Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Reformation - Martin Luther's Last Sermon

Sermon used by Dennis Evans on Sunday, October 15, 2017, in preparation for the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day, under the title: “Reformation – Martin Luther’s Last Sermon; February 15, 1546”
The Last Sermon, Preached in Eisleben,
Matt. 11:25–30, February 15, 1546
On the Saturday following the preceding sermon Luther set out for Mansfeld to mediate a dispute between Count Albert and Count Gebhard. Most likely his last sermon was preached on Monday, February 15, not on February 14, to a large crowd which gathered from all over the countryside to hear him. On the day afterward, while confined to his bed, he signed the treaty between the brothers, on the eighteenth he died, and on the twenty-second his body was buried in Wittenberg. The last four sermons, preached in Eisleben, were published in Wittenberg, 1546. Who the transcriber was cannot be determined.
Original Text in German; WA 51, 187–194.
(MY NOTE: The additions or changes within the brackets, in this edited version, are mine, except for “Predigtampf”.)
This is a fine Gospel and it has a lot in it. Let us talk about part of it now, covering as much as we can and as God gives us grace.
Walking around Crab Creek, Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
September 2017
The Lord here praises and extols his heavenly Father for having hidden these things from the wise and understanding. That is, he did not make his gospel known to the wise and understanding, but to infants and children who cannot speak and preach and are not knowing and wise.
Thus, he indicates that he is opposed to the wise and understanding. He dearly loves those who are not wise and understanding, but are rather like young children.
…To the world this is very foolish and offensive, that God should be opposed to the wise and condemn them, when, after all, we have the idea that God could not reign if he did not have wise and understanding people to help him. But the meaning of the saying is this: the wise and understanding in the world so contrive things that God cannot be favorable and good to them.
 [They think they know better,] for they are always exerting themselves. They do things in the Christian church the way they want to, themselves. Everything that God does they must improve, so that there is no poorer, more insignificant and despised disciple on earth than God. God must be everybody’s pupil, everybody wants to be his teacher and preceptor.
…They cannot let things be as they were ordained to be. They think they have to do something too, in order that they may be a bit better than other people and be able to boast: “[Here] is what I have done; what God has done is too poor and insignificant, even childish and foolish; I must add something to it.”
This is the nature of the shameful wisdom of the world, especially in the Christian church. One bishop and one pastor hacks and snaps at another, and one obstructs and shoves the other. We have seen this at all times in the government of the church to its great detriment.
These are the real wiseacres, of whom Christ is speaking here, who put the cart before the horse and will not stay on the road which God himself has shown us, but always have to have and do something special in order that the people may say: “Ah, our pastor or preacher is nothing. There’s the real man, he’ll get things done!”
But is this behavior not a disgusting thing, and should not God grow impatient with it? Should he be so greatly pleased with these fellows who are all too smart and wise for him, and are always wanting to send him back to school? As it says [in the parallel in Luke]: “Wisdom must be justified by her own children” (Luke 7:35
Things are in a fine state, indeed, when the egg wants to be wiser than the hen. A fine governance it must be when the children want to rule their father and mother, and the fools and simpletons [rule] the wise people. You see, this is the reason why the wise and understanding are condemned everywhere in the Scriptures.
The pope has also done the same thing. For example, when Christ established and instituted the ministry [Predigtamt] and the sacrament of his body and blood in order that Christians should use it to strengthen and fortify their faith, the pope cried: “No, that’s not the way it should be; it must be wisely handled!” For the pope’s decree says that, when the priest reads the mass for the living or the dead it must be a sacrifice [that purchases a product].
For example, when a merchant is about to go on a journey, he should first have a mass read for him, and then it will turn out fortunately for him.
…So it is, with our Lord God in the world; whatever he institutes and ordains must always be not only perverted but also reviled and discredited by the devil and his followers. And then the world even thinks that God should be pleased and look with approval upon the fact that every fool wants to master and rule him.
In worldly affairs and government, the same thing happens, as Aristotle too has written. A few people are often endowed with great wisdom and understanding, unlike ordinary people. Often God gives us a fine, noble, intelligent man, who could serve principalities and people with wisdom and counsel. But such persons flee from the business of government, and it is hard to bring them to govern.
On the other hand, however, there are others who want to be and to do it, but they have no ability. [And yet, they do it anyway.] In worldly government, these are [the] jackanapes and wiseacres. These fellows [get it all wrong] and we are quite rightly hostile to them. Everybody mourns the fact that we can never be safe from these fools. They are good for nothing and they do nothing but put flies in the ointment.
That’s why the people say of them: The devil has slobbered us with fools.1 And Aristotle,2 who observed in governments that few people are properly qualified to govern, makes a distinction between the truly wise and understanding and others whom he calls… the wise who only think they are wise and understanding; just as we say in German: “Conceit keeps the dance going.”
They imagine that because they are in the government and are higher-ups they must surely be wise. And one such fool in counsel hinders the others from getting on with anything at all; for he wants to be wise by force, in the devil’s name, and still he is a fool.
Now, if in worldly affairs one is quite rightly opposed to these people who want to be wise and are not. [It’s much worse with those], whom both God and men rightly dislike, who want to be wise in the holy Christian church and are not. For these people hinder the ministry, so that the people cannot come to God….
…So, the pope, too, wants to be a very wise man, indeed, the wisest of the wise, simply because he has a high position and claims to be the head of the church; whereupon the devil so puffs him up that he imagines that whatever he says and does is pure divine wisdom and everybody must accept and obey it, and nobody should ask whether it is God’s Word or not. In his big fool’s book,4 he presumes quite shamelessly to say that it is not likely that such an eminence, meaning himself, could err. So, too, the emperor, kings, and cardinals; because they sit in such high places, they too think they cannot err or be wrong….
…It sounds almost as if, when Christ spoke these words: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven,” etc. (Matt. 11:25), they were spoken with ill will. And yet there was no ill will or hatred in his heart; for, since he gave himself, body and life, for us, how could there be any ill will there?
