Sunday, April 20, 2014

Desperately Sick and Deceitful

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve,1538
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves (Genesis 3:1-7).

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness..." I was called to confession with these words of Holy Scripture many times in my youth, at the beginning of the Divine Service. No Christian would doubt that he is a sinner and has sinned against God in thought, word, or deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. But is our inclination toward evil and away from God sin? Does Holy Scripture teach the concept of Original Sin?

Original Sin is the total corruption of mankind’s whole human nature which all people have inherited from Adam through their human parents. This corruption of the human nature inclines man toward evil and away from God; it brings guilt and condemnation on all people, leaves all people spiritually blind and dead, and causes all people to commit all kinds of sinful acts (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation).

Some Christian denominations do not view this corruption, and the inclination of the human nature away from God, called “concupiscence” by theologians, as sin in and of itself. Many teach that this inclination to evil will eventually cause a person to sin, at which point they will be guilty of sin. Some even go so far as to say that it is inevitable that all people are bound to eventually commit acts of sin, due to this corruption of the human nature. If this is true, however, it means that there is a time after a person is born, and before they are morally accountable, when they are sinless – not guilty of sinning. Holy Scripture, however, is clear on the state of man’s nature after the Fall.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification (Romans 5:12, 16).

God created man with free will. He placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and commanded them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they would certainly die.” Yielding to the Devil’s temptation, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and, through the “one man” Adam, sin entered the world[1]. At the Fall, mankind became subject to death, both spiritual and physical. St. Paul writes that the disobedience of Adam made all people sinners[2]. God told Adam and Eve that if they sinned by disobeying his command the consequence would be death. Paul echoes this by reiterating the fact that the wages of sin is death[3]. All people, from the oldest old man to unborn babies in the womb are subject to death. Everyone dies. All people who come into existence are subject to the punishment for sin – death. If it were true that the corruption of the human nature, and the inclination of our human nature away from God, were not sin (and simply a defect which eventually causes sin), then people would not die prior to committing “actual” sins. We observe, however, that this is not the case when we see unborn babies, infants, children, adults, and elderly people die.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me…As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-5).

In Psalm 51 David confesses that he was sinful from the time of his conception. He does not confess merely his actions, but acknowledges before God and man the corruption of his very nature, which is revealed by his actions. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, calls both the corruption of the human nature and the actual acts of disobedience (the actual sins) sin. Paul explains that, prior to being made “alive in Christ” he, along with the Ephesian Christians, were “dead in their transgressions” and also “by nature, objects of wrath”. In other words, not only did they commit actual transgressions, prior to being made alive by the working of the Holy Spirit they were under God’s wrath due to the corruption of their human nature. If we are “by nature objects of wrath” prior to conversion, this must be because we are, by nature, sinners (Perman). In other words, one is not a sinner because he sins, but rather one commits sins because he is a sinner.

Holy Scripture describes man’s heart, i.e. his nature, as beyond cure and deceitful[4]. Moses writes in the sixth chapter of Genesis that the LORD saw that every inclination of the thoughts of his [man’s] heart was only evil, all the time[5]. It was because of this wickedness that God resolved to wipe mankind from the face of the earth by means of a flood. Several verses later, in the beginning of the account of Noah, Noah is identified as a righteous man, and blameless among the people of his time. His righteousness, however, was not due to the fact that he had not sinned, or did not have a corrupt sinful nature; Genesis chapter nine records a graphic instance of Noah’s sinfulness[6]. Noah, however, “walked with God[7].” In other words, Noah was accounted righteous in the same manner that Abraham would later be accounted righteous, by God’s grace through faith in God’s promise[8].

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrates that these inclinations toward evil and away from God which originate out of mankind’s corrupt nature are sin. In his discourse about adultery Jesus tells the crowd that the sin of adultery is not committed by the mere physical act, but by the lust which manifests itself from a man’s heart, i.e. his nature[9]. Jesus goes on to make this point further. “If your right eye causes you to sin,” Jesus explains, “gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Of course we know that it is not our eyes or hands that cause us to commit acts of sin, but the evil desires which originate from our desperately sick and deceitful heart.

Along with Paul we ask, “Who will save us from this body of death?” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Scripture tell us that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But, if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness[10]

While mankind was God’s enemy, dead in trespass and sin, hostile toward him and by nature objects of his wrath, God resolved to reconcile the world to himself in the person and work of Jesus. Born of a woman, born without sin, Christ, the divine Son, second person of the trinity, took on human nature and voluntarily subjected himself to the punishment for sin – death – that mankind deserved. By his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death Jesus redeemed mankind, and purchased and won us all from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He earned for man what no man can earn, and he gives it to us by his grace. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.

[1] Romans 5:12
[2] Romans 5:16
[3] Romans 6:23
[4] Jeremiah 17:9
[5] Genesis 6:5
[6] Genesis 9:21
[7] Genesis 6:9
[8] Genesis 4:26 says, “At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD.” This verse is generally understood by theologians to say that people were, as the population on earth increased, teaching others about, and passing down to the next generation, God’s promise of a savior that he gave to Adam and Eve after they were expelled from paradise. It could more accurately be translated, “At that time men began to proclaim the name of the LORD.” It was in this promise that Noah believed, and it is by this faith that he was accounted as righteous. It is the same faith which makes Christians righteous today (Engelbrecht).
[9] Matthew 5:27-30
[10] 1 John 1:8-9

Monday, April 14, 2014

Jesus at the Feast of Booths - II

Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, "How did this man get such learning without having studied?" (John 7:14-15).

