Archive for the month “July, 2014”

Songs are Musical Time Machines

Songs are musical time-machines. You hear the melody, the words wash over you, and in the blink of an eye, you’re “there.” There, hearing the song playing over the radio as your teenage girlfriend sits beside you and takes your hand in her own. There, mom and dad in the rear-view mirror, car packed to the gills, a college dormitory awaiting you. There, crying your eyes out over the break-up you thought would never happen. The music plays on and on, and you go back and back. Songs, transcendent melodies that harbor the past, pull you toward the memories of yesteryear like they were yesterday. Such is the muscle of music, holding tight in your heart the grip of the past.

For me, among the many memories that songs elicit, one that always comes back to me involves a dear elderly lady named Alvena Stein. She was a lifelong member of the congregation where I served as pastor in Wellston, Oklahoma. And she was one of those dear saints whom I could visit on my darkest, I-just-wanna-throw-in-the-towel days in the ministry, and leave an hour later with a smile on my face. Talking with her had a way of putting life in perspective, and restoring joy to my heart, every time. Her life, as with every life, had had its ups and downs. A bride at the ripe old age of sixteen, and a widow at the young age of forty-eight, Alvena knew joy and sorrow. With four daughters, and thirteen grandchildren, and plenty more great-grandchildren and other family members, she was enveloped by those whom she loved and who loved her. Such was the love of Alvena’s family that they adopted me and my family into their own while we lived among them.

The psalmist writes that our earthly lives last “seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength.” As if proving the poet right, and showing the world that she did have that kind of strength, Alvena fought on to her eightieth year. But after a series of battles, and a gradually weakening body, it became clear that the time of her departure was drawing nigh. I visited her at home, and in the hospital, bringing her the nourishment of God’s word and Christ’s meal. And I also sang songs to her and with her, hymns that poetized the faith she held dear and the hope of victory disguised as death, hymns and songs that she had had on her lips and in her heart from infancy. When the inevitable day came, the 29th of July, 2000, with two of her daughters in the room with her, Alvena was ready. Ready because the Lord had readied her with his love, and now stood to meet her face-to-face in the heavenly fatherland.

I arrived at the hospital shortly after Alvena had passed beyond this world. She lay at peace in her bed, surrounded by her four daughters, their husbands, and others who had been blessed by her love. We prayed the Our Father together, and the 23rd Psalm. And in that room replete with both sadness and joy, gain and loss, but above all hope, I sang the stanza of a hymn that I had sung to Alvena many times in the months leading up to this day.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

Home. That’s where Alvena had gone—to her true home in the presence of Jesus Christ. Her pilgrimage here in this vale of tears was complete. And now she rested, awaiting the resurrection of her body. She was in the bosom of Abraham, of whom she was a daughter. She had fought the good fight, she had finished the race, she had kept the faith. And in so doing, she had been a true martyr—a witness—to me and so many others who journey still, who long for the bosom of our father Abraham.

Over the years, every time I sing that hymn stanza, I go back. I go back to that hospital room, back to the family that grieved their loss and rejoiced at Alvena’s gain, back to the woman who was such an encouragement to me, even though I was supposed to be an encouragement to her. The man who, over four hundred years before, wrote the hymn I sang that day, could never have imagined the power his words would wield for good in the lives of countless multitudes, of whom I am but one. His words take me back, but they also point me forward—forward to the day when, like Alvena, I will close to my eyes to this world, unfearing, for I know that I will open them to see my Savior and my Fount of grace, arms open wide, receiving me as his own.

The Girl Clad in Underwear Who Sent Me a Friend Request

Like plenty of other guys who are active on social media, I get my fair share of spam material, among which are bogus friend requests from women (girls?) in which their profile pics look like a shot from a soft porn film. I got another one of those the other day. If I could speak to the young lady in that picture, I would tell her something along these lines:

There is no disputing the fact that you are beautiful. There’s also no disputing the fact that you know the power of your own body, that you can easily make men lust, lure them to click ‘accept’ on that friend request. We’re pushovers for that kind of thing, after all.

What you may not be aware of, however, is what a waste you are making of your beauty. You are so much more than a pair of breasts and a vagina. What you’re doing is more or less visual prostitution, trading the riches of virtue for the poverty of smut.