…His annoyance and displeasure comes from the fact that these miserable, foolish people presume to become masters of the divine Majesty. This he cannot and should not tolerate, and all devout hearts thank him for it, for otherwise there would be no end to this affected wisdom and mastery.…
…Here we ought to say: “Dear heavenly Father, speak thou, I am willing to be a fool and a child and be silent; for if I were to rule with my own understanding, wisdom, and reason, the cart would long since have been stuck in the mire and the ship would long since have been wrecked. Therefore, dear God, do thou rule and guide it thyself; I will gladly put out my eyes, and my reason besides, and let thee alone rule through thy Word.”
…Likewise, the hearers also should say: “I do not believe in my pastor, but he tells me of another Lord, whose name is Christ; him he shows to me; I will listen to him, in so far as he leads me to the true Teacher and Master, God’s Son.”
Then things would be right in the church and it would be well governed, and there would be harmony all around. Otherwise there will be the same displeasure as there is in secular government….
…Therefore, this is what we say: “I grant that emperor, pope, cardinals, princes, and nobles are wise and understanding, but I shall believe in Christ; he is my Lord, he is the one God bids me to listen to, from him he bids me to learn what real, divine wisdom and understanding is.”
…The Lord says: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:25)….
…The Lord, who is the only one we ought to hear in these matters, says: “No one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). [That means] to the childlike and simple, who consider themselves neither wise nor understanding, but rather hear and accept his Word. So, if it is his Word you hold up to me and command, I shall gladly accept it, even though it be spoken by a little child, or even the ass [or donkey] that spoke to Balaam (Num. 22:21–30)….
…Our wisdom and understanding in divine things is the eye which the devil opened for us in paradise, when Adam and Eve, too, wanted to be wise in the devil’s name. God himself taught them and gave them his Word, which they were to adhere to, if they wanted to be really wise. Then came the devil and made improvements; he closed the eyes with which they had previously seen God and not seen the devil. This is the plague which still continues to cling to us—that we want to be wise and understanding in the devil’s name.
But to combat this we must learn what this means: “All things have been delivered to me.” In other words: [Jesus] must rule, teach, counsel, give orders, and command in [his] church. And when he said that, Christ openly confessed that he is true God; for no angel nor any other creature can say that all things have been delivered to him.
It is true that the devil once tried to seat himself on the throne and be like God; but he was soon flung out of heaven for it. Therefore, Christ says, “All things have been delivered to me,” that is, “to me, to me, you must be obedient. If you have my Word, then stick to it, and pay no attention to anybody who teaches and commands you differently. I will rule, protect, and save you well.”
…God has set his Son at his right hand and said in Psalm 2:7, “You are my son”; I have made the whole world and all nations your possession; hear him, you kings and lords, if you would be wise; do homage to [Jesus] as your Lord; and know that what he says to you I am saying to you.
This we Christians should learn and acknowledge, even though the world does not want to do it. We should be grateful to God that he has so richly blessed us and granted that we ourselves are able to hear him, just as Christ himself here gives joyful thanks to his heavenly Father.
In times past, we would have run to the ends of the world if we had known of a place where we could have heard God speak. But now…. Father and mother and children sing and speak of [Him]. The preacher speaks of [him] in the parish church—you ought to lift up your hands and rejoice that we have been given the honor of hearing God speaking to us through his Word.
“Oh”, people say, “what is that? After all, there is preaching every day, often many times every day, so that we soon grow weary of it. What do we get out of it?”
All right, go ahead, dear brother, if you don’t want God to speak to you every day at home in your house, and in your parish church, then be wise and look [somewhere] else. [Go on pilgrimages to look at the relics.] In Trier is our Lord God’s coat, in Aachen are Joseph’s pants and our blessed Lady’s chemise.
Go there and squander your money. Buy indulgences and the pope’s secondhand junk. These are valuable things! You have to go far for these things and spend a lot of money….
…[No, instead] we should listen to God’s Word, which tells us that he is our schoolmaster, and have nothing to do with Joseph’s pants….
This is the first point in this Gospel—that Christ and God the Father, himself, are opposed to the wise and understanding….
…When, therefore, the great lords, the emperor, pope, cardinals, and bishops are hostile and wrathful toward us because of all this, excommunicate us, and would gladly burn and murder us all, we must suffer it and say: “We did not start this on account of the pope, the bishops, and the princes, nor shall we stop it on account of them.” Christ says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden” [Matt. 11:28],
…It is as though he were saying: “Just stick to me, hold on to my Word and let everything else go. If you are burned and beheaded for it, then have patience, I will make it so sweet for you that you easily would be able to bear it.”
It has… been written of St. Agnes5 that when she was led to prison to be killed, it was to her as if she were going to a dance. Where did she get this? Ah, only from this Christ, from believing this saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” That is to say: “If things go badly, I will give you the courage even to laugh about it; and if even though you walk on fiery coals, the torment shall nevertheless not be so severe and the devil shall nevertheless not be so bad, and you will rather feel that you are walking on roses.6 I will give you the heart to laugh even though Turk, pope, emperor, and everybody else be filled with horrible wrath and rage. Only come to me; and if you are facing oppression, death, or torture, because the pope, the Turk, and emperor are attacking you, do not be afraid; it will not be heavy for you, but light and easy to bear, for I give you the Spirit, so that the burden, which for the world would be unbearable, becomes for you a light burden. For when you suffer for my sake, it is my yoke and my burden, which I lay upon you in grace, that you may know that this your suffering is well pleasing to God and to me and that I myself am helping you to carry it and giving you power and strength to do so.”
So also say Psalm 31 (:24) and Psalm 27 (:14): “Let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord,” i.e., all you who suffer for his sake.
Let misfortune, sin, death, and whatever the devil and the world loads upon you assail and assault you, if only you remain confident and undismayed, waiting upon the Lord in faith, you have already won, you have already escaped death and far surpassed the devil and the world.
Lo, this means that the wise of this world are rejected, that we may learn not to think ourselves wise and to put away from our eyes all great personages, indeed, to shut our eyes altogether, and cling only to Christ’s Word and come to him, as he so lovingly invites us to do, and say: “Thou alone art my beloved Lord and Master, I am thy disciple.”
This and much more might be said concerning this Gospel, but I am too weak and we shall let it go at that.[1]

