Hebrews 11

“And so from this one man (Abraham), and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one.Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

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If you do not have one, how do you become a member of a family? Should you go to someone into whose family you wish to belong and ask them for the qualifications?  This would hardly do. Meeting requirements or keeping rules is not how one qualifies for the status of a child. To be recognized as a child within a family is not a status that is earned. It is a status conferred either by birth or adoption. In the case of becoming God’s child, it means both.

We are not born children of God. We are born creatures of God. This is how the Bible describes us and it is an important distinction. This is not to say that we were not created to be sons and daughters within God’s family. It is to say that from birth we reject that high status. Cut adrift from the moorings of faith, hope and love, our status is diminished from child to creature. We become little gods unto ourselves, choosing an orphans path of wandering willfulness, with no direction to call homeward.

Among the several great mysteries unfolded in Christ is that through Him we are restored to the status of God’s child, God’s son or daughter. Your status as God’s child is not earned like the wages of an employee; it is not paid for like the rent of a tenant; it does not come as the result of begrudging obedience, like a citizen obeying the law. The Bible tells us that this restoration is sheer gift, by God’s grace alone.

When the writer of Hebrews wrote of this restored status it was important for him to refer to Abraham. The gift of faith was the key. Abraham was invited to go to a place of promise. No details were provided. But like a trusting son or daughter, Abraham went. It is this living relationship of trust that is restored in Jesus Christ and through which we are reborn and adopted into God’s family, by His grace. 

When God declares in your baptism that your sins are forgiven and that you are raised to new life with Christ, you may trust that promise.

When all doors seem shut and there is no obvious way forward, you may trust God’s promise that he will never leave you or forsake you.

When prayers seem to fall into empty silence you may trust that even the most trivial of them is heard.

When the harshness and chaos of the world disillusion and you long for a better place, you may trust the promise that God has prepared a place for you, his beloved child, and will one day bring you safely home. 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 26:6-13

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6 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

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The reaction of the disciples to the woman’s outrageous, costly gift to Jesus is instructive and revealing. Funny thing how the heart-gushing pious appeals for the poor move in so quickly to take the spotlight off her radical outpouring of faith and love focused on the Living God, revealed in Jesus. After all, to be a really serious Christian you need to have your nose rubbed in the tribulations of the world, right? You have to be doing something. And what could be a more conspicuous example of doing than giving money to the poor.

But Jesus does not side with the lesser god of social work. The woman’s offering was a reflection of the costly grace and love of the Living God she had come to know in Jesus. Like Mary, the slacker sister of Martha, who sat at the feet of Jesus instead of helping her sister in the kitchen, this young woman made the right choice. Her radical gift reflected her radically changed heart.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me,” Jesus said. Someone unique, precious and irreplaceable was among them. The Living God was and is graciously at work in the Word, Jesus, to rescue, redeem, save and forgive that creature whose failure to love continues to be the cause of poverty and the myriad griefs of the world.

The woman is vindicated by the Lord in this story because her gift was an acknowledgement of what is ultimate – God’s amazing grace revealed in Jesus our Lord. This story is meant as a corrective to all those would reduce the Christian mission to nothing more than a food pantry or rental assistance. 

Finally, Jesus said, “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”  Notice His words; “..this gospel…”. That is to say, the gospel concerning the Son of God by whose bloody Cross and glorious Resurrection lost and condemned sinners are reconciled, forgiven and set free.

So, to those who are perpetually identifying the church’s mission with the latest social agenda, God has seen fit to keep her story alive just for you. Take a moment from all your doing and sniff the air. You just might get a whiff of  the pungent aroma of some wildly expensive embalming ointment. She’s at it again. Calling attention to your Glorious Lord, who for your need His life did give.
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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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Colossians 2:13

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“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,…”

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I can just see Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus hands folded and silent, surrounded by the weeping entourage as one of the exasperated, grieving sisters tugs at His sleeve;

‘Jesus why don’t you do something?’

I’m waiting’, He replies.

‘Waiting for what?’

‘I’m waiting for Lazarus to make a decision.’

