Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mark's thoughts: Lutheran beliefs in the years to come?

A 2018 survey of evangelicals by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay research found that 97% of respondents indicated agreement with this statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”  However, it found that 78% indicated they agreed with this statement as well: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”  In addition, 59% agreed with the statement: “The Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being” (16% were unsure, and only 25% disagreed).


Survey results always invite questions about methodology, and the results can only be seen as one indicator of the situation. Yet once this caveat has been expressed, it is shocking to see evidence for commonly held opinions that directly contradict the orthodox Christian faith as confessed in the Nicene Creed.  Faith in Jesus Christ saves, but there are very serious problems if the Jesus of that faith is in fact an Arian one.


It fair to say that non-denominational evangelical churches place a relatively low emphasis on the doctrinal content of the faith, and a high emphasis on the personal meaning and value for the individual. The description provided by one very popular evangelical church in my area summarizes well what most are attempting to provide:  “Our worship services are truly energetic and are primarily made up of engaging worship music and dynamic teaching. God’s Word is presented in a way that applies directly to your life.”  This is a “lowest common denominator” Christianity that seeks to be “practical.”  Catechesis that teaches the individual about the confession of the church in order to join the congregation is not part of this model.  The true engine of evangelical churches, the small group ministry, does not emphasize doctrinal content because it too seeks be practical for life and is led most often by laity who have little theological training.


Evangelical churches of this kind are living off of the theological capital of earlier Christians.  The intent of their leaders is to be orthodox Christians.  Yet their very character as non-denominational churches works against the preservation of this orthodoxy.  By rejecting creeds and liturgy they have cast the worship of their people into a vacuum that is filled only with emotionally charged “worship experiences” and practical teaching. There is little to guide and form belief about the Trinity and the person of Christ, and at the same time this is not a focus in other areas of church life.


The contrast is marked when one considers just two pieces found in the liturgy.  The Introit contains the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”  Explicitly anti-Arian in phrasing, through weekly repetition it drives home the point: God has always been this way.  There can be no consideration of “there was when He was not.”


Likewise the Nicene Creed confesses in unmistakable terms the orthodox faith.  A Christian who says every Sunday that he or she believes in one Lord Jesus Christ who was “begotten, not made” is going to find it very hard to agree with the statement that, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”  


I make these observations not in relation to evangelicalism.  After all, they are being what they claim to be (even if it is perilous for the long term spiritual health of their congregations).  Instead, I direct them at Lutheran churches who are seeking to imitate them. The trend is very clear.  Lutheran churches seek to minimize catechesis because this seems like a barrier to people joining the congregation.  Catechesis in little more than a Saturday is not unheard of today.  Worship is the evangelical model: an energetic experience of “engaging worship music and dynamic teaching.”  Creeds may not be eliminated, but in the bulletins that members bring back I have noticed a trend toward the use of the Apostles’ Creed.  I suspect that this is because it is shorter and seems more accessible to outsiders. Yet the language of the Apostles’ Creed was unable to fend off Arianism, and the Nicene Creed was created because it was necessary for the Church in order to do so.


If you want to know what a church really believes, don’t look at their confessions and doctrinal books.  Instead, look at how they worship.  This is what will be forming the belief of the people who gather week in and week out.  The trends that affect the spiritual health of a church cannot be evaluated in years or decades.  Instead they must be considered over centuries. Yet our moment in time is not unimportant in this evaluation.  The biblical understanding of tradition is that each generation passes on to the next what they have received (1 Corinthians 15:3).  Each generation has a responsibility to see that the same faith is passed on to the next.  The creeds and liturgy have always been the key tool in doing this for the laity of the Church.  Decisions made to abandon these or adjust their use will ripple on in unexpected ways.  Trends in some Lutheran churches today offer the potential that one hundred years from now members may in an unreflective way agree with this statement: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”





Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord - Mt 3:13-17

                                                                                    Baptism of Our Lord
                                                                                    Mt 3:13-17

