Improving the Cross

There’s a woodworker inside us who won’t let the cross of Jesus remain the cross of Jesus; it’s raw material for a new, “improved” creation. And here are two of his favorites.

sawingwoodThis woodworker within us unfastens the two beams, takes his hammer and saw, and goes to work. Soon the cross has been transformed into a ladder. Jesus is on top and we’re on bottom. And all we must do is climb up to him. Hand over hand, one rung at a time, we move up from a life of rebellion to an obedient life of discipleship. One rung at a time, we ascend from being immoral to moral, bad to good, unholy to holy. The closer we climb to Jesus on the cross-ladder, the more he blesses us. All he asks is that we give it our best shot. Climb slowly or climb quickly; it doesn’t matter. Just set your heart on the climb to Christ. He’s standing up top, cheering us on, shouting down advice and encouragement.

But that’s not all our woodworker likes to do with the cross. Sometimes, when he’s finished sawing and carving and hammering, the cross has been transformed into a pair of crutches. We know that none of us are perfect. All of us, in various ways, wind up wounded and broken. But we must somehow stumble our way along the path of life. And the cross-crutches are there to help us on the limping walk of faith. We can’t support our whole weight; we need help. The cross becomes that help, that stability, that pair of crutches. We do our best; that’s all anyone can ask. Life is a long pilgrimage toward God. And whatever we’re lacking in strength for this pilgrimage is made up for in the cross. Jesus and his cross fill in the gaps. But someday, when we reach Christ, we’ll throw those crutches away and be complete in him.

There’s something very attractive about both the cross-ladder and the cross-crutches. In fact, there’s something about both of them that the woodworker within us finds eminently more appealing than the simple cross of Jesus. Both the ladder and the crutches let us keep skin in the game. They both include us in the process of salvation.

Even if I’m climbing slowly up the rungs to Jesus, at least I’m the one doing it. God is helping me, but it’s still me doing it. Christ assists me in salvation; he doesn’t take it over and do it himself. I climb to him, he doesn’t come down to me. Similarly, even if I’m stumbling along the pathway of life with the cross as my crutches, I’m the one limping. It’s a long road to heaven, but I’ll get there, with God’s help. All I have to do is try my hardest; he’ll make up for any of my deficiencies. Both the ladder and the crutches keep me in control. Ultimately, if I try hard enough, make myself good enough, then I’ll make my goal. And I’ll be sure to give glory to God for helping me achieve success.

The cross of Jesus, however, calls the lie on both these fabrications. It will tolerate neither the ladder nor the crutches. The cross will be the cross, and only the cross of Jesus. It refuses to assist us in our labor. It refuses to lend us a hand as we limp. The cross is there for one reason and one reason only: for us to die on it with Christ.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says. Sinners don’t need help; they need to die. The sinful nature within us—that cross-hating woodworker who dwells in our hearts—doesn’t need assistance or improvement or encouragement. He needs death. He needs the nails and thorns and blood of the cross of Jesus. This is why we revolt against the cross and try to make it something else. We don’t want to relinquish control, admit there’s nothing we can do. We don’t want to die. But death, death with Christ, is the only way.

And it is the best way. When we die with Christ, we die to ourselves and live in him. We are given what we always lacked. He fills us with the peace of knowing that God is happy with us as a father is pleased with his children. He adopts us into the divine family and bids us call him Abba, Father. All the stupid mistakes we’ve made, the evil we have participated in, the shame we feel for what we’ve done—all of that dies on the cross as well. Jesus takes it away. He wraps us around himself. We are clothed with him. We wear Jesus. His name and identity become ours. We are no longer alone; we are his family.

The cross is not a ladder by which we climb up to heaven; Jesus came down from heaven and climbed onto the cross to give us everything we need and more. The cross is not a pair of crutches by which we hobble our way toward salvation; on the cross, Christ won our salvation perfectly.

The cross is the cross. It will be nothing else. It cannot be improved. For on it the Lord of life gave us himself, and gives us to himself for eternity.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

The Beginner’s Guide to Giving Your Sin a Holy Name

märchenThe first lie I remember telling revealed everything about the man I would grow up to be. In six false words I prophesied my future—and yours as well. Here’s what happened.

Half a block down from my childhood home in Jal, New Mexico, a mechanic had set up shop years before. The half-acre of ground resembled an oil spill. A rickety old tin building housed the guts of every vehicle that had ever rolled down America’s highways. Cars and pickups, some old, some new, punctuated the yard.

One day my buddy, Tom, and I decided that we wanted to break into one of those cars. Just a couple of six year old criminals, we were. In my childhood naiveté, I had also decided that in my dad’s huge ring of assorted keys there must be at least one that fit those cars. So I pocketed the keys and Tom and I snuck down to the mechanic’s yard. Hunkered down behind a shiny Chevrolet, I began systematically to try every key on the lock.

We didn’t hear her walk up behind us. But there she stood, feet spread apart, wrestler-sized forearms crossed over her imposing bosom. A giant of a woman, the mechanic’s wife was.
“What in the hell,” she spat, “are you boys doing?”
With mouths agape, we turned and looked up. She glared through eyes as cold as December. “Well?” she repeated. I looked at Tom, and Tom stared wildly back at me. Then I looked back up at the giantess.
“Um,” I stammered, “we…Tom and I here,” jabbing my thumb in his direction, “we were just…um.”
“You were just what? What are you doing messing around with this car?” she said.
And then I said it. In six words I prophesied my future: “Well, we were gonna fix it.”
And Tom and I, out of lies, exploded from the car and ran like the wind.

