Tuesday, February 9, 2016

By Grace, Not by Works


11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, [1] a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”
 9 And David says,
“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and bend their backs forever.”
11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion [2] mean! (Romans 11:1-12 (ESV)
“But if it is by grace, then it is no longer on the basis of works. Otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
So Paul points to the problem, what the Jews strive for with works is given to the gentiles, and the remnant of the Jews by grace. If salvation is to be obtained it is to be obtained by grace that is as a gift. And if you work for the gift, it will be taken from you and given to another. Work for a gift? Who does that? It’s actually fairly common when it comes to the gift of salvation, and thus we lose it.
At times, accepting a gift is a humiliating experience. Some people call it “taking charity,” and they are too proud to take charity. What Paul here exposes as the problem for Israel, is all too often our problem even as Christians that no better. Paul here is showing how God remains true to his promises to Israel, and what that will finally mean for the whole world. If there rejection means riches for the world, their inclusion will mean so much more! But they will be included in the same way the gentiles are included, by grace and not by works. So to obtain salvation, to receive the gift a person has to despair of works.

It isn’t that they can’t do works, to that topic Paul will turn momentarily, but the works cannot be done with the purpose of pacifying God, or trying to earn his good graces. To approach works in such a manner as that is to create an idol, it is to trust in the work rather than the gift. It is one or the other, a man cannot have two masters. But the grace of God inspires us to work for his kingdom, inspires us with joy, and this sort of thing radically changes the nature of the work to be done, as well as the attitude with which it is approached.  And then we rejoice because God uses even our failures for his purposes, even as he used the failure of the Israelites to bring salvation to the gentiles. This is a God who turns the whole world upside down. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Transfiguration

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, [2] which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; [3] listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. Luke 9:28-36 (ESV)

42:1 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:1-3 (ESV)
And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”
The point was to bring to mind Isaiah 42 and the suffering servant. This transfiguration happens shortly after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. They knew that they were seeing God in the flesh, that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God dwelt bodily. They knew he was the Messiah, but they were having trouble understanding what that meant. Immediately after this confession, Jesus starts talking about going to Jerusalem, about being handed over, about suffering and dying. Peter is horrified. I dare say we would have been too, perhaps we still are.
As goes the Lord so goes the servant. If they call Jesus Beelzebub, can the disciples ask for anything better. It is enough for the student to be like the Master, to be like his teacher. Christ’s suffering meant that his disciples would suffer, that all his disciples would suffer for his name’s sake, including you and including me.
This isn’t what we want to hear. Suffering is part of this world. Being born of flesh and blood, suffering belongs to our primordial memories. It is not without reason we break the womb with wails and screaming. Suffering, it is precisely this that we hope to be saved from! As far as Peter was concerned Christ had it all wrong, the Messiah was supposed to eliminate suffering. The Messiah was supposed to usher in a golden age of wealth and privilege that would make King Solomon look like small potatoes. So Peter, and the rest of the disciples could not comprehend that the man they knew to be the messiah was talking of suffering. But Jesus understood what it meant to be the Chosen one.
A bruised reed he would not break, a smoldering wick he would not snuff out, he would faithfully bring forth Justice, righteousness. This is what he came to do. In all our efforts to avoid suffering, we only bring on more. Jesus knew the futility of that path for mankind. And he knew that there was no avoiding it for mankind. See, Jesus says a man must pick up his cross and follow him. But the cross is his, it belongs to the man who picks it up. It really isn’t as if we could avoid crosses in this life. The question is, what are we going to do with the cross, are we going to let it kill us in vain, or are we going to follow Jesus with it? Jesus knew there was only one answer to our suffering in this world, and that was that he would suffer in our place, alongside us and blaze a trail through the kingdom of death that would lead to an open tomb. So he goes to Jerusalem. So he has himself handed over. So he suffers in our place and dies in our stead. And this is why the Father says that Jesus is his chosen one in whom he delights. Because the Father knows that in him the world will be restored, in him we will have salvation. So he tells them to listen to him, who stands before us today transfigured in white. And we listen to him, because he will not break the bruised reed, he will not quench the faintly burning wick, but to them he says, “Take heart, the world will give you tribulation, but I have overcome the world.” To them he says, “Take eat this is my body… Take drink, this cup is the New Testament in My Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And this he is able to say because he was the chosen one, the one chosen to suffer and die that we might live.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Have They Not Heard?

18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.”
 19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
 20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
“I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
 21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
(Romans 10:18-21 (ESV)
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth.” There are some people who seem to think Jesus Christ cannot come back yet, because the world has not been evangelized. These people need to read scripture. There is a reason people aren’t sure whether or not Paul thought Jesus would come back in his generation. It is because Paul was very well aware that the possibility existed in his generation. Paul understood that everything had been fulfilled already in his day. And for him this was all the more reason to preach the good news today. There was no ulterior motive for Paul. He was not trying to bring about Armageddon or the golden age of the millennium or any such other thing, he was trying to save people before the day of judgment fell upon them all, that he might save some he would say.  The gospel has indeed reached the ends of the earth. Paul was not ignorant of the fact that there were people outside the Roman Empire. He was aware that there were peoples and nations he had never heard of, and yet he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is aware that neither Jew nor gentile can rely on the excuse that they have not heard, neither can they say they have not understood. He is also realizes that his people will reject the gospel for the most part. It isn’t antisemitism that causes him to write this way. It is the reality he sees. Paul does not count the Jewish people as saved in any other manner than what saves the Gentiles. If it is not Christ, then it is no one. Jesus Christ is Lord! 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How Can They Believe?


