On preaching

Things I have learned about preaching:

  • Sermons should be Christ-centered. It is not good enough to quote the teachings of Christ: he should be identified as Immanuel (God with us), and his work of salvation should be portrayed clearly. Several pictures show Christ as Savior: He defeats our enemies, He forgives our sins, He pays our debts, He finds us in the wilderness and carries us home, He claims us for His kingdom, He fixes what we have broken. Every picture is not used in each sermon, but a good preacher also will not stick to the same picture every time. As one of the seminary professors said, “If this was the first Christian sermon some visitors heard, would they know enough to be saved? If this was the last sermon some member of the congregation heard before meeting the Lord face to face, would he or she have been told enough to be saved?”
  • Sermons should be Biblical. Every sermon should focus on one passage of Scripture, interpreting it correctly and applying it effectively to the lives of the hearers. The traditional practice, followed by Lutherans and many other Christian groups, follows a lectionary, a series of readings selected long ago for each Sunday and holiday on the calendar. This tradition provides variety for the preacher but also gathers Bible readings into groups that reflect the season—Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc. It helps keep the preacher of falling into a rut, preaching the same message every week. At the same time, sticking to Biblical texts helps the preacher to preach God’s Word and not the preacher’s opinions.
  • Sermons should be relevant. A hunter does not fire randomly into the forest; a hunter aims and shoots. So preachers, knowing the lives and needs of the people in the congregation, aims to reach them where they need to be reached. This is not as simple as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” But it does mean studying the Scripture, considering the members of the congregation, and reflecting upon the message God intends them to hear.
  • Sermons should contain the full council of God. This includes the Law, or commandments of God, as well as the Gospel, or promises of God. The Law tells people why God made us, why we are here, what God intends for us to do. It also diagnoses our problems, identifies our sins, and tells us that we need a Savior. The Gospel brings us to Jesus our Savior. It tells us what he has done for us, how we are saved from our sins and from all evil, how we inherit a place in God’s kingdom. Sermons of Law without Gospel offer no hope; they reduce the hearers to despair, showing that we cannot enter the Kingdom of God by our best efforts. Sermons of Gospel without Law offer no depth; hearers will not care that Jesus loves them and wants to save them if they do not understand that they do not deserve his love and that they desperately need to be saved. The Law also describes how Christians are transformed into the image of Christ by the power of the Gospel. Lutherans call this “the third use of the Law.” Some Lutherans try to preach the third use of the Law in every sermon. I follow the guidance of another professor from seminary: I preach the Law, allowing the Holy Spirit to apply it as He chooses—diagnosis to one hearer, leading that hearer to repent and to be prepared to hear the Gospel, guidance for another hearer, leading that hearer to strive to imitate Jesus drawing upon the power of the saving Gospel.
  • Sermons should be incarnational and sacramental. They should not make Christians “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.” Hearers are reminded that Christ has redeemed them as whole people, body and soul. Hearers are reminded that the entire world has been redeemed and will be made anew on the Day of the Lord. Hearers are reminded that Christ became one of us and lived among us. Hearers are reminded that Christ is encountered in material ways, in the water of Holy Baptism and in the eating and drinking of Holy Communion. Hearers are equipped to do good works in this world, to share the hope we have in Christ, to forgive those who sin against us, and to be pictures of Jesus in a sinful world. But these good works do not save us from sin and evil; they are the results of being saved from sin and evil.
  • Sermons should be interesting. Making the Gospel of Jesus Christ boring is a sin. Preachers should prepare their sermons and not expect the Holy Spirit to work a miracle on their behalf every Sunday. Preachers should find illustrations that apply to the Bible’s message, not stories that distract hearers from God’s Word. Likewise, humor should be used to make a point—when hearers remember the joke but forget the rest of the sermon, the humor failed. Preachers should know when to say “Amen” and end the sermon. When most of the congregation has stopped listening, that moment has already passed.
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Sermon on II Timothy 3:14-17

But as for you,  continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings,  which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete,  equipped for every good work.

