By His Sheer Grace Alone

 

I’m working on the epistle for Sunday, Galatians 1:11-24.  In proceeding toward a sermon I’m  reading Martin Luther’s 1535 lectures on Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.

One of the most difficult task for Christians is to receive the Gospel without any qualifications or conditions.

St. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:15-16, (God) who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me…

Luther wrote in regard to Paul’s words, “’He called me,’ Paul says. How then?  By His sheer grace alone… Moses (the Law) does not reveal the Son of God; he discloses the Law, sin, the conscience, death, the wrath and judgment of God, and hell.  These things are not the Son of God!  Therefore, only the Gospel reveals the Son of God.  Oh, if only one could distinguish carefully here and not look for the Law in the Gospel but keep as separate from the Law as heaven is distant from the earth!  In itself the difference is easy and clear, but to us it is difficult and well-nigh incomprehensible.  For its easy to say the Gospel is nothing but the revelation of the Son God or the knowledge of Jesus Christ and not the revelation or knowledge of the Law.  But in the conflict of conscience and in practice it is difficult even for those who have had a lot of experience to hold to this for certain.

Now if the Gospel is the revelation of the Son of God, as it really is, then it certainly does not demand works, threaten death, or terrify the conscience.  But it shows the Son of God, who is neither the Law nor a work…Christ is the subject of the Gospel.  What the Gospel teaches and shows me is a divine work given to me by sheer grace; neither human reason nor wisdom nor even the Law of God teaches this.  And I accept this gift by faith alone.”

 

These words of St. Paul and Martin Luther are a challenge every time I write a sermon or deal with any situation.  They have led me to choose to “sin” on the side of grace rather than on the side of the Law.

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Don’t Mess with the Gospel

Pentecost 2, 2016, Bunker Hill Galatians 1:1-12

A posting from Christian Funny Pictures appeared on my Facebook page on Thursday.  I thought there must be a problem because the picture area was blank, it was all white, like the picture of a Polar bear in a snowstorm.  But then I read the caption and I got it.  It was a picture of the sins that God cannot erase.  So this morning I have on this sheet of paper, a list of your sins which God did not erase t, when earlier I said, “Our heavenly Father…has given his only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins.”  When you look at this sheet of paper listing all of your sins which God did not forgive this morning, I guarantee that you folks in back are able read this as easily as those up front.  Why?  Because this sheet of paper looks like a polar bear in a snowstorm.

During the next six weeks we will be reading, discussing in Bible Class and preaching on Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he defends the gospel. As Solomon acknowledged in the Old Testament Lesson, there is no God like our God. We have an awesome God.

On Tuesday, the church celebrates Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth greeted Mary, her own baby leaped in her womb.  For Mary herself was growing great with child.  In her womb was God, who could not be contained in the highest heavens, and yet chose to contain himself in her womb.  God in human flesh would dwell on earth, go to the cross, die and rise again making us worthy to receive Jesus under our roof here at Zion and within our lives.  That’s the Gospel and we do well not to mess with it.  Nevertheless, we do struggle with the only Gospel we have.

Listen to Martin Luther commenting on these words of St. Paul from his letter to the Galatians, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave Himself for our sins.”  Luther says that we have a problem with that word, “Our.” Jesus Christ who gave himself for OUR sins. Luther was teaching a class at the university of Wittenberg in 1535 when he said to his students, “It is easy for you to say and believe that Christ, the Son of God, was given for the sins of Peter, Paul, and other saints…But it is very hard to say and believe from your heart that Christ was given for your great and many sins.”  Luther identifies our basic problem with that word “Our.” We have difficulty believing that what we read in Isaiah, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow,” applies to ourselves. Because when I look at my life, well, my life seems more like slushy, old dirty snow.

There’s an advertisement on TV in which a young man mowing a lawn, pushes the mower about three or four feet. Stops and walks away.  And a voice calls out. “You earned it.”  A dog trimmer snip a dog’s forelock of hair and a voice calls, “You earned it.”  Somewhere lurking in the darkness of our mind is the thought that surely we have to do something, at least go to church.  Somewhere in the recesses of our mind we want God to call out, “You Earned it.”  However, it is just the opposite.  Christ earned it.  What we earn is death.  Eternal life comes as a gift in Jesus Christ.  Christ your Lord gave himself for every one of the times you fail to live up to God’s expectations and does it every time you mess up.  When in Revelation, an elder asks, “Who are these, clothed in white robes and where did they come from?”  You and I can answer, “That’s me sir.  I’ve just come from God’s laundry where I’ve washed these robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white as impossible as that may sound.”  Yes, you better believe it.  That is the Gospel.  It’s the only one we have.

