Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Discipline is sort of an ugly word in our context. It has the connotation of punishment, or strictness. Maybe you think of a mean old school teacher who runs a tight ship in the classroom. Or maybe we think of the military as imposing discipline in new trainees, marching in step and keeping their uniforms flawless. You make like a little discipline. But who wants to be disciplined?
But discipline is a good thing for the Christian to practice. Self-discipline, as St. Paul taught it, for example, is not letting sin have mastery over you, but fighting it. Pressing on, like an athlete who disciplines himself for the race set before him. Christians are indeed, also like soldiers who must be disciplined for the fight we face – for the enemies rage about us.
And Lent is a good time to engage in such disciplines. It's no accident that our reading for Ash Wednesday, from the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus teaching us about some particular Christian disciplines – fasting, praying, and giving. Surely, these are appropriate at any time for the people of God. But let's take a closer look as we begin the 40 day journey to the cross. This evening – let us consider Matthew 6 and “Lenten Disciplines”.
Jesus calls these disciplines, in general, “practicing your righteousness”. We do these things because we are righteous, not to earn righteousness. And we are righteous only by grace through faith in him. Nevertheless that faith produces works, and the word instructs us many things about how to do it all. We might call it the “third use of the law”. We might call it spiritual discipline. Or the good habits of faith. Or practicing righteousness. It flows from faith, and is instructed by Christ. Here, today, are three examples: giving, praying, and fasting.
The first spiritual discipline Christ teaches here is that of giving. And while he especially mentions giving to the poor and needy, we could expand the principle to include all the good causes a Christian endeavors to support with our giving. And such giving is a discipline.
We are taught by Scripture to give. We are taught to give in grateful response to the gifts we've been given, especially in Christ. We are taught principles of giving. For instance we are to give sacrificially, proportionately, joyfully, and of our first-fruits. And we are warned of the dangers of giving wrongly.
Many times Jesus encourages giving to the poor and needy, indeed teaching that in giving food or drink or clothing to even the least of these, we do it unto him.
Here, Jesus attacks the temptation to give in order to be seen. We are tempted to turn even the most righteous spiritual disciplines into an opportunity for self-serving, self-aggrandizing. Don't blow your own horn, Jesus warns. Do it in secret if you can, to avoid the temptation of doing it to be seen by men. And such discipline, anonymous giving, can help guard of from sin even in the practicing of our faith, and in the serving of others, and in our giving to God and our neighbor.
The next spiritual discipline he teaches is prayer. Of course the Christian prays. Scripture teaches us much about this activity of faith, the speaking to God in words and thoughts. The asking and thanking and confessing and adoring of God in our private and public prayers.
Here too, to avoid the temptation of doing it falsely, to be seen, he urges prayer be done in secret. Now, he's not telling us never to pray in public, or to pray with other Christians. Indeed, the very words of the “Our Father” indicate it is a corporate prayer – prayed by “us” to “our” Father.
The danger is in taking something good and holy – in this case prayer itself – and twisting it into a show, looking for glory, prattling on in order to impress others. If that's your temptation – then have some discipline, and control the temptation by making your prayers in private. For God will still see and hear, and answer according to his will. Thus, you are rewarded and not led into sin.
Neither is he critiquing the particular posture. Of course, we sometimes stand to pray out of respect. Sometimes we may kneel. But the point is, not to pray to be seen – no matter where or how – but rather as a deep expression of faith. Discipline yourself. Practice righteousness.
What is omitted from our text, but you surely well know, is the Lord's Prayer itself. Jesus says, “when you pray, pray then like this:” And gives us the model prayer. But more than a prayer to be repeated, the Lord's Prayer teaches us also about prayer – what to pray for – who God is, and what to expect from him. There is no better prayer to include in your Lenten discipline than that prayer he has given.
The next one Jesus mentions if fasting. Fasting and Lent were almost synonymous in the church for many years. The 40 days of Lent are indeed patterned after Jesus' own 40 days of fasting following his baptism. Most Lutherans I know don't practice fasting much nowadays, but a common practice with the same idea is “giving something up for Lent”. It might be a kind of fasting, a self-chosen self-denial of one thing or another.
There isn't any command or mandate that Christians fast a certain way or from certain foods at certain times. There is great freedom for the Christian when it comes to our personal practice of piety. Paul makes it clear that each Christian's spiritual discipline is his own: (from Romans 14)
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Take note, however, like the practices of giving and prayer, Jesus does assume his people will fast. He says, “when you fast...” not, “if you fast”. For the Christian who sets his mind on things above, and not on things of this earth, it seems only natural to have times of discipline that follow the pattern of our Lord and exert discipline in our lives. Fasting is a time-honored way for us to discipline ourselves in the faith.
He tells us not to fast in order to be seen by men, like the hypocrites do. This, too, is not an exercise in puffing oneself up, “hey everyone look at me”. Nor is it to earn merit or favor from God, however, at least not as some have tried to teach it. The reward that Jesus speaks of for fasting is not unto salvation. But it is the reward that discipline offers – deeper faith, better appreciation, a more grateful heart.
It can also bring us to greater joy in the gifts of God when the fast ends.
Take the example of a practice we have here at Messiah:
The church also“fasts” from its Alelluias during the Lenten season, only to welcome them back with joy on Easter.
Laying Up Treasures
And finally, what's this talk about laying up treasures? The contrast is clear. The things of earth are temporary and fleeting. They are treasures that cannot last. They are destroyed by moth and rust as time ravages on. They are stolen by thieves, or lost in some other way. You can't take it with you, they say, but many times you can't even keep it here. Food goes bad. Money slips away. Fame before men is fickle and fades. Even you, yourself are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Impermanence is just one reason Jesus directs our hearts away from the things below, to the things above. The things that last. The things of heaven. And so Christian disciplines like giving and prayer and fasting all serve this same end. To turn our eyes from below – to above.
To point us away from this earth which is passing away, and to turn our hearts toward Jesus – who will never die. To tune our ears to his promises, which will never be broken. To remind us of the hope of glory, where nothing fades but the righteous shine like stars forever.
Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. Our treasures, Christians are not the things of this world which is passing away. Our treasures are things like: the Word of the Lord which endures forever. The resurrection of Christ, over whom death has no more dominion. The sacraments – by which Christ uses earthly things to do heavenly things. Common things, to bring heavenly treasures. And the Gospel itself, by which we are saved and through which the Spirit works to call and gather, to enlighten and sanctify. You have a treasure trove, a great hoard of heavenly goodies that moth or rust cannot destroy, that no thief can steal away. So set your heart here, on these, by faith. And discipline that faith all the more, practice your righteousness, this Ash Wednesday, this Lenten Season and always.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Monday, February 12, 2018
February 11, 2018
“It's good to be here.” Peter is one of those guys who has to say something in every situation. When everyone else is puzzled or awed or too fearful to utter a sound, Peter's mouth opens up and the words just start flowing out. Maybe some of you can relate. Sometimes this works out well for Peter. He was, after all, the one to exclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Peter confesses boldly! Sometimes, not so much. But if there's a chance to say anything, odds are, Peter is going to be the one to say it. And so here on the mountain, with bright shining Jesus, with Moses and Elijah, a glorious glimpse of heavenly reality, Peter blurts out, “it is good to be here”.
And this time, his words convey more than he likely meant. This time, he spoke a truth more profound than he imagined. But in another way, these words leave something lacking, they beg for something more, they are a shadow of something even better, yet to come. Let's consider those words as a theme this morning, “It's good to be here”.
We say that phrase, or something like it, often enough. It's a throw away greeting, like, “nice to see you”. But even so, they're truer than we mean, aren't they? It's good to be here. It's good that God has created me and given me this life. It's good that God has placed me here, in this creation he called “good”. On this planet he created, with the sun and moon and land and sea and plants and animals. It's good to be here, another day, breathing and eating and working and playing – an existence we owe to God. Sometimes it's nice to stop and smell the roses of our very being – that God has made me, and still sustains me each day. This life is a gift. Thanks be to God.
And there are many places we'd rather not be. It's good to be here in a country that allows us the freedom to practice our faith. It's good to be here in a land of plenty, where we want for no bodily need. It's good to be here in a time of medical miracles, technological conveniences, and relative peace and prosperity that the world has never known. At least it's good on some level, and yet do we thank God for the gifts of his creation?
It's good to be here, wherever we are, but some places are better than others. And Peter found himself on a mountaintop – in more ways than one. It's a spectacle, for sure, something that must have gobsmacked this simple fisherman. But what does it mean? Why is it so good to be here?
“After six days...” the reading starts out. But that begs the question of context. What had happened just six days before? We read:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you bare not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
The Transfiguration begins to look a little different in its immediate context. Peter had just confessed Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus began to tell them what that actually means – suffering, death, and a resurrection. Peter tried to rebuke him but Jesus made it clear – if anyone wants to follow him – it means self-denial, it means a cross, and then a resurrection.
Also after they came down from the mountain Jesus told them not to speak of it until after the resurrection. And they wondered amongst themselves what he meant by, “rising from the dead”.
Peter's words, “It's good to be here” show us the temptation common to all men – and sadly to many Christians – to see Christ's glory apart from the cross. We like the bright and the shiny. We like the successful and powerful. We like the mountaintop moments, the high points, the glory. But the cross? Suffering? No thanks, that's not for me. In fact when it came time for Jesus to die – most of his disciples scattered like roaches. Would they stand at the foot of the cross? Only John remained. Would they stay with Jesus then, and say, “It's good to be here?” No.
And you can see this in the churches people flock to, and the books that sell in Christian book stores, and the preachers that get all the media attention and the examples that are held up for us of growth and health and success. But if there is no cross – it's a sham, and a shame. If there's no Christ crucified for sinners, all the worldly glitz and glamor, all the bright and shiny trappings of success are only a distraction and a detriment. They can get behind Jesus, Satan. No cross means no Christ.
Yes, it's good to get a peek behind the veil. Yes it's good to see Moses and Elijah testifying to Christ. Yes it's good to see a glimpse of his true glory as the Son of God, and to hear the Father's voice confirming it. Yes, in a sense, it's good to be here. But we may not remain, as they hymn says. This is just a pit stop on Jesus' journey, for his true destination, his ultimate goal, was not the mount of glory, but the hill of calvary, the place of the skull, the place of death – our place.
Could you stand there, watching Christ suffer and die, and say those words, “It's good to be here”? To watch as he cried out, forsaken by God, to hear him mocked by men? To see him thirst. To watch him bleed. And finally to cry out, commending his spirit to God? As the sun darkened and the earth shook and the curtain ripped and the tombs opened. You might say, rather, it's good to be anywhere else. But here was God's salvation accomplished. Here, at the cross, the ultimate good for sinners like you and me. Here in the darkness, not the light, Jesus brought us back to the light.
The Epiphany season begins and ends with the voice of the Father, “This is my Son”. First at his baptism, now at the Transfiguration, the Father confirms exactly who this Jesus is. But now, in today's reading, he adds this little phrase, “listen to him”. And if we listen, closely, to what Jesus says and teaches and preaches. If we sit with his disciples at his feet and learn – not who we want him to be, but who he says he is – we will hear him plainly showing forth the cross. A sacrificial death, a substitutionary atonement – one man's life paid as ransom for many. This is why he came. Any time we hear this good news – his Gospel – we can say those words of Peter, “it's good to be here.”
This is why we gather. This is why we come to his house each week. It's good to be here – not to be seen by men, so that our friends and neighbors think of us as good church-going types. It's good to be here – not to get all the answers of how to live the good life, the happy family, health, wealth, and all the success of life. We come not for the glory. It's good to be here, because here we hear of the Jesus of the cross. Here we listen to him – and he speaks to us – not just words of condemnation, but finally a word of restoration, reconciliation, even resurrection.
It's good to be here – in his presence. Wherever he is, that's where you want to be, Christian. And he is here in a special way for you, today. A real presence, a sacramental presence, bodily and bloodily here for you in bread and wine. Here's your mountaintop – at his altar. Here is your peek at true glory. Here's your word from heaven. Here – listen to him – when he says, “This is my body; this is my blood, given and shed for you – for the forgiveness of your sins.”
“It's good to be here.” We can say that now, for Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age. But we can say it all the more, and with all of its fullness, at the end of the age - when he comes again in glory. Then, it won't just be a glimpse of his glory, a peek behind the veil for a small group of his disciples. It will be Christ coming in the clouds with an angelic entourage, the trumpet call of God and the shout of the archangel. Then all eyes will see him, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that he is the Son of God to the glory of God the Father.
There in the mansions of heaven, there in the eternal home of our God, with God himself wiping every tear from your eye, with no more hunger or thirst, no sun or scorching heat, with the Lamb at the center of the throne our shepherd, where there are streams of living water, the tree of life with its fruit in season, and leaves for the healing of the nations. Where rest and life and joy are eternal, there we will be home forever.
There all the righteous will dwell – not in temporary tents, but in a glorified body no longer subject to death. There we'll be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. And there we'll live in perfect communion, along with the prophets, the patriarchs, Moses and Elijah, the martyrs and apostles, even Peter, James and John. But most importantly we will in the presence of our God who sits on the throne, and of Jesus. And we can truly, and finally, and most profoundly say, “it is good, Lord, to be here”.
