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.

Festival of the Holy Trinity

Traditional Christian congregations divide the year into two halves. The first half follows the mission of Jesus. Four Sundays of Advent prepare the way for the Lord. The twelve days of Christmas celebrate His birth. During the Epiphany season, Christians remember the works and deeds of Jesus that reveal Him as Lord and Savior. During Lent, Christians consider the reason we need a Savior. Lent concludes with Holy Week, following Jesus to the cross. Holy Week concludes with Easter Sunday, beginning seven weeks that rejoice in the resurrection of the Lord. On Pentecost Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit. With this, the festival half of the Church Year comes to an end, and Christians begin numbering the Sundays after Pentecost, sometimes referring to this half of the Church Year as Ordinary Time.

But the First Sunday after Pentecost is not ordinary. On this Sunday, traditional Christians remember the Holy Trinity. We recall that the one God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the three is a distinct Person. They love each other. They talk to each other. They do things for each other. But they are not three gods: they are one God. One God created the world. One God tells the people he made why we are created, what we are intended to do. One God will judge us for our failure to fulfill his purpose. And one God planned our rescue, a Ransom that would pay the price for our sins, cleanse us of our failures, and reconcile us to God, making us His people forever.

The Triune nature of God was communicated in ancient times. The very word for God, “Elohim,” used many times in the Hebrew Bible, is a plural noun. From creation, God speaks of Himself in the plural, saying, “Let us make man in our image.” The Triune nature of God is found in key Bible verses, including Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord—is One!” and Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Likewise, with words that Christians enjoy singing in a variety of different tunes, the angels around the throne of God praise him with the words, “Holy, holy, holy.”

God is not like us. If God were like us, he would not be worthy of our worship and praise. If God were like us, he could not rescue us from sin and evil and death. If God were like us, our lives would have no meaning and no purpose. But God is far beyond our understanding. The mystery of the Holy Trinity gives us reason to rejoice in God, reason to trust his promises of salvation, and reason to find meaning in his reality for the lives we are living today.

God is Almighty. He can do anything. People who play with words like to ask questions such as, “If God can do anything, can he create a rock to heavy even for him to lift?” Even the Bible concedes that, being Almighty, God cannot do some things. God cannot lie. Not only is God too good to lie; God is too powerful to lie. Whatever he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and our sins are forgiven. He says, “You belong to me forever,” and we belong to him forever.

God is eternal and unchanging. He created time and space; he is not limited by time and space. His presence fills the universe and exists in even the tiniest of spaces. His presence also fills time. God chose a name for himself, a name pronounced “Yahweh,” a name which means, “I am.” God has no past and no future; everything in the universe is in the present tense for God. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. His love, his mercy, and his grace never change.

Yet one of the three Persons, the Son of God, entered creation and made himself like us. He was conceived and born into the world. He experienced time and change, growing from a baby to a boy and then a man. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He obeyed all his own commands, fulfilling the Law on our behalf. He also paid the price for all our sins, becoming a ransom to rescue us from death and to grant us eternal life. He established a Church based upon the words of his prophets and apostles. He gathers His people into that Church, granting faith in his promises and promising rescue and eternal life to all who believe those promises.

God the Father sent His Son, and the Father accepts as His children all those redeemed by His Son. God the Son, as Jesus as Nazareth, is a Ransom to pay for our sins and to reconcile us to His Father. God the Holy Spirit works in the Church to share the message of Jesus, granting faith to God’s people and keeping them in that faith unto everlasting life.

The Holy Trinity is a mystery beyond our understanding. On this Sunday we rejoice in a God we do not understand, confident in his unchanging love and mercy and grace. We praise him by singing, with angels and with all the saints in heaven, “Holy, holy, holy!” J.

A smoldering wick

The prophet Isaiah delivered many descriptions of the coming Savior Jesus Christ. He pictured him as Emmanuel (“God with us”), born of a virgin. He celebrated him as the Child born to us, known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He explained his work as the Suffering Servant, stricken and smitten and afflicted for our sake. He revealed his identity as Messiah to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also Lord and Savior for people of every nation and culture and language.

