Monday, June 15, 2015

Like A Mustard Seed

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mark 4:26-34 (ESV)
The Kingdom of God, Jesus compares it to wheat sown in the ground, to mustard seeds that blossom into bushes within which the birds of the air can find home and refuge. But what is this kingdom that he speaks of? Often we think of political realities, places like the United Kingdom, Norway or Sweden places that still have kings, perhaps even if they don’t truly reign over their country anymore and let the people rule for themselves. But what is a kingdom without the reign, the rule of a king? And it is this that Jesus speaks about, and his rule is not that of an earthly king, but he rules through grace, forgiveness, love and mercy in those who believe his word. His reign is faith, his kingdom is grace, for he does not lord it over as the gentiles do, or come to be served, but comes to serve, to bathe us in forgiveness and wash our feet with grace, to adopt as children and parent us with love. It is this that is like a grain of wheat sown in the ground that grows up while one sleeps, a mustard seed that has potential to outgrow the garden.
It can be unpredictable, the word of God, this mustard seed. Farmers plant in the spring, and hope for good weather. It’s out of their control. Oh, there are somethings they can do. Perhaps make sure there is water when it is dry. They can spray for weeds and pests. But an ill-timed hail storm can wipe them out, and what do you do with drought? Well, as Christians we don’t need to worry about that so much, we have the word of God, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, an inexhaustible reservoir of water  for the mustard plant growing in our souls, if we just find time to make use of it. It is in the word of God, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper that the Holy Spirit is at work planting, watering, pruning and harvesting, and yet though we can be sure he is there and at work, there is often much mystery.
It’s the constant worry of parents, will my children, will my child be a believer? But then they are believers, they have been baptized, they have been given the gift of faith. Will they remain believers is perhaps the more appropriate question.  We plant the seed, we baptize them. We take them to church and Sunday school as often as we can. This is actually an important part of faith formation, here in the divine service gathered with other believers praying the same prayers, being visited by Christ together in his word and in Holy Communion, putting aside the petty squabbles that might be churning the gossip mills at any given moment but forgiving our neighbors at least so much that here in this sanctuary, where we all become one by eating from the same loaf that is Jesus Christ, the bread of life who has come down from heaven, here we forgive on another at least so much as to be able to kneel next to one another not only in the confession of sins, but in in the reception of forgiveness in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And perhaps it doesn’t look like our kids are getting much out of it, though they do enjoy that children’s sermon. But they learn more than you can ever imagine. They may not grasp the sermon, sometimes spoken in innuendo, and figures of speech, parables understood by those who are meant to understand, adults perhaps dealing with harsher realities of life. Yet the Holy Spirit is here also watering the souls of the tender little ones Jesus says believe in him, the little ones he would have suffered, and not forbidden, but be brought on to him and be blessed, and blessed they are. They learn as if by osmosis through the rhythm of the liturgy which has shaped the life of believers from infancy through to life eternal, generation after generation even since the days of Moses.
And no, it doesn’t guarantee that your children are going be perfect little angels avoiding the sins of associated with David, or Samson, Abraham or Solomon. Fact is, your children will more than likely be the spitting image of you yourself when the world looks on. And for as much as you repeat the mantra “do as I say and not as I do” and pray that they listen, they will often be about as helpless as you find yourself when you are doing what you do and not as you say. But then, well then you have raised them in the faith teaching them when they lie down with bed time prayers, teaching them along the way as they sit eating cheerios during the sermon, teaching them when they rise, perhaps nothing more than a Portals of Prayer devotion in the morning. And then when they find themselves in the pits of Sheol, or the local jail, facing the consequences of life in a sinful world amidst a sinful generation, well then they will find there an old friend, a beloved brother lifting upon them his benevolent face and giving them peace as he has given you peace. For it was them, these little one’s baptized into his grace, lifted up into his arms and folded to his breasts even before they could speak, in whom Christ himself has planted the mustard seed of faith to be a place of refuge for them, it was for them he died on the cross, broke his body and shed his blood that they would know the forgiveness of sins and the joy of salvation.