It's difficult enough these days to get a job when you have all your ducks in a row. It's nearly impossible to do so without the proper credentials. For the vast majority of high school students that involves some sort of college education. College, of course, isn't right for everyone. Some people go to technical schools to receive practical hands-on training in their chosen field. Still others, such as policemen, may not be required to have a college education by their employer. They are sent to a police academy, where they are taught the skills and learn the information vital to a successful career of doughnut-eating and vindictive ticket-writing.

The thing these examples have in common is that, before one can begin a job, one is required to demonstrate proficiency. Imagine a "doctor" practicing without a medical degree, or a lawyer practicing without having passed the bar. Today we demonstrate our proficiency through some sort of license, degree, or certification. When the patient sees the diploma on the wall of their physicians office, they understand that it represents the many years of hard work, study, and practice (not to mention money) that the doctor spent learning and honing his craft. When the citizen sees the badge on the breast of the policeman, he can reasonably trust that the officer's job proficiency, as well as his authority, are derived from more than simply watching reruns of T.J. Hooker.

Jesus, however, had no credentials. He had no "degree", and this was a serious affront to "the Jews", the religious leaders made up of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the teachers of the Law. There may not have been a system of accredited seminaries in first century Judea like we have today in the United States, but there certainly was a system. Jesus, however, had not been a part of that system and for him to teach as he did was scandalous.

It wasn't, however, only that Jesus was teaching without being properly certified. When the Jews taught, they carefully cited previous teachers and scholars of the Law. They all sought to cite their teachings in order to show that they were correct (by two or three witnesses shall testimony be established, after all) and that they had credibility. Jesus taught, as Scripture says, as one who had authority. In other words, Jesus taught the people, not by showing what those rabbis who came before him said about the Law. He taught as the one who wrote and implemented the Law. This attitude was not lost on the people and the Jews. The Bible tells us that the people marveled and openly wondered what kind of statement Jesus was trying to make:

The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law...The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him,” (Mark 1:22, 27).

This also included the religious leaders:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn't you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things (Matthew 21:23-27).

The Jews, however, really understood that Jesus was claiming deity for himself, and that's why they plotted to kill him. Jesus could, of course, teach in this way because he is the Messiah, the divine Son of God and second person of the Trinity. He is, as Scripture calls him, the author of life, the one through whom creation came into being, the one who was the very image of God the Father.

Jesus demonstrated this authority by what he did in addition to what he said and the manner in which he taught:

Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home (Matthew 9:5-7).

He restored sight to the blind, opened the ears of the deaf, loosed the tongues of the dumb, raised the dead, and ultimately, rose from the dead himself. The Jews saw all these things but refused to see them for the signs they were. These things were the credentials, so to speak, that holy scripture said would accompany the Messiah. The Jews, however, demanded that Jesus "tell them plainly" who he claimed to be, and asked for a sign to prove his claims. Having ears, they did not hear; having eyes they did not see.

“ [Peter said] Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:37-41).

So, with this picture of Jesus presented to us, we are in the same situation as the Jews to whom St. Peter preached. When we give in to our sinful nature, gratifying it's desires and falling into sin, we are just as guilty as those who sought to put Jesus to death. The devil, the world, and our own sinful nature mislead us into false belief, despair and other sin. When we, however, repent of our sin, God, who is faithful and just, forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We can rest in the assurance of Jesus' authority as God to forgive our sin, and we can live with the sure and certain hope that, even though we may suffer many things on this earth - including physical death - Jesus will, on the Last Day, raise all the dead, and give eternal life to all believers in Christ. Until that time, we strive to live in accordance with the new nature we have received by the Spirit:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (Galatians 5:16-18).

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jesus at the Feast of Booths - I

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him (John 7:1).

The "this" to which John refers here is the confrontation between Jesus and the Jews in chapter six. After having fed the 5,000 the crowds followed Jesus with the intention of crowing him a bread-king. Jesus teaches the crowds, pointing out their unbelief and culminating with the shocking statement that, "Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:54). As a result of this "hard saying" many of those disciples who had followed him because of the miracles he had done left him. Jesus offended the masses by claiming that he was the bread of life sent by the Father, which was prefigured by the manna of the Old Testament. This, along with his claims to be God's Son - and therefore equal to God - is why the Jews were seeking to kill him and why he withdrew to the more remote region of Galilee.

Now the Jew's Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things show yourself to the world." For not even his brothers believed in him (John 7:2-5).

The Feast of Booths was the major harvest festival, one of the three times per year when it was required for Jewish men to present themselves before the LORD at the temple. It was a celebration that lasted seven days, during which the people constructed huts, or "booths", from tree branches and dwelt therein. The feast commemorated Israel's travels in the desert on the way to the Promised Land and the fact that God protected, blessed, and cared for his people.

Jesus' brothers, who are not among his disciples, taunt him, and mockingly encourage him to go up to the feast. "Ok, Messiah," they are telling him, "put your money where your mouth is. You're not going to be the King of the Jews out here in the sticks. If you're really the Messiah go to Jerusalem and prove it." Jesus' brothers speak to Jesus as if he is running for the office of Messiah. They taunt Jesus by telling him that, " one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly," as if Jesus was attempting to garner support for an uprising like other revolutionary zealots of the day. This attitude betrays the fundamental misunderstanding Jesus' brothers had - along with the Scribes, Pharisees, and Teachers of the Law - of what the Messiah would be and do. They expected a political savior who would throw off the yoke of Roman oppression and establish Israel as a powerful independent kingdom, with the religious establishment wielding political power.

