Friday, February 12, 2016

Unfathomable


 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”  35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:32-36 (ESV)
Paull signals the end with a doxology. He’s wrapping up now. Part one is over. He has laid out the gospel in its fullness. So now comes the fruit in praising God.
But the praise chafes our old Adam, our sinful nature. It is precisely that which causes so many to be bitter towards God, that causes the believer to praise him. God is unfathomable. We can’t understand him. We don’t know why he does what he does. In unbelief we are given to speculation. We try, as my mentor Rod Rosenbladt used to always say, “to catch God in the shower.” We want to see God in the nude. But he doesn’t do that for us. Best we do is catch a glimpse of his ankle showing. Our speculation becomes frustration.

But in faith we trust, and we praise God for not being like us, even when he clothes himself in our flesh and blood, he avoids the sinful jealousy. Rather he clothes himself in our flesh and blood that he might have mercy on all. He works his salvation his way, and not our way. And if we can’t understand him, then we let that remind us, that we are sinners and he is holy. We live by faith, and living by faith we live in him, and by him, with him and to him. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mercy on All

25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: [4] a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
 27 “and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
 28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now [5] receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. (Romans 11:25-32 (ESV)
“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Wow. All God wants to do is show mercy.
We have all been disobedient. Paul here talks about our relationship with Jews. They are enemies of God for our sake. And yet this is all the more reason to love them. We are to love our enemies. God still loves them, even as he loved us while we were still enemies of God. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable, he says. This is true of those he has given us in baptism too. All have been disobedient that he might have mercy on all, and having mercy on all they might be saved.

This should also color our relationship with all who reject the gospel. We have no reason to be proud. God has shown mercy to us. It is the same mercy he would show to others through us who are now the body of Christ. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Botanical Model


 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root [3] of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Romans 11:12-24 (ESV)
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5 (ESV)
I’m sure my friend Dr. Steven Hein picked up the term from somewhere, but I first heard it from him, “The Botanical Model of Sanctification”. It’s as Bo Giertz says, from a holy root grows a holy tree. We have been grafted into a holy tree. It’s really a funny thing. Again, God turns the whole world upside down. No one does this! No one takes fox grape branches and grafts them into a Pinot Noir vine. It’s the other way around. You take a branch from the fruit tree or vine that you enjoy, and you graft it onto a wild vine or Tree that would otherwise be a weed. Weeds always grow better than anything you would like to see grow, they just seem to have better root systems. But for some reason, the God takes the branches from what would be weeds and grafts them onto his root, and they produce the fruit he wants. The fruit is made holy because of the vine, and the vine is Christ. He cut the other branches off so that he could graft the gentiles in. It’s his vineyard, his olive tree. He gets the fruit he wants and the fruit is you. We abide in him through faith. It is unbelief that causes a branch to be broken off. So we remain in him by faith, and the sap that sustains faith is the gospel and the sacraments, not the fruit.

The tendency is to look at the fruit rather than the vine. Perhaps we are afraid that if we don’t produce the fruit that God wants he will break off the branch. But it is precisely when we begin trying to produce different fruit that we lose hope and break faith. If you graft a branch of fox grapes onto a Pinot Noir vine, you will get fox grapes. They don’t look as nice, and depending on your personal taste, they don’t taste as good either. But some people like them. Perhaps, given new soil and a stronger more established vine the fox grapes will be bigger, better, bolder, but they will still be fox grapes, and the fox grapes looking over at the pinot noir grapes will be jealous, and human nature what it is, the pinot noir grapes will be jealous of the fox grapes. And so one becomes jealous of another’s sacrifice, and it isn’t Able that is killed, but Cain who loses faith and murders, a much worse death. And it is all because we are looking at ourselves and comparing ourselves to others around us. But God knows what he wants, and he has grafted you into his vine because he wants what you. He knew what your grapes would look like, what they would taste like before he grafted you in, and we can trust that as long as we abide in him we are producing the fruit he wants, even if it looks to us inferior. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

By Grace, Not by Works


11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, [1] a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”
 9 And David says,
“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and bend their backs forever.”
11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion [2] mean! (Romans 11:1-12 (ESV)
“But if it is by grace, then it is no longer on the basis of works. Otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
So Paul points to the problem, what the Jews strive for with works is given to the gentiles, and the remnant of the Jews by grace. If salvation is to be obtained it is to be obtained by grace that is as a gift. And if you work for the gift, it will be taken from you and given to another. Work for a gift? Who does that? It’s actually fairly common when it comes to the gift of salvation, and thus we lose it.
At times, accepting a gift is a humiliating experience. Some people call it “taking charity,” and they are too proud to take charity. What Paul here exposes as the problem for Israel, is all too often our problem even as Christians that no better. Paul here is showing how God remains true to his promises to Israel, and what that will finally mean for the whole world. If there rejection means riches for the world, their inclusion will mean so much more! But they will be included in the same way the gentiles are included, by grace and not by works. So to obtain salvation, to receive the gift a person has to despair of works.

