Luke 10:9

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Jesus said to them, “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.”

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A wise man once observed that people in the affluent western world are like a child sitting in the midst of puzzle pieces scattered on the floor all around. The child  picks up one piece after another, examines it, admires the shapes and colors but finally becomes frustrated and despondent because he has no conception of the whole. This is a picture of what is, perhaps, the greatest crisis of our time; the crisis of meaning.

Millions of people today, young people especially, live their lives in fragments. One experience or one moment is episodic, detached from a greater whole. The result of this meandering is a culture where neurosis is epidemic. Drugs, alcohol and a thousand other diversions are used to mask the sense of life’s ultimate meaninglessness. What does the Christian faith have to say to these who in one way or another are debilitated by hopelessness?

At the same time, many secular men and women are not doubled up with the cramps of meaninglessness. They seem to function with intellectual and moral integrity, keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of an essentially empty cosmos. This is what pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he observed that modern people have “come of age”. What does the Christian faith have to say to these who are doing just fine, thank you, and claim to have no need of it?

Many in the Christian Church in this country do sense this tidal wave of meaninglessness. For this cultural fragmentation can be seen in the churches as well.  But in far too many cases the response has been to close the blinds and retreat into legalism or fundamentalism where the church tinkers with the cultural conforming moral expectations of the middle class or cranks out institutional “how-to” programming while evacuating the religious substance of the faith. I suspect that the degree to which the churches fail to take seriously the depth of alienation and sin all around them is in direct proportion to the failure to consider these same things within themselves.

When Jesus spoke of the integrating power of God He spoke of the Kingdom of God, which is better translated, The ‘Rule’ or ‘Reign’ of God’. ‘ “The Kingdom of God has come near you”, he proclaimed. In Jesus Christ God has addressed the cognitive dissonance of meaning by reaffirming His gracious and determined commitment to the world. Years later, as Paul reflected on the faith, he came to see the Cross, the Crucified Christ as that great, integrating moment when all the alienations of this life were gathered up in God’s all-embracing mercy and grace.

If the Church is going to be a faithful witness to the Gospel in this time, we cannot afford to meet this crisis with indifference. We dare not close the blinds. What God has united on the Cross we have no right to separate. Which is to say, since Christ has died for ALL, all people are our concern. The mandate is simple. We are called to proclaim the reconciliation that is in Jesus and with some joy, too. For our mission is positive, proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the center and goal of world history.

So whether in dialog with the lost wanderer or the self-satisfied secularist, our goal is the same; to bear witness in all humanity and humility to that power of God, unleashed in the Gospel of Jesus the crucified One, that the world might believe, and in believing find reconciliation, coherence and purpose 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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Luke 16:16

“The law and the prophets were until John: from that time the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and every man enters it violently.”

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 In the famous Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Martin Luther set forward the following proposition;

 “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”

 

Among the observations inherent in Luther’s statement is that the theology of glory lacks a basic integrity because it fails to tell the truth about our situation. We see this widespread phenomenon in much of televised American evangelical religion with its’ promises of comfort and painless prosperity if only we get an angry God off our backs and on our side by believing in Jesus. 

What Luther knew is that an inadequate proclamation of the truth results in this theology of self-deception. The theology of glory fails to acknowledge the historical priority of sin, and the resulting bondage, that is determinative of each generation. And this bondage is principally revealed, as Luther discovered, in the fact that we live under God upon whom we are utterly dependent and yet against whom we must struggle. This is our bondage. When the seriousness of our situation is side-stepped, therefore, there can be no real comfort. Even our religion becomes an enterprise in which are actually trying to be free of God. For what we are attempting to address is not God’s anger with us but our anger with God and God’s absolute claim upon our lives.

Jesus entered this ‘no-win’ situation. The terrible realization of the disciples is that they knew the crucified one could not be the Messiah, the Anointed One. Even after all their time with Him, they had not changed. Yet in the light of the Resurrection the stunning truth came upon them; a change had taken place in God. For the crucified Messiah could only mean that God had become sin for them.

The realization that we do not want God, that we construct numerous defenses against God, including religion, is what the theology of the cross exposes. In this respect it must do so violently because it moves in on territory that is already occupied by the sinner. This is why we see baptism not as a sign of some free choice but as the work of the Holy Spirit bringing to us, “violently”, the death to sin that  only  God can bring. In order for there to be new life there must be death to the old and that is the last thing we want.  That is why baptism must never be seen as some cute expression of religious culture. An actual death occurs and must occur so that the Christ may bring the new person forth on the other side.

The theology of the Cross bears witness to the Gospel not through slick marketing programs, side-show mega-churches or gun-point evangelicalism. The witness to the crucified and risen Lord emerges from within the truthfulness of a Christian community that is honest about its’ helplessness and bondage, relinquishes all claims, and confesses its’ utter dependency upon the grace and mercy of God.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Corinthians 2:2

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

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Johann Sebastian Bach is known for his mastery of the ‘fugue’, a musical form built around one, recurring theme. Bach’s  ‘Art  of the Fugue’  is a collection of brilliantly constructed fugues that exemplify the form. So much so that they can be played by virtually any instrumental combination with satisfying effect. These fugues can be quite complex. At the same time they never lose sight of that one, central theme.

