No Time to Tempt God

“Jesus said to him,

Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’

This is no time to tempt God. The world-wide health crisis is pushing almost everything to extremes. This should come as no surprise. We have been thrown up against our limits. Our fragility and mortality, always lurking in the corners, are now on full display. What do we do?

Most obviously, we should respond with a sober pragmatism and do everything we can to minimize the impact of the crisis. Follow the rules:

1.Stay at home if at all possible.

2. Wash your hands and often.

3. Avoid touching your face.

4. Practice ‘social distancing ‘ – a phrase we will never forget!

5. Cough into your elbow.

These are no nonsense practices that apply equally to all. No religious sensibility of any sort is necessary to see the value in these. And see the value we should.

That brings me to stories I am hearing that describe people who are ignoring these practices because God will protect them. Now, I will be the last person to minimize the absolute importance of trusting God but let’s hold on a minute and think about this.

God has placed us in the world and in the world we operate within the processes of nature. We may wish we could fly like the birds but I don’t recommend jumping off your roof! And I can assure you that if you do, angels will not come to your rescue. The ones who will, if you are still breathing, will be the local EMT’s.

Say your prayers, by all means. There is no better time, in fact, than when the storms are gathering and our frailty is on full display. I recommend praying the Psalms, most of which are laments. But after you have prayed, get up off your knees and get busy doing what you can to assist your family, friends, business associates and neighbors in the practical business of responding to the crisis at hand. There will be plenty of time later to discuss all of this and the thorny questions in relation to God.

But for now, trust God’s word of promise… and wash your hands.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds

in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

WHY?

The Book of Genesis tells of the flood which destroyed a sinful humanity. When it was over, God made a promise that He would never take such action again. In other words, God imposed upon Himself a restraint, a limit. No matter how evil humanity was, God’s way with the world would not be to overpower it with force. The innocent suffering and death of Jesus are the clearest expression of God’s intent to enter into and participate in the suffering of the world. This way of facing suffering and evil, the Bible tells us, has broken the power of evil, anticipating the end of suffering. Still, suffering persists. Some suffering stems from the indifference of nature. Much suffering results from our abuse of the human will.

The ‘why’ questions that come out of such suffering do not all run in the direction of God. Asking ‘why’ can also serve to mobilize human efforts to address the conditions and circumstances that resulted in such terrible suffering and death. For there are many instances of suffering that have little mystery attached to them, such as the current pandemic we are facing. The causes may be discerned and solutions reached.

There is also the question of what we do with suffering. How do we handle it? Do we simply shake our fists at the heavens, lamenting in grief and bitterness? There is a place for that, no doubt. At the same time, suffering can take us outside of ourselves and into the suffering of others. Suffering can make us more aware of the fragile, vulnerable character of life and motivate us to stand with others in their suffering, while seeking ways to alleviate it.

There are no risk-free zones in this life. Suffering can and will be a companion. As we ask the tough questions of God and of ourselves it may be helpful to look again at the Cross and the man there who also cried out, “Why?” For there we see not only a fragile man who walked in faith with God, we also see a tender, merciful God, who walks in faith with men and women.

This insight does not exhaust the meaning of the Cross, to be sure. Jesus death, after all, was a sacrifice for sin, the end of the law, and no mere example of love. At the same time, the Cross reveals, in the deepest sense, the God who knows and participates in our suffering and who, through suffering, has fulfilled His redemptive purpose.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

EMPLOYING THE POISONOUS TONGUE

I am currently teaching a class on the Small Catechism and we are dealing with the commandments. The following article is based upon notes from that class.

And it is especially an excellent and noble virtue for one always to explain advantageously and put the best construction upon all he may hear of his neighbor, or at any rate to condone it over and against the poisonous tongues that are busy wherever they can pry out and discover something to blame in a neighbor, and then explain and pervert it in the worst way;…”

The words above were written by Martin Luther 500 years ago as he reflected on the meaning of the eighth commandment. To refresh your memory, or perhaps to alert you to it for the first time, that commandment reads as follows:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

I find no surprise in the fact that our society is increasingly characterized by the use of the ‘poisonous tongue’. Now that we have thrown the commandments overboard as relics of a bygone era of religious superstition and moral fussiness, we are ‘free’ to express ourselves in all our liberated, humanist glory. And the current state of affairs is what this liberated glory looks like. We are making a high virtue of shamelessly assigning the worst possible motives to others. Social media, broadcast media and the political environment are an ugly morass of blaming, ridicule and fault finding where people freely employ the poison tongue against others, hiding behind shields of fake, self-justifying virtue.