WA D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, 1883– ).
1 Hat uns der Teufel mit Narren beschiessen.
2 Luther may have had in mind Aristotle’s reference to epistēmē and doxa in Nichomachean Ethics, VI, 10; cf. WA 51, Nachträge und Berichtigungen.
4 I.e., the papal decretals, part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici.
5 St. Agnes who died ca. 304 is commemorated in the Roman church on January 21 and 28.
6 The allusion is to St. Vincentius, early Christian martyr who was laid on fiery coals, etc.
[1]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 51 : Sermons I. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1959 (Luther's Works 51), S. 51:383 (Edited 2017 by Dennis Evans for use in his pulpit to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reformation - Faith Alone from God Alone

Preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017

Scripture reading: Rom. 3:21-26; Luke 18:9-14

A man was on his way home from work, and he stopped at a florist’s shop. He went to the roses, and picked up a dozen of them, and he took them to the clerk at the cash register. She asked him, “Are these for your wife, Sir?”  “Yes, they are!” “For her birthday?”  “Nope.” “For your anniversary?” “Nope!” And as he headed for the door, she called after him, “I hope she forgives you!” (Reader’s Digest, Jan. 96, p. 59)
Walks around home and Crab Creek
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
August-September 2017
The word forgiveness is not in the verses we have read. But there is the issue of how we can stand before God when we have gone wrong: and we have all gone wrong.
Perhaps most people in our society would just smile, if we bring this up, and say that we shouldn’t worry our little heads about this. They have learned some famous words from the New Testament, and they will say that, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), and they know that, since God is love, that God will smooth over any and all difficulties, and they don’t have to do anything.
We can answer back and say, “Yes, you are right. God has done something to give us peace and confidence in the way we share our life with God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified (set right) freely, by his grace, (his beautiful, undeserved love) through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 3:23-24)
And they might say, “Whoa now! Don’t bring up this sin stuff. I’m not a sinner. And why would Jesus have to die for me, I’m not that bad. I haven’t killed anybody.” (You know, some people have really given me the fact that they haven’t killed anybody as proof that they’re not sinners.) They probably mean: “What I have done doesn’t matter that much to God.” 
Later, I’m going to tell you a little bit more about the meaning of the word sin. For now, in Paul’s common Greek (hamartia), it was a word from the sport of archery. Sin is a kind of missing the mark, missing the bull’s eye. It’s overshooting, undershooting, missing off to the left, missing off to the right.
I have known only two people in my life who were not sinners.
One was a guy who lived in the town where I served my first church. I can see his face, but I can’t remember his name. Let’s call him Bob. I knew Bob for five years through the Lions Club. I had gone over to him and his wife’s house for a visit, and I must have been talking about why Christ came and died.
When they know you’re a pastor, people talk about themselves and God. They bring this up even when they don’t believe in anything at all. I guess they think they’re supposed to.
Anyway, all of a sudden, Bob said, “I’m not a sinner!” And I said, “Well, we’re all sinners. We all go wrong!” And Bob said, “You might be a sinner, but I’m not.” 
I never called him a sinner, in the first place, but he got really steamed about it. Now it so happens that, even if Bob wasn’t a sinner, he was still a stubborn, egotistical, hard-nosed, hard-drinking, loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, belligerent man, and, if you disagreed with him, he would tell you that you were just plain stupid. Aside from that, I really liked the guy. He was a lot of fun, but I was glad I never had to spend more than an hour or two at a time with him.
The other person who wasn’t a sinner, was a woman named Orleana. She never told me this about herself, because she clearly believed that she was a sinner. But, once, I was visiting her husband Ken when she wasn’t around, and he was the one who told me that she wasn’t a sinner. 
We were talking about Jesus on the cross, and about Jesus rising from the dead, and we were talking about heaven, because Ken was dying of cancer, and Orleana had told me that Ken had never really committed his life to Christ. She was concerned about this.
I told Ken, “Orleana believes this.”  And Ken said, “My wife is not a sinner. She’s a wonderful woman. She couldn’t be any better, and I wouldn’t want her to be any different. I don’t know why she has to go and believe that she’s a sinner.”
Ken believed that Orleana’s faith had burdened her with an attitude of unworthiness, or a guilt, that she didn’t deserve. What could such a sweet woman ever do to feel that she needed to be forgiven?
I had to admit that even her faults were endearing. This was simply true. Ken was right about that. I wasn’t sure what to say about his idea that she would be better off, emotionally, if she didn’t accept what the Bible teaches about sin and human nature. 
I can’t remember how that conversation ended, except I told Ken that Orleana’s faith was the very thing that had made her the woman he loved. I never saw an unhealthy guilt in Orleana. I only saw a woman with great love, patience, gentleness, generosity, and strength, and faith.
Orleana had a tender conscience because she had a sense of the Lord’s glory. She had a powerful sense of the Lord’s holiness and perfection. Glory, holiness, and perfection can seem frightening or, at least, off-putting. Well, when certain people seem to be full of their own glory, holiness, and perfection they are definitely off-putting.
If we meet God, as he truly is, we find that his glory, holiness, and perfection all work hand in hand with his love. Perhaps the power of God’s love takes God’s glory, and holiness, and perfection by the hand and makes them beautiful, and desirable, and powerful in their ability to humble us and (surprisingly) to make humility absolutely beautiful and desirable to us. It’s love that has the most power to make us truly like Jesus, and not be off-putting.
