words or feelings. We know the saints by their good works, but we know our place among the saints by our confidence in Jesus—not by the things we do for Jesus.

              Noah is famous for the things he did. Following the instructions of God, he built an ark. He began building that ark long before the first raindrops fell. He had a warning from God, and Noah also had the conviction that God’s warning was true, not an empty threat. He followed God’s instructions, building the ark, condemning the sinfulness of the world in which he lived, and providing a way to save the lives of those who believed in God. Only eight people were saved on that ark—Noah, his wife, their three sons, and the wives of those sons. God also sent to Noah representatives of all the animals of the earth so they could survive the flood and fill the earth. For a year, these eight people and all these animals lived on the ark. The earth was covered with water. Sinners drowned, and the results of their sinful lives were washed off the surface of the earth. Noah and his family landed in a new world, ready to start a new life. This new world was not without sin; Noah himself sinned in the new world. But the promises of God remained true. Noah, in his obedience, preserved life in the world and carried that life into a new world. Noah, by his faith, was considered worthy by God, worthy to survive the washing of the world and to begin again in the new world. We also, like Noah, will enter a new world, purified by fire rather than by water. We will enter that new world because, by faith, we have been found worthy. By faith, we have become heirs of righteousness. By faith, we have been claimed by God and promised eternal life in his new creation.

              By building the ark, Noah became a savior. He was a picture of Jesus Christ, the true Savior. Noah’s wooden ark saved lives and carried them into a new world. The wooden cross on which Jesus suffered and died saves our lives and carries us into a new world. Noah lived in a sinful world, but he saw that world washed clean of sin by the water of the flood. We also live in a sinful world, but our sins are washed away by the water of Holy Baptism. Through the gift of Baptism, we are guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life. We pass through the water of Baptism into a new world, being granted new life in Christ. Our faith is not in the water; water does not save us. Our faith is in the promises of Jesus and in the work Jesus did to keep those promises. Because we have faith in Jesus, we are saved through Baptism and made heirs of eternal life in a new world.

              Enoch walked with God. He pleased God by his life, but that holy life was only acceptable to God through faith. We also walk with God through faith. We confess our sins to God, knowing by faith that those sins are forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus. Enoch left the world in a special way, not passing through death and the grave. But our Savior, Jesus Christ, passed through death and the grave, making that path through the valley of the shadow of death a highway we may travel. Walking with Jesus, we survive this sinful world. Walking with Jesus, we cross the valley of death and find our home with God in a new world. We will live with him forever in that new creation, being raised by Jesus so we can be his people forever.

              We walk with Jesus on earth. When we die, we will be like Abel, leaving our bodies behind on earth but waiting in Paradise for the resurrection to eternal life. Abel, the first murder victim, was not silent even on earth after he had been killed. God told Cain that his brother’s blood was crying out for justice. But Abel, having faith in God, became a picture of our Savior even as Noah in his obedience was a picture of our Savior. Jesus also was a victim of sin and evil. The blood of Jesus also cries to his Father. But while Abel’s blood cried out for justice, the blood of Jesus cries out for mercy. The blood of Jesus cries out for our forgiveness. The blood of Jesus marks us, not as murderers, but as saints. Washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, we are called righteous by God, made heirs of eternal life.

              Abel offered a sacrifice that was pleasing to God because he offered his sacrifice in faith. His sacrifice was a picture of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the sacrifice that removes all our sins and makes us acceptable in the sight of God. We identify true faith, saving faith, when we see that it focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus and not on the things we do. Being cleansed by God’s grace through faith, we strive to imitate Jesus. Being made acceptable to God through the sacrifice of Jesus, we make every effort to live as God’s people. But our faith, our hope, our conviction, focuses always on Jesus and not on ourselves.

              By God’s grace, we are saved through faith. This faith brings us conviction that God’s promises are true and hope that we belong to God forever. This hope will not fail us, because God always keeps his promises. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.     

A reservation in heaven

Philip Jacob Spener was a pastor and theologian in the seventeenth century (the 1600s). He was born and raised during the Thirty Years War, when his homeland of Germany was devastated by fighting between Protestants and Roman Catholics following the Protestant Reformation of the Church that began with Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Spener believed that the Church needed a second Reformation, turning away from so-called “dead orthodoxy” and focused on Christ-like living. Like many preachers from other times and other places, Spener said that Christian faith should be a matter of the heart and not a matter of the head.

Here is a quote from Spener’s “Pia Desideria”: Let us remember that in the last judgment we shall not be asked how learned we were and whether we displayed our learning before the world; to what extent we enjoyed the favor of men and knew how to keep it; with what honors we were exalted and how great a reputation in the world we left behind us; or how many treasures of earthly goods we amassed for our children and thereby drew a curse upon ourselves. Instead, we shall be asked how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God; with how pure and godly a teaching and how worthy an example we tried to edify our hearers amid the scorn of the world, denial of self, taking up of the cross, and imitation of our Savior; with what zeal we opposed not only errors but also wickedness of life; or with want constancy and cheerfulness we endured the persecution or adversity thrust upon us by the manifestly godless world or by false brethren, and amid such suffering praised our God.”

Spener begins well. I might add that we will not be asked to prove to the Lord on Judgment Day that we were on the mailing list of a congregation. We will not be asked to produce our certificates of baptism and confirmation or the pins we earned for perfect Sunday School attendance. We will not be asked about the boards and committees on which we served in the congregation, or what classes we taught in the church, or about how many missionary journeys we took.

But what will be said about us on that Day? What does Jesus say? Jesus teaches, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… Many will say to me on that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23) In the famous Judgment Day parable of Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus separates the saved from the lost “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”—in other words, quickly, efficiently, and with precision. He will compliment the righteous, saying to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat….” Preachers love to proclaim this parable, focusing on the good things Christians should be doing. But they overlook the fact that the righteous, those welcomed into heaven, do not remember doing those good things. They were not keeping score. Only God saw their good works; their attention was upon their Savior and not upon themselves. Therefore, Jesus speaks of blessing, of inheritance, of something prepared since creation, before any of us did anything, good or bad. Likewise, the ones rejected will not remember failing to serve their Lord. They were keeping score; they thought they had done enough to be welcomed into heaven. But Jesus indicates to them that one failure in their life was enough to bar them from eternal life in his kingdom.