This chosen Servant, anointed by the Holy Spirit, appears also in chapter forty-two of Isaiah’s book. Here we are told that he will proclaim justice without quarreling and without shouting in the streets. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Even though Jesus possesses all power and all authority in this world, he does not wield his power with violence and destruction. Instead, he becomes a victim of evil to rescue victims of evil. He forgives sinners who repent of their sins. He heals all those who bear the burden of sin—of their own guilt, or of sins committed against them. The world battles against the people that belong to Jesus, but Jesus has already overcome the world.

Not many of us have much experience with bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. We understand these images as metaphors for weak and humble people. But a common happening in traditional congregations of Christians might bring some interesting context to thoughts of a smoldering wick.

Many traditional Christian congregations have candles in the front of the church building. The candles are lit at the beginning of the service and snuffed out at the end of the service. In a larger congregation, a person called “acolyte” lights and extinguishes the candles; in a smaller congregation, the job of the acolyte might be done by an usher, an elder, or even by the pastor. That acolyte carries a single flame on a “torch” to light each of the candles—sometimes that torch is first lit from a single candle, the Christ candle, which is kept burning even before and after the service. This provides worshipers a symbolic reminder of the light of Christ, bestowed on each of them, uniting them as one holy fire even while they burn as separate, individual flames for the Lord.

These candles, in the old days, were often made from beeswax. Such candles were known to be less likely to drip and run and create a mess. More recently, many congregations have switched to a liquid oil. The visible candle is a hollow white tube, filled with liquid wax. A wick runs into the liquid and bears the flame. The candles must be refilled from time to time. Otherwise, the wax gets low and the candle starts to smolder instead of burning brightly. Eventually, the smoldering candle will go out.

Acolytes are taught not to touch the candle with the snuffer, which is the bell-shaped part of the torch. Instead, they lower the snuffer over the candle, letting the bell fill with smoke under the candle has no oxygen and the flame goes out. After filling the snuffer with flame from the first candle, the acolyte then keeps the bell full of smoke, and the remaining candles go out more quickly.

But, acting as acolyte in a small congregation, I have discovered that the smoldering wick lasts longer than the brightly-burning candle. More time is required to extinguish the wick that is only smoldering, probably because it uses less oxygen per second than the brightly-burning candle. When extinguishing the candles at the end of the service, I must remember to give extra time to the smoldering wick, because if I don’t take longer with the snuffer, the smoldering wick will continue to smolder.

We all would like to be brightly-burning candles for the Lord. Some days of worship we feel full of grace and Spirit; other days we seem barely to be smoldering. It may help to know that the smoldering wick is stronger. It is not easily snuffed. The Lord, who will not break a bruised reed, will also not abandon his smoldering wicks. We all have a place in his plan. J.

Pentecost

Pentecost is the Christian celebration of the Holy Spirit. Like the Passover, Pentecost is among the holidays God required Old Testament Israel to observe every year. It was a springtime Thanksgiving festival seven weeks (fifty days) after the Passover meal. As Jesus Christ was crucified and raised during the Passover celebration, so the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Christians in Jerusalem during the Pentecost celebration that same year. For that reason, seven weeks after celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on Easter Day, Christians dedicate a Sunday to remember the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

An Old Testament lesson frequently read during the Pentecost service comes from the book of Genesis, chapter eleven. Several generations after the Flood, the descendants of Noah met on the plain of Shinar to build a city and a tower so they would be remembered and would not be scattered across the earth. Cities and towers are not sinful, but the pride behind their plan was sinful. They wanted to honor themselves, not the Lord. They defied his command to scatter and fill the earth and care for the entire planet. God responded to the sinfulness of their plan by confusing their languages. Once they began speaking different languages, they could not speak to one another or work together. Humble and loving people can overcome a language barrier, but proud and self-centered people insist that their language is correct and other languages are wrong. Because these people on the plain of Shinar were proud and self-centered, the language barrier scattered them, and the command of God was obeyed in spite of their rebellion.