Luther once said that sin never wants to be sin; it always wants to be righteousness. Although I was too young to have mastered the skill of lying, I also knew that I couldn’t very well tell this woman the truth. I didn’t want this to be stealing keys, trespassing, and breaking into a car. No, I wanted it to appear good and right and downright neighborly. I didn’t want my sin to be sin; I wanted it to be righteousness. And that boyish desire to justify every action, no matter how wrong, hasn’t changed; it accelerated and expanded as I became a man.

We are name-changers, you and I. We grasp the potency of language. It’s as if we’ve all memorized The Beginner’s Guide to Giving Your Sin a Holy Name. So as I named my childish mischief “fixing the car,” we christen our greed as “wise business sense.” We dub our slander as “truth-telling.” We brand the slaughter of infants as “a mother’s freedom.” We talk of racism as “love of tradition.” We identify adultery as “looking for our true soulmate.” On and on it goes. And when we want to be really convincing, we put a stamp of divine approval on the name change. We say things like, “the Lord has put on my heart that I should…” Or, “I feel the Lord would want me to….” Or, “God would want me to be happy so I’m going to….” Go ahead, name the sin, any sin, and I’ll show you how we’ve renamed it as righteousness.

What I find most revealing about this renaming tendency is the pressing need we feel to justify our actions. Think about it. Hardwired into us is the desire to be in the right, no matter what. We cannot stand the thought of admitting that we have lied, cheated, stolen, hated, or slandered, for the moment we confess these wrongs, we confess that we are standing outside the house of justification. So instead of confessing our sins, we sanctify them. Why? So we can declare ourselves justified in the eyes of God and our neighbor. So deep is our desire to be in the right that we will do every wrong to make it seem otherwise. Our greatest fear is revealing who we really are.

What we don’t realize, however, is that our greatest freedom actually begins when we confess who we really are. When we un-name our renaming of sin, we open up the possibility of true righteousness—and along with it, true peace and forgiveness. When we say, “I am a thief. I am a slanderer. I am a murderer, adulterer, bigot,” we strip away our self-justification and admit that we stand naked and filthy before the only true judge of our actions, God himself.

At that moment we are exposed to an astonishing truth: that God doesn’t want sin to be sin either. He too wants us to be righteous. What he does, however, is not rename our evils or excuse our sin; he removes it. Or to say it more accurately, he transfers it. He takes our lying and cheating and all other wrongs and wraps them round the body of a substitute. He says, “Jesus, take these away. Do for your brothers and sisters what they cannot do for themselves.” And he does. He assumes ownership of our wrongdoing; he willingly becomes our scapegoat. He says, “This transgression and that transgression are mine. All evil is mine, past, present, future. It is no longer yours. And I won’t ever give it back.”

But Christ does even more. Not content merely to pay the penalty for our crimes, to give us a clean start, he invests us with the riches of his own righteousness. We assume his identity, wear his clothes, are called by his name, are treated as royalty. Jesus dies, and we in him, and so our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Who he is, we are, and who we are, he is. Is Jesus perfect? So are we. Is Jesus holy and righteous and pleasing to his Father? So are we. Is Jesus the heir of heaven, the Father’s child, the beloved of God? So are we, for it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. All of this—as crazy and outlandish as it sounds—is as true as the fact that the sun shines and the rivers flow. Christ has done it all for you.

As for the book, The Beginner’s Guide to Giving Your Sin a Holy Name, you don’t need it. In quite another kind of book you yourself are renamed as the Father’s beloved, the brother and sister of Jesus, the temple of the Spirit, a forgiven and justified saint. And those new, God-given names now define who you are. And will, to all eternity.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Planned Parenthood and Our Complicity in Evil

plannedparenthood109It happened during a meal. In between bites, Planned Parenthood executive Deborah Nucatola bragged that abortionists are “very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part. I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” All around her people are eating and drinking, waiters are taking orders. She lifts her fork to her mouth, talks about the best way to crush a baby so as to harvest the most commodities from his body, chews the food, swallows it. As my wife and I watched the video last night, despite all the horrific details, the thought that wouldn’t go away was this: it all happened around a table, during polite conversation, as if this were business as usual.

Evil never has the face I want it to. I anticipate a gargoyle-like imp to skulk by but the girl next door fills the room with her smile. I’m scouting for a whispered huddle in darkness behind iron doors but instead three people sit around a restaurant table to dialogue publicly. Serial killers and child rapists and human traffickers look like they might show up at my family reunion as Uncle Charlie and no one would bat an eye. I don’t want evil to look that way. I don’t want it to look ordinary, neighborly, inconspicuous. In other words, I don’t want evil to look like me.

One of the most frightening truths to embrace is that we are complicit in the atrocities of this world. We decry the horrific selfishness of the murder of unborn infants. We oppose all manner of societal evils. And we are right, indeed, duty bound, to do so and to continue doing so. Yes, by every godly means possible, let us labor and fight with unflagging zeal, with truth, with love, against injustice of every kind.