Jesus also told a parable in which his kingdom is compared to a wedding reception, one hosted by a king, one to which all kinds of people were invited, people hanging out on the streets with nothing better to do, people who had done nothing to deserve a place at the party. Jesus continues, “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness….’” (Matthew 22:11-13)

In the days when Jesus told this story, people invited to a fancy party like a wedding reception were also given a robe or gown to wear at the celebration. The man at the party who was not wearing his host’s gift wanted to be admired for his own clothing. As a result, he was thrown out of the party. He missed the celebration and spent the night in the parking lot. Jesus wants his followers to know that no one enters the kingdom of heaven because of the good things they did for God. Not only will learning and worldly honors not be enough; our best efforts to be pure and holy, to imitate our Savior, also will not be enough. Anyone who approaches the throne of judgment saying to the Judge and King, “Look what I did for you” will be told , “Go away; I never knew you.” But those who approach God reminding him what Jesus did—how Jesus lived a sinless life, sacrificed that life on the cross, and rose again from the dead—people who offer that reason to be welcome in God’s kingdom will receive the inheritance planned for them, the blessing of God that no one can earn but that all can possess as a gift from God.

Christians are not sinless. Often, they are no better than their unbelieving neighbors. But Christians are forgiven all their sins through the work of Christ. God’s forgiveness is not license to sin. God’s forgiveness begins the work of transforming believers into the image of Christ. But Christians do not study themselves and look for signs of the transformation. Christians study Christ and put all their faith in his promises and his work.

The wedding garment distributed by the host of the heavenly party is a white robe, the sinless life of Jesus. God sees us dressed in the righteousness of his Son and calls us his children. Through Holy Baptism we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, when God looks at a baptized believer, he sees Jesus and he says the same words that he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the One I love. With this One I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

The Church will always be afflicted with teachers and preachers who tell Christians to look at themselves, to measure their good works, to be assured of their place in heaven through the evidence of the godly things they do on earth. Our good works are signs to other people that we belong to God’s kingdom, but they are not signs to ourselves. We know our secret sins; we know our imperfections. We know that we are unworthy of God’s kingdom. But God has changed us. The work of Jesus has erased our sins, removing them from us as far as the east is from the west (an infinite distance). If we are asked if we have a reservation at the wedding celebration, we confidently say yes, knowing that God himself has written our names in the Book of Life. Our heads and our hearts are redeemed by Christ; our bodies and souls are guaranteed eternal life in a perfect world. When we set our hearts and minds on Christ, no doubt remains that the promises of God are true for us. J.

Pastor Ed and his talking dog

Pastor Ed blinked and looked at the invitation again. It was not his imagination. The big church on the highway wanted them to preach the sermon at their tenth anniversary. They wanted to pay him ten thousand dollars as an honorarium for the day’s work. And their invitation included a list of things that they were hoping he would see fit to include in his message that day.

Ed rubbed Rex’s ears as he read the list. The leaders of the big church wanted to be congratulated on their success. They wanted to be told how good it was that they had brought so many believers together so quickly. They wanted to be assured that the Lord’s blessings would continue to flow into their church because they were continuing to do the Lord’s work in a way he liked. Smiling gently, Ed took up a pen and a piece of stationery and wrote a polite letter, thanking them for their invitation and telling them that he probably was not the preacher they wanted for this special day.

He had not always been called Pastor Ed. When he first came to town, he had been Pastor Lee—Pastor Edward Lee when a first name was required. He had preached faithfully at the same congregation for thirty years. Some years it had grown; other years its membership had declined. Some families moved to other towns. Some faithful members had died and were buried in the local cemetery—Pastor Lee had conducted their funerals. He had taught adults and children, he had baptized new members, and he had brought members together in the church to talk through their disagreements and reconcile their conflicts. He had raised a son, Larry, who had gone to school and learned to be a pastor, then had come home to take his father’s place. Ed was semi-retired; he and Larry took turns preaching. With his son’s acceptance as Pastor Lee, the father had become affectionally known as Pastor Ed. Never had he sought the label; he never even particularly liked the blend of respect and familiarity. But he accepted the reality that his son was the leader of the congregation. He sat on the sidelines, pitched in to help once in a while, and allowed people to think of him as Pastor Ed.

The town’s population had been growing the last few years. First, some families had moved their way to get farther from the city. New houses had been built on the edge of town. Then new businesses appeared along the highway: fast food restaurants, and gas stations, and a motel, and then a Walmart. All the congregations had grown at least a little, but the new church on the highway had gathered many of the new families, as well as people who drove in from other towns around the county to see what the fuss was at this new church on the highway.

Now they wanted Pastor Ed, the longest-serving pastor in town, to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary. Chuckling, Ed signed his name to the note and addressed an envelope to the big church on the highway. He checked the desk drawer for stamps but found none. “Looks like I’ll have to buy another book of stamps,” he said to Rex. Ed took hold of the desk, pushed himself up to his feet, and headed toward the apartment door.

Ed had taken a retirement apartment near the center of the town after his wife died. Rex was his constant companion. A German Shepherd, Rex was loyal to Ed. He offered protection from threats, not that Ed ever felt threatened in the town that had become his home. Because Rex needed exercise, Ed kept in shape, walking his dog three or four times a day. Ed also had a purpose to his days, a reason to get out of bed since another living being depended upon his service. Over the years, Ed had recommended a pet dog or cat to many elderly people who felt as if they had become useless in the world. Getting a dog of his own as he moved into retirement had been an easy decision—a “no-brainer,” as Larry would have said.

