Incomprehensible and unending love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.

Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.

No other gods

God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Salvageable adds: Should Christians fear God? Not just Luther, but the Bible itself calls all people to fear God. But the fear of a Christian for God is not the kind of fear that causes us to want to run away and hide from God. Sinners without faith in Christ will respond to the appearance of Jesus on the Day of the Lord in that way, for they will see a righteous Judge and not a loving Savior.

Our fear is different. First, it is respect for God, wanting to do what he commands because he is always right. Second, it is awe for God, realizing that he is far greater than even we have comprehended. Third, it is placing God first in our lives. When we fear God more than anything else, no threat or danger will push us into sin. Because we fear God more, we stand up to those enemies that would separate us from God, and we overcome because of Christ’s victory.

Obviously we should also love God above all things. In the Large Catechism, Luther points out that if we loved God sincerely and continuously, we would not break any of the rest of his commandments either. Whenever we sin, we love something else more than we love God. In that case, something else becomes our god—whether it is a husband or wife, parent or child, job or hobby, political cause or moral crusade, money or property, sports team or entertainer, or any other idol. Most of all, we sin because we love ourselves more than we love God.

Christians say that they trust God, but sometimes we trust something else more than we trust God. Moralists trust their own good deeds and their obedience to the commandments. They fail to trust Jesus to be their Savior. Rationalists trust their own thinking more than the Word of God. Emotionalists trust their own feelings more than the Word of God. Egoists of both kinds ignore the parts of the Bible they do not like or somehow change them to match their own thoughts and feelings.

Every day we catch ourselves fearing something more than we fear God, or loving something more than we love God, or trusting something more than we trust God. Whenever this happens, we repent—admitting to God that we have done wrong and asking for his forgiveness. We ask, knowing that his forgiveness is given to us because of the perfect life of Christ and because of his sacrifice on the cross. Relying on his righteousness and his redemption, we find power to fear and trust and love God even more. J.

Memorial Day

Rethink recently published a post called “7 Sins the Church Doesn’t Acknowledge.” (You can read the entire post here.) One of the seven sins mentioned is Nationalism. Rethink says, “It’s a sin to put anything before God. That includes America. Our ultimate allegiance is to God not this country. Too many in the church place their American freedoms above God’s kingdom. This means that sometimes what is best for this country is not always what is Biblically correct.”

During this Memorial Day weekend, it is fitting to stop and consider the point at which nationalism becomes a sin. All patriotism is not sinful. The Pledge of Allegiance places the loyalty of the pledger to “one nation, under God.” Atheists and polytheists are free to skip those words if they choose, but believers can only pledge loyalty to the nation when they acknowledge that the nation is under God.

The line between godly patriotism and sinful nationalism can be discovered with one question: Who is serving whom? Are we demanding that God govern the world for the good of the United States of America, or are we calling the USA to be faithful to God? In the fall of 2001, as many Americans were repeating the phrase, “God bless America,” some Christians responded with the phrase, “America, bless God!” Certainly if “God bless America” is meant as a command, the words are flagrantly disrespectful to the Lord. If those words are meant as a humble prayer, they are not sinful.

National holidays and national symbols can be troubling within the church. European visitors are astonished to see American flags in houses of worship, sometimes near or behind the altar. Some preachers are careful to observe every American holiday—Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day—in place of the normal Sunday observances established by tradition. I am not sure how many preachers are able to ignore these days entirely. If they do, I suspect they hear complaints.

The best approach is to use the national holiday as a bridge to God’s message. A preacher can mention mothers in the prayers and in the sermon without setting aside God’s Word to honor mothers. In fact, a creative preacher might even turn Mothers’ Day into a salute to the Bride of Christ, our Mother, the Holy Christian Church. (This is especially fitting when Mothers’ Day lands on Pentecost Sunday.) On Fathers’ Day, a preacher might acknowledge earthly fathers and then talk about the eternal relationship of God the Father and God the Son.

What of Memorial Day? We do not worship soldiers as saints and heroes who gave their life for their country, but we can remember those who died in battle without worshiping them. Moreover, we can use their example to point to the perfect Sacrifice, Jesus Christ, who gave his life in battle against sin and evil and death so we can be free from those enemies. We are at peace with God and are promised a truly prosperous Kingdom because of the sacrifice of Jesus. This message is as fitting on Memorial Day as it is any other day of the year. J.