Sunday, July 3, 2022

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity - Lk 15:1-10

 

Trinity 3

                                                                            Lk 15:1-10

                                                                            7/3/22

 

         

“Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners.”  This is a statement that I often hear as people talk about the Church today.  Now it’s fascinating to see how it is used to make two very different points. And it’s also important to recognize that both of them are not accurate.

On the one hand, the statement, “Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners” is often used to criticize the Church today.  The point that is being made is that the Church is too withdrawn from society – it is too insular.  Instead, she should be reaching out to others and meeting them where they are at. The Church needs to be seeking to speak the Gospel to all different kinds of people in all different kinds of settings.

There is, of course, truth to this.  You will always be able to make the case that the Church needs to do more in sharing the Gospel. It will always be true that we are more comfortable being with people who are like us, and that we are less likely to reach out to those who are different.  This is the old Adam in us and we need to put to him to death.

However, the statement, “Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners,” doesn’t really support this argument.  For you see, in the Gospels the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus. Consider how our text begins: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.”  Jesus was preaching the Gospel of the kingdom.  And the tax collectors and sinners weren’t blowing him off.  Instead, they were coming to hear what he had to say. They were interested and wanted to listen to Jesus.  How I wish this was the response that the world usually gave to the Gospel!

On the other hand, the world, and those so-called parts of the church that have given into the world, say “Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and sinners.”  By this they mean that Jesus accepted them. Here Jesus is being held up as the great example of non-judgmental inclusiveness. So yes, Jesus did spend his time with tax collectors and sinners.  But he was not just accepting them as they were and affirming their life choices.  Instead, Jesus was calling them to repentance by his message. As our Lord says in the last verse of our text, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Our text begins this morning as Luke tells us, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”  Now the letters “IRS” probably do not give you a warm fuzzy feeling.  Tax collectors have never been popular people in the world. But in first century Palestine, it was generally assumed that tax collectors were crooked.  They could use their position to take more tax than was legitimate, and keep the extra for themselves.  So, they could assess a shipment as being worth more than it really was, collect the tax and keep some.  The problem was that people really had no recourse. They just had to accept that this was the way things worked.

The term “sinners” is a little more ambiguous, because the label is being applied by the Pharisees and scribes.  Some of these people may have been living in a way that openly broke God’s law – who were living in public sin.  But the Pharisees also had their own interpretation of the Torah, and they were likely to call someone who didn’t live according to this interpretation a “sinner.”

“Tax collectors and sinners” – these were people that the Pharisees considered to be unacceptable and to be avoided.  And yet Jesus was willing not only to receive them but also eat with them. I mentioned last week that meals were a source of controversy between the Pharisees and Jesus.  The people with whom Jesus was willing to eat was an issue because of what it meant.  To eat with someone showed that you accepted them – that you were willing to associate with them. Where the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus regularly ate with them.

Jesus was willing to associate with tax collectors and sinners at meals. Yet as I mentioned earlier, we need to recognize Jesus’ purpose in doing so.  Jesus had in fact called a tax collector to be one of his apostles.  Matthew, also known as Levi in Luke’s Gospel, gave a great meal for Jesus and there were many tax collectors present.  Here the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at Jesus’ disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And so Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus was with sinners in order to call those sinners to repentance.

Christ was doing this in order to bring salvation to them.  That was his purpose in eating with tax collectors and sinners. In order to explain this, Jesus tells two parables in our text.  In the first he describes a shepherd who has one hundred sheep.  However, he has lost one that has gone astray. So he goes after the one that he has lost until he finds it.  When he has brought it back he comes home and calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”  Then Jesus concluded by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Next Jesus describes a woman who has ten coins, and loses one of them.  She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and seeks diligently until she has found it.  Then she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Then Jesus concluded by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

In the parables this morning, our Lord describes his desire to save the lost, which is simply a reflection of God the Father’s saving will.  These are not merely words, for it is the Son of God himself who speaks them in this world.  God the Father sent forth the Son as Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  True God and true man, he was in this world to make salvation possible.

