Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jesus Is the Fulfillment of Religion

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Recently, Jefferson Bethke, a young Christian man, made a video that went viral on YouTube, entitled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.”  It sounds good, doesn’t it?  Jefferson professes to love Jesus, and it is a good thing to love Jesus.  Not only that, but as you watch the video you can tell he really does love Jesus, and he is zealous for his faith.  He wants to share his love for Jesus, and just judging by the numbers alone, he has been very successful at that.  To date his video has been viewed over 12 million times. 
I have to say, there is much in the video that is good.  Unlike many of today’s popular preachers who teach what one critic has called “moralist, therapeutic deism, Bethke does share the real Gospel.  He proclaims salvation by grace through faith apart from works.  He confesses Christ crucified for sinners.  He also comes close to the truth in much of his criticism of the modern church… if only he had been more careful with his terminology.  If only he had used the words “false religion” or “hypocrisy” or “legalism” rather than “religion” I would have to agree with him even more.  

But that’s this video’s fatal flaw.  Mr. Bethke sets up a false dichotomy between religion and Jesus, asking provocative questions like: “What if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?” and asserting unsubstantiated claims such as: “Which is why Jesus hates religion.”  While much of his criticism is on the mark, he makes the mistake of treating all religions as though they were equally bad.  Ironically, in his attempt to dismiss religion, he’s just setting up his own way of worship, his own personal set of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.  In other words, he’s just presenting his own personal version of religion.

When you really think about it, saying “I hate religion but love Jesus” is a lot like saying “I hate vegetables but love broccoli.”  Christianity is a religion.  It is one religion in a world full of religions.  But not all religions are equal.  Neither are all doctrines.  And most certainly not all “saviors.”  Jesus is the true and proper focus of the service and worship of God.  Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to God the Father except by Jesus.  Jesus is not antithetical to religion.  Jesus is true religion.  Jesus is the fulfillment of religion. 

We see this in our text for today, our Gospel, Mark 1:21-28—Jesus is fulfilling religion.  It’s the Sabbath in Capernaum, and He’s in the synagogue.   The synagogue was the “congregating place” for God’s people.  That’s what the word “synagogue” means—“a place to gather.”  We say “congregation.” 
This was nothing new.  Take a look at the gospels.  Every Sabbath that is mentioned (except for the one between Good Friday and Easter), we see Jesus going to the congregation.  If He’s in Jerusalem for the festivals, He goes to the temple—to the House of the Lord—for prayers and sacrifices and the hearing of God’s Word.   Every other Sabbath we find Him in the synagogue with the congregation of believers in that particular town. 

All of this was in obedience to God’s command to His people, Israel: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  You shall sanctify the holy day.”  The Sabbath was a holy day, a day set apart for the Lord.  That meant no work.  “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.”  Sabbath, Shabbat, means “rest.”  Slaves work seven days a week without rest; God’s free people worked six and rested on the seventh. 

Rest didn’t mean sleeping in.  Nor did it mean getting out the golf clubs for a quick morning round.  Rest meant worship—gladly hearing and learning the Word of God.  For the Israelites, rest began on Friday evening with a nice meal with undiluted wine, then sleep, then a day full of the Word in the synagogue. 

Now, of course, the Sabbath law has been fulfilled in Christ and doesn’t apply to us the way it did to the people of Israel.  The Christian congregation is not a synagogue and Sunday is not a Sabbath.  What was law in the Old Testament (punishable by the death penalty for Sabbath breakers), is now a matter of Christian freedom.  But doesn’t it say something about the depth of our sinful nature when God has to make a law about rest, when God has to command us to hear and listen to His life-giving Word?  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath.  He is our Sabbath.  And if we’re “rest”-less, then perhaps it’s because we don’t rest enough in the Word, and we don’t seek our rest where “two or three are gathered,” where Jesus promises to be there with us.

About thirty years of age—a fitting age for a prophet (Ezekiel 1:1), priest (Numbers 4:3), and king (2 Samuel 5:4) to begin his work—Jesus, newly baptized and ordained, comes to the synagogue and begins to teach.  What would He say?  The people were all ears. 

