Advent thoughts: December 10

“The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7—read Psalm 2:1-12).

The doctrine of the Trinity was not invented in fourth-century church conferences, as some conspiracy-minded historians claim. Nor was the doctrine of the Trinity first revealed in the New Testament. The Old Testament is filled with Trinitarian language. Moses writes of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord in a way that shows that they are one God but three Persons. Psalm 2 also speaks of the Father-Son relationship in the Holy Trinity. As John describes Jesus as the only-begotten Son of the Father, so this Psalm also pictures the Messiah ruling on his throne while also being eternally begotten of the Father.

Among humans and in the animal kingdom, sons are born as babies and must grow up into adults to become the equals of their fathers. God is eternal and timeless. Jesus is always being begotten of his Father; but, as the Son of God, he is always fully mature, always equal to his Father. As a man he experienced moving through time, growing from a helpless baby into a boy, a teen-ager, and then a man. As the Son of God had had authority over the universe, yes, even as he lay swaddled in a manger in Bethlehem.

When it comes to Jesus, all people must take a side. You are for him or you are against him; there is no neutrality. You cannot say, “He is the Jewish Messiah, but I have my own religion.” Jesus rules over all the nations; the entire earth is his possession. Those who oppose him are rebels who will be crushed. Those who serve the Lord and kiss the Son are safe and secure; he is their refuge forever.

Yet all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. Christ alone is righteous; the rest of us are polluted by sin. We are rebels against the King, for we have not done all the things he commanded, and we have done many of the things he prohibited. His Law judges us and condemns us as sinners. We deserve to be told to depart from him and to spend eternity in the outer darkness, in Satan’s prison, in the place where rebels belong.

Jesus has the right to break us with a rod of iron and dash us in pieces like pottery. He would rather be our refuge. Because we could not come to him, he came to us. The Shepherd went into the wilderness, seeking his lost sheep. More than that, he became the Lamb of God to redeem his lost sheep. He offered his life as a sacrifice to take away our sins and to cleanse us from the pollution of sin. He defeated all our enemies. Now that he has found us, he carries us home with great joy, where our Father will welcome us with equal joy. A celebration of victory and reunion is planned, a celebration that will last forever in the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Even kings are warned to be wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. When Jesus makes himself our refuge, we take our shelter in him. Then we need to fear nothing. We are always safe in his loving care. Thanks be to God! J.

A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15 consists of a set of three parables, describing a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Together, they describe the process of redemption according to the secrets of the kingdom. The first parable is told by Jesus in a different context in Matthew 18:10-14; it can also be related to Jesus’ words supporting his declaration, “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10.

This set of three parables features some important similarities among the stories, as well as significant differences. Each story describes something that was lost but is recovered. Each story tells of a celebration over the recovery, which is humorously excessive in the case of a lost sheep or a lost coin but more appropriate in the case of a recovered son.

Each mentions others that were not lost, but the numbers change. One sheep is lost, but ninety-nine sheep are safe. One coin is lost, but nine coins remain where they belong. One son is lost, but one son stays home. These changing numbers are moving in a direction that should be obvious—we have all sinned, we all like sheep have gone astray, and not one of us has been faithful to God—not one other than his only-begotten Son. Consider the occasion for these parables. Jesus was being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about this practice. Jesus makes two points relative to the secrets of the kingdom: each sinner is valuable to God and worth saving from God’s point of view; and we all are sinners, whether or not we are willing to confess our sins.

A shepherd goes into the wilderness to look for a lost sheep. The sheep will never find its way home without the shepherd’s help. It is vulnerable to predators and many other dangers. Because he cares about his sheep, the shepherd is willing to explore the wilderness and to do anything necessary to find his sheep and bring it home. In the same way Jesus, the Son of God, enters this world—this wilderness darkened by sin and evil—and seeks sinners so he can return them to the kingdom of God.