It is important to recognize what Jesus is doing when he speaks these words.  In chapter nine our Lord had told the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He had predicted his suffering, death and resurrection.  Then a little later in that chapter we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus Christ is on his journey to Jerusalem. He is making his way to the cross.  He goes there to be numbered with transgressors. He goes to be the sacrifice for sin that gives us forgiveness. Jesus did suffer and die for you on Good Friday.  But as our Lord had said, on the third day God raised him from the dead. 

Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated that he was not just one more false messiah.  His humiliating death on the cross was not an act of failure.  Instead, it was God’s powerful action to save us as Christ won the forgiveness of sins. And now by his resurrection he has given us victory over death, for his resurrection is the beginning of our own resurrection that will take place when he returns in glory on the Last Day.

After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Repentance and forgiveness of sins - they go together.  To receive forgiveness, we have to admit that we need forgiveness. We must confess our sin. But repentance means more than just we that we are sorry for doing wrong.  It is also involves the desire to turn away from sin and the act to do so.

          You are here this morning because Jesus has sought you out. You were lost in sin, but Jesus came and found you.  He did this through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism, and through his word.  This was purely a matter of God’s grace because you were conceived and born as a sinner who had no desire to be found. Yet through his Son God has given you forgiveness, and through the Spirit sent forth by the Son he has called you to faith. And God rejoices in this! That note rings through in our text as both the man and the woman tell their friends and neighbors: “Rejoice with me.”

          As long as we live as fallen people in this fallen world, we will continue to struggle against sin.  Through Christ’s Spirit we do live in ways that please our Father.  But we also stumble, and worse yet, we knowingly choose to act in sin.  Yet the good news of our text is that Jesus always seeks us out.  In love he always calls us back to himself.  He calls us to repent and receive his forgiveness.  He calls us to return to the forgiveness we have in our baptism.  He suffered and died for us to win that forgiveness.  He wants us to have it. There is joy in heaven when we repent – when we confess our sin and turn away from it – as we turn towards Jesus in faith.

          This is how God acts towards you in Christ.  He receives you back in forgiveness as a repentant sinner.  He rejoices to do so.  But because God has done this for you, this also means that we now forgive others. Jesus says a little later in this Gospel, about our brother, “if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

          Forgive?!? Forgive my husband or wife? Forgive my brother or sister? Forgive my friend or neighbor? Yes, forgive, because God has forgiven you in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that we can do on our own.  Just as only the Spirit can call us to faith, so only the Spirit can enable the new man in us to direct we what do. 

          And so to be able to forgive others we need to be receiving the work of the Spirit. We need to be receiving the forgiveness that God gives.  We do this as we make use of the Means of Grace.  The Lord still welcomes sinners to his table as he gives us his true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  He speaks his word of forgiveness to us in Holy Absolution, just as he did at the beginning of the Divine Service. He give us forgiveness through the Gospel as we hear and read God’s word.  This is how the Spirit strengthens us in faith so that we can live out that faith in the world. This is how the Spirit gives us the ability to forgive others because of the forgiveness we have received from God through Jesus Christ.

         

 

    

 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul


 

Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  Peter was a fisherman who was called as one of the twelve apostles and accompanied Jesus during His entire ministry (Matthew 4:18-22; 10:1-2).  He confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God and Jesus recognized the role of leadership that he would have in the Church (Matthew 16:13-20).  However, he also rebuked Jesus when our Lord predicted His passion (Matthew 16:21-23) and denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75).  Forgiven by our Lord and commissioned again to care for the flock (John 21:15-19) he was an important leader in the early Church (Acts 2) and God used him to indicate that the Gentiles were being received as part of the people of God (Acts 10).  He wrote two letters that are included in the New Testament.  According to Church tradition, he died a martyr when was crucified upside down in Rome.

