The Deaf man lived in a different world, the sounds of the world, the speaking of praise and prayer…the speaking of buying and selling, living, and playing: all shut off, shut down, left out. But he may have not even thought himself disabled and unfortunate. He may have been comfortable with his life and his deafness. He could have adapted to his life, learned sign language, hung out with others like himself or he could have been miserable, and alone, and shunned OR both. Whatever his life, in his Deafness, It didn’t matter…his friends had heard about a miracle worker and they brought him to Jesus.

His ears stopped… Jesus opened them. His tongue stuck… Jesus loosed it.

Jesus healing the Deaf Man by Richard Caemmerer

Jesus healing the Deaf Man by Richard Caemmerer

But there is something more here. The Deaf man’s ears had been stopped from hearing the Word of God…and here and now, the first thing he hears is the Incarnate One speaking to him: directly to him, Ephphatha! That is “BE OPEN!” Like every last one of us, our ears, our hearts, stopped up from the Word of God. We downplay, ignore it, move it to the back burner, pay attention to it when it is convenient, but treat it like we feel it to be: an inconvenient necessity. What has your sin done to your ears and your hearts?

And where has this put our priorities? What has happened to our speech? Do we hang out with others like ourselves, have we made up a [sign] language to communicate what’s convenient rather than what is real and important? We’re privileged with the presidential campaigns in full swing but we don’t need help bringing to light the absurdity of our talk, our lifestyle, our concerns and worries: we’d rather talk about walls and fences between Canada and the USA, global warming and climate change, which movie is better, which sports team is going to win, than how to save the babies and how to uphold marriage.

The Lord knows our present reality. He knows that we are broken, sinful, stopped up. He knows that we’ve all made a mess out of things and the church is not immune. We make doctrine “convenient” talk while life is relegated to the “inconvenient” category and then fill the void of our deaf ears with life while ignoring doctrine.

We talk about gay marriage while our families fall to ruin and slowly our marriages fail.

We talk about abortion while our children are neglected.

We talk about whether a clerk should go to jail for her beliefs while ignoring our neighbor’s needs, the neighbors and coworkers we see everyday.

We would rather tolerate our neighbors, as though that is a virtue, instead of loving them.

Repent. The Kingdom of God has come to open you.

Not sent to heal, but Jesus was sent to preach. It is remarkable that everything that God does in his means of Grace – preaching, baptism, Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the Divine Service – engages your whole self. He gives you your body and all your senses and not only does he take care of them, but he uses them to assure your of your belonging. When you were first called the Holy Spirit washed you with water. Water combined with his Word and with his command, washed over you… in a similar way that Jesus took the Deaf man, he took you. Taken aside, out of the loud and boisterous crowd, the Deaf man has his one on one, face to face meeting with Jesus. And whereas he wasn’t sent to heal, he has COMPASSION. He compassion that moves him to get dirty…to get down in the trenches with the sinner, to lift us up out of our sin and carry us to safety.

And so it was that Jesus really did stick his fingers in the Deaf man’s ears. He groaned and he spat on the ground, he touched his tongue. But then he preached. Ephphatha! That is, “Be Open!” Be Open! Let your ears hear and let your lips be opened and your mouth declare the praises of God. Ephphatha!!

His Holy Spirit calls each of you to this place. Maybe a friend brought you, maybe it was your mom. You might have been comfortable in your sin. You might love your sin very much. You might hang out with people like you and you might have your own language of sin and death. You might be thinking of that right now and how inconvenient it is that you have to be here. And you might be miserable, alone, suffering, and shunned. And you might be both.

Whatever your life, Jesus has found you and brought you here that you might have your ears unstopped and your mouth loosed. He has brought your into his holy ark of the church to be a member of his holy bride. And like the Deaf man, he really does place his resurrected body into your mouth and his blood he pours down your throat. He has COMPASSION on you. Compassion for Jesus is his death and there is no greater love that a man can have for you.