            I had trouble believing that it was really happening.  I knew it was, because I could see it.  But it was just hard to understand. 
            On Monday night I was keeping track of the College National Championship football game between Alabama and Clemson.  I expected it to be a close game.  I thought Clemson certainly had a chance to win, but Alabama was favored and I thought they probably would.  After all, since coming to Alabama coach Nick Saban has won five national championships.  He has built a juggernaut that recruits the best talent every year, and then Saban’s singular focus creates a football team that is always in contention for a national title.  In particular, Saban – a coach with a background in defense – has fielded teams with stifling and overwhelming defenses.
            But as the game progressed, I saw something I never thought would happen: Alabama was blown out.  The final score was 44 to 16.  Clemson did to Alabama, what Saban and Alabama have been doing to everyone else for a decade.  They made Alabama looked bad and humiliated them on the biggest stage.  I had trouble believing that it was really happening.  I knew it was, because I could see it.  But it was just hard to understand.
            The same thoughts must have been going through John the Baptist’s mind that day at the Jordan River when Jesus approached him to receive John’s baptism.  Matthew tells us that John had appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He announced a prophetic message of repentance, and he looked the part as he dressed like Elijah wearing a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist.  He lived off the land as he ate locusts and wild honey.
            John got people’s attention.  He announced that the reign of God was imminent – it was about to arrive – and that all people needed to repent in preparation for it.  And the thing that was truly unique about John was the fact that he administered a washing – a baptism – to others.  As I mentioned during Advent, ritual washings were common in Judaism.  But they were all self administered.  John’s baptism was something that he applied to others and it was so unusual that it gave John his nickname – “the Baptizer.”
            Matthew tells us, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” People confessed their sins, and showed that they were repentant and were looking for the arrival of God’s reign in faith by submitting to John’s baptism.
            John was an impressive figure, but he minimized himself by saying he was just the forerunner.  There was in fact someone even greater coming.  He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  John’s language left no doubt about what this coming One was going to do.  He was bringing God’s end time judgment.
            Matthew begins out text by saying, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.”  Jesus made the trip from Galilee in the north of Israel to the area in the south where John was conducting his ministry.  He made the trip for a reason – to submit to John’s baptism. 
            When Jesus showed up, John was utterly confused.  In fact, he wanted to prevent Jesus from being baptized as he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  John knew Jesus to be the coming One that he was proclaiming.  This was the One who was going to burn up sinners with the fire of God’s judgment.  So why was he coming to the water of a baptism of repentance – something people were receiving as they confessed their sins?
            Our Lord understood John’s confusion.  He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus told John that they each had a role to play in order to fulfill God’s saving work to put all things right. This baptism he had come to receive was part of that saving work.  So John consented and baptized Jesus.
            Matthew tells us, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”  After Jesus was baptized, God acted. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, and God the Father spoke, identifying Jesus as his Son.
            You have to sympathize with John the Baptist.  Of course he was confused. After all, John recognized Jesus as the One who would bring God’s judgment against sinners. So why was Jesus acting like a sinner by coming to John for baptism?  And as readers of the Gospel we know that our Lord had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and given the name Jesus – “Yahweh saves” – because he had come to bring the forgiveness of sins. So what was Jesus doing in that water?
            The answer is to be found in Isaiah chapter 42. There through the prophet God says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” At the baptism of Jesus, God the Father spoke words based on this verse, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in order to identify him as the Servant of the Lord.
            This happened in a setting where people were confessing their sin because it was the Servant’s job to bear the sins of all.  In Isaiah chapter 53, the prophet said about the Servant, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
            We are like sheep that have gone astray. We know what God’s will is from his Word.  Yet we choose to do things our own way.  And sometimes it isn’t even a matter of choice.  In spite of ourselves we end of doing those things that are wrong – those things we really don’t want to do.  We don’t hallow God’s name by what we do.  We hurt the people we love and care about.
            Isaiah said that the Lord has laid on the Servant the iniquity of us all. That is why Jesus was in the water.  He was there to take our place.  Though sinless, he was there to take our sin as his own.
            You can draw direct line from the water of Jesus’ baptism to the cross of Good Friday.  From the moment he received John’s baptism, Jesus Christ had taken up the task of suffering and dying for your sin.  Just before Holy Week, Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” By that death he has redeemed you from sin.  He has freed you to be a forgiven child of God.
            God warned Adam that if he disobeyed by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die.  Sin has brought death ever since. Your sin brought death to Jesus. But because he is the sinless Son of God, his death was the means by which God’s righteousness – his saving action to put all things right – was fulfilled.  Because of his death for you, you are now forgiven.  It does not matter what you have done. By confessing your sin and believing in Jesus Christ you sins are no more in God’s eyes.
            But Jesus Christ’s death was not the end.  Instead, he defeated death by passing through it. For on the third day the Spirit of God, who descended upon Jesus at his baptism, raised our Lord from the dead.  He is now the risen Lord.  And it is as the risen Lord that he instituted Holy Baptism.  On mountain in Galilee he told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
            Through his Word, Christ has taken water and made it the means by which we receive the benefit of the saving work he began in his own baptism.  On the cross Jesus received the judgment against your sin. St. Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Through the water of baptism you have shared in Jesus’ saving death.  It has become yours, and so you have received the forgiveness he won.  This is the promise of God’s Word.  Through faith in God’s work of baptism, you have exactly what he says: the forgiveness of sins.
            At his baptism, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and identified him as the Servant of the Lord.  Through your baptism, you have received the Spirit of God.  He worked regeneration through water and the word, and so now your baptism has become the source of your life that serves the Lord.  Paul went on to say about baptism, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Through baptism, you have received the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.  He has made you a new creation in Christ, so that now through his work in you, you can walk in newness of life – so that you can live the life of the Spirit, the life of faith toward God and love for your neighbor.
            John the Baptist was not wrong about Jesus when he described what the coming One is going to do.  He didn’t understand that Jesus first had to suffer and die for all people – that he had to die on the cross, and that was why he had come to receive John’s baptism.  But the risen and ascended Lord is the One who will return in glory on the Last Day.  He will carry out the judgment as he clears his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn, but the burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
            The comforting good news is that because Jesus was baptized to take on our sins and die on the cross, we are the wheat.  Because we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we know that we are saints in God’s eyes – we are holy because in Christ we are forgiven.  The day of our Lord’s return will be one of joy for us – a joy that we already have now because Jesus was baptized, and because we have been baptized.  