And as we do, let us also recognize that if we go far enough back, we’ll discover that the Deborah Nucatolas of this world are our sister. According to the Bible, we all have the same father and mother. And in this world, east of Eden, that parentage oozes sin from our inmost selves, at times graphic, at times prosaic, but always evil nonetheless. The human population is a family gone wrong. And still going wrong. And none of us are innocent.

In some ways I understand, and in other ways too profound for me to grasp, I have fed the flames of the ongoing corruption of the world. The ripple effect of my callousness, my self-absorption, my demand for preferential treatment, my glory-lust, my pride, my selfish ambition, my perversion of sexuality—the ripple effect of all these extends to my family and friends and often to complete strangers.

Let me give you an example. Last week, a delivery driver for one of my customers zipped in behind me and cut me off when I was backing up to their dock. I lost my cool. I was pissed off. So I confronted him inside the dock area. I told him, in no uncertain terms, just what I thought of his stupid, unsafe action. Unbeknownst to me, his boss was standing nearby. He took me aside and asked me what had happened. So I told him. And he said that he would take care of it.

Now what if that other driver had lost his job because I, in my anger, confronted him the way I did? And what if he stormed home to his wife and children, furious because he was fired. And he and his wife got into a screaming match, the children cowered behind their bedroom doors, and he slammed the door behind him to head to the local bar. And suppose he got wasted that night, climbed behind the wheel, and didn’t see the red light, nor the semi coming from the other direction. And the next day, after a long chain of events begun by my loss of temper, a man wound up in the morgue, his wife a widow, and their little children left with the final memory of their father being an angry, unemployed, embittered man.

This is far from an unrealistic possibility. This stuff happens. And it is but one tiny example of a world in which the web of evil is entirely connected at every juncture. As my friend, William Cwirla, put it on my Facebook page, “We’d like to rid the world of evil. But then, we’d have to rid the world of ourselves.” As long as we continue to sin, we feed the monster of a creation curved inward.

That is why, when I watched the video of the executive talk about harvesting body parts from aborted children, I not only thought, “This is horrific. This must be stopped. This must be exposed.” I also thought, “What have I done to help create a world in which these things happen? What evils have I done that have contributed to such evils within my human family? How have I failed, in love and compassion, to help my brothers and sisters who offer, procure, and even profit from abortions?” No matter how loudly I decry an evil in society, let me even more loudly decry the evils in my own soul.

Dexter Morgan talks about the dark passenger whom he cannot flee. I wish he were right. But that darkness is not a passenger; he’s behind the wheel. He’s within us. He has infiltrated every part of who we are. So as much as we lament abortion, let us lament our lack of love for the neighbor, our hatred for those who do us wrong, for all our aborted attempts to do good. As much as we lament rape, let us lament our perverted fantasies, our lustful desires, our abuse of others for our selfish satisfaction. As much as we lament racism, let us lament our inflated opinions of our own moral superiority to others.

The longer I stare into the face of evil in the world, the more clearly do I see the reflection of my own face. And the more clearly do I do see my need for Jesus Christ, who is the only hope for us all. In him we have forgiveness and in him we have peace. We also have love for our neighbor, who is our brother and sister. It is a love that calls us to confront evil of every form, beginning with the evil inside us and extending outward to all.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

When Rumpelstiltskin Teaches Bible Class

rumpelstilskinThere are parts the Bible that should have “Rumpelstiltskin Required” written at the top. As that little man spun straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, we could use his assistance to spin biblical straw into spiritual gold. Take your pick. Maybe it’s one of those Leviticus chapters that sounds like it’s written more for veterinarians or butchers than Christians. Maybe it’s a chapter from Exodus or Ezekiel that’s as exhilarating as staring at a blueprint. Yes, “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” but in all honesty some of it leaves us snoring (2 Tim 3:16). And perhaps nowhere is that more true than with genealogies.

They’re planted throughout the OT and NT, these family trees. So-and-so begat so-and-so who begat so-and-so. Exhausting lists of tongue-twisting names. They’re evidently important, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been included. In fact, the NT itself kicks off with the genealogy of Jesus. If all Scripture “is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), then how are genealogies profitable?

Let’s take one example, from Genesis 5. It’s a list of the ten generations from Adam to Noah. It covers 1686 years. You may be surprised that you don’t need Rumpelstiltskin at all when reading Genesis 5. This chapter doesn’t need to be spun into anything; it’s already gold.