Here is COMPASSION: Jesus dies on the cross of Calvary to win you back, to destroy death and the devil, and to unravel the sting of sin. He was raised for your justification, your reconciliation, for your life. You moved Jesus to action. Your sin and your mess and your deafness, and blindness, brought him to lay down his life and to pick it up again so that you would have life.

So this is where doctrine and life meet. This new testament is even more glorious than the Law’s work of condemnation. The ministry of reconciliation is this: Jesus has reconciled the Father to you, by the shedding of his blood. The New Testament is in the Blood. It undoes the old ministry because Life is in the Blood and He bestows that Life through it. This gives permanent glory. It makes a holy temples in your heart. The Israelites could not look at Moses’ face, but God has taken flesh that we might look Him in the eye, that He might abide with us, and that we would not be afraid to hear Him.

Be opened, O Christian, and be not afraid. He opens you not to destroy you, but to fill you with himself. Now you live in a different world! The sounds of God’s love, the speaking of his forgiveness and life in Jesus, and the living, playing, and joy of God’s kingdom are yours. Rejoice! Jesus spoke you open! He does all things well.


The Fourth Watch of the Night

Mark 6… In the very midst of life… do you know the life you have, governed by science and math. What is gravity to you or how much weight can the surface of the sea hold?? The snares of death surround you. Don’t they? This upward climb of life, all that you endure, do you feel the ground slipping under you? What happens when the world you think you know becomes a world of unknowns and looking out on the sea of life (like you have your whole adult career, you see what MUST be a ghost?) The air getting thin from time to time? How about the sorrows of loss and pain and sickness… and death. Are you lonely, depressed, or hurt? Are you mad or angry? The snares of death surround you. Not only that, the snares of the world, the snares of your flesh, and the snares of Satan’s wily tongue, they would press in on you from every side and finally in the midst of death’s dark vale the powers of hell overtake you.

Who will help you when they assail you? Where shall we for refuge go? In the midst of utter woe, when your sins oppress you, from where does your help come?

Have your sorrows and pain assaulted you for many years? Have you turned every which way and have never found comfort? Have you been pulling on the blanket only to never have it cover you in the cold long years of your life? Or rather, has your sin and sorrow come in the middle of the night, like a thief and in the innocence of your – minding your own business – assaulted you and left you for afraid and fearing a ghost walking on your water?

When faced with that question, we would exhaust our resources. It’s there that your flesh takes over again. Your reason, your own strength, right? How often in this world, in your fight, do you think your are doing the sailing? That you have all the answers or that the world has a teacher that you can find, to be your help. And that is exactly what you have done. You come here, and sail your boat past your God and around waters you think you’ve charted, but you ignore who he really is. And when you think you’ve lost, “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

Do you remember so long ago, the words… “The LORD keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore”? It was spoken at your baptism. It is sung in Psalm 121…to remind you, and not just that, it’s the Spirit telling you that Jesus won’t let you think you’ve troubled the Teacher or to think that you have been abandoned to sin’s oppression. He won’t let you sink into the snares of Satan and his dark stormy waters. It’s there that Jesus bids you into his arms again – to carry you up a different mountain. For your help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Repent – for the Kingdom of God has come to you. He overhears you, he perceives your thoughts, he speaks to you in your sorrow and pain and in the guilt of sin and despair. You have sailed around and about him. You have called him your Lord, but you have not called upon his name in every trouble, you have not prayed, nor given thanks. You’ve used him for your devices and when the going seemed convenient, you’ve used him, but what about when everything is over and sin and death crouch at the door?

It’s just then that Jesus reminds you, like he reminded the disciples, “It is I, do NOT be afraid.” They had sailed that sea so many times before, but the Lord had walked right through their dark night of sorrow and pain, right through the storms of their sins, and getting into the boat he bids them peace.

Do not fear, only believe! Do not fear, your sins are forgiven! I am the Help that comes from the Lord – I made heaven and earth and my Word performs. It performed when I called you out of darkness in the waters of your baptism and it performs today. I’m not a ghost like you presume, IT IS I, your Lord and teacher! I make all things well.