              Communication is vital in any relationship. To keep their marriage strong, husbands and wives need to communicate with each other. Parents and children need to communicate, not only when the children are young and living in their parents’ houses, but also when the children are older, active in the world, raising children of their own. Friends cannot remain friends if they do not keep in touch. Neighbors need to speak to each other. Those who share a community, a state, or a nation need to speak to each other and to their leaders, and the leaders need to tell the other citizens what is happening among them and in the surrounding world.

              Clearly, then, we also need to communicate with God. We need to speak to him, telling him the things that matter most in our lives. We pray, talking to God, sometimes using prayers we have memorized and sometimes creating our own prayers from our own minds and hearts. Jesus urges us to be persistent in prayer and not lose heart. In ancient times, Jacob wrestled with God, and some Christians today describe their prayers as wrestling with the Lord. God has promised to hear our prayers. He has promised to answer our prayers. He has not given us magic power to control the world with prayer. He has not given us power to control him, to make him do things he does not want to do. But God hears us when we pray. Jesus meant what he said: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.” The Holy Spirit guides us when we pray, speaking to our Father in heaven even with groans that words cannot express. Our line of communication to God is always open, always available, never threatened by a power outage or dead battery or computer fault. But what about God’s communication with us? Do we hear his voice? Do we pay attention to the things God says to us?

              God is almighty. He can do anything he wishes. God wishes to speak to us through his Word. In earlier times, he chose messengers and told them what to say to his people. Moses and all the Old Testament prophets brought God’s Word to his people. These messages from God, sent through Moses and the prophets, were written to be saved for all God’s people of every time and every place. Jesus authorized apostles to supplement the message with a New Testament. These messages, this Scripture, was breathed out by God. It is inspired. It carries the power of God, telling us what we need to know.

              The idea of inspiration is complicated; it can be confusing. Some people imagine God dictating, like a boss in the office telling his secretary (or administrative assistant) what to write. Other people picture God inspiring prophets and apostles the way a sunset over a lake in the mountains can inspire a painter or poet or musician. Some people think that God’s message is hidden in the Bible among many human opinions and perceptions that we can pluck out and ignore. Some even seek hidden messages in the Bible by reading every fifth letter or changing the letters into numbers and then decoding the numbers. But the Scripture, breathed out by God, is straight-forward. It has no hidden messages. It tells us what we need to know. We can trust the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles also to be with us and to guide us when we read and hear the messages God has for us.

              When we say that God inspired the Bible, we say that everything in the Bible is trustworthy and true. We compare the Bible to Jesus himself, who is completely God and also completely human. Everything in the Bible comes from God, even though everything in the Bible came through human beings chosen by God. We cannot discard any part of the Bible, saying that it came from certain human beings a long time ago and no longer means anything for us today. But we remember that the human beings, inspired by God, remained human. Matthew and Mark and Luke and John all wrote the truth about Jesus, but they saw and heard different things and communicated them in different ways. Matthew dealt with statistics and numbers in his day job, and his descriptions tend to be dry and terse and straight-forward; Mark, writing the preaching of Peter the fisherman, contains far more active and vivid language. Moses and David and Isaiah did not have the same background and the same experiences; of course they had different ways of saying things. But they all gave the same message from the same God, meant to be shared with all God’s people so all of us would know what we need to know about God, ourselves, and the world around us.

              To fully comprehend the Bible, then, we need to know something about the times in which the writers lived, the ideas that shaped their thinking, the cultures to whom they were first speaking. The Bible must be translated, not only from language to language, but also from culture to culture. When we know the essential message of the Bible, though, we do not need to perplex ourselves with every detail. The Bible is not a textbook about biology or economics, or even about history and geography. The Bible is about God our Creator and about us. Some things change in the world, but God does not change, and people are essentially the same. We read a book on chemistry to learn about chemistry. We read a book on cooking to learn about cooking. We learn God’s book to learn about God. As Paul told Timothy, all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

              At this point it is tempting to concentrate on those four things and to struggle to discern the shades of meaning between teaching, reproof, correction, and training. But in Paul’s Jewish culture, similar words often were piled together, not because of their differences but because they reinforced each other. Teaching and training essentially mean the same thing; correction and reproof are synonyms. God tells us how to live our lives. He made us, and in the Bible he gives us an owner’s manual for ourselves. He tells us why we exist, why we are in this world. He tells us what to do and what not to do. He equips us for good works so we will do those things God wants us to do.