Thursday, January 10, 2019

Commemoration of Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, Pastors and Confessors

Today we remember and give thanks for Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, Pastors and Confessors.  Basil and the two Gregorys, collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers, were leaders of Christian orthodoxy in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the later fourth century. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa were brothers; Gregory of Nazianzus was their friend. All three were influential in shaping the theology confessed by the Council of Constantinople of 381, which is expressed in the Nicene Creed. Their defense of the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Holy Trinity, together with their contributions to the liturgy of the Eastern Church, make them among the most influential Christian teachers and theologians of their time. 

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You revealed to Your Church Your eternal being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in a Trinity of persons.  May Your Church, with pastors like Basil, Gregory and Gregory, receive grace to continue steadfast in the confession of the true faith and constant in our worship of You,  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who live and reign, one God, now and forever.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Mark's thoughts: The season of Epiphany - Glory that points to death

During the season of Epiphany we celebrate the good news that after the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), he revealed his saving glory in the world.  The term Epiphany comes from the Greek work which means “to appear.”  Epiphany begins with the glory of a star that the magi see at is rising, and which then leads them from Jerusalem to the Christ child in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2, 4).  The Savior of all people is revealed to Gentiles as they come and worship him.

Next in the season of Epiphany is the Baptism of Our Lord.  In the first appearance that begins his ministry, Jesus goes to receive the baptism of John the Baptist.  John administers a baptism of repentance, yet Jesus the sinless One goes to John. John tries to prevent this, but Jesus says it is necessary and fitting for them to do to fulfill all righteousness – to carry out God’s saving action to put all things right (Matthew 4:15).  Matthew tells us:  

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 4:16-17).

The Father’s words take up Isaiah 42:1, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.”  The Father identifies Jesus as the Servant of the Lord. But the Servant in Isaiah is also the suffering Servant of Isaiah chapter 53: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  Jesus has submitted to a baptism of repentance to take our place - to take our sins upon himself.

The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany is the Transfiguration of Our Lord.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on a high mountain.  There our Lord is transfigured before them.  His face shines like the sun, and his clothes become white as light. The glory of the Lord appears in an awesome way, as Moses and Elijah then appear along with Jesus and are talking to him (Matthew 17:1-3). A bright cloud overshadows them, and Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Once again, words that take up Isaiah 42 are spoken by God about Jesus.

Jesus’ divine glory appears, yet at that very moment the words of the Father tell us that Jesus is the Servant.  He is the One who will carry out the Servant’s task of suffering and dying for us. And indeed, this is what Jesus has just told his disciples for the first time. Matthew tells us: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).

The season of Epiphany reveals the glory of the incarnate Lord.  But it reveals the Lord whose glory will be seen in the cross. God’s saving glory will be seen in the Son of God hanging on the cross of Good Friday.  Epiphany leads us into Lent and on to Holy Week.  But the blazing glory of the transfigured Lord that ends the season of Epiphany points beyond the cross.  It points to the glory of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter.