Reflections on the Proclamation of the Gospel and the Reformation

The Reformation of the Church, ignited in 1517 by Martin Luther’s posting of the Theses on Indulgences, is and always has been about the proclamation of the pure Gospel as set forth in sacred Scripture.  The “Treasury of Daily Prayer,” from Concordia Publishing House had as part of the readings for today a paragraph from Martin Luther’s sermon on John 1:29 – Behold the Lamb of God.  The pure Gospel, as Lutherans and orthodox Christendom proclaims it – we have strayed from time to time from this proclamation – is and always has been Christ and Him crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.  It is not an intellectual concept that can be grasped by man with his own faculties.  Instead it is something that can only be received by faith, for faith, through faith.  For Christ draws us into His story of the cross.  His story becomes our story.  His life, our life.  His death, our death.  His resurrection, ours too.  His freedom, our freedom.  For if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.  It is our eternal hope, and a promise to which must cling.  It is Christ Himself.

I give thanks to God for the faithful who have gone before us to pave the way for the freedom we have in Christ.  He gives His saints the courage to stand before kings and princes, in the face of great persecution to bear witness to the hope we have in Christ.  I give thanks to God that He used Martin Luther “to hatch the egg that Erasmus laid,” and I pray that you do too.  If you have not read any of Luther’s sermons, you should.  Do not form your opinions of Lutherans on any crass opinions you have heard about Luther’s physical infirmities, or other fantastic insights into his psyche.  Instead, read what he has to say for he points to Christ.

In the Sermon on John 1:29, Luther reflects on John’s proclamation of the Christ who approached the river Jordan to be baptized:  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Here Luther gives the Gospel, the pure Gospel proclamation of Christ:

May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins. It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent. But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.

Such benefactions of God might well provoke us to love and to laud God and to celebrate this service in song and sermon and speech. It should also induce us to die willingly and to remain cheerful in all suffering. For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin, yes, with the sin and the death of the entire world! He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.” No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God. And who would not gladly die for Christ’s sake? The Son of Man performs the basest and filthiest work. He does not don some beggar’s torn garment or old trousers, nor does He wash us as a mother washes a child; but He bears our sin, death, and hell, our misery of body and soul. Whenever the devil declares: “You are a sinner!” Christ interposes: “I will reverse the order; I will be a sinner, and you are to go scotfree.” Who can thank our God enough for this mercy?

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Jn 1:29). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1999).

Moses and the Plagues, Sunday School Lesson, October 30, 2011

Exodus 5-10

Click to hear the Issues, Etc. discussion of this week’s Sunday School lesson with Deaconess Pam Nielsen.

This week we enter into the story of God’s redemption of Israel from out of the bondage of slavery into which it had fallen in the land of Egypt.  God planted Joseph in Egypt to preserve his family.  In the great famine that plagued the world for seven (7) years, all people were drawn to the land of Egypt, and to Joseph who was placed in charge of the land by Pharaoh working as God’s chosen instrument.  God used Pharaoh in this way to make Himself known to Joseph’s family, especially his brothers.  God once again uses Pharaoh to make Himself known.  This time, however, it is to reveal Himself by His name, יהוה (yhwh) to all the world.  For He is the God who kills to and makes alive, He wounds and heals.  He is the one and only God, beside Him there is no other in all the world.  Deuteronomy 32:39.  And in using Pharaoh, God hardens his heart, that is God gives him courage and strength in opposition to Moses’ request.  Exodus 9 tells of the plague of boils, oozing, horrible sores that afflicted man and beast throughout the land of Egypt.  Until now, it was Pharaoh who had changed his mind, becoming more and more resolved not to let Israel go.  Yet this time, the plague of boils affects even Pharaoh.  The text does not tell us if he actually received the sores.  It does tell us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, not that Pharaoh hardened his own.  The plague must have touched Pharaoh in some way to at least cause him to waver a bit.  Yet God would have none of it.  He would make his NAME known in all the world, that there is one God and one God only, and He would make it know through these slaves in the land of Egypt.