 

Paul, originally named Saul, was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the Church (Philippians 3:4-6; Galatians 1:13-16; Acts 9:1-2).  The risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus and called him to be an apostle who would proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:3-18).  Paul engaged in three missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Greece (Acts 13-14, 16-18, 18-21).  While in Jerusalem he was arrested and then imprisoned by the Romans at Caesarea (Acts 22-26).  As a Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar and at the end of the Book of Acts he is in Rome under house arrest waiting for his case to be heard (Acts 28:30-31).  Paul wrote thirteen letters that are included in the New Testament.  We have little information about the chronology of the end of Paul’s life (it may be that he was released from Rome and then was later arrested again after doing further missionary work). According to Church tradition, he died a martyr when he was beheaded in Rome

 

Scripture reading:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. (Acts 15:1-12 ESV)

 Collect of the Day

Merciful and eternal God, your holy apostles Peter and Paul received grace and strength to lay down their lives for the sake of your Son.  Strengthen us by your Holy Spirit that we may confess your truth and at all times be ready to lay down our lives for him who laid down his life for us, even Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

 

 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Commemoration of Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor


 

Today we remember and give thanks for Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor.  Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 130-200), believed to be a native of Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), studied in Rome and later became pastor in Lyons, France. Around 177, while Irenaeus was away from Lyons, a fierce persecution of Christians led to the martyrdom of his bishop. Upon Irenaeus' return, he became bishop of Lyons. Among his most famous writings is a work condemning heresies, especially Gnosticism, which denied the goodness of creation. In opposition, Irenaeus confessed that God has redeemed his creation through the incarnation of the Son. Irenaeus also affirmed the teachings of the Scriptures handed down to and through him as being normative for the Church.

Collect of the Day:

Almighty God, You upheld Your servant Irenaeus with strength to confess the truth against every blast of false doctrine.  By Your mercy, keep us steadfast in the true faith, that in constancy we may walk in peace on the way that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

(Treasury of Daily Prayer, 472)

 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity - Lk 14:15-24

 

Trinity 2

                                                                                                  Lk 14:15-24

                                                                                                  6/26/22

 

          During this past Memorial Day week end the entire Surburg family was in Marion to celebrate Matthew and Abigail’s birthday.  The Surburg family has grown. My dad was an only child.  He and my mom had two children.  My brother and I each married, and now there are nine children between us.  There were fifteen Surburg’s gathered together at our house.

          One of the great blessings in our family, is that everyone is on the same page – we all share the same worldview.  Not only are all Christians, but we are all Lutherans who believe the same thing and actively practice the faith.  We have the same worldview and so share the same ideas about culture and politics.

          My parents, my brother and our wives are all thankful for this. But we are not na├»ve. We pray it will continue because we recognize that our children are still growing up. There are powerful factors that could impact all of this. The first is what could happen in the course of their education, especially at college.  And the second, and perhaps more significant factor, is the person they one day marry.  We recognize that these could bring about changes that result in a far less unified and harmonious setting. After all, there are nine of them, and it’s hard to go nine for nine.

          We all know family settings – perhaps even our own – where get togethers easily become tense because of significant differences in religious, cultural, and political views.  The same can be true of groups of friends, or the people with whom we work. Yet none of these can compare to the setting in which our Gospel lesson take place this morning.

          The first verse of the chapter says, “One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” Now by this point in Luke’s Gospel, we know that the Pharisees view Jesus as a threat and an enemy.  They have repeatedly engaged in disputes with him. The Sabbath has been a source of conflict. In addition, meals – what should be done there and the people with whom Jesus was willing to eat – have been a source of controversy. So when Jesus eats at a meal, with Pharisees, on the Sabbath, you could hardly devise a more tense situation. As we are told, the Pharisees were watching him carefully.

          Just before our text, Jesus has asked the Pharisees if it is permitted to heal on the Sabbath.  They were silent and unable to answer, as the Lord healed a man present with dropsy – sever edema.  Then Jesus has critiqued how all the guests were trying to get the most honorable place at the table that they could.  Instead, he said they should take the lowest place. Christ taught humility and then said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

            Then, just before our text, he has told the host of the meal – a ruler of the Pharisees – that when he had a dinner, he should not invite his riche friends and relatives.  He shouldn’t invite the people who could be counted on to respond in turn. Instead our Lord said in the verse before our text, “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

          We learn that when one of those who reclined at table with Jesus heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”  The Old Testament describes God’s end time salvation as a feast. The individual making the statement, was of course assuming that he would be included in this.

