Two plans: creation and salvation

              A story is told about a father and his son who took a donkey to town to sell it at the market. When they left their home, the father and his son walked alongside the donkey, one on the right and the other on the left. But the father overheard some people along the road commenting, “What a waste of a good animal, to carry nothing while both of them walk.” So the father told his son to ride the donkey. Soon he heard another group of people saying, “What a thoughtless boy, to ride the donkey while his father walks.” So the father had his son get off the donkey and instead he rode. But then he heard other people saying, “What a mean father, to make his son walk while he rides the donkey.” So the father told his son to get in front of him on the donkey so both of them would ride. But then the father heard some people say, “That poor donkey! How cruel of them to make it carry all that weight.” The father finally decided that he and his son would carry the donkey to town. Finally, they heard no more comments, because people were laughing too hard to say anything. Finally, the donkey lost patience, struggled, and ran off across the fields, and the father had no donkey to sell in town. The moral of the story is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so you might as well not try.

              Even the Almighty God cannot make everyone happy. The message of his Bible contains two simple plans that relate to us, his people. Lutherans call these plans Law and Gospel. They have many other names. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we might call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation. Even with two simple plans, God often finds his people confusing them, mixing them, and misunderstanding how those two plans relate to our lives. Even among Christians who trust the Bible and believe that it is true, a trustworthy message from God, we still find many differences relating to these two plans and what they mean for our lives as God’s people.

              Why were you born? Why are you here on this earth? What is the purpose of your life? Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand. God is love, and we were made in his image. We are created to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s Ten Commandments tell us how to love. If ten commandments are not enough for you, more than six hundred more commandments can be found in just the first five books of the Bible. All of these commandments are about love. They tell us how to love God. They tell us how to love our neighbors. They tell us how to be the people God had in mind when he created us in the beginning.

              God’s perfect world has become polluted by sin and evil. We are frequently tempted to sin, and every day we surrender to temptation. We rebel against God. We fail to love. We fall short of God’s plan for our lives. When we sin, God’s plan of creation cannot rescue us from evil. We are like the victim of robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan. God’s good commandments, like the priest and the Levite, walk past us without stopping to help. Only a second plan can save us. This second plan is God’s plan of salvation. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who stops to rescue us, to heal us, to restore us. Whoever believes in him will not perish. Instead, through the plan of salvation, we receive eternal life. We are saved by grace, through faith, not by works. We are snatched out of the clutches of evil. Our sins are forgiven, and the sins committed against us are likewise cancelled. We belong to God, and no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

              These two plans of God are vitally important. They are also fairly simple. God created us to do good works, to love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives. God loves us and rescues us by grace through faith when we sin and when we are hurt by evil in this world. When we want to know why we are here, we consult the plan of creation, the commandments of God, the Law. When we want to know how to be forgiven, how to have life, how to be free from evil, we consult the plan of salvation, the grace of God, the Gospel. Both plans are God’s plans. Both plans are important. Both plans give meaning to our lives. But even Christians who know both plans sometimes go off course when we start confusing these plans and mixing these plans and muddling the messages God has given us about these plans.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because we try our best to do what is good. Our best efforts are not good enough for God. God has zero tolerance for sin and evil. He hates sin because it hurts the people God loves. We cannot contribute anything to God’s plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work to rescue us. When we think that we are helping Jesus to save us, we are only getting in his way. We insult God by suggesting that he saved us because of good things we were doing. Even seeking God, even giving our hearts to God, even inviting Jesus to be our Savior, even these are not good works that contribute to our salvation. Jesus is the Shepherd who seeks us and finds us; we do not find him. Jesus claims our hearts, even though our hearts are stained and corrupted by sin and selfishness, hardly worthy of being gifts to him. Our decision to be God’s people means nothing: God’s decision to rescue us is the only decision that matters in God’s plan of salvation.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because of the good things we will do for him once we are saved. God’s grace restores the image of God that we had because of creation, the image of God that was damaged and lost through sin and rebellion. We are not yet perfect and sinless: we sin every day and need God’s forgiveness every day. God made us so we would do good works; God does not save us so we do good works. God saves us because he loves us. God gives his Son out of love. God rescues us by grace through faith, not because of works. Being forgiven, being rescued, we begin to be transformed into the image of Christ. His love enters our lives so we love God more and we love our neighbors more. But the good things we do are caused by the plan of salvation; they are not the reason for the plan of salvation. We cannot repay God for saving us, any more than we can purchase his salvation in the first place. Being saved by grace through faith is the result of God’s love, not a result of our love.