Paul says something like this in his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “And we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Cor. 3:18)
It is true that we don’t feel very glorious. But what if the beautiful things we see in Jesus, the plain humble things we see in Jesus, in the gospels, are exactly the glory he wants to give us? Imagine for a moment that being lovingly truthful is glorious. Imagine that forgiveness is glorious. Imagine that a strong sense of justice and fairness is glorious. Imagine that using your life to serve others in any way is glorious. Imagine that compassion is glorious.
We see how glorious all of these things are in Jesus. Seeing him, we also can see how far we miss the mark. This makes our consciences tender. We know what we are not giving. We know what we are not doing. We know how what we say, and what we do, often accomplishes exactly the opposite of what Jesus is working for.
But why set ourselves up for this frustration and this sense of failure, by setting our sights so high? And, why should God care if we are not like Jesus?
When we meet God, in Christ, we begin to care, because we know how great this goal is. We know that this is what God created us for. We know how much is lost in a world like ours, where all the billions of missed targets add up to such great pains, and sorrows, and evils. The glory of God, the beauty of the Lord’s goodness, is what helps us understand sin.
Orleana loved the Lord. She knew how great the Lord is. She knew she needed him, but she also trusted the Lord’s great love for her.
I know what Ken was afraid of. I once saw what he was afraid of. I saw it in a little girl.
Once I was at a church picnic, and I was talking to this girl. She was about ten years old. She was being raised by her grandparents. I can’t remember why that was.
She was a serious and religious child: really much too serious. She had been reading some good stuff in the Bible, about the creation, in the first two chapters of Genesis. She asked me, “Do you know what God made us out of?”  And I said, “Yes, God made us out of dust.  And that means we are made of the same things everything else is made of.” And she said, “No, it means we’re dirt.” And I said, “But, do you know what the dirt is made of?” And she said, “It’s made of mud and worms.”
And I said, “Don’t you know what the mud and the worms are made of? They’re made of rocks, and roots, and trees, and grass, and lots of other living things. And everything they are made of comes from up in the sky, where you can look up and see the stars at night. You are made of the same stuff the stars are made of.” And she said, “No, we’re dirt.” I looked into her eyes and saw that, somehow, this little girl had taken to heart a great and sad distortion of herself, in the guise of the Christian faith.
Paul said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace...” (Romans 3:23-24) To be justified, or set right, by God is to become a sinner living in the presence of glory. There, in a single sentence written by Paul, Sin and Glory come together when God has bridged the gap. 
I have told you about three people. Each one had a different way of thinking about sin and glory.  Bob had no use for either one. The little girl, sadly (really sadly), had no sense of beauty and glory. Orleana showed an awareness of both sin and glory: her own sin and God’s great glory. Because of this, she knew that part of God’s glory was his way of loving her just as she was, and making his glory a part of her.
I believe that the good news of Jesus tells us that every bit of human goodness is a gift. It is not a human achievement, but a gift from God. It is, in some way, a partnership with God, but, most of all, goodness is simply a gift from God. Just as life, itself, is a gift from God.
I don’t think that many people want goodness or righteousness to be given to them from the outside. They don’t want the goodness in them to come, not from themselves, but to come from someone else. Maybe they have a hard time believing it’s possible (or even fair) to be given someone else’s goodness. They don’t want to be dependent or in debt to another, not even to God.
In Jesus’ parable of the two men praying in the Temple (the Pharisee and the tax collector) something in our heart really wants to be the Pharisee. But the true goodness comes to us only when we pray: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
The Lord gives us goodness through the cross, and so we are, “justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” (Romans 3:24-25)
The sacrifice of atonement means that God makes peace with us: and even makes himself one with us. Knowing Jesus means knowing God as our friend. Redemption means being bought and being set free from slavery, Jesus Christ is God breaking the power of sin over us, and in us.
God justifies us. This means that God, our judge, acquits us. He doesn’t make excuses for us, but God pardons the guilty, he treats us just as if we had never gone wrong.
We don’t work for his love, as Christians. We begin with his love. Martin Luther rediscovered the ancient truth of the Bible. Only a few months after Luther nailed the Ninety Five Theses (or the points of argument about the selling of indulgences), back in the year, 1517, he wrote, a few months later, another set of points for debate to be argued in the city of Heidelberg. One of his points was this: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it…. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.” (Thesis #28 of the “Heidelberg Disputation”; “Luther’s Works”, 31:57) Our life, in which we are born again as a child of God, begins with God’s love alone.
And we keep beginning with his love every day of our lives. Jesus died on the cross to give us this love, this freedom, this friendship, as a gift: a pure gift. And faith means receiving this gift from the Lord, like a little child who receives everything from his or her parents. We receive this gift of God just as a child receives life from his or her parents.
Martin Luther put it this way: “This is wonderful news, to believe that salvation lies outside ourselves.  I am justified and acceptable to God, although there are in me sin, unrighteousness, and horror of death.  Yet I must look elsewhere and see no sin.  This is wonderful, not to see what I see, not to feel what I feel.  Before my eyes I see a [coin], or a sword, or a fire, and I must say, “there is no [coin], no sword, no fire.” The forgiveness of sins is like this.” (Martin Luther, quoted in “Here I Stand”, by Roland Bainton, Chapter 13, p. 178)