But why would Jesus do such a thing to his poor disciples? Why didn’t he meet them on the other side, or tell them to wait as he dismissed the crowds? Jesus came to those disciples, walking on the water…he came to strip them of their confidence in themselves. He came in the midst of earthly turmoil to point them to the calm of the kingdom of heaven. They heard their master’s voice…they heard what was sure and comfortable in the midst of the persecution of this fallen world, but distracted by the waves, distracted by their own confidence, when we revert back to our sinful ways, we sink. And that is what you fear. To sink…to drown…to die. Your conscience will confirm that the knife of the Law is above you and the stormy water of the Sea of Galilee is below you.

And that is why Jesus walks on the water. The Lord does not stay high above you and watch as you squirm in the waves of life, he comes all the way to the water and the waves. He knows that you will sink and drown, so he comes all the way to the place where you are and holds out his hand and calms you. There in the water he drowns holding you up. It is Jesus that dies when your sin should have killed you. It is Jesus that drowns in that water, hangs upon the tree of the cross – endures what you fear, suffers your death and walks out to you in the storms of your life.

His Spirit gives you faith to call him Lord. His Holy Spirit gives you his death and his life in your baptism. His Holy Spirit opens your ears to hear your Lord say to you, “Come!” “Come!” He says to each one of you, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest! For my yoke is easy and my burden is light and you will find rest for your souls!” Come! But that simple whisper still isn’t enough for your Lord… Christ reaches out his hand and he touches you! He catches you…His body – he puts upon your lips – and his blood he pours into your mouth. And there from his cross he strengthens your faith. And with Jesus, just like Peter and all the saints, you climb into the safety of his boat – which is the church! He is the Son of God, he encamps around you – walks on stormy water to find you, comforts you with his gentle whisper, and with his hands, his feet, and his side, his death delivers you from all your fears. And YOU are FORGIVEN!

Oculi at Emmaus

Satan would have you silent. Holy Scriptures tell you that all the thoughts of your heart are evil all the time. And yet Satan’s demons close the mouth of this man… they make mute their captive and it is the Lord Christ that opens his lips. A bit backwards to the world’s reason, the weapon of slander and hateful word-play is loosed by the Lord of Heaven and closed by the prince of lies. Your tongue is the most used and well seasoned of all your evil tools in your sinful bag of tricks. It only gets better with time. For all men are liars – and their tongues and lips carry on their speeches of deception.

But Jesus opens the lips of men because he remembers why they were created. He knows that praise must come to His Father in heaven and if they were not to come from the tongues of men, even the rocks upon the road would cry out. So he opens the mouth of the sinner. The man oppressed by the power of a demon finds his mouth unloosed and his lips free to move once again. Free to pray, praise, and give thanks. To speak all things with the best construction, not to hurt or harm his neighbor, but to help him keep what belongs to him.

You are just like that man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, you know not when to use your mouth and when to speak the praises of the heavenly King. Are they lies that come from your lips or do you keep silent as others exercise their tongues in deceitful abuse of neighbor and so called friends and family? Those that don’t know Jesus – do you leave them that way by appeasing the devil in silence or have you spoken out of both sides of the mouth your Savior gave to you? You back-peddle, deny, and lie with the best of them. For the children of men are practiced in the art of deception.

And even as the Psalmist declares that you are a liar, he also declares that it is Christ that opens your lips to declare His praise. Not only does He open your mouth to bring forth the praises of heaven, He opens your ears to hear what the world wishes would go silent… itching ears that wish to hear more of the deceit so familiar to their lips, instead receive the Word of God given to your pastor and to pastors throughout Christ’s church. The One that so graceful opens the mouth of a sinner, opens their ears to hear the Word of God.

The kingdom of heaven is not divided and no civil war has pulled it apart. The finger of God that so beautifully placed the stars in the heavens is at hand to open the mouth of a sinner. The Kingdom of God has come to you, for knowing that all men sin and that to open the mouth of a sinner means that they will lie, deceive and trick – Jesus still opens first your ears to hear and the mouth of your Pastor to tell of the heavenly victory over the prince of deception and your freedom from an eternal death. He opens your mouth to sing the heavenly song… and here you offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and your tongue calls upon the name of the Lord!