  1. This family tree branches toward Bethlehem. When God first gave the promise of the Gospel, he rooted that promise in the flesh and blood of humanity. He didn’t say, “One day I’ll have my Son just show up on earth.” Rather, he said, “One day a virgin will be pregnant with my Son; he will be the woman’s seed” (Gen 3:15). The family trees in the Bible send their branches in the direction of Bethlehem, where this seed of the woman—the seed of Abraham, the seed of Judah, the seed of David—will be born. Every baby’s birth in the OT puts us one baby closer to the swaddled infant at Mary’s breast. That’s why Matthew begins his Gospel with a family tree; it’s why Luke includes one as well. The roots and trunk and branches of these genealogical trees join the angelic choir to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth,” (Luke 2:14).
  1. This genealogy preaches the need for death’s conquest. Over and over in Genesis 5 the bell tolls upon the death of a sinner. “And he died…and he died…and he died”: eight times that announcement is made. Each time a check is cut for a man who was employed by evil, for “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23). “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” (Rom 5:12). From the demise of Adam to that of Lamech, each death declared the need for God to un-funeral the world, to put his foot on the neck of the grave and press down till death was death and life lived once more. This chapter, therefore, cries out for Good Friday, begs for Easter. It preaches the need for death’s conquest in the death and rising of the woman’s Seed.
  2. This genealogy testifies that these earliest of men were Christians. The first Christians were not Mary and Peter and Paul; they were Adam and Eve. Christianity began in Eden. When God promised to send the woman’s seed to crush the head of the serpent, Adam and Eve believed that promise. They had faith in the Christ who was to come. They were just as Christian as we are today who believe that promise has been fulfilled. Indeed, when Cain was born, Eve was so confident in God’s promise that she supposed her firstborn was already the Seed. She said, literally, “I have gotten a man—Yahweh,” (Gen 4:1). Seven generations later, the father of Noah made the same mistake. When Noah was born, Lamech said, “This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed,” (5:29). Because Noah was the first birth after the death of Adam, Lamech must have thought that now that the first man—the one whose sin had brought a curse upon the ground—was dead, God would renew the earth through his son. Both Eve and Lamech were wrong, of course, but their mistakes only underscore the liveliness of their Christian faith in the coming Messiah.
  1. Genesis 5 gives us a foretaste of Easter in Enoch. There’s one hiccup in the litany of death in Genesis 5. His name is Enoch. And he never had a funeral. We’re told that “he walked with God; and he was not, for God took him,” (5:24). By faith Enoch was pleasing to God (Heb 11:5-6). He too was a Christian; he had faith in the promised Seed. Indeed, Enoch believed not only that Christ would come; as a prophet, he saw past the first coming of Jesus all the way to his final coming, for he prophesied that the Lord will come “with many thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment upon all,” (Jude 14-15). As a testimony to early humanity that this life is but the first chapter of an ongoing life with God, the Lord took Enoch to heaven before he died, just as he would later take Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Thus, in each stage of world history, God has testified that life does not end at death. In the pre-flood world, he gave us the example of Enoch. In the post-flood world, he gave us Elijah. And finally, in the New Testament, he gave us Christ, by whose resurrection we are assured of our own resurrection on the last day. In Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, we are given a foretaste of our Sabbath rest in Easter.

Of these ten generations, Luther says that “next to Christ and John the Baptist, they were the most outstanding heroes this world has ever produced,” (AE 1:334). “That age was truly a golden one,” he writes, “in comparison with it our age hardly deserves to be called an age of mud,” (1:342). This golden age, recorded in this genealogy, is anything but straw. It is a treasure trove of grace, faith, hope, and love. Already in this family tree, we see foreshadowed the tree of the cross. In Enoch, we see prefigured the resurrection of Easter. We observe the life of faith in these earliest of Christians. We have no need of Rumpelstiltskin to spin any straw into gold. When we read Genesis 5—and countless other genealogies—in the light of Christ, we readily grasp how these family trees preach both law and Gospel to us.

To hear a complete discussion of Genesis 5, and why genealogies are so important, listen to this episode of “40 Minutes in the Old Testament.”

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

The World in a Wafer

There comes a time, every week, when upon my tongue rests…
the throne of the Almighty and the wheat fields of Texas
the manger of Bethlehem and the warming rays of the sun
the flesh of the Passover lamb and raindrops from heaven
a John Deere tractor and the God who says I Am Who I Am.

That quarter-sized circle of bread seems but a trifling nibble of a meal, but our eyes deceive us for there is a whole world squeezed into this featherweight food.

The wafer is an amphitheater in which a million actors play their part to get this bread into your mouth. From the factory workers at John Deere plants, to the truck drivers who deliver the diesel, to the farmers who sow and harvest the wheat, to the companies that grind it into flour and bake it into wafers, to the delivery drivers who bring it from factory to church, to the guild who prepares the altar, to the pastors and priests who hold between thumb and forefinger this body of God—they, and countless more, all have roles in this amphitheater of bread.

The wafer is a globe in which all of creation, visible and invisible, things of heaven and things of earth, are in service to the God who feeds the hungry. Here is the surface of the earth broken by the plow, the soil that welcomes the seed into its dark womb. Here are the orbs of the sun whose warm rays massage life and growth into the kernel of grain. Here are the droplets of rain that moisten the soil, that slake the thirst of this seed’s tongue. Here are the nutrients in the soil that enrich its vitality. Here are the angels who watch over the farmers and drivers and factory workers and priests. Here are the saints above who pray for those still saints below. Hidden in this wafer is the globe of all creation working in concert to bring the bread of life into our dying bodies.

The wafer is a halo that encircles the brow of the infant cooing at Mary’s breast in the little town of Bethlehem. It is the wreath upon the head of the athlete whose feet ran the race of salvation that took him from Israel to Egypt to Galilee to cross the finish line in Jerusalem. It is the crown of thorns hammered into his skull by Romans as he was enthroned at Calvary as King of the Jews. The wafer is halo and wreath and crown upon our Brother and Friend whose body was broken so that he might piece back together the shards of our sin-shattered lives.