This is the kind of grace and faith that will reform any church and its people. This kind of grace and faith will reach out to others, and change the world, and point to the coming kingdom of God.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Christ - A Place for All People

Preached on World Communion Sunday, October 1, 2017

Scripture reading: Revelation 5:1-14

Once there was a mother who had had a bad day and all seemed to be her children’s fault. They were going crazy.
Tall Timber Ranch
Above Leavenworth WA
September, 2017
It so happened that the mother’s birthday was coming up. Her kids suddenly thought of this, and they asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She felt inspired, and she said: “What I want for my birthday is three well behaved children.”
The littlest one burst out: “That’d be fun! Then there’d be six of us!”
The Book of Revelation is a series of prophetic pictures showing the birthday of a new heaven and a new earth. It also shows us the present world as we know it, and how it must end. Some of the pictures are scary. Other pictures show us God’s people and God’s kingdom. Those are happy pictures and they seem to tell us that “the more, the merrier” would be a lot of fun, and that this is actually God’s plan.
There’s a city so big that it would spread beyond the horizon of this planet. There are astronomical numbers of angels, and gatherings of people that no one can count. This doesn’t mean that the new creation will be crowded. It’s picture language telling us the great thing that God wants to do.
Some of the prophetic pictures in Revelation are hard to understand. Some are very simple. In the seventh chapter, there’s that crowd that no one can count. They’re dressed in white and carrying palm branches. That just means that everyone is dressed for a party. The palms are party favors for waving around. The harps stand for happy music, and harps are the nearest thing the ancient people had to electric guitars. The picture tells us that something worth celebrating has happened.
That crowd pictures all the people whom Jesus, the Lamb of God, has made his own, through his sacrifice on the cross. They come from everywhere, and from every time through the ages.
You see, I believe that the tribulation is what this world has been, ever since the first sin put a poison in human nature and spoiled everything. I would claim that Christians in North Korea and Pakistan are going through the tribulation now.
The crowd is every generation that has struggled with this world’s evils, and faced life’s challenges, and kept on track by trusting in the Lord, and staying faithful through it all. In all their hardships, they have found God to be their helper, their forgiver, their strength, their peace, their Lord and Savior.
There is a picture like that in the mind of God, because he always sees, and he is always aware, of all his people, in all times and places together. It’s a living and moving picture, and we are a part of that picture right now.
If you could see it for a moment, as God sees the picture of his people, you would eventually find your own face. And you would see the faces of people you love. And alongside of the familiar faces, you would see strange faces: some with almond eyes, some with long black braids twined with feathers, faces of every shade of brown and black, and every shade of pale.
Maybe some of the white robes would remind you of serapes, and others of saris. There would be golden turbans among the golden crowns. There would be no boundaries between the Desert Aire and the Mattawa parts of the crowd. There would be no boundaries between the American part of the crowd and all the others.
The truth is, most of the crowd might be from Latin America, and Asia, and Africa. You’ve probably helped send missionaries there, and they’ve sent missionaries here, bringing the love of Jesus back and forth.
These people will want to meet you and have fellowship and thanksgiving with you. Some of them may be praying for you right now, just as you pray for Christians in other lands.
It’s a picture of all of us celebrating what Jesus has done for us, and what he has given to us by becoming the Lamb of God. There’s that picture of Jesus as a lamb with seven horns, in the fifth chapter of Revelation, because he gave his life as a sacrifice to free us from our sins and from the burdens of our guilt, and to make us new through the miracle of his love.
The lamb was an animal for sacrifice in the old Jewish Temple. The bloody sacrifices of the Old Testament, were God’s way of telling the ancient people that the love of God, which bound him to them, in mercy and faithfulness, was a costly thing.
Sometimes, God’s people are tempted to brood over how costly it seems to be to love God, and to be true and faithful to the Lord. But the picture of the lamb tells us that loving us is a costly commitment for God.
God patiently nurtured, and lead, and forgave his people, in the Old Testament, and, finally, he came down from heaven in the flesh, as one of us. God came in Jesus, and lived a life of hard work, and sweat, and poverty, and risk, and he died a cruel and painful death, in order to carry out the costly love that he had always talked about. He gave his life to make us one with him, and one with each other, in love and peace.
The picture of the sealed-up scroll, that only he could open, is a word picture for the destiny of the world and of all human life. Sometimes we wonder where are we going, and is it all worthwhile? The scroll is the secret of the meaning of it all. The lamb being able to open the secret tells us that he is strong enough to take care of our future and guide our destiny, and guarantee that it will all be worth it.