They, simply put, didn't believe Jesus was who he said he was. The implication of their taunting was that their weirdo brother Jesus, who said these strange and enigmatic things about feeding people with his body and blood, would be exposed as the crazy person he was. Either he would go to the feast and be exposed, or he would stay in isolation in Galilee, effectively admitting to everyone that all this Son of God nonsense was just that - nonsense.

Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come." After saying this he remained in Galilee (John 7:6-9).

Jesus responds to the taunts of his brothers by pointing out that they are of the world, and he is not of the world, a theme he will revisit and expand upon when talking to the Pharisees in chapter eight. Jesus says that he will not go to the feast. This makes sense for two reasons. First, he has already caused great controversy among the religious leaders and the people who had been following him. It could hardly be safe for him to publicly go up to Jerusalem where the Jewish leaders were seeking to kill him. Secondly, as Jesus explained, his time had not yet come. Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, was the ultimate Passover lamb. His would be a once for all sacrifice to make atonement for the sin of mankind. Consequently, Jesus' time would come, but not at the Feast of Booths (Lenski, 1964). Jesus would enter Jerusalem amid great spectacle on Palm Sunday. Jesus would be killed on the cross as the final sacrifice for sin, the one to which all those previous Passover sacrifices pointed, at Passover.

But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him (John 7:10-13).

Does John here record Jesus lying? I mean, first he told them that he was not going to the feast. Then, in the next paragraph John writes, "...then he also went up..." in seeming contradiction to what Jesus said he was going to do. Kretzmann believes that Jesus was not opposed to going to Jerusalem per se; Jesus did not wish to make a public spectacle of his arrival in Jerusalem and his attendance at the feast because doing so would quite possibly disrupt the sequence of events as they were to play out. Jesus did certainly miss a good portion of the feast. There is also no real evidence from the text that Jesus participated in any of the festivities associated with the Feast of Booths, though the text does go on to say that he goes to the temple to teach (Lutheran Study Bible, 2009).

Jesus let His brothers, with their peculiar ideas concerning Messianic revelations, go up to the capital alone. But after they were gone, He started out on His journey to the feast, with none of the publicity which they had recommended. It was for that reason that He had refused to go with them openly, because the attention which it would draw on the way and on His arrival in Jerusalem would not be beneficial to the cause. He went secretly, in order not to cause excitement and to irritate the Jews into such a mental condition that they would carry out their murderous design at once. The object of His journey was only to teach in Jerusalem once more, to preach the Gospel of redemption through His Word and work (Kretzmann, 1921).

The people attending the feast, as well as the Jewish religious leaders, were indeed waiting to see if Jesus would show himself. John writes that Jesus was the topic of much debate among the people, though it had to be carried on in secret. No one wanted to take any chances where Jesus was concerned. To be perceived as defending him or being his disciple could get a person expelled from the community, and that was a seriously big deal. Such was the threat to the man born blind and his parents after he was healed by Jesus. The attitude of the people and the tenor of their debate shows how the world, left on it's own, looks at Jesus. The religious establishment seeks to murder Jesus to save their place in the nation; the people are divided as to whether Jesus is a good man, or a deceptive man. Though they have the witness of the Scriptures, those people who are "of the world" cannot see Jesus for what he really is - true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, true man born of a woman - the God-man who would make purification for sins, and sit down at the right hand of the Father.

The world continues to see Jesus this way. In the eyes of the unbelieving world Jesus is either a champion of morality and virtue who prescribes a right way of living, or he is charlatan and a liar who attempted to gain a following through deception, or he is a self-deceived lunatic (Kretzmann, 1921). Jesus, in turn, calls the world and it's works evil. People, who are by nature sinful and unclean, inclined to sin and turn away from God, cannot help but see Jesus in one of these ways. The Father, however, draws us out of the world to Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the means of his word. We hear God's Law, see our sin, and are terrified, because we know what we deserve for all of our worldly evil. That, however, is not the end of the story. Because of Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross, we have been reconciled to God. If we confess our sin God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Lord Jesus Christ, Your time has come, for You have traveled to Jerusalem fro the Passover from death to life. help us to live knowing that the time of our redemption is at hand as You continue to dwell among us at the feast of Your very body and blood, a foretaste of the feast to come; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen (Treasury of Daily Prayer, 2008).

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, Edward, and Paul E. Deterding. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009. Print.

Kinnaman, Scot A., and Henry V. Gerike. Treasury of Daily Prayer. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2008. Print.

Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961. Print.

"Popular Commentary, by Paul E. Kretzmann." Popular Commentary, by Paul E. Kretzmann. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Born Slaves: Thoughts About Conversion and Free Will

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life...My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 3:16; 10:27-28).

Human beings are arrogant and self-centered. I know that might come to you as a shock, but it is true. Even followers of Jesus, people who have been turned to repentance from their sin and given faith by the Holy Spirit, must battle with their inclination to sin every hour of every day. St. Paul explains this to the Romans in chapter seven of his letter to them. We do not do the good we want to do, but the evil we no longer want to do (because we are a new creation in Christ), that is what we persist in (because of our human nature, utterly corrupted by sin)[1].