The trouble with Jesus was that He refused to play by the rules of conventional, religious wisdom. That wisdom stated that God rewards the good and punishes the sinner. But Jesus unsettled the conventional wisdom. He forgave people who by their obvious misconduct revealed themselves to be truly wicked. And, to add insult to injury, He blasted the good religious folks who by their obvious outward conduct appeared to be godly. With Jesus on the loose nobody knew what would happen next. Sort of like grace. Jesus spoke and acted as if He were actually in charge, as if He had the final authority over life and death.

That, of course, is our problem with God.

We too have a conventional religious wisdom. And that wisdom tells us that we have a free will that must choose God. God may be the Creator of the universe, the One who is beyond time and space, eternal and almighty, but where we are concerned, God stands with His hat in His hand waiting for us to decide.

We like this conventional, free-will view of God because it keeps us in the center of the action, where we can work on our variously defined programs of godliness and success, showing God how serious we. This is precisely what Jesus ran into among the religious of his own time. Claiming to be all about God, they were actually all about themselves, even if their intentions were good. That, in the final analysis, is what free will religion comes down to. It’s not about God, it’s about me. And the insistence on hanging on to even a little bit of freedom where God is concerned, reveals that the will has already made its decision. It has decided for the self, and that leads not to life, but death.

Jesus came to the grave of Lazarus to say something and to do something full of grace – free, unmerited grace. He came in His own time and on His own terms. And when He arrived He took control of the funeral. He commanded the grave to be opened and he called Lazarus out of the cold grip of death by a word.

Hanging on to the illusion of free will is about as useful as the dead hand of Lazarus clutching his burial shroud. So, that same Word of death-defeating grace and power must be spoken to you. God saves you by His grace. God chooses you. 

In the absolution and your baptism, this same Jesus who was plunged into death, wades into death’s deep waters to find you – and does some free-will choosing of His own.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Luke 15

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“But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

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Someone pointed out long ago that that the parable of the Prodigal Son could easily have three titles; ‘The Prodigal Son. ‘The Forgiving father’, The Unforgiving Brother’. 

When we examine the parable, it is plain to see where our Lord Jesus placed the emphasis. The story concludes with the dialog between the father and the unforgiving brother, the moral bookkeeper.

The older brother had no doubts about the kind of treatment his morally bankrupt brother should receive. And he was right. The young man had squandered his inheritance and corrupted himself. He brought shame on himself and his family. He had no right to expect anything but scorn, punishment, even rejection.

The older brother, on the other hand, stayed home, worked for his father and kept his nose clean. if you don’t think so, just ask him. He kept careful records. And when the older brother, much to his dismay, discovered that his father was not a moral bookkeeper, he was outraged. He watched from afar, sulking, saturated in righteous indignation as the house lit up with rejoicing and partying. The father was ecstatic! His son was home! The lost one was found! How disgusting.

Jesus ticked off a lot of people with stories like this. And the ones that he ticked off the most were the moral crusaders who sit in the front pew on Sunday morning, bibles open, taking copious notes on the latest set of Godly principles for living. They know better than to suggest that God is actually gracious, loving and merciful. They know that God is a moral accountant, keeping careful track of every slip, every error, every sin. Sound familiar?

  • You see, what our Lord Jesus was doing in this parable was exposing those religious, church-going folk who actually get wind of God’s Word, God’s mercy, God’s grace and find the whole business to be upsetting, distasteful and dangerous. The older brother was not clueless. He threw up all his righteous defenses precisely because the unconditional grace of God had come upon him. This grace put enormous pressure on him, on his self-centered moral and religious outlook. So it was either give in or fight. He chose to fight God’s grace in the name of God’s law. One just can’t up and forgive, after all. I have to do something don’t I? 

 

There is no question that the younger brothers’ immoral, whore mongering life had exposed him.  What’s not quite as easy to absorb is that, at the same time, the older brother exposes himself, his utter lack faith and love of God or love for his brother, in his sanctimonious reaction. Like many church-going folks he was convinced that when it comes right down to it you can’t run the world – or a church – on grace. What would people think? They might start running amok, thinking they can do whatever they please.

We tend to forget that our Lord Jesus aimed this parable not at sin-soaked, immoral n’er-do-wells but at “good” religious folks, soaked in the sin of their own moralism and half-baked religiosity. People who, in spite (literally) of God’s love for them, find little to celebrate. They dutifully go to church, successfully using their religion to defend themselves against the unconditional grace God. 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 40:1-3, 16

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“I waited patiently for the LORD;

he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God….

