Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Opened eyes of faith. . .


Sermon for Lent 4A preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, March 26, 2017.

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (Jn 9:39).

News today is driven by headlines. It’s all about catching the reader’s attention. The miracle in today’s Gospel reading is an attention grabbing headline: MAN BORN BLIND SEES FOR FIRST TIME! We’d read that story; it’s a heartfelt, feel good story. But the greater miracle in this story isn’t the once blind eyes of a man opened to see the world around him, it’s the once blind eyes of faith opened to see the light of the Savior.

The man in our Gospel reading was born blind, he never had the ability to see. He didn’t know what the world around him looked like. He had no clue what his parents and friends looked like. He’d never seen the light of the sun or the beauty of the moon and the stars.

When Jesus’ disciples saw this man they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). The disciples expressed the popular idea that suffering is a result of God punishing a specific sin. Many of us still think this way. We talk about Karma assuming that bad things happen to those who are bad and good to the good. Whenever there’s a natural disaster someone always says it’s God punishing the people for their sin. The disciples thought this man was being punished, and they wanted to know who sinned, him or mom and dad.

Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Jn 9:3). The reason this man was born blind wasn’t because he or his parents sinned, although they were sinners, but so God could display His work in him. This man was born blind so that he could be healed at that very moment, so that God’s saving grace could be seen. This is why all suffering is allowed, so that in times of trouble and need, we’d turn to God.

God doesn’t delight in suffering, but He allows it to happen so that we’d come back to Him, repenting of our sin and relying on His grace and mercy, relying on His care and love. Of course, all suffering is a result of sin; and yes, there are painful consequences to specific sins, but God doesn’t punish His faithful children. The blind man wasn’t being punished. God allowed him to be born blind so that through the healing of his physical eyes Jesus could open his spiritual eyes, giving him eyes of faith to see his Savior.

Even though we were born with the physical ability to see, all of us are born spiritually blind. Every single one of us was born with original sin, and this sin blinds us. It keeps us from seeing God our Father and it prevents us from seeing our Savior. Because of our original sin we don’t fear, love, or trust in God above all things; rather we fear, love, and trust in ourselves. We make ourselves our own gods, doing whatever we want whenever we want, fulfilling our sinful desires. And because of this, we live in the darkness of our sin.

This darkness isn’t like the darkness of early evening as the sun begins to set. It’s not even the darkness of midnight. We can still see at these times. With the help of the moon and stars, we can make out shapes and shadows. With the help of lights we can illuminate enough of the world to function just as if the sun was up. But there’s no light in the darkness of our sin. We can’t shine a light through it.

This darkness chokes out any light. It’s heavy and paralyzing. It leaves us totally blind, unable to see shapes or shadows. There’s nothing we can do to navigate this darkness. Only the light of Christ can overcome it, and we can only see this light with the eyes of faith, eyes of faith opened by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word.

Our eyes of faith have been opened by God’s Word, just like the man in the Gospel reading. It was truly an amazing thing what Jesus did, giving sight to a man born blind. No one else could do this. Only the Son of God could perform this miracle.

When the Pharisees questioned the man about Jesus, he called Him a prophet. He knew that Jesus was from God because only God could’ve healed him, but the Pharisees disagreed. They said Jesus was a sinner because He healed this man on the Sabbath, and it’s a sin to do any work on the Sabbath, even if that work benefited others. The Pharisees pressured this man to deny Jesus and His miracle; but he couldn’t. He stayed true to his confession. He knew Jesus was from God.

Jesus asked this man, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (Jn 9:35). The formerly blind man didn’t know who the Son of Man was, so he asked Jesus to identify Him, not simply for identification purposes, but so that he could believe in Him. Jesus answered, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you” (Jn 9:37). The man, who had been blind from birth, with eyes opened by Christ was now physically looking at the Messiah. And after hearing Jesus’ words, with eyes of faith he saw the Savior.