Monday, January 29, 2018
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
“Calling and Confession”
There are two threads that run through this reading from John 1. The first is the prominence of “calling”. Both the calling to faith – and the calling to service, or what we often speak of as “vocation”. We'll explore that a bit first.
Then there is the Epiphany emphasis, the unfolding of Christ's identity – as the one who calls, the one who knows all, the one about whom the prophets wrote, the man from Nazareth, the Son of God, the King of Israel, and the ladder to heaven. That's a lot to cover, so let's get started.
When Jesus calls us to faith, much like when he calls the disciples, he also calls us to service. The call is “follow me”. First, this invites a trust in him as one worthy of following. They would follow him, first of all from Bethany, across the Jordan, to Galilee. But more than physically following him, they would follow him by faith. They would become Christians. They would follow him, thus, even to death.
We, too, have been called to faith. We confess as much in the Small Catechism, concerning the Holy Spirit – who has called me by the gospel. I can't believe in Christ of my own reason or strength. I can't decide for myself to follow him, as my will is bound in sin. The Old Adam in us is at war with God and in rebellion against him. There's no reason to think we'd follow him, believe in him, or trust him. But God breaks into that with his calling – the Spirit calls us to faith, just as Jesus called those disciples to follow. And by this Gospel call, grace is extended to us, each of us, and we are saved.
But the call to faith is never alone, just as faith is never without works that follow, so the call to faith is always coupled with a call to serve. In the case of the apostles, Christ called them to serve in a very particular way – first as disciples and witnesses, learning and observing everything for 3 years - then as preachers and even fathers of the church, through whom he would build and establish his body on earth.
But the call to you and me also comes with work to do. For all Christians are servants, first of God, but also of one another. All of us have a place in the body, a calling to fulfill, a role to play. These vocations – husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, preachers and hearers... all Christian vocations are callings from God to be done in faith and for the benefit of our neighbor. Faith doesn't sit in the vacuum. Faith is active and living. It seeks to fulfill its calling.
Notice how, when Jesus calls Nathanael, he doesn't do so personally and immediately. He uses a go-between. Phillip, who himself had just been called to follow, now calls yet another. So also, we are called by the Spirit through the agency of another Christian. Perhaps it was your parents who taught you the faith. Maybe a pastor or teacher. Maybe a faithful friend or neighbor. Sometimes we are the Phillip. Sometimes we are the Nathanael. Sometimes we are the one who invites others to hear Christ – to come and see. Sometimes we are the one being called.
The calling of Nathanael also teaches us that Christ's call to faith is by grace. What was Nathanael doing when Jesus called him? Sitting around, under a tree. What qualifications or bragging rights did he have? What mighty works or holy credentials? Nothing we are told. Although, Jesus did pay him a high compliment – he called him a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. High praise compared to the many in Israel who were full of deceit.
When it comes to deceit, self-deception is among the worst of it. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But here was Nathanael, who appeared to be a true believer – waiting, like all true believers of old, for God's promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled. A true Israelite would have humbly acknowledged his sin, and sought the mercy of God for his salvation. And this true Israelite would find it in the one who now called him.
That calling leads to confession. At first, Nathanael was skeptical. What good can come from Nazareth? Perhaps he knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. What good can come from the son of a carpenter? But little did he know, this was truly the Son of God. Until he did. When Jesus demonstrates his divine knowledge to Nathanael, the new disciple confesses just that – that this Rabbi is the Son of God!
Notice all the titles Jesus receives in this brief reading: Messiah. Rabbi. Son of God. Son of Man. It's the Epiphany season, after all, so why not mention some of the many aspects of who Jesus is?
He's the Rabbi, the great teacher. He has something to teach us – namely, the Word of God. He knows it like no one else does. He fulfills it like no one else can. Indeed, these scriptures are they that testify to him. He would spend years teaching these hard headed disciples he had just called, and only after his resurrection, by the power of the Spirit, would they come to understand so much of what he had been teaching them.
He's “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote”, that is to say, the Messiah. He is the one, the anointed one, set aside to save his people Israel. He's the one and only savior, who does what no one else can do. And he was appointed to this from the very foundation of the world. He's the fulfillment of their hopes and expectations. He's the one the prophets saw from afar, now arrived, in the flesh. Jesus himself would teach us of the scriptures, “these are they that testify to me”.
He's the Son of Man. He is a true man, like us in every way yet without sin. He is the one man, in whom all men are represented. He is the one man, to become the scapegoat for all men's sin. The one man to bear the iniquity of us all. That as in Adam all men fell into sin, now in the one man, the Son of Man, Jesus, all men would be saved.
He's the Son of God. Not just a favorite or high ranking son. The only Son of the Father. Not a created offspring but the eternally begotten Son.
And it is important that the Messiah be both Son of Man and Son of God. Man, to live and die for us. God, to conquer death for us and have it count for all of us.
But there's one more moniker or description of Jesus in this reading – and it is from Jesus himself. He identifies himself as the ladder or stairway to heaven.
Remember Jacob's dream as he left the promised land to flee from his angry brother Esau and to find his wife and fortune in the land of Padan-Aram, in the house of his uncle Laban. On his way, he stopped to sleep and with his head on a rock – had a dream of a stairway to heaven, angels ascending and descending on it. God reiterated to Jacob his promises to Abraham, and that this land would be his and his offspring's. Though Jacob was about to go away for some time, God would be with him always.
Jesus uses this story, of which a true Israelite like Nathanael would have been very familiar, and he applies it to himself. He says, “Hey Nathanael. You think it's so great that I showed you a little divine knowledge. You'll see greater things that that. You'll eventually come to see that I, the one standing before you, that I am the very stairway to heaven. That it is through me and only through me is heaven is opened to sinners.”
Heaven is opened at Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration, as the voice of the Father confirms his Son. Heaven is opened to receive Christ's Spirit, when he commits it to the Father in death. Heaven is opened to receive the resurrected and glorified Christ, as he ascends there to regain his rightful place. And in Christ, heaven is opened to us his people, for he has promised to prepare us a place and to come to bring us there.
And so, we are called to faith, called to service, and finally called to heaven – all through Jesus Christ – who we, like Nathanael, confess as Rabbi, Messiah, and Lord. He is the one worthy of following, both in this life and even unto death, and through the grave to a resurrection and eternity with the Father. Be faithful to your calling, Christians, for he is always faithful to you.