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Taking Some Time Off

Summer is here. My boy is here. After consideration over the last few days I have decided that I will be taking this month off at a minimum. I don't know when I will be back on. Maybe July sometime, Perhaps September. I am translating Bo Giertz's commentary on Romans right now, and doing a Bible Study on Romans as well. So when I do come back the material should be pretty good. But I need to cut the work load a little right now. When finished with Romans I will have blogged through every book of the N.T. save the first five chapters of 1 Corinthians which I may go to just to say I've completed the task after what seems 7? years of blogging. Maybe then I'll go back to O.T.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Strong Man is Plundered

20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
 Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
 28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
 Jesus' Mother and Brothers
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers [2] are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-35 (ESV)
For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.
It’s a hard text, familial strife and houses divided. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that his gospel would tear families apart. That he did not come to bring peace but a sword. Here Jesus is at the height of his ministry. Crowds are flocking to him from all over, Jesus and his disciples don’t hardly have the time to recline at a table and eat in a civilized manner. The people are catching on that he is claiming to be a bit more than a prophet, and it sounds a lot like blasphemy. A person reading this text is really given the two options for the unbeliever in relation to Jesus. Not a good teacher, not a prophet, but if he is not God himself, the savior of the world the stronger man who has bound the strong man to plunder his goods, you and I and make us to be his brother sister and mother, then he is a lunatic or a charlatan.
There were many who like Mary in the house of her sister Martha did the will of God and sat at his feet to listen to him, who believed him and received him, who heard his gospel and saw him cast out the demons, heal the sick and make the lame to run. And to this day those united  by the bonds of his blood, born from above in the water and the word, these people share a familial love, they are brothers and sisters of Christ and therefore brothers and sisters, even mothers. A love that the world doesn’t understand, a love that can turn mother against daughter, son against father. And so we even have the very family of Jesus, Mary and his brothers.
It’s crazy to think on this, how Mary could have such a hard time believing. Perhaps here we get an idea of how impossible it is for us to do the will of God. This is what Luther gets at when he says in the explanation to the third article of the creed, “I believe I cannot by my own reason and strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or  come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, sanctified me with his gifts.” Here is Mary, who we praise in the Magnificat  as the most blessed of women, chosen to be the Theotokus, God Bearer as it is said, in the deep recesses of mystery this woman gave birth to God, gave birth to her own creator. We think it is amazing that she gave birth as a virgin, and it is, but that only served that greater paradox of time and eternity that occurred in the incarnation. And so willingly too. She was there when the wise men knelt in the grotto to pay homage to the God of Gods, she was  there to hear the words of Saint Simeon’s Song the first time it was ever sung. She was there when all the booze ran dry and Jesus changed the water to wine. You have to ask yourself. How? How can this be the one who thinks Jesus is out of his mind, who goes along with her children and says  we have to go get your brother, you know he was always a little touched in the head? What bewitchment causes the mother of God to doubt the word of her son?
Now perhaps we understand a little about this talk of strong men, and plunder. This is God’s creation. But we ought not ever doubt the power of the prince of the air, the prince of this world as Jesus calls him the destroyer, it was not complete tomfoolery when he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of this world. We do not fight against flesh and blood, Paul says in Ephesians, “but against rulers and authorities, against cosmic powers over this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” These forces of evil dominate this world, but not Jesus. He tosses them out of people as if they were nothing more than a ten pound sack of flour. And they say he uses the black arts, that it is by beelzebul that he does this. They accuse him, in essence to be one of the necromancing diviners of fortune that kneeled at marries feet in the grotto to worship the God suckling at her breast, the wise men as we call them that made their living in the black arts for the likes of Nebuchadnezzar. Men like Simon the Magician of Acts 8, or the seven sons of Sceva, and Bar-Jesus of Acts thirteen whom Paul Blinds, Jewish itinerants and rollers of bones who were famous for their work in the black arts. They say Jesus has an unclean Spirit, and this is how he does what he does. They know better, these scribes that have come down from Jerusalem about a 1000 feet above sea level to this town of Capernaum that is actually below sea level. They can hear the words of Jesus, the gospel preached to the poor, they can see the kingdom of God breaking in. But it is an affront to their own authority as shepherds of Israel, the authority with which they beat and abused the sheep rather than feed the sheep. For this reason Jesus says they are blaspheming the Holy Spirit the sin for which there is no forgiveness. Hardening their hearts against the gospel, turning away from forgiveness and refusing it so that they can hold on to their prestige, their pride, so that they can save their lives as they know it and preserve their empires of dirt and death.