What Jesus said amazed the people.  He taught as one who had authority: “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”  That was different.  That kind of teaching the people hadn’t heard before, not since Moses and the prophets.  Jesus’ teaching came with the full blast authority of the Lord Himself.  He spoke as the Lord Himself, because that’s who He is—the Lord.  He is the Prophet of whom Moses spoke in Deuteronomy, the One who would have the words of God in His mouth.  To hear Jesus was to hear it straight from the mouth of God Himself. 

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was teaching on this particular day, but just a few verses earlier, he does tell us what Jesus was preaching as He began His ministry in Galilee: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”  Jesus preached about sin, forgiveness, and the kingdom that had come with His coming.  In other words, pretty much the same stuff you hear every Sunday. 

You can be sure that wherever the doctrine of Christ is being taught, the devil and his demons will be hard at work.  You can preach social justice and morality until you’re blue in the face and the devil couldn’t care less.  But preach Christ, His message of repentance and forgiveness, and all sorts of hell break loose.  And so, an unnamed man with an unclean spirit jumps up in the middle of Jesus’ sermon and shouts: “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have You come to destroy us.  I know who You are—the Holy One of God.” 

Notice how the demons know who Jesus is, and they even speak the truth about Jesus.  He’s the Holy One of God come to destroy the works of the devil.  Right on every front.  But this truth is a crooked truth, meant to distract, to short-circuit Calvary, to get Jesus off His baptismal road to the cross, to leak the secret with some unwanted advance publicity. 

Jesus was trying to bring His hearers along slowly, shaping their hearing and reshaping their expectations.  But the devil wanted to imprint his own image of “messiah” in the people’s minds.  Get them to think of Jesus in terms of power and politics so they forget about this cross and death and resurrection stuff. 

Satan has no problem with you believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as long as it diverts your attention from all this stuff about cross and body and blood, death and resurrection.  The devil loves “spiritualities” and “religions,” cross-less, bloodless gospels that are really no Gospel at all.

For that reason, I seriously doubt that Satan is too concerned about most of the Christianity you see on TV.  The kind that talks about God giving you an easy and prosperous life if you only believe; the kind that avoids talk of sin and judgment but emphasizes the power of positive thinking; the kind that focuses on electing the right kind of people so we can set up our own kingdom here on earth.   That kind of religion doesn’t bother the devil in the least. 

And I’m sure the devil takes a certain amount of glee in seeing theaters and basketball arenas full of people congregating to hear words that will scratch their itching ears.  For even though much of what those preachers say is true, it is not the Truth that sets you free.  They are false prophets, hirelings, wolves in sheep’s clothing—and even though their practical advice may offer a better life now, it will not bring you eternal life. 

What the devil hates is faith that trusts Jesus for forgiveness… faith that looks to Jesus crucified and sees life… faith that suffers all things for Jesus’ sake… faith that knows that Christ has conquered and in Him we conquer, too.

In Mark, Jesus’ being the Christ, the Messiah (what it really means), is a secret, hidden until the end, when He hangs dead in the darkness on the cross and a Gentile soldier blurts out, “Truly, this was the son of God.”  And then no one silences him.  Why?  Because hanging there on the cross, Jesus is the most Son of God, most Holy One of God, most fulfillment of religion. 

This is why He came.  This is why He was baptized.  This is why He set His face to Jerusalem.  This is why He preaches.  This is why He casts out demons.  This is how the kingdom of God comes to us—by His rising and dying.  And until that happens, until the world sees Him dead on a cross, they will not know or understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.  And neither will we.  We will always try to reshape Jesus into something else.

With a word, Jesus silences the disruptive demon and restores order to the liturgy of the synagogue.  “Be silent.  Come out of him,” Jesus commands.  And the demon obeys.  He must.  He has no choice.  He must obey the Word. 

Now that’s authority!  This was not simply persuasive preaching.  Nope.  This is a Word that cuts through the darkness, casts out demons, changes water into wine, calms the wind and stills the seas, cleanses the leper, and lifts the paralyzed man from his bed. 

This is a Word that declares with the authority of God that Baptism is your  personal rebirth in Christ… that the bread of the Supper is His Body given for you, the wine of His Supper in His blood shed for you.  This is a Word by which your sins are forgiven; you are declared saints in Christ.  This is a Word that will raise you up from the dead on the Last Day. 