This is a strange work, foreign to the nature of God.  To think that He would actually turn someone against His divine Will in order to reveal His name and who He is to the world.  And yet, to make us alive, God must first kill us.  Death and sin and killing were caused by man’s rejection of the Word of God, by our disobedience to His command.  So God hardening the heart of Pharaoh should not seem so difficult to grasp.  For He uses man as He is, sinful, opposed to God, and gives him over to his own sinfulness to wallow in it.  See Romans 1.  Sometimes God acts with us as He does with Pharaoh, hardening his heart even more than Pharaoh had done for himself.  In our stubbornness, we refuse to heed His Word, rejecting it and steeling our hearts and minds in opposition to it.  For we want to be in control of our own destiny, our own lives.  God uses this stubbornness and opposition against us, gives us over to it.  Sin is heaped upon sin until man is broken despairs of his own ability.  And yet, all the while, God is at work using His Word to turn us to Him, to bring us to our knees in solemn repentance, begging for mercy, for forgiveness.

Sometimes it takes extreme measures to get our attention as in the case of Pharaoh.  It shocks our consciences and senses to think that a good and gracious God would give us over to evil and to our own sin.  It does not comport with our darkened sense of goodness and justice.  And yet, because of our sin that has turned us completely away from Him, God works on us in ways that are strange and alien to His nature and to who He is.   To we who are dead in trespasses and sin, God’s work seems wrong. For His nature is mercy and love.  He is the God of creation, who creates and gives life.  And yet when He kills, he does not take our lives away — He uses it to create new life within us.  So what seems bad to us is God working on us for our good.   And the suffering of the plagues of sin that we must endure is something good, for it disciplines us, corrects and rebukes us, and turns us back to God and, as we will see next week, the Cross of Christ.



Reformation Week on Issues, Etc.

Game on.  Listen today.

If you do not listen to Issues, Etc., you ought to take it up. Bible Study. Debate. Current Issues. Old Issues. All from the only perspective we ought really to have — Christ-centered. If you have not checked them out, you owe it to yourself to do so. Here is a preview of what is on the schedule for October 24-28, Reformation Week 2011.

The Widow’s Mite: Reflections on Faith and the Christian Life

Mark 12:41-44

When we hear this story, we think about giving. We look and focus on the gift that the woman gave, for Jesus holds her up praises the gift that she gives. He tells His disciples that the gifts given by many of the rich people He has observed does not compare with the widow’s gift despite how much they gave.  For the rich gave out of their abundance, or from the excess of what they had – they did not need what they gave and could spare some of their wealth – while the widow gave out of her poverty and really could not afford to give what she did put into the offering box. So Jesus is telling us to give until it hurts…. Right?  At least that’s the way we like to see it. We like to see the story as being about us. But is the focus of the story our giving and our stewardship? Is this story about me and what I do? What is it the Jesus sees in this woman that causes him to turn to his disciples and make her an example for them?

If we go back and look at the center of this chapter in this series of teachings by Jesus in the temple, we see that at the very center in Mark 12:28-34, Jesus tells us of the greatest commandment of all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. To it he adds a second commandment:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  I know that I cannot begin to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind.  I fail at it a thousand times a day.  To love God does not mean that I have to do things for Him.  It does not mean I have to give money to this cause, to the church, and feel guilty when I do not.  It does not mean I have to be involved in this or that program in the church, or worship Him by singing praises or watching worship leaders and praise bands do that for me.  Jesus said that there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for a friend.  This is what Jesus did for us, obeying the Will of the Father who sent Him into the world to die.  And eternal life is this:  that we know the Father, the only true God, and Jesus the Christ, whom the Father sent into this world.  John 17:3. To love God is, through the Spirit, to hear His Christ, take up the cross prepared for us, and take Jesus to our neighbor.  To love God is to serve our neighbor.  What enables me to do this?  To have the kind of love that lays down one’s own life for another, that sets one’s own desires, interests, and selfishness aside for the good of another person is a rare quality.  Yet we are not left without guidance. And Jesus’ story of the widow and her gift provides the answer.

You see, what Jesus holds up in this widow and sets before us is her faith not the gift she gave to the church. Rather it is the gift that she has been given. This woman had faith, faith that trusted solely and god to provide for her all good things. Jesus describes her as poor. The Greek word in the text, ptoches, is a descriptive word, that means crouches, cowers, bent over low, poor and beggarly. So this woman was not simply poor in wealth as her gift suggests, but she also was stooped over with age, and weighed down by a lifetime of worry and work. Moreover, as a widow, she was an outcast in society, much like a leper. The fact that she is a widow of some age and also destitute tells us that her husband did not have any brothers or extended family members who would redeem her and carry on his name. And so the name of the widow’s husband would likely perish from the earth. This woman was insignificant in Jewish society. And so too, comparatively speaking, was the gift that she deposited in the offering box.