This concept is never far from my mind, as I am no exception to St. Paul’s rule and also continually struggle with sin. The arrogance of humanity was amplified to me, however, as I read Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case For a Creator”. The book is a wonderful and invaluable resource for Christians who want to do as St. Peter writes and always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is within them[2]. Strobel's books are incredibly detailed in exploring all the arguments which show why faith in God is not merely a refuge for the simple minded, but a reasonable proposition for all people. It has been a fantastic resource for more than one person struggling with doubts and difficult questions about God, as Strobel’s other works have been.

I want to be clear: I admire Lee Strobel, and am a fan of his work. This is not intended to attack him or to demean his writings. Reading his book simply churned this issue up in my mind.

That being said, I got a strange dissonant sort of feeling listening to the book in the car the other night. At one point in the book, as in his other works, Strobel recounts how a non-Christian was evangelized by a believer, how that non-Christian rationally investigated all of the evidence for the faith (again, of which there is quite a bit), had some kind of emotional experience having to do with Jesus, and decided to accept Jesus into their heart as their personal savior.

Living in the Midwest, one would assume that I would be used to this, the standard American Evangelical script for “witnessing” to a non-Christian. I am but, being a Confessional Lutheran, this language of decision causes cognitive dissonance in my brain every time I hear it.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure...So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant[e] must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (Philippians 2:12-13; 2 Timothy 2:22-26).

Let’s forget for a minute that God is the one who grants repentance and faith in Christ since we wretched creatures, corrupted from our very conception, are dead in trespass and sin[3]. Let’s forget for a minute that, left on our own, our inclination would be to flee from God, since the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth[4]. The idea that one could choose Jesus and decide to believe in him after all the Bible has to say about God’s grace and man’s depravity is just plain self-centered on its face. The so-called “decision for Christ” takes God’s act and makes it man’s.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Christians should not use their reason and senses when proclaiming God’s word to those who do not know him. I’m not saying that Christians should abandon apologetic arguments as a delivery mechanism for law and gospel. I am saying that we must recognize that if a person is to be converted it will be done by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the means of the word, and not by how craftily we can turn a phrase, or how hard we can make them cry. We cannot reason, or emotionally manipulate, people into the faith.

I know that we all like to think that we have free will, but we don’t, at least prior to our conversion. Before our conversion our will is bound to sin. We can decide to accept Jesus as our personal lord and savior about as much as a corpse can “decide” to come back to life. When St. Paul writes to the Ephesians that we are dead in our trespasses that is precisely what he means. Regarding the will, the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, section II, line 67 (FC SD II 67), says this:

There is a great difference between baptized and unbaptized people. According to the teaching of St. Paul in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized in to Christ have put on Christ,” and are made truly regenerate. They now have a freed will. As Christ says, they have been made free again (John 8:36). Therefore, they are able not only to hear the Word, but also to agree with it and accept it, although in great weakness (McCain, Baker and Veith).

Prior to baptism our will is bound and we are incapable of coming to and believing in God. After baptism (or hearing the preaching of the Gospel, or reading God's word etc), God will have converted us by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus freeing our will to either: 1) continue along with God, cooperating with him, by his power, or 2) resist his conversion and sanctification efforts, thus grieving the Holy Spirit (allowing God’s grace to be bestowed on us in vain, so to speak), leading to an eventual withdrawal by the Holy Spirit, who then gives us over to our depravity and hardens our heart. The point is, God must first convert the unregenerate and give them understanding before they can cooperate with him, otherwise their will is bound to sin.

Let's apply this idea to the Ethiopian eunuch[5]. He was in his chariot reading the scriptures. Prior to his coming into contact with God’s Word, his will was bound and he was, as are all unregenerate men, hostile to God, and blind and dead in all matters spiritual. He unrolls the scroll and begins to read God’s Word, which is the means of grace. As he reads the Holy Spirit uses the means of grace to convert him – to free his will. At this point, after God has through his means drawn the eunuch to himself, the eunuch is now able, because of his freed will, to admire and love, rather than to despise, God’s Word and continue to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit’s power. This is, in fact, what seems to happen when Phillip comes by and preaches to the eunuch, who then desires to be baptized.

Let’s take the same scenario as above; The eunuch unrolls and reads the scroll of God’s word as before. As he reads the Holy Spirit uses the means of grace to convert him and free his will. This time though, rather than submitting to the Holy Spirit working in him, he gives in to the frustration he feels at not understanding the things he is reading and calls it all a bunch of confusing nonsense. When Phillip comes by, he engages him in conversation just as before and Phillip preaches to him. This time, however, rather than listening to the Word preached, the eunuch despises it and attempts to figure out by his own reason why what Phillip is saying should be true. This he is unable to do to his satisfaction, so he tells Phillip to be on his way, and take his stupid scroll with him. In this way he would have resisted the Holy Spirit and rejected the grace given to him by God as a free gift, and thus been responsible the state of damnation in which he then stood.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth...O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (1 Timothy 2:1-4; Luke 13-34).

