From Ashes to Fire

The two great seasons of the Church year are from Lent (Ashes) to Good Friday and from Easter to Pentecost (Fire). The first emphasizes repentance and the sharing in the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. The second portrays the dynamic impact of the resurrection upon the disciples and the fire of the Holy Spirit that birthed the Church and sent it on a global mission. 

The first daily devotional guide that will be published weekly (beginning today) focuses on repentance, and the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. It is my hope that as you use this devotional guide you will, by God’s grace, experience the spiritual impact of this solemn season, and that it will help strengthen your faith and renew your worship of our great God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You will find these daily devotions on the menu portion (see above) of my blog.

The Monster of Uncertainty…

Is it true that the only things that are certain are death and taxes? It would seem true in every age, but especially in the Middle Ages. It was a time where traditional values and certainties were being questioned. Where wars, plagues, famine and economic issues also contributed to the instability of the times—not unlike our own era.

Then there was the Church whose teachings did little to give certainty, in fact, they only added to people’s insecurity and fear. Many believed that this was deliberate so that people would become more dependent upon the Church and what it offered in order to gain salvation. Thus attendance at mass, confession and penance, the buying of indulgences, the adoration of relics, and the joining of monastic orders offered ways by which someone could increase devotion and gain sufficient merit for obtaining eternal life. But how much was enough?Where was the certainty?

Dr. Richard Bucher, in a message titled “Joyful Certainty in an Age of Uncertainty,” mentioned a popular catechism of the day first printed in 1470. Derek Kolde’s “Mirror of the Christian Man” went through 19 editions before the Protestant Reformation and was probably the most popular catechism of its time. Kolde said, “There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I will have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all; I do not know where I will go.” In a nutshell, these three things exemplified the uncertainty of the age and the struggle that confronted Martin Luther and everyone else who desired to obtain a gracious God.

Luther was a type-A personality who could not be satisfied with just doing the best he could. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or a rocky relationship with a demanding father (or both), he always questioned whether his best was good enough. He certainly did not feel righteous and the more he evaluated himself, the more sinful he felt and the more terrified he became of the wrath of God. Luther’s monastical superiors saw that while he exceeded all the requirements and became a priest in record time, yet this terrible uncertainty about whether he was truly acceptable to God was not normal. He was repulsed by himself; even his confession and penance were self-centered, designed to save his own skin from hell. So his superiors suggested he begin to study theology, which took him to the Scripture.

His study of the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans ultimately brought him to a place summarized by Romans 1:17: “The righteous one (the justified one) shall live by faith.” Luther began to grasp that St. Paul used a legal term “to justify” in order to describe what happens when a sinner exercises faith in Jesus Christ. The sinner receives a righteousness that is not his own, but is the very righteousness of Christ accepted by God as a substitute for the sinner’s unrighteousness. While the Church called this a legal fiction, Luther called it a sweet exchange; “Thou Lord Jesus art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou has taken on thyself what thou wast not, and given to me what I am not.”

Herein lies Luther’s certainty, and mine as well. When I believe my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship with God depends on my own efforts, the less certainty I have of my acceptance by God. Have I done enough? How can I be certain?

Listen to Luther: I am saying this in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophists and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for certain whether he is in a state grace, even if he does good works according to his ability and lives a blameless life. This statement, widely accepted and believed, was a principle and practically an article of faith throughout the papacy. With this wicked idea of theirs they utterly ruined the doctrine of faith, overthrew faith, disturbed consciences, abolished Christ from the church . . . If everything else were sound there [in the papacy] still this monster of uncertainty is worse than all the other monsters. (Luther’s Works, 26:377, 386)

And this is our foundation: the Gospel commands us to look, not to our good deeds or perfection but at God himself as he promises, and at Christ himself, the Mediator . . . And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves, so that we do not depend on our strength, conscience, experience, person, works, but depend on that which is outside of ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God which cannot deceive. (LW, 26:387)

If [a person] senses that he is in doubt, let him exercise his faith, struggle against the doubt, and strive for certainty, so that he can say: “I know that I have been accepted and that I have the Holy Spirit, not on account of my worthiness or virtue but on account of Christ, who subjected himself to the Law on our account and took away the sins of the world. If I am a sinner, and if I err, He is righteous and cannot err.” (LW, 26, 379)

Thus I believe that the Christian can be certain of salvation when that certainty is founded on the promise of God and the work of Jesus Christ! I hope you believe that.

Next week we want to look at where good works fit into the life of the Christian. It may surprise you what we find!

The Silence of God

I preached a sermon 45 years ago on the Silence of God. After 3 yrs of pastoral ministry under my belt I came to the conclusion that God’s silence was never due to indifference, but always to higher thoughts or greater purposes. “For as the heaven is higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts, and my ways than your ways, says the Lord.” Not a bad conclusion for a young greenhorn pastor who was trying to be faithful to God’s Word without a lot of experience in ‘applying it.

Today, after 48 yrs of pastoral ministry experience, I am still and will always remain a greenhorn at trying to figure out the ways of an eternal God. I still believe that God’s silence is one of higher purpose, but I would state it differently now. I would say, God is never silent. We could cite Psalm 19 where we read that the heavens are declaring the glory of God—that God is speaking in creation, loud enough to hold us accountable for not believing that he exists (Romans 1:18-20). Also, we could go to Hebrews 1 and read that God has spoken in the past through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken through his Son, Jesus, the Word of God (John 1).

