Advent thoughts: December 1

“I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring [Jesus]. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15—read Genesis 3:1-21).

On the same day of the first sin came the first preaching of the Gospel. God had created the world and all that exists. He had planted a garden, and in that garden he put the first man and the first woman. They were to care for the garden and all it contained, both plants and animals. They were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They were to rest every seventh day. Any of these commandments they could have broken for the first sin. Instead, they ate the fruit of a tree that had been forbidden to them. This act of rebellion against God’s clear commandment caused them to know what evil is. They feared God and tried to hide from him. They looked for someone else to blame for their sin. Being separated from God, they were spiritually dead, and eventually they would physically die.

Yet when God confronted them, they did confess their sin. Adam tried to blame Eve (and also, indirectly, God—“the woman You gave me”), and Eve tried to blame the serpent. They both pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, and the poor serpent had no finger to point. But they confessed: each of them admitted, “I ate.”

Satan had taken the form of a serpent to tempt Eve—and through her, Adam—to join him in his revolt against God. God let Satan know that the shape he had taken foretold his fate. He would crawl on the ground and eat dust—in other words, Satan was going to lose. On the other hand, God already had a plan to rescue and redeem Adam and Eve and their descendants. As Satan used a tree to defeat them, so God would use a tree to defeat Satan—the tree of the cross. Satan did not gain allies in his revolt: he gained enemies. He would cause harm to humanity, and even to God when God became human. God would suffer on the cross, but his suffering was small compared to Satan’s suffering. His suffering led to victory; Satan’s head was crushed in the victory Christ won on the cross.

Christians are called to bear fruit for the Lord. His commandments tell us why he made us. They tell us how to love and honor him, and they tell us how to love and serve one another. Without God’s redemption, though, no one can bear fruit pleasing to the Lord. We are like an orchard of bare, dead trees. We are fruitless. We are worth nothing except as fuel for the fireplace.

On one dead tree, Jesus changed all that. On the dead wood of the cross, Jesus gave life to his people. Now all those who trust in Jesus have their sins forgiven and removed. All those who trust in Jesus are clothed in his righteousness. All those who trust in Jesus bear fruit pleasing to God, and, as a result, we are certain of a place in his kingdom. We will live forever in his new creation.

Adam and Eve tried to clothe themselves with fig leaves because of their shame. God provided them instead with garments of animal skins. The death of those animals pictured the death of Jesus, because by his death and through Baptism he clothes us in his righteousness.

Adam and Eve heard the promise about Jesus, believed it, and were redeemed. We also hear this promise, believe it, and are redeemed. Nothing has changed since the beginning, expect for this: Jesus has come and has kept the promise. Thanks be to God! J.

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Confession and Absolution

The Bible says: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

Luther explains: “What is confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution—that is, forgiveness—from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments.
Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Salvageable adds: Martin Luther is famous for protesting the system of Penance that the Church had developed over the centuries as part of Confession and Absolution. Some Christians and historians mistakenly believe that Luther was opposed to Confession as well, but that is not the case. In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Lutherans affirmed that they would continue the historic practice of private Confession and Absolution. Only the thought that Penance is needed to finish Confession and Absolution was rejected.

When other Christians visit a Lutheran congregation, they are sometimes surprised by the Confession and Absolution at the beginning of the service. The worshipers pray to God, confessing their sins and throwing themselves upon His mercy. The pastor then responds, “In the place and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This Absolution shows the Office of the Keys at work in the congregation. When sugar or salt is dissolved in water, the sugar or salt is still there, as anyone can tell by tasting the water. When sins are absolved, they are gone. They are nailed to the cross with Christ, killed with Christ, and buried with Christ. They do not rise with Christ. They have been washed away by Holy Baptism, which is why the Absolution concludes with the same Name of God that is used in baptism. The practice of Confession and Absolution is an expression of repentance. It is repeated often, because we sin often and need God’s forgiveness often.

For many twenty-first century Lutherans, this group experience of Confession and Absolution is the only form they know. Private Confession and Absolution remains an option, even though it is not required. A Christian may look a pastor in the face, confess to that pastor a sin that is troubling one’s heart, and hear a clear and unconditional guarantee of forgiveness. This gift of the Church is even protected by secular law; the confession heard by a pastor, priest, or minister is completely confidential. When we need a personal assurance that the sins troubling our hearts are forgiven, the pastor or priest or minister or other fellow Christian is there to hear our confession and to announce our absolution.