Why, since God wants all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth, some are still lost is not any of our business and cannot be reasoned out. God has simply not revealed this information to us. In his work, "Bondage of the Will", Luther says just that:

But, as I have already said, we are not to pry into God's secret will, for the secret things of God are quite beyond us (1 Timothy 6:16). We should spend our time considering God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom God has made clear to us what we should and should not know (Colossians 2:3). It is true that the incarnate God says: 'I have longed to gather...but you were not willing'. Christ came to do, suffer and offer to all men all that is necessary for salvation. Some men, being hardened by God's secret will, rejected him (John 1:5, 11). The same God incarnate weeps and laments over the destruction of the ungodly, even though in his divine will he purposely leaves them to perish. It is not for us to ask why, but to stand in awe of God (Luther and Pond, Born Slaves).

God comes to us through the means of his word and sacraments, which are simply God’s word connected to a physical element like bread, wine, or water. Through his means of word and sacrament he changes unwilling hearts into willing ones, by the working if the Holy Spirit. And, while we are human beings and our experiences are not divorced from our emotions, our conversion does not depend on whether we get an ushy-gushy feeling in our gut when we pray the sinner’s prayer really, really sincerely or not. Our conversion depends on God. He is responsible for it from beginning to end. He certainly works through means like the preached and read word, but it is his gift to give to us. This does not mean that we who believe are to remain silent. Preaching and the hearing of God’s word are the instruments through which the Spirit wants to convert people. The Lutheran Confessions explain it this way (FC SD II 50):

Out of his immense goodness and mercy, God provides for the public preaching of his divine eternal law and his wonderful plan for our redemption, that of the holy, only saving Gospel of His eternal Son, our only savior and redeemer, Jesus Christ. By this preaching he gathers an eternal church for himself from the human race and works in people’s hearts true repentance, knowledge of sins, and true faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. By this means, and in no other way (i.e., through his holy word, when people hear it preached or read it, and through the holy Sacraments when they are used according to his word), God desires to call people to eternal salvation. He desires to draw them to himself and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them (McCain, Baker and Veith).

Or, to think of it another way, before you decided to go to the altar call at the Billy Graham Crusade and accept Jesus, you had already been converted by the Spirit’s power through the means of the preached word. It isn’t until after a person’s conversion that they have a free will, and are able to begin to cooperate with God.

Perhaps some might think that I’m nitpicking this issue. What does it really matter anyway? It looks like you made a decision; who cares, as long as the conversion was genuine? The problem with the idea of decision theology such as this is that it puts the decision in your hands and not in God’s. It gives people the false idea that their own work of making that decision for Christ is what got them saved. That takes the focus from Christ’s work and shifts it to your work. No one can come to Jesus unless he is drawn by the Father, and it is God who works inside a person to do that.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for his sake…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...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? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 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!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Philippians 1:29; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14-17).

It is quite tempting to try and help God along by punching up his word with the panache of our personal testimony. We think we have to go out and win people for Christ and we don’t, at least not in the conventional sense. In fact, such an idea is impossible. We are certainly called to proclaim the Gospel. People, however, are not converted from unbelief, they are not raised to newness of life in Christ Jesus, by some clever apologetic argument we might make, or by some heart-wrenching emotional experience which they will constantly seek to replicate in order to confirm their justification before God. God's gift of salvation doesn’t depend on our work, but on God's grace from beginning to end. The work was accomplished for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, while mankind was still his enemy; it is given to us by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. That gift of faith is given to us by God through word and sacrament.

God gives eternal life to all believers and, "Even as I now believe in Christ my Savior, I also know that I have been chosen to eternal life out of pure grace in Christ without any merit of my own and that no one can pluck me out of his hand" (Luther, The Small Catechism). Quite frankly, I am relieved. I know that I would, sinner that I am, mess up whatever part, however minuscule, that was left to me.

Works Cited

Luther, Martin and Clifford Pond. Born Slaves. Ed. J. P. Arthur M.A. and H. J. Appleby. London: Grace Publications Trust, 1984.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism. Trans. Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

McCain, Paul Timothy, et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Trans. William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

End Notes

Thursday, January 16, 2014

More People Who Have Issues...

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1 Corinthians 15: 1-11).

Dr. Reza Aslan, The author of the New York Times best seller, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" was the subject of a "straight from the horse's mouth" interview on Issues ETC the other day (you can listen to the interview HERE). What that means, is that the host, Rev. Todd Wilken, asks his guest probing questions so that they can clearly and concisely lay out their ideas for the listener. These interviews are often painful for the confessional listener, as Rev. Wilken often does not dispute the obvious points of contention with Christian theology in the guest's answers, but they do provide a valuable service. These types of interviews allow Christians to hear just what their detractors in the media and academia, in their own words and in no uncertain terms, think of them.

People see a book like "Zealot" on the shelf and think that it's something it's not. They see a picture of Jesus, a NYT bestseller sticker, and a PhD's name on the cover and think this is some new scholarship regarding Jesus, or the Bible, or Christian theology. What they get instead is 200 year old liberal theology that has one heck of an axe to grind against all of those things.

The Higher criticism method of biblical interpretation, also called Historical Criticism, was a development of liberal theologians over the past 200 years or so, and examines scriptural writings like witnesses in a court of law. It developed out of the the Tübingen School in Germany and can claim Friedrich Schleiermacher, the "father of liberal theology" as a foundation-layer. Scripture, using this method, must be “interrogated” and evaluated primarily according to human reason. Therefore, anything supernatural - such as Jesus rising from the dead - must be discounted, because the dead do not rise. Following this method, scripture is treated as any other human writings, subject to human failings. Higher criticism gives the individual interpreter, not Holy Scripture, ultimate authority and is incompatible with the “Sola Scriptura” principle of Lutheranism.