The letter was mailed, and Ed nearly forgot about the invitation. Then, one evening, he heard a knock on the apartment door. Rex perked up his ears. Ed went to the door and greeted two men. He recognized the pastor of the big church on the highway; soon he learned that the other was head of the church’s anniversary committee. Ed welcomed them into his apartment, made them comfortable, and waited to hear what they had to say.

The committee head pulled Ed’s letter out of a leather-bound folder he was carrying. “We were sorry to get your refusal,” the man began. “We really want to include you in our anniversary service. We were wondering if you would prefer a higher honorarium, say maybe twelve thousand dollars.”

Ed shook his head. “I really don’t think…” he started to say.

“Fifteen thousand,” the pastor interrupted.

“The money isn’t the issue,” Ed told them. “My problem is with your suggestions for the message. All my life, all my career, I’ve never allowed anyone but the Lord to tell me what to preach. For every sermon, every message, I’ve always studied the Bible, prayed, and tried to follow the Spirit’s guidance. What the Lord shows me in his Word, that’s what I say from the pulpit. That’s why I really cannot accept your invitation, generous though it is.”

Both visitors started to speak, but the pastor from the big church on the highway waved his companion to silence. “Ed, we understand how you feel about this,” he assured his host. “We would never tell you what to preach. Those were just suggestions. Of course, we know that you will speak the Lord’s Word to us. That’s all we expect from you. But time’s running short, and the anniversary service is coming up soon. We need a preacher, and we really want you to be that preacher.”

Ed hesitated. So long as they left him free to preach what seemed right, guided by the Bible, he had no reason to refuse. “Let me sleep on it,” he suggested. “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”

“That’ll be fine,” they both assured him. With some additional small talk and some friendly attention to Rex (which the dog appreciated), they wound up the conversation and headed out the door.

That is why, a few weeks later, Pastor Ed found himself driving out to the big church on the highway. The head of the committee had held to his pastor’s promise of fifteen thousand dollars, but he had asked a couple small additional tasks of Ed. He wanted Ed to open the prayer meeting of the congregation’s leaders at the beginning of the day, before people began arriving for the service. He also wanted Ed to speak at the Bible class that some of the members attended before the service. Overwhelmed by the size of the honorarium offered by the ten-year-old church, Ed agreed to their requests.

At the table where the leaders of the church were gathered, Ed felt out of place. Their shoes were shiny, while his were drab. Their suits were crisp and fitted to their frames, while his seemed loose and shapeless. Their ties were bright and colorful, while his seemed quiet and muted. But when the pastor of the big church said his name, and all eyes turned to him, Ed merely said, “Let us pray.” He closed his eyes and bowed his head; he assumed that the rest of the men did the same. “Lord, thank you for this day,” he prayed. “Thank you for this celebration and for the people who are gathered here today. Bless this time together. Let your Word be heard and heeded according to your will. You have promised that your Word is always effective. To those among us who need to repent of pride and arrogance, grant a spirt of humble repentance. To those among us who need to turn away from the world and embrace instead the riches of your grace, grant a spirit of humble repentance. To sinners who need to be called from their sinful ways and to open their hearts to you, grant a spirit of humble repentance. Provide us all with eyes that look to your cross, minds that are shaped by your power, and hearts that are open to your guiding. Not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory forever and ever. In the name of Jesus. Amen.”

A few murmured Amens signaled the acceptance of his prayer, but the looks on the faces Ed saw when he opened his eyes were not so accepting. “Thank you for that brief and heart-felt prayer,” the pastor of the church barked at Ed. “We look forward to hearing more of your wisdom as the morning progresses.” After some other words were said and announcements were delivered, the pastor took Ed by his arm and guided him to the room where the Bible study would be held.

“That wasn’t quite what we expected,” said the pastor in the brief moment they had together in the hall.

“I told you, I can only say that the Lord guides me to say,” Ed whispered back.

“Well, you’ll have a second chance with the Bible class,” the pastor of the big church told him as he guided Ed into the room and led him to the teacher’s seat in front of the gathering students. Ed took a minute to reflect as he watched the others find their places. Even with eyes opened, he silently prayed that God’s Holy Spirit would guide him and would keep him faithful to the Word. Once again he was introduced, and all eyes turned to him. He hoped that his voice did not quaver as he told the group to open their Bibles to Second Timothy, the third and fourth chapters. “We’ll be looking at what God himself has to say about the power of his Word,” he told them.

Ed steered them through the verses about God’s Word being “breathed out,” or inspired, by God. He spoke about teaching, reproof, correction, and training for righteousness, about being competent as Christians, equipped for every good work. The students smiled and nodded. Those who joined the conversation were eager to tell Ed about the good works they had been doing in the big church on the highway.

Gently, Ed guided them backwards to verses he considered even more important. “Not only does the Bible steer us in this world,” he said, “but it offers us a better world. It makes us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ This is not our doing—it is by grace, a gift of God, not earned by good works.” In the silence, Ed continued to speak about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ and about Christ’s message to “repent and believe the gospel.”

But, as the end of the class was drawing closer, Ed saw that he was in danger of missing the message he knew he had been sent to share. He guided the students to look at the beginning of chapter four, to talk about preaching the word, “in season and out of season,” reproving and rebuking and exhorting “with complete patience and teaching.” Drawing a deep breath, Ed read on, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Ed had heard cliches about deafening silences, silences in which one could hear a pin drop. Now he heard such a silence. Eyes darted to and fro, as the students looked at one another but seemed unable to look at their guest teacher. Ed returned to his main theme. “Jesus came into the world with a message that all should repent and believe the gospel,” he reminded them. “When we preach genuine repentance, based on the commandments of God, and when we preach genuine faith, based on the promises of God, then we cannot go far from the truth. We cannot be far from the kingdom of God.” With a few more general statements along those lines, Ed brought the lesson to a close. The students silently closed their Bibles, stood, and left the room, on their way to the service in the big church, where Ed once again would be called upon to bless their assembly and congratulate them on their anniversary.