“The Faith that Believes, and the Faith that Is Believed”
There are some handy Latin phrases that every good Lutheran pastor and theologian needs to know, and which can also be helpful to laypeople. One of those phrases is “Fides Qua” (Q-U-A) and “Fides Quae” (Q-U-A-E)
The expression fides qua means “the faith which believes.” This is, simply, your trust in Christ. The saving faith which receives and holds the riches of Christ’s atonement. It is your belief, as a Christian, that Christ has won for us the favor of God through his death and resurrection. He gives this salvation to us through the word and sacrament and we grab it and hold it by faith. This faith – this saving faith - is what the theologians call fides qua – the faith which believes. It’s the fides qua which makes you a Christian.*
The fides quae is a short-hand way which theologians use to talk about, “the faith which is believed.” It is, simply, the content of our belief. Or you could say, “our beliefs”. Here the word faith is like when the pastor says, “let us confess the faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.” Fides quae is THE faith. *
So we could say that Christians have faith in the faith. Although it is usually a bit less confusing to say that we have faith in Christ, by the gospel.
Fides qua without fides quae is belief without content – an emotionalism with all sorts of heartfelt sentiments but no understanding of precisely what Jesus is all about. Fides quae without fides qua – content without actual trust - is heartless theological abstraction.
So what does Fides Qua and Fides Quae have to do with our Gospel reading from Mark, where Jesus casts out a demon? And just as important, what does all of this have to do with you and me? Bear with me and we'll get there...
Our Gospel reading takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. This is actually one of the historical sites we are pretty sure we've uncovered. I was there in 2007, and they found the old synagogue that Jesus visited there. On the top level are the imported white stone foundations of the 4th century synagogue. But underneath, the black volcanic rock from the local area that built the synagogue of Jesus' day.
The contrast between Jesus and the teachers of his day could also be described as black and white. They spoke with appeals to the Rabbis who taught before them. Gamaliel quotes Simeon quoting Eleazer, etc... But Jesus spoke with authority. He taught something different, and taught it differently. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” The teachers of men relied on the teachings of men. But he didn't need any other word to rely on, because he, Jesus, is the living Word of God, with God from the beginning but now made flesh and walking and talking among them.
And then something strange happened. An unclean spirit spoke out. Which is strange enough. But even stranger is that the demon both knew who Jesus was, and even said so! “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” This demon, who works for the Father of Lies, is telling the truth! He has confessed rightly who Jesus is, and why he has come – to destroy the forces of evil.
And yet, no one would accuse the demons, or the devil, of being a Christian. And here we come back to the Fides Quae understanding. The devil knows the Bible, friends, better than any of us do. Luther called the devil a master theologian. He is an expert in what God's word says. As Scripture says, “even the demons believe – and shudder” (James 2). You might even say the devil has a “Fides Quae” faith in God. He knows the truth, knows it to be true, and in a sense, even believes it. But he has no “Fides Qua”, no trust in Christ as his savior.
Sometimes we might even be the same. The danger for us, the temptation for some, is to make the faith an intellectual exercise. To be more concerned about getting it right, than that what is right is “for me”. We pastors are often susceptible to this problem, especially because we've been called to oversee the public teaching of the church. But just because you have all the right confessions and all the right doctrines and all the right theological proclamations, even in Greek or Hebrew or Latin, doesn't make you a Christian. If even a demon can rightly confess Christ, in a synagogue, (to his face!) - then simply getting the teachings right isn't enough, is it? The Fides Quae without the Fides Qua.
But there is also the opposite error. And here is where many laypeople are tempted. Christ does command us to observe or obey “everything I have commanded you”. We are encouraged to know and keep the word of God, as Moses taught:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
When we think that believing in Jesus is all that is important, and it doesn't really matter what you believe, we try to have the Fides Qua without the Fides Quae. This can lead to all sorts of trouble too. These are the people who think they've already learned all there is to learn about the faith. “I went to confirmation class 50 years ago, pastor!” This is the temptation to put the catechism aside, rather than to continue using it like Luther intended. The temptation to believe in Jesus, but know little of what Jesus actually said or taught. Dusty Bible Syndrome.
This is the kind of emotionalism that is all too common in the church. The idea that it's all about the heart. That we don't need any of these objective truths or these doctrines which divide. “Let's just love Jesus and that's good enough.” But it's a shallow and ultimately a false faith that pays no attention to what Jesus teaches in his word. If you're looking to believe in a Jesus who doesn't teach anything of substance, then you're looking for a false Jesus. If your kind of Jesus is one who doesn't care about whether you baptize babies, or whether you receive his true body and blood in the sacrament, or whether you think your good works get you into heaven... well, then you have the wrong Jesus, my friends.
But the two really go hand in hand. If you neglect the content of the faith, you will ultimately turn away from the faith that saves – because the faith that saves will have nothing to hold onto, or it will be holding to the wrong thing. And if you are absorbed in the content and the doctrine but only as a mental exercise, if you hold that word at arm's length as if its condemnations and promises don't apply to you – then your knowledge is pointless and meaningless.
There's plenty of guilt to go around when it comes to the Fides Qua and the Fides Quae. We are sinners, after all, and we will – even the best theologians - get things wrong. Maybe we'll focus too much on the doctrine, or we'll focus too little. We'll think to much of our own personal faith, or we will think to much of our own right doctrine. We will break the 1st commandment by turning our teaching itself or “being right” into a god to be worshipped. Or we will break the 2nd by claiming to love God but despising preaching and his word in its very content.
There's only one way out of the Fides Qua/Fides Quae Quandry for sinners, and that way is Jesus himself.
Jesus who died on the cross, and by it destroyed the powers of darkness. Jesus the Holy One of God who makes us holy ones by his blood. Jesus the one with authority over the demons, and authority to forgive sins. Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith – and of our Fides Qua and our Fides Quae.
He gives his spirit, who works through his word, to create saving faith where there was none. Whenever we try to measure and examine our faith we will find it lacking. But whenever we look to Christ for forgiveness, life and salvation – it is always enough. Faith in Christ, trust in Christ, is a gift from him. Even the smallest faith, of a mustard seed, if that faith is in Christ, can move the mountain of sin from on top of us.
And Christ gives us his word, the content of our faith. We don't develop our doctrine, but like all things of God, we receive it as a gift. We are the recipients of the Bible, and the creeds which summarize it, the catechism which teaches it, and the confessions which – confess it.
That he calls you to believe in him is good news! That he tells you what to believe about him is good news! That despite your lack of faith, weak faith, failing faith – he still saves, is good news! For he died for all your sins. He covers all your unholiness with his holiness. He silences all your enemies with his authoritative word.