It’s a part of understanding Revelation to see that completely different things are still pictures of the same thing. So, our protector, who is as fierce, and as full of fight, and as majestic as a lion, who would kill for us, is also the humble, gentle lamb who actually died for us instead. The strong hands, that hold the meaning of our life, are scarred with nails.
The picture of the crowd that cannot be counted tells us that the work Jesus has done for us is something that should be for everybody. Everyone should be a part of it. The love of Jesus is meant to bring happiness to people of every group, or race, or language, or age. In Jesus, it all becomes holy and the source of joy. We all belong to everyone and there are no foreigners in Christ.
No one culture, or nation, or group can grasp the whole meaning of being a Christian. The people who become Christians in every culture will be experts on different parts of the gospel, and the Christian life, and we’ll all learn from each other about the unique glory of God that we have learned to see, wherever we come from.
School teachers among the Hopi people have had trouble finding out how much their students know, because the Hopi people have traditionally believed that it’s a bad thing to act like you know something that the person next to you doesn’t know. So, if you don’t think your friend can’t answer a question from the teacher, then you can’t answer it either. Isn’t it great to know that there are Christians in the world, as there are among the Hopi, who are really good at protecting others from looking and feeling dumb or inferior.
There was a student, in my seminary, from the Cameroon, in West Africa. His voice always sounded like he was on the verge of singing and laughing at the same time. Often, as he talked, he would spread his arms wide, as if he were trying to hug the world. He came from a culture that knew how to rejoice with their whole heart. I am much too reserved for my own good. I have something to learn from them.
I have heard that, at least in the past, a good host in Japan was honor bound to be generous. If you were a guest of good, traditional, Japanese hosts, and you admired something of theirs, they knew that they should give it to you. So, those Christians would be good at understanding what to do when God expresses his love for them. They knew that they had to give themselves completely to God. And they knew they had to give themselves completely to anyone in need.
Our American culture teaches us the value of good sportsmanship; about cooperating, and getting along, even with those who are in competition with us, and with those who don’t agree with us. We let the referees decide and we live by that. This good sportsmanship, in our culture, lets us be happy when we win, but not make those who lose feel like losers. We shake hands at the end of the game.
A lot of the world has no idea how to do this, and doesn’t want to know. So, they’re torn apart by centuries of envy, and bitterness, and the lust for vengeance. American Christians have something we can share with other Christians that can make the world better, if we only learn from our own traditions and share them with others.
Our world is becoming a smaller place all the time. The nations are getting mixed together. Every culture is full of fear and fury, because their identity is getting watered down and destroyed.
If we Christians can hold onto our faith, while the world around us is changing, then we will always have a strong and healthy sense of who we are and what we have to give.
When we study God’s picture of his people, we realize that God’s intended destiny for the world applies to those of us right here in this room. We all belong in the same picture. It’s how we glorify God and what he has done for us, in Jesus.
Once, there was a Japanese-American minister serving a Japanese church in Texas. He formed a friendship with one of the older elders in the congregation. He admired this man and thought he was so “young in heart and spirit”. One day, during a visit, the minister confessed to the elder: “I feel as if you were my father.” “Oh, that’s bad. That’s awfully bad. That’s very bad indeed.” “Why is it so bad?” “Because I want you to feel as if I were your brother.” (In “A Stone Cried Out” by Shigeo Shimada)
The glory of God’s family should be that it has the spiritual ability to take anyone from anywhere, and make them belong as brothers and sisters.
In our scripture reading, Jesus has made all of his people into priests, and that is a high calling that goes with the brother and sister mentality. The ancient meaning of serving as a priest was to be a “mediator”, or a “go-between”, between God and your fellow human beings.
In ancient Rome, there were certain priests who had the title of “Bridge-Maker”. We are called to be bridge-makers between people and God, to help others over a road, or across a gap they seem unable to cross by themselves. We open a bridge for them, through their barriers of doubt, anger, fear, discouragement, or misunderstanding that keep them away from God.
As priests, we try to be bridge-makers between some people and other people to keep things fair, and decent, and right, and generous, and loving. We help people learn how to live and work together.
It’s hard and costly to be a bridge-maker, or a priest, and we can only do it as a partner of Jesus, who is the real bridge-maker. Jesus is the only true priest who shares his job with us. His cross is the bridge of forgiveness and peace, that creates our peace with God, and peace with others, and peace with ourselves.
If we let ourselves be bridge-makers, and if we make the church itself into a bridge for all people, then we are plugging into our Lord’s work. It’s his meaning for our life. It’s our destiny. It’s what makes life worthwhile.

