Ephesians 2:8

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“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,”

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Martin Luther’s attack on free will, where salvation is concerned, has dismayed Lutherans and enfuriated critics ever since. The cry continually goes up, “We have to do something, don’t we?” Luther might respond like this; ‘And just what are you planning on doing? is there something regarding your salvation that Christ has not done for you?’

 Here, in his own words, Martin lays the axe to our free-will pretensions.

 “For my own part, I frankly confess that even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation. For, on the one hand, I should be unable to stand firm and keep hold of it amid so many adversities and perils and so many assaults of demons, seeing that even one demon is mightier than all men, and no man at all could be saved; and on the other hand, even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainty and to fight as one beating the air [1 Cor 9.26], since even if I lived and worked to eternity, my conscience would never be assured and certain how much it ought to do to satisfy God.

For whatever work might be accomplished, there would always remain an anxious doubt whether it pleased God or whether he required something more, as the experience of all self-justifiers proves, and as I myself learned to my bitter cost through so many years. But now, since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him. “No one,” he says, “shall snatch them out of my hand, because my Father who has given them to me is greater than all” [John 10:28 f.]. 

So it comes about that, if not all, some and indeed many are saved, whereas by the power of free choice none at all would be saved, but all would perish together. Moreover, we are also certain and sure that we please God, not by the merit of our own working, but by the favor of his mercy promised to us, and that if we do less than we should or do it badly, he does not hold this against us, but in a fatherly way pardons and corrects us.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 33, pgs. 288-289“.   

TIMBER!

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

 

 

 

 

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John 17

“14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one16  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17  Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”

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The culture today is in convulsions over whose stories, values and ideas will define us. The withering effects of this battle have driven many into various defense modes within politics, religion, and the seemingly endless determinations of the self. How does the Christian witness to a torn world and radically shifting culture? Do we simply pick from among the choruses of discontent and add our voice? Didn’t Jesus call us to be light and salt and leaven in the midst of the rancorous world?

John 17 gives us what has been called the Lord’s ‘High Priestly Prayer’. In this prayer He states flat out that He and those who belong to Him are not of the world. In fact, the Lord makes it clear that those who belong to the Word will be hated by the world. Faithfulness to the Father is not a formula for compatibility with the world.

The domestication of the faith makes this hard for most of us to grasp. We have done a masterful job of taking the offense out of our faith. We tend to move seamlessly between church life, family life, politics and marketplace. Most of our lives appear not only to be in the world but also of the world. Our Christian lives hardly stir up hatred, as Jesus suggested they might.

When Jesus Christ calls us He calls us to be fully in the world but not of the world. He calls us to be isolated but not insulated. The Christian draws life, value and perspective from Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be sanctified in the truth, the Word of God. If we are to be insulated from evil, as Jesus prayed, then we must be grounded and rooted in Him.

Family values, political ideology or variously defined modes of success will not save you or the world. These are law matters not Gospel matters. When a Christian or a congregation becomes so closely allied with these, the reverse of an old expression applies; ‘We become so earthly minded we are no heavenly good.” 

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

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Philippians 2

“He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself…”.

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In their desire to flee the tyrannies of the old world with its’ controlling monarchies and lack of opportunity, the founding fathers unknowingly designed a system that would eventually lead us into what we have now. A country filled with isolated individuals seeking their own self interest with little or no sense of community. What began as “We the people”, has become, “I the individual”.

Self-emptying does not fit into our society. From the time we are very young, virtually all the social pressures around us drive us to find our place on the self-glorification hierarchy. It does not take long to realize what the game is: achievement and success. Self-worth is predicated upon money, prestige, power, sexual attractiveness and youth. This formula is inherently competitive and stressful and militates against all sorts of things that we actually need for a truly human life.

The debris of this way of life lies all around us. Lonliness, addiction, unrelenting stress, a constant sense of inadequacy, the gnawing fear of failure, to name just a few. And these realities are not unique to our society by any means. They can be found everywhere and give evidence to a world-wide bondage to the drive of the uninterrupted self.

God moves in a different direction. When He came among us, to be with us, to be one of us, His life was lived out on the margins among those whom it was easy to forget or dismiss.  Jesus emptied Himself and became a servant, even unto death on the cross. And He did so for you, for all of us who are willing conspirators in the business of self-glorification. 

When Christ Jesus takes hold of the heart in baptism, and grafts us onto the vine of His life, the forgiveness of sins takes us off the path of self-glorification and gives space for grace, flexibility for love. The direction is outward, the context is communal. The grasping hand opens to both give and receive in gratitude for the grace that sets us free.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 18:20

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”

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For centuries societies in all parts of the world were largely agrarian. Most people lived in what we call rural areas. A few cities, like ancient Rome, grew to be quite large. But these were rare exceptions. Life went on this way well into the 19th century. It was the Industrial Revolution, with its’ factories and technical expansion, that began drawing people away from the farms and villages into the cities. 

As production became more efficient, specialized and concentrated, the emphasis shifted from craftsmanship to maximization. This was the era of the birth of the phrase, “Bigger is better”. People in these industrializing societies were drawn to this notion like moths to a flame. As people streamed into his circus tents, awed by the big show,  P.T. Barnum capitalized on this phenomenon and observed, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

When I meet someone for the first time and they learn that I am a pastor, 95% of the time the first question they ask is, “How big is your congregation.”  Of all the questions that may be asked regarding the congregation, the first question has to do with size. Curious, isn’t it? Not really. After all, Bigger is better. Bigger is self-validating. Bigger equals success.  Bigger means you have the right business plan. Bigger means you are giving the gathered masses what they want.