              We learn that we are here to give glory to God. All creation sings God’s praises, and we also sing God’s praises. The stars shine for the glory of God, and the flowers bloom for the glory of God, and the birds sing for the glory of God. So we also do what we can do for the glory of God—not only by singing, but by imitating Jesus. In every decision, we choose to do what Jesus would do. He lived the perfect human life. He is the example all of us should follow. Our lives remind the people around us of Jesus when we are living the way we should live. We sin whenever we are not like Jesus.

              Being like Jesus, we find ourselves managers of God’s property in this world. We are given money (and the opportunity to earn money), and we use that money to do God’s work. We do not give ten percent to God and the Church and do whatever we want with the other ninety percent. All of our money belongs to God. We care for ourselves, our bodies, our health, our well-being. We care for the members of our families. We help our neighbors when they are in need. We also support the work of the Church, continuing the work of God in this place and helping to send missionaries into the rest of the world.

              We have been given different amounts of money and different opportunities to manage that money, but we all have been given the same amount of time, twenty-four hours every day, seven days every week. With our different abilities and different opportunities, we manage that time in different ways, but we were created so we could manage that time for the glory of God. We dedicate some time directly to God, coming to church on Sunday morning and taking time each day to pray and to read the Bible. But the rest of our time is not for us to do whatever we want. Again, we manage that time for the glory of God and for the benefit of our neighbors, doing what we can to make the world a better place.

              Behind all our management is the obligation and the opportunity to love. God is love, and God made us in his image. We are here to be loved by God, and we are here to love God. We also are to love our neighbors. All the commandments of God tell us how to love, how to manage our time and our possessions to show our love for God by loving our neighbors and helping them. That includes not only food and clothing and shelter; it also means forgiving them when they sin and sharing with them the hope that we have in God, the good news that we can share because we are the people of God.

              All Scripture is inspired by God. It is useful for teaching, correcting, reproof, and training. It guides us in good works, which we were created to do. But those commandments from God, his rules and regulations, do not make us perfect people. Instead, they diagnose our sins. They show us how we have fallen short of God’s glory. The more we focus on teaching and training, on correction and reproof, the more we see that we have failed. We have sinned. We have broken God’s commandments. We are not the people God intended us to be.

              If God’s Word was only about our good deeds, we would be in trouble. If the Bible was written only for teaching and training, its message would leave us hopeless and in despair. People who love to quote II Timothy 3:16 often fail to look at the important verse that comes before it. The Bible tells us how to live, but it also tells us how to have life. Scripture makes us wise for salvation. That wisdom, more than any teaching and training, makes us God’s people and gives us hope for today and hope for the future.

              The Bible tells us about our Creator. It tells us how our Creator wants us to live. But the Bible also tells us how our Creator sees our problems and chooses to help us. With the commands come promises. With the correction and training comes a solution for our problems. That solution is not found in our efforts to obey God’s commands. His solution comes through the work that God does for us. Knowing that we would sin and fall short of God’s plans, God created a second plan. His second plan, the good news of the Gospel, shows how God rescues us from sin and claims us as his people even when we have failed to obey God and no longer deserve to be called his people.

              To rescue us, God became one of us. Jesus of Nazareth is human like us, but he is also completely God, equal to his Father in every way. He entered this world, not merely to teach us and train us, but to rescue us. He lived for us, obeying all the commands of his Father. Then he exchanged lives with us. He credits us with his righteousness, giving us credit for his perfect obedience. He takes our sins and our guilt upon himself. He goes to the cross, paying our debt in full so nothing in our lives—and nothing in the world around us—can separate us from the love of God.