 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? [3] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:13-17 (ESV)
“So faith comes from hearing.” The act of election is not an event in the distant past, a roll call taken before time in which God arbitrarily condemns some and saves others. God’s election happens in and through the preaching of his word and the administration of his sacraments here in time. This is why our confessions say the church is to be found where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution. We trust that the Holy Spirit is at work there calling people by the gospel and forgiving sins. This is sanctification, the concreted application of justification, which is always objective and universal.

Furthermore, this is why Christ has instituted his church, to see that this work is done. This is the purpose of the church. And this is why one can’t truly be Christian and voluntarily separate himself from the church. Sure, there are times when a Christian finds himself without a church that he can be a part of. However, this is normally not the case. Being a member of a local congregation is in and of itself and act of Christian love. It is a recognition that God has given us all different gifts, but has also incorporated us all into his body to be one with one another. It is an act of forgiveness to receive forgiveness with fellow sinners. And more than that it is a recognition that the work God has entrusted to the church is work that is necessary for your community also. It is love also for your neighbor who isn’t a Christian and perhaps resents the presence of the church in his community. Here God is at work creating Christians. 

I'm going to add to this a bit. Pastors can't work without a congregation to support them. Pastors often get a lot of credit for the work they do. But realize this, when you see a baby being baptized, that happened because of your offerings. When you see families becoming members of your congregation that is the Lord blessing your work in that congregation. The pastor may be the primary individual involved in evangelism, but it is you who make that work possible. We can't all deliver pizzas to each other. Neither can we all be pastors, nor can we all be lay people. And if we work hard at our vocations and attend our families needs it is perhaps unrealistic to think that we should also be knocking on doors. Perhaps, we have time and inclination to do that, perhaps we don't. It doesn't mean that we are any less valued by God, or that we aren't pulling our part. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The End of The Law, Jesus Christ

4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:4-13 (ESV)
“Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  Paul expands on this, what it means to believe, and how it is that Christ has put an end to the law. The law never could give righteousness, the only man that ever fulfilled it was righteous from birth. The rest of us could only be condemned by it. But now Christ is the end of the law. Christ is our righteousness, Christ is our sanctification.

So Paul starts playing on Moses. Moses had spoken to the Israelites concerning the commandments. He explained what a privilege it was to have them, and what the responsibility was. He said it wasn’t far off, they should be in your heart and in your mouth so that you would live by them. They aren’t far off. Well neither is Christ far off. He isn’t up in heaven to be retrieved, he isn’t among the dead to be raised. He lives at the right hand of God. That is he now has all the power and authority of God even as a man. He lives. And he is at work through his word by which he takes up residence in your heart that your mouth would confess his name and call upon it. This is what it means that Jesus Christ is Lord. The oldest of the Christian creeds. It is a statement of faith that identifies Jesus with the name above all names, the name of God himself. It is his name that saves. It is his name that does what the law never could do for us. His name makes us righteous. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Live to Love, Love to Live in the Grace of God


30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness [4] did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
(Romans 9:30-33 (ESV)
10:1 Brothers, [1] my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.
(Romans 10:1-3 (ESV)
“That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness by faith.”
I’m following the lead of Bo Giertz here. He treats Romans 9:30-10:3 as one section in his commentary. He also shows just how dangerous the idea of works righteousness is. Slowly I translate these commentaries bit by bit, mostly in half hazard fashion as I’m working on this blog, and other bible studies and sermon prep. The wonderful thing about them is that they are much more than commentaries, they are like little devotions or sermons. In this manner they richly reflect the tradition of Luther in his commentaries. And in my opinion, this makes them much better than many of the dry and tedious volumes pecking at syntax and parsing the prose. Bo actually lets the text speak. I’ll admit, there are times when I look at my translation schedule for the week and cringe under the weight of self-appointed deadlines. But when I’m in the thick of translating and reading what he writes I find myself refreshed by the gospel every time. I can’t wait to make these available to the English speaking public. Enough of that.