              Therefore, we cannot measure our salvation by the good things we do for God. We cannot be sure that we are going to heaven because of the good things we do for God. Other people see the good things we do out of love and recognize us as saints. Seeing our good works, they praise our Father in heaven. Our good works testify to others about God’s goodness, but they do not testify to our hearts. For one thing, we know our sins, our darkness hidden in our hearts from the rest of the world. We know how far we still remain from the perfect love God planned for us. We know our mixed motives for doing good, the times that we do the right things for the wrong reasons. For another, because we are Christians, our eyes and our hearts and our minds are to be focused on Jesus, not on ourselves. If we want to measure salvation, we look at the Savior. If we want to be sure that we belong to God and his kingdom, we reassure ourselves by God’s promises and not by our good works.

              We do not live up to the plan of creation. God’s Law guides our lives, but it does not lead us into heaven. When we have sinned, when we are victims of evil, the Law cannot help us. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy. We confess our sins and ask him to forgive us. We call out to God for help, trusting his promises. We turn to the plan of salvation, setting aside the plan of creation so long as we need to be rescued from evil and restored to the people that belong to God.

              Jesus helps us. God gave his only Son. Jesus became human, became one of us, so he could accomplish the plan of creation in our place. He obeyed all the commandments of his Father, and he gives us the credit for his goodness. He trades places with us, letting us be blessed as he deserves while taking the blame for our sins. He clothes us in his righteousness, putting instead on his shoulders all of our guilt. On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. He accepts the wrath of his Father at sin and evil so he can give us instead the grace of his Father, bringing us his victory over sin and evil and death.

              Jesus fights the war against sin and evil and death, and Jesus wins the victory. He is the light shining in darkness, the light that the darkness can never overcome. On his own, Jesus defeated all the forces of darkness. He defeated all the sins ever committed, including my sins and your sins. He defeated the devil and all the evil forces that work against his plans. He defeated death—the wages of sin, the result of rebellion against God, the end of all that fails to match God’s plan of creation. Jesus proves that love is stronger than hate, stronger than pride, stronger than selfishness. Jesus loves, and so he sacrifices himself to rescue the people he loves. To the forces of evil, love is weakness. To Jesus, love is strength and glory. Love prevails; love triumphs; love never fails. We belong to him because of his love, which is bigger than all our failures and shortcomings.

              Therefore, Jesus gives us the gift of faith. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith cannot save us unless it is faith in Christ and him crucified. If we put faith in ourselves or in our good works, that faith cannot save us. Only God’s grace saves us, but that grace saves us through the faith God has given us. Faith is nothing we do for God—not a good work, not a gift, not even a decision. Faith is the relationship God has established with us. Faith is our confidence that the promises of God are true, and that confidence could not exist if God had not given us his promises.

              Therefore, God delivers those promises to us in ways that we call the Means of Grace. He speaks to us in the Church, promising us forgiveness. He speaks to us in the Bible, telling us his plans and bringing us his promises. He speaks to us in Holy Baptism, washing away our sins and adopting us as his children. He speaks to us in Holy Communion, bringing the body and blood of our Savior from the cross to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory over all evil.

              None of these Means of Grace are good works that we do for God. We do not come to Church to earn forgiveness; we come to receive it as a gift. We do not read the Bible to earn forgiveness; we read it to gain faith in God and to strengthen that faith. We are not baptized to earn a place in God’s family; we are adopted by the price Jesus paid for us on the cross. We do not eat and drink at God’s table to earn his blessings; we receive those blessings by God’s grace as Jesus serves us his body with the bread and gives us his blood with the wine.

              The plan of creation is restored in our lives by the power of the plan of salvation, the grace of God. Being adopted as his children, we are transformed into the image of Christ, learning again how to love God and how to love our neighbors. We walk in the light, not in the darkness. We look to Jesus, putting our faith in him, and being saved by him we also are changed by him so we can be the faithful people of God.

              This salvation rests on God’s love. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God’s grace rescues us and claims us forever for God’s kingdom and his family. We were in sin and darkness and death, but God has made us alive through Jesus. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and glory and praise and honor, now and forever.                   Amen.

A sermon on the Ten Commandments

              God created us. God has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ redeemed us. We do not belong to ourselves; we were bought with a price. Again, Jesus has the right to tell us how to live. The Holy Spirit guides us to be the children of God, telling us what to do and what not to do. But does God obey his own rules? Does God do everything he tells us to do? And is God careful not to do any of the things he tells us not to do?