But no, what is happening is a stronger man has broken in, Jesus, the Son of God himself has bound Satan and is plundering his house. The kingdom of God is in the midst of a hostile takeover of Satan’s dominions, and the treasure of the house is not silver or gold, diamonds or pearls for which slaves at the time could be purchased and for which they themselves could purchase their freedom. No, the treasures of the house are the slaves of sin, death and the devil, born as children of the wrath of God, under bondage to sin, people who never do the good that they would, but bad they would not. And this describes even Mary and the brothers of Jesus. People who cannot by their own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ their Lord and savior or come to him, but who then are called by the gospel. People of flesh and blood, us men and women. We are the treasures that Jesus comes to plunder, to take to be his, that the will of God would be done in our lives, that we would believe we have been ransomed and purchased with his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death to become his brothers and sisters and mothers, purchased with his blood who fell in battle for us, only to overcome this world of death, and rise again to the new life in which we now walk because the treasure he plundered with his death is you, his brother, his sister, his mother. Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Preached Boldly

30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense, [7] and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:30-31 (ESV)
Thus ends Acts. It’s sort of anti-climatic. We don’t know what happens to Paul? Does he get acquitted? What? Does he go to Spain? What happens?
Acts doesn’t tell us. There are other sources that tell us Paul did indeed make it to Spain. He died in Rome after returning evidently. He is buried alongside Peter. Acts, of course is our most reliable source of information regarding the history of Paul and Peter, but a person would do well to read Eusebius’s Church History if they want the continuation of the story.
It’s hard to imagine that after all this Paul would lose his hearing. At this time the Roman government wasn’t hostile to Christianity. Though Nero would change that as he went more and more insane. But here you have Paul spending two years in his own home renting at his own expense. How he covered those expenses is not said. He preached the gospel though, that much we know, under guard in house arrest, but nonetheless without hindrance.

He spoke it boldly, and it took root. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

They Will Listen

17 After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. 18 When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. 19 But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. 20 For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” 21 And they said to him, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you. 22 But we desire to hear from you what your views are, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.”
 23 When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. 25 And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people, and say,
You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
 27 For this people's heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
 28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (Acts 28:17-28 (ESV)
Paul sets up a meeting with the Jewish leadership  of Rome. Since he is there because of the Jews in Jerusalem it only makes sense that he speak to the Jews in Rome first. Of course, he always went to the Jews first to try and convince them of the gospel, and there is some of that going on here too. He tells them that he is there on account of the hope of Israel. They say they haven’t heard anything concerning him, but they are willing to listen. Except they  aren’t really, they reject everything Paul has to say. Though mention is made that some did believe, generally it is not considered his most successful  attempt at conversion. I’m not always sure what that should mean. If one sinner repents it is time to rejoice with angels. He preached the gospel. It saw fruit, but not much. Paul then quotes Isaiah in judgment of those who don’t believe, a washing of hands. The passage he quotes was one that Isaiah first spoke to Israel concerning them. It wasn’t one that the Jews liked to hear cited. It is one that to this day undermines the idea that Jews are saved by virtue of being Jews, or somehow they are saved under the “old covenant” when the new has come.

Paul says the gentiles will listen. And they do. At least some of them do. Listening is what needs to happen. Faith comes through hearing, this will be what Paul says in our next book whose study we will begin on Monday. We only have two verses left in this one. But this listening sheds a little light on what is meant by hearing, and even what is often meant by obeying in such places where it talks of obeying the gospel. The words are often used somewhat synonymously with each other today. Hearing and listening especially. Here it is a case of two different words used to translate the same word, akuo, if you will forgive transliteration. Paul says that it is through  akuo hearing that we are saved. The word for obey upakuo has the same root with a prefix meaning hyper. It is an intense hearing, what we might call a listening, which often carries the connotation of obeying also, but often means just to pay attention to, there may be nothing there to “obey.” As the word is used today. A person obeys orders, they listen to a speech. But when a person doesn’t obey we often say they aren’t listening, when it very well could be that they are listening, and just don’t care to obey. But when we listen to the gospel we take it to heart, and it nourishes us, it saves us. Not because we obey it, but because we believe it. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Paul Takes Courage at the Three Taverns