The Kingdom of God has come to you… the Son of God has fulfilled the will of His Father and laid down his life as He took His seat on the throne of Calvary’s cross. Not only by the sword of the human tongue did they murder Him, but with nails and a spear they ended His life… it temporarily silenced the only tongue that never lied and always told the truth so that every law would be complete and even Jesus would remember the Sabbath day and lay in a tomb to rest. That rest removed the sting of the grave and the mouth of Christ was again opened to speak of His victory over death… to speak to your ears, to fill your mouths. You who were once mute, now speak… you who were deaf, now hear…
Your sins are forgiven.

Jesus has driven out the demons and the kingdom of God has come to you. You belong to the Lord of heaven. That Lord has opened your lips. Thanking the Lord. Singing His praise. Telling everyone what He has done. What has he done? He has made all things well. Taken your sins and sent them as far as the east is from the west, given you heavenly inheritance by making you His brothers. He has removed the guilt of your sin and now oh beautiful bride He shows you to his heavenly Father and brings you to eat of the feast His Father has prepared for you. The Cup of Salvation is ready. Come, the Lord has opened your lips – now eat and drink!

The Feast of John’s Martyrdom

And so a young woman dances before a mob of men and a king offers up at most half his kingdom in delight… a grudge finally kills a man – the greatest man ever born of woman.  When all the world was cursed, Saint John the Baptist came to men who fear reputation and honor with their friends above faithfulness to God and to people of grudges gone wild, terribly, angrily, and sinfully wild.  He comes with a pointing finger (preached Law always accuses, the Law of God holds its hearts in contempt), but it wasn’t his finger that got him in trouble.

John the Baptist: Baptismal Font @ Our Savior Lutheran Church Houston, Texas

John the Baptist: Baptismal Font @ Our Savior Lutheran Church Houston, Texas

There is a statue of John in Houston… that I just love.  He is crouching low and gazing up into the heights of the room.  I always wish that his finger were pointing, but it isn’t so, he just looks.  He points with his eyes and with his Word. He gazes up above the altar at the crucifix hung there from the ceiling rafters.  John’s purpose, his charge?  It is to prepare you the way of the Lord.  A voice, shouting, calling in the wilderness…. Speaking into your ear, into the ear of Herod and Herodias and all the people from the countryside gathered at pulpits and preaching stations around the globe.

The most dangerous place in all the earth is the pulpit.  Whether it be the swords of men, executioners, or the darts of Satan’s archers, the enemies of God would have the Word of God stopped up.  The Word of God makes hearts uncomfortable and the works of men seen as they really are.  And so John is locked up: “kept safe in the prison of Herod,” safe that is because Herod feared John.  He knew that John was a righteous man… and so he feared him… but he feared him just a little less than he feared the recourse of a vow denied and friends who always remember the man that made a promise he couldn’t or wouldn’t keep.  Instead of fearing God, his friends put him in his place… every man fears his friends.  We tear down reputations and we do stupid things and we lie and we cheat all to make ourselves look good and our neighbors and our coworkers look stupid.  You’ve done it… maybe even today.

And then there’s the grudge.  Maybe the young woman could have asked for a diamond or half the kingdom, but a grudge stood in the way of that.  Hate and anger melded itself to the heart of Herodias.  Do not so quickly dismiss her.  The Word of God has called us out in our sin and we are mad.  People have wronged us and we have carried and kindled and strengthened that anger and we have murdered men with our hearts.  Stop up not the Word of God, his Law and his Gospel, but your own mouth, your own heart.   Repent.