              God commands, “You shall not covet.” We are not to want the things that belong to other people. But God says of himself, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Can God be jealous when coveting is wrong? Or are coveting and jealousy two different things?

              In modern English, we often use the word “jealousy” to mean the same thing as “envy” or “coveting.” But jealousy has a second meaning which is more appropriate to describe God. A jealous person wants to keep what belongs to him or to her. God commands us not to commit adultery—if a woman appears guilty of breaking this commandment, her husband might be jealous. God commands us not to steal. A jealous person might be angry when someone steals things from him or from her. This kind of jealousy is different from envy and from coveting. Wanting to keep what belongs to you is not a sin. Since God made us and God redeemed us, we belong to him. God says, “I am the Lord your God.” All his commandments tell us how to remain in a right relationship with God, how to remain God’s people so God does not have to be jealous about losing us.

              Therefore, God gives us ten commandments to tell us how his people act. We all agree that there are ten commandments, even though we do not all number them the same way. Lutherans combine the commandments about having no other gods and about not making and worshiping idols. Other people divide those two commandments and combine the commandments against coveting. For this reason, if you mention the sixth commandment to a group of Christians, some will think you are talking about adultery, but others will think you are talking about murder. Some people even make both combinations. They say that the first commandment, the most basic commandment, is the proclamation, “I am the Lord your God.” Those words tell us the reason we try to obey all the other commandments. As Luther pointed out, our obedience to all the commandments of God reflects back to our relationship with God. We obey his commandments because we fear God and because we love God.

              We know, of course, that we should love God. God is love. He made us in his image. We are meant to love—we are meant to love God with our whole hearts, and we are meant to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our love was perfect, we would need no other commandments. Because our love is imperfect, God needs to tell us how to love. At Mount Sinai, he delivered these commandments along with fire and smoke, lightning and thunder, earthquakes, and the blaring of trumpets. We hear these commands and sing about them in more subdued circumstances, but God means these commandments for us as seriously as he meant them for his chosen people centuries ago.

              We should have no other gods. Nothing should matter to us more than God. Not only should we love God more than anything else; we also should fear God more than anything else. Our fear of God is not meant to make us run away and hide from God. We love God and trust God. But, remembering that God is always with us—that he sees everything we do and hears everything we say and even knows our thoughts—we guide our lives by his commandments. Even when we fear other powers that want us to break God’s Law, our love for God and our fear of God guides us to do what is right instead of wandering into sin and shame and guilt.

              Therefore, we have no other gods. We do not create idols and images to worship. God is not opposed to religious artwork. The same God who spoke the Ten Commandments also designed the Ark of the Covenant, topped with two angels. But our artwork does not replace God. We cannot control God by capturing him in a piece of art. We keep God’s name holy and we give God his holy time, but we never let his name or his time or anything else that belongs to God take the place of God himself.

              Holy things belong to God. His name is holy. His day is holy. This church is a holy place, because we have dedicated it to God. We are holy people, because God has chosen us for himself. God hates it when we misuse holy things. He takes it as a personal insult when we take what is holy and try to use it for our own purposes. Our Gospel reading for this morning shows how Jesus reacts when holy things are misused. Because we love God, we will respect everything that belongs to him, everything that has become holy because it is the property of God.

              We respect authority in this world because of God. Whether we agree or disagree with our rulers, we treat their authority is holy, as something that comes from God. This holiness begins in the family, where we honor father and mother as pictures of God the Father. This holiness continues in the school, the workplace, the community, and the nation. Parents and teachers and managers and government officials are sinful human beings like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they can be wrong. Yet we respect their office of authority, because all authority comes from God. We honor and serve our parents and others in authority to show our honor and respect for God.

              We also love our neighbors. We respect their lives, so we do nothing that harms their lives. Even selfish anger toward another person is sinful. Instead, we help them to care for their lives and preserve their lives. We respect their marriages. Those of us who are married love our husband or wife and remain faithful; and all of us help our neighbors to do the same by respecting marriage and the privileges of marriage. We respect our neighbors’ property. We take care of what God has given us, and we help our neighbors take care of what God has given them. We respect our neighbors’ reputations. We speak the truth in love, and we correct others when they say things we know are not true.