Since the first parable describes the work of Jesus, the Son of God, and the third parable describes a loving Father, some Bible interpreters have seen the coin-collecting woman as a picture of the Holy Spirit. Jesus does the work of redemption through his sinless life, his sacrifice, and his triumphant resurrection. The Holy Spirit, though, grants faith in Jesus and moves sinners back into the kingdom of God. A lost coin is even more vulnerable than a lost sheep. It has no hope of randomly wandering onto the path that will lead it home. It cannot even call for help. It can only wait in a dark and dusty corner until the searcher finds it and restores it to its place. We were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)—like a lost coin, we could not bring ourselves home. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Since “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3), we see the secrets of the kingdom of heaven in this woman. She sweeps until she finds the coin, she picks it up, and she returns it to its place. This is what God the Holy Spirit does for us by speaking the promises of God to us through his Word and by giving us faith in those promises.

The runaway son could not have come to his senses and resolved to return to his father in repentance had not the Shepherd gone into the wilderness to search for him. The runaway son could not have traveled home without the work of the Collector to move him. When people read the parable of the lost son outside of its context, they easily overlook the secrets of the kingdom. On its own, this parable appears to say that we can bring ourselves to God and find our way home again. In its context, we see how God the Father welcomes us home after God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have done their parts in the work of our redemption.

The father throws a party to celebrate the return of his son. This party pictures heaven itself—an eternal celebration of the victory of Christ and the renewal of all creation. The father’s older son refuses to attend the party. He envies the restoration of his brother and resents his father’s forgiveness. This older son is often understood to picture those Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners. But the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have a further surprise hidden in this parable.

The Pharisees and scribes no doubt believed that they had pleased God by their good lives, but we know that to enter the kingdom of heaven one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 5:20). The words the father speaks to his older son may be words that the Pharisees and scribes expected to hear from God. They are not words that God the Father will ever say to those who expect to enter heaven by their own righteousness. Only one person in all history could truthfully say what the older son says: “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Only one person in all history could hear what the father says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Jesus is the one pure and sinless person who deserves to be in the party instead of locked outside of the party. He has paid with his life to open the doors of the party to the many who do not deserve to be there. Unlike the son in the parable, Jesus is not angry to see undeserving people at the party. He rejoices to restore sinners to the Father’s home in the kingdom.

But was Jesus ever outside of the party? For part of one day, he was indeed outside the party. Rejected and abused by sinners, he took on the burden of sin, and even his Father abandoned him. Jesus spent hours in the darkness of judgment and condemnation to spare those of us who deserve judgment and condemnation. While hanging on the cross, he was outside the party.

Yet because he is God, he will not miss the party. Dying on the cross, he has prepared a place for us. Now he is prepared to welcome us alongside his Father. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection. It also promises that with our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we will live in the kingdom forever in joyful celebration of love, life, and victory. The Shepherd has found us. The Collector has moved us. The Father now welcomes us home, for we were dead and are alive; we were lost and are found.

 

Trinity Sunday, part two

In my last post, I mentioned the First Article (belief in God the Father and the work of creation), the Second Article (belief in Jesus the Son of God and in the work of redemption), and the Third Article (belief in God the Holy Spirit and the work of sanctification). Today I want to apply these three Articles to the way Christians worship, especially to the songs Christians sing.

Many songs of praise honor God the Creator and speak of how all creation sings to him. Some groups of Christians sing nothing but praise songs when they gather to worship God. Songs of praise are entirely appropriate for Christians to sing. The night Jesus was born angels sang a praise song in the sky over Bethlehem. Many of the Psalms are songs of praise. However, limiting worship to songs of praise is not healthy for Christians. Worshiping God with songs of praise, and nothing but songs of praise, is like caring for the body with a diet of sugars and fats, lacking in proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Many of the Psalms speak of the work of redemption. Psalm writers confessed their sins and their need for forgiveness. They spoke of God’s enemies and of the war between God and evil. They looked to God for victory in that war. They thanked God, not merely for the wonders of creation, but for his mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Too many times I have sat through a service in a Christian Church that made little or no mention of the redeeming work of Jesus. The songs might describe him as Redeemer or Savior, but they failed to explain what those labels mean. They omit mention of our sins and our need for a Savior. They omit mention of the fact that we cannot save ourselves, that we desperately need God to save us. When the preaching also omits these themes, merely entertaining the audience or calling Christians to holy living, then the one set of Truths that distinguishes Christians from the rest of the world is missing.