Martin Luther wrote of this tendency without mincing words:

Those, then, are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but proceed to assume jurisdiction, and when they know a slight offense of another, carry it into every corner, and are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure [baseness], as swine roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout.”

Of course, this ugliness has a way of backfiring as we see all too frequently. The one who lives by the poison tongue, dies by the poison tongue. Such is life when we turn society into a pit of writhing serpents.

The commandments not only call for prohibitions, however, they also point to what is protected and affirmed. So Luther wrote of this commandment,

And it is especially an excellent and noble virtue for one always to explain advantageously and put the best construction upon all he may hear of his neighbor,…”.

I have learned a great deal about this from Christian people and others I have known who, rather maddeningly, have had the gift of actually trying to put the best construction on what others say and do. They have been an examples to me of how we can actually look at others in this way and in doing so, begin to build bridges of empathy and understanding that actually help to bring people together.

So, dear reader, you and I have a choice to make in the midst of daily life; we can revel in the perceived faults of others (while minimizing our own) and join in the herd of muck rolling swine, or we may look kindly and with understanding on others and in so doing join our tongues with the chorus of goodwill that actually serves to bring goodness to bear in our relations with one another.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” Romans 9

The belief in free will in relation to God has become so self-evident that for many it is beyond questioning. The Gospel amounts to an offer that God makes to freely willing wills. After all, the objection goes, we’re not puppets are we?

What the so-called free will argument is really concerned with is preserving the autonomy of the independent self over against God; to remain a continuously intact self that remains in charge. This is probably why free will churches are so appealing and why, when the gospel is discussed, the final word is not Christ’s word of promise to you, God’s decision; but the law’s relentless word to you, that you must do something, take action, make a decision, prove your worth. We love having something to do.

A big problem with decision religion, of course, is that once you begin deciding you can’t stop. That is how life works under the law. The free will needs the law and the law needs free will. There is always more work to do; more principles to follow, more piety to improve upon, always more to do to demonstrate that my freely willing will is serious about all this Christian business. The preachers of the free will, decision gospel must keep prodding the freely willing will to keep willing! I’ve been there and, frankly, it’s exhausting. Maybe you are there. If so, I have good news.

  The logic of the Gospel assumes not a free will where God is concerned but a bound will. 

To be chosen, elected, baptized by the living God is not the result of human willing. The Bible could not be more clear. As St. Paul spells it out; 

“So then it (God’s mercy toward sinners) depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

Did you get that? The gospel, God’s mercy toward sinners, “does not depend upon human will.” The gospel is ‘good news’ precisely because it is not dependent upon human willing. The gospel is a word proclaimed out of the freedom of God to the human will that is bound in sin, for whom every decision has the self at its center.

Paul is declaring all throughout his letters that God, in His perfect freedom, has done some free willing of His own. He has decided to have mercy on you. Jesus Christ has made a decision for you! God is not satisfied when you have closed the deal with your decision. That is nothing more than holding up the law and saying to God, “Accept me because I have done this.” God is satisfied when, in faith, He is justified in His decision, in His word of promise to you. This is the promise that God gives to sinners and that is made personal in your baptism.

Freely willing wills do not like baptism, of course, especially infant baptism. Why? Because infants can’t freely will. And here is where the so-called free wills actual love of human autonomy, of itself, is revealed in all its nakedness. In the end the freely willing will defends the so-called freedom to choose with more determination and passion than God’s actual freedom to willingly have mercy on sinners.

I have been in this conversation countless times over many years with Christians who have attempted to save me from my baptism. With absolute conviction, freely willing willers have tried to convince me that God has actually not had mercy on me because I have not made a free will decision. These free willing wills, actually bound under the law, have been determined to strip me of my assurance in Christ’s decision for me in baptism’s promise (the gospel), put me in spiritual hand cuffs, and return me to an assurance based on my decision (the law), however they may have been motivated. That this prevailing pseudo-christian orthodoxy holds wide sway in the churches gives ample testimony to humanity’s determination to stay in the saddle, even to the point of making war on the grace of God, in the name of God.