              God has given good things to our neighbors. He has also given us good things. Because we love and fear God, and because we love our neighbors, we remain content with those good things God has given us. We are happy for our neighbors when they have good things. We do not covet our neighbors’ house, or anything our neighbor has that can be bought with money. We do not covet our neighbors’ husband or wife, our neighbors’ workers, or even our neighbors’ animals. If they belong to our neighbor through love and loyalty, we respect that relationship. Like God, we can be jealous, wanting to keep and protect what is ours. But we never covet; we never resent our neighbors for having good things we do not have. Our contentment comes from loving and trusting God, who takes care of us and of our neighbors in all the things we need.

              We know, of course, that the Israelites who heard these commandments from God did not obey them. Forty days after they heard these commandments, they had already built a golden calf and started to worship it. Through the history of Israel, they broke these commandments repeatedly. God had to discipline his chosen people, sending Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgment upon his people. But, because they broke the covenant God made with them, God also promised a new covenant that would be based on grace, not on obedience.

              We know that we have sinned. We have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We sin. If we still lived under the old covenant, we would also be subject to judgment. We have joined the rebellion against God; we have cooperated with God’s enemies by doing what we want instead of doing what God wants.

              God hates sin. He does not hate sin because he is selfish and wants all the attention on himself. God hates sin because it spreads. It pollutes the good world he made, and it hurts the people who live in that world. When we sin, the evil we commit does not lie just between us and God. It hurts other people. Sin lingers in the world. The third and fourth generation still carry the burden of sins committed by their ancestors. Every act of disobedience adds to the pollution of sin in this world. God is jealous; we does not want us to rebel, and he does not want us to hurt the other people that God loves. Therefore, God still threatens judgment on all those who sin, on all those who break even the smallest of his commandments.

              But we live under the new covenant. The thunder and fire of Mount Sinai has been taken away because of a different mountain, a mountain found in Jerusalem. There the Son of God endured all the judgment that the old covenant threatens. There he received the penalty for our sins so we could receive instead the blessings and steadfast love of God. The cross is the power of God to rescue our lives, to transfer us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The cross is the power of God to restore the fundamental truth of the old covenant, in which God says, “I am the Lord your God.” Because we belong to him, we are no longer victims of evil and shame and guilt. We are no longer threatened with death and eternal punishment. Jesus has traded places with us, taking upon his shoulders the wrath of his Father so we could receive instead the grace of his Father.

              In both the old covenant and the new covenant, God tells us the consequences of being his people. After saying, “I am the Lord your God,” he says, “you shall have no other gods… you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal….” These words of God do not say, “Try your best to have no other gods; try your best not to murder or commit adultery or steal.” These words of God do not say, “you shouldn’t do these things” or “you’d better not do these things.” They are firm statements, statements of fact. Because he is the Lord our God, we will not have other gods. We will not murder or commit adultery or steal. We will not covet. God made us. God redeemed us. We belong to him. We are holy people, and holy people do not do such things.

              Under the old covenant, God rejected and destroyed sinners. Under the new covenant, God does not see our sins, because Jesus paid in full on the cross for all our sins. God looks at us, and he sees the righteousness of his Son. From what he sees, God can say that we have no other gods, that we do not murder or commit adultery or steal or even covet. He accepts us because Jesus has traded places with us, covering us with his righteousness and paying the full price of all our sins.

              This transfer happens at the cross, but it is made ours personally through the means of grace. The Bible delivers to us the news of the new covenant and gives us faith in those promises. The Church delivers forgiveness to us so God sees us as his children and not as rebellious sinners. Holy Baptism washes away our sins and covers us with Christ’s righteousness. Holy Communion brings us the body and blood of Jesus to guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life.

              But God is not merely blind to our sins because of the cross. His forgiveness changes us. We are being transformed into the image of Christ because of the power of the cross. We are not perfect and sinless yet. The transformation has not been completed. But God already sees us as we will be in the new creation, totally transformed so that no sin remains. We will be like Jesus. We will live with him in perfect joy and peace forever.

              Sin and evil have power. God’s grace has more power. Sin and evil corrupt what is good. God’s grace restores what is good. Sin and evil bring damage to the third and fourth generation of God’s enemies. The power of the cross brings grace and peace to thousands of generations of those who love God and cling to his Word. From the creation of Adam until today, not even one thousand generations of people have lived in this world. The power of the cross, the power of God’s grace and mercy and love, overwhelms all of history, because he remains what he always has been. He is the Lord our God.

              Jesus, the only Son of God, has brought us this grace of God. He has given us life in the new covenant. He keeps us safe in that new covenant by the power of the cross. Therefore, we are able to live as his people, content in his peace today and forever. To Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer be honor and praise, now and always. Amen.