          So Jesus told a parable about a man who gave a great banquet and invited many. At the time of the banquet he sent out his servant to tell those who had been invited: “Come for everything is now ready.”  The key thing to recognize here is that the practice in first century Palestine was different than what we know today.  People were invited to a feast and accepted the invitation.  They indicated they would be attending. Then on the day when the meal was prepared a servant was sent to announce that all was ready and it was time to come to the banquet.

          In the parable, the servant went out to make this announcement.  But then, the unthinkable happened.  Everyone who had been invited said that they weren’t coming. One man said that he had bought some land and needed to go look at it.  Another said that he had bought five yoke of oxen and needed to examine them.  Finally, a man said that he had married a wife so he couldn’t come.

          It was bad enough that those who had accepted the invitation, were now rejecting the hospitality of the host. But what made it worse was that all of the “explanations” were obviously bogus.  No one made the large investment of land or five yoke of oxen without already taking a look. There was no way a wedding or anything involving a marriage would conflict with an invitation that had already been accepted. The guests were simply rejecting the host.

          In this first section of the parable, Jesus is describing the Pharisees.  God’s saving reign was present in Jesus Christ, and yet they were rejecting him.  They had their own ideas about how God should work, and they didn’t want Jesus. 

          Now it is easy to condemn the Pharisees.  But we must also be very careful that we don’t fall into the same pattern.  It is easy for us to have our own ideas about how God should work and reject what God is doing.  We may decide that God coming to us through the Means of Grace is just not exciting enough, and find it easy to stay home or do something else on Sunday morning.

We may decide that Jesus’ causes too many problems.  Immediately after our text, the Lord says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  Jesus Christ says that he comes first – before family, friends … even our own life.

The servant reported to the master what had happened.  He was angry and said to his servant, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.”  Those who had been invited had rejected the master.  So he told the servant to bring the very people you would not invite to a banquet.  He had the servant bring in those whom society considered unworthy and of little value.

When the servant reported that this had been done and that there was still room, the master said to the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” The master sent the servant even further out to bring in those who didn’t even live in the city.  He sent the servant to bring in people who would never have been invited.

We find ourselves in the description of the unworthy and unwanted who remarkably, get to attend the banquet.  We are the poor and crippled and blind and lame.  The people who should never be there in the first place.  In fact as Gentiles we are actually the people outside the city – outside of Israel.  Not only are we sinners in thought, word, and deed who have no right to be with the holy God, we were not even included in the covenant God made with Israel as he took them to be his people.

But in his unexpected grace, God has acted to make us people who will share in the feast of salvation.  Earlier in this chapter, when Jesus described how guests should act at a meal, our Lord said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  We learn that Jesus is doing more than giving good advice about how to avoid embarrassment at a meal.  Instead, he is describing a theological truth that begins with him as he acted to save us.

The Son of God humbled himself as he entered into our world in the incarnation to carry out the Father’s saving will for us.  He came to serve us as he was numbered with the transgressors. St. Paul told the Philippians, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

          Jesus died on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins. He received the judgment we deserved. His dead body was buried in a tomb. But as Jesus says in this chapter, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  And God did exalt Jesus.  On the third day – on Easter – God raised Jesus from the dead.  Peter declared on the Day of Pentecost, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” The risen Lord has defeated death. Ascended and exalted, he has poured forth the Holy Spirit who has called us to faith in Christ.

          By his death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus has fulfilled God’s promises of the Old Testament. And in doing so, he has established the new covenant that includes all people – Jew and Gentile alike.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are now part of the people of God.  You will partake in the great feast of salvation on the Last Day.

          You know this is true for you because of what is about to take place next in the Divine Service.  Our Lord invites us to the Sacrament of the Altar.  Here he gives us his true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  As he does so, he shows that you are included in the new covenant – you are part of God’s people.  And in this Sacrament we receive a foretaste of the feast to come.  Our Lord comes to us now bodily using bread and wine.  But in so doing he points us to his return in glory on the Last Day. We who are fed with the miraculous food of the Lord’s body and blood this morning will share in the feast of salvation that has no end.