The world is in this wafer. It is the icon of creation, a window into the good gift of the Maker who fashioned heaven and earth for you. It is the icon of your neighbor, for as a thousand grains are ground and kneaded together into one loaf, so you and your neighbor are baked together into the loaf that is one Christ and one church. It is the icon of the new creation in Christ by whom you are refashioned into the image of God. It is the icon of grace, for in this bread is the body of the Savior who welcomes sinners to his table. It is the icon of the resurrection, for if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live into eternity, for this bread is the flesh of Christ for the life of the world.

As you swallow this wafer, you swallow the world. And your sin is swallowed up by the devouring love of the God who has made you his own, redeemed you, and will raise you up at the last day.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Scuba Diving for Sins and Learning Theology in the Devil’s Classroom

I had two articles published this week on different websites that might be of interest to you: “Scuba Diving for Sins” on Higher Things and “Learning Theology in the Devil’s Classroom” on 1517 Legacy. Here’s an intro to both of them, along with a link that will take you to the full article. Thank you!

“Scuba Diving for Sins”

He suspected it was an ambush. The sweet-sounding invitation to come over and join her on Tuesday afternoon. The smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafting through the air. The glass of cold milk sweating on the table. “Have a seat,” she smiled. He did. Polite small talk. He thanked her and ate a cookie. Drank half the glass of milk. Wiped his mouth with the perfectly folded napkin.

“So, you wanted to talk?”

She did. Not about the unseasonably warm weather or her grandchildren’s new puppy. Other things weighed heavy on her mind. She was concerned, she said. There were things he needed to know. Things about someone in the church.

“Oh,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

Because he just needed to be aware of a bit of this person’s history. You know, since he was the new pastor and everything.

“Oh,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

He took another bite of cookie. She cleared her throat and began, “Well, Pastor, there’s a person in this congregation who…”

“These are good cookies,” he said.

She was good at what she did. She concealed her frustration. Just an ever so slight tightening of the lips. “Well, thank you,” she said. “So, as I was saying, there’s a person who…”

But again he spoke. “Before you begin, can I ask you something?”

There was that tightening of the lips again. “I suppose, if you must.”

“Are you about to tell me about someone else’s sin? Because if you are, I need you to do something for me first.”

“And what exactly might that be?”

“First, tell me three of your deepest, darkest sins-you know, the ones you’ve been hiding from the world for years, the ones you don’t want anyone to find out about.”

“I can’t do that! Anyway, that’s no one’s business but my own.”

He picked up another cookie. Met her eyes. Chewed and swallowed. Finished off the milk. “So, what I hear you saying is that you are perfectly willing to confess someone else’s sins, but not your own?”

A long silence followed. Finally, she said, “Have I told you about my grandchildren’s new puppy?”

Everyone would rather hear evil than good about his neighbor, says Luther in the Large Catechism. And not only hear, but like the lady in this story, they’d rather speak evil than good about their neighbor as well.

It’s like this: When people hear that God has cast all our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19), there are always some who put on scuba gear. Click here to read the full article…

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“Learning Theology in the Devil’s Classroom”

He was a dwarf of a man with coke bottle glasses, but when he told us boys about the Israelites walking dry-shod through the Red Sea, or Jacob rolling in the dirt with the angel, it was like he morphed into a giant Moses. With him, we were right there in the thick of things. He was my first Sunday School teacher. He was good. And he taught me about God. But he wasn’t my best teacher.

He exuded energy and excitement as he marched into the classroom, chalk in hand, to whiten the boards with declensions in Greek or paradigms in Latin. He ushered Rome and Athens into our classroom. Soon we were reading Paul in Paul’s original tongue. He was my language teacher in college. He was good. And he taught me about God. But he wasn’t my best teacher.

And along came more. Seminary profs who led us through the labyrinths of ancient heresies and dined with us on the rich cuisine of prophetic oracles. Jewish teachers in my graduate years who showed me how to swim in the deep waters of the Talmud and rabbinic lore. All of them were good. And they taught me about God. But they weren’t my best teachers.

My best teacher, the instructor who taught me more theology than any other, has been the devil. Click here to read the full article…

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

On Mount Moriah You Can See the Whole Bible

A snake strikes up a conversation with a naked woman. A donkey chews out a cursing preacher on his back for whipping him. Ravens fly breakfast and dinner to a hungry prophet. All sorts of weird things happen in the Bible. But it’s not just with animals. A sea unzips its surface and bodybags a whole army of Egyptians. Rivers give a round of applause. Cypress trees and cedars mock defeated Babylon. All of creation has a part to play in the great saga of salvation.MountMoriah

Let me tell you about one of those characters in this saga. It’s not a snake or a bird or a sea. It’s a mountain. I bet it’s a story you haven’t heard before. And I bet it’s one you’ll never forget.