In a moment, Ed was alone in the classroom with the pastor of the big church. The pastor repeated what he had said before, “That wasn’t what we expected.”

“I told you, I can only say those things that the Lord gives me to say,” Ed responded.

“But how can you be so sure?” the pastor asked him. “Just because you’re reading from the Bible, how do you know that these words are meant from the Lord for this day? What gives you the right to talk to us about repentance, about rebuking and correcting, about itching ears? We’re paying you to preach. Why won’t you say the things we told you to say?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Pastor Ed said.

“Try me,” the other pastor urged.

Ed took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You remember Rex,” he said, “my dog, the German Shepherd. He was at my apartment the night you visited.” The pastor of the big church on the highway nodded, and Ed continued. “Most mornings, Rex cooperates and is easy to care for, but this morning he was nothing but trouble. I took him for his morning walk, and instead of walking along and then doing his business, he was wild, darting around, tangling his leash around trees and then around my ankles. Finally, I had to slap his flank, just to get his attention and to get him to behave.

“For the rest of the walk he was better, but as we were going up the steps inside, he started acting up again. In fact, he nearly tripped me and knocked me down the steps. I scolded him then like I’ve never scolded him before.

“Then, when I was ready to leave, Rex lay down in front of the door and wouldn’t let me out of the apartment. I tried everything—gentle words, scolding, dog treats, everything I could think of, but he wouldn’t get out of my way and let me out the door. Finally, afraid I was going to be late, I lost my temper. I grabbed a fly swatter and gave him a good thump on his rump. That’s when Rex spoke to me.”

“Your dog talked.”

“Yes, he talked, in clear language like you and I are using now. ‘What have I done, that makes you hit me this morning?’ he asked. And I said, ‘You’ve been a bad dog, disobeying me and getting in my way, almost knocking me down the steps, and now making me late for this service.’ ‘And have I ever acted this way before?’ he asked me, and I said, ‘No.’

“Then I remembered about Balaam and his donkey and the Angel of the Lord. I remembered how the donkey had saved Balaam’s life when the Angel was ready to kill Balaam for taking money to tell people what they wanted to hear instead of what God intended for him to say. I didn’t see any angel. Rex didn’t speak another word. But I knew that God was warning me, that I had better speak his Word to you all this morning, nothing more and nothing less.”

The pastor of the big church on the highway shook his head and snorted. Beyond that, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. His introduction of Pastor Ed as guest preacher was not enthusiastic, not like the introduction he had given before the prayer or before the Bible class. But Pastor Ed was undaunted. He began with a brief congratulations to the church for its tenth anniversary, but then he proceeded to preach to them about Jesus. He reminded them that the message of Jesus boils down to two words, repent and believe. And he told them that no one can do either of these things without God’s help. “We cannot repent properly, and we cannot believe properly, without the work of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.’

“Now God created us for a purpose, to live in his image. For God is love, and God expects us to love. But we all have failed. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. We all need a Savior, and Jesus is the Savior we need. Now Jesus tells us to repent and believe. Without these words of Jesus, we could never repent properly, and we could never believe properly. But through these words, Jesus changes us. He sends his Spirit into our hearts so we repent and we believe. Like the lame man on the stretcher, told by Jesus to get up and walk, we get up and walk. We do these things, not by our power, but by the power of the Lord, power that comes to us through his Word.”

They hadn’t thrown him out yet, so Pastor Ed continued preaching. “We all want to be the stars. We all want to take credit for the good things we do for the Lord. But, when we have done our best, what we have done is still not enough. We cannot earn anything by our good works. All we can say of our best efforts is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10). But Jesus is the star. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Sun that shines into our lives and makes us citizens of his kingdom. Jesus obeys his Father on our behalf. Jesus pays his life as a ransom for our sins. Jesus defeats our enemies, rising to grant us a resurrection like his. Jesus makes the difference. Not to us, but to Jesus Christ alone, be thanks and praise and glory for this day.”

Pastor Ed knew that he would not be thanked for his sermon. He did not even know if he would be given the money he had been promised. But he knew that he had done his duty for the Lord. And he knew that, when he came back to his apartment, Rex would be there, loyal and faithful as always, sufficient reward for the day and a reminder of God’s grace and guidance.

Fruit of the Spirit: a sermon (used by permission)

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no Law.” (Galatians 5:16-23)

              When I was a young adult, the Christian Church in the United States seemed to have a fascination with the topic of spiritual gifts. Maybe this was a fad that has run its course; maybe I was more aware of the discussion at the time because of my youth. But it seemed that Christians everywhere, from groups on campus to Lutheran congregations, were asked and invited to fill out inventories in which they assessed their spiritual gifts. Often they would be invited to join certain boards and committees or to engage in certain tasks based on their self-assessments of their spiritual gifts. This process was a handy way of recruiting Sunday School teachers and choir members, but it also had a higher significance. It required Christians and Christian groups to define spiritual gifts and to explain how they are different from other talents and abilities.

              To some people there was no difference. Anything a person could do well was considered a spiritual gift. To other people, the difference was important. God the Father, who created us and gave us our bodies, our minds, and all our abilities, had made each of us unique and special. But the Holy Spirit, who entered our lives, gave us faith in Jesus, and taught us to imitate Jesus, also bestowed us with abilities that went beyond what we received in creation. We were given spiritual ways to serve the Church, to be of use to our fellow Christians, and to honor God with our lives. Knowing our spiritual gifts mattered precisely because those gifts were intended to serve the people of God and were not to be wasted on the world, on those outside the Church.