World Communion Sunday teaches us to picture the church as God does: a place for everyone, a family for everyone. Every human being on earth, everyone you know, every person you see or hear about is part of Jesus’ destiny for you. What you’ve got in Christ is for them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Witness

Figure of Christ
Mission San Diego Alcala
San Diego, CA, June, 2017

A Witness

I see you walk among the sick,
The poor, those laden with despair;
Yet something more than love is there
That makes my soul within me quick.

I see you bending, making clay,
And with your fingers touch blind eyes.
As dusty as you are, the skies,
I almost think, would sing your praise.

I could believe if I would bend,
The others being moved to tears
Around me, men mature in years,
Thinking you their sorrows’ end.

So much fervor! Yet I too
Sense some strange power as I see
You turn and fix those eyes on me...
“Lord, may I also follow you!”

Dennis Evans, Spring, 1972: I was about 20 when I wrote this.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - The Long View of Hope

Preached on Sunday, September 17, 2017

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 32:36-47; Romans 15:1-13

Around Tall Timber Ranch (Camp), Cascade Mountains
Above Leavenworth, WA
Between the White and Napeequa Rivers
When I was little, when I would do something wrong and absolutely no one was there to see it, my mother would immediately know about it. She would say to me, “I can read you like a book.”
I don’t know what scared me most about this. Was it her ability to read me? Or, was it my frightening ability to be read by anyone who took one look at me?
The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that God can read his people like a book. God tells Moses to finish his book by writing into it what God reads in his people. God gave it to Moses in the form of a song.
It’s a very long song. As a whole, it isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful. The song is the story of God and his people from beginning to end; or from the first beginning to the new beginning, in the kingdom of God. The song tells us the long, long story of God’s plan to make a new world out of the one that causes us, and him, so much distress.
The song tells Israel the long story of what their history was going to be, and their part in God’s plan to include the whole world in the joy of his good news. The song teaches them that their part in the story does no credit to them.
It also speaks to us about what our own long history consists of, and our part in that same plan. Those who come to the God of Israel, though Jesus, the King, Son of David, Son of God, from all the nations, also become part of “The Israel of God”, as Paul tells us in the New Testament. (Galatians 6:16 - see also Gal. 3:39; Rom. 9:6; and Phil. 3;3))
So, the long song is our story as well. Because of this, the song tells us that we share the same credit in the story as Israel.
The song has its beauties. The Lord is like rain, and showers, and dew on new grass. The implication is that we definitely need the Lord to be rain for us. It also makes us think about the real rain we need at the end of this year’s fire season.
The Lord is like a rock, everybody loves a rock. In Desert Aire, there are never enough rocks on the ground, but people building a new house always have to bring in more rocks, the bigger the better.
The Lord is our creator and, more than that, the Lord is our Father.
The Lord is like a mother eagle, who catches us (her eaglets) when we fall out of the nest. The Lord carries us on his wings, so that we can learn to fly with him.
So, our place in the song, on the wings of God, is beautiful, but we’re not pretty. God finds us in the middle of a desert. God has to bring us out of the barrenness, and out of the lonely wasteland.
Perhaps you can remember something like that, yourselves. Could the desert mean a fruitless life, a lonely life, a howling angry life? Could the desert mean lovelessness, helplessness, emptiness, failure, or blame?
But there’s grace in the desert: the grace of God. Even a single life can make a long, long song with grace at the beginning and at the end, and grace is there to set right all that goes wrong in between. For all of us, this is a long song of the life of every soul, through all the ages of time, in this world as we know it. (32:1-43)
The song is a picture of all time, and it doesn’t have a lot of concrete, definable events. The desert in the song is Egypt, where the Lord found Israel in slavery. The heights are the high country of The Promised Land with its walled cities on the hilltops. The honey, and milk, and curds, and oil, and wheat are the abundance of the new land which the Lord gives to them. It’s a land that makes them fat. (32:10-14)
Even in the Bible, being fat can be bad. When Jeshurun (which is God’s pet name, or love name, for his people, and it means “My Upright One”). When the upright one gets fat, he kicks and abandons God. (32:15)
This lesson goes all through the Bible: of being so close and blessed by God that you forget who he is. You worship what God gives you, instead of worshiping God. You don’t think you’ve changed, but you have.
To say, as the song says it, “They are a nation without sense,” could happen to us, in our own way. We could worship our work or our retirement. We could worship our freedom or our commitment. We could worship church instead of Jesus.
Even when we come into God’s country, with God’s help, God often has this new work to do. His job becomes getting rid of our new false gods, showing them up for what they are. When God takes those new false gods down, the Lord will say (in the words of the song): “Now where are their gods?”
This long song is, for Israel and for us, sort of a long view of our history: past, present, and future. Long as it is, it’s too short to tell us everything. Even the Bible, long as it is, is too short to tell us everything. It’s designed to tell us not what we want to know, but what God believes we need to know, and God does not think like us.