But may all who seek thee

rejoice and be glad in thee;
may those who love thy salvation
say continually, “Great is the LORD!”

The psalmist doesn’t go into detail about the conditions of his life that he chose to describe as “…the desolate pit” and “miry bog” but his language is graphic enough for us to get the picture. Things had not gone well. To be in pit and a bog is to be stuck. That’s what I hear in his words. He was stuck, trapped, hemmed in and unable to move with no firm footing. We’ve all been there. Jesus has been there. You may be there now, singing the tortured melody of a bitter lament.

For some the stuck places in life may have to do with addiction. There are few “pits” and “bogs” more debilitating than those of addiction.

Others are stuck, caught in dysfunctional, broken relationships. Hurt compounds hurt, not so much willingly but because it’s just so hard to stop the cycle.

Financial pressures mount, jobs are hard to find, health begins to fail us, grief persists, loneliness is a constant companion, an unwelcome guest; the list could go on. At times it can seem that all of life is nothing but “pits” and “bogs”.

The psalmist does not let us in on the details of what prompted his lament but he does tell us what he did about it; he waited with patience even as he cried out for help. What the mixture was of the two he does not say. I’m guessing that his cries may have seemed more constant than his patience. At least that’s how its been for me. 

The psalmist does tell us what happened in the midst of his cries for help. The Lord drew him from the pit, placed him on a firm footing and filled his mouth with a new song. Notice all the language where the psalmist is concerned is passive. God is the one who acts. It’s pure gospel.

So, from whatever “pit’ or “bog” you may be in this day, let the laments fly! Sing the bitter song at the top of your lungs! It never goes unheard. Remember your baptism, your Lord and His Cross. And just when your patience is on the brink of collapse, and you’ve got that sorry lament down cold, suddenly, up from the pit you’ll fly, landing with a thud on the path to God’s promised future! The parched lament of the blues will give way to a full-throated melody of praise and blessedness and the psalmist’s rejoicing will be yours also; “Great is the Lord!”

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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44 Days Until Christmas

(this appeared 3 days ago on Pastor Mark’s blog)

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“Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.”   Psalm 96:9

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Although it is still some weeks away Christmas is already on my mind. It may be on yours also. Accompanied as it is with beautiful traditions and much activity, the Christmas observance is a joyful time even in the midst of all the running around and folderol, which, in spite of all our protestations and lamentations, is about to overwhelm us once again!

At the same time I suppose it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that Christmas is only a day, arbitrarily marked for an observance centuries ago. And it can be, and is, observed by many without any Christian reference point whatsoever. Although it is only a day, the Christian knows that the reality of Christmas is always with us. That, after all, is the point of the great Church festivals. They point not only to the historic moment but also to the living present.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is ‘O Come, All ye faithful’, with its’ refrain, ‘O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.’ I like this refrain because in a simple line it captures something essential about worship – adoration.  I once came across ‘O come. let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.’ carved into a beam over a church door. They had the right idea. To adore the Gracious, Living God is the point of worship, every Sunday, every day.

The sincere desire to worship is the chief sign of a living faith. For the faith that makes the heart alive in Christ can do no other than marvel in wonder, humility, praise and adoration at the depth of God’s love for sinners. The character of Christian worship, therefore, is always tempered with humility because worship is not about us. Worship is not for giving ourselves back to one another.

This is hard for us to take, of course. We want everything to be about us. Which is why, I suppose, it is so easy for many to turn the worship of the church into a tacky entertainment venue or the occasion for slick lectures on self-help. As one person put it with alarming frankness,

‘Worship has to be good for something. It has to be relevant. It has to be comfortable. I have to leave worship feeling good about myself, affirmed, inspired and uplifted.’

Wait a minute.  I thought you came to worship in praise and thanksgiving for One who in love for you carried a Cross and shed His blood?  You know, Him, the One who created you, the One upon whom you are utterly dependent for every breath, every good. The One to whom you belong and to whom your life is finally accountable. I thought you came here as one deserving nothing, yet overwhelmed that by His grace, freely extended in your baptism and in His Supper, because of Christ, God has chosen to call you His child, forgive your sins and raise you from the dead? I thought you came here to be in the living presence of the God whose Word reaches to the depths of your soul, continually exposing your sin, saving you from yourself and at the same time freeing you for His promised future? 