11 After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods [4] as a figurehead. 12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14 There we found brothers [5] and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15 And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. 16 And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him. (Acts 28:11-16 (ESV)
“On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” This implies that Paul was perhaps a bit apprehensive and unsure. He had written to the Romans three years prior to all of this from Corinth. Since then much had taken place, and though God had allowed Paul to live, a person can understand him being distraught. Sometimes it isn’t the living that you worry about, but what you are going to have to live through and endure. Sometimes living is harder than dying. Paul would have to be in Rome quite some time before he would be heard. During this time he would be a prisoner. Things would be perhaps quite difficult for him if the Christians of Rome had turned their backs on him, if indeed the Judiazers had gotten in among them to the point where they would contradict him. A prisoner under house arrest has a hard time making a living. At this time prisoners were dependent on family and Paul had none. No one to bring him food, or provide him shelter. He would have to rely on the Roman Christians for this sort of thing.

Now he is very relieved that the Christians have met him at Three Taverns. He doesn’t know them. He’s just relieved. If they have come it means his letter has found good soil as it were. They are willing to take him under their wing and support him, even as a prisoner. They had received his message with joy. This is something to take heart in, the gospel at work. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Paul Survives Snake Bite

“28:1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native people [1] showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice [2] has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
 7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They also honored us greatly, [3] and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.” (Acts 28:1-10 (ESV)
So Paul ends up converting the island of Malta. The ESV translates Luke’s “barbarians” as native people. In Greek a Barbarian was simply a person who didn’t speak Greek. Here they still spoke a Phoenician dialect closely related to Arabic, as was pointed out last week the inhabitants of Malta are still strongly anchored in Catholicism, and their word for God is Allah.
The conversion begins with Paul getting bit by a snake. Today there aren’t any poisonous snakes on Malta, but we have no idea what may have been there at the time. The people recognized the snake as being poisonous and we have no reason to doubt that it was. The island is actually closer to the coast of North Africa than it is to Italy, and there has historically been a lot of trade between Malta and the rest of the Mediterranean, any number of snakes could have found their way to the island through such trade, or have been natural inhabitants that later died out from the island.
In any case, the people thought for sure that Paul would die. But he doesn’t.  This always brings to mind for me passages like Mark 16. That the disciples would be bit by snakes, and not be harmed was something that Jesus had alluded to during their first missionary journeys also. And though there is much reason to believe that Jesus was speaking figuratively of spiritual matters, there is also this sort of concrete fulfillment of it. Missionaries to this day, as well as faithful pastors, can relate many similar instances when death seemed imminent and yet was overcome. Though my dad ended up going to a hospital for treatment, I still remember when he was stung by a scorpion gathering firewood in Botswana, and not realizing it had let venom work its way quite perilously into his system before life saving measures were taken. There was something of chance related to him getting the medical attention he needed in time, and the rest of us were quite thankful for his survival. To see a fulfilment of Mark 16 in such things makes much more sense than the practice of putting God to the test while visiting the Ozarks. You don’t see Paul here doing any sort of “snake handling”. He throws the snake into the fire is what he does. He doesn’t seem to have been a St. Francis in the making.
When Paul doesn’t die the people go from believing he is a criminal to believing he is a god, which in ancient thought didn’t necessarily rule out being a criminal…. But  here you see a religious mindset common to all strata of class in antiquity. It was largely the gospel that did away with what today we would call superstition. But as society is doing away with the gospel as “the last of the superstitions,” it seems superstitions of this type are coming in to fill the void again. Today, people are spiritual not religious. And that isn’t just a pick up line. It’s an actual description of society, where Christianity is seen as superstition, but palm reading, horroscopes, crystal healing and so forth are accepted more and more. The Maltese seemed very eager to do away with such superstition in favor of Christianity.