              The second group of Christians was wrong. Dividing the creating work of God the Father and the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit implies a false distinction within the Holy Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God. They worked together in creation, and they work together in sanctification. Likewise, God does not distinguish between our service to neighbors in the world and our service to neighbors in the Church. We all have vocations, callings, opportunities to love our neighbors and help them. These callings are exercised in the home with our families. They are exercised in the community with our neighbors. They are exercised in our careers. They are exercised in volunteer opportunities. They also are exercised in the congregation. Sometimes we do things for one another in church that we do not get to do anywhere else. More often, we do things for one another in the church that we also do for our families and for other gatherings. Doing them at church does not make them more spiritual; doing them other places does not make them less spiritual. We are Christians every hour of the day, not just when we are at church. We love God and love our neighbors every hour of the day, not just when we are at church.

              We serve one another at church. Because I am called to be pastor, I preach the sermon and lead the service. In a large congregation, we might have a preacher, a liturgist, a lector to read the lessons from the Bible, and an acolyte to light the candles and put them out. Other members of the congregation lead the music, ring the bell, keep the building clean, and prepare snacks for us to enjoy after the service. We all put money in the offering plate. We all pray for the congregation and for one another during the week. We support one another, and together we do the work of the Church. We use our God-given abilities, our resources, and our opportunities, to enrich the lives of one another. But all of us also do things for our families, our communities, our country, and the world in general—even if those things are nothing more than to pray. That work also is loving service to our neighbors for the glory of God. That loving service also involves spiritual gifts.

              In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit. He contrasts the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh. It might seem unfair that the works of the flesh add up to fifteen activities while Paul lists only nine fruits of the Spirit. No wonder the devil tempts us to think that sinners have more fun than saints. But both lists are open-ended. Both are summaries of works and fruits, summaries of lists that could be much longer. Both lists describe ways of life, one which fits into the sinful world and one that belongs to the eternal kingdom of God. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit comes out nicely in our English translation. We have three fruits of one syllable, three fruits of two syllables, and three fruits of three syllables. The verse is easy to remember, easy even to set to music. And this list of nine fruits of the Spirit might seem like a convenient sermon outline, a way for preachers to describe Christian living with a paragraph on love, a paragraph on joy, a paragraph on peace, and on through the entire list.

              But that outline would also be a mistake. Talking about love and joy and peace and the rest in that fashion would sound too much like Law, telling us how Christians should live, how we should be different from the sinful world. If a preacher took this verse and said, “Thou shalt love; thou shalt rejoice; thou shalt have peace,” that preacher would be missing the point. Paul did not intend to describe how Christians must live. He was telling us the consequences of being a Christian, the results of being forgiven by God and claimed for his kingdom. Paul was not writing about commandments; he was describing fruit, the natural result of being alive in the kingdom of God.

              The fifteen works of the flesh listed by Paul are all against God’s Law. They describe how a sinner lives, a person who has chosen to rebel against God’s Law. We compare that list to our lives, and we might be tempted to focus on the things we have never done, or perhaps the things we used to do when we were younger but have stopped doing. We like the Law when it tells us we are right. But Paul’s list also identifies weak points for each of us. If we are able to avoid sorcery and orgies, that does not mean that we are also free from jealousy, envy, rivalry, and divisions. All these works of the flesh are wrong. They all reflect a life that is self-centered, a life that is lacking love for God and love for our neighbors. They all show us why we need a Savior, why are lives are not good enough for God without the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

              Christ has set us free. He set us free from our sins. He set us free from sins committed against us. He set us free from the burden of the Law. He set us free to be children of God, to live the lives God had in mind when he created us and the world around us. Jesus lived a pure, sinless, God-pleasing life in this sinful world. He showed us how perfect love looks in this world. Jesus also took our sins and our guilt and paid for them on the cross. He ransomed us, paying to reclaim us for the kingdom of God and to reconcile us to his Father. Jesus defeated all our enemies, rising to life to prove his victory and to promise each of us a share in his victory.

              We are free because of what Jesus did for us. We are not free to return to our sins, to the works of the flesh. We are free to be children of God. We are free to do those things that God had in mind when he created us. We are free to live with love, with joy, with peace, and with all the fruits of the Spirit. These qualities have nothing to do with God’s Law. They are not against the Law, but they also are not governed and regulated by the Law. They belong to us as free children of God, not as rewards for obeying the Law. They do not describe what we must do because of God’s Law; they describe what we have because of God’s Gospel, because of the work Jesus has done to rescue us from sin and to reconcile us to his Father.

              When God created us, he wanted us to bear that fruit. He wants the same for all people. Jesus wanted even Judas Iscariot and the high priest Caiaphas and the governor Pontius Pilate to have lives filled with love and joy and peace. If they rejected those lives and those blessings, that was not Christ’s fault. He paid on the cross to redeem them. He prayed that their sins would be forgiven. He wished to welcome them into Paradise as surely as he wished to welcome the repentant thief, the apostles Peter and John, the women from Galilee, and all people into his Father’s kingdom.

              We were created for lives marked with love, joy, peace, and all the rest of the fruits of the Spirit. We lost those fruits because of sin. We turned away from God, doing things our way instead of his way. We fell short of the glory of God, and we were no longer capable of bearing those fruits. In God’s orchard, we were empty trees, taking up space without bearing fruit. We were destined to become nothing more than firewood.

              But the work of Jesus changed us. He went to the dead wood of the cross to make us living trees in God’s orchard. He suffered and died for us so we can live forever. He poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church so we can believe his promises and be saved by his work. He set us free so we can bear fruit for God, so we can enjoy love and joy and peace and all of God’s blessings in our lives today and in our eternal lives in the kingdom of God.

              The Holy Spirit continues to work in our lives, keeping us alive so we can bear fruit. He gives us faith in Jesus, and he sustains that faith in our hearts. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to bring us faith in Jesus. He uses the Law of God to diagnose our need for a Savior, but in the Gospel promises he tells us about our Savior, Jesus Christ. He gathers us around those Gospel promises in the Church. When we confess our sins, he assures us that we are forgiven through Jesus. The Holy Spirit washes us clean in the water of Holy Baptism. He brings us to the Table of the Lord, where we receive the body and blood of our Savior, making us confident of forgiveness, of eternal life in God’s kingdom, and of our share in Christ’s victory over all our enemies.