 But there’s something else that is said that we dare not pass by too quickly.  In addition to being amazed by Jesus’ authority, those gathered in the synagogue that day noticed something else—Jesus’ teaching is new.  Not “new” as in shiny and just-out-of the box (the Gospel promise goes all the way back to the fall in the Garden), but “new” as in “We ain’t never heard this before.”

What’s so new and completely different?  Consider that the scribes would normally teach the Law.  “Obey God’s commands well enough, and God will be pleased; and if God is pleased by your obedience, then He will reward you.” 

Now, common sense will tell you that a man with an evil spirit isn’t going to be doing God-pleasing things.  He’s under bondage to the devil, and all that he does is evil.  Nothing that this man does is earning God’s favor.  Even his presence in the synagogue seems to be solely for the purposes of disrupting Jesus’ work of salvation.  The evil spirit has just declared that he wants nothing to do with Jesus, the Holy One of God.  But Jesus helps him anyway.  The man hasn’t done any good works to earn God’s favor and reward, but Jesus helps him anyway. 

This is why the teaching is so new, so completely different.  It goes against the natural religion of our Old Adam, who seeks to justify himself.  The man is not delivered because of his good works.  He’s delivered solely by the power and mercy of Jesus.  He is delivered because Jesus fulfills the Law on his behalf by His perfect obedience.  He is delivered because Jesus pays the penalty the Law demands for this man’s sin with His atoning death.  For those conditioned to believe that their obedience earns God’s favor, this is an amazing new teaching.  

But if the people of Capernaum had put two and two together, they would have been astonished even more.  The same Jesus who said “Be silent.  Come out of him” to the evil spirit is the same One who has been saying, “Repent and believe the Gospel.”  If His Word has such amazing authority to chase away demons, then His command to repent certainly gives the ability to repent.  His call to believe the Gospel gives the faith to believe the Gospel. 

This is new—completely different than the teaching of the scribes.  This Jesus is delivering people solely by His work and mercy, not by their own efforts or worthiness.  It is true in Capernaum for a possessed man that day.  It will be true for all the world when Jesus hangs on the cross and saves them by His suffering and death for their sins.

This is amazing!  This is new!  This is completely different!  This is true religion.  Every other religion on earth is a religion of law—you earn God’s favor and your reward by the works that you do.  We proclaim a new, completely different message to this world: You are saved from your sin by the work of Jesus Christ.  He has fulfilled the Law on your behalf.  He has redeemed you from sin by His death on the cross.  He is risen again and freely offers you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in His means of grace.

In your Baptism, the same Jesus that casts out an unclean spirit in Capernaum, cleanses you with water and His Word.  He sends the devil packing.  “Keep your hands off this little one, because he or she belongs to Me.”  No, you won’t have the shrieks and convulsion of the Gospel lesson (although from time to time we do have a good crier), but it happens nonetheless.  The devil is wily enough to sneak away these days and make you think that nothing special has happened.  But the Lord speaks His new, completely different teaching of salvation with these words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism “works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” (Small Catechism).  By Christ’s authority, even little babies are forgiven.  They have eternal life.

So do you!  Because we declare this same new teaching with authority to you.  In the name of Jesus you are forgiven.  You come here to this congregating place with a variety of concerns, worries, and problems.  Your Old Adam will whisper that the Word that you are forgiven is irritating—an irrelevant waste of time, given the troubles you have.  The devil will make you think that your sins are too big to be forgiven, or that you have no big sins and can get by fine all on your own.  But it is not so.  You are a sinner.  Repent and believe the Gospel!

Jesus Christ lived the perfect life that you do not and cannot live.  He died on the cross to take away the sin of the world—and that includes you!  He rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven to the Father’s right hand.  And yet He is still with you always, coming to you with His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. 

In that Word and Sacrament, the Lord sends the devil scurrying away.  He gives you His promise that He will use all things to your good, and that He will deliver you from this sinful world to life everlasting.   Through the voice of His called and ordained servant, He declares all who believe His Word and promises: You are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, January 13, 2012

So Glorify God in Your Body

Here is the devotion, adapted from a sermon by Rev. John T. Pless that I will be sharing at the Annual Meeting of Lutherans For Life of SD. The text is Epistle for Epiphany 3 that many of our congregations will be using on Sunday, January 15, 2012: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

In my ten plus years as a pastor, I’ve stood out in the cemetery many times at the open grave for the Committal of the body at the end of the Service of Christian Burial. With mourning family members and friends gathered around, I place my hand on the head of the casket and recite the following words: “May God the Father, who created this body; may God the Son, who by His blood redeemed this body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh.”