This shouldn’t be that hard to see. God has a plan, and he’s planned it to be good to Israel, and the same plan is planned to be good to everyone else, as well. Israel goes wrong and gets disciplined, to say the least. All the nations go wrong in their relationship with God’s people, and with each other, and they all get disciplined, to say the least. All of this happens in this one song.
Songs are poetry, and Hebrew poetry often works by repeating the same idea over, at least twice, in adjacent phrases, or a progression of phrases. The mystery of the way God works can be seen in one pair of phrases: “The Lord will judge his people and have compassion on his servants.” (32:36) The poetry of this half sentence is an equation of judgment and compassion. Judgement and compassion are not two separate things. They are two measurements of the same thing.
They aren’t two stages of the same thing. They aren’t a process, as we might think. Judgment and compassion are two expressions of God’s love, or God’s faithfulness. Any good parent can understand this.
Preachers can get this wrong. We are warned about the dangers of judging because it’s so easy to get it wrong, even though we have to do it.
Preachers can get this wrong. For instance, some preachers blamed the sinfulness of the city of New Orleans for bringing on the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, but I didn’t hear any preachers blaming the sinfulness of the city of Houston for bringing on the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey. When preachers do this, they create many of the unnecessary problems that the world has with the Bible.
I’m just saying that when we are confused about (and when we misapply) God’s judgment and compassion, we can misunderstand everything that happens in this world.
The song is really about the Lord’s unchanging love. It tells us that, in the end, the Lord will bless all the nations and bring them together in joy and praise. This comes out right at the very end of the song. “Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” (32:43) And so it’s all good.
Paul says that this verse is about bringing Israel and all the nations together, and it’s about a gracious acceptance of other people who are different from you. He says that this verse is about the gentiles, but the word “gentiles” means “nations”, not merely non-Jews. Paul’s quote is the same as the verse in Deuteronomy. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” (Romans 15:10) “Rejoice O Nations.”
Paul means us to know that this whole long view of the history of humanity is about the mercy of God. It’s all about hope.
We don’t often look at the world around us with hope, or thoughts of mercy. Mw might not even look at our own lives with thoughts of God’s mercy. Because of this, the long song of God and his people is God’s loving provision for us. Our life needs hope.
The song was written into God’s law, and God’s law isn’t only a matter of rules. The law of gravity isn’t about a rule like “what goes up comes down”. That often shows up, with gravity, but it’s about much more.
Any truly important law is more about the nature of a thing: like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are more than rules. They define the nature of what we are as a nation. God’s law presents us with a picture of the nature of God and the nature of God’s ways.
The song is about God’s ways of judgment and compassion working as one. Paul makes the two one in the gospel: the gospel is the good news of the righteousness of God given to us in Jesus (the King of the Jews), crucified for the sins of the world (and for our sins), and risen from the dead.
The song in Deuteronomy tells us that the hope and joy of Israel and the nations will be complete because of God’s atonement of his people’s sins. But the song has the nations joining Israel in their joy, praising God with one voice. God’s atonement doesn’t only work for Israel. It works for everyone.
Atonement is a solution to a problem. Atonement, heals a conflict or a division. You could say that (by happy chance) atonement means “at-one-ment”. The problem that atonement solves is the conflict and division between the human race and God because of human pride, self-worship, missing the mark, and sin.
Jesus is God becoming human and (by dying and rising from the dead) bridging the gap between God and his fallen children, who have been caught by the power of sin and death. The atonement that changes the world, and all people, is a bridge built by God, in Jesus.
In another way, atonement means “covering”. It refers to the blood of a sacrifice covering the wrong, and the sickness, and the sin that divides us. God provides the covering blood, in Jesus.
I know this can sound yucky. It works in such a strange way, as if God, looking at us covered with the blood of Jesus, sees his Son in us, and upon us. We have peace with God through the blood which God, himself, provided for us to give us a new identity in Jesus.
In the song, and in Paul, we see the long view of history: the wars, the brutality, the pride, the wrong, and the injustice of it all. The long view, without answering all our questions about how and why, tells us that the long view is about the hope which God, in his love, has worked out for us.
I saw a post on Facebook that said this: “The hardest part of being a parent is watching a child go through something really tough and not being able to fix it for them.”
This is true on a human level. But “we live, and move, and have our being” in God. (Acts 17:28) God has the power, and the judgment, and the compassion to fix us, and to fix this world as we know it.
All of us, as God’s people, like those who traveled with Moses to the promised land, have a long view held up to us for our learning and for our encouragement. Our part is often not very pretty, but God’s part makes it beautiful.
We are told to learn God’s song. We are told that: “They are not idle words for you – they are your life.” (32:47)
In Moses’ song, we can read ourselves like a book. Our life depends on being able to read ourselves, and our part in this long journey, in this long song.
Our life depends on receiving the gift that comes from God’s good judgment and compassion: his infinite love for us, and for the whole world, in Christ. In Christ, God covers us with compassion and with faithfulness. We need that if we want to make our journey of faith with hope.