              The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was also a battle in the war against evil. Jesus won that battle. He defeated our sins. He defeated all our enemies. He even defeated death, rising from the grave on the third day to promise us eternal life. Teaching and training do not get us into heaven. Correction and reproof do not get us into heaven. They guide us in these lives, but only the perfect work of Jesus takes away our sins and makes us heirs of the kingdom of heaven.

              Jesus is with us now, guiding us by his Word, but also giving us life through his Word. We read the Bible, not only for teaching and correction, but also for the promises, the good news that makes us wise for salvation. As we read the Bible, we look for Jesus. In the history of ancient times, we find the promises of God to send a Savior, and we see those promises acted out in advance through the lives of his people. In the poetry of the Psalms and the prophets, we find the same good news repeated, telling us to put our trust in the promised Savior and not in our own good deeds. The apostles show us how Jesus kept the promises of God. They show us our Savior, and they give us power to believe in Jesus our Savior and to receive from him forgiveness and everlasting life.

              The Word of God gives us power to believe his promises. That same power brings us forgiveness for our sins and the ability to imitate Jesus, doing good works. We gather around God’s Word as his Church. The Word, combined with water, washes away our sins and adopts us as children of God. The Word, with eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table, guarantees us forgiveness and everlasting life and victory over all our enemies. That Word equips us to be like Jesus, forgiving the sins of others and sharing with them the hope that God has given us through his promises.

              God’s Word makes us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. When we pray, we cling to the promises of God’s Word. We even remind God of his promises when we pray. If we feel that, like Jacob, we are wrestling with God, we wrestle with confidence, knowing his promises cannot fail. We do not lose heart; since God is for us, no one can prevail against us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Jesus our Savior be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.                            Amen.

Faith, reason, and politics in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-7

             

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Ed and his talking dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fifteen thousand,” the pastor interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try me,” the other pastor urged.

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

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

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

“Your dog talked.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

Of many books there is no end

  Last night I read Psalms 149 & 150 and also Revelation 21-22. This morning I read Psalms 1 & 2 and Genesis 1-3. These readings are part of a pattern I established years ago, reading through the Bible in one year (and covering the book of Psalms five times each year). Although those selected readings may create an impression that I read the Bible from cover to cover, I actually alternate between the testaments. In January, for example, I will read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I will read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Songs. I try to keep the longer books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) separated from one another; I try to match themes between the testaments as much as possible.

I also read other books: devotional books, philosophy, history, literature, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, drama, and the classics. Since the beginning of January 2001, I have kept lists of books I am reading and have finished. In this way, I have been counting the books I finished each year over the past twenty years.

In 2020, I smashed my previous record, probably because of the virus crisis and quarantine. Between January 1 and December 31, I finished 205 books, far beyond the earlier record of 176. In fact, my reading in 2020 actually increased my twenty-year average from 123.7 to 127.8. And these were not all short and easy books. They included the works of Soren Kierkegaard (which I actually started more than a year ago, so some of them were counted in 2019). They included the works of Leo Tolstoy (yes, even the epic War and Peace, unabridged). They included philosophers Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rosseau, the Federalist, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. In all, I read roughly 65,000 pages in 2020.

This being the dawn of a new year, I have started my reading list for 2021. I will read several volumes of Martin Luther’s works, will pick up some twentieth century philosophers (including Dewey, Nietzsche, and Freud), will read the works of Mark Twain and those of Kurt Vonnegut, and some other books besides. I will read the five books I got for Christmas this year. I will also read the first twelve volumes of Britannica’s Great Books; I already read the first twenty pages of Homer’s Iliad this afternoon.

I like to read. I like to relive old experiences by reading books I have read before. I like to learn new things. I like to see things from a different perspective. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he had tried meditation, but he found that all the benefits promised from meditating happened for him when he was reading. That is my experience as well.

