John 8

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“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Ask most Americans what they value most and the response will probably be ‘freedom’. Ask them to define freedom and the answers will have something to do with being able to do as we please. Interestingly, the founders of this country defined freedom as being able to do as we ought, not necessarily as we please. 

Freedom is actually defined by its choices as reflected in this classic definition; 

“Freedom is the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.”

The implications are obvious. Authentic freedom only belongs to those who always and in every thought, word, and deed choose the right and the good.  A simple inventory of our own life’s timeline of thoughts, words and deeds, will reveal that  we are anything but free. For our  choices of thoughts, words, and deeds often reflect not the absence but the presence of “necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.”  And that which is present in us driving these things is sin. 

We don’t like hearing this of course. ‘What do you mean I’m not free? Of course I am! I have free will, don’t I?” Actually, there is a no better witness against us than our so-called free will. It is our ample backlog of free willed thoughts, words and deeds that contain the record of the countless ways we have chosen the bad instead of the good. This is the truth. And unless we know and hear the truth about ourselves, we will continue to live the lie, calling bondage freedom. But the implications are even more serious.

True freedom belongs to God alone. Only God is free because only God’s willing always, and in every sense results in the good. This why to claim freedom for yourself – including free will – is, in fact, blasphemy against God. For such a claim shows contempt for God , wittingly or not, by claiming for yourself something that belongs to God alone.

Jesus was speaking to a fundamental truth; if you sin you are slave to sin. You are not free. And because of sin we have no permanent place with God. For the wages of sin is death. But to this ominous and sobering reality our Lord added an even greater truth; “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” 

In Jesus God has done some free will choosing of His own. And God’s choosing is not polluted with the taint of self interest. Out His great love for us – we who are bound in our free-will pretensions – He has chosen to extend grace and mercy. 

The ringing note of this glorious grace so struck the Apostle Paul that he could sum up the whole Christian life in one, simple declaration, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  This is the authentic paradigm of the Christian life and faith. For we are not the free ones who simply misuse our freedom, and must be coerced into choosing rightly. We are the bound ones, enslaved in sin, who must be set free, and have been, “by The Man of God’s own choosing”, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 10:30

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“But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

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Among the more obvious contemporary examples of unrestrained cynicism is the slogan adopted by those who are marketing Las Vegas to the masses; ‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas’.  When I was a rock musician back in the sixties the same concept had a slightly different slant; ‘What Happens on Tour, Stays On Tour’.  

The lure in this enticing fiction is that it is possible to engage in human behavior that avoids scrutiny and accountability and is beyond judgement. Why anyone who has any regard for others would want to actively promote this idea and encourage others to do so is hard to fathom. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that luring dollars is the real point, whatever the human cost.

The slogan also has the dead ring of nihilism about it. Can what I do be brought before no higher court than myself?  Is life devoid of any higher significance?

Jesus pointed out to those around Him that God’s eye perceives the tiny Sparrow and as well as every hair on your head. These words can have the effect of bringing great comfort but they also just might bring something else. It makes a difference if one is conscious that all of life, from the inside out, lies under the unblinking eye of the Creator. Nothing escapes scrutiny, no thought, word or deed escapes notice. 

The early Christians were encouraged to “walk as children of the light”. It’s a good phrase and an even better way of life. Children of the light are out in the open. Their ‘yes’ is yes and their ‘no’ is ‘no’. At the first sign of dawn they do not close the blinds or scurry under rocks. But who among us would dare on our own claim such a title? How dare we who have walked in darkness, and for whom innocence is no longer a possibility, claim the title ‘Children of the Light’?

We may dare such a life because the Great Eye of God has looked upon us in forgiving love in Jesus Christ, not holding the “deeds of darkness” against us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”, the Word proclaims. Now, in the light of His amazing love, we may live out in the open freely, knowing that when God’s complete knowledge of us becomes too much, and drives us into the darkness, it is only so that we may return to our baptism and be restored by the daily dawning of His redeeming grace.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 7

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 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged…first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

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In my mid-sixties I have entered a time in life when reminiscing becomes more poignant.  I can see far more clearly the carefree days of youth, when I threw myself into the maze of experience, confident that the future was now and all that mattered was the present. Decades of living and aging have tempered this rashness until now there is a sobriety and humility about life. 