You’ll find one day–at least I pray you do–that you reach the pinnacle of beauty not when hordes of men gawk at you, but when you’re alone with the man to whom you have pledged absolute fidelity, when your beautiful body is joined to his in the constitutive act of marriage.

That union will not be a waste, but a wealth of joy and contentment. So save your images for him, for you bear the image of God, the Father of Christ, who loves you as you are now, and wills that you be his in righteousness and purity forever.

Men, What Are We Trying to Prove?

walloftrophiesHow many wives are now ex-wives; how many children can’t stomach Father’s Day; how many congregations have been torn to shreds; how many lives have been hurt or destroyed—all because we men think we have something to prove?

I’ll be the first to admit that this drive to prove myself ultimately proved my undoing. Like many men, I felt this need to prove to my family, my friends, my students, my church, my God, and—most of all—to myself, that where others would fail, I would succeed; where they would settle for average, I would excel; where others would melt into obscurity, I would be known. And because, deep down, I knew the sinister nature of this drive, I employed an age old tactic to deal with it: I renamed it. I called it “driven” or “a competitive spirit” or “the will to succeed.” But it wasn’t. My lips may have called it a beauty, but my heart knew it was a beast.

We like to define ourselves, and to have others see us and talk about us, based upon our accomplishments. What I have done defines who I am, gives me self-worth, makes me feel like I’ve proven myself a man among men. But there’s always that nagging sense of doubt. There’s always those other men who have more trophies, bigger salaries, sexier wives, who make us feel like we’ve not done enough. Of course, we’re not going to admit this, because men don’t like to admit weakness, especially any sense of inferiority we feel in relation to other men. So, instead, we embark on these quests to prove ourselves.

Maybe we pour ourselves into work, so that our wives find themselves alone every evening on the couch and later in bed, while we’re out proving that we deserve that promotion, that we do a better job at work than anyone else. Maybe we’re getting a little older, and we wonder if we still have what it takes to bed another woman, so we strike up a flirtatious conversation, then friendship, then hook-up, with this young, sexy thing who makes us feel alive again and proves that we have as much sexual prowess as any other man. Maybe we’re clergy, and we see how other churches are growing while ours seems stagnant or even dying, so to prove ourselves we begin to water down our theology and sexy up our services to fill more pews and fatten the offering plate, so as to prove to others that we’re just as good as any other man of God.

Where does all this proving ourselves get us? Very often it gets us out of our house and into an apartment, where we see our children every other weekend, take up a second or third job to help cover the child support check, and crawl into bed every night hoping that we don’t wake up in the morning to face the reality of the life we now have since we’ve gone and proved ourselves. And maybe, once we hit that bottom, we’ll realize that all we’ve proven is that somewhere along the way, we bought into the lie that life is defined by what we do, what we accomplish, instead of who God has made us to be and what he has accomplished for us.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was failure. It was like a trip to the ophthalmologist, by which my vision was improved so that I was able to see how I’d gotten to that point. Failure did not make me worse or make me better. It simply gave me clarity, so that I beheld the evil, selfish, destructive dispositions slithering around inside me, tempting me with forbidden fruit, inflating my ego, urging me always to prove myself.

I also found in that pit called failure another man, one named Jesus, who, to my utter astonishment, told me that I had nothing to prove. He told me that He loved me just as I was. I didn’t need to become the best so as to have His best. I didn’t need to succeed to secure His favor or win His approval. I didn’t need to do anything; He picked me up, threw me over His shoulder, and climbed out that dark pit into the light of life, with me in tow.

What are we trying to prove? Who are we trying to prove it to? And what and who are we willing to hurt or neglect or destroy along the way to achieve this goal? I tell you the truth, it’s not worth it. There is a better way. This better way does not mean emasculation; in fact, it makes us real men. It is the way of finding our identity in the man of the cross. To lose our lives in Him is to find a true and meaningful and fulfilling life, for it is the life that God intended for us from the beginning. It is who He created us to be. To live in Christ is to live in fidelity to our wives. To live in Christ is to love our children. To live in Christ is for Him to live His life through us, so that we become His hands and feet and lips by which others are served.

