Monday, October 31, 2016

An Eternal Gospel to Proclaim

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“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Revelation 14:6).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Today we celebrate the Reformation of the Church, initiated when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. With its impact upon not just the Church, but on much of Western civilization, the Reformation has proved to be one of the most significant chapters in world history. But in what way?
In his book, “Here We Stand,” Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse suggests that there are three inadequate interpretations of the Reformation. First, there is a “heroic interpretation,” where Luther is regarded as a larger than life hero in much the same way as a George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln might be viewed. Focus is placed on Luther’s character, traits, inner struggles, and personality, his personal and professional successes.
Second, there is the “cultural-historical interpretation.” Here the Reformation is understood as a cultural revolution, a turn from the unenlightened darkness of the medieval world full of suppression and superstition to the dawn of a new world marked by the power of the intellect and freedom of the individual.
Third, there is the “nationalist interpretation,” which was quite popular in Germany, especially in the years leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. Here Luther is portrayed as the German Reformer who defied a pope in distant Rome and the Spanish emperor, Charles V, to establish a German Church with the Bible and liturgy in the German language. Here Luther and the Reformation become a symbol of German identity and independence.
Sasse suggests a fourth interpretation that better understands the Reformation as one episode in the long history of the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church, which is gathered around the means of grace. If it is to be considered a movement, it must be considered a movement of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. That is why we adorn the chancel with red paraments and why I wear a red stole today. Red is the color of Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies a holy Christian people for Christ Jesus through the Gospel that forgives sin. Luther was not about creating a new Church, but restoring the Gospel to the Church so that genuine repentance and true faith might be preached among every nation, tribe, language, and people.
This brings us to our text from Revelation 14:6-7, where St. John reports that he saw an angel flying overhead with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth. This was the text Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen used in the funeral sermon at Luther’s burial in 1546, where he identified Luther as that angel who carried this “powerful, blessed, divine teaching,” which would continue to live, overthrowing the Babylon of the pope’s church (Brecht III:379). While it is doubtful that John was referring specifically to Luther, the Reformer certainly was among a long line of men who have proclaimed the eternal Gospel.
The Gospel Luther preached was nothing other than the one eternal Gospel that is the power of God unto the salvation of all who believe. This is the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting the trespasses of sinners against them, but forgiving them on account of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. It is that Word, and that Word alone, that was the heart of the Reformation. It is that Word by which you and I became and remain Christians.
Luther’s confidence and our confidence is the Word of Christ, this eternal Gospel that we proclaim. In the early days of the Reformation, Luther came out of hiding in the Wartburg Castle to return to the pulpit in Wittenberg to rescue the Reformation from those radicals whose fanaticism would turn it into a chaotic revolution. On that occasion, Luther confidently proclaimed: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29] or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such loss upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (AE 51:77).
Luther, like St. Paul before him, knew that the Word of the Lord is not chained, but is a living, loose, and lively thing. Luther trusted in the promise of the Lord recorded in Isaiah 55:10-11: “My Word… shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s Word is the power of God. It is His Word, His eternal Gospel. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). So, “The Word of the Lord endures forever,” became the battle cry of the Reformation.
What St. John saw in his vision was the eternal Gospel being proclaimed through the holy, Christian, and apostolic Church. The angel is the heavenly figure of those messengers sent out to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ from the apostles and martyrs of the Early Church to the pastors and confessors of the faith today. This Gospel has never ceased to be proclaimed. It is an eternal Gospel against which our Lord says even the gates of hell will not prevail.
That’s not to say that will never be dark days. Luther came on the scene during just such a time. The precious Gospel of forgiveness, the very heart of the Christian faith, was being obscured. It was, in fact, so obscured that most Christians never heard it, at least not in its fullness. Early on, Luther himself struggled in the faith because he did not know the full message of the Gospel. His “fear of God” was a superstitious, slavish fear of a tyrannical master, not the reverence and trust of a child for his or her loving Father.