              While we live in this sinful world, we remain sinners who need a Savior. At the very same time, we are also saints who know our Savior. We are confident of his victory and of his blessings for our lives. We live, not under the burden of the Law, but under the freedom of the Gospel. Knowing we are forgiven, we are able to forgive those who sin against us. Knowing that we will live forever in God’s kingdom, we are able to live today as citizens of that eternal kingdom.

              Today we practice for heaven. We live with love, with joy, and with peace. We built our qualities of patience and kindness and goodness. We exercise faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We do these things, not to earn a place in heaven, but because we know that we have a place in heaven. Being citizens of heaven, we bring a taste of heaven into the lives we live today. To God the Father, who created us to have these blessings; to Jesus Christ, who gave himself to give us these blessings; to the Holy Spirit, who pours these blessings into our lives every day, be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                         Amen.

Beyond reason in creation and in redemption

I am thankful for fellow blogger Clyde Herrin for two reasons. First, he has been kind enough to repost several of my recent posts on his blog, thus expanding my potential audience. Second, he has given me food for thought in his comment on my recent “Summer Solstice” post. You may recall that I suggested that an Obsessive-Compulsive Creator would have given us thirty-day months and a 360-day year, allowing day and month and year to match mathematically. Clyde suggested that, in the beginning, the solar system operated in sync according to simple math, but that sin and the consequences of sin threw the system into a more chaotic set of relationships. He pointed me to a post of his ten years ago (which I had already read and liked some time in the past) in which he suggests that the turmoil of the Flood threw the earth’s day off from its previous length by about twenty-one minutes, resulting in the mismatch of days to years that complicates our calendars today.

I replied to Clyde that, in my opinion, God delights in complexity within creation and does not limit himself to simple relations. I mentioned complexity in biology and in subatomic physics, and I then offered the thought that God purposely put the sun, moon, and planets (including our earth) into a complex dance that does not simplify to easy mathematics. Continuing to ponder the possibilities after posting that comment, I have arrived at even more evidence that the patterns in our solar system are intended to be complex.

The evidence has been known for a very long time. Two thousand years ago, Greek mathematicians used geometry to study the world and even to comprehend complex ideas in number theory. Reality frustrated these mathematical geniuses. They wanted every number in the universe to be a fraction, a ratio, a balance of two other numbers. But these students of nature discovered that the relationship of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is not a rational number. It cannot be expressed as a fraction of two other numbers. That relationship of the trip around a circle to a trip across a circle is called “pi,” a number about (but not exactly) one-seventh more than three. Likewise, the relationship of the diagonal of a square to the side of a square is another irrational number, which happens to be the square root of two. Every square in the world, no matter how big or how small, has the same relationship of diagonal to side, and the number that describes that relationship is never a fraction or ratio of two other numbers.

It is no coincidence that we call those numbers irrational. Not only are “pi” and “the square root of two” not expressed by fractions, or ratios of two numbers; they also do not make sense to people who want mathematical simplicity in their world. It seems that God delights in complexity and does not settle for simple relationships in his creation. For people like Clyde and me, who believe in an Almighty God who created heaven and earth and all that exists, that raises interesting questions. Is the Almighty God limited by rules of geometry, so that circles and squares could not exist apart from the irrational numbers that describe them? Or could God have created a world with different mathematical rules and different geometric proportions, a world that was fully rational even to ancient Greeks who studied the world and the things it contains?

Such questions go beyond science and mathematics and geometry. Identical questions can be raised about ethics. Is the Almighty God answerable to rules about good and evil, or does he get to write all the rules? Those who call Him Almighty define “good” as “whatever God likes” and “evil” as “whatever God does not like.” Our debates about good and evil, then, come down to God’s statements to us about what he likes and what he hates, the behavior of which he approves and the behavior of which he disapproves. Yet some people feel qualified to judge God, to apply their own rules to the Creator and decide whether he meets with their approval. To such people, God speaks as he spoke to Job: “Where were you when I created the world?”

Imagining a world with different rules for mathematics and geometry goes beyond our comprehension. Imagining a world with different rules for right and wrong goes beyond our imagination. God, at his essence, is love; for love flows among the Persons of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are created in God’s image. The most important commandments God gave us are that we love him and that we love one another. God’s other commandments teach us how to love. Sometimes, what seems loving to us attacks others and harms others rather than truly loving them. God’s love sometimes is “tough love,” discouraging us from harmful behavior we might characterize as love and guiding us into true love for God and for one another.

But, because God is love, he also rescues us from the consequences of disobeying his rules. We cannot disobey some rules: we cannot defy gravity, and we cannot cause the relationship of the diagonal of a square to its side to become a rational number. In cases where we have broken God’s commandments telling us how to love, God rescues us from the consequences of our failure. Jesus, on the cross, bore the burden for our sins to reconcile us to God. Jesus defeated our enemies—even our own sins—and shares his victory with us. In a sense, God breaks the rules of justice, of power and authority, to establish grace and mercy and peace in our lives.

And he supports that message about his love and his grace by leaving in his creation other mysteries that defy reason and logic and the way we would do things—including quantum mechanics, including irrational numbers, and including the complex dance of the sun, the moon, and the planets. J.

Summer solstice

Many calendars and almanacs label today, the day of the summer solstice as the “first day of summer.” In the United States, the beginning of summer is observed Memorial Day weekend and the end of summer comes on Labor Day weekend. Even weather forecasters now assign the term “summer” to the dates June 1—August 31, making the seasons match the months on the calendar. Few of us really treat the solstice as summer’s beginning. For William Shakespeare, the solstice marked Midsummer-Night. But the summer solstice has never inspired the celebration and festivity given to the winter solstice at the end of December.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming book to be called “Murphy’s Gremlins.” In this chapter, which talks about time and seasons, I remark that our Creator is not obsessive or compulsive about time. The book of Genesis says that God created the sun and the moon to mark days and years and seasons. After the flood, God also promised a continuing cycle of planting and harvest, day and night, summer and winter. But an OCD Creator would have timed the earth’s journey around the sun for an exact number of days—probably 360 days. Such a Creator would have timed the moon’s journey around the earth and the completion of its cycle of phases for an exact number of days—probably thirty days. We would live with twelve months of thirty days in a year of 360 days and never have days left over. But God did not create that way.