There’s a young man, ropes around his wrists, and stretched out atop firewood that’s been arranged on a makeshift altar. There’s a father, standing above him, the hilt of a knife clasped in his hand, the blade lifted high. “Take your son,” God had told Abraham, “your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” That’s where they are. On Moriah. The place where the father is to sacrifice his son. Yet he doesn’t. A split second before the knife plummets, an angel stops Abraham. In the stead of his son, the father offers a ram caught in a nearby thicket as a burnt offering. Here is where the story begins. On Mt. Moriah, God provides a substitute to die in Isaac’s place.

Fast-forward a few centuries. In the latter years of his reign, David has incensed the Lord by commanding a census be taken of all Israel. Catastrophic casualties follow as a plague steamrolls through the land. Finally a skyscraping angel unsheathes his sword over Jerusalem. David hurries up Moriah, to a threshing floor owned by a local farmer. He buys the plot of ground and the oxen used for threshing. He builds an altar, kills the beasts, and flames fall from the sky upon the altar to consume their bodies. The plague stops, the angel sheathes his sword, Zion is saved. On Mt. Moriah, God provides oxen to die in order that his people might be spared.

The son of David, wise Solomon, built the temple of the Lord on this exact spot (2 Chron 3:1). On this mountain where the promised son, Isaac, had been spared by the sacrifice of a ram in his stead. On this mountain where Jerusalem was spared by the sacrifice of oxen in their stead. On this mountain, Moriah, the house of God was erected and the massive altar set up. Here, year after year, morning and evening, the blood of cattle, sheep, goats, and birds was spilled. Their bodies reduced to ashes. Until the time appointed, these beasts died in the stead of God’s people. They bore the guilt of sinners. Onto their heads was transferred the sin of the congregation. And through their blood shed and bodies burnt, the Lord provided cleansing and forgiveness to his people. On Mt. Moriah, God provided sacrifice after sacrifice in order that his people might be spared.

But the story of Moriah was far from over. For these three stories are but the pre-story to why this mountain is so important. For what Abraham and David and Solomon did not do, could not do, a greater one did.

Jesus wrote the last chapter of Moriah. He made this mountain his own. He climbed Mt. Moriah, to enter his Father’s house, time and again. He taught on this mountain. He turned over the tables of the money-changers like a madman on this mountain. On Moriah, he declared, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” He spend the last week of his life on this mountain. And he brought this mountain’s story to its peak.

Jesus was not killed in Bethlehem as a baby, or in Galilee or Samaria as an adult. He couldn’t be, for it was necessary for him to die in Jerusalem, where Moriah is. He is the promised Seed of Abraham, the new and better Isaac. He is the promised Son of David, the new and better Solomon. He is the tabernacle and temple of God. And he is the Son who is not spared, but given up for us all. At his death, the angels outside Eden sheathe their swords and welcome us back into the paradise of God. He is the lamb of God, upon the altar of the cross, who transforms Golgotha into Moriah. He is the substitute, by whose sacrifice we are not just spared, but welcomed into the life and family of the Father.

When Abraham offered a ram in the stead of Isaac, he called the name of this place Yahweh-Yireh, meaning, “The LORD will provide,” as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.”

Indeed, it will. And it was. God provided his Son. And in that Son, we receive everything.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Your Future Is Behind You

pastfutureLet’s talk about time. To the friend who refuses to move on from a broken relationship, we say, “You’ve got to put the past behind you.” To the brother or sister who’s upset because of a lost opportunity, we say, “Stop worrying. You’ve got your whole life in front of you.”

Put the past behind you.
Your whole life is in front of you.

For years, I parroted these same things to build up others. I assumed the future was in front of me and the past was behind me. And all the while, I had things backwards.

Give me five minutes, if you will, and let me tell you the joy of a radically new—but ancient—way of thinking about time: a way in which the past is directly in front of your eyes, and along with it, incredible hope and joy for the future that lays behind you.

Walking Backwards into the Future

The foundational part of the Bible, the Old Testament, teaches this ancient understanding of time. In the language of the OT, the future is behind you and the past is in front of you. The Hebrew word for “in front of” (qedem) is the same word for “past.” And the word for “behind” (achar) is the basis for the word for “future” (achareet). Thus, if you were to ask Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob where the future was, they’d point behind them. Likewise, ask them where the past is, and they’d point in front of them.

The reason for this is as simple as it is insightful: we have seen the past, but we have not seen the future. We know what has happened. It is done, finished, and laid bare before our eyes. Thus the past is in front of us, where our eyes can see it. On the other hand, we don’t know what the future holds. We cannot see it, thus it is hidden from our eyes or behind us. Therefore, in the Hebrew conception of time, one might say that we are always walking backwards into the future.

History Is Pregnant with the Future

And walking backwards into the future is not only a good thing; it is a gift from God. Because if we want to know what will be, we open our eyes to what has been. History is pregnant with the future. It cradles in its womb the child of tomorrow. And in that fact is great hope for us as individuals as well as the church. Let me give you an example.

In one of the sacred songs of the OT, Psalm 77, the poet Asaph laments how bad things have become in his life. He’s so troubled that he suffers from insomnia; it’s like God’s fingers keep his eyelids pried open. He asks a series of painful questions, like, “Will the Lord spurn forever?” and “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” But instead of being strangled by despair, he says to himself, “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” That phrase, “your wonders of old,” could also be translated, “your wonders in front.” These divine wonders of old, the ones in front of him, are when God redeemed Israel from Egypt, split the Red Sea in half, and led his people like a shepherd leads a flock. When Asaph needed hope for the future, he locked his eyes on the past. He walked with confidence backwards into the future because he saw, before his eyes, the past wherein God had heard the cries of his suffering people, saved them, and brought them joy and hope once more. And as the Lord had done in the past, he was sure to do in the future.