Bach offers an insight into the nature and purpose of theology, of the Christian witness. Like the winding counterpoint of the fugue, the great theme of the Cross may be amplified in any number of voices. Indeed, it should be. But if that theme is broken or lost, the composition wanders aimlessly. The composition is disharmonious and ultimately pointless. 

One can sense today the widespread confusion regarding the Christian faith. There are many voices but the counterpoint often lacks harmony and focus. When the message of the Cross falls out of the center of the Christian witness disharmony results. St. Paul was among the first Christians that we know of to tap the podium in an effort to get the attention of the members of the orchestra who were wandering off into themes of their own making. He heard, as we can today, elements of the church that were losing their voice for the Cross. 

This is not to say that the Cross is not widely talked about today. But much of that talk “spins” the Cross to be a moment of divine identification with us poor victims of whatever injustice we feel has come upon us. Poor Jesus was a victim, too. So He can relate. He can identify with us and we with Him. But this is not the message of the cross. This is not the theme  The fact is that the Cross reveals that no one was interested in identifying with the gracious God in Jesus. He died alone and despised. “Weep not for me”, Jesus said,. “but for yourselves and your children.” 

This, then, is the great fugal theme of the faith. On the Cross God seals the exits so that there is only one way out. That way is the crucified and Risen Lord Himself. The Cross does not identify with us. It indicts us. At the same time, the great theme of the Cross rings with the sound of pure grace. “Father, forgive them”, he said. If the cross indicts us in our godlessness, even more does it reveal God precisely where He means to be found, in the suffering and dying Jesus where God moves against us and for us. 

The Cross is where the Truth is told, revealed, where God is known, where godless ones like you and me are brought to an end and invited, commanded to resin up our bows, break out the trumpets, xylophones, clarinets, electric guitars, kazoos or whatever voice we have and join the theme! Plumb it to the depths, soar to its’ heights with the madness and reckless abandon that can only come from those who know they are as good as dead, and yet so very much alive through our Crucified and Risen Lord!

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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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Galatians 6:25-27

 

 

“So that the law is become our tutor to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now faith that is come, we are no longer under a tutor. For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ.”

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From the moment of our baptism God has held us in the spontaneous life of the Spirit. As sons and daughters we have been called to live freely in the Spirit, not under the law but by grace. The Christian faith has always struggled with this freedom. The New Testament itself grapples with it. Paul embraces this freedom with a frightening certainty. James seems to be hedging his bets. Has God given us in this freedom a load that is too much for us to bear?  Is the water too deep? That depends.

As the freedom of the gospel coaxes the Christian into deeper water the old sinner in us, standing comfortably in the shallows and equipped with the water wings of the law, immediately mounts a defense; ‘You just can’t do what you want!  God wants obedience after all! You have to do something to show God you have a serious faith!’ 

If freedom only serves to evoke this self conscious awareness of my lack of freedom, I will be tempted to turn to the Law for remediation, balance and security. And when I do I may discover a kind of relief being moored to the Law. I will find a kind of comfortable certainty there that freedom simply does not give. When the Christian lives this way, daring only to wade into the shallows of freedom, a little bit of freedom is all you get. The Church has stood in the shallows of freedom, wearing the water wings of the Law, for much of its history.

If my freedom, however, is informed not by fear and self-consciousness but by the Cross, something else happens. I am taken out of myself and taken up into the spontaneous life of Christ, where the only Law that is defining is the law of love. When the Cross is the starting and ending point of faith, Christ becomes the end of the law. I am able to remove the water wings of the law and plunge headlong into the deep waters of faith, hope and love, into the depths of the grace that by water and the word has set me free.

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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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1 Timothy 6:12

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“Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called,…”

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I once spoke with a war veteran who had been involved in the most intense combat. Memories of  hand to hand fighting, the unleashed fury of heavy bombardment, the carnage of the battlefield were vivid even after many years. He recalled a day when the fighting was so fierce and the bombardment so unrelenting that he was tempted to preserve himself and desert the battlefield. It was only the discipline of his training and loyalty to his fellow soldiers that made it possible for him to hold his position.

There is a kind of metaphor for living in this episode. Life is full of temptations to ‘abandon the battlefield’.  This has always been so but I cannot help but wonder if this is not a particular feature of our time. The twenty-four hour bad news cycle (which one person has called it)  keeps us mired in the latest skirmishes and conflicts – of every variety – all around the world. We are bombarded with an unbroken deluge of problems, great and small, day after day, most of which we can do nothing about.