(sermon delivered March 7, 2021; shared with permission. J.)

Leviticus

People trying to read the Bible cover-to-cover in one year have probably long since moved beyond Leviticus. (Or they gave up before they finished Leviticus—the string of chapters from mid-Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy is difficult to navigate, second only to the series of chapters from the beginning of Isaiah to the end of Ezekiel.) My personal plan for reading the Bible alternates between different books, helping to add understanding while reducing repetition. So in January I read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Solomon. Finishing Leviticus yesterday, I moved on today to Jeremiah, with Lamentations and Philemon to follow. Next month I will start with Numbers, then will read Galatians through Titus.

Either way, completing Leviticus is an accomplishment. The details of animal sacrifices and of holy living under the old covenant scarcely seem relevant to today’s Christians. Remembering, though, that the entire Bible is about Jesus, important lessons can be gathered, even from the book of Leviticus. Pictures of Jesus are present, although some of them are like photographic negatives; they require a reversal of perspective to illuminate the work of Jesus Christ as Savior. A good commentary helps readers to understand difficult books like Leviticus, and I have access to a very good commentary: Leviticus by John W. Kleinig (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 2003). But the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews also provides much helpful context to understand the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

Leviticus begins with details of various animal sacrifices. Hebrews emphasizes the fact that all Old Testament animal sacrifices were pictures of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Old Testament sacrifices brought forgiveness of sin, not simply by being done, but by being done with faith in God’s promises. Therefore, in Genesis 4 Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God but Cain’s was not. Likewise, in some writings of the prophets and some Psalms, God says that he hates the sacrifices of his people and will not accept them. (I particularly like Psalm 50:9, which in the Revised Standard Version is translated, “I will accept no bull from your house.”) God hates it when people go through the motions of worship without faith, without focus on the work of Jesus. He loves and blesses the worship of people who come to him through faith in Christ. Like Paul, every Christian must “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Because of his righteous life and his atoning sacrifice, we are acceptable to God. Without them, we are lost.

Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests in Leviticus, chapters 8 and 9. They became pictures of Christ, the great High Priest. But when two of Aaron’s sons offered to the Lord fire that was unauthorized (“strange” or “foreign”), their gift was rejected and they were killed. Under the old covenant, nothing could be substituted for the Word of God. Even under the new covenant, nothing can replace Jesus Christ as Savior. Coming to the Father through him, we are blessed; attempting to come to the Father by any other means leads to death rather than to life.

The following chapters of Leviticus deal with impurity and uncleanness. Examples include leprosy, mildew, and non-kosher animals. In each case, that which is not holy contaminates that which is holy; the effort to remove contamination and restore holiness is extensive. In these examples we see the high cost of sin; we learn why God must reject anything that is even lightly touched by evil. Modern examples of medical sanitation, including our efforts to escape COVID contamination, are relevant here. But when Jesus came with the new covenant, he reversed the process of contamination. He removed leprosy and other contamination with a touch or a word. Contact with Jesus made people pure and holy, acceptable to God. Under the new covenant, no food is contaminated or unclean spiritually; all food is kosher, because Christ has redeemed the world from sin and evil.

In the old covenant, even priests and offerings could be contaminated by uncleanness and evil. In the new covenant, Christ’s grace and his victory over evil overwhelm all contaminations. Yet Christians are not free to do whatever our sinful hearts desire; we are still expected to shun evil and to imitate Christ. In Acts 15, the first generation tried to find a balance between obedience and freedom—they forbade some foods, including the blood of animals, as well as sexual impurity. Paul later wrote that all foods are clean, but he continued the prohibition of sexual immorality. Food cannot come between us and God. But, because God is love, our love should be pure; marriage should be a picture of God’s perfect love for us. Christ is the end of the Law, having fulfilled the Law for all people. Christ’s people live in freedom and are not burdened by the Law. But, imitating Christ, his people continue to love God and to love each other, which restricts our freedom to do all things. We are transformed by the Gospel, living as Jesus would live, walking in the light and not in the darkness.

In Leviticus 23-25, rules are given about the holidays of God’s people—the weekly holiday of the Sabbath, and annual holidays such as Passover and the Day of Atonement. All these old covenant holidays were pictures of Christ which were fulfilled by Christ. He is the Passover Lamb; he is the High Priest who provides atonement for all people. His rest on the Sabbath—his body in the tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father—fulfilled the Sabbath. Christians are free from these laws. Many have moved the Sabbath commemoration from Saturday to Sunday; some continue to gather on Saturday, and others find another time during the week most convenient. We are free to gather when we choose. We now have Christmas and Easter to celebrate, but we are free in these matters also. Paul wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). We learn the laws of old covenant holidays to see pictures of Jesus, our Savior. We establish new covenant holidays as pictures of Jesus, our Savior. These are no longer matters of Law; they belong to the Gospel, to grace and freedom.