The assertions that drove me to selfhood and independence also turned out to be a willfulness that took me beyond the restrictions and standards meant to keep me safe into places I should have avoided, and steered my life in ways both great and small onto the shoals of grief and heartache. And when I began to come to my senses, seeking a solid road of abiding values or an unbroken ascent to a promising future, I discovered that in a thousand ways the downward pull of the world was more than a match. It was then that life became a juggling act of living with the contaminations of compromise and the  tempering of disappointment . 

I would argue that in some measure this describes every human life. Although the details vary, the dynamics do not. Youthful idealism may have its brief moment but every person eventually must face the corrosive effects of life, the very real dimensions of loneliness, fear and failure, the destructive and deforming contagion of willfulness. 

A lot can be said about this but I want to make a singular point. I have been in the pastoral ministry long enough to have observed that far too many people in the church seem to have no capacity to recognize this struggle in the lives of others, nor do they honestly confront it in themselves. The church seems to often to be a place where it is permissible to come down on the defections of others, thanking God we are not like them, as if we are not bound in our own willfulness and pretensions.

Christian people are to take their cues from the one who went to the Cross, the one who said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged…first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The convoluted shamble of your life, however well you may be hiding it, has only one anecdote; the contagion of God’s love and mercy in Jesus. And for this anecdote you can offer nothing. It is God’s free and gracious gift to you. It is this love that restores us, not to idealism but to hope. For that hope cannot be compared to the frantic idealisms of the world. It is rooted in God’s promises and it will never disappoint.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Philippians 1:21

“For me, to live is Christ…”

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The late Dr. George Forell, in his book The Proclamation of the Gospel in a Pluralistic World, outlines three levels of religious commitment.  

With regard to the Bible, for example, those on the first level say it is an important book but it is rarely if ever read.

A second-level view is that it is a good book. When it is read, it is often to search out axioms or moral principles for living.

A minority share the third level view; the Bible is the inspired Word of God, through which the Holy Spirit works to create a living faith in Christ. They read the Scriptures regularly and gather with others to hear the Word of God proclaimed.

Another area which Dr. Forell describes is the Church.

On one level a person says, “I was raised a Lutheran.”  “Going to church” is a matter of pedigree, a religious necessity.

On the second level, the majority, say the church is where we learn about right and wrong. For them, “going to church” is a gathering of the morally concerned. The Church is a vehicle to attempt a moral life.

The third level, a minority, sees the Church as a body of believers, the people of God, summoned through the Gospel to bring the world to the Cross, that there they might know their Savior.  They don’t “go to church”, they are the Church; the gathering of the forgiven who have been “called and sanctified” in faith through Jesus Christ. 

It is to this third level that our Lord Jesus called the Twelve and to which He calls you and me through Word and sacrament. Followers, disciples, believers, whatever words we use, are ordinary people made extraordinary by the love and grace of God. These people do not “go to church” as if it was simply one more event on the weekly calendar. For them, as St. Paul has written, “to live is Christ.”  By lives devoted to thanksgiving, praise and love of others,  they seek to show what and Who they believe is really worth living for.

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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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Psalm 46:1

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“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Martin Luther found a lot to like in the 46th Psalm. As a result he paraphrased its promises and set them to music in the great hymn we know as ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’.

It is not hard to see why Luther held this Psalm in such high regard. The focus is clearly on the mighty, saving acts of God. And this focus became central in that renewal of the Church we call the Reformation. It is still the focus of all who treasure the Gospel above all things. 

The great insight of the Lutheran Reformation was nothing novel. Martin simply brought the Gospel message to the forefront and it did the rest. And as the freedom of the Gospel went to work it created what it continues to create wherever it is heard; alarm, anger, shock, challenge, joy, freedom, assurance and, in Luther’s famous words, “forgiveness of sins, life and salvation”.  

The precise occasion of the writing of ‘A Mighty Fortress’ is not known. What is known is that it came out of Martin’s long struggle to know God’s peace, a struggle that was brought to rest when the Gospel directed him away from reliance on the commandments of men to trust in the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The confidence and freedom that resulted from this encounter was the singular note that rang throughout the rest of his life. It continues to ring, and joyfully so, in all who find their assurance and hope in the promises of the Gospel.