During the interview Dr. Aslan made three basic points: 1) the ancient mind did not have the same conception of history as the modern mind, 2) the Gospel writers (whoever they really were) intended to convey "truth", not "fact", and 3) the gospels were written long after the life and death of Jesus and are unreliable as historical documents.

That sounds quite scholarly and groundbreaking on the face of it, but it's really the same thing that the disciples of the Higher Criticism method off biblical interpretation have been saying for 200 years. Basically, they're trying to get people to believe that 1) the early Christians didn't care about the facts of the events they experienced, only their "beliefs", 2) they lied about what they wrote, and 3) the gospels weren't written by their purported authors, but developed as mythology written, not by individuals, but by communities of Christian believers well after the fact.

For example, Dr. Aslan claimed as undisputed fact the late date of the gospels. He stated during the interview that Mark's gospel was written in the 90's AD "for a fact". To the contrary, serious biblical scholars don't even consider a date later than the 70's AD for Mark. D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris in their work, "An Introduction to the New Testament", believe that the bulk of the evidence put Mark in the late 50's to middle 60's.

Mark, then is to be dated either in the late fifties or the middle sixties. While the latter is the majority view, we favor the late fifties. Indeed, we are required to date Mark before A.D. 60 if our assumptions about the ending of Acts and the priority of Mark are valid...Dating Mark in the fifties does go against the earliest traditions about Mark having been written after the death of Peter. But other traditions affirm that Mark wrote while Peter was still alive, so the early evidence is by no means unanimous on the subject (Carson, et. al., 1992).

And what of the gospels authorship? The gospel of Mark is anonymous, as are the others. The title was probably added later, certainly by the second century, to distinguish it from the others. Early church fathers such as Papias wrote that Mark was Peter's interpreter, and got the majority of his information from him.

Mark's connection with the second gospel is asserted or assumed by many early Christian writers. Perhaps the earliest (and certainly the most important) of the testimonies is that of Papias, who was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia of Asia Minor until about A.D. 130. His statement about the second gospel is recorded in Eusebius's History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica), written in 325...Those who are skeptical of the reliability of Papias conclude that the author of the gospel is unknown. Yet, as we have seen, there is nothing in the New Testament that is inconsistent with Papias's claim that Mark wrote the second gospel. And since we have no indication that anyone in the early church contested Papias's claim, we see no reason not to accept it (Carson, et. al., 1992).

To the Higher Critics, however, none of this information matters. The testimony of the early church fathers doesn't matter. The actual historical context and content of the gospels doesn't matter. The actual words written on the page do not matter. None of these things matter because, to the Higher Critics, the gospel writers lied about what they wrote. Supernatural things are impossible and, therefore, discounted as mere mythological elements to express and explain the spiritual "truth" that the gospel writers were trying to convey. They did this, the author contends, because the Apostles had to invent a new interpretation of what the Jewish Messiah was so that they didn't look like fools. After all, their leader Jesus failed in his attempt to establish an independent kingdom of Israel, just like all the other zealots before him.

This is a far cry from the method of interpretation used by those who respect Holy Scripture as the revealed word of God. Using the Historical-Grammatical method of biblical interpretation an interpreter seeks the native, literal, or intended sense of the text, derives the meaning from the text and allows Scripture to interpret itself. In order to discern God’s intended meaning, the Scriptures must be read as historical, literary documents. This method of interpretation seeks the meaning of scripture in the text itself, not from some special revelation or extra-biblical source. The interpreter must also recognize that the Holy Scripture is the written word of God – not a primarily human witness to revelation, and thus not subject to human failings. In the historical –grammatical approach, the interpreter must always remember that scripture, like our Lord, has two natures – the human and the divine – and has them equally and fully.

The thing is, if supernatural things are impossible, if the gospel writers - for whatever purpose - lied, if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, I'm not really interested in what the gospels have to say, or who the "historical" Jesus is. St. Paul felt the same way:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

We could argue with men like Dr. Reza Aslan all day, and none of it would make any difference because, as he admitted in the interview, Dr. Aslan is not a Christian and does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate. That's fine. As Christians all we can do is be patient, endure evil, and correct our opponents with gentleness so that, as St. Paul writes to Timothy, "God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2Timothy 2:24-26).

The Gospels, however, are not simply some collection of mystical writings which have no real relationship to history. They do not convey some vague spiritual "truth" at the expense of historical fact. They have been demonstrated, time and again to be reliable.

I am not a great theologian or biblical scholar, though I am interested in and do study such things with great eagerness (Incidentally, if you'd like to hear a world class apologist and theologian, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, respond to Dr. Aslan's interview, you can listen HERE.). There have been many men, more eloquent and better educated than I, who have written to explain, from a scholarly point of view, why we can have confidence in the historical accuracy and overall reliability of both the Old and New Testaments. I could not begin to do those men justice by trying to encapsulate their ideas here. I trust what they say about the number of New Testament manuscripts available to compare for accuracy (over 5,000 to date). I believe their theories, based on scholarly research and evidence, that the Gospels were not written by "communities" of Christians who were trying to justify their faith in a failed zealot, but are reliable historical accounts of what Jesus did and said, as St. Luke claims in his own writings. I accept their evidence showing that, rather than developing over the period of 70 or more years after Jesus crucification, the belief in Jesus' resurrection was proclaimed from the beginning of Christianity, from the time his disciples found the empty tomb. If someone wants to hear the scholars speak on these, and other important issues, the volumes are widely, and inexpensively, available (I would recommend, "The Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel as a starting place for those who wish to introduce themselves into this kind of scholarship).