More than seven thousand languages are spoken in the world today. Probably none of them was spoken when God first divided their languages. Instead, those first languages were probably the proto-languages that began the families of languages in the world today. Study of languages and the history of languages quickly becomes complicated, yet fascinating. The consequence of having many languages in the world, though, is the existence of language barriers. These make it hard for people to communicate, to understand one another, and to work together.

God understands languages and communication. According to the Bible, God created by speaking. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. According to the Bible, God’s Son is a message of love from God to the world. He is called the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God’s message through Moses, the Old Testament prophets, and the New Testament apostles is also identified as the Word of God: “Your Word is a light to my feet and a lamp for my path”; “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

For this reason, the Holy Spirit broke down language barriers on the first Christian Pentecost. One hundred fifty believers in Jesus were gathered in Jerusalem, probably in some part of the Temple complex. The Holy Spirit made his presence among them known with the sound of a mighty wind. (In Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, the same words are used for wind, breath, and spirit—“ruach” in Hebrew, and “pneuma” in Greek.) The Holy Spirit marked each Christian with a flame. He then enabled them to speak about Jesus in languages they had never studied. Hearing the news about Jesus in their own languages, many people in Jerusalem repented of their sins, believed in Jesus, and were baptized. Then they carried this message about Jesus back to their home cities, their families, and their communities.

The Bible makes it clear that the Church consists of people from every language, nation, people, and culture. On this Pentecost Day, around the world, the message of Jesus is shared in all of the seven thousand languages spoken on Earth. Prayers and hymns of praise are raised to God in all these languages. The same Jesus is Lord and Savior to people in every part of the world. When he appears in glory, he will claim people from every language and every culture as citizens of his kingdom and members of his royal family.

Christians celebrate Pentecost to rejoice over God’s victory. He has defeated sinful pride and stubbornness. He has defeated the consequences of sin. He has even defeated the language barrier, God’s response to the pride and rebellion of sinful people long ago. His Holy Spirit unites believers from every tribe and nation and culture and language, all of whom trust in Christ and believe his promises. J.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend has become the unofficial beginning of summer on the American calendar. Solstices and equinoxes mean nothing to the vast majority of Americans. The hundred days from Memorial Day through Labor Day coincide with summer weather, with students free from school, and with a more relaxed schedule in many of our businesses and our personal lives. With attention focused on family and community gatherings, on picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach or the lake, we sometimes forget the purpose of Memorial Day on our calendars. But social media—including WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok—provides ample opportunities for us to remind one another what Memorial Day means and why we observe it every year.

When the Civil War began in 1861, people on both sides of the conflict expected it to end quickly. Both sides were convinced that they were right, and they believed that a few battles would make their point and that they would be able to return to their normal lives. They did not realize that the war would drag on for four years. They did not realize that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would die on the battlefield during those four years. Only when the war ended did the survivors begin to comprehend the cost of war—the senseless violence, killing, and destruction that happens in every war.

Most citizens of the United States are against war. In the twentieth century, the nation was dragged into two world wars, unwilling to get involved, but resolving to defend liberty and freedom, resolved to oppose tyranny and oppression. The same attitude kept the United States involved in the Cold War with its assorted battlegrounds; after the Cold War ended, a War on Terror also engaged the nations. Americans did not fight to capture new land or enlarge our borders. Americans did not fight to prove that our country is great. Americans fought to preserve our freedom and to defeat the enemies of freedom and justice in the world. It takes two sides to fight a war, but it only takes one side to start a war. Our leaders did not go looking for wars to fight: our leaders reluctantly accepted the duty of opposing enemies that were already threatening us and our way of life.

War is always wrong. War is a picture and a consequence of sin and evil in the world. Just wars are fought to resist sin and evil, but every war begins through sin and evil. Jesus told his followers that wars and rumors of wars would continue in human history until the Day of the Lord, the Day that he reveals his glory and completes the work that he accomplished on Good Friday and Easter. Every war reminds God’s people of the ongoing spiritual war between God and evil. A holy angel rebelled against God and brought evil into God’s perfect creation. Other angels joined in his rebellion, and all humanity took the devil’s side. When we do what we want instead of doing what God wants, we join the devil’s side in his war against God.