Thank God, for the Fides Quae, the “what” of our faith. And thank God for the Qua, the “in whom” of our faith, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
*comments in these two paragraphs are largely adapted from Klemet Preus “The Fire and the Staff”
Monday, December 25, 2017
December 24, 2017
“Mary's Questions, Mary's Faith”
One of the main characters on the stage of the Advent season is, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. It is likely the case that when St. Luke set out to write his gospel, he sat down with Mary for an interview. Luke tells us he endeavored to write a careful, orderly account of everything that had happened. And at the end of these first couple of chapters, he mentions twice that “Mary treasured these things up” and “pondered them in her heart”. While of course, the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of these events as he did with all of Holy Scripture, he likely worked through the recollections of a young mother looking back years after her son, the Messiah, had ascended into heaven.
As Lutherans we take a view of Mary which might not sit well with Christians on either side of us. On the one hand, we have some serious disagreements with Roman Catholics about Mary's place and role and status. Scripture gives us no indication that she was without sin, or was assumed, bodily, into heaven. Neither are we told to turn to her as an intercessor. We are careful to treat her, like all the other saints of God, not as one justified by her own merit, but only by grace through faith like the rest of us. However. Unlike many protestants, we still hold Mary in high regard and can even call her by the title, “Mother of God”, as we do in the Formula of Concord. But especially we know of her from the pages of Scripture, like today's Gospel reading, and those accounts show us that she was a woman of great faith, and therefore an example to follow.
Today I'd like to focus on this particular account, the Annunciation as it is called, and especially on the questions that Mary asked and pondered... as the answers, of course, are found in Christ.
What sort of greeting?
Perhaps you'll agree with me that it's more than a little odd how Mary reacts to the appearance and greeting of the angel Gabriel. Or at least what we are told about it. If an angel appeared to me, I would be shocked, awed, amazed... filled with wonder. I might fall down on my face as so many did – or be stricken with great fear. I would certainly be concerned with the reason for such a visit. Perhaps this is the angel of death? Is my time up? Or is this a warning from God that I'm in big trouble? And while the angel here says what angels always seem to say, “Do not be afraid”, it doesn't give us any indication that she was. In fact, the appearance of the angel itself doesn't seem to trouble Mary. But what does trouble her is instead – his words. His greeting. “Greetings, O favored one! The Lord is with you.” And Mary wonders, “what kind of greeting this might be”. She was “greatly troubled at the saying”.
Mary seems to me to be a thoughtful kind of person. The kind of person who ponders deeply – as she did for years the events of the nativity of Christ. She pondered the shepherds and their stories about angels. She pondered the strange visit with her cousin Elizabeth, and how the baby John leaped in Elizabeth's womb. She pondered Zechariah and the angelic visit he received. She pondered all these things, treasured them up in her heart. She must have continued to ponder this angelic visitor and his troubling words for some time also. But why would it be troubling?
Perhaps Mary was also keenly aware of her sin. For the sinner doesn't, and shouldn't expect the favor of God. At least in the sense that one has pleased God. I get the feeling that Mary's first question here has the sense of, “Well gee, that's nice, but why me?” Why a young girl from Nazareth? Like Nathanel would later say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Mary seems to be asking, “Why me?” What have I done to deserve this? That's a paraphrase of Elizabeth's question when Mary visited her. It's a similar idea. What have I done to deserve such a gift? It's a confession of sorts, “I don't deserve such a gift”. “I'm nothing special. I'm no one worthy.”
We can sympathize, can't we? Why would God look at me with anything but disdain? I know my sin. My failure is always before me. Sure I keep it hidden from the world, because I don't want anyone to know what a scoundrel I really am. The things I think. The words I say. The things I do when no one's looking, and even when some people are. But God knows my sins – all of them – better than I do. He's God, after all. Why would, how could I expect to get away with anything? I deserve judgment. I deserve his anger. I deserve punishment.
So what kind of greeting is this? “You who are highly favored”. Well like I said, the answer is really only found in Christ.
Favor – the greek word is “Charis” which we sometimes translate “grace”. If you've ever heard the Roman Catholic “hail Mary” prayer, it begins, “Hail Mary, full of Grace”. Well she's not full of grace on her own, but like every true believer in God – she has his favor and grace, his undeserved love... only through Christ. You have God's favor and grace, his undeserved love... only through Christ. Though you are, in your sins, a scoundrel. Though you couldn't expect a just God to do you any favors, yet the merciful and kind God has done you the greatest of favors in Christ, the child of Mary.
That Mary had such faith is also evidenced by her next question. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Now, if you've been reading Luke's Gospel from the beginning, you might also find this a bit strange. Because Mary isn't the first one to see an angel, nor the first one to hear tell of a miraculous conception and birth. Zechariah, one of the priests, married to Elizabeth, a relative of Mary – he saw the same angel. And he heard a similar word – “your wife, though she is old, will have a son”. And Zechariah had a question of his own - “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” A very similar question to Mary's, “How will this be? For I am a virgin...”
But Zecharaiah's question was not asked in faith, but in doubt. He was struck mute – unable to speak until this word of God was fulfilled. Only when he confessed his faith by same-saying that the name of the child was John (scrawling that name on a tablet). Only then could Zechariah speak. And his first words after that were a Spirit-inspired song of praise.
Mary, for her part, believed from the get-go. Her, “How will this be..?” wasn't out of doubt. It was a simple request for information. She knew the normal way things worked, and that this wasn't normal. It didn't make sense. But her trust wasn't in her senses, it was in the Lord. This was an honest question of faith, how will this unfold? What will happen? Unlike Zechariah's question tinged with doubt.
But like Zechariah, she also responded to the news with a song, full of the Spirit. Only Zechariah had to wait to see the fulfillment of the promise. Mary took it on faith from word one. We sing both these songs in the church to this day – the Benedictus of Zechariah and Mary's Magnificat.
Some of us hear the word of God and believe it right away. Some of us have more struggles and doubts. Some of us may have even rejected it entirely. But the word still stands. The Law still convicts. And the Gospel still calls us to faith. And like both Mary and Zecharaiah, we too sing our faith in joyful response to God's promises. Because no matter the odds, or the appearance to our reason and senses, we trust in the words and promises of God in Jesus Christ. We are thankful when we see them fulfilled. And we are just as thankful while we wait for the fulfillment.
Where the doubters and the scoffers say it's impossible, the Angel Gabriel reminds us, “With God, all nothing is impossible”. Not a virgin conceiving and bearing a child. Not that God himself would become a human being. Not that this child to be born would save his people. Is it impossible that God would die for man, so that man could live for God? Is it impossible that a man who died would rise, that all die in him would also be raised with him? Is it impossible that he will come again in glory, and take us to our eternal home? Faith believes the promises, even when it seems impossible.
