Saturday, December 30, 2006

Rocky Balboa

After the fullness of the “Christmas weekend”, after the feasting in the three divine services and then Christmas dinner, things became very slow and we decided that we would go see a movie. We don’t do this very often, mostly because there are very few movies that we count as having any value. But “Rocky Balboa” sounded promising. So we went.

The Rocky movies have been very popular with people. Part way through the movie I leaned over to Stephanie and said, “You know that I hate boxing, but I love these movies.” She chuckled.

It’s true, boxing is a terrible thing, but Rocky represents what everyone desires deep down. Everyone wants to imagine that if he digs deeply enough into his internal reservoirs of strength that he can prevail against all that the world throws against him. We all want to believe that winning is about being willing to take the beatings and being willing to get up again after being knocked down hard.

In a certain sense, this is true. Yet not really. After all, in the end, we all will lose. Death gets us all in the end. No one can dig deeply enough to find the strength to beat death.

Rocky found this out when his beloved Adrian died. She was the one who stood by him through everything. She was the one who bolstered him when he gave up on himself. She was the one who stood up to him and confronted him when he was wrong. She was the one he could always count on.

That is, of course, until death stole her away. Now he had nothing left but memories. He became like an empty shell. His body still breathed, but his spirit had no power of life left.

I have often wondered what my reaction would be if my beloved wife should die. As we were driving home from the movie I told Stephanie that this movie made me realize that if she should precede me in death that I would experience the loss even more strongly than I ever even imagined. She is very much like my Adrian except for one thing: she does not direct me to pull myself up by my bootstraps when I am down. She directs me to the one true hero who never fails, the one true hero who actually defeated death. She often reminds me how important that I am to her because I am her pastor and her husband. But she is as St. Paul teaches husbands in Ephesians 5: my very own body, my flesh. This is an even more powerful thing for those who are truly equally yoked in the Lord.

Whenever Rocky kneels and makes the sign of the cross before a big fight, it tends to make me glad. For as a Christian it is good to see someone acknowledging the true source of victory. Yet, I always come away very sad, too, because I quickly remember that for Rocky and for most people who count themselves as Christians, the sign of the cross is more of a ritual than the source of victory. For most Christians the real battle is one that must be won by standing in whatever strength a person can muster on his own. The cross is more like a good luck charm to be used to help one get his focus back on winning.

The preaching of the cross is much, much more! The preaching of the cross is the means to victory itself. The preaching of the cross is God’s means of connecting us to the victory that He has already won for us. We don’t have to be strong. He is strong for us. In Him we have the strength that we need. In him we are MORE than conquerors as St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:37.
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

“We are more than conquerors.” This verb literally says “we are above or beyond the victory.”

In order for Rocky to regain his identity, to regain his sense of being OK, he had to go out and fight. He had to prove that he was still a fighter. When facing the trials of life, he had to get up and punch back. Then, when he could see himself in this way, then he felt strong and alive.

But St. Paul directs us to a strength that is beyond such views of ourselves. He says in Romans 8:36-37:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

The love of Christ gives us MORE than what winning can ever give. Winning merely sets us up to have to stand up and fight again until our strength finally fails us and we lose. Then what? No, the love of Christ gives us more than being victorious in our efforts. Through the victory that Christ won for us on account of His love for us, through Him the things against which we think that we must fight have no power over us. St. Paul declares to us that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword can separate us from the love of Christ, the love that brought Him from heaven to save us, to defeat all the powers that beat us down. The love of Christ gives us more than the power to be victorious over the trials of life. The love of Christ gives us the power to see that we don’t need to be victorious in order to be safe and alive. Our view of ourselves through our baptismal connection to Christ gives us the power to see goodness and hope even in what appears to be defeat. For after all, our greatest and final enemy, DEATH, was defeated by Christ giving up His spirit on the cross.

Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

I enjoyed “Rocky Balboa” because it did show that we should never give up but should always see the victory. I enjoyed it because it demonstrated how wonderful the gift of marriage is and reminded me how richly God has blessed me through my beloved Stephanie. I enjoyed it because it reminded me that in Christ I have much more than a victory, because in my Baptism I have been made to be more than a conqueror, for I have been given the power to know that I can face my own weaknesses without fear. In Christ my weaknesses have no power over me. In Christ I do not need to win. My victory has already been won for me. I am beyond being victorious. I can allow others to abuse me, to reject me, to do whatever to me, for nothing in this life can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Truly for us as Christians we can hear the Lord Jesus say, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Of course the world cannot understand this or embrace this. The world will mock us as even our own sinful nature mocks us for believing this. Yet the Truth will not fail us. We are "more than conquerors through the one loving us.”

The "Rocky" graphics for this post are from Rocky Balboa (2006)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Christmas Divorce

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. (Matthew 1:19 KJV)

What an amazing Christmas story!

Joseph was a man of justice. He was a just or righteous man. He thought that he had been wronged. More importantly, he thought that wrong had been done, wrong to which he could not be conjoined. All the evidence indicated that his bride had cheated on him. The Law of God gave him the right to put her away from him, that is, to divorce her.

But this was not the plan of a righteous man. A righteous man’s plan was to divorce her of the guilt of her sin. His plan was to deal with her privately and to put her away, or release her, privately.

This word for release is found in some other places in the New Testament Scriptures as well. Two other examples are found later in Matthew, in 18:27 and in 27:15.

Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

The lord loosed the indebted servant and Pilate released Barabbas. Joseph’s plan was to go to Mary privately and release her from her debt to him. He had no desire for self-vindication. He was a true Israelite and trusted in God’s forgiveness for himself. Therefore, having no burden to carry of his own, he was filled with God’s compassion and looked upon Mary with tender compassion himself.

Now as it turns out, Mary had no sinful relations with anyone and it was Jesus, the Savior, whom she bore in her womb. God the Holy Spirit had worked this miracle of bringing forth the promised Seed without the aid of a human sire. So Joseph received her as his wife, even as the Lord directed him through the angel.

This demonstrates a couple of wonderful examples of the righteousness that is by faith. First, Joseph was willing to stand firm in what was right without making himself Mary’s judge. He judged the situation according to the evidence and then set forth to act in accord with true faith. Faith moved him to forgive and to release Mary from her debt to him. His only desire was for her spiritual and temporal good. His plan was one of loving confrontation, the kind that our Lord describes in Matthew 18.

Secondly, Joseph was ready to hear the truth. When the angel corrected the misunderstanding regarding the circumstances, even though it was an impossible story (except for God), Joseph acknowledged the Truth and repented of his earlier plans. Moreover, faith moved Joseph to take upon himself the enormous burden of caring for the mother of the Lord, and even the Lord Himself. Joseph did not ask for any of this any more than Mary did. Yet when he heard the truth, he submitted to it and followed it.

So what began as an earthly divorce was transformed into a Christmas divorce. Joseph and Mary were married and through this the World and Sin became divorced. Joseph cared for Mary and Jesus for as long as Joseph lived. By then Jesus was a man and able to look after His mother. Jesus entered into His ministry at the appointed time, preached the Gospel and prepared His disciples for the ministry to come, and went to the cross and grave to finish the divorce from Sin. Now all the world is free to live by faith.

What an amazing Christmas story!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Reason for the Season

This time of year we hear many people expressing their concern that Christ has been removed from Christmas. In conjunction with this concern the catchy phrase "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" has been promulgated. Commercialism has been blamed as the cause of the sense of loss of meaning for the season of Christmas. Interestingly, many of these Christians who are so concerned about the materialism and commercialism of Christmas market and sell bumper stickers, tee shirts, and other paraphernalia with this slogan. "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" is promoted by TV and radio evangelists.

Until this year I never really identified what troubled me about this slogan. I often thought it was the judgmental and hypocritical attitudes that often accompany the use of the slogan. This year, however, I realized the real issue that troubled me.