Two small coins made of copper were deposited by this widow.  Together they made a penny.  And yet the total monetary value was 1/64th of one whole denarius.  One denarius was the wage earned for a day’s labor. The leaders of the day, the rich people, deposited great sums of money in comparison. They made public shows of it.  Jesus tells how the scribes walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces, and the Temple was just such a marketplace until a day or two before when Jesus cleared the moneychangers from the Temple.  It was a place to be seen, to be known.  Giving to the Temple treasury, fulfilling the Mosaic obligations   The wealth of the leaders and rich people says something about them and their station in life. They feel important, and want to be known and loved by others. Their wealth enables them to do this, and preserve their status.  Their lips and mouths gave honor to God, but their hearts were far from them.  Yet this honor was only based on a commandment of men.

In contrast to the pomp and circumstances of the somebody’s in Jerusalem of that day, Jesus holds up this poor, beggarly woman who, in spite of her earthly poverty, comes to the Temple of the Lord’s house bearing a gift, money to be put into the treasury and into this service of the Kingdom. From her station in life, the widow gave of herself. It is a sacrificial giving made possible only by faith. Faith that trusts completely and solely in the work of her Creator to provide everything that needed to sustain her body and life. Jesus holds this faith over and against that of the Pharisees and the wealthy leaders of Israel at that time. Jesus, when He entered Jerusalem a couple of days before, noticed a fig tree that had no fruit.  When He entered the heart of Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Most High God, He found no fruit among the leaders of Israel, the stewards of God’s vineyard.  Jesus excoriates the Pharisees the Sadducees, and the scribes in the parable of the tenant. These leaders of his people are put in charge of caring for his flock, nurturing this vineyard. And yet instead of doing so, they sought to take possession of it for themselves and take ownership of the Kingdom from God. They did so by setting themselves, their traditions, their understanding of God’s Word over and against the Owner Himself. When they run up against the Son of the living God, when they are confronted by the Christ they meet their end. For they are given over to blindness, a lack of understanding, and God hardens their hearts. When they run headlong into the Christ who is the cornerstone they meet their death. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament Prophets. When Herod killed him his head was cut off and given to his stepdaughter. This marked the end of the Law.  The Law was cut off and brought to its end. So too are all those who follow the Law, who hold it up in honor and esteem over and above the gracious gift of God of life and salvation in His Son. Those who seek to do the Law in order to justify themselves meet their end.

So what does this mean for us today?  Does the story of the widow’s mite have application to our stewardship and giving? For if the point of the story is not GIVING but LIVING in faith, how can it inform our stewardship?

The widow’s gift was made possible by the gift of faith she had been given. From her station in life she live faithfully, trusting solely in the Lord to provide her with everything that she needed. Just as the lilies of the field do not worry about what they will wear, and the sparrows do not worry about what they will eat, so too should we not worry about what we will give, how we can give, or from where it will come. For God will provide us the means to give what is necessary to do the work required for his Kingdom. He will provide the means to enable us to serve where we are in this world and in this life. This does not mean that there is nothing for us to do, that we do not have to act responsibly with what we are given.  Just as the Pharisees and Scribes were the stewards of the children of Israel, so too are we stewards of one another in this world.  We are called to care for one another, encourage one another, hold one another accountable, and serve one another in love. Living our lives in faith, clinging to Christ and His precious Word we learn to lay aside our own lives and put others ahead of ourselves.  We see, with the eyes of faith, how what we have been given, what we possess in this earthly life can be of benefit to our neighbor.  And so we employ the resources we have been given in service to our neighbor.  Our specific roles in life too determine who are neighbor is.  If you are a mother or father, your neighbor is your spouse and your children.  Where you work, your neighbor is your co-worker, supervisor, boss.  When you are driving down the road, your neighbors are the other drivers on the road and pedestrians walking along the road.  When you provide food for your family, maintain the car for your wife, help your friend with her homework, take out the garbage – you are giving of yourself to your neighbor.  When you belong to a church, your neighbors are the other members of your congregation and those served by the ministries supported by the congregation.  They are your Pastor and other church workers called to serve in the ministry of that congregation.