          This morning, our Gospel lesson warns us against ignoring or rejecting the way God works.  It offers the comforting message that we who had no hope of being at the the feast of salvation, will be because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.  This has occurred purely by God’s grace.  It is true because the Son of God humbled himself to save us, and now has been exalted.

          And at the same time, what Jesus Christ has done for us is the pattern for our life in Christ.  Our Lord said, he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We follow Jesus by humbling ourselves in service toward others.  We serve and help our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. We do so because of the love Christ has shown to us.  We do so because we know that following Christ in the path of faith and service leads to exaltation with our Lord and the feast of salvation on the Last Day.   

         

 

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

  

           

         

    

 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Mark's thoughts: Roe v Wade has been overturned - give thanks, but don't be naive


 

This morning I learned that Roe v Wade has been overturned. This is something for which I have prayed during my entire life.  I have voted in ways that were aimed at making this possible. It is a great victory for which I give thanks to the Lord.  It is a day to celebrate, and I certainly do.

But I don’t feel the way I thought I would.  I have looked forward to this all my life, and yet in the moment that it occurs it feels hollow.  The reason for this is that in the very time that I learned the news about Roe v Wade, I was in the process of answering emails that are aimed at organizing a response to an abortion clinic that will be opening in Carbondale, IL, sixteen miles from my church.

In May we learned that Choices – Memphis Center for Reproductive health will be opening an abortion clinic in Carbondale.  They were doing this in preparation for Roe v Wade in order to establish the furthest south abortion clinic in Illinois.  The intent of this location is to draw upon states south of Illinois that will limit or eliminate abortion.  Planned Parenthood has already done this in Fairview Heights, IL, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.  This too has been positioned to draw upon Missouri and other states where abortion will be limited or banned.  Abortion clinics are being established around Illinois’ borders to serve the same purpose directed toward other Midwest states.

Roe v Wade has been overturned. Yet I find myself living in a state where the Governor and legislature have done everything possible to make Illinois a center of death for the unborn.  Sadly, Illinois is not alone and the same process is certainly taking place in other states that support abortion.

Today is a day to give thanks to the Lord that Roe v Wade has been overturned. It is a time to celebrate. But that celebration must be tempered with the recognition that the fight against abortion is simply moving into a new stage. 

The overturning of Roe v Wade is not like the atomic bombs that ended the war in the Pacific during World War II.  It is more like the Battle of Midway in June 1942.  It is a victory that makes ultimate victory possible.  But the road to that victory followed the path of names like Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.  It was a long and brutal fight against a fanatical enemy.

Today we give thanks.   But we must not be naive. The next stage in the struggle against this evil has just started.

 

 

Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist


 

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  St. John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, was born into a priestly family.  His birth was miraculously announced to his father by an angel of the Lord (Luke 1:5-23), and on the occasion of his birth, his aged father proclaimed a hymn of praise (Luke 1:67-79).  This hymn is entitled the Benedictus and serves as a Gospel Canticle in the service of Matins. Events of John’s life and his teachings are known from accounts in all four of the Gospels.  In the wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan River, John began to preach a call to repentance  and a baptismal washing, and he told the crowds, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has arrived” (Matthew 3:2).  John denounced the immoral life of King Herod Antipas, with the result that Antipas had him imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea.  There he had John beheaded (Mark 6:17-29).  John is remembered and honored as the one who with his preaching prepared the way for Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:3) and pointed to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Scripture reading:

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

          And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

          “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

                    for he has visited and redeemed his people

          and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

                    in the house of his servant David,

          as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

          that we should be saved from our enemies

                    and from the hand of all who hate us;

          to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                    and to remember his holy covenant,

          the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

                    that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

          might serve him without fear,

                    in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

          And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

          to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                    in the forgiveness of their sins,

          because of the tender mercy of our God,

                    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

          to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

          And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. (Luke 1:57-80 ESV)

 Collect of the Day:

Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, You once proclaimed salvation. Now grant that we may know this salvation and serve You in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

 

(Treasury of Daily Prayer, 459-460)

 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Mark's thoughts: Facing the world's antipathy once again, through faith in Christ


 

We are well aware that we live in a time that is very different from what it was before.  As you read this, we are just leaving “Pride Month” in which we have been swamped by our culture’s virtue signaling as it celebrated homosexuality and transgenderism.  We know that the percentage of the population that identifies as Christian, much less actually practices the faith, is declining.  More than that, we know that our culture is increasingly antagonistic toward the Church and the Christian faith.