When Luther posted his 95 Theses, the eternal Gospel was hard to find. It was drowned out by the rants of pope and preachers who proclaimed a different “gospel” that made Christ’s Gospel only part of the equation. It was a strange brew of the old covenant and the new, something that turned grace into works and works into grace, an utter confusion of Law and Gospel. Still, the Gospel was never swallowed up. And the Medieval Church, though it had obscured the Gospel, had never lost it completely. It was still there, tucked into elements of the liturgy, the Office of the Ministry, preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
And so the Reformation was not the start of something new. The Lutheran reformers were no radical rebels, forsaking the Church to start a new, Protestant one. They sought a Reformation from all the errors that had accumulated over the years that obscured the eternal Gospel, things such as indulgences, sacrifices of the Mass, prayers to the saints, and the doctrine of purgatory. They retained as much as possible of the traditions that served to promote the Gospel, such as the liturgy, crosses and crucifixes, feasts and festivals, and Christian art. They sought a return to the eternal Gospel. And by God’s grace, His Word did prevail and prosper.
The eternal Gospel has a long history. It was promised to our first parents immediately after the fall: The Seed of the woman who would crush Satan’s head. It was proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets as they called God’s people to repentance in the midst of rebellion and apostasy and back to faith in the promise of the Messiah. In the fullness of time, it was fulfilled as the Incarnate Word suffered and died under Pontius Pilate for our trespasses and was raised again on the third day for our justification. This eternal Gospel was preached by the apostles, confessed by the creeds, and when it had been dimmed and diminished by human notions of salvation by works, it was restored to the Church by the Lord through His servant Martin Luther. The eternal Gospel has a long history and a promising future.
Oh, I know: humanly speaking, these present days might appear dark and foreboding. The Church has lost much of its influence upon our nation and its culture, and it seems her foes and critics are more and more vocal, at times, intimidating and threatening. And there is always opposition from within. The temptation to add one’s own merits to Christ’s, to cover oneself with the filthy rags of self-righteousness rather than the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness.
So the Church must constantly be on guard. She must be perpetually reforming herself. And in our reforms we must not seek to bring forth new and different things, things that the Church has never known, but always to return to the old, that is, the eternal Gospel and to those things that adorn and proclaim it. For salvation is found in no other Word.
Luther once warned his fellow Germans that the Gospel is like a summer rain shower. Therefore, we are to be eager to hear Jesus’ words while they are proclaimed in our midst. The prophet Amos warns of a famine of the Word of God when through man’s persistent rejection, God lets His Word move on to other places. There are places mentioned in the New Testament where once there were Christian congregations alive and thriving, but today you will find none. Think of the majestic cathedrals in Europe today that are nearly empty on a typical Sunday. Do you realize that on any given Sunday, there are more people attending Lutheran services in Africa than all of North America and Europe combined?
Nevertheless, the eternal Gospel is being proclaimed. And wherever the eternal Gospel is proclaimed and received as God’s own announcement that the ungodly are justified not by works of the law, but by the atoning death of Jesus now received by faith alone, there is the true worship of God of which the angel speaks. There the Living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the One who is the source of vast oceans and bubbling little springs, is feared, loved, and trusted about all things.
That is the true worship that, by God’s grace, Luther restored to the Church. In this worship, human beings do not seek to placate a holy God with the idolatry of their own sacrifices, but learn rather to receive God’s favor as He bestows it in His preached Word, in the waters of Baptism, and with His body and blood. That is why our Confessions call faith the highest and holiest worship of God, for faith looks to Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins, comfort now in this life of suffering, and hope in that kingdom yet to come.
So we celebrate this Reformation Sunday not with a nostalgic recollection of a great and heroic man named Martin Luther, nor as a marker of a tipping point of Western civilization, nor as a reminder of our German heritage. No, we celebrate this Reformation Sunday by repenting of our unbelief, confessing our slowness to treasure God’s Word, and by faith laying hold of the eternal Gospel Luther preached, for in it we have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
We have an eternal Gospel to proclaim. Jesus lived a perfect, obedient life under God’s Law. He died upon the cross, shedding His holy, precious blood as the payment for the sins of the world. Jesus rose on the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection to eternal life. He sits at the right hand of God the Father interceding on behalf of His Church. On the Last Day, He will return to judge the living and the dead, and give you and all believers in Him eternal life. This is the eternal Gospel we proclaim: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Thank God I'm Not Like That Pharisee!

"The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican"
by James I. Tissot
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“[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” is one of the simplest of Jesus’ parables. Two men go to the temple to pray. One brings before the Lord his own good works. The other has nothing to bring but a cry for mercy. Only one goes home justified.
But this parable is perhaps so familiar that its edge is dull and it has lost the shock of God’s grace and the surprise of the Gospel. Our minds think of the characters differently than those to whom Jesus first spoke it. So, I’d like to change it just a little to see if we can’t recover some of its original bite.