This slogan is really terribly inaccurate. While Jesus is the reason for Christians to celebrate the season of Christmas, He is not the reason for the season. He is the cause or the source for the season, but He is not the reason. John 3:16 very clearly states the reason for the season, saying,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
So, according to the Holy Scriptures, and the very words of explanation that Jesus gave to Nicodemus, WE are the reason for the season. Jesus was born into the world for us. He came for our sake. He is the gift from the Father, given for our salvation. The real focus of the celebration of the nativity of our Lord is that He came to be sacrificed for us on the cross. The preaching of the season of Christmas is not the preaching of the birth of Jesus nearly so much as it is the preaching of Christ crucified for us.

Thus the real reason that the focus of Christmas has become lost can be understood from the perspective of the means of receiving Christ having been divorced from Christmas. For hardly anyone truly focuses upon the part of Christmas that forms the basis of the season, that is, the Mass. Christmas is about receiving Jesus for our salvation in the celebration of the Mass. If anything is to be blamed for taking Christ out of Christmas, it must be the separation from the right understanding of the Mass from the second chief festival of the Church year.

After all, how many Christians today even understand the Mass as Christ instituted it? Do not most Christians deny what Christ called the eating and drinking of the Holy Supper? Christ called it the New Testament in His blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins! How many people who celebrate Christmas actually take Christ at His word and come to receive His body and blood for their forgiveness as the primary focus of Christmas?

How many people who call themselves Christians actually spend their time telling the world that Jesus really did not know what He was talking about when He ordained that this Sacrament should be the main focus of His Church’s life? Is it any wonder that the Church has become so splintered that few people even believe that unity of doctrine and practice are genuinely possible? Christ gave this meal of Holy Communion to join us in Him as one body, living in the forgiveness that He was born to purchase with His life.

Truly, if we really want to "Put Christ back into Christmas," this is how it will be done. In fact, it is foolish even to speak of putting Christ back into Christmas, for Christmas is the means by which we receive Christ. In the Christ Mass Jesus gives us the very body and blood that Mary wrapped in the swaddling cloths and laid in the manger. In the Christ Mass He gives us the same body and blood that was nailed to the cross and then buried in the tomb and arose again on the third day and ascended to the right hand of power. This is the gift of John 3:16, and of Genesis 3:15-16. This is the reason that the angels sang "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

I believe that we can safely say that we are the reason for the season, we in our great need of a Savior provided by God. If we really understand this, then Christmas will be for us nothing other than Christ for us in the means that He has promised to come to us in our need. Christ cannot be taken out of Christmas. He is Christmas, for us.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Who Is the King of Glory?

During this season of Advent when Handel's Messiah, especially the "Hallelujah" Chorus, is much in use, it seems appropriate to ask the question that Handel so wonderfully presents and answers in this oratorio. The question and answer are provided throughout the work but particularly in the part that utilizes Psalm 24:7-10 :

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

The King of Glory is Jesus, the Lord of Hosts, who comes to His people to save them and the world from their sin. He is the omnipotent Creator of all that exists and the righteous Judge to whom all mankind and angels must answer. Yet He comes humbly as a little baby born of the virgin, Mary. He lives a humble life and gives His life as a ransom for those enslaved to sin, death, and the power of the devil. He continues to come in the most seemingly humble of means, the administration of the Word in preaching, Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Altar.

His name is well known throughout the world. Wherever Hollywood has gone, so has the name of Jesus. Movie goers the world over have heard His name used in the movies that they have paid dearly to watch. God, Jesus, Christ, even the newly fashioned Jesus H Christ (apparently from the symbol IHS) is used whenever a person wants to make the most emphatic statement of surprise or shock or fear or anger that can possibly be made. Truly, even though the use of His name is not from faith and holiness, it is nevertheless recognition that He is the King of Glory.

After all, what good is it to use the name of Allah or Buddha to make such a point of emphasis? Who will be impressed by use of these names or any other name. The names of certain other powerful kings have been used, especially of the English King George, where people have said, "By George."

But when people really want to make an impression and call attention to something, they use the name of the King of Glory.