Saint John once started a sermon with a word meant to jar the people out of their comatose state… to make them listen.  He said, “ID DO.”  In English, that’s “Behold.”  Not just “look!”, or just “truly truly I say unto thee”… NO, stop what you’re doing and move your body and fix your eyes and your ears for something great and spectacular.  And I would have thought he pointed… but maybe he just fixed his own eyes as he spoke…

Behold, the Lamb of God

Behold, the Lamb of God

“The Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”  What?!  That’s no Lamb, John!  It’s just another rabbi.  That’s just a Nazarene.  All those locusts have made you crazy.  It’s just Jesus.  Yes!  Just God come down from his throne to your place.  Your God has become a man to die on the cross to save you from your sins.  John was preparing the way for Jesus.  He preached Jesus’ sermon, he was persecuted, and he was martyred – his head chopped off to point you to the head of the church: Jesus.  And so it is that a king, the Greatest King ever to be born of Woman, completed his Father’s Will perfectly to be your head and your death… and your life.  Upon a cross, he was killed to give you life.  Upon a cross he has become your life and your salvation.  Behold, the sacrifice is complete.  Your sins are forgiven and you are alive.  Behold, the Lamb of God has come near.

(Preached at the International Center – August 29, 2013 – Daily Chapel + Mark 6)

Men are NOT fundamentally good

By John Martin c.1834

The Deluge by John Martin c.1834

We would paint another picture for ourselves.  The devil would even be our accomplice as we chart our way through the world.  We want to be good.  We want the world to think that we are good.  We want other people to be good.  We are blown away by acts of charity and kindness that have to be acts of good works.  Seen on a TED video today, a prominent college president said he was visiting with an elderly Hungarian man that had been through Hitler’s holocaust who said to him, “All men are fundamentally good.”  This was jarring and life changing for this college president… that a man that had been beaten by the SS would say something as profound as, “All men are fundamentally good.”

It is pretty jarring that men that experience such evil in the world would buy into the lie that they are, really deep down, good people.  God thinks not: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” and “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The bottom line is that we are sinners.  We have inherited sin from Adam and we are conceived sinners.  We are of a different spirit.  We start out children of death and the delight of Satan. All of us are fundamentally and totally evil people.  It would take something out of this world to change that.

However, there is a man come from Heaven that does come to you to change you, win you, cleanse you, make you new again.  He does not listen to our nature.  He ignores the world.  To Satan, he puts Scripture back into context.  Human beings: men and women, need a savior.  They can’t save themselves, they are dead in that sin.  The debt is theirs and the debt is insurmountable.  There is and was never anyway to pay it off.  Enter Jesus.  He is the God that took on human flesh, became a man, and fulfilled the law to perfection.  In his death, he makes sinners saints.  In the death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary – Jesus makes sinners good.  It is a fundamental trait, but an imputed trait.  It isn’t something that we are born with, but something that we are baptized into.  Jesus is the perfect Savior for you – sinner.

The way of man is always death, but the way of Jesus is life and light.  Jesus has come for you.  He comes to make you alive and he comes to destroy your sins.  That is your God.  He comes and find you in darkness and death, strips you of your sin and your grave.  Then Jesus gives you his life.  His resurrection is yours.  Now, in your baptism, you are a living, God pleasing, saint.  Called by the Gospel, with the Holy Spirit planting and giving faith, you are made new.  With you, God is well pleased.  Jesus paints a new reality with his blood.


Jesus healing the Deaf Man by Richard Caemmerer

Jesus healing the Deaf Man by Richard Caemmerer

Jesus takes the Deaf man aside (away from the crowd)… There he can speak to the man without distraction.  That’s seems to be one of our biggest weak points: distractions.  The Deaf man was no different and you are no different either.  Jesus takes us in our poor miserable sinfulness and pulls us out of our distractions and out of our silence.

He speaks to us.

He speaks words that we understand.  He speaks our language.  He speaks a Word that gets through all our man made garbage and sinks into the heart.  For it’s what comes from the heart that is the tell tale of a man.  Of our own doing it’s always a mess… but when Jesus rips out the weeds, tills the soil, cultivates and waters there…it’s of a new Spirit.