Confronting the sinner with the gospel in the form of demand, contingent on free choice, turning the gospel into a law, is of course sin. So, I will say unto you, dear reader, should you be preparing to mount a defense of the free will, what I have said whenever I hear the handcuffs rattling, and continue to say whenever God gives me opportunity: In the name of Jesus Christ I declare God’s gracious, freely-willed decision for you: your sin is forgiven for Jesus sake.

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California

http://www.lightofthemaster.net

Repetition and Meaning

We resist repetition. Those in the marketing business figured this out long ago. So, they continually assist us in fleeing repetition by offering us the next big thing, variety, change.

This formula keeps working, because most of what we consume in this constant diet of change does not satisfy. In fact, it leads to increased restlessness and boredom. What this ought to reveal to us is that we do not fight boredom with constant change.

This insatiable desire to flee boredom has infected the worship of many churches. The objection “It’s boring,” is a common complaint. Actually, the issue is not that worship is boring. The issue which ought to be confronted in those who voice this complaint is why should the church become an accomplice in your restless efforts to relieve yourself of boredom?

All life is repetition. Daily life is made up of all kinds of repetitive patterns, habits, and rituals. We address boredom not by mindlessly chasing the new, but by investing meaning into repetition. If you cannot see the depth of meaning and value in the little repetitions, the little liturgies of daily life, do not expect meaning to result from your efforts to run from them.

My grandmother, Ruth, started each day by spending time with her Bible. This was something she practiced all of her life. After her time with the Scriptures, she went on with her day. The activities she had planned rarely changed: shopping on one day, laundry on another and so forth. I lived with her for a time after my grandfather died. She never struck me as someone who was bored with the ordered life she lived. In the simple, repetitive tasks of daily living, she saw greater meaning. Her life was tuned to the Word of God and she met each day anticipating that Word from Him whose mercy makes all things new.

AGAINST THE SENSUAL WILLFULNESS OF MODERN PAGANISM: THE REVOLUTIONARY CHARACTER OF CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE

During my four decades plus in the pastoral ministry, the Christian church and western society have undergone profound transformation. The religious culture and theology rooted in the Scriptures which for generations had been entrusted to the mainline seminaries to pass on is no longer passed on. The reason is devastatingly simple: those charged with doing so no longer believe in it. Mainline denominational seminaries, beginning primarily in the 1970’s, have gradually transformed theological education into the replication of the faculty’s pet social\theological\political views. Those faculties, largely products of that adolescent dissension movement called the 1960’s, have deliberately set the traditional Christian inheritance at a distance from their students and, by extension, the congregations of the church.

What the latest crop of progressive theologians do believe in is, perhaps, no more evident than in their advocacy of gender and sexuality issues, which represent a radical departure from centuries of Christian thought and practice. The ever-widening definitions of gender and especially the redefining of the institution of marriage to include same-sex relations represents what may well be a fatal blow to the Christian anthropology of the west, the final fences to be pushed over in the quest to nullify all limitations and restrictions and make individual desire the focus of all authority and self-definition. Why members of the Christian church think this is a good idea is hard to understand.

Far from being restrictive, however, Christian marriage was revolutionary in the ancient world. Author Sarah Ruden, in her 2010 book Paul Among the People contends that it is profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a fussy Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagans, ordering them to stop having fun. In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitative especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. (For example, given its population of ten thousand people, the Roman city of Pompeii had roughly one brothel for every 70 male citizens). Do the math across the entirety of the Roman empire and the implications are obvious.

It would be naive to claim that there ever was a golden age of Christianity where all of this fell neatly into place. But Christianity, as articulated by Paul, did work a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with an ethic of agape’ love and likening marriage to the loving, sacrificial relation between Jesus Christ and His Church.

In the light of the current state of our society It is well worth pondering that women in pagan Roman society came to recognize the Christian institution of marriage as liberating in contrast to the culture of pornographic exploitation into which they were born. Given the gender\sexuality mess liberal progressives have produced in the last half century, it may also be appropriate to ponder the fact that the abandonment of traditional Christian marriage, and the ethic of ‘agape’ love it embodied, has also resulted in the virtual mainstreaming of pornography, something the ancient pagan Romans would welcome and applaud. (Not to mention America’s export of the recent Super Bowl half time show with its raw depiction of sexuality viewed by millions, including children). All of this has contributed to the widespread confusion about who human beings are and what they are for. The ancient Christians understood that what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from who they are.