Now, while those who actually believe in such entities as Allah and Buddha certainly do bring powerful destruction upon themselves and those who are so foolish as to be drawn into their doctrines and practices, these names carry no real power. Even the destruction that is wrought by the use of these names is purely by whatever puny humans cause. The followers of Allah, for example, are moved toward hatred and destruction both of themselves and of others. Yet never is Allah actually observed acting either in behalf of these worshipers of Muhammad, nor against Muhammad's enemies. Allah is always referred to by the followers of Muhammad as "Allah the Merciful," yet who has ever observed any act of mercy by Allah?

No, the King of Glory is the one who came from heaven, setting aside the use of His mighty power so as to take the sin of the world into His own body and die as a sinner for all the sinful world. He alone defines mercy. He alone shows true power. For in His death, death is destroyed. By His condemnation, condemnation is annihilated. In His resurrection, life is given for those who by their own actions have brought death to the world and to themselves.

Yes, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of mankind, He truly is the King of Glory from eternity. His glory shall endure forever and all who trust in Him shall share in it with Him, not by their own acts of glory or faithfulness, but by His alone. Grace, mercy, and peace are the results of what He works in people's hearts and souls. Who but the Triune God manifested in the person and work of Jesus could accomplish this? Truly He is the King of Glory.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Happy Anniversary

Yesterday Stephanie and I celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary. We each made cards for one another and I would like to share the cover of the card that she shared with me.

How blessed I am to have a wife, my very own body, to support me and complete me in this life. Such a wife who clings first to Christ crucified and then to the one to whom Christ has united her is a gift to be celebrated second only to the gift of life in Christ itself. Of course such a thing does not happen by accident. The Lord brought us together through circumstances that neither of us would have anticipated resulting in such a blessing. Neither of us were even looking or hoping for such a blessing.

Yet in bringing us together through those difficult times, the Lord showed us that He did indeed have someone for each of us, someone who shared the spiritual need and yearning for the pure life that is found only in Christ. This is the foundation that led us to realize that life together would indeed be a good thing.

We both were 32 years old. Neither expected marriage. Yet today we enter into our 15th year together. And we give thanks to God continually.

Yet it is not what we find good in ourselves that makes us happy, for we surely cause each other times of distress and disappointment. No, it is in knowing that whatever fault we find in ourselves and each other is reconciled in Christ crucified. It is in His grace, mercy, and peace that we find ourselves drawn back to one another to be reconciled by His forgiveness.

This is why even in the times that I have felt weak and have thought of throwing in the towel in the arena of fighting the good fight of faith that my dear bride has bolstered me and reminded me that surrender is not an option. There have been many times that I have asked her whether she would have me stop holding the services in our home and simply to seek a pastor and congregation where we could simply be members. She responds, "I'm not going back to where I come home empty or with even less than I started out with. You can't do that. If you quit, where will we receive the pure Gospel that we need? If you quit, I'll have no place to worship."

How could I ever have hoped to find such a wife for myself? How can I not rejoice in God's goodness manifested through my dear bride?

This is not to say that we never disagree. We surely face challenges, even when speaking of Christ. Yet in asking, "What do the Scriptures actually say?" and "Does this direct us to rely solely upon Christ crucified?" we always come to agreement. Most often we find ourselves saying to one another, "Oh wow! I never saw that before!" It really does not matter which of us brings forth the new treasure from God's storehouse. What matters is that it truly is in accord with the entire counsel of God and directs our hearts to rely more fully upon Christ crucified and the life that is in Him.

So, Stephanie and I embark upon another year of God's goodness, and we do so united as one in Him in His body and then also united as one by Him in our body.

Thank you for sharing in our joy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Abraham the Defender of Others

Abraham, then still Abram, was seventy-five years old when in obedience to the Word of the Lord he departed for the land to which the Lord had called him. He traveled to a new land, a land unknown to him, a land entirely foreign to him and his people. He lived in this land for one hundred years among the peoples who lived there, peoples of war and fighting. Yet during his one hundred years in this land only one account of fighting is recorded of this man of faith.