God could abandon the world to sin and evil. God could destroy the world and create a new world. Instead, God chooses to reclaim sinners and to rescue the victims of evil. For that reason, God entered the world to fight the enemy alongside his people. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God but is also fully human. He resisted the devil’s temptations to sin. He refused to break the commandments of his Father or to leave his Father’s plan. Jesus became a victim of evil. Betrayed and abandoned by his followers, Jesus was a victim of unjust government. The Roman authority said that Jesus was innocent, but still signed the order for his execution. Roman soldiers abused and tortured the Son of God. Finally, like many soldiers from many wars, Jesus died and was buried.

For most soldiers, death and burial is the end of the story. But Jesus rose again on the third day. The women who went to His tomb for a memorial day instead found an empty tomb. Angels told the women that Jesus had risen, as he had promised. For forty days, Jesus proved to his followers that he had risen from the dead. Christians do not have a Memorial Day to remember the death and burial of Jesus: Christians have Easter celebrations to remember his resurrection and his victory over sin, over evil, over death and the grave. One day of the year is called Easter Sunday, but every gathering of Christians is an Easter celebration, a joyful reminder that Jesus is risen and that his enemies are defeated.

Those defeated enemies include the devil who rebelled against God. They include the sinful world that joins the devil’s rebellion. They include my sins and your sins, all the times that we break the commands of God and enlist in the devil’s army. They include death itself, the final result of sin and rebellion. Jesus defeated all the enemies. He defeated them alone, without any help from us. But he includes us in his victory. We are “more than conquerors,” because we receive the results of Christ’s victory without having fought alongside Jesus, without having contributed in any way to his victory.

On Memorial Day, we remember the soldiers who died defending our freedom. We rejoice in the liberty and justice we have as citizens of the United States. We also remember the soldier who died and was buried, but who rose again to assure us of his victory. Ascended into heaven, he sits at the right hand of God the Father—not a location somewhere in the sky, but a position of authority. Jesus runs the universe. He is present everywhere. As he promised, he is with his people always, especially when his people gather in his name. He continues to forgive sins. He continues to rescue victims of evil. He continues to share his victory with all who trust his promises.

Jesus will appear in glory to make everything new. Christians wait patiently for that Day. But, as we wait, we already have hope and joy and peace, knowing that our enemies have been defeated. We are confident of our place in God’s new creation. We already are new creations, being transformed into the image of Jesus our Savior. This also we remember on Memorial Day weekend and every day of our lives. J.

O Jerusalem–sermon on Luke 13:34-35 (shared with permission)

              “It’s all God’s fault.” That’s been part of the temptation from the very beginning. When things go wrong, we look for someone to blame, and who is easier to blame than God, the One who started it all? When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he pointed the finger of blame at Eve, at “the woman you gave to me,” as Adam said to God. Since that time, many other people have asked why God put that tree in the Garden. He knows everything—didn’t he know that the tree would cause a lot of trouble? God created everything that exists; if things go wrong in creation, it must be his fault. God has the power to do whatever he wants; if he wanted to help us and protect us from harm, he certainly could do it. When Jesus said that there would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other disasters, he showed his knowledge of the future. Why didn’t Jesus do something about these problems? Why didn’t he offer us a better future?

              One conclusion that people reach is that God must want things to be this way. He must want human history to consist of war after war, complete with death and destruction and all the trauma of war. He must want diseases to spread and limit the growth of the human race. He must want people to starve in some parts of the world, even as people in the rest of the world are throwing their extra food into the garbage. Most of all, he must want to send sinners into the fire of eternal punishment. If God did not want to condemn anyone to hell, he didn’t have to make hell. If God wants everyone to be forgiven for their sins and to live with him in heaven, all he has to do is forgive us our sins and welcome us into heaven. He has the power to do whatever he wants; therefore, whatever happens, that must be what God wants.

              This is what some people say. But the God they blame—the God they hate—is not the God of the Bible. They have created an imaginary God, a God they can reject, so they do not have to deal with the real God. Ask a group of atheists about the God in whom they do not believe, and you will receive a full description of God—a God who makes lots of rules just so he can catch people breaking the rules, a God who invents cruel punishments just to watch people suffer, a God who watches the problems and struggles of this world and refuses even to lift a finger to help people. This is the God they reject. This is why they do not believe in God. But we Christians can honestly say to those people that we do not believe in that God either.