I thought you came here to adore Him, Christ, the 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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Romans 5:8

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“But God showed His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

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When the God of grace is referenced exclusively in terms of love something extraordinary happens. God tends to fall out of the picture. A God, after all, who is reduced to sentiment and generic good will is hardly worth bothering with in any serious way. Perhaps this is why with all the religious noise being made in wide portions of the church today, there seems to be little belief in the God of the Scriptures.

The church has become very good at calling people to affirm one another in whatever lifestyle we have chosen to inhabit. We are scolded endlessly about our lack of inclusiveness. And there is no end of sermonic hand-wringing and beetle-browed finger pointing over humanity’s bad housekeeping of the planet. Recycling and “living green” are the new piety, signs of the new holiness. ‘Have you got your Prius yet? No? You mean you are still driving that gas guzzler? How could you!’ While God has fallen out of the picture, our belief in ourselves has skyrocketed. Salvation will come when we have total affirmation of the neighbor and when we have  established a utopian existence of realized peace and justice – with all the trash picked up.

There is a kind of decadence in this. The God in three Persons who is the subject of the Bible’s witness and the One with which we ultimately have to do, simply falls out of the center. The implications run all over the place. We don’t know who we are and we fundamentally misread the human dilemma. We run around trying to keep the deck chairs in place while the Titanic sinks beneath us.

But the God revealed in the Scriptures simply cannot – and will not -be understood apart from the Cross. Which is another way of saying that the God of grace desires to be known exclusively in Jesus. God is love, to be sure. But God and His love and grace have no depth of meaning apart from the Cross. For on the Cross God defines the issue. He died for you, to save you from sin, death and the powers of evil. For the Cross is the vital intersection where the searing reality of God’s grace in Jesus Christ meets, exposes, overwhelms and forgives the sham and phony pretense of our claim to love anything ultimately but ourselves and our own plans and projects.

Here is love and grace that actually has teeth. This is a God who has gotten down and dirty in the muck and mire of our lives, as real love always does. This love and grace meets us, comes upon us. This is God’s doing, alone, by His grace alone, because of Christ alone. Our fiddling with the world and all its works and all its ways is a hollow substitute for this work of God for us. For the central issue of the Christian faith is not that we must be reconciled to the neighbor or that we must become better managers of the creation. It’s not that these things don’t matter. They just don’t matter ultimately. These are penultimate concerns only. The ultimate concern of the Christian faith is that you and I become reconciled to the One that matters most; the One who out of His sheer love and grace died for our sins and was raised for our justification.

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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 139:1-12

1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

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.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

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You know the scenario. Parents go away for the weekend leaving their two sons at home alone, taking with them the promise that the boys will behave. When the folks are out of sight and out of mind the older of the boys sends out the call that the party is on. Saturday night comes and the house fills up with rowdy kids. Inhibitions evaporate. Bad behavior escalates and property is damaged. Before long the house is a shambles. The younger son pleads with his brother to send everyone home. They promised to behave. What will their parents say? The older boy and his friends dismiss him with taunts and threats. The party goes on.

Suddenly, in the midst of the revelry, their parents walk in the front door. They have returned early. Dread silence and fear grip the scene. Some of the kids bolt, making their escape out the back door into the darkness. Others slink quietly away until the older son is left standing alone facing his parents; they holding a promise given; he, in tears, holding a promise broken.

It is an ominous portent that our age is so utterly devoid of the fear of God. Even in many churches, God has been stripped of the possibility of giving any offense. The radical attack of God’s sovereignty, God’s appearance in the midst of our waywardness is simply too much to bear so we look for God words that are benign, devoid of judgment; words that keep the fullness of God out of sight and out of mind.

Is this not what we have done with our stewardship of life? To use an old phrase, ‘We run around like we own the place,’ perpetually engrossed in our favorite subject and pastime – ourselves.

The Psalmist brings us into the place of meeting where sinful man and woman are faced with the full reality of God’s presence and power. This is the place which faith inhabits, when the Word of God in all its’ power and might takes hold of us.  ‘Where can I go to escape You?’, he asks. ‘Wherever I go You are there.’ This knowledge is both wonderful and terrible at the same time. Even the darkness, he exclaims, is as light to You, O God. There is nowhere to hide.