The contemporary progressive church is rampant with examples of complicity in the wider progressive movement to trample down fences in the name of the secular gospel of radical inclusion and radical self-expression. Rather than teaching the Christian that our freedom in Christ is defined by how we limit ourselves for the sake of the self and the neighbor and their good, we are being taught that freedom is found in releasing ourselves from old restrictions on the path to self-transcendence, personal meaning and self-fulfillment. Which is a pretty good description of idolatry.

The late English philosopher Roger Scruton, writing of the petulant desire of the sixties generation (the authors of this current state of affairs) to break down the fences, stated it this way: “The abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellect was really nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy.”

The so-called progressive church, therefore, is actually in the business (unwittingly or not) of dismantling the traditional Christian world view, the sacred order out of which came our concepts of human dignity and rights, by actually encouraging a re-paganizing of sensuality and sexual liberation. Given the high stakes and dire consequences one ought to be suspicious of why Christian progressives are so eager to do so.  For they are not bringing about the kingdom of heaven with these ideas, they are aiding and abetting secular society in precipitating a crisis.

 

 

FAKING IT

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of

heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in,

you stop them.” Matthew 23

Jesus was quick to point out the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be really good at the law. He knew that in their hearts they were anything but interested in keeping the law. They were faking it. And the more sincere they were about being good at the law, the bigger fakers they were. Some things never change.

The church has been and continues to be good at faking it. And the way we fake it is by convincing ourselves that we are actually good at the law, or can be with a bit of sincere effort. And there really are no other options when the preachers of the church fail to distinguish law from gospel and instead prod people into thinking that the Christian life is all about what you are doing for God or the neighbor or to improve your spirituality. ‘If you are a Christian, then you must, ought, should…’ and the prescriptions follow; love like Jesus loved; ‘be a good person (however you define good); avoid certain behaviors or activities; promote justice and peace and the list goes on. We like lists of things to do and things to avoid, and the law is more than ready to provide us with one. So, I start checking off the boxes on whatever law list I am working from and begin to convince myself that I am actually pretty good at this law thing. After all, I got the list from the preacher who was using the Bible and shouldn’t he\she know?

What may be hard to take is the knowledge that a lot of preachers are actually faking it and teaching other to be fakers as well. They were sold this bill of goods by someone along the way so now it’s your turn to fall in line with the prescriptions for “true, christian living.” After all, misery loves company so if the preacher has to examine himself\herself in relation to the demands of the Bible why shouldn’t everyone else? So, the law preacher will keep smiling and go on about victory and the joy of the lord and breakthroughs and glory and all the other spiritual superlatives, but it’s all a fake. Because in the end Jesus Christ is not preached to sinners as the end of the law for faith, he is re-fashioned into another kinder, gentler version of Moses. After all is said and done, Jesus becomes just one more lawgiver and in trying to follow this fake Jesus, you are stuck with being a fake as you are prodded on by fake preachers.

When Jesus Christ gets involved in this business of faking religion He wants to ‘get real’ and He has plenty to say. In fact, He reserved His most withering criticism for those preachers and teachers who put on a good religious show but were actually fakers and pretenders. Read the entire 23rd chapter of Matthew and substitute the word ‘preacher’ for Scribes and Pharisees. For when it comes to living out the law (which He summarized in the Great Commandment) God looks at the heart, not the number of bodies in the pews or the pious rhetoric of the preacher, or the high production values of the hyper-ventilating praise band, or how many marches for justice you have attended. God looks at your heart. And what does He see? Maybe we’d best not go there. It could get ugly.

So, here is your Word from God for today. Stop faking your Christianity. You are not that good at it anyway. And even if you have everyone else pretty much fooled, you probably know better. And by keeping up the fakery you are missing out on the freedom of faith that Jesus Christ died and was raised to give you, and has given you in the forgiveness of your sin.

St. Paul admonished those preeminent New Testament fakers, the Galatians, with this reminder;

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

In Jesus Christ you are lead away from the slavery and fakery of the religion project, from preoccupation with yourself, so that you might ‘get real’ and breath the ‘free air’ of a living faith. Such faith trust’s God’s external word of  promise as all-sufficient and dives confidently, freely into the feisty, messy business of living, serving the neighbor in love with a joyful daring .