Instead of having the two guys go to the temple, let’s have them come to your house to pick up your daughter for a date. Having three beautiful daughters, who were at one time teenagers, this is a scenario quite familiar to me. But since some of them are sitting in the pews, let me add a disclaimer: This illustration is fictional. Any resemblance to actual events or persons is entirely coincidental.
The first guy who knocks at your door is well-dressed. He has a good and stable job, plenty of money, and is well-respected in the community. But even more, he’s that guy you’ve been hoping would come around. He goes to church every week, reads his Bible daily, prays, fasts, and lives by the rules. His answer to the “tell me a little bit about yourself” question is all the things you want to hear. He’s not like the other guys, thank God. He’s a gentleman. You’re not going to have to worry at all about your daughter being in this man’s care. And as your daughter walks out the door, you tell her, “Be nice to this guy,” and as soon as the door shuts, you start calling around to price caterers for the wedding.
The next night the second guy comes knocking. You know this guy. He’s been in a lot of trouble. Runs with the wrong crowd. He’s the guy you’ve been warning your daughter about all of her life. If you had known this guy was coming, you would have made sure you were cleaning your shotgun when he came in through the door. There’s no way you’d let your daughter go out with someone like him. Still, he’s got gumption. He doesn’t leave right away, but starts admitting all the things that he’s done wrong, and he tells you that he is trying to turn a new leaf. As if one little apology could make up for a lifetime of bad decisions!
These are the two guys Jesus is talking about. One looks holy, righteous, good. He comes from a good family, is well-respected in the community, very active in the church. The other is a low-life hoodlum.
And if they were to both die on the way home that night, the golden boy would enter the endless torment of hell and the ne’er-do-well would be carried by the angels to the face of Jesus. Something about that doesn’t seem right, does it?
Kenneth Bailey writes:
The more familiar a parable, the more it cries out to be rescued from the barnacles that have attached themselves to it over the centuries. In the popular mind, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a simple story about prayer. One prays an arrogant prayer and is blamed for his attitudes. The other prays humbly and is praised for so doing. Too often the unconscious response becomes, “Thank God, [I’m] not like that Pharisee!” But such a reaction demonstrates we are indeed like him![i]
So how can this parable best be understood? Is it strictly about styles of prayer? Is it about the difference between a “bad guy” and a “good guy”? No doubt both of these elements are at play here, but Luke tells us right up front that the main focus is righteousness and those who believe they can reach such righteousness by their own efforts. “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (18:9).
What does it mean to be a righteous person? In the Greek world “righteous” was a general term that applied to a person who was civilized and who observed custom and legal norms. Generally speaking, these meanings have placed their stamp on the popular understanding of a “righteous person” even today. But the New Testament’s roots are in the Old Testament where righteousness is more concerned with relationships than actions. The righteous person is not the one who observes a particular code of ethics but rather a person graciously granted a special relationship of acceptance in the presence of God.
Again and again in His teaching, Jesus presents the theme of the “righteous,” who do not sense their need for God’s grace, and the “sinners” who yearn for that same grace. Sin for Jesus is not primarily a broken law, but a broken relationship. The tax collector yearns to accept the gift of God’s justification, while the Pharisee feels he has already earned it. But God does not grade on a curve or give extra credit. His only accepted standard is perfect righteousness. And ever since the Fall, there’s only been one such person: The God-man who tells this parable.
Now, that you’ve gotten a better sense of how shocking this scenario would have been to its original audience, let’s return to Jesus’ parable.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.” In English, we commonly use the word pray to refer to private devotion and the word worship to refer to what a community does together. In Semitic speech, “to pray” is used for both. On Sundays, the Christian in the Arab world says to his friend, “I’m going to church to pray,” and the friend knows the speaker is on his way to public worship.
In the parable a place of worship is mentioned specifically, and the two men are on their way to pray at the same time, so it is reasonable to assume it takes place during a time of public worship. Since the Sabbath is not mentioned it is likely that this takes place during the week. The only daily services in the temple area were the atonement offerings that took place at dawn and again at 3:00 p.m.
Each service began outside the sanctuary with the sacrifice for the sins of Israel of a lamb whose blood was sprinkled on the altar. In the middle of the prayers there would be the sound of silver trumpets, the clanging of cymbals, and the reading of a psalm. The officiating priest would then enter the outer part of the sanctuary where he would offer incense and trim the lamps. When he disappeared into the building, the worshipers would offer their private prayers to God.