Some years ago I was introduced to a fellow during a wedding rehearsal in our sanctuary. He was attending one of the local mega-church circuses here in Southern California. His first comment to me was this; “You have a small congregation”.  I replied, “Compared to what?” He looked back at me in slack-jawed amazement and didn’t know what to say. I pressed on. “Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.’ Jesus is here. His Gospel is here. His sacraments are here. People are here, gathered in His name. Is there something else we need? Am I missing something.” Still silent, the man looked askance at me, smirked and walked away. Of course he did. Bigger is better. Right?

 

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

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John 4:13

“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again;but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

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THE PARABLE OF THE LOST TRAVELER

 ‘Once there was a traveler who lost himself in a vast, uncharted wilderness. He adapted and lived, just barely, on insects and the drops of dew he could lick off plants in the early mornings. After a long time he settled in to this life. Being parched and always on the edge of hunger became normative for him. Then one day he came upon a pool of water in a dark ravine between towering cliffs. His deep thirst was awakened and drove him into the water where he drank his fill. Only when it was too late, as he lay dying, did he realize that the water was brackish, poisonous. There was no guide, familiar with the wilderness, to warn him away.’

The wilderness is the world in which we find ourselves. An arid world that has abandoned the numinous, the spiritual, for the choking dryness of the material and reasonable. The traveler is anyone who inhabits this wilderness, believing that any diet that feeds the senses is life-giving. The poisonous waters are those false promises offered up to those who are unable to discern the difference between God’s Word of life and the words of evil that promise life but deliver death. 

Yes, there are powers in the brackish waters. And they mean us no good. If all the Church can offer up against these powers are the non-redemptive affects of  prosperity preaching, consultants on church growth, programs that meet our so-called needs, marketing strategies to increase sales (fill the pews), smug, middle class morality or the call to moral effort, we are done for.

What we need is a Redeemer, a Savior we can trust who discerns our real thirst and can guide us to living water.  In baptism, by the water and the Word, we are brought into a such redemptive, life-giving relationship with God in Christ.

Drink from any other source and continuing thirst will be your fate, even unto death. Drink from Christ Jesus, in Word and sacrament, and He will be for You, according to His promise, “a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

 

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

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Psalm 139:7-8

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

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Positivism, humanism, materialsim. These three “isms” are the defining philosophical systems of our age and probably of your life, whether you know it or not. What they add up to is this: if you can’t taste it, touch it, see it, hear it or do something with it, it isn’t real. The orientation of modern life is to what is. Beyond this arid view of reality everything else is nothing but speculation or fantasy. With so many millions actually believing this, it is no wonder that a current popular statement of this faith – or lack of it – is contained in one word; ‘whatever’.  If the tangible is all there is, then all we are is, well, dirt. Nothing really matters. Whatever.

Yet the entire witness of Holy Scripture is to a creation infused with Spirit. The people of Israel, for example, took spirituality very seriously. They intricated it into their way of life. It was in the fiber of their being. In waking and sleeping and walking, in conceiving and bearing children, in planting and harvesting, work and rest, in war and peace, in all aspects of life the numinous, the spiritual was most real.

The Scriptures witness to a God who married dirt with spirit. One or the other will not do. The creation is a coming together of the material and Spirit. There is no more obvious display of this than the Incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,…”. 

The material does not derive meaning from itself. The Spirit gives meaning to the material. There is no ‘there’ where you are not in the presence of the Spirit. There is no hiding place. This is what the psalmist was observing in the text for today. This view of reality gives real meaning to the creation, where our lives, and all their works and all their ways, are displayed on the stage of history.

 

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

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Genesis 28

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“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, …”

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Once there was a farm outside a town. The majestic oak tree that stood in the yard, throwing lace-like patterns across the house, had started life long ago near a path where the Chippewa traveled, their soft moccasins making no sound as they moved through the forested landscape, wildflowers and the seasons. The farmer stumbled behind a team of horses. The morning air was heavy with the smell of earth and animals, sweat and leather as their muscles strained against the plow and the dark earth rolled over. The farmer was close, very close to the land, close to his Bible. He remembered the words of Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place…”. 

Now, in the planting and growing days of spring and summer, the farmland lies buried beneath white-hot asphalt. The oak tree is gone. Airplanes, thunderous with power, have replaced the sounds of cattle lowing and babies waking. The rhythm of the seasons has been replaced, day and night, by restless motion and tight schedules. Does the God of Jacob descend and ascend over neon and suburban sprawl, over cabs and hotels, airports and cities teeming with the trapped, lonely and indifferent masses?

The furious pace of change and its’ seemingly random, chaotic character is matched by our anxiety and unease. Where do we look for some assurance that the utter despoiling of the world is not our future? The cross and resurrection of Christ is where we look. There is no greater desolation than death. Yet God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby planting His promise in the midst of our despoiling and dying. When the Gospel opens our eyes to the amazing grace of Christ, we may awaken from our sleep upon pillows of concrete and steel and exclaim with praise and wonder, “Surely the Lord is in this place…”!

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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