              Instead, we worship a God who became one of us and lived among us to rescue us. We believe in a God who loves the world so much that he gave his Son to redeem sinners. We believe in a Savior who saw the sins of Jerusalem and who saw the punishment that would fall upon Jerusalem, and who wept over the city and its problems. Jesus cares. He cares so much that he sacrificed everything he had to rescue sinners. When he must turn away the people who reject his forgiveness, Jesus weeps. He does not want to punish and destroy any sinner; he wants all to believe in him and to receive the benefits of faith, the rewards that he earned for every sinner. When people blame God for the problems in this world, they ignore his love. They ignore his compassion. They ignore the work God has done to rescue sinners. When people blame God, they ignore the love that God has for them and the genuine sorrow that God has because they refuse to be rescued. They refuse to be forgiven. They refuse to let God do what he wants to do, lifting them out of sin and evil and carrying them to everlasting life.

              These enemies of God confront us with the things we say about God. We say that God is good. We say that he loves all people. We say that God knows everything. We say that he is almighty; He can do anything he wants. Having quoted those things to us, the enemies of God say that they cannot all be true. If God is good and he lets bad things happen, then perhaps he is not almighty. Or if he can do anything he wants, perhaps he is not truly good. Either God is not good enough to help us, or God is not strong enough to help us. Maybe he is good enough and strong enough, but he simply does not love us. Either way, it is all God’s fault. By saying these things, the enemies of God think that they have defeated God. They have removed God from their lives; they have put themselves in charge, because they have judged God and have found him lacking. From now on, they will be their own gods, because the God you and I know is not good enough for them.

              Sometimes you and I fall into the trap of God’s enemies. We focus too much attention on the fire and suffering of hell, and we make it sound as if God likes to see people suffer. We ask questions about the world, about why things go wrong, and we fail to show our faith that God is still in control. We get caught up in the matters of this world—the wars, the diseases, the political problems, the economic problems—and we fail to proclaim that it all belongs to God and that everyone will answer to Him. We even act as if we are in control of our own lives, as if we need to take care of ourselves and turn to God only as a last resort when all our plans have fallen short of our goals.

              Jesus came into this world to forgive sinners. He is obsessed with forgiveness. He tells us to forgive sinners, and he links our forgiveness to the forgiveness that we share with others. Not that we forgive those who sin against us by the goodness of our own hearts. When we try to find in ourselves the power to forgive, our goodness and our forgiveness falls short of God’s glory. But when we are confident that Jesus forgives sins, we pass along the forgiveness that Jesus earned on the cross. Because we are forgiven, we also forgive. Because we have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, we act as agents of God. We warn sinners of the cost of their sin, speaking to them the Law of God. We call them to repent. But we also share the good news of forgiveness to all those who repent. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger than all the sins of the world combined. His Gospel is far bigger than all the sins which have caused us to suffer. We love our neighbors and forgive those who sin against us because God loved us first and because Jesus has already paid the debt of all sinners in this world.

              We too are sinners. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We do not always love and forgive as we should love and forgive. We deserve to be rejected by God, punished by God for breaking his laws. Instead, Jesus came to rescue us and forgive us. Jesus mourns over our sins as we wept over Jerusalem. We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin. Even in his grief and sorrow, God desires our forgiveness. He wants to restore us to a right relationship with him; he wants to call us his children. Therefore, Jesus came into this world. The only-begotten Son of God paid the cost of our adoption so we also could be children of God and could live forever with him in his kingdom.

              Jesus lived as our substitute. He obeyed the Law perfectly where we have fallen short. He was circumcised, shedding his blood even as an infant to wash away our sins. Later, he also was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. He was tempted by the devil, but he resisted temptation. He loved his Father perfectly; he loved his neighbors perfectly. He submitted to earthly authority, even when that earthly authority was corrupt. He earned the rewards of a sinless life so he could grant us those rewards at no cost to ourselves.