The Pharisee stands by himself and prays. He stands by himself because he is a Pharisee, a name which comes from the Hebrew word for “separated.” The Pharisees stressed keeping God’s Law and their traditions, and put great emphasis on observing such rituals as washing, tithing, and fasting. They also separated themselves from non-Pharisees because they did not wish to become unclean.
Because he stands by himself he may well be praying aloud. Such a voiced prayer would provide a golden opportunity to offer some unsolicited ethical advice to the “unrighteous” around him who might not have another opportunity to observe a man of his impressive piety! Most of us in our spiritual journeys have, at some time or other, listened to a sermon hidden in a prayer. Regrettably, some of us, present company included, have “preached” that kind of prayer.
The Pharisee’s prayer begins, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men…” But is what follows really a prayer? It’s neither a confession of sin, thanksgiving, or a petition for oneself or others. Rather than comparing himself to God’s expectations, he compares himself to others, enumerating his own accomplishments: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
The Pharisees thought of the Law as a garden of flowers. To protect the garden and the flowers, they opted to build a fence around the Law. That is, they felt obliged to go beyond the requirements of the Law in order to assure that no part of it was violated. Without a fence around the garden someone just might step on one of the flowers.
The written Law only required fasting on the annual Day of Atonement. The Pharisees, however, chose to fast two days before and two days after each of the three major feasts. But this overachiever announces to God that he puts a fence around the fence! He fasts two days every week. The faithful in the Old Testament were only commanded to tithe their grain, oil, and wine. But this Pharisee makes no exceptions, claiming simply, “I give tithes of all that I get.” Surely those listening would be impressed by such a high standard of righteousness.
And the tax collector? Sensing his defiled ceremonial status, the tax collector chooses to stand apart from the other worshipers in order to pray. The accepted posture for prayer in the temple was to look down and keep one’s arms crossed over the chest, like a slave before his master. But the tax collector is so distraught over his sins that he beats his chest where his heart is located. In the Middle East, generally speaking, only women beat their chests; men do not. Occasionally, women at particularly tragic funerals beat their chests.
In the Bible, the only other case of people beating their chests is at the cross when the crowds (presumably both men and women), deeply disturbed at what had taken place, beat their chests just after Jesus died (Luke 23:48). If it requires a scene as distressing as the crucifixion of Jesus to cause both men and women to beat their chests, then clearly the tax collector of this parable is deeply distraught!
And notice what the tax collector says as he engages in this extraordinary act. Most English translations render his prayer with the words: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” But this text does not use the common Greek word for “mercy.” Instead, it uses a theological term that means “to make atonement.” A more literal rendering of his prayer would be, “O God, make atonement for me.”
Not only that: Remember where this takes place—in front of the altar in the temple courtyard. The tax collector listens to the blowing of the trumpets and the clash of cymbals, hears the reading of the psalm, and watches blood splashed on the sides of the altar. He sees the priest disappear inside the temple to offer incense before God. Shortly afterward, the priest reappears announcing that the sacrifice has been accepted and the sins of Israel’s people have been atoned. The trumpets blow again, and the incense wafts to heaven. The great choir sings, and the tax collector, beats his chest and cries out, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!”
Jesus declares, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
Whenever I hear this parable, my initial reaction is “Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee!” But such a statement proves that I am just like him. You are, too! There’s a Pharisee inside of each of us. Old Adam, is at the core, proud and self-righteous. By nature, you’re tempted to believe that God loves you because of something about you. If you’re attractive, you’re happy that you’re better looking than others. If you’re smart, you’re happy that you’re smarter. If you’re a hard worker, you’re happy that you’re not a slacker like so many are today.
That is simply how the sinful nature makes you think: you measure yourself by how you’re better than others. You find your worth in what you’ve got that others don’t. It can be a subtle form of contempt, but it is contempt all the same. And if that is how you think, then that is how you present yourself to God: “God, I’m happy that I’m not like those other people.” And there you go, sounding just like the Pharisee. But the truth is this: standing before God is a great leveler. No matter the amount of giftedness, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Your worth, your value before God does not come from who you are, but whose you are. Your worth before God does not come from yourself, but from the truth that you have been bought by the blood of Christ, crucified and raised for you.
And so you can gratefully confess: “Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee! Oh, I’ve sinned like him, that is sure. I’ve looked down on others and held my self-righteousness before God. But like the tax collector, I confess that I am a poor, miserable sinner who has offended God with my sins and justly deserves His temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ For the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”
Upon this your confession, God’s called and ordained servant announces God’s grace unto you. In Baptism, you were clothed with Christ’s righteousness, adopted as a child of God, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The bread and wine given to you at this altar are Christ’s very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  
You go home justified. Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on you and has given His only Son to die for you. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 343 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008).