No, I am moved by the words of St. Paul quoted previously, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." In his letter to the Corinthians St. Paul talks about the things which he and his fellow believers had seen and heard. They claimed to be witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Paul wrote his letters while those who knew and interacted with Jesus were still alive, as he himself testifies. Certainly, if he had been making up the gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead as the atoning sacrifice for mankind's sin out of whole cloth, someone who knew the real truth would have opposed him. Someone would have pointed the finger at the fledgling group of Christians for changing their story. No one did. Paul, a die-hard opponent of Christianity bent on murdering it's adherents turned Apostle "untimely born", was opposed by the Jews for teaching contrary to the teachings of the the rabbis and Judaism by proclaiming Christ as Messiah, and atoning sacrifice for sin.

There is no logical explanation for the mass conversion of 3,000 people in Jerusalem on Pentecost if what they heard preached was false. There is no logical reason for the apostles who, with the exception of St. John, suffered martyrdom in some of the most horrible ways that could be devised by the depraved human mind, to keep on professing a lie at the cost of their lives, simply to save face. They were crucified, beheaded, shot with arrows, thrown to wild beasts in the arena, burned alive and used as torches along the road. These horrors were sanctioned by the governing authorities and could have been averted by a simple denial of what they confessed. The Apostles, and scores of martyrs after them, were compelled by the Spirit to listen to God rather than men. The Holy Spirit had created faith in them; though it could not be proven by logic or reason, what they – and we – profess is true (according to the legitimate meaning of the word). Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Works Cited

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992. Print.

Engelbrecht, Edward, and Paul E. Deterding. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009. Print.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fire Communion

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Driving down Morgan Ave. in Evansville, IN I passed by this Unitarian Universalist Church and noticed that their sign said, "Fire Communion". Perplexed by this I had to pull into the parking lot to think about what this could possibly mean and, of course, snap a quick photograph. Perhaps this is a common thing among the UU's; I must admit that I was hitherto unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism and it's beliefs (which it sort of denies having...), and it was the first time I had been exposed to that particular phrase. All sorts of strange visions began dancing through my head, most of them requiring the use of flame retardant vestments and copious amounts of burn cream.
My exotic visions were quickly dispersed, however, when I did some quick research on the internet. According to the church's (term used extremely loosely) website, the Fire Communion service is a ritual used to usher in the new year:
Come help us celebrate the New Year with our Fire Ceremony. In this service, congregants burn pieces of paper containing brief descriptions of something they most wish to leave behind and light a candle for a new hope for the coming year (Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville, 2013).

So, people get together and burn up slips of paper with their failings and annoyances written on them in a symbolic, and I suspect ultimately fruitless, gesture of self-improvement. And with what, finally are you communing? Each other? I suppose, being Unitarian Universalists, that is left up to you:
Ours is a religion with deep roots in the Christian tradition, going back to the Reformation and beyond, to early Christianity. Over the last two centuries our sources have broadened to include a spectrum ranging from Eastern religions to Western scientific humanism. Unitarian Universalists (UUs) identify with and draw inspiration from Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Earth-Centered Traditions, Hinduism, Islam, and more. Many UUs have grown up in these traditions—some have grown up with no religion at all. UUs may hold one or more of those traditions’ beliefs and practice its rituals. In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart (Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 2013).

Not exactly what you would call orthodox Christianity. They could have saved me some time by calling this gathering what it is to begin with - a service of New Year's resolutions.
The problem is, this kind of "service" doesn't do anything to help anyone. All of those things we write on the piece of paper, that we want to leave behind in the old year - the anger, the hate, the gluttony, the laziness, the whatever-bothers-you - that is what God calls sin. And even though we'd like to think that we are able to cure our sin by an assertion of our will and the performance of some work, we all, deep down, know differently. We can't do it. Someone has to take care of these things for us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
That is the beauty of Christmas. At Christmas the one who would graciously redeem us from sin came into the world. Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became also true man. He did this for the expressed purpose of dying on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of mankind. This is what Christianity is all about. He resolved to do this, in obedience to the will of the Father, before all eternity, and before man could do anything to earn God's favor. While we were enemies, scripture says, Christ died for the ungodly:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
In the Sacrament of the Altar, also called Holy Communion, Jesus gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink in a way we cannot understand, in, with, and under the visible elements of bread and wine. It is truly a communion, not only between those who gather to hear his word and receive his sacrament, but between those believers and Christ himself. He gives us the forgiveness of sins he won for us by his death and resurrection. The bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, connected with the promise, "Given and shed for the forgiveness of sins," are a pledge of that forgiveness and eternal life we already have in Christ by faith. Communion is spiritual food which nourishes our faith and assures us that, by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus, our sins are forgiven, and we have been declared righteous before God for Christ's sake.
Just about every year I make a resolution to eat more healthfully, to exercise more, to be nicer, blah, blah, blah. There's nothing wrong with resolutions, necessarily, it's just that, more often than not, I've practically broken them before they've been resolved. And furthermore, simply learning how to eat better, or less, or how to control our tempers better, or even to do more volunteer hours will not cure the disease of sin from which we are ailing. Only Christ can take away our sin.
He has taken it away. Once you repent and believe in him you stand declared righteous before God. After he has made you into a new creation in Christ, God's Law, which previously condemned us by showing us our sinfulness, will now also serve as a guide to our behavior. As we grow in Christ, he will assist us in conforming how we do act with how we "should" act, and Fire Communion ceremonies will seem to us as ridiculous and unnecessary as they are. 