You have nothing to prove. But you have everything to gain by losing your life and finding real life in the Man from Nazareth.

Trash and Treasure

She was the kind of woman whose biography would have needed very few exclamation points. Her invisibility was her most striking feature. Few recalled her, and none remembered any story in which she was either villain or heroine. She was the very incarnation of average. Many nights, staring at the ceiling, she wondered if anyone would even pretend to miss her when she died, much less mourn for her.

Yet while spikes suspended him midair, and sweaty blood formed rivulets that ran down his face, Jesus had this woman on his mind. He let go of life to hold her. Greater love hath no man than he had for her. He’d go to hell and back to have her in heaven with him. She was his everything so he gave his everything for her.

For she was the kind of woman whom others saw as an everyday stone but whom Jesus knew was a pearl of great price. So he went and sold all that he had, and bought that pearl, not with gold and silver, but with the crimson currency pulsing through his veins.

She was the kind of woman in whom I see myself, in whom thousands of us see our own reflections. We are but a drop in the ocean of humanity. So often our lives seem pointless, a vain existence in a world that worships vanity. Who are we, really, but a bag of blood and bones, in which are mixed in bittersweet memories and the shards of shattered dreams and broken hearts?

trash or treasureWe would not recognize ourselves if we looked at ourselves through the eyes of God. Where we see trash, he sees treasure. Where we see sin he sees righteousness. His vision is 20/20 love, which transforms his beloved into a lovely thing. It is like the picture of Dorian Gray reversed; whereas we see our horrid portrait of a stained life, God sees perfect beauty, because he sees us clothed in Jesus.

To be loved by God changes everything, for his love transforms everything about us. It is a love unearned, unalterable, unrelenting in its pursuit of us, his pearls of greatest price, for whom Jesus gave his all.

If you’d like to read more reflections like this one, check out my new book, Christ Alone: ChristAloneCoverMeditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

Our Precious Sins We Don’t Want God to Forgive

It didn’t matter if it was the dead of winter or the height of spring, if it was Monday or Friday, raining or the sun shining, a frown was frozen on this man’s face. He was a customer on my delivery route, so I saw him on a regular basis. Now, we all have bad days, or bad weeks, so at first I supposed he’d just gotten out of the wrong side of bed or was going through a bad time in his life. But as weeks dragged into months, and months into years, nothing changed. I tried joking with him. I found out his hobbies. I inquired about his family. Little by little, through snippets of conversation, I found out he led a relatively ordinary life. And I also realized that he was one of those people who couldn’t seem to be happy unless he was unhappy. When things were going well, he was on the lookout for something to bellyache about. He saw a dark lining in every silver cloud.

There’s a shadow of this man in me, and perhaps in you, but in a different, more spiritual sense. My customer nursed negativity, he clung to the bad things, and there’s something about us that clings to our sins, as if we’d rather feel bad about them than have the Lord take them away. We’d rather have the dark lining of disgrace than the silver cloud of grace.

So when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses,” we really mean, “Forgive us our trespasses…except our special ones.” It’s as if there are some sins we don’t want to hand over to our Father. Not yet anyway. They are our precious. We relish wallowing in the guilt they generate. We feel better knowing how bad we feel about them. We come to believe that our anguish is our atonement; our baptism is tears; our Supper a body racked with regret. This kind of repentance is anti-repentance, for it actually clings tightly to the sin over which it sorrows because in that sorrow is its consolation. If God forgives these sins, if He takes them away and tells us that we can’t have them back, on what will we rely? Then we’d have only His promise. Then we’d have to rely on someone else. And as everyone knows, if you want a job done right, do it yourself, even when it comes to atoning for your wrongdoing.

Now that takes us to the heart of the issue: that the Gospel of Jesus Christ excludes every hint of a do-it-yourself forgiveness. We want to do our part, especially when it comes to “big sins.” The little transgressions God can take care of, of course, but the big ones need a little extra effort on our part. So we try to sorrow ourselves into salvation, to repent ourselves into redemption. We hang on to our sins not despite the fact that they hurt, but precisely because they do hurt. We need to hurt, to fret over them, to cry over them, to make amends over them, because by doing so, we will grease the wheels of God’s forgiveness. If He sees how repentant we are, and what we’ve done to make things right, He’ll be much more likely to give us forgiveness for those big sins when we’re ready to ask for it.