Friday, October 14, 2016

When God Gives You the Silent Treatment

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“And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? I have absolutely no idea. My help supposedly comes from the Lord, but I haven’t seen it yet! It seems the one who made heaven and earth doesn’t have anything left to give me. Is He asleep or on vacation? Is He angry with me? Perhaps I’ve offended Him in some way. Or maybe He just doesn’t care.
I know. That’s not the way that Psalm 121 goes, but sometimes it seems that way; doesn’t it? Sometimes it feels like God isn’t paying attention. You’ve had those days, haven’t you? When it looks like God doesn’t care. That He must be angry with you. That He is screening His calls. What do you do when God is slow to answer your prayers? What do you do when God gives you the silent treatment?
Most of the popular books on the Christian life and prayer give an unrealistic picture. They read as if we live in the best of all possible worlds where God’s rule is largely unchallenged. They have much to say about victory, triumph, and peace, but very little about struggle, failure, and conflict. These writers give the impression that once people have faith in Christ, they escape the troubles of the world and lead blissful lives free from all that ails most people. We have to go a long way before we hear the comforting message that we must undergo many trials before we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
Things get worse when we move from books to our own ordinary, everyday conversation. We usually are quite ready to talk about our successes, but are rather reluctant to mention our failures. It is as if everything unpleasant and incriminating has been censored from the stories of our lives.
From my experience, this tendency to gloss over failure is all too common among Christians. It is as if we observe a secret taboo against failure. Now that may stem from a healthy reluctance to burden others with our problems, as well as a natural defense against the possibility of criticism. No one likes a whiner! But it could also come from an unhealthy attempt to avoid hurt and deny loss in the hope that what remains unmentioned will cease to exist.
This conscious and unconscious censoring of experience, has certain inevitable negative effects on us as individuals, as well as on the Church. First, it can create an air of unreality that confirms the cynicism of religious skeptics and confuses new disciples in their naivety. Second, it stops people from facing reality together with God and thus short-circuits the process of spiritual growth. Third, it creates intolerable tensions within those who honestly struggle with the disparity between their own obvious deficiencies and the apparent triumphs of others. These strugglers conclude that they haven’t made the grade spiritually and may even decide that they don’t belong to the Church, since it appears to be a club for a spiritual elite rather than a hospice for sinners. Fourth, since people never mention their troubles to each other, we can’t bear one another’s burdens in prayer. Last, and worst of all, it gives Satan room to attack the Church through the evil and the hurts that have not yet been resolved just because they have been repressed.
The censoring of experience is much like the taboo against anger in many households. Since it is considered wrong to get angry, the members of these families never express their anger with each other, even when they are hurt and feel angry inside. This anger, however, is not dispelled by the prohibition against it; it is merely repressed and entrenched more deeply than ever before. Such people never learn how to get rid of their anger in a healthy, socially accepted way. Instead, they cease to show their feelings and withhold affection from each other. They commit a kind of emotional suicide.
As a Christian, you know that you shouldn’t harbor doubts about God’s goodness, nor should you feel hostile toward the people around you. But you do. And you don’t receive much help from the Church in dealing with the fact that you do. Where can you turn when you feel that God has betrayed and abandoned you? How can you get rid of your bitterness, anger, rage, and even hatred toward those people who have humiliated and hurt you? What can you do with the guilt and shame you feel about your failure to be the kind of person you should be? What hope is there for you if you are overcome by depression or anxiety? People seem to think that such experiences and feelings are out of place in the life a Christian. And so we deny these troubles and hope they will go away. The pity of it is that by this very trick of denial we miss out on the best opportunities for healing and spiritual growth. The person who avoids his own troubles may, in fact, avoid God and miss God’s work in his life.
The Bible is full of God’s promises to hear the prayers of His people. For example, we have this promise in Psalm 34:17: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of their troubles.” Yet God quite often does not appear to keep His promises. He does not immediately appear to provide for what we need and heal us when we are sick. He does not instantly appear to deliver us from evil and defend us when we experience injustice. All too often, God seems to be silent and unhelpful just when we need Him most.