Instead, the earth’s journey around the sun is roughly—not exactly, mind you, but only roughly—365 ¼ days. The moon’s journey around the earth takes between 28 and 29 days, and its passage through its phases requires a day or two more. Many cultures, including the Hebrew, the Chinese, the Arabic, and the Roman (during the Republic) began a new month with each new moon—as soon as the crescent of the moon can be seen in the sky, it is the first day of the month. At the end of the Republic, though, Julius Caesar mandated a calendar that contained twelve months but ignored the moon. Caesar also added a day to the calendar every fourth year to keep seasons from slipping away from solstices and equinoxes. It took centuries for the Julian calendar to slip; Julius Caesar may not have expected his calendar to be used for such a long time. Pope Gregory revised the Julian calendar to accommodate the reality that the earth’s journey around the sun is only roughly 365 ¼ days. It took a long time for other parts of the world to adjust to the new Gregorian calendar.

Some annual observances rely on a lunar calendar that predates the Julian Calendar. Passover, Israel’s memory of its escape from Egypt, is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month of spring—the fourteenth day being the night of the full moon. Christian observances of Easter and related holidays also are set according to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Muslim holidays and Chinese holidays are likewise set by the lunar calendar

But other observances follow the Julian-Gregorian calendar. Christians observe Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, on December 25, no matter what the moon is doing. Some people claim that Christians chose that date because of non-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. They wanted faithful Christians to have a reason to celebrate at the same time. The date may also have been chosen through a faulty reading of Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that Zechariah and his wife would have a son. Thinking that Zechariah was high priest and that his burning of incense was part of the Day of Atonement (which happens around the autumn equinox), they calculated that Zechariah’s son (John the Baptist) was born nine months later. Since the announcement of Christ’s coming birth came when Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) was in her sixth month of pregnancy, the same scholars marked the announcement by Gabriel to Mary around the spring equinox and the birth nine months later, just after the winter solstice.

On Christian calendars, the birthday of John the Baptist is observed on June 24, just after the summer solstice. But, unlike Christ’s birthday, John’s birthday is not such a big deal. Summer solstice observances have always paled in comparison to winter solstice festivities. Especially in the United States, the summer solstice has disappeared as a holiday. We begin summer at the end of May and conclude it at the start of September. In between, our biggest celebration is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a mere two weeks after the solstice. Our enthusiasm and energy is saved for that occasion.

Seasons change. Days and months and years run their course. Solstices and equinoxes take place on schedule, as do all our man-made holidays and observances. But for those who care (if there be any out there), a joyous summer solstice to you all. J.

Fathers’ Day sermon (shared by permission)

“Now before faith came, we were help captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Ephesians 3:23-4:7)

              On this Fathers’ Day, it is fitting for Christians to consider God the Father. We pray to him often, addressing him as, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” We declare our faith in him, confessing, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” We mention him at the beginning of every service, with the Invocation, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We were baptized into that Name, and so we remember his Name at the start of the service and also in the Benediction at the close of every service.

              We don’t often consider, though, the difference between naming him “God the Father” and calling him “Our Father.” Because we associate the Father with creation, we tend to think of God as Father to all he created. But God’s Fatherhood is not linked to his creation. God’s Fatherhood is eternal, as the relationship of God the Father and God the Son exists outside of creation—outside of space and outside of time. Family relationships in creation are pictures of the divine relationship of Father and Son. We might think that families in creation are the reality and that the labels are attached to God as a metaphor. But God came first. God is eternal. Families in creation are the metaphor. They teach us how to think about God. They show us an important truth about the God we worship.

              An essential difference, though, is that family relationships are governed by time, but God is outside of time. Sons are born after their fathers and develop and grow in their families. God the Father and God the Son are both eternal, equally powerful, equally glorious. God the Son has never been less than God the Father. He is eternally begotten by his Father; he does not enter reality after his Father, as is necessary in the families in creation, families that move through time.

              The eternal Son of God did something that the Father never did. He entered creation, becoming part of the world God made. Taking on our human form, he became one of us. As a man, Jesus is less than his Father, owing his Father obedience and honor and praise. Jesus became one of us to rescue us from sin and evil. As God’s creation, we were made in the image of God, intended to be pictures of God’s love. Because we rebelled against God, sinning when we broke his commandments, we were cut off from God. Jesus restores that relationship with God, bringing us into the holy family by his obedience to the will of his Father. God is now our Father, not through creation, but through adoption. Jesus paid to make us children of God. God sees us through the obedience of his Son and calls us his children. We have the privilege of praying to our Father in heaven, not because he created us, but because his Son redeemed us.

              For this reason, no one who denies Jesus as the Son of God has the right to call God a Father. Some people insist that God is Father to us all. They say that Jews and Muslims are our brothers and our sisters because they pray to the same God and call him Father. But no one knows the Father who does not know the Son. No one enters the family of God except through the work of God the Son. People might say the word “father” when they think of the God they are worshiping; but, if they are not coming to the Father through Jesus, the God they are worshiping is not the true God.

              We become children of God the Father through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not always act like children of God. The Father gave us a guardian for our lives in this world: he gave us the Law, which tells us how God intends us to live. Since we are meant to be images of God, pictures of love, the Law tells us how to love. It teaches us how to love God, and it also teaches us how to love the people around us.

              The famous summary of God’s Law, given to Moses and the Israelites as the Ten Commandments, stresses the definition of that love. Two of the Ten Commandments focus on our families. Families are important to God. We learn how to love in our families. We learn about God’s love in our families. For that reason, God commands us not to commit adultery. The love of husband and wife is to remain faithful, in spite of all the temptations to sin that exist in the world. Marriage is a picture of God’s love for his people. Marriage is also the foundation of a healthy beginning for children who are born into the world.