However, I have found during my forty- nine years of being a pastor, that one of the most difficult things for Christians to believe is the Gospel with no additions.  When I taught confirmation, I at least wanted the young men and women to know and believe the gospel.  What is the gospel? That Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by the powers of God and that someday you too shall be raised up to eternal life. What is the gospel? That Jesus Christ died for all of yours sins and paid the penalty for all of your sins, and that we are called to live a life of forgiveness. And moved by the Holy Spirit to love one another as Christ has loved us. The Jews created more than six hundred rules and regulations that they were to live by in order to be moral people and acceptable to God, but Christ gave only one rule for life: “love as I first loved you.” That is the gospel. Eternal life, forgiveness, to which we respond with a Spirit driven life of love on our part. Three ingredients to the recipe. So simple. All freely given. Don’t mess with the simple truth of the gospel.

But that is exactly what happened with the churches in Galatia, an area in what we know as southcentral Turkey. Paul had preached the gospel and formed congregations of believers in those cities.  Now word has come to him that it’s all slip sliding away.  Some people had come from Jerusalem telling these Christians in Galatia that Paul had it wrong.  They were sharing the complete Gospel, the full gospel.  Yes, of course believe in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.  However, consider this. Jesus is the Son of God and God was the God of the Jews and Jesus was a Jew who followed the God-given Jewish practices. It stands to reason that Christians in order to be fully faithful followers of Jesus should also follow Jewish practices. These were things the Jews had been doing since the time of Moses; circumcision as a mark of being a part of God’s people, not eating meat like pork, not working or doing any activity on the Sabbath.  And now Paul tells you that none of that matters?  Yes, believe in Jesus, but to be a Christian you must also become a Jew.

Paul is upset over this to say the least.  He writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning a different gospel.”  But this “different gospel” was not an alternative gospel, but a distortion.  It was the gospel plus.  The problem is when someone offers the gospel, plus certain other things one must do or believe then that addition becomes a subtraction from the gospel.  It is saying that when Jesus gave his life for our sins and the Father raised him from the dead, that did not erase all your sins, and to fail to do or believe these other thing means you aren’t a completed Christian, a first rate believer.  It’s saying Jesus’ gospel is  not the full Gospel.

What is the gospel? What is the core of the gospel in the Scriptures? It is so simple. God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and shouted from the mountain tops that death itself had been destroyed. What is the gospel? Jesus died on the cross, paying the price for all of our sins. Our sins have been fully and freely forgiven. What is the gospel? That Christ loved the world so much that he gave his life so that no one might perish. That’s the Gospel.  It’s the only one we got.  Don’t mess with it.

 

 

 

Welcoming the Foreigner

 

In the Old Testament lesson for this week, (I Kings 8:22-43) Solomon prays at the dedication of the temple.  He prays that the eyes of the Lord would be watchful in regard to this house so that He might be ready to listen as His servant Israel prayers toward the place where God Name dwells.

Then he continues with “Likewise.” Likewise, the foreigner who comes from a far country to worship at the temple. Solomon prays God should hear the foreigner.  Thus God’s name will go out to all the peoples of the world and all will know the name of God.

In the Gospel lesson from Luke 7, a foreigner, sent some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant.  He is praying toward the living breathing temple of God.  As Jesus neared the man’s house, some of the centurion’s friends arrived with a message.  Jesus shouldn’t trouble himself.  The centurion did not believe he was worthy to have Jesus even come under his roof.  If Jesus would be say the word, his servant would be healed.  When Jesus heard that, he marveled and turning to the crowd commented that he had not found such faith in Israel as this foreigner had.

We can but imagine the celebration that followed the servants healing.  The psalm for the day, 96, commands all of us to sing a new song to the Lord, with lyrics telling of his daily acts of salvation.  “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”

Truly it is as Solomon declares, “There is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath.”

Preaching the Lord’s Prayer in a time of Terror

 

I’m teaching the Lord’s Prayer at a Friday morning Men’s Bible Class on Friday mornings.  It’s sort of like teaching a bunch of Junior High boys, except these “boys” are retired.  We always have lively discussions with plenty of good natured insults flying back and forth.  Can you imagine spending time with Jesus’ disciples? Given the diversity in their personalities there must have been some raucous discussions.