Early in Abram's wanderings in the new land his brother's son, Lot, was taken captive along with all his family and possessions, along with the five city-states where Lot lived. This action was made by a band of four warring kings who had conquered and ruled over multiple nations. Yet when Abram heard of his nephew's demise and the demise of his neighbors, Abram gathered his three hundred eighteen trained men and chased down the conquering army and triumphed over them. He brought his nephew and all the other people and possessions back to their homes, keeping nothing for himself, giving a tithe to the priest, Melchizedek.

Yet this is the only account of Abraham ever fighting. He had plenty of occasions for defending himself, but never is such a thing recorded about him. Only on this occasion of defending others are we told anything about this man of faith ever fighting. This father in the faith gave freely of himself, enduring wrong from others, defending those who needed help, but without vengeance or defense of himself.

This certainly reminds a person of the Prince of Peace who came to be sacrificed for others, who never raised a hand against anyone except to defend the saints who were being taken captives by those who turned the temple into a den of thieves. Twice He drove out these wicked men so that the people could worship in safety. Yet in defense of Himself He spoke and did nothing, enduring all the evil that was directed at Him. Finally He defeated all hatred and evil once and for all, by giving Himself to be abused and condemned and crucified. His life was offered for all, even those who made themselves His enemies. This is our Advent King, who comes to us with His life of peace in order to restore us to His peace. Peace with God is our inheritance. Peace with all is the fruit of faith, peace that is born in us by that faith. By God's grace, may this indeed be the record of our lives as we journey through this land of warring and fighting people, until our Lord brings us safely home.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Lord's Prayer

During my daily walk with the Lord I spend considerable time pondering the prayer that I utilize the most, the one that we call the "Lord's Prayer". Actually, the Invocation is the prayer that I use the most, in connection with every prayer, but the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father is the longer form of the Invocation. Dear Dr. Luther teaches us to use this prayer given to us by the Lord Himself in connection with nearly all of our prayers. He suggests using it with our morning and evening prayers, with our mealtime prayers, with our prayers of confession of sins, with our prayers of confession of faith.

This is after all the prayer that the Lord Jesus gave us as the one by which we know how to pray. We have two accountings of the gift of this prayer, one in Matthew 6 and the other in Luke 11. Matthew records that the Lord says, "You all's Father has known what needs you all have, before of yourselves you asked Him. In this way, therefore, pray, all of you." Luke simply records that Jesus says, "Whenever you pray, say: . . ."

Can the Lord put it any more plainly or more simply? This is the prayer that we are to pray. It may be used with more or less words, depending upon our circumstances, but this is our prayer. This is the prayer that we are to be praying continually. Thus it seems appropriate that we should be pondering its form and substance continually. Truly there is much for us to learn about true prayer.

We call it the Lord's prayer, because He gave it to us. It is His prayer because it originates with Him as His gift to us. He speaks the prayer to us so that we have a true prayer to speak to Him. He tells us His will so that we may pray confidently the will that He has revealed to us in His own holy words. Since it is His prayer given to us for us to pray, we may indeed pray with absolute confidence.

Thus we find that even though this prayer has seven petitions, there is not a question or request included in the prayer. Each petition is a statement of fact, a statement of what God Himself has declared His holy will to be for His children. Thus we are not taught to say "please" in praying God's will, but to pray as though we believe it is already granted from eternity, from before the existence of time, from before we even realize that we have need to pray. Thus our Lord teaches us that we do not receive because we pray, but that we pray as we become aware of what we receive. We ask, knowing that our Gracious God has already granted it, even before our hearts knew to ask. Nevertheless God commands us to ask so that in receiving we learn to know God's loving attitude toward us.

We also learn in this prayer that it is OUR prayer. Prayer is not the possession of an individual to use apart from God's purposes. It is not a matter of individual request. The prayer is ours as God's family and so our Lord teaches us to pray "Our Father."