              Likewise, children are commanded to honor father and mother. They are to serve and obey their parents. The authority of father and mother are pictures of God’s authority in our lives. As children grow, they learn to respect authority in other places. They honor teachers in the classroom. They honor bosses and managers at work. They honor and respect human government, obeying the worldly authorities to show their respect for God, the ultimate authority. Human authorities sometimes make mistakes. They sometimes sin. When given a choice, we must obey God rather than human authority. But most of the time, we are not forced to choose. Our respect for human authority shows our honor for God. Our rebellion against human authority shows our rebellion against God.

              Over the last seventy years, honor and respect for authority has been treated as old-fashioned and unnecessary. Entertainment celebrates rebellion against authority and rebellion against those in charge. Stories set in the family and at school and in the workplace typically depict those in charge as feeble or corrupt. These stories make disobedience and rebellion seem good instead of evil. Likewise, entertainers teach us to mock our government officials. They become the subject of jokes and of belittlement. Instead of honoring and respecting our leaders, we are taught to think poorly of them and to resist their leadership. The sinful world around us encourages us to rebel, to refuse to honor people with authority over us. It teaches us to rebel against human authority so we also will join the sinful world in rebelling against God’s authority.

              All around us, we see the consequences of that rebellion. Families have fallen apart. Schools no longer produce model citizens. Workers no longer care about doing a good job. Acts of rebellion against the government are increasingly common. Society is in chaos, because honor and respect for authority has disappeared. Along with that evil, we see a second evil. People with authority no longer use their authority as pictures of God. Fathers abuse their own children. People with power try to crush others instead of sustaining them and supporting their growth. Because government is treated as an enemy to the people, government often responds by acting as an enemy to the people. When things go wrong, people blame those in charge. At the very same time, they demand that those in charge fix the problem so things will not continue going wrong.

              God’s Law limits the power of sin to corrupt our lives. The Law of God curbs our evil nature. It teaches us not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to tell lies. As our guardian, it restrains us from evil. But the Law treats us, not as children of God, but as criminals who must be limited and restrained. At best, the Law treats us as runaway children, defiant to the authority of our Father, and needing the control of rules and regulations to keep us from destroying ourselves and the world around us.

              The Law cannot bring us into God’s family. The Law cannot make God our Father. The Law shows us our sins and our need for a Savior, but the Law can never be the Savior we need. Our efforts to obey the Law fall short of its demands. We cannot work our way into God’s family. We cannot purchase his love. We cannot deserve forgiveness for our sins. We are prisoners, held captive by the Law, set aside for eternal punishment according to the just and fair terms of the Law.

              What the Law cannot accomplish, God provides with grace and mercy. God’s Gospel, his good news of forgiveness and rescue, comes through the work of his Son. Jesus entered this world to rescue us. He placed himself under the Law, obeying all its rules and regulations. Jesus fulfilled the terms of the Law. He was not captured and imprisoned by the Law; he gained freedom from the Law by loving his Father perfectly and by loving the people around him perfectly.

              Yet Jesus allowed himself to be captured and imprisoned by corrupt human authority in this sinful world. Having obeyed the Law perfectly, Jesus took on himself the burden of our sins and our rebellion. He never sinned, but he was treated as sin for us. Suffering the penalty of sin, Jesus purchased us from the power of evil and made us the property of God. He paid a ransom for us, giving his life in exchange for our lives. That redemption, that ransom, set us free not only from our sins, but also from the burden of the Law. We are no longer captives, imprisoned by the Law. We have been adopted into God’s family. Through the price Jesus paid on the cross, we have become children of God. We pray to God, calling him Our Father, because the only Son of God has claimed us for his family. We are children of God, calling God our Father, because when Jesus took our place on the cross he invited us to take his place in the family of God.

              The price for our adoption was paid on the cross. The formal ceremony of our adoption took place in our Baptism. Jesus was baptized at the beginning of his ministry to give meaning to our baptisms. When Jesus was baptized, God the Father spoke to him. He said, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.” Now, through Baptism, God the Father looks at us and sees Jesus. He says to each of us, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

              Through Holy Baptism, we have gained a family. We have a Father in heaven to whom we pray. We also have brothers and sisters here on earth. All those who believe in Jesus—all those who know God as Father through the saving work of Jesus Christ—are our brothers and our sisters. We belong to this family through Holy Baptism. The power of Baptism is the cross of Jesus Christ. Adopted by him through the price he paid on the cross, we are now children of God and brother or sister to every other Christian on earth and with all the Christians in Paradise waiting for the resurrection and the new world Christ has promised.

              Jesus died to claim us for his family. Now we have an inheritance through the death of Jesus. He had no earthly property to leave for us to inherit. Even the clothes he was wearing were claimed by the soldiers who crucified him. But Jesus clothes us in righteousness. He gives us his sinless life to wear. Not only today, but on Judgment Day, God the Father sees us clothed in his Son’s righteousness. On that Day also he will say to each of us, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. In you I am well pleased.”

              On this Fathers’ Day, I have spoken about God the Father and about God the Son. But we should not neglect the third Person of the Holy Trinity. We also remember the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through the Word of God and through the power of Holy Baptism. The Spirit gives us faith in Jesus our Savior and keeps us strong in that faith. The Spirit reminds us of our adoption and teaches us to pray, “Abba” (that is, Daddy). We are not slaves to the Law. We are not even slaves of God. We are sons of God, heirs to the kingdom of God, through the cross of Jesus Christ and through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

              When the time was right, Jesus came into this world to rescue us. When the time is right, Jesus will appear in glory and make everything new. We belong to him today. We belong to him forever. He has made us family, and that family will last forever, even as God is eternal and unchanging. To our Holy God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.     

              Amen.