Mary believed. And her faith took on words – as she responded to the angel confirming that what he said would be, would be:
“I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word.”
What an example for us. May your faith say the same:
I am the servant of God. I'm not here to set the agenda, God, but to serve at your good pleasure. I am the Lord's servant – not his master, nor my own master. In humble faith I will receive your direction and follow it. May it be to me according to your word. What you say to me, Lord, is true. What you promise me, is certain.
As it was to Mary, may it be to you according to God's word: that your salvation is assured in Christ. That you, too, are highly favored, and full of grace. Find all of the answers to faith's questions in him, and know that with Jesus, nothing is impossible. In Christ, Amen.
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Advent Midweek 1
December 20, 2017
You, O Bethlehem. Yes, I'm talking to you. The prophet Micah has got a word about you. Oh you're a sleepy little town, not worthy of note on your own. Just about the only claim to fame you have is being the hometown of King David. Sort of like Springfield, Illinois claims its most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln – but why else do you know or care about Springfield?
Bethlehem - You don't have the mighty temple, like Jerusalem. You don't have the seat of governmental power like, say, Caesarea. You're not a port city or at a major thoroughfare or crossroads. I mean, what can you say for yourself?
Well then there's that other prophecy about Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted. A prophecy of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet himself, because he lived to see the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Before they carried off the people of Jerusalem into exile, they had a staging area at Ramah – kind of like a POW camp.
The same Ramah, where Rachel had died in childbirth, and was buried. But when she died, she was on her way to Bethlehem. And so Ramah and Bethlehem are connected.
Later on, when King Herod killed the innocent babes of Bethlehem, Matthew's Gospel quotes Jeremiah. The comparison is this: Bethlehem and Ramah – these little towns are associated with weeping and misery – because of the death or Rachel, because of the deportation of the exiles, and because of the murder of innocent children by Herod. Any way you slice it, none of this is really a point of boasting for little Bethlehem.
But don't worry, O Bethlehem, for our God has a way of bringing something out of nothing. He makes the first last and the last first. He raises up the lowly, and humbles the high and mighty. And you, O Bethlehem, little town that you are, God has plans for you.
[You] who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
You once brought forth a king, O Bethlehem. Though he was the smallest among his brothers, the youngest of 7. He guarded the sheep – fighting off bear and lion. He then proved his mettle when he took down the Philistine giant. But his mettle was not in his strength of sword or prowess in battle. He was a man after God's own heart. He gave God the credit for the victory. He knew going in God was with him. And afterward he kept no glory for himself. David lived by faith, as did all who lived and trusted God's Word, as do all believers, even today.
And now again, O Bethlehem, you are to bring forth the Son of David. The one who would rule on his Father David's throne. The one who would restore the fallen house to a mighty dynasty, the shoot from the stump of Jesse that would grow to a mighty oak. The people of Jerusalem would shout their Hosannas at his triumphant arrival. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!
But what's this – his origins are from of old? From ancient days? There's a hint, a glimmer of his true nature – his divine nature. For before there was, he was. He's the ultimate being, the very Yahweh. This is a human, but this one born in Bethlehem is also true God. He had his beginning here, but he also has no beginning and no end. His reign and rule are forever. His kingdom has no end.
But there's more, O Bethlehem. He's a Shepherd. Much like his ancestor David was a shepherd. But more, and better. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Little shepherd boy David tended his father's flock in Bethlehem. The Good Shepherd Jesus tends to the flock his Father gives him – even the whole number of believers, the church – even to the ends of the earth.
Little shepherd David fought off the lion and the bear – all to protect his sheep. The Good Shepherd crushes the head of the Serpent. He stops the mouth of the roaring lion looking for someone to devour. He defeats even the dragon who would swallow him up – along with all of us. Our Good Shepherd is victorious, over sin, over devil, even over death.
And did you also know, O Bethlehem, that he brings peace? He is peace. Peace with God. Peace of conscience. Peace in the raging of all life's bitter struggles. The Assyrians – well they're just an example, a shadow of the many enemies we face. Fightings and fears within, without. Wars and rumors of wars. False teachers. Persecution. Nakedness, danger, sword. We are as sheep to be slaughtered, yet in all of it – more than conquerors through him who loved us. Through all of it, a peace that comes only through the Prince of Peace.
The wise men came from the east and asked old king Herod where the new king could be found. They'd seen your star, and it had led them this far. Herod's own wise men knew this ancient prophecy. The Messiah would be born in you – little Bethlehem. And so they went, and brought their gifts. These representatives of the nations laid their tribute before the king of the Jews and the king of kings. You, O Bethlehem, got to see it happen.
You are Bethlehem – which means “house of bread”. Isn't it fitting that the one born unto you, the one from of old, also called himself the Living Bread from heaven? The one who would feed the entire world with his own life. Bread, the staff of life, the most basic of foods, a most primary need – Yes, O Bethlehem, you are the house of bread, by bringing forth the one who gives life to the world.
And Ephratha, your other name, it means “fruitful”. You're the “fruitful house of bread”. Surely, here in the Babe of Bethlehem comes great fruitfulness. His fruits – his works – are righteousness. A fulfillment of the law, through a perfectly lived life. And the fruits of his cross – body and blood given and shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins. Well. These fruits are far better than the fruits of sin and death we've been eating since our first parents ate and died.
You, O Bethlehem. I guess there's more to say for you than one might think. Though you are small among the clans of Judah. Though no one's impressed with your population and pedigree and acreage and history. You have this one thing. You have the promise of the Messiah. And that's the best thing of all.
You, O Christian, have the same. In fact sleepy little Bethlehem, with not that much to say for itself – is like every humble person the Lord calls to faith. Little Bethlehem, among all the towns. Little Israel, among all the nations. Little old you and me, as insignificant as the world considers us to be. As worthless and despised as our sins have made us out to be.
Though you don't have much, and can't say much for yourself, of yourself - you really have it all. For the child born in Bethlehem is the Son of God born for you. The prophecy spoken by Micah, was spoken as much to you. Out of a backwater nowhere, God has brought his salvation to the ends of the earth, even unto Keller, Texas. Just as he created the world out of nothing, so has he brought salvation from next to nothing. For Christ is born for you, for me, for all. The Good Shepherd. The Bread of Life. Who gives us the fruits of his salvation. A Blessed Advent, and a Blessed Christmas to you, in him.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Advent Midweek 1
December 6, 2017
Pastor Huebel mentioned Sunday that prophecy is just history written in advance. That is certainly true of these two famous prophecies from Isaiah. Some of the clearest and best messianic prophecies come from this prophet, and he is a regular staple of our Advent meditations. Today we'll look at two of these famous passages – Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 9.