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A Mighty Fortress is Our God

Martin Luther

 

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;

Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 4:4

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“Not by bread alone.”

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A friend once remarked to me that he would love to go back in time and live in the Middle Ages. I replied that he must be joking unless it was his desire to join a chorus of misery. After all, for centuries the vast, vast majority of people in that time and every other era in history lived daily with various forms of oppression, want, hardship, sickness and often, early death.

Even many of the poor today live in far better conditions than most of the people who have ever lived. So, given the material and other comforts humans enjoy in our country and elsewhere on this tiny orb, why isn’t the world brimming over with happiness?

The truth is that while we need a certain level of provision and comfort to live, a satisfied life is not finally a result of these things. This should be obvious to us by now but we continue to make cliches of ourselves and look to those things that cannot satisfy. How many dreary stories have we heard of those who fill their bank accounts, or try to, only to discover, in a thousand ways, that full banks often reflect an empty life.

For all our complexities, certain things about human beings are quite straightforward. Our Lord Jesus had a way of putting a laser beam on this fact with words like this;

“Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

This is a statement of fact that cuts right to the bone. After all, how many of us in actual fact, do believe and live as if  “bread alone” in all its forms is actually enough?

A full, abundant, satisfied – that is to say, authentically human life – was never meant to result from grabbing at the material. Another laser beam from the Lord put it this way;

“What does it profit a man if should gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

 or this,

“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be added to you.”

In your daily pursuit of “gold and goods” these words of Christ Jesus are not simply a gentle reminder, a mild piece of advice. They are words of promise, a two-edged sword that cuts two ways;

 

Promise One: Seek your life through the material alone and an authentic life of love, joy and peace will elude you; 

Promise Two: Seek your life under the promises of God’s Word in Christ Jesus and the love, joy, peace – and contentment – that are in Him will bring your anxious heart to rest. For when you have Him, you have everything. The rest is icing on the cake!

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Romans 3:23-24

“All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Therefore we are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.”

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As a child of the 1960’s I remember well the idealism that characterized much of that time. Words like ‘peace’ and ‘love’ were tossed around as if just saying them would bring them about. I remember tossing them around myself. But it didn’t work.The hollow fellowship of wishful thinking, adolescent  impatience and naive utopianism broke on the rocks of a sterner and more enduring fellowship – the fellowship of sin.

The world doesn’t speak like this, of course. It wants to locate the source of human dysfunction in all kinds of explanations that are more amenable to our generous view of ourselves. Sociological, economic, political, psychological, historical, genetic, and other assessments are put in the service of these efforts to identify, explain and address the chronic human tendency to subvert what is good, innocent, righteous and blessed. Some of these efforts to explain ourselves to ourselves can produce positive results. Anything that serves to restrain the worst in us or advance what is good is worthy of our attention and effort.

At the same time the human being does not ultimately retain the right to let self-assessments be the last word. For we are not a law unto ourselves. The human creature draws its’ life and definition from the Living God. This should be so obvious to us that calling it second nature would be doing it an injustice. The fact that it is not only serves to illustrate in the most dramatic of terms how deeply disconnected we from God and how deeply connected we all are in the fellowship of sin.  And given history’s ample witness to this fact, it appears that in spite of all our protests and dreaming we want to keep it this way. Or, at the very least, I want others to change. For they are the problem, not me.

God has made His assessment of the human condition; “All have sinned and fallen short…”.  Under these circumstances, faced with a creature that has stolen its’ existence, what would you or I have done with this tiny planet, so insignificant and fraught with problems? It is hardly a necessity in the vastness of the universe. Who would miss it? One diverted asteroid would make an end of the whole business.

It is only against the backdrop of the enormity of this human dilemma, our willing bondage in this fractured fellowship, that the gift of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ stands out in high relief. God has met our willfulness with a will of His own, His determination to have mercy on us, declaring us righteous before Him as gift, for the sake of Christ. And the peace and love that God brings through the Gospel are not empty words. For God gives Himself there in the promises of the Gospel, sealing those promises in the Sacraments. In Jesus Christ God unites His people in an authentic fellowship of peace that passes all reason and a love that plants itself firmly in the heart, just as once it was nailed firmly to a bloody Cross.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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