So we live in faith trusting in God. Whether one is called to preach, or to teach, to do missionary work, to be a mother, a father, firefighter, factory worker, farmer, or whatever it may be – wherever God places us, He provides what you need to serve your neighbor. It is not about what I must do to give to God – He will take even the smallest most insignificant gift and make it prosper. That is His work. For us it is to live in faith, to serve our neighbor. Whether you participate by living a life of faith or not, God will make His Kingdom grow and prosper. His pure word will go forward in spite of our hesitation, resistance or indifference.  Like Jonah we often wait, resist, we run away, we do not live the life of faith because we have the answer. We know better. God’s Will will be done in spite of you and in spite of me. For the work that we do in Christ is not our own work. It is an accomplished work of Jesus Christ, it is God working through us. Yet we forget that it is not about you and me. It is not about what we do. It is not about how much we give. What matters is our faith in Christ trusting solely in Him who has brought us into His Kingdom. God provides the means to serve in his Kingdom and for us to live a life of faith.


Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers AND Forgives Them, Sunday School Lesson, October 9, 2011

Genesis 42-45 and 50:15-21

Click here to listen to the Issues, Etc. interview with Deaconess Pam Nielsen on this week’s Sunday School lesson.

Joseph was raised from the depths of prison to the second in command of the Egyptian empire after he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams.  A strange thing to happen to a slave boy from a family clan in Canaan.  Jacob and his sons were not a nation, just a family living in the desert, tending to their flocks.  Yet God preserved Joseph’s life in this strange and far off place.  He provided everything he needed to survive in the land of Egypt among a people who were not his people, but who became his people.  So it was when the famine struck after 7 years of bountiful harvest, that all people of the world came to Egypt.  They were drawn there by the promise of food.

Jacob’s family was hit hard by this famine as well, and he sent his sons to Egypt, where they had heard there was food.  And so they went.  10 out of the remaining 11 brothers went to Egypt to buy grain.  These brothers who had participated in the delivery of Joseph to the sons of Ishmael as a slave, now came before Joseph just as his dreams had foretold so many years before.  The stars would bow down before Joseph and ask for mercy.  And mercy they would receive, along with grace beyond what they had expected.  For when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he forgave them for their misdeeds, for their hatred of him, for their desire to see him dead.  Until that time, Joseph’s brothers carried this burden of their sin around.  They told Jacob a lie to cover up their sin.  And this sins stuck with them, followed them around.  When Joseph confronts them as spies, imprisons them, and demands they bring their youngest brother back as proof that they are not spies, the brothers attribute this distress to their sin against Joseph.  Jesus deals with our sin, revealing the depth of our depravity to us, cutting out the cancer and healing us with overflowing mercy.  And if that is not enough, grace follows and heaps blessing upon undeserved blessing.  For the sons of Jacob, Joseph not only forgave them, he also welcomed them into Egypt, into his own home with open arms.  Pharaoh allowed him to bring the rest of their family, all their possessions, all their flocks, and gave them the choicest lands in all Egypt.

Joseph provides us with a wonderful portrait of the living Christ.  His story is  story of the cross.  Like Joseph, we have a Cross to bear.  It can be painful at times, and certainly difficult.  But God shows us through Joseph, that in the midst of these trials and difficulties, He is there, providing for us, protecting us, strengthening us, and giving us faith to believe and trust in Him.  The Cross confronts us with our sin in the presence of the crucified one.  Just as Joseph’s brothers came to realize their sin and were brought to repentance by the tests and love, mercy and forgiveness of their living brother, so too are we brought to repentance, faith, and healing by the crucified, risen and Living Christ.  That is amazing love.

The Duties of a Local Congregation

19th-century photograph of a young CFW Walther...
Image via Wikipedia

If you have ever wondered what the function of the local church or congregation is, we have the answer.  CFW Walther, first president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, wrote a piece entitled “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State.”  In it he notes that each congregation has six duties as follows:

Of the Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Local Church Independent of the State

6. It is the duty of the congregation carefully to see to it that the Word of God may richly dwell and have full and free scope in its midst. Col. 3:16: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” etc.