But to do so, we'll need a little history lesson. It was a little more than 700 years before the birth of Christ when Isaiah the prophet lived and preached. At this time, the great kingdom of David and Solomon had sadly become divided by civil war into a Northern and Southern kingdom. In the north, most of the 12 tribes, and in the south you had Judah and Benjamin, but by far the largest was Judah. And so the prophets in these days of the Divided Kingdom refer to both – the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah.
Though they had reached a peaceful coexistence with each other, the now divided kingdoms still faced threats from without. The Assyrians, in particular, were a very cruel, brutal conqueror. They were known for all sorts of atrocities that I won't even mention or describe in the pulpit. I've sometimes called them the “Old Testament Nazis”, but perhaps that's not even adequate to describe their cruelty to those at the tip of their spear and sword. In light of this rising threat, the Northern Kingdom, along with neighboring Syria, wanted king Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom to join their coalition – three small kingdoms against the evil empire of the Assyrians.
But Ahaz was a wicked king, and he sidled up to the Assyrians. He feared the big dog more than the smaller two, though he still feared them. But he did not fear the Lord God almighty. Isaiah's message to Ahaz was to trust in the Lord, not outside nations. And so God, through Isaiah, gave Ahaz a sign. A prophecy with two fulfillments.
In the first, Isaiah's oracle showed that in the time of about 9 months – the time it would take a young woman to conceive and bear a son – God would deliver Judah from the 2 kings that were threatening him. And indeed, in 722 B.C. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, fell to the Assyrians. We might call this the near fulfillment, or the lesser fulfillment.
But the greater and far better fulfillment would have far more wide ranging impact. A virgin would conceive and bear a son. And that miraculous child would deliver all people from the threats of our enemies, the cruel trio of sin, death, and Satan. The New Testament confirms this, interprets Isaiah for us, in Matthew 1:22-23 “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel' (which means, God with us)”
Ahaz was a wicked king, but God worked in spite of him to bring about the fulfillment of his plan and promises. Ahaz, a descendant of David himself, would also be an ancestor of Jesus, the true Son of David. But this was God's doing.
You can't save yourself by your own reason or strength, your own good works or spiritual commitment. Though there is no merit or worthiness in you but only sin and corruption – but still God promises, God works, and God accomplishes your salvation. So also, no sinful man can claim credit for the birth of this child born to the virgin, but only God gets the glory for sending his Son to us. No man can claim the honor, even in part, for the saving work and sacrificial death of Christ. Only God the Father can say, “That's my boy. Like Father, like Son.”
That Jesus was born of a virgin is good news for you. It means your salvation comes from outside of this sinful, fallen world. If it came from below, it would be unworthy of your faith. For what can man do, of himself? But if it comes from God, it cannot fail. If salvation is his doing, you can trust it always and fully.
Two chapters later, we have another oracle, in which the prophet describes this promised deliverer, this child that would be born. For one, he is identified with Galilee. Part of the area that was once conquered by the wicked Assyrians. Part of the nation that was laid waste by the enemy. But God has a way of bringing something from nothing, bringing salvation out of the ruins, light from darkness, and even life from death itself.
And so the sign that old King Ahaz scorned would be fulfilled in the Son that is given – the one called Jesus, the Christ. But look what else Isaiah calls him:
Immanuel, that is, “God with us”. Likewise, in chapter 9, “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father”. This is no mere human savior. Here comes no average or even above average man. No earthly leader, no worldly politician elected or appointed or otherwise. Here, among us, is God himself made flesh. The Messiah is, perhaps above all, the very embodiment of Yahweh himself, come to earth, present among his people. And this is no small thing.
It is noteworthy that many of the heresies that have plagues the church over the years attack this very point – that Jesus Christ is true God. It's why the church has responded with creeds and statements and catechisms that make it clear who he is – God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten not made. True God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, and my Lord. To take away or deny Jesus' divine nature is to make him no Messiah at all. For God has promised that's the Messiah he would send. He will not do his saving half-way or half-heartedly. He will not delegate it, even to an archangel. He will see to it himself. God will visit his people.
He is the Wonderful Counselor. The counsel he gives, the word he speaks, is the object of our wonder. The things he says ought to amaze us. The Gospel is astounding. The free gift of salvation, which we proclaim is so many ways.... may we never lose our sense of awe at this. This central teaching of our faith – Christ crucified for sinners - that he's done it all for you, and all that's left is to believe it and live in grateful response to it. This is better, wiser counsel than any you could hear. This is a more wonderful word than any you could imagine.
And Prince of Peace. Princes and Kings and the mighty men of this world talk a good game when it comes to peace, but they often fail to achieve it. But he is not just a prince who brings peace, as if in a temporary condition. He is the Prince of Peace. All peace, that is all true peace, is rooted in him. The peace that he brings is a peace with God. It is a peace that passes understanding. Like his kingdom, it is not of this world, peace not as the world gives. It's a peace you can't see or touch, but it must be known by faith, according to his word.
And what else about this Messiah, this child born unto us? He will rule with justice and righteousness on the throne of his father David – and he will do so forever. David. Remember God's promise when David got it into his head to build God a temple? Look the ark is in a tent – the tabernacle – while I dwell in a fine palace. Let me build a house for God, a temple. It was an honorable inclination. But God turned it around on him and said, “No, David. I'll build you a house. And I will establish your house (your dynasty) forever.” David's son Solomon would build that temple. And God would hold up his end of the bargain.
Though in the rise and fall of nations it may have seemed like God had forgotten, or had failed. David's line was shattered when the kingdom divided. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. Later the Southern Kingdom would fall to the Babylonians. Ahaz and his descendants would be no more – at least not reigning on the throne. The Davidic dynasy – once a mighty tree was cut down to the stump. But a shoot was to come from that stump of Jesse (words from Isaiah 11). And David's throne would be restored... in Christ.
Not an earthly throne. But a heavenly throne. Though he left that throne for a time, our king became enthroned in human flesh, and in a manger, and on a cross. Enthroned in his resurrected flesh, ascended to the right hand of God where David's son and David's Lord reigns even today, for all God's chosen people.