Notice that from this perspective it is not Jesus' prayer, for He Himself never prayed it. Jesus never prayed "our Father." He always prayed as the only-begotten Son from eternity. God is His Father, first. Then, in connection with Him as we are conjoined to Him into His body through Baptism His Father is also declared to be our Father. We do not come to the Father on our own, but always in connection with Jesus. We come as those who have been regenerated as members of His body. Thus God is OUR Father and we pray as one in Christ. When any one Christian prays in accord with Jesus' name, that Christian prays with all the saints of all places and all times. No matter where or when we pray, we all pray the same prayer. This is true if we pray in true communion with Christ in His body joined to Him by His saving name. If we truly are praying in the name of Jesus, we are praying as He teaches us in this perfect prayer from eternity. Such praying is never selfish or self-serving.

Therefore we begin by acknowledging our mutual dependence upon God as our Father. We pray for His holy name to be holy in our lives as we grow in the holy communion of the saints, becoming evermore aware of God's holiness and the gift of sanctification imparted in the one Baptism in concert with the one Faith. Thus we rely not upon our own faith but the faith, the one true faith in which the Holy Spirit unites us in the one true Church. Together we are and pray as the una sancta. If we truly are praying in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit then we share in one universal prayer that is founded upon God's pure and holy will. The next two petitions reiterate and emphasize these very points. Then we pray in acknowledgement that the things about which our sinful hearts worry and fret, selfishly trying to hoard for ourselves, have already been appointed to us by our Father in heaven. We acknowledge that our bread and needs are supplied to us each day according to what our Father knows that we need. Rather than worrying, when we pray together according to our Lord's Prayer, we rejoice in His providence and join in continual thanksgiving. Naturally, as we pray and come to know God's goodness to us more and more fully, we are moved to be gracious and generous with one another as well. And so what our Father provides to one He provides to all. This is especially true regarding forgiveness. In Christ we know beyond any doubt that our Father desires to forgive us and to make His forgiveness the basis of our daily living. So we pray with full expectation that God forgive us our sins even as this forgiveness changes our hearts so that we will forgive those who do wrong to us. Next we pray that by the Holy Spirit's leading that we will not follow the way of temptation. While temptations will surely surround us throughout our daily journey, these temptations will have no power over us. Our hearts and minds will be fixed on things above and not on the earth and so we will not be led into temptation by our sinful nature. Finally we pray God's clearly revealed will that we are delivered from evil. Through the suffering and death of Christ evil has been overcome. As long as the Holy Spirit keeps us in the one true faith, the evil one has no power to harm us. We are safe, even as this prayer teaches us to believe. After all, the kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to our heavenly Father. Why on earth should we have doubt concerning anything?

Truly this is the one prayer worthy of being called the Lord's Prayer. Certainly there can be only one thing better than having this prayer given to us for our possession, and that one thing is that we should actually use it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Remember the Alamo!

Last night we watched a rented video entitled "The Alamo." It is another accounting of that famous battle for the land mass now known as Texas. To the Texans, or Texians, as they referred to themselves in the movie, it was a fight for freedom from tyranny and for a new chance in life. In the bonus material with various commentaries the director of the movie shared some information about the people portrayed in the movie. Of them he stated that they were people who had been driven out of other places as unwanted or people who had failed in some way, all of whom were looking for a new start or to be reborn. He added that what they seem to have forgotten is that in order to be reborn they must first die.

This naturally caught my attention and as I looked at my wife she heard it as well. I commented, "I wonder whether he even knows what he just said." Unlikely. Nevertheless, we both heard it in its greater context. While the director was speaking of worldly rebirth, the language was that of baptismal rebirth. Moreover, the director's comment very forthrightly depicts what many if not most Christians forget: that to be reborn, a person first must die.