One of the sources I’m using is a series of sermons preached by Helmut Thielicke in Stuttgart, Germany in the summer of 1944, during the allied bombing.  In his introduction he refers to the “People continued to assemble throughout the horrors of the air raids, the declining days of a reign of terror.

“The whole world rests in the hand of the Lord, like the golden orb we see in medieval pictures.  And it also rests in our hands when we lift it to God in prayer.”

It’s interesting to read these sermons, against the background of continuing destruction of the city.  When Thielicke preached on “Thy Kingdom Come,” the church had been reduced to ruins, the center of the city destroyed.  He preached in the choir of the church.  The choir is that area in front of the church where choirs would sit and chant the psalms antiphonally.  This sermon was preached on the weekend after July 20, 1944 when an attempt to assassinate Hitler and overturn his regime failed.

During “Thy Will Be Done” the sirens and an ensuing air attack occurred.  A second attack shortly thereafter destroyed what was left of the church.  The series continued in the parish house of St. Matthews, since all the churches in Stuttgart were destroyed.  However, repeated interruptions occurred and sometimes the service could not be held at all.

Preached against a backdrop of terror and death, Thielicke’s sermons are a well spring of hope during a dark time, even more than 70 years later.

Luther on True Faith

 

When Martin Luther wanted to he could succinctly state the centrality of the Gospel and faith in God’s grace.  In 1522 he wrote to Hans von Rechenberg:

This is the noblest and dearest virtue of faith, that it closes its eyes and simply and joyfully leaves everything in the hands of God.  It does not desire to know why God acts as He does, and it still holds Him to be the Highest Goodness and Justice, although to all reason, the senses and experience, nothing appears but wrath and injustice.  That is why faith is called the proving of things not seen, and even the very opposite to what is seen.  Therefore, this is the highest honor and love towards God and the highest degree of such honor and love, that in these contrary things you can regard and praise Him as good and just.  Here the natural eye must be completely plucked out, and there must be nothing but sheer faith.  Otherwise there will be a grim and fearful vexation of spirit.

Beacon in the Chancel

 

Becky’s niece, who works at Williamsburg, Virginia, traveled to Dublin, Ireland for a wedding.  She must have not taken any time to rest, because she posted nearly two hundred photos on Facebook.  Many of her photos were of a church which had been turned into a maritime museum.  From the photos, I could tell that the museum had respected the former worship facility.  They even kept the baptism font.  Baptism is something of a maritime event in itself. A stained glass window depicted Christ saving a man from the wreckage of a ship.

What I liked best was what occupied the chancel.  The area was not cluttered with a variety of displays.  A large lighthouse beacon stood in the center of the chancel.  I’m sure that was not by accident.

In John 8:12 Jesus says “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk (or sail) in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Psalm 43:3 prays,” Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me.”

Prayer: Almighty Father, source of everlasting light, send forth your truth into our hearts and pour over us the brightness of your light to bring us, through our joyful participation at your altar, to your eternal dwelling on high, where you live and reign now and forever.

Midway Between Angels and Apes

 

Psalm 108 praises God for his majestic name (presence) in all the earth, his glory is above the heavens.  A question occurs to the psalm which has likely crossed our minds. ” What is man (humanity) that you are mindful of him, and the son (children of humanity) of man that you care for him?”  Nevertheless, the psalmist notes, “Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor.  You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.”

James Limburg of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, cautions us, “We are intended to be less than God, lower than the angels.  We do not expect to answer all questions, solve all mysteries, or control all aspects of our lives and the lives of others on our planet.  We ought not get ourselves confused with God, or even the angels.  The Bible labels such confusion the sin of pride.”

Limburg recalls a biology lecture on the nature of human life entitled, “Midway between the Apes and the Angels.”  “We are not gods, nor even angels; but more than apes, or even dolphins.  We are royalty, assigned to care for the earth, inviting our fellow earthlings to join in the chorus: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic in thy name!”