Paul here points out that doing one’s best and having a zeal for God is not enough, and it is precisely our desire to make this enough that causes the gift of God to be the stumbling block it is. “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” I mean this is incredible. We are to believe in a rock of offense, a stone of stumbling. And what an offense it is! It offends our Old Adam right down to the core! How can God do it? How can God look at all my zeal for him, how can he look at all the good works I have done to try earn his good graces and turn up his nose at them by letting the no good scoundrel down the street into his kingdom when he has 5 children by four mothers? We are enraged when we ought to be rejoicing with angels. This is the great stumbling block. The Gentiles don’t pursue righteousness but attain it by faith. And all those intent on working for it, whether Jew or gentile find themselves outside of the grace of God, knocking at the gates of hell to let them in. No, it is our self-righteousness, our pride, our Old Adam that is most intent on working his way into heaven. And it is sin. It’s great to try keep God’s commandments, it is great to have a zeal for God. But when you think your best is enough to please God, and that God should count it as something you fail to comprehend the gravity of your sin, you fail to comprehend the need for the cross. The Jews had zeal, the Jews did their best to keep the commandments, but they let that get in the way of God’s grace. With Christ it is different. Christ bestows upon us his grace, the word of God by which man lives, and in this grace we let love, which is not arrogant or rude, we let love take hold. This love washes over us in the waters of baptism like a spring rain that brings to life the flowers of the plain. In this grace we live to love, and love to live because he first loved us, the stumbling block laid in Zion that saved the scoundrel down the street, and more than that, even saved you with your hard heart. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Good News of the Kingdom of God

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. 33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! [2] 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.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. 36 And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 37 And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.
38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon's house. Now Simon's mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.
 40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.
42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4:31-44 (ESV)
“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
The good news of the kingdom of God, this was the central message of Jesus Christ. It is what he preached in Nazareth, in Capernaum, and in the towns of Judea, which in this context most certainly means Galilee. But what was this good news of the kingdom of God? The content of his preaching is known from the recordings of his parables, The Prodigal Son, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, His Sermon on the Mount. Here we have a short summary in Luke of the content of Christ’s preaching in Capernaum, and what he would go to preach in the villages of Judea. He would preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. For Jesus Christ, this was more important than anything else.
I have to say, like the inhabitants of Capernaum, we do not always share this sentiment with Jesus Christ. At first the people of Capernaum were amazed at the authority with which Christ preached. Authority he confirmed by healing the sick and casting out demons. His preaching captured their attention because he didn’t preach like the rabbis that qualified their assertions and appealed to ancient authorities, or teachers from the generation of their fathers who led in the Maccabean revolt. They would teach the traditions of men rather than speak the clear word of scripture. And through it all they would burden the consciences of the people. There was no gospel in what they preached, no good news. And that was the real difference. Jesus proclaimed good news, he spoke of the kingdom of God that was upon them. Instead of tying heavy burdens upon the people with the law, he would walk, heal and pick grain to eat on the Sabbath. And to show that he had the authority to forgive sins he would tell the man to get up and walk, he would cast out the demons, he would even cure Peter’s mother in law from her fever. But with that, the fascination with his preaching, the forgiveness of sins, the good news of the kingdom, the fascination with all that dried up. Now there were more pressing problems to deal with.
We are like that, we think the problem that we are dealing with now is the most important. Everything else can wait. So we live crises to crises with little to no long term planning, very rarely searching to see what is at the bottom of our problems the root source of our afflictions and what might be done about them. We are, as it were, more concerned with the symptoms than with the disease. We would rather suppress the symptoms than have concern for a cure. Perhaps we just take the gospel for granted. What we really want is God to fix our spouse, make them more loving or attentive toward us. What we really want is perhaps to hear how we should vote in the upcoming election so that we can fix all the other problems we perceive in our lives with taxes, medical care, abortion and homosexual marriage, or a host of other problems we think are more important than the sin raging within our bones marching us to the grave, and if it has its way to the lake of fire created for the devil and his angels.
This is what Jesus came to take care of, a problem bigger than anything we can imagine, a problem that could not be solved with any law. For if there was a law by which man could be justified Jesus would not have had to die. So he came to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.
Good news, it is what the word gospel means. Good news, this is news that causes for great joy in a person’s life. The kind of news that opens champagne and makes a man dance in the street. It’s your boss telling you he has given you a %10 raise and is sending you on vacation for a job well done. It’s an election night that goes your way. It’s the news that Osama Bin Laden died of acute lead poisoning and justice was served. And when you fully comprehend the entirety of Christ’s message this is the result. Because the good news of the kingdom of God is that you had a death sentence on your head. If justice was to be served you would spend all eternity in hell in more anguish and pain than this world can even give you a foretaste of.
I mean, I think about that, people living in this world with all its pain and suffering, the torture of cancer, the pain of chemo. I think about all the emotional hell he put ourselves and those we love through because of our selfish conceit. The stress we add to our lives with credit card debt. The burdens we lay upon ourselves to be successful in this or that endeavor when so much of it is out of our control. And then I think of those who die, can you imagine living through this pain only to die and find more? That was our death sentence, that is what we had waiting for us. And then Jesus came. Then Jesus died. Then Jesus rose from the dead! And then Jesus who comes again to judge the living and the dead looked upon you and poured water on your head saying your sins are forgiven. Then Jesus invited you to the feast of forgiveness saying take eat this is my body, take drink this cup is the new testament in my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. And now the problems of this world don’t seem so bad. We get to leave them behind for an eternity in the presence of God to bask in the glory of his love.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.