What is of supreme interest in the story above is what happens next. What did the parents say? What did they do? What were the consequences? For in the final analysis, everything depends upon this. So it is with us. Caught in the act as we are, what is to become of us?

In Christ Jesus the Sovereign One has arrived on the scene, full of grace and truth. This is the terrible, wonderful news of the Gospel. In Christ, the sovereign, electing God has gathered up all the selves of the world in His arms and embraced them, taking them with Him to the Cross. This is terrible because it means absolute judgment on our party going ways! At the same time it is wonderful because, in spite of being caught in the act, our broken relationship with God is restored. God, in His absolute sovereignty has had mercy on us for no other reason than, in His love, He has chosen to do so.

God is obligated to spare no one who is caught in the act. He is God, after all and His judgments are always just. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is a testament to His sheer grace and mercy.

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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 2:23-25

 

“23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; 24 but Jesus did not trust himself to them, 25 because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.”

It was every politicians dream come true. The groundswell of support was rising. People were abuzz with admiration for Him. The benefits He provided suggested a bright future. If only he were king. He would distribute prosperity to all. They were ripe for the picking.

Sound familiar? Some things never change. Later, John’s gospel reports the incident of the feeding of several thousand people. They came back the next day for more of what they saw as a free lunch program. Jesus was not impressed. “You are only here”, he said, “because you ate your fill.” There is no deeper biblical insight into human nature.

At one point during His earthly ministry the people actually wanted to take Him by force and make Him king. They saw in Him the one who would really deliver the goods. Jesus, sensing the threat to His mission, eluded them.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus consistently refused the adulation of the crowd? After all, wasn’t that what He was after? All he had to do was keep giving away the goodies and they would follow Him anywhere.

If Jesus had given in to the appetites of the herd everything would have been lost. But Jesus knew what is in us. That’s what John observed. Jesus knew that we will seek to make anyone king who promises to keep the free lunch programs going. For what is in us, Jesus knew, is the insatiable appetite of the self – sin. And the sinful self will happily, willingly enslave itself to the highest bidder.

So Jesus rejected the chronically restless masses and the invitation to fulfill their utopian dreams. Instead He went to the Cross.That is why He alone is worthy of our love and faith. For knowing the sin that is in us, knowing our deepest need, our sickness unto death – He did not pander to our grievances and grudges like some scheming power seeker. He did not give us want we want. He gave us what we need. He gave His life for us.

So to all those who think the latest version of the messiah will bring heaven on earth and the flowering of peace and justice, here is the hard truth; the dreams of the politician will not save you. They may, in fact, impose a nightmare of utopian tyranny. And when they die all we are left with is the burdensome residue of their plans and schemes. The ancient psalmist recognized this truth ages ago when he wrote,

 

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.”

The authentic work of peace and justice that Jesus and His Father accomplished happened on a bloody Cross two thousand years ago. That peace comes even now through a living faith in the Crucified One; and the justice of God is fulfilled when sinners are reconciled to God, declared righteous, forgiven and free, by grace through faith, in a life of trust that begins now but will only be perfected in the life to come. 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Where the Action Is

Gerhard Frost was among my favorite seminary mentors. He was a master wordsmith with much wisdom to boot. His unique use of language, however, was never an end in itself. His goal was always to bring the grace of Christ into the highest possible relief.

 

THE ACTION

by Gerhard frost

“…He went about doing good.”

 

The trouble with Jesus?

He was such a wastrel –

a squanderer of time,

I mean.

He just wasn’t where the action is.

I’d never have traveled with Him;

why we’d never have made it on time!

If Jesus were here, in the flesh, I mean,

He’d miss the action every time,

what with avoiding freeways,

and staying on country roads.

Why He’d arrive at every three-day convention

about noon of the third day,

and at every meeting

just in time for the Lord’s Prayer.

Always late, with time to throw away

on frightened children, blind folks,

and even the demon-possessed.

Even time to pet dogs? Perhaps.

(Though I’ve heard they were despised

where Jesus lived).

Time for sunsets, bird-watchings,

child-blessings, leper cleansings,

and every lost cause, but not for the action –

a most inefficient man –

unless, of course, He was the action,

and still is!

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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