Acts 2:24

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“But God raised him from the dead…because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

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The Golden Gate, as it is called, is located on the eastern side of the famous temple mount in Jerusalem. The current gate was built over an earlier structure dating from the time of Jesus. According to tradition, this is where the Messiah will arrive when he comes to establish the new Jerusalem.

In 1514 the muslim conqueror, Suleiman, had the gate sealed in an effort to prevent the Messiah from entering. For insurance a cemetery was placed around the entrance since it was believed that the Messiah would not enter a cemetery. Somehow I don’t think stone walls and dead bodies are much of a deterrent. Not for the Messiah I know.

Three days after others put Him in a cemetery, in a tomb sealed with stone, Jesus brushed the stone aside and re-entered life. In His own body Christ Jesus gave us a sign that no barrier will hold Him and no cemetery is off limits. But Christ Jesus did not come out of that tomb as a vengeful conqueror, bent on destruction. Oh, He came out as conqueror to be sure. But it was death that lay vanquished at His feet and the great barrier of sin no longer stood between humanity and God.

Suleiman had no clue who he was dealing with where our Messiah is concerned. Christ Jesus will break down every dividing wall, empty every cemetery, and on that great and glorious day, establish the New Jerusalem – with gates wide open – where all the promises of God will find their fulfillment in Him.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 25:4

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“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth.”

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This is Paolo. For generations his family has been riding the waters of the Venetian lagoon, guiding gondolas through the maze of canals and waterways. Linda and I began our excursion with him at the great landing next to St. Mark’s square. But it wasn’t long before we were gliding along the narrow canals, in the fading light of dusk, with no idea where we were. This is when I turned around and took this picture. I was struck – and reassured – by Paolo’s calm demeanor and steady gaze. His handling of the gondola was elegant and effortless. This is someone who knew where he was, where he was going, and how to get there.

When I look ahead at the day before me, there is reason enough to wonder about what the right direction might be. Even if I am convinced, obstacles, threats and dangers may cause me to question my course. When I look at the wider world, I have even less reason for confidence. Their appears to be no real direction in life. The course seems to be one of random chaos and confusion.

If the Bible makes anything clear it is that the hand of God is on the tiller of history. The voyage is not without tumult and danger, to be sure. But the direction is set and the course, however torturous, will end in the fulfillment of God’s good and gracious purposes. Knowing this helps me step back a bit and remember that I am not wandering blindly through life, in the hands of chaotic forces.

In your baptism, God gave you the Holy Spirit, to be your Comforter and Guide. If an earthly guide, like our friend Paolo, can navigate so adroitly, how much more is the Spirit of Christ, Who is the way, the Truth and the Life, able to guide us through the convolutions and perils of living?

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 138:7

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“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life;”

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Helmut Thielicke was an eminent pastor and theologian who served a congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the devastating days of World war II. The words that follow are his.

“Trusting God is a challenge even for the most mature believer when our lives are turned upside down by situations that surprise us with deep pain and stun us with their sudden brutality The Bible encourages us that God is there in the pain, he is acting, and he is loving. Our circumstances scream that he has forgotten us and does not care, but scripture assures us that we are not in the hands of men, but God’s hand is there, there in our pain. By the Cross of Christ, we know that God has experienced our suffering. By the promises of God, we know that we are held in the palm of his hand.”

I suppose all of us out of our pain, suffering, anger and confusion have, at one time or another, looked with dismay and doubt at the heavens and asked “Why?”.

Pastor Thielicke lived through the worst of the war along with his congregation. None of the magnitude of the suffering was lost on him. Harassment and numerous interrogations by the Gestapo also took a toll. But through all of it, he was able to help others to recognize what it meant to be in the gracious grip of God even when the cruel grip of man seemed inescapable and absolute. And he was able to do so because he knew that Jesus also stood in that place.

Jesus faced gross injustice, was battered and brutalized at the hands of man. And like you and me, His sufferings also drove Him to look into the heavens. And he did so from the apparent godlessness of the bloody cross. But Jesus threw up no litany of anger, self-pity or blame. Three words he uttered there gave testimony to the whole of His life. These three words can give direction to our laments when life seems too much, when God seems to distant, even absent, when events overwhelm…“Into Your hands…”.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 9:11

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“Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

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John, a widower, lived next door to Robert, also a widower whose wife had recently died. Robert’s relatives lived far away in another state and could rarely get away to visit. For his part, Robert was too frail to travel. He longed for friends, for companionship, but his off-putting, quirky personality made him hard to like. John avoided Robert at every opportunity, finding excuses to turn down invitations to visit, never going outside if his neighbor was in the yard. John was fully aware of Robert’s lonliness yet he withheld the gift of friendship. Then, one Sunday morning, as he arrived home from church, John saw an ambulance parked on the street in front of Robert’s house. A few moments later, a stretcher was wheeled down the sidewalk next door. Robert’s body was covered with a sheet. He had committed suicide.

The sins of commission are frightening enough; the things we willfully do, knowing they are wrong. But the sins of omission can be terrifying in the extreme, if we have any sensitivity. These are the things we ought to have done that we leave undone. There is no end to the rationalizations we can call up in our defense. Either our lives are too full of obligations to be bothered with others, or we decide the neighbor is undeserving of our help.

Jesus got Himself into all kinds of trouble because He went out of His way to be there for those who others found plenty of reason to avoid. He took up the obligation to care for the neighbor not because they were lovable or likable but because the need was there and love could do no other.