Popular piety maintains that good Christians prosper. That’s what the preachers on T.V. say. That’s what they write in their books. Yet our own experience contradicts that expectation. Things go wrong for us. And when we ask God for help, nothing much seems to happen. Things may even get worse. When God fails to answer our prayers, we feel that He is either not what He claims to be, such as just, gracious, and compassionate, or that He is so angry with us that He has abandoned us. So we, quite rightly, feel disappointed and angry with God.
Unfortunately, popular piety also forbids us to complain to God. Complaining is synonymous with disrespect and unbelief. In such a religious climate, where, then, can you go to complain when you feel that God has let you down? I mean, it’s not exactly like you can speak to His supervisor, is it? What can you do when God gives you the silent treatment?
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus uses the parable of the persistent widow to teach His disciples (and us) to not lose heart and keep on praying even when God seems to be silent and unresponsive. This widow has experienced injustice in a court of law. The court has backed her adversary, even though she was in the right. But she does not give up. She goes beyond the law and appeals directly to the judge outside the court because she knows he is not a stickler for legality or conventional morality.
It would seem that such appeals are unlikely to produce a ruling in the widow’s favor. People cannot appeal to him saying “For the sake of God,” because he doesn’t fear God. Nor can anyone plead, “for my sake,” because he says he does not care what anyone thinks about him. He possesses no inner sense of honor or moral code to which petitioners can appeal. And he really sees no need to change. After all, she’s only a widow. She obviously has no one else to stand up for her, no father, uncle, brother, or nephew to speak for her. In Middle Eastern society, women do not go to the courts; men go for them. She must plead her case alone.
The parable presupposes the woman is in the right, but the judge is dragging his feet. Alone and against impossible odds, the widow plays the only card she has: She refuses to be quiet or go away until the judge surrenders. She keeps on demanding justice from him against her “adversary” because he is a vain man who cares for his reputation. This comes out even more clearly in the Greek than our English translation because the judge does not just say that he fears that she will wear him down, but that she will give him a black eye if he does not consider her complaint. Finally, he agrees to settle her case favorably just to be rid of her.
Jesus uses the rabbinic principle of interpretation “from the light to the heavy.” If in this somewhat humorous scene, such persistence pays off, how much more is persistence appropriate in prayer where we kneel before a compassionate God? Jesus makes clear that we are not in the presence of a grim judge who is taking bribes from someone else and wants nothing to do with us. On the contrary, in prayer, believers are in the presence of a loving Father who cares for His children.
Unlike that judge, God is truly just; but He is also gracious and merciful. He exercises grace and vindicates us. He sent His only-begotten Son to fulfill the Law in our place. Jesus lived the perfect, obedient life that you and I could not, would not, did not. He died on the cross as the just payment for all the sin of the world, your sin and my sin, included. In Holy Baptism, you are baptized into His death and resurrection. You are clothed with His righteousness and credited with His obedience and holiness. You are vindicated. Declared not guilty. Redeemed by Christ’s holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Forgiven and sustained in faith with His true body and blood.
You may therefore copy this widow by trusting that God will deliver you from your adversary, the devil, and vindicate you. And when things go wrong, as they often will in this fallen world, Jesus commands you to bring your complaints to God daily, even when, perhaps especially when, it seems God gives you the silent treatment. These complaints are evidence of your faith because they assume that even though God may appear to be indifferent, unresponsive, and unhelpful, He is actually just and gracious and merciful and wants to hear and answer your petitions for the sake of His Son. You may appeal to God’s grace in the face of His apparent callousness or wrath, because you know His real character as demonstrated in Son, Jesus Christ. Don’t lose heart. Always pray. Cry to the Lord day and night. And He will give justice speedily.
When commenting on this text, Martin Luther said:
It is not enough just to begin and to sigh once, to recite a prayer and then to go away. As your need is, so should your prayer be. Your need does not attack you once and then let you go. It hangs on, it falls around your neck again, and it refuses to let go. You act the same way! Pray continually, and seek and knock, too, and do not let go. … Since your need goes right on knocking, therefore, you go right on knocking, too, and do not relent.[i]
After all, why should some affliction be more persistent than you? You’re a holy child in the care of God the Father, while your affliction is a conquered nothing that can do you no lasting harm. It is so because God has justified you speedily, already for Jesus’ sake. He doesn’t leave you alone to battle your afflictions, but bids you. “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22). There is no despair for you! You do not cease praying and you do not lose heart, because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 21, p. 234). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Faithfulness Is Proved in Hard Times

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you’” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It seems fitting that on the day of the year our congregation celebrates the faithfulness of the women of the LWML that our text would highlight the faithfulness of a woman—Ruth, a young widow who refused to leave her widowed mother-in-law, or turn her back on the Lord, the covenant God of Israel, even though it meant an uncertain future, a life likely filled with hardship and loneliness.