I tell prospective writers that they need to do three things: they must read a lot, they must write a lot, and they must rewrite a lot. I’ve got the first two skills down pretty well; I don’t always carry through with the third. Reading develops communication skills. It exposes the mind to better ways of expressing one’s self. It improves vocabulary, grammar, style, creativity, and thoughtfulness. More than any other means of communication, reading and writing allows communicators to reflect upon what is being said and to refine and polish the communication before sharing it with others.

For all I know, this could become one of those busy years when I don’t even finish one hundred books. Or I might have lots of spare time and set a new record. Either way, I will enjoy the books I read, and I will benefit from the exercise. Of that I can be sure. J.

A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

A message from God (part one)

The Lord Jesus and I have a running joke. Since Jesus knows everything, he knows that I am only pretending, but I like to think that he sends me private and personal messages via the songs I hear on the radio. Whether it’s a recent song such as, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” or a classic rock song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” I treat the lyrics as encouragement to trust that a job change is coming soon. Even break-up songs can be heard as a promise that soon I will leave my current job for something better.

Jesus knows that I accept only the Bible as genuine messages from him. He said it himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Luke 24 shows Jesus using the Hebrew Bible (Moses, the prophets, and the writings) to explain his rescue mission, including his death and resurrection. Moses and the prophets spoke and wrote as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles chosen by Jesus did the same. We can trust the Bible to be God’s Word, trustworthy and true, fully reliable in whatever it reports. No other message that claims to be from God—dreams, visions, or inner voices—comes with that guarantee.

Over the years I have known several Christians—in person or through the Internet—who believed that they received personal messages from God outside the written Word of the Bible. I do not want to single any of these Christians out for argument or debate. God can do whatever he wants. If he chooses to send a dream to one person and a thought to another person and a song on the radio to a third person, the Lord is quite capable of doing so. He doesn’t need my permission. But I want to share a cautionary tale about accepting every such message as heaven-sent, without “testing the spirits” (I John 4:1) by comparing the current message to the Bible.

Two men—I’ll call them Moe and Joe—had similar frustrations about religion and Christianity, although they lived in different parts of the world and at different times of history. Moe and Joe were both perplexed by the many religions in the world, including various differences in Christian teaching. Groups of Christians read the same Bible yet offered different interpretations of what is written. Moe and Joe both sought a direct and personal relationship with God. They wanted the Lord to confirm the truth to them so they could believe the truth and share it with others.

Had Moe spent more time studying the Bible, he would have been prepared for what happened to him. Moe would have know that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14), and he would have remembered Paul’s warning that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8) As Moe sought a personal relationship with God to reveal truth to him, Moe was met by an angel of light who claimed to be the archangel Gabriel. This angel gave Moe messages to recite, purportedly messages from God that had been preached by all the prophets but had been changed over time. These messages included moral teachings that greatly resemble those accepted by Jews and Christians. But they also included statements that Jesus is a prophet but nothing more than a prophet, that God has no Son, and that each person is responsible for his or her own salvation. Some people think that Muhammad (or Moe) made up the messages he received; others believe he did receive the recitations of the Quran directly from an angelic figure. I cannot judge Muhammad, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

Likewise Joe (Joseph Smith Jr.) in the state of New York received heavenly visitors who provided him access to “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” the Book of Mormon. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is from God; most Christians believe that it is not. The proof is found in comparing its message to the writings of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Once again, the messages do not agree. Some people think that Joe invented the messages of the Book of Mormon; others believe he did receive those writings from heavenly figures. I cannot judge Joseph Smith, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

With Moe and Joe in mind, I encourage every Christian to be slow to accept any dream or message or thought or feeling as a personal message from God. “Test the spirits.” Study the Bible to know God’s Word so you can distinguish truth from falsehood. Don’t be angry when another Christian uses God’s Word to correct a message that you think came from God, because that is one of the purposes of the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17). And tomorrow I will write more about having a personal relationship with Jesus that goes beyond reading, hearing, learning, and sharing the written Word of the Bible. J.