The Church’s neglect of Confession and Absolution has led to its reintroduction in other walks of life. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs that fight addition include a fifth step in which the recovering addict admits all his or her sins and wrongdoings to another person. Many people visit counselors to relieve their consciences of the burden of sin and guilt that is spoiling their lives. Some people confide in friends, only to have those friends whisper their secrets to others, so that a private confession becomes a matter of gossip. How much better it is when the Office of the Keys can function as Jesus intended, conveying forgiveness to sinners through the powerful Word of God, spoken to them by fellow believers.

Privacy (and where yours has gone)

Never in history has personal privacy been more protected by law. Yet never in history have people sacrificed their own privacy so completely. 

If you confess a sin to your pastor or priest, that member of the clergy cannot tell anyone else that you have said—not even a police officer, or a judge and jury during a trial. Your confession remains private among yourself, your confessor, and the Lord. 

Health professionals are also required to keep your information confidential. They cannot even share your information among one another for your own good without your permission. If you are in the hospital and a family member or friend (or your pastor or priest) calls the hospital for information about you, the hospital workers cannot say anything about you—not even whether you are there. 

If you are a student, your teachers cannot discuss your academic progress without your permission. If you are under eighteen, your parents or guardians have access to that information; otherwise, even they cannot know your grades unless you allow them access. A professor, teacher, or instructor cannot even give you information about your grade by email or over the telephone because of the risk that some other person may impersonate you to get this information. 

Your financial information is similarly protected. Your bank, your lending agency, your credit card company, and anyone else involved with your money cannot discuss your finances without your permission. Even your tax returns are confidential and cannot be discussed unless you have given permission for that to happen. 

To protect all this privacy, the entities that use our information frequently inform us what they are doing with the confidential information we share with them. Medical clinics, banks, credit card companies, and the like constantly bombard us with written descriptions of what information they have and what they do with it. When we see the doctor or when we open an account or take out a loan, we sign documents about our personal information. How many of us read all those documents and remember what permission we have given these entities to share that information? How many of us are careful to restrict every bank and school and health-related facility to minimal sharing? How many of us acknowledge with our signatures that we have read the documents about privacy and approved their contents—without actually having read them or even received a copy of them? 

With all this protection, no one can stop you from sharing private information where and when you choose. You can put up a poster downtown telling anyone who reads it who you are, what your health and grades and finances are, and any other personal information you choose to share. You can write a letter to the newspaper or buy an ad and tell the newspaper’s readers anything you want to share about yourself. You can write a letter to a government worker—whether elected or appointed—and anything you say about yourself in that letter becomes part of the public record which any researcher may access. You may post information about your private life on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, or any other social media platform, and what you have revealed about yourself is available to any person or computer in the world that has internet access. 

Even the research you conduct online is publicly available, unless you take extraordinary precautions to protect your privacy. Social media platforms and search engines and internet sites all keep track of your online activity, and the things you have done on your computer are available to government agencies, corporations, hackers, and anyone else curious about your life. Anything you tell your Facebook friends is public information. Prospective employers can read about your weekend parties. Prospective thieves can preview your vacation plans. Research an illness, and medical companies target you as a prospective consumer. Look on Google once to see if there was ever a purple Volkswagen Beetle (there was), and you will receive pop-up ads from Volkswagen for months. 

Some elements of this lack of privacy bother me less than they bother most people. If my neighbor is using the internet to learn how to make a bomb and then is using the internet to buy bomb-making supplies, I don’t mind the fact that law enforcement officers will be watching my neighbor and perhaps preventing a crime from happening, or at least shortening a string of potential crimes. For that protection from violence, I am willing to allow government agents to read about my political and religious views as I express them on Facebook or WordPress; the First Amendment protects me from any negative government reaction to my opinions. 

I am less content about my permanent record being open to private corporations whose interest in my life focuses on selling me goods and services I might or might not want. My on-line shopping and on-line research have created a public profile of my life that in some ways is frighteningly accurate and in other ways is comically distorted. Because I was curious about cerebral films starring Peter Sellers (having enjoyed Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Being There), I now see regular Facebook promotions for the Pink Panther movies. Similar searches for various actresses appears to have convinced some corporation that I am interested in dating Russian or Asian women.  

Ignoring advertisements for things I don’t want is easy. Sensing that news stories and other items are being sent my direction based on assumptions about my opinions bothers me more. Because I am comfortable with my own beliefs, I want and value access to a wide range of opinions and information. I prefer not to have amazon or Facebook or WordPress suggest to me what I might like because of previous online activity. I prefer not to have search engines tailor my results to choices I have made in the past. I prefer not to receive telephone calls or mail selected for me by a computer because of something I have viewed online. I prefer not to have computers monitor my thinking and try to predict my thinking, out of concern that their input today may well flavor my thinking tomorrow.