Imagine moving to a foreign country, a place where your people are considered the enemy. A place where you know only one other living person. Not only that, you’re going there as a pauper, a widow in what should be your most productive years with no real prospects for a husband or children. Common sense tells you that you’ve got a better chance going back and staying with your parents. You’re still young. They could take care of you until they are able to arrange another marriage with someone from your own people. How could you leave? What would cause you to go even when it defies all common sense? I would suggest there is one thing: faithfulness. Faithfulness is proved in hard times.
It was the time when the judges ruled over Israel. A famine struck the land of Judah and Ephraim, but not the higher plateau of Moab farther to the east. As a result, Bethlehem of Judah was not able to feed its people. This is ironic because Bethlehem means “house of bread.” There was bread in foreign Moab, but the cupboards of Bethlehem were bare.
Elimelech belonged to the clan of Ephrath, which was the name of Bethlehem when Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. Old Testament genealogies tie Ephrath to Caleb, the faithful spy, and to Bethlehem. A well-known reference to Bethlehem Ephrathah is Micah’s prophecy of the Savior’s birthplace (5:2).
Elimelech and his family sought refuge in Moab, a move that put them outside the area of both their faith and Israel’s law. Pressed by hard times, Elimelech went to an enemy land, apparently failing to trust in God. We would have expected a faithful Israelite to bear such hard times as chastisement for sinfulness, sent to move them to repentance, or as a discipline for strengthening their faith, instead of trying to avoid it, for the Lord promises He will gladly come to the aid of His believers in need. God works in mysterious ways according to the theology of the cross as He brings about salvation through suffering.
For an Israelite, a major deterrent from leaving his home was the fact that his personal real estate was really on loan to him from the Lord ever since the land of Israel had been parceled out among the tribes, clans, and families. It was his duty as a member of the covenant people to retain his inheritance faithfully, for it was a personal sign to his family of God’s gracious covenant, a down payment on God’s promise of eternal life. To abandon it or to sell it to strangers, except because of extreme poverty, would be tantamount to reneging on the covenant, on one’s bond to the Israelite community, and on one’s bond to both ancestors and descendants.
The Hebrew indicates that when Elimelech left, he fully expected to return to Israel. The Lord had other plans. Elimelech died and left behind a widow and two unmarried boys. Still, Naomi was not without hope. With her sons’ marriages to Orpah and Ruth, the family line might be continued. But alas, Mahlon and Chilion also died. To be deprived of both husband and sons and to be too old to remarry was the worst possible situation for a woman in ancient society. Naomi’s family had all but died out.
Hearing that the famine was over, Naomi left for Bethlehem. As her two daughters-in-law accompanied her, Naomi tried to make it clear that she wished to return to Bethlehem alone. Naomi had two wishes for Orpah and Ruth. First, she prayed that the faithful love of the Lord would remain theirs in recognition of their loyalty to their dead husbands. Perhaps here we have a hint that both women had been touched by the faith of the family into which they had married. The Hebrew word hesed, is translated as “deal kindly” in the ESV, but it is better rendered “show faithfulness," an action rooted in God’s own mercy, love, and faithfulness. As with love, faithfulness is learned by people from God’s gift of it to them. We are faithful to God and His people because He first showed us faithfulness.
Secondly, Naomi wished for the two women the security that a new marriage would provide. She used the word rest, used elsewhere to describe the blessings that come as the result of God’s promises. Having blessed them, Naomi gave each woman what she thought would be a final good-bye kiss. But both insisted that they intended to walk the whole journey with her back to Bethlehem.
Naomi took a firmer tone with her daughters-in-law. She laid the facts before them. Marriage was what these two women needed. But, as foreigners in Bethlehem, marriage would be next-to-impossible. Yes, levirate marriage was technically possible, but such a scenario was highly improbable. No, the prospects of remarriage were much better for Orpah and Ruth if they stayed in Moab.
Naomi’s words convinced Orpah. She left, wishing to be a wife again. Ruth stayed, content to remain a daughter. Our text tells us Ruth clung to Naomi. This word is an interesting choice because it can be used to describe the relationship between husband and wife. It first appears in Genesis in the account of the marriage of Adam and Eve: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (2:24). Clinging or holding fast is a strong description of a close relationship.