This is the kind of Messiah Isaiah foresaw. The One born of a virgin. The one unlike any other. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The One to restore David's throne. The One we call Jesus, who has delivered us from our enemies. Rejoice with great joy. For unto us child is born. Unto us the Son is given. Amen.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
Advent Midweek 1
December 6, 2017
This Advent Season, like all Advent seasons, we place a special emphasis on the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming Christ. Advent means “coming”, after all. And while an exhaustive treatment of each and every prophecy of Christ would be impossible, and indeed, we would have to study the entire Old Testament, which Jesus says testifies to him... still, it seems good to zoom in on a few passages which hold a particular importance or a place of prominence in Messianic expectations. You might have chosen some other passages, and another perhaps 3 others. But these three seemed the most well-known, the most often-referenced, some of the most pivotal prophecies pointing to Christ out of all of them. So for the three weeks of Advent this year – we will consider the messianic prophecies of Genesis 3, Isaiah 7 and 9, and Micah 5.
Prophecy isn't only about the future – strictly speaking it is a word of God given through a representative or mouthpiece – a prophet. And that word can speak of the past, present, or future – for all times are in the view and knowledge of God. It can be, as it were, a word of law or gospel: A prophetic word is often a word of rebuke, a harsh word over against the powers of the day that are set against God. Even today, sometimes it's used in that sense. The prophetic word that is hard to hear. But then there is that other sense of it, perhaps more commonly intended – that a prophet is one who tells the future. And many prophecies do so. We are concerned, especially, about those prophecies concerning the Christ – that most important promise of God to send a Savior to deliver his people. That promise, or or those promises, telling of future salvation, date as far back as the Garden, as we shall see today. In fact, let's turn our attention there now.
Try to imagine the scene of Genesis 3 – the freshly minted creation in all its “very good” glory, the animals according to their kinds, the garden planted by God as a paradise for man, and the innocent and noble Adam, and his helper Eve, both created in the image of God and set above creation, blessed to be fruitful and multiply. What joy it must have been for the newborn creation – think of the “new car smell” and the smell of a newborn but only better, more pervasive, entirely thorough.
Nothing bad, only good, indeed as God declared, “very good”.
And what a start contrast to what would soon follow. When the serpent slithered in. Taking the form of one of the beasts of creation, Satan, the evil one appears with his wicked agenda. He deceives the woman. The man fails to intervene, but partakes of the rebellion with her. And so the one to whom God gave dominion over all creation, the head, as it were, was struck. Sin, death, corruption, disease, chaos of a manner we still don't comprehend – all of it came upon creation. Like the dark shadow of an eclipse – so out of place, so alien to its design, creation fell along with its appointed master. And now, the serpent becomes the prince of this world. Adam and Eve beget children in their own image, and as you read the genealogies, the refrain is unmistakable, “and he died... and he died”. Quite a contrast to, “and it was good”. What a dark day that was. What a bitter day. A day of reversal. A day of death. A day of fear.
For as they heard the Lord walking in the garden, they hid. Like young children even today who instinctively hide when they know they've done something wrong, Adam and Eve hid. But you can't hide from God. You can't hide your sins from God. Their paltry attempts to cover nakedness with fig leaves only testified to their shame. Who told you you were naked? Did you eat of that forbidden tree?
And now they await punishment. It must have been with fear and dread that our first parents stood, waiting to get their comeuppance. Waiting to hear the pronouncement of judgment they truly deserved. We've all been there, at least in small ways. Perhaps waiting in fear of an angry parent. Perhaps watching the squad car as the officer gets out and walks toward your car window. Or perhaps even as your conscience burns at the thought of your God frowning at your sinning, yet again. What would it be like to stand and answer for your sins? To face up to it, with no escape in sight? Isaiah saw God and he cried, “woe to me, I am ruined!” Adam and Eve must have felt the same. We all should before a Holy God.
Oh they tried the blame game. It was the woman you gave me, Lord, it's all her fault. Oh, no, Lord, I was tricked, tricked I tell you! It was that crafty serpent. But the blame doesn't really shift. They knew what they were doing. They are just as accountable.
And then, when all seems lost, when they had nothing left to say, when the swift and sure blade of justice was surely about to cut them down... then it happened. God spoke to the serpent.
And in that curse, a blessing. In the bad news for our enemy, is the good news for Adam and Eve and you and me and all. Martin Luther puts it this way:
“These words are spoken for the sake of Adam and Eve that they may hear this judgment and be comforted by the realization that God is the enemy of the being that inflicted so severe a wound on man. Here grace and mercy begin to shine forth in the midst of wrath which sin and disobedience aroused. Here in the midst of most serious threats the Father reveals His heart…Who points to deliverance, indeed who promises victory against the enemy that deceived and conquered human nature.”
First, God curses the serpent to eat dust and crawl on its belly. And this may seem easy to pass by. But it is good news. For God limits Satan. He cannot come at us straightaway, head-on. He is limited to working sideways, slinking and squirming, through his deception and lies. Luther comments that if Satan wasn't limited in such a way, he would destroy all life, even keep a single tree from sprouting, for he hates God's good creation so. But the curse goes on, and the news for us gets better.
Genesis 3:15 is sometimes called the proto-gospel, the very first promise of God, and the first prophecy of a savior, a messiah, the very Christ. It is a promise that God unfolds throughout the pages of the Old Testament, progressively revealing more and more, as if facets of a diamond, until it reaches it fruition in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Christ in glory.
He, the offspring, (literally the seed) of the woman, the one descendant to come – would crush the head of the serpent, though the serpent would bruise his heel. Christ, though wounded, even mortally, at the cross – would not be defeated by death. But rather, with that very wound, he trampled the head of the Serpent, delivering a final defeat and humiliation of our ancient foe, completely disarming and destroying him and his kingdom forever. And so Jesus declares, “it is finished”. God keeps his promises.
Just look at the way God does it, though. Satan thinks he is victorious, working through the woman to get at the man. But God turns it around, working through the woman, through the womb, to bring about the man – the second Adam, that would be Satan's undoing.
He who once overcame man by means of a tree – now is overcome by the tree of the cross. And we, who fell into sin by eating the fruit of a forbidden tree, are now nourished unto salvation by the fruit of the cross – namely the body and blood of Jesus given us to eat and drink. By one tree and fruit came death, but by this tree and fruit comes life. In one Adam all mean are condemned to death. But in the Second Adam all men are given life.
Through the ages, God brings this promise to fruition. Preserving the line of the promise through Noah – despite a flood that ended all other flesh on earth.
Through the line of Abraham, so old he was as good as dead, and yet God gave him a son. Through that son Issac, and his son Jacob, and his son Judah, and down through history, the seed of promise was tended.
David was also promised his descendant would sit on his throne forever, and so the line of promise continued, though david's mighty house lay in tatters.
And then an angel appeared to Mary, and announced the child born to her would be that long-awaited savior. The seed of the woman, come to crush the serpent for good.