The end of Leviticus establishes the old covenant, which is described in more detail in Deuteronomy. Under the old covenant, God blesses those who obey his commands and punishes those who disobey his commands. This also has been changed by Christ. We read the histories in the Old Testament, seeing how God treated his chosen people according to this old covenant. In both Testaments, we find the promises of the new covenant. God forgives the sins of his people. He transfers their guilt to his Son, who pays the debt for sin in full on the cross. His perfect righteousness is transferred to all who trust in him, adopting us into his Family and making us acceptable in his Father’s sight. We read the words of the old covenant to see what is fair and just; we read the words of the new covenant to discover God’s mercy, grace, and love. The warnings of the old covenant bring us to the cross of Christ in repentance; the promises of the new covenant flow through the cross to remove our sins, to give us life, and to share with us Christ’s healing and cleansing power, his victory over all evil.

The value of Leviticus is to give us a different perspective of Christ. Seeing the old covenant at work, we value the precious new covenant all the more. We rejoice that Christ has given himself for our salvation, acting as our great High Priest. We rejoice that Christ has removed all evil and contamination from our lives, making us pure and holy, fit to live forever in his kingdom. We rejoice that the new covenant claims us for God’s family so we belong to him and with him forever. J.

Blessed are the poor…

  Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

What does this mean? Are poor Christians the only good Christians? Are wealthy people banned from the kingdom of heaven? Is money a sin and wealth a crime? Should all Christians give away their possessions and live in poverty until the Day Christ appears in glory?

Some Christians have taken the words of Jesus in that way. Others have read the rest of the Bible and have found more context for these sayings of Jesus. God has blessed the wealthy—he did not reject Abraham or David or Solomon or Lydia because they had worldly wealth. He allowed Job’s wealth to be stripped away from Job, but at the end of the test he gave Job twice as much wealth as he had at the beginning. If Jesus wanted all Christians mired in poverty, he could not expect us to give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, or shelter to the homeless. If Jesus wanted all Christians to be mired in poverty, he would not expect his people to set aside money to help the poor, to do the work of the Church, and to support workers who spend their careers working for the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

At times, Jesus seems sympathetic toward capitalism. He tells parables about investing money, expecting a profit (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). In fact, Jesus told more stories about money and investment and business than he told about planting seeds, tending crops, or taking care of sheep. Jesus knew that his followers would be involved in the world. He always intended to bless some of them with worldly wealth, making it possible for them to love their neighbors and to provide for the needs of the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is not with how much money people have; the problem is with how much money people want. A poor person can still be guilty of idolatry, dreaming about the wealth and riches he or she desires. The Ten Commandments close with warnings against coveting—wanting the property of another person. God blesses some people in poverty and some people in wealth. Being poor in spirit is not a matter of how much you own; being poor in spirit is a matter of how much your possessions own you.

The Bible endorses no economic system. Through history, most Christians have accepted whatever economic system surrounds them, doing their best to love God and serve their neighbors with any blessings God provides. When given a choice, though, the Christian does not only ask, “What is best for me?” The Christian asks, “What is best for my neighbor? Which system offers the greatest promise of helping the poor and oppressed, of making life better for all people?” In the rare instances where Christians may choose, their choice should reflect love for neighbors rather than greed and self-centered thinking.

Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When those who heard it asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus did not answer, “the poor, and those who give away all their possessions to become poor.” Instead, he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Salvation comes only from the work of Jesus Christ. It is not earned by being poor or by becoming poor. Jesus endorses neither capitalism nor socialism; Jesus condemns neither capitalism nor socialism. He rescues sinners whether they are rich or poor or middle class; he rescues sinners whether they live in a capitalist country, a socialist country, or any other kind of country. The work of Jesus is for all people; Christianity transcends politics and economics. J.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first

On several occasions, in different contexts, Jesus swapped the first with the last. He said it both ways: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and also, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In some contexts—such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which twelve-hour workers were paid the same amount as one-hour workers—Jesus seems to be saying that all are equal, that no one is first and no one is last. That approach appeals to contemporary culture, where much emphasis is placed on the equality of all people. But a more careful study of the words of Jesus in their context, and in the teaching of his Church, shows more significance to his saying than merely, “No one is first and no one is last because everyone is the same.”