 

THE TRAP OF INWARD RELIGION

Certainty can be hard to come by in a fast-changing, unstable world. And the often

chaotic character of the world around us is matched by the instability in our own lives.

After all, we are not bystanders on the sidelines of the life’s problems. We contribute

our own fair share of dysfunction to the human predicament. Under these

circumstances, how can the Christian know that God is actually for me when I feel the

weight of sin and know that I am responsible for how I have mismanaged the gift of life

in thought, word and deed? Do you feel close to God or are the cares of the world and

crowding in and making you uncertain and uncomfortable about where you stand?

One common response to questions like these is to tell the Christian to look within for

assurance and the certainty of faith. Are you examining yourself to see if your life is

manifesting the fruits of the Spirit? Are you sincere enough in your devotion to God?

Do you really love God and your neighbor as yourself? Is your prayer life what is should

be? Do you feel close to God or are the cares of the world crowding in and making you

uncertain and uncomfortable about where you stand? Are you reading your Bible

enough? Are you doing things for others in order to demonstrate selflessness and

true” christian character? Are you worshiping God sincerely and giving God the glory?

This exhausting list of questions – and I could have added many more – describes the

actual form of Christianity that many live with.

Far from bringing peace and assurance, Inward religion actually reinforces that anxiety

that is a fundamental by-product of self-examination. And the more rigorous the self-

examination, the more anxiety it produces. The religion of self-examination never

really gets off the starting line of faith for the simple reason that it is looking in the

wrong direction. The focus of the Christian faith and life is not meant to be inward but

outward.

Outward looking faith rests in the certainty of God’s promise. The Gospel declares

God’s favor, love and mercy to sinners, the ungodly and by the power of that promise

creates a new identity in those who trust the promise. The promise comes from

outside the self in the proclaimed word and sacraments so that the certainty of the

Christian may rest not in how the Christian feels about his\her spirituality but in God’s

external word of promise. That word is unaffected by the very unreliable and uncertain

contours of the Christian’s thoughts and feelings and often wobbly faith.

But, you may say, there must be more to it than simply relying on God’s promises.

Don’t I have to demonstrate that I am at least trying to be a ‘good christian’? Shouldn’t

I, at the very least, show some sincerity in my Christian walk?

In a word, no. In fact the questions themselves betray a preoccupation with inward

religion. When faith looks inward we could say that faith looks to have faith in itself.

When faith looks outward, to the promises of God handed over in baptism, the Lord’s

Supper and the proclaimed word, faith looks outside itself to its proper object – Jesus

Christ. God does not lie. Therefore, God’s faithfulness to His promises is the bedrock of

the Christian’s assurance.

New Year’s Meditation

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13

As life moves on we accumulate memories. Some memories remain with us like cherished friends, giving comfort, encouragement, and filling the present with an ongoing sense of fulfillment.

Others may haunt us and tinge our lives with sadness, melancholy and guilt. Of these some are rooted in troublesome or tragic events that were beyond our control. A natural disaster struck. The stock market plunged and assets were wiped out. A medical condition fundamentally altered the course of life. Events like these may leave us reeling in an effort to regain our balance, but we feel no remorse. We did not cause them. 

Some memories are of wrongs done to you by others. Someone you once loved rejected you for another. A business associate cheated you. Someone close to you violated a confidence.  Rising above the resulting bitterness or anger may be difficult but the fault, in the end, is not yours. 

But there are still other memories. These are the memories of the wrongs you have done. They demand you deal with them. They are on your hands.

We have all left a debris field of wrongs in the wake of our lives.  And try as we might, we will never clear the wreckage of our past. These deeds follow us and accuse us. What will we do?

Saint Paul urges us to forget it all. But, you may object, surely this is too simplistic. Memories are not that easy to put away. This is true. But Paul dares to invite us to forget, because those accusing memories now belong to Christ Jesus. He paid for them on His Cross.

Therefore, as you enter the new year, know this: Giving your sins to Christ Jesus will not remove the scars. But the open wounds of guilt and remorse will be closed and healed. For when Christ Jesus took your sins upon Himself, He stripped them of all the accusation they contained. It is as if those things of which you are ashamed never happened. You are free-free to press on with confidence toward the glorious future God has prepared for His people!

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Pastor Mark Anderson