Away from the crowd, Jesus signs to the Deaf man to let him know what is about to change and what is the object of his performative Word: fingers in the ear, touching his tongue… spitting, sighing… and then what he always does… Jesus speaks a commanding and creating Word, “Ephphatha!”  The Deaf man hears.  Sinners are forgiven.  The dead live.  God’s wrath is taken away.

A moment alone with God: the Deaf man away from the crowd or you hovering with the Spirit above the font of your baptism.  You’re there because God is calling you out of your distracted and sinful life.  He has you there, to push you under the water, to push you away from your death… and to give you Christ’s life.  He has you there only for a moment. Jesus has you there in order to graft you into the crowd that is his Church.  And that’s exactly what he does: baptized you are no longer alone, no longer damned, no longer caught in the devil’s distractions, no longer separated from God.

Be open ears: to hear the Word of God.  Be open chest: to have your heart of sin and death removed.  Be open mouth: to be filled by God to declare His praise.  The God-man, Jesus, was separated from his Father on the cross so that you could be brought to the midst of the Church, near to the Son, alive in the resurrection.  Ephphatha!  Jesus has done all things well.  He even makes the Deaf hear, the mute speak, and the sinner forgiven.

Defensive Evangelism

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who reveal your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. -1 Peter 3:13-17

The National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) was completed a few years back by a team led by a gentleman named Christian Smith.  Most striking to me of all the preliminary data that was collected is concerning our youth’s response when they are challenged in their faith.  Smith et al found that most American religious teenagers did not have a sufficient faith vocabulary to engage in a theological/faith conversation when confronted by their peers or by strangers.  In other words, when a teenager is questioned about their faith, most often they can’t answer and retreat.  How many times must a teen, a child, a young adult, or for that matter any Christian, be caught dumb founded when asked questions about Jesus and their faith?  How many times must Satan insert doubt and despair in the life of a Christian because there is no defense for anyone that asks about the hope that is there?

I labeled this post “Defensive Evangelism” to bring out the other definition of the word, “defensive,” which is to explain, be prepared, to have the fact base to engage in a learned discussion about a certain topic.  We sometimes call this apologetics.  Saint Peter wants us to be able to talk about our faith.  He wants us to have the tools to engage the world when the world comes to us with questions or when the world attacks us for our faith.  The apostle wants you to be able to talk and defend your faith – not with swords and guns, but with the very Word of God that has been planted in your heart by the Holy Spirit.

Yeah, your heart!  We have a problem with our hearts.  They only breed sin and division, lacking love and faith.  We need someone from outside of us to redeem us… we need the Holy Spirit to clean house (“Create in me a clean heart, O God! Psalm 51:10), remove our troublesome heart and give us a Jesus heart.  And that is what the Holy Spirit has done.  When I say, “Jesus heart,” I mean a heart of faith that has its foundation and its life in Jesus and his cross.  And so, the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with his gifts and keeps us in the true faith by those good gifts.

Too often, under the banner of Gospel freedom (more on Gospel freedom in a later post), we decide that we don’t need to read our Bibles, sing our hymns, or study the faith.  Martin Luther was no stranger to this problem.  To make the faith something that could be taught to little children and old men alike, he wrote his catechism.  To put the words, the vocabulary, of the faith back into our hearts and upon our lips, he wrote the Small Catechism for the fathers to teach it to their FAMILY at home.  He didn’t write it to be looked through in the 8th grade and then set aside, but rather to be a life long companion of the Christian.

The devil is aware that your heart doesn’t want to keep these words and that your old Adam wants to ditch them and run… He knows this and he attacks in the subtle, behinds the scenes ways that he hopes we won’t notice.  Your persecution isn’t with violence (just yet), it is with doubt.  The devil always slips his age old question into each Christian’s heart, “Did God really say??”  The answer is yes.  Yes, God did say that you were his own by the blood of Christ; that all of your sins, no matter how big or bad or horrible, are covered by Jesus death on the cross!  Yes, Jesus has washed you in your baptism – combining his death to you and giving you his life in the resurrection.