We Need More Asaphs

We need more Asaphs in the church today. We have an abundance of those who forecast dark days in the near future, even storms of persecution brewing on the horizon for the church in America and around the world. That may very well be so. I’m not writing to silence or downplay their warnings. I am writing, however, to remind the church that, come what may, she is marching backwards into a future rich with hope. The past is in front of us. And that past is replete with the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ for all his baptized children.

In front of us, in the past, is the hill upon which God has already defeated every foe we might face. On that bloody beam the heel of Christ crushed the head of the lying serpent. He hung upon the walls of his resurrection tomb the trophies of victory that mock death. In fact, his victory on the cross was so utterly complete that it was like the Last Day, for even tombs opened up and saints rose and walked into the holy city (Matt 28:52-53).

Open your eyes and see. Look at the past before us. There is God, our Father, smiling at us, his sons and daughters. There is Christ, our Brother, naming us his friends. There is the Spirit, our Comforter, filling the inner darkness of our fears and worries with the brilliant rays of his love and hope. What future calamity behind us shall separate us from the love of Christ before us? Shall tribulation or distress? Shall persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword? Tell me, what shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing at all.

Then why are we worried? Why, as one of my friends wrote, do we so often act like the sky is falling? “Have no fear, little flock; have no fear, little flock?” the church sings. Why? “For the Father has chosen to give you the kingdom.” He made us kings and queens on the day he poured a liquid crown upon our heads in baptism. He named us priests on the day he clothed us in the vestments of Jesus our great high priest. These gifts are before our eyes. This is what God has done for us.

So let us, with Asaph, remember the days of old, the days in front of us. Christ has died for you. He has been raised to a life that cannot end. He has joined you inextricably to his death and resurrection in the waters of baptism. These pasts acts are present gifts. And they are the basis for the confidence by which we walk backwards into the future fidelity of the Christ who is the same yesterday and today and forever.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

When the Pulpit Apes the World

preacher-at-pulpit-copySomething happens inside churches where outrage over society’s immoralities seasons every Sunday sermon. It’s rather unexpected, and rarely noticed. The more a preacher makes a habit of lambasting the evils of a culture; the more he makes the necessity of a morally pure life the center of his sermons; the more he directs his flock to the keeping of the divine law as their defining characteristic—the more he does all this, the more that preacher actually urges his church to adopt the ways of the world.

It’s as sad as it is true: the more law-centered a church becomes, the more like the world it becomes.

The way of the world is the way of the law. That law may sometimes be in synch with the divine law, such as when societies prohibit murder and stealing. That law may sometimes be of the world’s own devising. Either way, these outward laws reflect an interior disposition: my identity, my self-worth, the means by which I find fulfillment in life, is determined by what I do. Maybe I follow the rules of my group within society. Maybe I become a law unto myself by making my own rules and following the dictates of my heart. In the end, it’s all the same. My self-understanding arises out of my behavior. I am who I am because I do what I do. The way of the world is the way of the law.

And the way of far too many churches is the way of the law as well. Beneath the surface, legalistic Christians are little different from those they often deride. Their identity as Christians, their worth, the means whereby they find fulfillment in life, is determined by the morality they choose and the immorality they avoid. The Christian life becomes little more than following a list of do’s and don’ts. Moral outrage over society’s evils becomes a favorite pastime because, to some degree, it boosts their own feeling of intimacy with the great Moral Divinity before whom they bow the knee. The self-understanding of the law-centered Christian arises out of his behavior. He is who he is because he does what he does. The way of such Christians, and the way of such churches, is the way of the law.

Thus, the more law-centered a church becomes, the more it and the world become kissing cousins.

What then, shall preachers stop preaching the divine law? By no means. The law must be preached. God’s commands for how we are to live must be proclaimed. Evil must be pointed out. Sinners must be called to repentance. This is what the law does; and, oh, does it do it well. It always teaches right from wrong, it always commands, and—because we are sinners—it always accuses.

And there is one more thing the law does: it never gives us what we ultimately need.

The law can tell us, day and night, what to do and what not to do, and we will never do it perfectly. The law can instruct and warn, urge and command, entice and promise, but it cannot say, “You are loved by God.” It cannot say, “You are forgiven.” The law cannot say, “You have peace with God in Jesus Christ. He has kept the law for you. He loves and embraces you as you are. He welcomes you as a brother or sister.” The law can do many thing, but it cannot deliver the good news we need more than anything else.

It is the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ that gives us fulfillment in life, for it fills us with God himself. This good news is that we are who we are because Christ is who he is: our friend, our brother, our Savior. Our identity is not that of law-keepers or law-breakers but the friends of Jesus. Who we are is swallowed up by who he is.

What we ultimately need—what everyone needs—is reconciliation and peace with God in Jesus Christ. And that’s what we have. The cross was the pulpit from which Jesus preached his love and forgiveness to the world. And that message is still to permeate pulpits every Sunday.