But here’s the shockingly beautiful truth: our special sins, to which we cling, are mere phantoms. The weighty bag of precious transgressions we carry out is full of nothing but air. Someone has taken them away, even before we asked Him to. While we’re out attempting a do-it-yourself atonement, the true atonement has already taken place. There is nothing more to be done. Every kind of wrongdoing, however minor or major we think it may be, has been done right.

earthsqueezed“But what about that time I did _____?” Yes, it’s taken care of. “What about all those years I did _____?” That, too. “What about those truly horrendous, life-shattering, despicable things I did?” Yes, absolutely, those too have been taken away. All our special sins, which are precious because we think we need to do our part to pay for them, are gone. God came along and snatched them away. And He won’t give them back. He gathered up all—and I mean, all—the transgressions of all the people who have ever lived, and who will ever live, and He put them on Jesus. This Son of God, who knew no sin, became all sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. All humanity shrunk down into this one man. It was as if a funnel was placed over Jesus, and God took the sinful world in His hand, and squeezed it over that funnel. Out oozed every single drop of iniquity, every imaginable horror that people have committed, every good deed they have left undone, and it filled from head to toe this Savior who loves us so. He drank it all in when He polished off the cup of judgement. And when He was done, when atonement was complete, He said so simply and so profoundly, “It is finished.” And He meant every word.

Your sin is finished. Your atonement is done. Your special sins are not your special sins. Jesus took them away. And He will never, ever give them back. And that, friends, is a truly precious promise.

If you’d like to read more reflections like this one, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

Lord, Thee I Love with Half My Heart

half-heartLord, Thee I love with half my heart.
The world has claimed the other part.
I pray Thy name be hallowed, Lord,
But want my name to be adored.
Thy kingdom come, Thy reign extend,
And rain on me wealth without end.
Thy will be done, my lips shall pray
And curse when I don’t get my way.
I thank Thee for my daily bread,
But cakes and steaks I crave instead.
My million sins forgive, forget,
While I collect a one-cent debt.
From tempting evils keep us free
Unless I find they pleasure me.
Lord, Thee I love with half my heart.
Destroy, reclaim, the other part.

InfantPriestfrontcoverThis poem is included in my recent collection, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you may do so at this website or on Amazon.com.  Thank you!

Please Don’t Say These Six Things at My Funeral

funeralThere will come a day, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, when the man in the coffin will be me. They say the dead don’t care, but I’m not dead yet, so as long as I’m still alive, I’d like to have some say in what goes on at my funeral. And, truth be told, I think the dead do care. Not that they will be privy to the details of what happens at their own funerals, but they still care about the world, about their family, about the church. The saints in heaven continue to pray for those who are still on their earthly pilgrimage, so how could they not care about them?

Because I do care now, and will care even after I’m with the Lord, here are some things I hope and pray are not said at my funeral. I care about those who will be there, about what they will hear. I want the truth to be spoken, the truth about sin, the truth about death, and, above all, the truth about the love of God in Jesus Christ.

So, please don’t say…

1. He was a good man. Don’t turn my funeral into a celebration of my moral resume. For one thing, I don’t have one. I’m guilty of far more immoral acts than moral ones. Secondly, even if I were the male equivalent of Mother Teresa, don’t eulogize me. Talk about the goodness of the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us in the true faith. Talk about our good Father who’s made us all His children in baptism. Talk about the good Husband that Christ is to His bride, the church. Don’t say, “He was a good man,” but “our good God loved this sinful man.”

2. Chad…Chad…Chad. I don’t want to be the focus of my own funeral. I was not the center of the liturgy on Sunday mornings, so why should it be any different during my funeral liturgy? If anyone’s name comes up over and over, let it be the name that is above every name—Jesus. He is the one who has conquered death. He is the one in whose arms I will have died. He is the one, the only one, who gives hope to the bereaved. Let me decrease that Christ may increase.