The term can also refer to Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord. The Lord clings to His people through His promises, and His people cling to Him in faith. Thus Joshua reminds the people of Israel: “Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all His ways and to keep His commandments and to cling to Him and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5).  
Here, Ruth clung to Naomi with the same fierceness and commitment—literally and emotionally. Her actions are startling, but her words to Naomi are even more so: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
  Ruth called upon the Lord as witness of her pledge never to separate from Naomi as long as they both lived in this earthly life, and, moreover, to remain by her even after death and burial. Thus even if one should die before the other, the separation would be only temporary, for they would be buried in the same family plot. Those believers who shared the same burial ground professed their union in faith in Israel’s God, also implying their reunion in the resurrection. Not even death can separate believers from their Lord, nor permanently from each other.
If Naomi had any doubt about Ruth, it was dispelled by Ruth’s faith in the Lord and commitment to her. Loyalty proves itself in crisis. Faithfulness is proved in hard times. Naomi was left with no alternative but to accept the earnest words of her daughter-in-law. They headed to Bethlehem. Yes, Bethlehem. The story of Ruth begins and ends in Bethlehem. Not just this first chapter, but the whole book. Let’s skip ahead to the final chapter of Ruth and see.
At the city gate of Bethlehem, we find Boaz, a shirttail relative of Elimelech. He announces to the elders and all the people that he is acting as kinsman-redeemer, assuming the rights of redemption to all the land that belonged to Elimelech and his sons, and that he is marrying Ruth the Moabite in order to keep their family line going. Faithfulness is proved in hard times.
All the townspeople and elders pray that the Lord will make the marriage of Ruth fruitful like that of Rachel, Leah, and Tamar. These foreign women with ties to Bethlehem had given birth to the descendants of Israel. Judah and Tamar were direct ancestors of Boaz through their son Perez. The Lord has been working behind the scenes to produce a husband for Ruth, but even more importantly, to continue the Messianic line. God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times.
Shortly after their marriage, Ruth conceived and bore a son. They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Yes, that David, the shepherd boy of Bethlehem, who grew up to be the greatest king in Israel.
David would be known for his faithfulness. In fact, David was called by God, “a man after My own heart.” Still we know David wasn’t perfectly faithful. He fell into sin and he fell hard. But God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times. By God’s grace, David repented and was forgiven. David trusted in the promise of Savior from sin who would come from his own family line and reign on his throne forever. God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times.
In due time, this Son of David was born in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ is the Redeemer who saved more than a poor family and their land; He redeemed a whole world of poor, miserable sinners with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, bringing all who believe on Him forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Here is the one who demonstrated perfect faithfulness to God and His people even unto death, and death on a cross, at that. God’s faithfulness is truly proved in hard times.
This is Good News for you and me who are not always so faithful. There are times when you also might be tempted to leave behind or disregard the Lord’s gifts to you. The death of a loved one or the loss of a job, income, or house might cause you to doubt the faithfulness of the Lord. Such hard times can be like your own personal famines. You may be tempted to pursue other avenues of support or help that are not God-pleasing or just forget that God is waiting to provide, though it may not be obvious how and it may not happen as quickly as you wish. You may feel as though God is absent and not working in your life. You may not be able to see His work behind the scenes. You may even ask, “Where is the Lord?” God in His hiddenness can seem so distant and arbitrary.
The temptation in such times is to try to figure out what God is doing and why. Have you sinned in some specific way? Is God trying to tell you something about how you need to change or do something differently?
It is not to God’s hiddenness that you should look in times of struggle and pain. It is not to yourself that you should turn. Rather, you look to God in His revealed self. God reveals Himself in mercy in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is to Him you cling, like Ruth clung to Naomi and like God clings to you. Clinging to Christ crucified, you ride out the storm brought on by God in His hiddenness. God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times.
So come, take solace in the Church, where God’s revealed means of grace are found. Remember your Baptism, cling to the water and Word that made you a child of God. Partake of Christ’s very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, given and shed for you. There in His Word and Sacraments is where God’s faithfulness to you is most clearly demonstrated. And sometimes, when you come out on the other end of hard times, you can look back and see the marks of God’s other means for working mercy—the people who love you, the random strangers encountered on the way, the timing of everything—although you could not see these things before.
God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times. As St. Paul writes of Jesus and His work of salvation: “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:12–13). Go in peace! For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Into the Wilderness

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