In such an atmosphere, when many sense that life has become chaotic and unmanageable, the temptation can be to abandon the fray for the short-term goals of self-interest and self-preservation, by pursuing money, pleasure, power or simply retreating in Hobbit-like fashion to a place removed from conflict and turmoil, plugging their ears while others take up the fight.

The Christian is also faced with this great temptation. And there have been times in the history of God’s people when abandoning the battlefield’ has seemed the better way. One only has to think of the ancient desert fathers who retreated to caves and animal dens in an effort to flee the corruption of the world.

But the Christian dare not abandon life in these ways for to do so is tantamount to proclaiming that God has abandoned the world. Some simple disciplines can help.

First, along with exposure to the news, control your input by reading your Bible daily.  Beginning and ending your day with the Scriptures serves as a continuing reminder that God is always around. You can start and end the day by being reminded of the latest outrage or God’s great promises. The choice is yours.

Second, say your prayers. Even if your prayers are complaints, throw them to heaven. God hears even when no one else does. You are not in this fight alone.

Third, join others in worship. Worship is the gathering of your comrades in arms, where through the Word and sacraments we are equipped for spiritual warfare, given strength and assurance for the horizontal dimension of hope as we live in and engage the world for the kingdom. Worship is also a living metaphor that tips hope on its vertical axis, reminding us that we are a forever people, captured and held by the grace of our crucified and Risen Lord, destined for eternity. Worship lifts our eyes toward the larger vision.

Regular Bible reading, prayer and worship give the life of faith coherence, vision, joy, and that courage in Christ which resists the temptation to ‘abandon the battlefield’ 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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This post appeared Nov.22, 2012 on Pastor Mark’s blog

 

Now thank we all our God

The famous hymn of thanksgiving below was written by Martin Rinkart, a Lu­ther­an pastor who served his hometown of Eil­en­burg, Sax­o­ny, dur­ing the Thir­ty Years’ War. The walled ci­ty of Eil­en­burg saw a stea­dy stream of re­fu­gees pour through its gates. The Swed­ish ar­my sur­round­ed the ci­ty, and fa­mine and plague were ramp­ant. Eight hund­red homes were de­stroyed, and the peo­ple be­gan to per­ish. Pastor Rinkart’s wife was among the dead. There was a tre­men­dous strain on the pas­tors who had to con­duct do­zens of fun­er­als dai­ly. Fi­nal­ly, the pas­tors, too, suc­cumbed and Rink­art was the on­ly one left—doing 40-50 fun­er­als a day. When the Swedes de­mand­ed a huge ran­som, Rink­art left the safe­ty of the walls to plead for mer­cy. The Swed­ish com­mand­er, im­pressed by his faith and cour­age, low­ered his de­mands. When it was all over, 4,800 people had died.

 

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;

Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us

With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;

And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

 All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;

The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;

For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

 

 

Martin Rinkart has left the world a story, and a hymn, that testify to the faith and joy that are deeper and more enduring than the passing shades of happiness, stronger than suffering and death. Martin was not able to do what he did because he was great. He carried the burdens of so many, together with his own – with joy and thanksgiving in his heart – because he had a great Lord.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Isaiah 9:7

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“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

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Once in a while we ought to have the good sense, honesty and courage to ask ourselves what German Pastor Helmut Thielecke dared to ask his congregation during the last days of World War II. Pastor Thielecke, who had been through the worst with his congregation in Stuttgart, preached a famous sermon in which he pointed out that while many were questioning their belief in God because of the war, they might be better served to question their belief in human progress. If he was speaking cultural heresy then, today, in many churches, he would be summarily shown the door. 

These days we tend to look to technology and science – which is another way of saying we look to ourselves –  as evidence of human progress. We are awash in a sea of lower and higher forms of gadgetry. But do more gadgets automatically translate into progress? Ask the plains Indians about the day when the first Gatling gun arrived in their neighbor hood; ask the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki about the wonders of atomic fusion; ask the surviving members of the family whose home was blown to bits when a ‘smart bomb’ flew in their kitchen window, while half a world away other families sat watching it all on television, munching potato chips. You get the point.

Doubtless some are already mounting their defense as they read this. Don’t bother. I’m as aware as the next guy of all the good technology has and does produce. But the maturing of technology simply reflects the fact that humanity has come of age, sort of like a teenager moving into adulthood. Are we fundamentally different human beings just because we have gone from torches to light switches, from bows and arrows to nuclear attack submarines? 

The biblical witness points to the God who, thankfully, takes the future out of our hands. From beginning to end the biblical story unfolds the picture of a God who holds the uncertain pathway of what we call history in His hands. The witness of our faith is to the God who in Jesus buried Himself deep in the womb and deep in death on the Cross, where he has taken the extremities of our existence under His control. The great biblical narrative concludes with the resounding promise of God’s victory over all the powers of limitation, destruction and evil. 

This means I am under no obligation to look to myself, to you or anyone else for evidence of a hopeful tomorrow. In fact, I am free from such a burden. For me, this is among the greatest consolations of the faith.

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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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