God wants no doubt.  He wants you to know his will and his truth.  He calls us again by his Holy Spirit… back to the altar, back to the Word of God, back to the church.

Back to those teenagers in the NSYR… what about their faith vocabulary?  Where do they get it?  They get it from the Bible and the catechism and the hymnal, they get it from weekly and regular Divine Service… but most importantly, they get it from other Christians.  They get a faith vocabulary as we teach them the faith.  We as the body of Christ are to build up one another in the faith and that means talking to our youth and young adults about the hard questions.  It means if we don’t know the answers, finding someone who does and not shrugging it all off.  It means engaging in the Living Word of God.  Let us build one another up in faith and good works.  Let’s encourage our youth and bring the Word of God into their midst.

Even Satan has a Relationship with God

Just this past week someone told me that they think going to church is nice and all, but if someone has a relationship with God, then that’s good enough [and they don’t have to bother if they don’t want to go].  It isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone talk about relationships with God.  It seems to be the rage… especially with Facebook asking us constant questions about our relationships.  In the name of a personal relationship with God we forget that Jesus has grafted us into Himself, the vine.  We are living stones chosen by God and precious – being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).

Enter life together… when you were baptized, you weren’t baptized into a personal and individual standing before God.  You were baptized into the body of Christ.  You were picked by Jesus as his own.  Like Abraham, you were minding your own business (more or less) and knew nothing of God’s love in Christ Jesus.  You were dead in your sin and wanted nothing to do with your neighbor or with God.  It was deep in your own spiritual grave, that Jesus came and found you.  He called you out of that darkness, took your death and your sin from you and gave you his eternal life and perfect salvation in its place.

That’s how this Jesus still is.  He keeps coming to you – although you keep ignoring him, breaking his commandments, not loving your neighbor with your whole heart, and living like God did not matter and as if you mattered most, Jesus would have you for himself.  He comes again with his Word and good gifts and calls you to himself and to his church.  We believe that we cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him… but the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel and gathers us around Word of Absolution, Word preached, and around the very Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.

The point of our life with Jesus isn’t about whether or not we have a relationship with him rather it’s that He has claimed us as his own.  Relationships abound, some are good and some are bad, some are estranged, and some are evil.  Everyone has a different definition of the word.  Even Satan has a relationship with God.  The point is that Jesus has grafted you into the whole of all the church.  He has taken you from your private, individual standing in death and sin and plucked you out of the darkness and grafted you into the body of Christ.  You are now part of the bride.  You are a member of the church.  You are fed and nourished as the church is called and gathers around the very Word of God that has become flesh and blood: Jesus.

Where do you get your identity?  At the altar, where Jesus is.  It is before the throne of God that you are made new, that God showers his mercy and love upon you, that he forgives your sins and makes a clean heart within you.  Where does God want you?  He wants you gathered together with other Christians around Word preached and the Body and Blood of his Son given to you.  He wants you to encourage one another to that end, to gather as one people (people loved by God), receiving power as Sons of God, and going forth in acts of love and mercy.  A plant taken away from the water will wither and die…so also the Christian that is not feed on the Word of God and his Holy Sacraments.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25

Justification as Pastoral Care

Jesus for you IS care of the soul.  There is a great little Blogia article… really just a teaser or a question posed by Rev. Dr. Scott Murray… (Click HERE to read it.)  I would really like to hear him say a little more on the subject (which I will just have to wait a little time for), however, it has forced me to think about the subject myself.  So let’s answer the question: How does the [Lutheran] pastor specifically shape his pastoral and Christian care for the flock over which the Lord has appointed him as overseer (Acts 20:28)? 

“Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works.  People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  By his death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins.  God counts this faith for righteousness in his sight.” – Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions: Augsburg Confession, Article V

It has been said that the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls is this very doctrine of justification.  The center of the pastor’s work has to be the cross of Jesus Christ.  The existence of an absolute is jarring to the world, but necessary to the Christian life.  Too much of the world’s answer (and even our own flesh’s answer) is to create and allow a reality that is personal and unique to one’s self.  The problem for humanity is that God requires his church to speak back what he has spoken.  That means a specific and external reality in Jesus.  Pilate asked, “What is truth?” and the world has tried to answer ever since the fall into sin.  The church’s answer is that you are free from your sin in Jesus.  He is God and he is man.  He is the new Adam come to take your sin from your white knuckled clutches and give you his life in return.  It isn’t something for one and a something else for another… it isn’t different depending on your life story or upon your sin.  Jesus has come for all sin.  He comes for yours and he comes to kill it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Spiritual Care, said, “Caring for the soul is a special sort of proclamation.  The minister should proclaim wherever possible.”*  He echoes Paul… preach in season and out of season.  The church lives by the speaking of the Word of God.  Our God creates by his Word.  He strips us of our sins by his Word.  He makes water, bread, and wine extraordinary by his Word.  He makes us new by his Word.  The preacher’s duty is to proclaim that Word and that Word is the truth that makes for a new reality in the sinner.

What does JUSTIFICATION have to do with parish practice?  It is the content of the Church’s work.  It is the content and the work of pastor and the people.  I’m reminded of Bo Gertz’s Hammer of God.  A young curate is called to the deathbed of a parishioner who refuses to believe that he is worthy of Jesus and an eternal life with him.  It takes another member of the parish to come and remind the old man that he needed a Savior and that he couldn’t justify himself alone – at all.  Jesus had to come specifically for people like him – sinners.  We have a need for a savior.  Jesus is the exact savior we need.  What calls us Lutherans out from other Christians is that we believe that we can’t do anything to earn anything before God.  Our words are the Word of heaven… we can’t, by our own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.  But God has called us by the Gospel… called us out of our own reality in the reality of heaven – under the shade of the Tree of Life.  Jesus is our reality… he is our truth… he is the absolute that the world continues to deny.

I would suggest that the article of justification pushes us toward daily proclamation.  It is the article of our confessions that reorders our work as preachers by the daily proclamation of the very Word of God.  From the other perspective, daily care of the people of God is informed and built upon the foundation that is Jesus and his cross.  This absolute is what makes the Lutheran pastor stand out from everything else in the world.  The Lutheran preacher’s message and work: you who were dead in your sin and could not save yourself or do anything before God have had that sin removed and now you are a son of the living God by the blood of Jesus.  You don’t do anything to earn or merit eternal salvation.  It is a free gift in Jesus.

That Jesus is what pushes Lutheran pastors through the brink of sorrows and pain and that carries them through the valley of the shadow of death.  It is the God-man that informs their teaching and their prayers.  Though there be tears, there is One who has destroyed sin, death, pain, and sorrow and brought new life to light.  The doctrine of Justification pulls us out of our false personal realities and plops us down before Jesus.  It’s the job of the Lutheran pastor to put that Jesus before every one of his sheep, that is the real care our souls need… in our ears, in our eyes, in our mouths, and upon our heads.

*Dietrich Bonheffer, Spiritual Care, Fortress Press, 1985 – page 30

Free to be faithful

The Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison has posted a new video on YouTube about the ongoing attacks upon our religious freedom in America.  Check it out here.  Our God has called us to be faithful.  It doesn’t always mean that we will be popular.  Indeed, Christ says that being a Christian will in fact mean pain and persecution.  Being made cross shaped is part of the game…indeed God is creating in us a new heart.  He’s taking out the one that runs from God and instead renewing a right spirit (Psalm 51).  With the Holy Spirit, God is keeping us in the faith, making us little Christs, and sustaining us in the warfare of life.  Pain will come, splinters will be driven deep into our skin, but Christ sustains us.  Christ, who died upon the cross and rose for our justification, makes all things new even in the face of a real world/new world disaster.  When they differ, we must obey God rather than men, for it is by the Word of God that we have life.  Check out the video.  Pray for our country, pray for your fellow Christians, bear the crosses of your neighbors, and know that Christ has redeemed you and you are forgiven and alive to God.