Confusing who we are led the people in John 8, to hurl Donald Trump -like insults and accusations at Jesus – at God – calling him a Samaritan and possessed by a demon.  He was less than God, less than angels, less than human, more on the level of an ape.  They not only degodded Jesus they also dehumanized him.  Once they did that, in the temple mind you, the earthly house of God among them; it was only a short step to, “They picked up stones to throw at him.”  Before them they saw not God, but an outcast, a demon possessed subhuman.  So God (Jesus) hid himself, since he was already hidden, and “went out of the temple.”  God was no longer in the temple.

Reinventing Oneself

 

Joseph Epstein in his collection of shorter essays called, “Wind Sprints,” comments on the “ought- to – be endangered phrase,” “Reinventing oneself.”  He writes, “People seem to be reinventing themselves everywhere one looks these days.  Movie stars, athletes, politicians – everybody’s doing it.  A personal reinvention is, I gather, something akin to a makeover of the soul, usually implying a return in a new guise, always of course in improved form.  Good luck.”

Epstein is onto something, “Good Luck” with a do-it- yourself (or even with help) soul makeover.  When I was in my late thirties our family doctor said that if I wanted to see my grandchildren I had better engage in some behavior modification in regard to my eating.  Well, no matter how I tried it didn’t happen until I got diabetes in my early forties.  Even that was not a soul makeover, a reinventing who I was.  I simply took my concentration on food in a new direction.

Only God is able to do a real soul makeover.  Anything less is a pretense on our part; a self- delusion.  St. Paul writes of being a new person when we put on Christ. We are new creations. And in the resurrection we will receive new bodies, not a makeover of the old one, but new bodies which will be able to live in the new heavens and new earth.  Until then, we look to our baptism and its application to our daily life in which God buries our old self and raises a new person on a daily basis.

For that real makeover we are able to say with the psalmist, “Praise the Lord O My soul and all that is within me bless His Holy Name.”
 

Holy Spirit Comforter

 

One of the meanings of the Greek word Paraclete is Comforter.  (My computer’s spellcheck   insists that Jesus prayed for the Father to send a Parakeet.) To me a comforter is a soft and light blanket into which I snuggle enveloping me with a warm sense of security against the chill of the night or the chill of a fevered body.

Martin Luther writes that as the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is carrying out His nature character and ministry.  “To us He is called a Comforter, and a comforter is one who makes a sad heart glad and joyful towards God and tells you to be of good cheer for your sins are forgiven, death is slain, heaven is open and God smiles upon you.  Whoever could grasp this…would have already won the victory and would not find or see anything but sheer comfort and joy in heaven and on earth.”

I wonder if we think of God as our Father, and Jesus as the Father’s Son, might we also think of the work of God, the Holy Spirit, in the sense of our Mother, enveloping us in the softness and tenderness of her body.  Another aspect of the Paraclete is Helper leading me to think of the creation of the woman in the garden of Eden to be a helpmate, companion and comforter to the man.

Perhaps we might think of the God, the almighty Father, creating, providing and defending.  Jesus Christ, the only Son, born of a woman who is drafted to go off to war against sin, death and the devil and is killed in front line action, rising again on the third day.  The Holy Spirit who comforts us by enveloping us in the family of saints, telling us of the forgiveness of our sins that we might look forward to the resurrection of our body and life everlasting.

 

Timeless Eternity

 

 

Our 2014 Ford Focus needs a new clutch.  As a temporary fix the dealership reprogrammed the clutch.  However, they also killed the clock.  It lurches ahead once in a while moving in the past two weeks from 10:12-10:39. Though we have cell phones and I have my insulin pump, we do miss our dashboard clock.

I was driving to the Sem. today and thought about the timelessness of eternity.  How will we adjust?  We are tied to time.  While growing up on the farm I learned to tell time by looking at the sun, usually coming within about 10 minutes.  Since living in the city for several years, I’ve lost that ability.

Becky asked people began keeping track of time.  I thought it began back at the creation of the first day and first night.  I haven’t read Steven Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time.”  But I do know we are now able to measure time accurately down to the millisecond or microsecond  using an atomic clock.

What will life be like living in the eternal presence of God for whom a thousand years are like one day and one day is like a thousand years.  I don’t want to criticize your time keeping God, but could you try to narrow your sense of time?  That’s not much more helpful than my nearly dead dashboard clock.

I suppose time is just one more thing in God’s eternity that we really won’t care about.  Time will neither fly by or drag on forever.  Time will have passed away along with the old earth and old heavens.  If someone should ask us what time it is, we will probably answer, “Time? What’s that?”