God will indeed deal with mankind's sin using fire. This will happen on the Last Day, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, when every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Christ is Lord:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells....Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire (2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 20:11-15).
Praise be to God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment we deserved on the cross of Calvary, so that our sins would be washed away by his blood, and our names would be written in the Book of Life.
O Lord, our God, in the name of whose only-begotten Son we have been called to be Christians and have been blest with Baptism for the remission of sins, make us, we pray, ready to receive the most holy body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins and to give thanks with grateful hearts to you, O Father, to your Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (Lutheran Worship, 1982)

Works Cited

"Are My Beliefs Welcome?" Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.

"Fire Communion." Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2013.

Lutheran Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1982. Print.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents - Gustave Dore
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:13-18).
The murder of the children of Bethlehem by Herod is, to be certain, a despicable and sinful act. It is usually depicted as taking place on the scale of a genocide, and we tend to get the impression that a lot more babies were murdered than probably actually were.
Don't misunderstand me, I am in no way going soft on infanticide. One baby-murder is too many. Liberal Bible scholars, as well as those outside of the faith who seek to diminish the credibility of Christianity, often use this story as one of their arguments. "If the madman Herod murdered all of the toddlers and babies in and around Bethlehem," they argue, "would there not be contemporary accounts of the massacre?" One would assume so, if the event happened as we often imagine it to have. And, actually, there is a reliable, contemporary account the murders - the Gospel of Matthew. Archeology has always proven itself the friend of the New Testament, and has shown it to be historically reliable, much to the annoyance of the few liberal scholars who are willing to acknowledge the evidence. That, however, is a debate to be saved for another day.
Herod the Great, or Herod I, has been described as a madman and a murderer, even apart from the Slaughter of the Innocents. He murdered his own family and was "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition" (Herod the Great, 2013). He was hated and mistrusted by the Jews over whom he ruled, and he hated and mistrusted them right back. Not only was he viewed by his subjects as a collaborator with the hated Romans, from whom he received his kingdom, he was also not a "real" Jew. Herod was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau (Herod, 2013). He did all kinds of terrible things to insure his grip on power. If he thought that the rightful Jewish King of the Jews had been born sometime in the last two years near Bethlehem, and that he had to murder all the babies in that place to keep his throne, there is little doubt that he would do so (France, 2007).

The fact that a mad and murderous king committed murder was still sad, but not as shocking as it maybe should have been. It certainly wouldn't have been front-page news. This situation is akin to murders in modern American cities such as Detroit or Chicago. They are committed with chilling regularity and in such a frequency that, to cover them with the attention they deserve would be to dominate every column of every magazine and newspaper in the city every day. This is in contrast with how a murder would be treated if it happened in some affluent suburban enclave where such things rarely occur. Today a murder in Chicago, unless it was particularly gruesome or involved some high-profile person, scarcely gets more than a one-minute mention on the evening news.
But Bethlehem wasn't Chicago or Detroit. It was small. So small, in fact, that it was considered insignificant by worldly standards, as the writings of the prophets suggest:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).
Traditional Bible scholars believe that, given population density in that area during that time (all estimated, of course), no more than twenty babies and young children were made Herod's unfortunate victims (Hagner, 1993).
But why are they called innocents? Certainly they are not innocent, at least not in the biblical sense. They are sinful human beings, just like everyone else, with a sinful human nature, and they are subject to sin and death. I suppose that they are innocent in the sense that they received a punishment they did not deserve. The death they suffered was intended for the Christ child. In this way they could be considered martyrs as their deaths testify to the Christ, and foreshadow his own suffering and death.
The Holy Innocents teach us that there is no such thing as innocence before God, since the Fall of Man. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one is righteous, not even one, all of us having been conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity. No thing or person has escaped the corruption that entered the world through the sin of Adam. Herod demonstrates the depth of this corruption by his depraved sinful desires, his willingness to act on those sinful desires, the horrific act itself, and its intended end - the murder of God's Anointed One; the death of the Holy Innocents demonstrates that all - even "innocent" babies - are subject to sin and death, and are in desperate need of a savior. As members of the nation of Israel through circumcision, we trust God that the babies murdered by Herod were forgiven sinners because of God's promise, just as we who have been adopted into God's family through baptism are.
Almighty God, whose praise was proclaimed this day by the wicked death of innocent children, giving us thereby a picture of the death of your beloved Son, mortify and destroy in us all that is in conflict with you that we who have been called in faith to be your children may in life and death bear witness to your salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (CPH, 1983).

France, R. T. "The Gospel of Matthew (Google EBook)." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod (king of Judaea)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
"Herod the Great." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
Lutheran Worship. St. Louis (3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis 63118): Concordia Pub. House, 1983. Print.
"Massacre of the Innocents." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.