I know, the words for the committal at a Christian funeral sound like an odd way to begin an opening devotion for a Lutherans For Life meeting. But think about it. The way in which we deal with the body of the deceased says much about how we view the sanctity of all human life. The committal service is not just about “bringing closure,” as psychologists might suggest; but rather, emphasizes the value of the human body. At that most sober and somber moment, those words proclaim the truth about the body of the believer: it is a body created by the hands of the Maker of heaven and earth. It is a body purchased and redeemed with the blood of Christ. It is a body hallowed by the washing of the water with the Word.

It is not a leftover carcass to be tossed aside. Quite the contrary, your body is given by God and is properly rendered back to Him. The body brought into life at the time of your conception is yours. It is uniquely you—just as much as your soul is uniquely you! Yet it does not belong to you. You did not create yourself. You didn’t even ask to be born. Your body is a gift—it is among the very best gifts of God. But it is a gift corrupted by sin and the consequences of a fallen world. It will break down and eventually die.

How we treat the body at the time of death says much about our view of life. Rather than recognize it as the good gift of God, some may view the body as a shell that contains the “real you.” Others may treat the body as an instrument of hedonism, a plaything for personal pleasure. Such low views of the body lead to pragmatism. If the shell is empty, or the toy of the flesh breaks down, why not look for ways to be relieved of the burden? Enter abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia. If we can’t finally master the body, if we can’t control the inconvenience or suffering, let’s put an end to it at the time and place of our own choosing. Unborn babies will be discarded and it will be lauded as a “woman’s right.” People committing suicide will be said “to take their own lives,” as though it were theirs to take. Anything goes to be done with the burden of the body.

The body. What do we do with the body? That’s a question faced not just at the time of death, but here and now as we live in the body. And our answer says much about our understanding of God and who we are in relation to Him.

When the spirit of the age is mistaken for the Holy Spirit, the body will be thought of as incidental to spirituality. Such was the case with the super spirituality of the Corinthians, who apparently thought that something as bodily as sexual intercourse could not affect life in the Spirit. Freedom in the Spirit translated into a life unhampered by restrictions, boundaries, or limitations. Homosexual practice, prostitution, and even incest were fair game.

Perhaps they reasoned that the bounds of Christian liberty were wide, expansive, and permissive since “food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food—and God will destroy both.” It could be that they mistakenly thought that the Gospel is a message of liberation from the body. That’s what Greek philosophy taught, after all—that the spirit was good, while the body was evil. Death, then, they believed—as do those many today—meant a welcome escape from the constraints and limitations of the body.

But those faulty views didn’t just stay in Corinth. They didn’t cease in Paul’s lifetime. This mistaken idea of the separation of the spiritual from the physical infects our age, too. Even you and me—Lutherans For Life—we’re susceptible to this as well. How often do we picture heaven as merely a spiritual existence? How often do we speak of death and the departing of the soul to be with the Lord as the pinnacle of our existence, all the while forgetting the wonderful reality we confess weekly in the creeds “of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” in that glorified body?

But this idea of spiritualizing the faith does not just cloud our view of death and eternal life. It has also infected a significant portion of those who confess themselves to be Christians when it comes to matters of living here and now.

“The glue that binds us together,” we are told, “is the Gospel, Baptism, and mission. Something as mundane and private as a sexual ethic should not get in the way of these!” “We need an ethic that is more relational and less ‘physicalist’” was the argument advanced in the debates leading up to one church body’s adoption two years ago of novel policies regarding human sexuality that run counter to the sacred Scriptures. “It is no business of ours,” they say, “what someone does in the privacy of their own bedroom or who gets married ‘as long as they love one another’ and are ‘in a committed relationship.’”