Of course, this is impossible for us to accomplish. But as the Lord wondrously proclaimed, "With God, all things are possible." Not only is this miracle possible with God, but He promises to fulfill it and He does. Baptism is the rebirth of dying to sin and being reborn to the life that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus proclaims it various times and His apostles repeat it emphatically. The rebirth is a once for all time event that carries forward throughout a person's life. God works the death of the sinner and raises up to new life the saint. Through daily remembrance of this miracle worked by the Holy Spirit, the new saint daily mortifies the old sinful nature through confession and reception of God's absolution, repenting of his own actions and trusting God's good and gracious promise and actions. The effects of a person's baptism are ongoing. They continue throughout every moment of every day of the person's life. This is true as long as the person continues in the faith and new life into which he has been baptized.

However, not all who confess Christ believe that Baptism is God's work. Instead, many count Baptism as something that they do toward God, rather than something that God works toward the individual. Then, instead of being a life-giving fountain, Baptism is transformed in the person's own imagination into an initiation into a life of seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness by pursuing various good works. These works include such things as: deciding to follow Jesus; accepting Jesus into one's life; committing one's life to Jesus; making Christ the center of one's life; believing in Jesus. When these things are transformed into one's own works rather than the works of the Holy Spirit that manifest themselves in the person's life, the person loses the new life of freedom that God graciously works in Baptism. The person trades one form of deception for yet another deception so that God's means of grace are merely symbolic tokens of what the person must really do for himself.

The Gospel is about freedom, freedom to live in the new life that Christ purchased for all. God promises that this new life is a life of faith, faith worked by the Holy Spirit. Thus those who through Baptism are crucified with Christ do not need to seek God's righteousness by anything that they do for themselves. God has already worked His righteousness in the person. The new life is already the possession of that person. Therefore the goodness that the person seeks is not his own goodness, but God's goodness. This truly is a rebirth or regeneration for the struggling sinner. Then hope is more than wishful thinking. The person no longer needs to wish that he were a better person. In Christ he IS perfect, even as the Father in heaven is perfect, for God has declared it in connection with Baptism. What God declares IS. The person can depend upon it.

But as the director of "The Alamo" reflected, people tend to forget that in order to be reborn that they first must die. If we cling to the old way of being righteous by our own works, we have not died. We cannot live in communion with the world and in communion with the kingdom of God simultaneously. Either we are dead to the world or we are dead to God. This is a matter of trust. This is a matter of who or what our true God is. Do we rely upon being joined in holy communion with God in Christ crucified as our confidence, or do we in some way still rely upon our own efforts and/or some other person, thing, or group?

The way of rebirth unto new life is in Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In Him we are free to live as God's beloved children, free from doubt and fear and condemnation. This is what Jesus was born to accomplish for us. He completed His mission. It is finished. He has gone ahead of us to the right hand of power to prepare our heavenly home for us.

This is the focus of the season of Advent. What a gloriously beautiful vision we behold!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Dear Santa

The cold weather in conjuction with the increased cost of heating one's home, certainly makes a person reflect upon the value of receiving a lump of coal as a gift!

However, it also makes a person glad to know that the Lord is not like the false portrayal of Santa. Truly the Lord, the author and provider of Christmas and of all good things, does indeed know who has been good and bad. That, in fact, is the very reason for Christmas.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3:16-21 KJV)

Truly, the Lord is our loving Father. He provides for us despite the fact that we deserve nothing but His wrath and punishment both now and forevermore. Yet in His loving-kindness, in His compassionate mercy, He showers His gifts upon us daily, even though we take the credit rather than giving Him thanks. He looks upon us and sees our bad deeds that we choose to count as good, and He calls us to look to His gift of salvation, which is in Christ Jesus. In Christ, not only do we receive all good things, but we are also declared to be good, even as our Father is good.

So, as I sit down to pay my electric bill and my gas bill, I will pause from my moaning and groaning to remember that my ability to pay these is from the Lord. More importantly, I will remember that the suffering that the cold brings to my awareness is a reminder of the suffering that my Lord bore for me in my place so that my reward would be everlasting peace and joy, credited to me on His account. For He was good for me so that even as I am connected to Him through my baptism, so I also am counted to be a good son of His Father, whom through Jesus, I also dare call my Father. I am free to do this because for Christ's sake, God calls me His son.