Since the 1950s (if not before), science fiction writers have warned of a future world in which machines think for people and tell people what to think. We are closer to that dystopia being reality than ever before. The machines that want to serve us—and that, along the way, may begin to control us—come not from a totalitarian government or a worldwide conspiracy, but from corporations that want our money, or at least that want to generate money by selling our information.

Can Congress or other parts of the government protect our privacy? Probably not. We tend to discard privacy for convenience far more often than legislation can prevent. The more we ask government to guard our privacy, the more likely we are to surrender that privacy to government. The more we reveal about ourselves to social media and other non-government agencies, the less privacy we keep to ourselves. Our best choice is not to legislate privacy, but to preserve privacy by our individual choices. J.

Christ in Genesis: Confession and Promise

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” This sounds so pleasant, Jesus taking a walk in the garden. (How do we know it was Jesus? “No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known”–John 1:18.) I don’t know the history of the translation of this verse, but the original Hebrew has a different tone. The word translated “cool” is ruach, the same word that means breath or wind or spirit; and I do not think “cool” is used to translate this word anywhere else in the Bible. In the first Greek translation of Genesis (in the Septuagint), the translators chose to render the word “fear.” Jesus approached Adam and Eve in the spirit of the Day–that is, the Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s wrath at sin, Judgment Day.

No wonder Adam and Eve tried to hide from Jesus. They had sinned, dying spiritually, rebelling against God. They were guilty. They were ashamed. They tried to cover their shame with fig leaves, but human works cannot cover our sins. Jesus called them: “Where are you?” When Adam confessed his shame, Jesus asked him, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?”

The Lord gave Adam and Eve an opportunity to confess their sin–to repent. The topic of repentance can be confusing. On the one hand, God wants us to repent and calls upon us to repent. On the other hand, nothing we do earns God’s forgiveness. There is nothing you have to do for God to forgive your sins. The best resolution of this seeming contradiction is to know that, when God commands us to repent, he also gives us the ability to repent. (Compare this to Jesus telling a lame man to walk, or telling a dead man to come out of his tomb.) Repentance (like faith) is something God does in us, not something we do for God.

Adam tries a sly sort of repentance. He says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He points a finger of blame at Eve, and subtly even tries to blame God. (“If you hadn’t made this woman, we wouldn’t have this problem.”) If Adam had been thinking more quickly, he might have added, “She gave me fruit from the tree you made. Why did you make it if you didn’t want us to eat it?” Many of Adam’s descendants have tried the same sort of escape from guilt, blaming God for making sin possible.

When God questions Eve, she shows herself to be a quick learner. She also points a finger of blame, this time at the snake. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The poor serpent has no fingers to point, and Jesus does not give him the opportunity to make excuses. Knowing that the serpent is Satan in disguise, Jesus essentially says, “You chose that form for your rebellion–now accept the consequences. You are going to crawl on the ground. You are going to eat dust.” In other words, “You are the loser in this contest.”

Jesus adds that there will be enmity between the woman and Satan and between their offspring. This means more than that women generally fear snakes. It means that the devil did not gain allies in his rebellion against God. He merely broadened the battlefield. When the key battle in the war between God and evil would be fought, a descendant of Eve would win, and the devil would lose.

“He shall bruise your head.” Those words promise victory over Satan. “You shall bruise his heel.” Those words speak of the pain the Savior must bear while defeating the devil. The cross of Christ is described with these words. God is addressing the snake, but his message is for Adam and Eve. Through their descendant, God will win the war against evil, reversing the consequences of their sin. God’s words to the snake are the first preaching of the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the consequences of their sin remain. Family relationships are distorted because of sin. Work in the world is hard labor (whether physical or mental, whether challenging or boring) because of sin. Physical death is a consequence of sin. Jesus created Adam from dirt. Through physical death, Adam will return to the dirt. The ground itself is cursed because of the sin of Adam and Eve.

Yet, as God curses the snake and curses the ground, he does not curse Adam and Eve. He has promised victory through the cross; even the promise itself reverses the curse of sin. Adam and Eve did not have to wait for Christ to be born, to suffer, to die, and to rise again, before they could be spiritually alive again. Believing the promise of the coming Savior and the coming victory, they were already given saving faith. Even though their bodies would die, they already had eternal life.