              But then Jesus was crucified. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, spreading her wings to gather her chicks. God the Father and God the Son do not often portray a feminine nature, but on this occasion Jesus does call himself a mother hen. When a hen chases away the intruder in the barnyard, and when she gathers her chicks to protect them from danger, she spreads her wings wide. With that image, Jesus pictures himself on the cross, spreading his arms over the world to provide protection for all the people he loves and gathering us all under his wings at the cross. There he suffers and dies for us. There he pays our debt and adopts us into his family. There he defeats his enemies and reclaims us as his people so we can live with him forever in his kingdom.

              This payment was necessary, because evil has a price. God cannot forgive sins by ignoring sins.
God cannot pretend that everything is good when everything is not good. God hates evil, because evil damages the good things God made. God hates evil, because evil hurts the people God loves. God hates evil, because evil brings darkness in the place of light. Evil brings death in the place of life. Evil is a barrier that separates us from God. We cannot remove the barrier. We cannot replace darkness with light or death with life. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus pays in full for our restoration. He takes away all our sins, redeeming us, paying the full cost to make us the children of God and guaranteeing us eternal life in his kingdom.

              Having defeated evil, Jesus dies and is buried. On the Sabbath Day he rests, his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. At the dawn of a new week, Jesus rises from the dead. He proves that he has won the victory over all evil, even over death itself. He presents the evidence of his resurrection to his followers, promising us a resurrection like his resurrection. He sends his followers as messengers, bringing forgiveness and the guarantee of eternal life to all nations.

              Jesus ascended into heaven, but he did not abandon his followers. He is with us always, even to the end of the earth. He is with us in his Word, guiding us by his Law and reminding us daily of his Gospel promises. He is with us when two or three gather in his name, reminding us of his forgiveness and giving us power—through that forgiveness—to live as his people. He is with us in Holy Baptism, daily renewing the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life. He is with us in Holy Communion, feeding us with his body and blood, and giving us forgiveness and eternal life by the power of his sacrifice on the cross.

              In the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments, Jesus shares with us the good news of a God who cares. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he spread out his arms on the cross to embrace all the sinners of the world. Through the Church, Jesus continues to reach out to the world with the good news of forgiveness and eternal life. He shares his blessings with us this morning. He sends us again into the world to be his messengers, carrying with us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He is with us always, just as he said, working through us to change the world, and keeping us faithful to him as we walk the paths he planned for us.

             

Philosophy

Should Christians avoid philosophy? Is the practice of philosophy one of the dark arts, like sorcery? To answer this question, one might quote Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [or principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.” That is, in fact, the only verse in the Bible that uses the word “philosophy,” although Acts 17:18 does mention the philosophers addressed by Paul in Athens.

If philosophy is worldly and evil—part of the human world that is opposed to God’s Truth—then Christians should indeed beware. One cannot walk through mud without getting dirty, and one cannot dabble in worldly affairs without becoming tainted by the sins of the world. Yet many things in the world are good and God-pleasing when used rightly but dangerous and harmful when used wrongly. Water sustains life, but it also drowns. Fire keeps a person warm, provides light, and cooks food, but fire can also destroy property and cause great harm to the human body. Money can be used wisely to serve God and to help one’s neighbors, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Before rejecting all philosophy, a Christian must ask what is meant by philosophy and whether it is all the same. When Paul writes to the Colossians about human tradition and about elemental spirits or principles, is he hinting that some sorts of philosophy are dangerous but that a different philosophy might be beneficial? Is it possible to have a philosophy that is, as Paul says, “according to Christ”?

I maintain that Christians can be philosophers. Christians can read what philosophers have written, can evaluate those writings, and can benefit from those writings without being harmed. Christians can sort through the concepts and the methods of philosophy, approving what is used “according to Christ” while setting aside what comes from merely human tradition or from elemental principles of the world. For the God who created us gave us minds to think, minds to question, minds to explore and learn and grow. In his teaching, Jesus did not hand out answers to every question. Often he arranged that those who heard his teachings had to think about them, consider what he said, and put his words into perspective. God thinks, and people are made in his image. We are meant to think. Philosophy proposes questions and seeks answers. So long as the questions and answers do not separate the thinker from Christ, the Lord cannot disapprove of our philosophical efforts.