These changes, and the speed with which they have been occurring, can be the source of deep concern. They are certainly not what we want to see happening.  However, we need to recognize that they are also not something that is completely new for Christ’s Church. We need to be reminded about what our brothers and sisters in Christ faced during the first centuries of the Church’s existence.  We learn from this that the Church has faced this before. We also find encouragement that the Spirit of Christ sustained the Church in the midst of those things, and even caused her to grow.

In his book Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, the scholar Larry Hurtado lays out the evidence for how the Roman world’s reaction to Christianity was unprecedented. While different religious groups may have fallen out of favor and been repressed for a time, this did not continue and they were allowed to be present and practice again.  However, Hurtado notes that when it comes to Christianity, “the combination of popular abuse, cultured critique, and official repression across the better part of three centuries, locally at first and the empire-wide toward the end, has no parallel” (pg. 35).

Christians attracted a unique antipathy from pagans around them.  When the Roman writer Tacitus (around 112 A.D.) described how in 64 A.D. the emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the fire that destroyed much of Rome and killed many of them, Tacitus referred to Christians as “hated for their abominations” and described them as promoting “a deadly superstition” (pg. 21).  Christianity was classified by Romans not as a “religion” (something that was acceptable to society), but as a “superstition” which meant that it was unacceptable and even dangerous.

Around 110 A.D. Pliny, who was the imperial ruler in Bithynia and Pontus (Asia Minor, what is today Turkey) wrote to the Emperor Trajan about how he was handling people who were being denounced as Christians.  Pliny said that if they renounced Christianity making prayer to the gods and cursing Christ they were set free.  Non-Roman citizens who refused to do so were executed, while Roman citizens were sent to Rome for trial (pg. 22-23). What is notable is that Christians were considered worthy of death, simply because they were Christians.

Why did Christians attract this unprecedented response?  In order to understand a key reason, we must recognize that while we are able to separate religion from secular life, there was no such distinction in the ancient world.  Instead, the gods were part of every aspect of life.  This was true in the home, in social gatherings, in the city and in the empire.  The well being of life on all of these levels required reverence for the gods.

However, Christians refused to worship or take part in the rituals and worship of the gods. Paul reported about the Thessalonians: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).  As this statement indicates, not only did Christians stop worshipping the pagan gods, they declared that these gods were mere idols.  They weren’t real. Paul stated this shared understanding when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:4, “we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’”

 

When a person converted to faith in Christ and began to live in this way, it caught the attention of others.  Hurtado observes:

These newly converted Gentile Christians would have seemed to fellow pagans, however, to be making an abrupt, arbitrary, bizarre, and unjustified shift in religious behavior. This total withdrawal from the worship of the many deities was a move without precedent, and it would have seemed inexplicable and deeply worrying to many of the general populace … It would have seemed to the general public a kind of religious and social apostasy, an antisocial stance (pg. 53-54).

Christians were willing to do this because they knew that Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord.  Through him they had forgiveness and salvation.  Paul told the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).  They knew that God had defeated death through Jesus, and that our Lord will raise us from the dead on the Last Day.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1Corinthians 15:20-23).

 

This is the same confidence that we have.  God’s Spirit has called us to faith through the Gospel – the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.  God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). We have received God’s love in Christ, and we know that nothing can separate us from that love.

 

Christians have faced the world’s disdain and hatred before.  God sustained the Church in the face of this.  He will do the same in our days as well. We know this because we have faith in Jesus Christ.  As Paul told the Romans at the end of chapter eight:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39).