Every hymn and Christian song does not to include all three Articles. During the course of a Christian service, though, all three should be remembered. At least one hymn and one prayer should acknowledge the sinfulness of the people gathered there and should remember the work Jesus accomplished to change us from sinners to saints. Even a song about the cross is not enough unless it is clearly linked to the problem of sin and the answer of the Savior. Likewise, every hymn and every sermon does not need to mention the work of the Holy Spirit, but Christians should know that there is a Holy Spirit. They should know that he is working in the service, using the Word of God to deliver grace and forgiveness to every believer. They ways in which he does this should be mentioned at least once in a while.

Many Christians want their worship to be uplifting. They want to feel good when they leave the service. A string of songs celebrating God and his creation might accomplish that need that they feel, but it leaves their deeper needs unmet. To be gathered in the name of Jesus means more than to say his name every few minutes. The men that fixed my roof last summer spoke his name often, but not as praise or prayer. We acknowledge him as Redeemer and as Savior, which means that we describe what he has done to redeem and to save his people. This message distinguishes us from the rest of the world and marks us as God’s holy people.

J.

Trinity Sunday, part one

Trinity Sunday—a long-standing tradition in the Christian Church—is observed one week after Pentecost Sunday. On Pentecost, Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in the church. On Trinity Sunday, Christians contemplate the mystery that the one God is three Persons and that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one God.

In a future post I will write more about this theological mystery. On this occasion, I want only to address a part of that reality—the way the three Persons of the one God deal with Christians. Over the ages, Christians have tended to model theology with reference to these three Persons. From the earliest creeds of the Church to the most recent volumes of systematic theology, references are made to God the Father and his work of creation, to God the Son and his work of redemption, and to God the Holy Spirit and his work of sanctification.

Even this traditional way of talking about God can be misleading, since it tends to support the idea that the three Persons are three gods, not one God. This confusion is reversed by realizing that the three Persons do not act alone—all three are involved in creation, in redemption, and in sanctification. For example, God the Father is often called the Creator, but the first chapter of John’s Gospel and the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians both specifically state that Jesus the Son of God was intimately involved in creation. The second verse of the Bible says that God the Holy Spirit was involved in creation.

Likewise, while only the Son of God became human, lived according to the Law of God, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead, all three Persons of the one God are involved in redemption. God the Father planned the redeeming work of his Son and sent him to do that work, and God the Holy Spirit guided him in that work. Moreover, the Father and the Son are involved in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit grants the gift of faith, but when Peter confessed his faith, Jesus told him that his faith came from God the Father (Matthew 16:15-17). Jesus also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to his followers, and on occasion God the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Jesus.

Does it matter which Person of God does which work in the world? It matters mostly that Christians understand that the work of Jesus was not his work alone but is the work of all three Persons of the Triune God. Trinity Sunday reminds us of the unity of the one God and the unity of all the work he does.

I have one more observation to make about the Holy Trinity, and this observation will lead into tomorrow’s blog. When religious people consider God the Father and the work of creation, many people can agree on this aspect of God. Jews, Muslims, and Christians of many kinds all agree that there is one God and that he created heaven and earth and everything that exists. The First Article (belief in God the Father and the work of creation) unites many religious people.

Jews and Muslims and some who call themselves Christian do not believe in God the Son. They consider Jesus a prophet and a teacher (or else a myth or a fraud), and they deny that he is the only-begotten Son of God. For most Christians, faith in Jesus separates their religion from the other religions of the world. The Second Article (belief in Jesus the Son of God and in the work of redemption) unites Christians and distinguishes them from other religious people.

Christians are largely divided about the work of the Holy Spirit. Some expect him to regularly perform the miracles he performed in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Others expect him simply to create faith in the Christian’s heart and to guide that believer in Christian living. Some groups of Christians hardly speak at all of the Holy Spirit. The Third Article (belief in God the Holy Spirit and the work of sanctification) divides Christians more than any other differences.

More about this tomorrow.

J.