We ask many questions. “Why am I here? What should I be doing? What is this world around me? Can I trust my senses and what they tell me about the world, or is there more around me than I can see and hear and feel? How does it work that a series of sounds or marks on a page or screen can transmit thoughts from one mind to another? And what is it that makes some sights and sounds and scents and flavors more beautiful than others?”

We ask questions, and we search for answers. We search in our own minds and experiences. We search the opinions of other people we trust. We search the opinions of recognized experts, and then we think some more. The same apostle Paul who warned us about philosophy also encouraged us to think. He wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). That is how the Bible instructs Christians to think. And that, my friends, is philosophy. J.

A date for Christmas

The Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born. The fact that shepherds were watching their flocks at night may hint that Jesus was born in February, when lambs also are born. This would be fitting, since Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But the shepherds’ nighttime watch could have happened any time of year, as the shepherds worked to keep their flocks safe from thieves and predators.

Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25. Traditionally, that date is the first day of Christmas, a twelve-day season that continues until January 5. Often Christians complain that the world has stolen Christmas from the Church, turning a sacred holiday into a secular orgy of commercialism and worldly excess. Others say that the Church first stole Christmas from the world. In the northern hemisphere, celebrations of the winter solstice were common. Days had been getting shorter and nights longer all summer and autumn; after the solstice, days begin increasing in length. Winter weather continues for a few more weeks, but spring is coming. It’s a good time for a party, although in modern times any excuse will do.

Some Christians become defensive about the holiday and insist that the Church created this holiday apart from pagan or worldly suggestions. Complicated calculations are offered to demonstrate that the birthday of Jesus was known (or assumed) from the date of his death on the cross, a date known to be near the spring equinox because it happened at the time of the Passover. Supposedly, this calculation was done early in Church history and produced Christmas celebrations among even the first Christians. But I have read the writings of the Church Fathers, and I cannot find any discussion of the celebration of Christmas before the fourth century of the Christian (or Common) Era. Moreover, that discussion is based on a misunderstanding of a verse in the Bible, a misunderstanding that the earliest Christians probably would not have made.

A priest named Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple when he saw an angel. This angel promised Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, one who would be an important messenger in God’s plan. (That son is known as John the Baptist.) The birth of Elizabeth’s son was a miracle, because she and Zechariah were beyond the age when people generally become parents. This miracle repeats that of Isaac, who was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety.

Six months later the same angel visited a young woman, probably about fifteen years old, in Nazareth. The angel again announced a miraculous birth. This time the miracle would be conception of a son without the participation of a human father, because Mary was a virgin betrothed (promised or engaged) to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel specifically told Mary that Elizabeth, her relative, was six months into her pregnancy. Mary visited Elizabeth, then returned to Nazareth. John was born to Elizabeth, and six months later Jesus was born to Mary.

Because Zechariah was a priest performing priestly duties in the Temple, some Christians assumed that Zechariah was offering the annual sacrifice for the Day of Atonement in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. Luke does not mention the sacrifice of atonement; he says only that Zechariah was burning incense. Nor does Luke call Zechariah a high priest; he notes that Zechariah was taking his turn to burn incense in the Temple, along with other priests. But, misreading Luke’s account, those Christians deduced that the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and John’s coming birth must have been in September, at the time of the Day of Atonement. Therefore, the announcement to Mary six months later would have been in March, John would have been born in June, and Jesus would have been born in December. These two announcements and two births fall near the two equinoxes and two solstices, allowing for celebrations near these events among Christians (although the announcement to Mary, dated to March 25, is easily overshadowed by the greater celebration of Easter the same time of year).

Does it matter when Jesus was born? The earliest Christians didn’t seem to consider the date important. Christians celebrate, not just a birthday, but the miracle of the Incarnation, the fact that God became human to reconcile humans to God. That miracle merits celebration at any time, but why not observe it after the winter solstice, when the days are becoming measurably longer? As Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light the darkness can neither comprehend nor extinguish, so Christians celebrate their Savior at the same time that other people celebrate for other reasons. J.