Paul throws all that Gnostic gobbledygook and New Age nonsense aside: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body… Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? ... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

What you do with your body does matter! It’s a matter of ownership. You can’t take the body that belongs to Christ—bought with His precious blood and washed by His Spirit in Holy Baptism—and join that body to a prostitute. To do so, Paul says, is to sin against your own body. Hence, he says, “Flee from sexual immorality,” for every other sin a person commits is outside of his body—but this sin is against your body—the body that God has created, redeemed, and sanctified.

Christ will not have the body that belongs to Him rendered unclean, desecrated by fornication, and enslaved by a fleshly union to one who is not your spouse. Christ Jesus would not have you live in bondage to another lord, for He has made you His own. He has “purchased and won [you] from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that [you] may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

Contrary to what many say: This is not overly restrictive; this is liberating. Left to your own devices, you would still be in bondage to your sinful nature, to the power of the devil, and to the pressures of the world. And try as hard as you might, you could never free yourself. You could never live the perfect righteous life that God’s holy Law demands. You would face and eternity of God’s wrath and condemnation.

But God, who created you and formed you, loved you so much that He would not leave you in your sin. He sent His Son Jesus Christ as your substitute. Jesus took on flesh—the eternal Son of God assumed a human body, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Christ fulfilled the Law perfectly—loving God above all things and neighbor as Himself. He suffered and died, bearing the full penalty for your sins, as He willing gave that human body to be nailed to the cross in your place. Three days later, that body rose from the dead, the firstfruits of those that have fallen asleep. Now ascended into heaven, Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, still with that glorious resurrected body. Though even now, He keeps His promise to be with you always—coming to you in His Supper with His very body and blood. That’s how highly God views the human body—He wasn’t ashamed to take on one for Himself!

Always remember: Your body is a gift. It was created and formed by God. It has been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. It has been sanctified as the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is neither evil nor irrelevant, has but justified, sanctified, and marked by God’s triune name. It is not to be dismissed and discarded when it becomes burdensome or inconvenient, but protected and cared for in life and shown honor in death. It will be raised again on the Last Day to live in glory with Christ for all eternity in the new heaven and the new earth.

So, in life and in death, glorify God in your body. Amen.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Prayer for My Pastor

The Small Catechism includes a section in the Table of Duties on “What Hearers Owe Their Pastors.”  Among the duties cited are financial support, respect for the office, and submission to their spiritual authority.  But I’ve always thought that one thing is noticeably absent from this list: prayer.   

I must admit, when it comes to praying for my pastor, I’ve failed miserably.  But I want to add this to my daily prayer discipline.  I’ve found prepared prayers help me maintain the proper focus and provide the framework for growth and adaptation.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a shortage of resources that include such prayers for pastors.  Most of the ones available are not very personal or specific.  So, I’ve developed one of my own and offer it for your consideration. 

Lord of the Church, bless ____________, my pastor.  Enable him to be a true teacher of Your Word.  Put the power of the Gospel into his heart so that he always preaches and counsels in a way that is consistent with Your saving will.  I especially ask that You would open My heart and mind to the Word that he speaks on Your behalf.  May Your Law show me my sins and bring me to repentance.  May Your Gospel increase my faith and empower me to holy living.  Help me to be forgiving of my pastor’s sins and patiently bear with his weaknesses.  Enable him to do the same for me.  Help me to continually encourage him as he strives to be a faithful witness to the Gospel.  Help me always to put the best construction on his words and actions, and defend him and speak well of him among others.  Be with my pastor and his family to support them in their every temporal and spiritual need (especially…..).  Let your holy angels watch over them that they might be safe from danger and every evil.  Grant us all hearts that are willingly instructed, comforted, and emboldened by Your Spirit so that as our congregation works together we will do those things which glorify Your name and are helpful for Your work among us.  In Your holy name I pray.  Amen.

 Now of course, your prayers can be (and should be) even more personal and specific.  But this is going to require some help from your pastor; he’s going to have to be willing to let down his guard and let you know his specific needs when you ask him.  And, as you pray for him, it is also good to remember that in addition to his office, your pastor is your brother in Christ also.  He—like you—is living in this fallen world simultaneously as a sinner and a saint.  It is safe to assume that he has all the same physical and spiritual needs that any other Christian has.  Be sure to include these in your prayers as well. 

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...