That God is never silent can also be seen from the few notable occasions in the Gospels when Jesus was silent in the presence of someone. He was silent when the Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter (Matt 15:21-28). He was silent before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin at the kangaroo court hastily convened to accuse him of blasphemy on trumped up charges (Matt 26:59-63). He was also silent before Herod who saw him as a bit of a curiosity (Luke 23:9).

I would submit to you that in each of these situations Jesus was shouting in his “silence.” To Herod, whose only interest was to see Jesus walk across his swimming pool (if you are familiar with the Rock Opera, Jesus Christ Super Star), Jesus was shouting “I will not be trivialized!” His silence was a judgment against the spiritual shallowness of Herod. His “silence” before the Sanhedrin was a shout against their spiritual hypocrisy and their self-interest in preserving their own place and ambitions. Finally, in his “silence” before the Canaanite woman he was shouting out “trust me, trust me!” He was drawing out of her a faith born of desperation. She knew who he was and had heard of his compassion, and so in the face of his silence she casts herself upon his mercy and says, “Lord help me!”

We find a parallel between the “silence” this woman confronted and the greatest Silence in all of scripture; the Silence of the cross. In that Silence, Jesus himself cried out “My God, Why have you forsaken me!” In that Silence, the disciples ran away and the women were in despair. And yet…And yet…just a few days latter it became clear that in the midst of this great “Silence” God was doing his greatest work. In the Silence, God was shouting, “I love you!”

Helmut Theilicke wrote a book The Silence of God at the height of the darkness of WW2. In it he said this: “Even when we thought He did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings He did His work of love. We live in the power of this Golgatha night of silence. Where should we be without the cross.”

Thus as we face the life-dominating issues which seem to render silent God’s voice, let us hold on to the theology of the cross. Let us remember that even in his silence, God is not silent—he is speaking, he is working, he is fulfilling his higher purposes of a grander plan than we can ever imagine. He is shouting for us to trust him because he loves us. HE WHO HAS EARS TO EAR LET HIM LISTEN!

Greed! (a confession)

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Jesus spoke a lot about money. In fact, he spoke more about money than he did about love, sex, heaven, or hell. In just a sample swath of the book of Luke (chapters 12-16), he told the parable of the rich fool; admonished the disciples not to worry about what they were going eat or wear; challenged his followers to be wise and faithful managers of what they had been given; spoke about counting the cost of following him; told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the son who squandered his money; and he also told stories about a shrewd manager, and the rich man and Lazarus.

Money can be a dangerous thing because it pushes our greed button more than any other factor. The Greek philosopher Plato said that “Poverty [the feeling of] does not consist in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed.” The last commandment of the moral law, “Thou shall not covet,” addresses the underlying motive for keeping/breaking all the other commandments which precede it. Money is also dangerous because it reveals that greed, like ice cream, comes in all kinds of different flavors. Jesus told us to “guard against all kinds of greed.”

The kind of greed that I struggle with is what I call “religious greed.” It is most clearly exemplified in those hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They loved to announce their charitable donations with trumpets (Matt 6:2) instead of the anonymous giving of most people. They would tithe even the smallest things, like the spices they used on their food, while completely ignoring the weightier matters of the law (like justice and mercy- Matt 23:23). They would pronounce the word “Corban” (devoted to God) over all their possessions, so they could keep them for their own selfish ends rather than using them to provide for their parents in old age (Mark 7:11). Hypocrites!

We can also see this religious greed evidenced in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). They were Barnabas “wanabes” who sold a piece of property for a certain amount as a gift to the church. Such an act was indeed generous, but they did so under the pretense of donating the entire amount from the sale while keeping back part of the money for themselves. They lied to the church and before God, and lost their lives because of it. Liars!

It is so easy for me to see religious greed in others and pronounce judgment upon them while being blind to the greed in my own heart. I am saying all of this as a confession. We recently sold our house and purchased a new one and made a profit. We have designated a portion of that profit as a tithe. We haven’t even given it yet and already I feel the urge to announce how generous we are (like the Pharisees). I also feel the Ananias and Sapphira chronovirus coming on. The strings of greed are starting to creep over my heart like weeds trying to choke out the thanksgiving and praise that I want to give to my God for being so generous to me. And then there are the whisperings of the Tempter. Can you really afford this? What about your grandkid’s future education? What if you have to go back on chemo? This could pay for it. Isn’t that good stewardship? Arrgh!

I need to go back to where we started with the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. Jesus concludes the story with these words (v 21), “So is the one (the one who is a fool) who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” This isn’t an encouragement to give God more of my money—he doesn’t need it. Being rich toward God means that I consider God as my greatest Treasure. And the way I handle my money should be done in such a way that shows that I am free from the tentacles of greed precisely because God is my greatest Treasure—he is my true Wealth, my Reward, my Inheritance. In him, I am rich no matter how little money I have at the moment, and without him I am poverty-stricken regardless of how much worldly wealth I possess. C.S. Lewis nailed it in his Weight of Glory when he said, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God alone.” And before Lewis, St Augustine framed it like this: “He who has God has everything; he who has everything but God has nothing.”

We Christians, of all people, should be the least greedy and most lavish givers in this world because the Lord is our Wealth, our Treasure, our Shepherd, and in him we shall not lack for any good thing. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share this with you.

OK—now, just write the check Mac and stop talking!