3. God now has another angel. Heaven is not going to de-humanize me. In fact, once I am resurrected on the last day, I will be more human than ever before, for my human soul and human body will finally be in a glorified state that’s free of sin. People don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever. God has enough angels already. All He wants is more of His children in the place Jesus has prepared for them.

4. We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life. So-called “Celebrations of Life” (which I have written against in “The Tragic Death of the Funeral”) do a disservice to the mourners for they deny or euphemize death. The gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause. Whatever the apparent reason for my decease may be—a sickness, accident, or old age—the real reason is because I was conceived and born in sin, and I built atop that sinful nature a mountain’s worth of actual sins. The only person’s life to celebrate at a funeral is the Savior conceived of the virgin Mary, who became our sin on the cursed tree that we might become His righteousness in the blessed font, who buried sin and death in the empty tomb He left behind on Easter morning.

5. Chad would not want us to weep. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Those tears betoken a God who’s fully human, who experienced the sadness and grief we all do at the death of those we love. To cry is not to deny that our friend or family member is with the Lord, but to acknowledge that in this vale of tears there is still death, still loss, still suffering. I do want those who mourn my death to weep, not for my sake, but for their own, for it is an integral part of the healing process. But while they weep, let them remember that in the new heavens and new earth, God “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain,” (Revelation 21:4).

6. What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad. What’s in that coffin is the body that was fearfully and wonderfully made when our Father wove me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). What’s in that coffin is the body that Jesus baptized into His own body to make me part of Him. What’s in that coffin is the body that ate the saving body of Jesus, and drank His forgiving blood in the Supper, that I might consume the medicine of immortality. And what’s in that coffin is the body that, when the last trumpet shall sound, will burst from my grave as a body glorified and ready to be reunited with my soul. My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me. And one day I’ll get it back, alive, restored, perfected to be like the resurrected body of Jesus.

Of course, there’s always more that could be added to this list—and perhaps you’d like to add more in the comments below—but I believe these get the point across. I want the beginning of my funeral to be focused on Jesus, as well as the middle, as well as the end, as well as every point in between. I care about those who will attend. Let them hear the good news, especially in the context of this sobering reminder of mortality, that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord, for He is the resurrection and the life.
**Here is a short YouTube video in which I talk about death, so-called “natural death,” and the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ.

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christ alone coverWhat 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!

This Storm-Tossed Life: Why There Will Be No Sea in the New Creation

stormatseaAs I stepped to the lectern, I glanced down at the Bible open in front of me, and the few dozen mourners spread throughout the sanctuary. Sunday after Sunday, she whom we remembered today as daughter or mother or friend had sat in the same pew where they now were. She sat there, yes, but appearances were deceptive, for on the inside she was hardly sitting; she was thrown about, swept to and fro, buffeted by waves of woe. During the final year of her life, it was as if Barbara had been sucked out to sea, blown this way by divorce, that way by sickness, and still other ways by financial and employment losses. Finally, overcome by it all, and seeing no other way out, she sank beneath the dark waters of death. The family and friends she left behind, I among them, now have our own winds and waves to fight as we not only grieve her suicide, but continue to face whatever other sufferings we endure in this often tumultuous life.

Among the various portions of the Scriptures that I read that day, there was a short phrase that was easy to miss. It seems an odd, but relatively insignificant, detail in St. John’s description of the new heavens and new earth. But as I read those words during Barbara’s memorial service, the Holy Spirit sang them to me as a six-word hymn of deep and abiding comfort. They are the last few words of this verse:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. Revelation 21:1

The promise of a new creation, in which the sea no longer exists, may make little or no sense to you, much less seem of deep and abiding comfort. But when you look at the sea from a biblical perspective, and understand what those waters represent, the absence of a sea in the new creation denotes the presence of something, and someone, much better.

The songs and narratives that shape the thought of the Israelites do not speak of the sea the same way we often do, as a place of tranquility, postcard sunsets, and soothing waves lapping the beach. For them, the waters of the sea are a place of danger, judgement, confusion, evil, death. Consider these examples:

*By means of a cosmic flood, the Lord executed the unbelieving world in the days of Noah (Genesis 6). The seas became the watery grave of nearly all humanity.