Are you and I so attractive, lovable and likable that God simply could not resist us and therefore, gave us His only begotten Son to die for us? Hardly. If we dare to claim, to our benefit, His grace, mercy, love and forgiveness, by what rationale do we dare withhold from one another the benefit of a neighbor’s concern?

 

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

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John 17:6-10

 

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“I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours…”

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A pastor who traveled frequently on church business developed a habit. Before he checked out of a hotel room, he would pray for the next occupants of that room, that God would be with them and bless them. This is called intercessory prayer.

One of the great blessings and comforts of the Christian life is to know that others are praying for you. The knowledge of this has strengthened me and I am sure you can say the same. It is wonderful to know that intercession is being made for you in the midst of life’s hurts and hopes.

It is even more wonderful to know that our Divine Friend and Brother, Jesus our Savior, is praying for us. The 17th chapter of the Gospel of John records the great intercessory prayer of Jesus. He prays for the small group of believers who are with Him. He prays that the Father may guard them against disunity, that they may be one in heart and mind. He prays that they may be shielded from evil, sanctified in the truth, and that one day they may be with Him and see His glory. But does He pray for you and me?

In verse 20 we read, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word.” And, in Hebrews 7:25 we are told that Christ Jesus “always lives to make intercession for them.”

Someone once wondered how it can be that God prays to Himself. What can it mean to say that Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, prays to the Father, and for the intercession of the Holy Spirit on our behalf? The truth is we cannot know. Nor do we need to. It is enough to know that every detail of our lives reaches the deepest intimacies of Christ’s love for us. We are on His mind and, though it is a mystery, in His prayers also.

 

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

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Ephesians 2:8

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“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;”

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The young man called out of the blue and wanted to talk. The next morning found him in my study, wringing his hands, full of doubt. He had been baptized and grew up in a Lutheran congregation. During his college years, a friend convinced him that his baptism meant nothing and that he must make a free-will decision to accept Christ. The next few years found him in a so-called non-denominational church.

He went on to describe a Christian life, as it had been presented to him, that was a source of chronic uncertainty. It began with the demand that he make a free-will decision. Then, the message he heard continually prodded the will to keep choosing, setting up Biblical principles for living, ladders of spiritual achievement, rules for godly living. The questions poured out of him. Am I doing what God wants? Am I praying often enough? Am I loving enough? Do I have enough faith? Am I sincere in wanting to love God or am I just afraid of judgment? When I die will I have done enough to escape God’s judgment? Am I really a sincere Christian? He had reached his limits. “If the Gospel is Good news”, he remarked, “why do I always feel so unsettled and uncertain?”

After listening to his litany of questions, I replied; “I don’t know you, but I can say with certainty that the answer to all your questions is ‘no’. At the same time, I can say with even more certainty that the answer to your doubts is Christ and what He has done for you. Basing faith on your decision for Christ is a formula for uncertainty. Basing faith on Christ’s decision for you in your baptism plants you firmly in the Gospel.”

What the young man who came to me was discovering is that when we look to ourselves, to what we have done, to our willing, all God will show us is our unwillingness. God deliberately drives us to uncertainty, doubt, despair, or, even worse, to pride. What I hoped he would see is that when we begin with baptism, with God’s decision for us, God shows us the righteousness that is His gift to us by faith, deliberately leading us away from ourselves to the foot of the cross, to the forgiveness that flows from His merciful heart.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Acts 4:12

 

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“And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved.”

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At first glance the picture above may appear to be the tower of some great English cathedral. Actually, it’s a photo I took at Yale university on the occasion of Kristin’s graduation.

The vast amounts of energy and resource poured into institutions such as Yale testify to a supreme sense of self-importance. Indeed, the academic culture speaks from what we have come to characterize as the ‘Ivory Tower’ with the sense of the royal ‘we’, claiming an expertise and superiority that is meant to be the latest, if not the last, word.

For the most part, theological seminaries have cast their lot with the academic culture. A glance at the faculty lists of main-line seminaries will reveal names followed by the abbreviations of academia, symbols of their expertise. But they can also be symbols of something else, something that academics in the church have a hard time confronting. Namely, conformity to the values of the academic culture.

I have joked, (actually, I have been quite serious) that every person who serves on a theological faculty should be mandated to teach confirmation classes and visit nursing homes as part of their job description. What does a Biblical theologian resplendent with a PhD have to say to a teenager in love with Ipods, laptops and pop culture? What does a high flying systematics prof have to say to a woman living out her last months in a nursing home on some nameless side street, neglected or forgotten by her family and the ‘progressing’ world around her?

If professional theologians have nothing to say to the teenage pop culture addict or a dying woman, then I have a hard time understanding what they have to say to a classroom full of seminarians destined for the trenches to do battle with “sin, death and the power of the devil”. The fact is, many of these religious professionals don’t have anything to say. They give hot air a bad name. Naturally, many would object to this. But the course descriptions of a typical mainline seminary today, Lutheran or otherwise, reveal a simple fact: the ‘schools of the prophets’ have become graduate schools in religion where the religiously diverse and inclusive values of the academic culture have made Jesus just one more option on the religious salad bar.

Theological faculties and congregations would do well to remember that it is what the church has to say to the fallen world, in its state of perpetual bondage and lostness unto death that finally matters. The academic culture and the wider society, with all their generous diversity, have no answer to these. Jesus does. For Christ, and the salvation that is in Him alone, is the heart, soul and substance of the Church’s message. It is in the sounding of this one, glorious note that the Church finds its voice, and the world its hope.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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