It isn’t that they can’t do works, to that topic Paul will turn momentarily, but the works cannot be done with the purpose of pacifying God, or trying to earn his good graces. To approach works in such a manner as that is to create an idol, it is to trust in the work rather than the gift. It is one or the other, a man cannot have two masters. But the grace of God inspires us to work for his kingdom, inspires us with joy, and this sort of thing radically changes the nature of the work to be done, as well as the attitude with which it is approached.  And then we rejoice because God uses even our failures for his purposes, even as he used the failure of the Israelites to bring salvation to the gentiles. This is a God who turns the whole world upside down. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Transfiguration

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, [2] which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; [3] listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. Luke 9:28-36 (ESV)

42:1 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isaiah 42:1-3 (ESV)
And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”
The point was to bring to mind Isaiah 42 and the suffering servant. This transfiguration happens shortly after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. They knew that they were seeing God in the flesh, that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God dwelt bodily. They knew he was the Messiah, but they were having trouble understanding what that meant. Immediately after this confession, Jesus starts talking about going to Jerusalem, about being handed over, about suffering and dying. Peter is horrified. I dare say we would have been too, perhaps we still are.
As goes the Lord so goes the servant. If they call Jesus Beelzebub, can the disciples ask for anything better. It is enough for the student to be like the Master, to be like his teacher. Christ’s suffering meant that his disciples would suffer, that all his disciples would suffer for his name’s sake, including you and including me.
This isn’t what we want to hear. Suffering is part of this world. Being born of flesh and blood, suffering belongs to our primordial memories. It is not without reason we break the womb with wails and screaming. Suffering, it is precisely this that we hope to be saved from! As far as Peter was concerned Christ had it all wrong, the Messiah was supposed to eliminate suffering. The Messiah was supposed to usher in a golden age of wealth and privilege that would make King Solomon look like small potatoes. So Peter, and the rest of the disciples could not comprehend that the man they knew to be the messiah was talking of suffering. But Jesus understood what it meant to be the Chosen one.
A bruised reed he would not break, a smoldering wick he would not snuff out, he would faithfully bring forth Justice, righteousness. This is what he came to do. In all our efforts to avoid suffering, we only bring on more. Jesus knew the futility of that path for mankind. And he knew that there was no avoiding it for mankind. See, Jesus says a man must pick up his cross and follow him. But the cross is his, it belongs to the man who picks it up. It really isn’t as if we could avoid crosses in this life. The question is, what are we going to do with the cross, are we going to let it kill us in vain, or are we going to follow Jesus with it? Jesus knew there was only one answer to our suffering in this world, and that was that he would suffer in our place, alongside us and blaze a trail through the kingdom of death that would lead to an open tomb. So he goes to Jerusalem. So he has himself handed over. So he suffers in our place and dies in our stead. And this is why the Father says that Jesus is his chosen one in whom he delights. Because the Father knows that in him the world will be restored, in him we will have salvation. So he tells them to listen to him, who stands before us today transfigured in white. And we listen to him, because he will not break the bruised reed, he will not quench the faintly burning wick, but to them he says, “Take heart, the world will give you tribulation, but I have overcome the world.” To them he says, “Take eat this is my body… Take drink, this cup is the New Testament in My Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And this he is able to say because he was the chosen one, the one chosen to suffer and die that we might live.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Have They Not Heard?

18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.”
 19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
 20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
“I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
 21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
(Romans 10:18-21 (ESV)
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth.” There are some people who seem to think Jesus Christ cannot come back yet, because the world has not been evangelized. These people need to read scripture. There is a reason people aren’t sure whether or not Paul thought Jesus would come back in his generation. It is because Paul was very well aware that the possibility existed in his generation. Paul understood that everything had been fulfilled already in his day. And for him this was all the more reason to preach the good news today. There was no ulterior motive for Paul. He was not trying to bring about Armageddon or the golden age of the millennium or any such other thing, he was trying to save people before the day of judgment fell upon them all, that he might save some he would say.  The gospel has indeed reached the ends of the earth. Paul was not ignorant of the fact that there were people outside the Roman Empire. He was aware that there were peoples and nations he had never heard of, and yet he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is aware that neither Jew nor gentile can rely on the excuse that they have not heard, neither can they say they have not understood. He is also realizes that his people will reject the gospel for the most part. It isn’t antisemitism that causes him to write this way. It is the reality he sees. Paul does not count the Jewish people as saved in any other manner than what saves the Gentiles. If it is not Christ, then it is no one. Jesus Christ is Lord! 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How Can They Believe?


 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? [3] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:13-17 (ESV)
“So faith comes from hearing.” The act of election is not an event in the distant past, a roll call taken before time in which God arbitrarily condemns some and saves others. God’s election happens in and through the preaching of his word and the administration of his sacraments here in time. This is why our confessions say the church is to be found where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution. We trust that the Holy Spirit is at work there calling people by the gospel and forgiving sins. This is sanctification, the concreted application of justification, which is always objective and universal.

Furthermore, this is why Christ has instituted his church, to see that this work is done. This is the purpose of the church. And this is why one can’t truly be Christian and voluntarily separate himself from the church. Sure, there are times when a Christian finds himself without a church that he can be a part of. However, this is normally not the case. Being a member of a local congregation is in and of itself and act of Christian love. It is a recognition that God has given us all different gifts, but has also incorporated us all into his body to be one with one another. It is an act of forgiveness to receive forgiveness with fellow sinners. And more than that it is a recognition that the work God has entrusted to the church is work that is necessary for your community also. It is love also for your neighbor who isn’t a Christian and perhaps resents the presence of the church in his community. Here God is at work creating Christians. 

I'm going to add to this a bit. Pastors can't work without a congregation to support them. Pastors often get a lot of credit for the work they do. But realize this, when you see a baby being baptized, that happened because of your offerings. When you see families becoming members of your congregation that is the Lord blessing your work in that congregation. The pastor may be the primary individual involved in evangelism, but it is you who make that work possible. We can't all deliver pizzas to each other. Neither can we all be pastors, nor can we all be lay people. And if we work hard at our vocations and attend our families needs it is perhaps unrealistic to think that we should also be knocking on doors. Perhaps, we have time and inclination to do that, perhaps we don't. It doesn't mean that we are any less valued by God, or that we aren't pulling our part.