*Similarly, after God parted the Red Sea to let Israel pass through to safety, He made those same waters a cascading coffin for the Egyptians. “The LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea” so that “not even one of them remained,” (Exodus 14:27-28).

*Then there’s the story of Jonah. When this prophet fled from God by boarding a ship, “the LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up,” (Jonah 1:4).

*Echoing these same negative images, the psalms liken the threats of the enemy to the “roaring of the seas and the roaring of their waves,” (65:2). In another psalm, the souls of mariners melt within them as they rise up on stormy waves to the heavens and go down to the depths, reeling and staggering like drunken men, until the Lord finally causes the storm to be still (107:23-32).

*Within the New Testament as well, the waves of the sea betoken impending death (Matthew 8:23-27); the sea is the place into which the herd of swine plummet to their death when the demons enter them (Matthew 8:32); and “the roaring of the sea and the waves” one of the signs of the second coming of Christ (Luke 21:25).

Though there are exceptions, in the biblical imagination the sea is emblematic of a world gone wrong. If the “whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:22), then the sea is like that mother writhing on her bed of labor. Its restless waters are iconic of a world in need of a final, unending Sabbath. The labor pains will cease, and the Sabbath will come, when our Father “shall wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away,” (Revelation 21:4). As John says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea,” (21:1). No longer any sea, no longer a world gone wrong, only a world made right by Christ who is “making all things new,” (21:5).

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, that there will come a time when there’s no longer a sea, but what about now? What about me and my loved ones who are enduring the storms of life now; buffeted by waves of sorrow; swept out to sea by job loss, cancer, divorce, and the million other problems in this life? What about those of us who are perishing within our own seas of suffering?

The good news is that the same Christ who promises no more turbulent waters in the new creation, already brings that new creation into your life via a most ironic way: through water. Jesus plunges the old you beneath the waters of baptism and pulls a new you free from those waters. In those waters you die in a big way, for you die to all that separated you from God. And you live in an even bigger way, for you are now truly alive in the one who died and rose again, who kicked death in the teeth, who stripped the tomb of its power to hold him and you.

Just as Jesus was with His disciples in the boat when a great storm arose in the sea, covering the vessel with waves, so that these men thought they were perishing, so He is with you. When you endure the storms of life, the waves of sorrow, He is not a deity who stands on the shoreline shouting instructions. He is the Savior who never leaves your side, for He has washed you into His open side by the waters of a new creation. He doesn’t tell you what to do; He says, “It is done. It is finished.” Yes, there will be many times when you doubt it; when, like the disciples, you will be of little faith (Matthew 8:26). But even when you are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). When the time is right, He will rebuke the winds and the waves, and there will be a great calm.

There will be no sea in the new creation. Amen to that good news. But even better news is that, even while we endure storms at sea in this old creation, the God who baptizes us also abides with us in these tumultuous waters, holds us up, and will never leave us nor forsake us, for we are dearer to Him than life itself.

God Doesn’t Look for the Right Kind of People to Believe

Sowing Seed

Sowing Seed

The sower went out to sow his seed. But you would have thought he blindfolded himself before he hit the fields because he sows his seed like a man who’s as blind as a bat. Look at him, this silly farmer! Recklessly, unpredictably, haphazardly he wanders over hill and dale, his hands casting seed from here to kingdom come. On asphalt and sand, among weeds and thorns, where soil is thick and thin, rich and poor—it matters not. For what concern does the farmer have where the seed may land?

He sows it on Sodom and four seeds take root—or is it three?—while the rest falls on rocky hearts destined for fire and brimstone. He sows it on Nineveh and over 120,000 seeds take root in the soil of repentant hearts. He sows it on Israel. In the Joshuas and Calebs and Rahabs and Moseses, the seeds find a home and grow; in others, the seeds find soil as soft as concrete, souls as hospitable as hell. He sows among the homosexuals of Sodom and gossiping widows of this town. He sows here and there and everywhere, preaching the Word in season and out of season, in the field and out of the field, embraced or rejected, scorned or loved.

When the sower went out to sow his seed, he dropped some into your heart. I wonder, will it take root, this seed of Christ, this seed of His grace and mercy. Will it take root, or has it? And if it has, will it remain? Will it take root in a heart like yours, a heart that is always eager to do good . . . so long at it’s pleasant and profitable for you; a heart that consistently rejects temptations . . . so long as the temptations are to do things you don’t really enjoy anyway; a heart that loves others . . . so long as they are nice to you, compliment you, and do what you want?

Will the seed of the Word remain in a heart like yours, a heart that loves a good story—a story that shows the weakness, failure, or stupidity of someone, especially if you don’t like that person anyway; a heart that keeps close tabs on how much money’s in the bank but pays little heed to how much the church floor is littered with the gold and silver of God’s Word, which you have let fall from your ears? Will the seed of Christ, the seed of His grace and mercy, take root in a heart like yours, a heart that is as clean as a manure pile and as fertile as a brick?

Repent. You know the truth as well as I do. You think that, compared to the hearts of hookers and thieves, yours is as clean as can be. You think the sower sowed his seed in you because he saw such good soil, such a good, generous, noble person. But that’s only the lie you love to believe, because it’s a lie that makes you feel good about yourself. Repent and believe. Believe the truth.

The truth is that when the sower sowed his seed in you, it fell on rock-hard soil; and where there weren’t rocks there were weeds; and where there weren’t weeds there were birds of the air waiting to devour it. But, lo and behold, the seed of God’s Word doesn’t look for good soil to fall into; it creates the soil for itself, no matter how rocky or how weed-infested your heart may be.

Jesus doesn’t look for the right kind of people to believe. He doesn’t scout out the best planting ground for His word. He simply sows, and His Word has its way with you. His Word—that Word of grace and absolution—transforms you, O sinner, into good ground. It is just as if a farmer sowed his seed on a Walmart parking lot one evening. By the time the sun rose, that concrete was rich soil. All that gray, lifeless stone was colored with blooms. A parking lot was transformed into a field of salvation. That’s what the Lord Jesus does to you and for you. He transforms your parking lot heart into a place for parking His Word, His Spirit, His body and blood, His divine life.

For the seed of His Word is packed with the flesh and blood of the Son, the Son dead and risen for you. It is packed with the life of the One who once was packed with your sin and death; packed with the bloody love of the One who chose to endure sacrifice rather than endure eternity without you; chose to be devoured by the demons, strangled by the weeds of justice, buried in the earth, that He might have and keep you as His own.

Humble yourself, therefore, under the nail-pierced hand of God, the hand that worked everything out for you. God sowed, you received. God changed your rock into soil; you received. God gave growth to His seed; you received. God keeps you in the faith, grants you daily forgiveness, and guarantees you heaven, and you—that’s right—you receive.

So rather than trusting in anything that we do, let us rest secure in the defense that God provides against all our foes. Be they the satanic fowl that seek to gobble up the Word; be they the thorns of cares, riches, and the pleasures of life; be they the burning sun of temptations; be what they may, come when they will, none of them will uproot the seed within you. It is defended by the sower, who never leaves His plant, who never forsakes you but for your sake plants Himself in you.

The sower went out to sow his seed. He sowed it in you, and when the harvest comes, he will find in you a crop, a hundredfold, ripened unto eternal life. Thanks be to God.

If you’d like to read more reflections like this one, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

The Math of Mercy

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Paul is on a roll. He’s adding up all the things that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And the total? Nothing, zilch, zero. Not death, not life, not anything in all this vast creation where good and evil coexist. This is the math of mercy. God’s nothing.

numberjumbleBut still we continue the list. What about my deepest, darkest, most shameful act? What about the years I spat in heaven’s face? What about the terrible things I’ve done to other people? What about all the ways I’ve led others into iniquity? What about this, what about that? Write your list. Use up every drop of ink, cover every sheet of paper, go on and on and on with the innumerable screw-ups in your life.

When you’ve finally finished that exhaustive list of all the things that you think can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, add them all up. Take that number and multiply it times God’s zero. All your sins X God’s zero = zero.

This is the math of mercy. God’s nothing. Your everything in Jesus Christ, who is bigger than your sin, more loving than your hate, more faithful than your infidelity.

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