The more grace-centered, Gospel-focused a church becomes, the more unlike the world it becomes. And the more it proclaims to the world what it truly needs to hear.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

We Expect Too Little from God

ManLookingAtStarsWhen God comes to us, He brings more than we expect. Our expectations are tiny, His gifts large. We ask for a drop, He pours an ocean; for a morsel, He spreads a feast. Such is the difference between man and God. Despite the fact that our lives are supposedly so global these days, our worlds are minuscule, their circumferences not much bigger than the decorative globes we can spin with one finger. The global financial crisis is no bigger to us than the mortgage we may or may not be able to pay this month. Global communications no bigger than the phone call from a friend that may or may not come when we need it. My world is small, full of the continents of my emotions, the oceans of my fears, the mountains of my hopes and dreams. And nightmares.

I am perhaps not much different from Abraham. God Almighty appears to him, but all Abraham asks about is a baby. His baby, Sarah’s baby, the one still but a gleam in Abraham’s dreary eyes. “Tell me about this baby, God, my baby that You promised would come. And hasn’t. You tell me not to fear, but how is an old man not to fear that he will die childless? You tell me You are my shield, but can a shield arrest all these arrows of doubt? You tell me my reward shall be very great, but the only ‘reward’ I see is me dying and leaving my inheritance not to a son but to a servant. You promise me the world, but all I see is dust falling between my wrinkled fingers back to the earth that soon shall swaddle my bones.”

So God expands Abraham’s world. He takes him by the arm and ushers him outside. He points his eyes star-ward and tells him to do the arithmetic. “Put a number on those faraway suns, Abraham. Go ahead. So shall your descendants be.” Astronomy became theology. “You want a baby? Very well, then I’ll give you a child. And I’ll give him children, and those children more children, until the stars themselves shall blink in astonishment at the number of your offspring.”

You expect too little from God. He wants to give you the world, and you beg for a grain of sand. Perhaps it is cowardice; we shrink away from God’s godness and almightiness, and so shrink down our prayers. Perhaps it is a lack of faith; we don’t trust God to give what He himself has promised to give. Perhaps it is self-sufficiency; we want to take care of ourselves, for we suppose we’re just fine flying solo.

But God doesn’t appear to Abraham, or to you, as a tightfisted miser. He’s anything but that. To Abraham He promises a soon-to-be-born baby, a world of descendants, the Holy Land, and his family’s rescue from Egypt when that day comes. He’s going to give it all and then some, and then some more. And just when you think He’s all out, He’ll show up once again and surprise you with grace.

You may or may not believe this. But your belief or the lack thereof changes nothing. You can believe the earth is flat or that politicians will soon stop lying, but your belief won’t alter reality. Reality is that God is good. His goodness knows no bounds. Your unbelief will not bind Him. Your un-great expectations of Him will not bind him. He will be bound by no man from being good to that man, whether the man desires, expects, or curses the gift of God when it lands in his lap.

Abraham, bless him, was eager for something tangible by which to know the Lord would do what He promised. I can’t blame him. Even though taking God solely at His word is admirable, thankfully for us God makes that word visible. We are creatures of earth, and so in earthly guise our God comes to say, “See, I mean what I say.” To Abraham God appears as a smoking oven and flaming torch that passed through the bloody gauntlet of sacrifices that Abraham had hacked in two. A rather weird sight it must have been, but our God has been known to do some rather strange things. This was His way of making a covenant, a pact, with Abraham. As much as to say, “I’m as good as my word. And if I’m not, then may my fate be as one of these butchered beasts.” But God was to be no butchered beast because He does stick to His word, come hell or high water.

But, ironically, God was to become a baby, much like the baby He promised to Abraham. The Lord became His own promise—the gift-giver became the gift. And that gift is enough for you, for that gift is all there is. Abraham was to get his son, grandchildren, the Holy Land, the whole shebang. All we get is a baby, yet that baby is our world and much more. He made those stars that Abraham could not count. He knitted together in their mother’s wombs all those babies who would call Abraham father. He came to reveal, that God cannot stop giving the very best.

Jesus explodes our small conceptions of a small-giving God. There is no war within you that Jesus cannot end with peace. There is no wound in your soul so deep that He cannot heal it with His love. Your life may be as bloody and sickening as those cutup corpses through which God passed as the oven and torch, but God will still pass through. In fact, He’ll do better. He’ll stop in the midst of the slaughter your life has become and start putting you back together again. Only He can do that. And He does it well, for being good and doing good for you is what He’s all about.

Come outside and stand beside Abraham. Count those stars. So shall your gifts be. Go to the beach and count the grains of sand. So shall be the number of times God blesses you. Travel to Bethlehem and stand before the manger. There you shall see, in a new and living way, the oven and torch of God. That baby become man become sacrifice become victor become almighty king at the Father’s right hand—He shall pass through the bloody mess of your life and bring healing. He cannot do otherwise, for love compels Him to do only what is good for you. Love him, as Abraham did. Befriend him, as Abraham did. Believe in him, as Abraham did. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shall be your shield, your very great reward.

This meditation is an excerpt from my book, Christ Alone (see below).
Follow me on Twitter @birdchadlouis
You may also “like” my Facebook writings page

christ alone cover

What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

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