Most of us want to be first. Few of us achieve the humility of Paul, who called himself “chief of sinners” and “least of the apostles.” But none of us deserves to be first. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have failed to meet our Maker’s specifications. We all need to be rescued from our sins and from evil, redeemed from the cost of our misdeeds and failures, and reconciled again to God who made us. We cannot rescue or redeem or reconcile ourselves. We need Jesus to do these things for us.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and the entire universe belongs to him. He became human, like us in every way except that he never sinned. Jesus is first in a way that none of us can be first—first in divine power and glory, and first in human purity and perfection. When rewards are distributed for a righteous life, not only is Jesus first in line—he is the only one who deserves a place in line.

But Jesus, who is first, becomes last for all of us. By making himself last, Jesus makes each of us first. He puts us in the front of the line by surrendering his position to us. Being last, Jesus takes upon himself our guilt and our punishment. He goes to the cross for us so we can be rescued and redeemed. He takes for himself death, the wages of sin, so that each of us can receive the free gift of everlasting life.

God is not fair. He makes the first last, and he makes the last first. But God’s injustice is not opposed to us. God’s injustice is in our favor. Jesus is generous and does not complain that our reconciliation with God is unfair to him. Jesus gladly cheats the system, taking away our sins and giving each of us the blessings earned by his perfect righteousness.

The first becomes last to make all of us who were last into the first. No longer enemies of God, we have become the adopted children of God. In that sense we all are equal. But the first and the last trading places leads to more than equality—it leads to rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus has done this for us, because of his holy love for us. J.

When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.

Incomprehensible and unending love

Extracted from “The Child of Light and the Black Dog”: paragraphs that I wrote this morning–

Physical, mental, and emotional addictions often are bad responses to depression. Instead of seeking productive help, people allow depression to push them in patterns that are harmful, unhealthy, and only deepen the dark spiral into further depression rather than offering genuine relief from depression. Do bad spiritual responses to depression also exist? They do indeed, and they can be as dangerous and as harmful as physical and emotional bad responses to depression.

God’s love and forgiveness cannot be measured. There is no limit, no end, to the love of God and to his forgiveness. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12). Astronomers studying the heavens have detected galaxies millions of light years away from us. God’s love is even bigger than that distance. Travelers can reach the north pole and the south pole, but those who travel east or west are never finished—no matter how long and far they travel, there will still be more east or west in front of them. So also, God has removed all our sins an infinite distance from our lives.

Jesus cannot love us too much. We cannot love Jesus too much. Jesus is pure and holy, and his perfect love can never be twisted or distorted. We are sinners, and sometimes our love for him is twisted and distorted. The Sadducees and Pharisees thought that they loved God, but their love for God was so twisted that they did not recognize the Son of God when they saw him with their own eyes and heard his voice with their own ears. They rejected Jesus and tried to destroy him. God’s people today can also lapse into twisted religion or distorted spirituality. We can be distracted from Jesus by the things we do in his name. Religion and spirituality can turn into idols, false gods that separate us from God and his love rather than bringing us closer to the God who loves us and who seeks our love and our faith.

We cannot love Jesus too much. But we can create an idol, call it Jesus, and love that idol too much. The Sadducees were devoted to the worship of God, the animal sacrifices commanded by the Law of Moses. They made compromises with the Romans and with themselves to ensure that the sacrifices would continue. Jesus of Nazareth seemed to threaten their Temple and their worship. Not only did he clear moneychangers and salesmen out of the Temple; he promised to be greater than the Temple. When our worship lives are bigger than Jesus to us, our religion and spirituality have become twisted. When we measure our connection to Jesus by the way our prayers and spiritual songs make us feel about Jesus, we have lost contact with the real Jesus. Our religion has become an idol, taking his place.

Likewise, the Pharisees were committed to learning God’s commands, obeying his rules, and teaching others to do the same. Yet when Jesus showed them how they were wrong about the Sabbath commandment and other interpretations they had added to God’s Law, they rejected Jesus and did not let him correct them. When our religious and spiritual lives center on the things we do for God, we are no longer honoring and worshiping Jesus. We honor and worship ourselves when we focus all our attention on the things we do for him. Our good works have become an idol, taking the place of Jesus in our lives.