7. It is the duty of the congregation to care for the purity of doctrine and life in its midst and to exercise church discipline in these matters. Matt. 18:15-18: ‘If thy brother shall trespass against thee, . . . let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Rom. 16:17: “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.” 1 Cor. 5:1-13: “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? . . . Put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” 1 Cor.6:1-8; 2 Cor.2:6-11. Gal. 6:1: “restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6,14,15. 2 John 10,11: “If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed,” etc.

8. It is the duty of the congregation to concern itself also with the temporal welfare of all its members that they may not suffer want of the necessaries of life nor be forsaken in any need. Gal.6:10: “Let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Deut. 15:4. Rom. 12:13: “Distributing to the necessity of saints.” Gal. 2:9,10; Jas. 1 :27; 1 Thess. 4:11,12.

9. It is the duty of the congregation to see that in its midst “all things be done decently and in order,” 1 Cor. 14:33, 40, and to “provide for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord but also in the sight of men,” 2 Cor. 8:21. Col. 2:5.

10. It is the duty of the congregation to be diligent “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” also with all parts of the orthodox Church, Eph. 4:3; 1 Thess. 4:9,10; Rom. 15:26, 27; 2 Cor. 8:19.

11. It is also incumbent upon the congregation to do its part in building up and promoting the welfare of the Church at large. Amos 6:6; Acts 11:21-23 (“Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem; and they sent forth Barnabas that he should go as far as Antioch,” etc.); 15:18.

The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, by Dr. CFW Walther, translated by Dr. Th. Engelder, from “Walther and the Church” by Dau, Engelder and Dallman, (1938 Concordia Publishing House).   The full text of the theses can be found at the following website:

Simple, Scriptural, to the Pointe.  Every local congregation has the responsibility to   Continue reading “The Duties of a Local Congregation”

Joseph Rises to Second in Command to Feed Egypt and the World, Sunday School Lesson, October 2, 2011

Joseph made ruler in Egypt
Image via Wikipedia

Genesis 40-41

Click here to listen to the Issues Etc. interview with Tom Nummela of Concordia Publishing House.

This week’s Sunday School lesson focuses on Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams.  While he was in jail, two key persons in the Pharaoh’s service, his baker and cupbearer, were jailed because Pharaoh became angry with them.  Both had dreams while in prison.  Joseph was given the meaning of their dreams by God, and the interpretations came to pass — the cupbearer was restored to his position and the baker was executed.  The cupbearer soon forgot about Joseph as he went about the service of his master, the Pharaoh of Egypt.  After two years had passed, Pharaoh was troubled by some dreams.  He called together the magicians and wise men of Egypt, and no one could interpret them.  It was at this time that the cupbearer remembered Joseph.  He was brought before Pharaoh and was given by God the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams — 7 years of plenty, and 7 years of famine throughout Egypt and the world.  Pharaoh made Joseph the second in command, in charge of all Egypt

From the very pit of despair and humiliation, God raised Joseph, at the right time, to feed the people placed in his care as well as the known world at that time.  41:57 tells us that the famine was so severe that all the world came to buy grain from Egypt.  The story of Joseph is a story of the Christ whom God sent into the world to save mankind and to feed all those who come to him not with food for the belly, but with the bread of life.  This story also shows how God cares and provides for you and for me.  Joseph held fast to the hope that God would deliver him from this prison, that he would preserve and protect his life.  Joseph did not become bitter or curse God, and God did not forsake him.  Joseph confessed the truth of God in the very presence of the Pharaoh.  And God raised Joseph up to be the second in command, to sit at the right hand of Pharaoh, the father of Egypt.  Not because of what Joseph did or the confession he made, but because God’s plan for salvation had been working since before Joseph was sold in slavery in Egypt.

God took what was low and humble, and made him great.  Such is the work of our God, to create life from nothing, to make hope out of despair.  And we, like the magicians and wise men, are powerless in these divine matters.  And we can sit in awestruck wonder, and sing vague songs about God’s majesty and awesome power and love and how it makes me feel and seek that experience and encounter with the divine in some sort of mystical union with God, or we can take heed and listen to the Word He gives us that HE is at work in your life for you in Christ, providing, protecting, and preserving your very life.  Not so that you can stand before Him as He is in His full Majesty and Divine power and Glory, but so that you can live here in this world, today, carrying the Cross as a disciple of Christ, taking Christ to the world.