Not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” belongs to his kingdom. To some of those idol-worshipers Jesus will respond, “I never knew you.” When those who call themselves Christians distort his religion into idolatry, worshiping their contributions and ignoring what he has done, they harm themselves and also hurt their neighbors. Many people turn away from Christianity and reject the Church because they see the idolatry and hypocrisy in the Church but cannot see Christ’s love. When a sermon becomes incomprehensible and seems unending, that sermon is no longer a picture of God’s love. When our spiritual lives center around what we do for Jesus, we are no longer serving him. We have removed him, and we are serving ourselves.

Depression tempts us into distorted spirituality. We want our broken lives to be fixed. We want to contribute to the solution to our problems. Throwing ourselves entirely on God’s mercy, allowing him to do all the work needed for our rescue, is not natural for sinful and depressed human beings. Total self-denial, total reliance on the Lord, seems like surrender to the forces of darkness. We want to make ourselves children of light. We cannot make that happen; only God can pull us from the darkness and change us into children of light. J.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

Holy Week and Easter in the time of pandemic

Last April, Holy Week and Easter were marred by the fire in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and by terrorist attacks upon churches in Sri Lanka. This month, Holy Week and Easter seem overshadowed by the COVIN-19 pandemic. Good stewardship of our own health, and love for our neighbors prompting concern for their health, keeps most Christians from gathering for services during these very special days. Neither violence nor disease can mar or overshadow the meaning of these days. Christ has redeemed us from sin and death. Christ has rescued us from all evil. Christ has risen from the dead; he lives and reigns to all eternity.

Sin resembles a communicable disease. It spreads throughout the world, and none of us are immune from its infection. Sin separates us from one another. Sin builds barriers that keep us from loving each other as we should love. Sin isolates us. Sin even separates us from the God who created us. The wages of sin is death, and this death comes in a variety of forms, each of which is a separation. Separation from God is spiritual death. The soul’s separation from the body is physical death. Combined, they result in eternal death. Every sinful separation is a kind of death. Sin can separate members of families. Sin can sever friendships. Because of sin, each of us is divided internally; none of us is in touch with the holy person God meant us to be.

Jesus, the Son of God, came into this wilderness of sin and death. Like a shepherd, Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost. In the wilderness he battled the devil, overcoming Satan’s temptations. In all his days, Jesus led a sinless life, obeying all his Father’s commands, fulfilling perfect righteousness. Jesus then faced the ugliness of sin and death in their fullness. He was betrayed, denied, accused, convicted, mocked, tortured, and killed. He deserved none of these things. Because evil is unfair, good people suffer in this world. Because evil is unfair, the one perfect Person suffered and died. Because evil is unfair, God himself became unfair, granting us the rewards earned by his Son’s righteousness and placing the burden of our guilt upon Him.

Good stewardship of our health and love for our neighbors will keep us in our homes this Good Friday and this Easter. We still live in a sin-polluted world, a world infected by evil and the separations evil causes. But our isolation is not permanent. Many Christians enjoy the benefit of Internet services, which allow us to join our voices in worship even though we are physically apart. All Christians have access to the Word of God, which proclaims his love and mercy and assures us of our place in his kingdom. All of us are guaranteed the love of God, which we will know in its fullness in the new creation, but which we enjoy already today. We know that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. J.

Day of Prayer

Our governor has declared today, March 29, to be a special day of prayer for our state and for our nation, particularly in regard to the current virus pandemic. In response, I offer three timely prayers as written in The Lutheran Hymnal (published in 1941). I considered modernizing the pronouns and verbs, but chose to leave them as written.

Prayer for the sick: “Almighty, everlasting God, the eternal Salvation of them that believe, hear our prayers in behalf of Thy servants who are sick, for whom we implore the aid of Thy mercy, that, being restored to health, they may render thanks to Thee in Thy Church; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

A second prayer for the sick: “O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve Thy servants for whom we offer our supplications; look upon them with the eyes of Thy mercy; give them comfort and sure confidence in Thee, defend them from the danger of the enemy, and keep them in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

This third prayer might spark some thought and conversation: In time of great sickness: “Almighty and most merciful God, our heavenly Father, we, Thine erring children, humbly confess unto Thee that we have justly deserved the chastening which for our sins Thou hast sent upon us; but we entreat Thee, of Thy boundless goodness to grant us true repentance, graciously to forgive our sins, to remove from us, or to lighten, our merited punishment, and so to strengthen us by Thy grace that as obedient children we may be subject to Thy will and bear our afflictions in patience; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

I posted these on Facebook an hour ago. It will be interesting to gauge the reactions. J.