And this man did the only thing he could do...he confessed his faith. “Lord, I believe” (Jn 9:38). He fell down at Jesus’ feet and worshiped Him. With eyes of faith opened by God’s Word Incarnate, he saw his Savior and trusted in Him for salvation. This faith was a miraculous gift from God...and so is yours.

God didn’t leave this man in the darkness of blindness, and He doesn’t leave you in the darkness of your sin either. Our Father in heaven sent His only begotten Son into our dark sin-filled world to open your eyes. The Word of God Incarnate, overcame the darkness of your sin, so “that those who do not see may see” (Jn 9:39). Jesus came into this world for sinners, to heal sinners, to heal you and me. He’s the Light that overcomes the sin that blinds you. He’s the Light of the world (Jn 9:5) that has overcome sin and death with His death on the cross. With His shed blood He paid for your sin, for that original sin that’s blinded you from birth. He’s opened your eyes so that you can see your Savior and trust in Him for salvation; so that you can walk as a child of light.

With eyes of faith we focus on our Savior, we see the light of everlasting life, and seeing this light, we don’t worry about the future. We don’t fear the punishment of God on our sins because we see the Son of Man who’s received that punishment for us. We don’t aren’t scared or troubled by the sufferings of this life, sufferings that are a result of sin because we know what our Lord has done for us. With eyes of faith, we know our sins our forgiven. With eyes of faith we see the Son of Man and His salvation. With eyes of faith, we speak the same words of the once blind man…”Lord, I believe.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Doing the right thing. . .

Archbishop Charles Chaput, a well known author and spokesman for Biblical marriage, morality, doctrine, and worship, has influence well beyond his diocese.  One such example lies in his book, Strangers in a Strange Land.  In an interview he remarked that it is never difficult to do the right thing, merely very exhausting.  I was intrigued by his words and the more I thought about them, the more I saw the truth in them.

Even though we know and have full confidence in the promise of God that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church, nonetheless, we who belong to the household of God know that without rigorous catechesis, defense of Biblical doctrine, and advocacy for the Christian ethic, the faith is but a generation away from extinction.  To say this does not in anyway diminish from the promise of God but admits that God keeps His promise not in some magical way but through the witness, faithfulness, and instruction to the world by the Church (and each individual Christian).

It may not be difficult to do what is right and make the faithful confession before the world, but it is certainly exhausting.  We reach not plateau or safe haven where the Church and the baptized may rest from the ongoing and diligent work of witness to the Word, instruction in the Word, struggle to maintain faithfulness against enemies of the Word, and catechesis in the Word for those within the household of the faith.  Such work happens not merely within the Church's formal engagement with the world but humbly and yet profoundly within the home, within the circles of friendship and acquaintance, and toward co-workers and neighbors.  It happens directly within the home as husband and wife speak the faith to each other and as they instruct their children in the knowledge of the Lord through His Son.

We may grow weary and tire of the constant grind but we cannot afford to relax our efforts nor can we ignore the serious responsibility placed upon us to know Christ and make Him known.  It is not difficult in the sense that only a few well-trained and knowledgeable individuals can or should engage in this apology for the faith -- far from this, it is incumbent upon all who wear the name of Christ by baptism and faith to give answer to the hope within.  But it does not relent and especially in the face of a world so distant from God and from the values of His Kingdom -- must less the message of His Son!  Our children are under constant assault from values and so-called truths that compete with Christ and His Word.  Our doctrine is increasingly under threat from those who would silence our voices or label us hatemongers.  Our liberty to freely live and confess Christ must be defended in every age and generation against those who would constrain the free expression of Christian faith and life within our greater society.  Our understanding of life and its sacredness from conception to death is ever threatened by those who would treat life as a commodity to be valued, the right of those who give birth,  and to be defined or discarded as individuals or society as a whole sees fit.

I fear that many of us have grown weary -- too weary.  We no longer speak up when Christian faith is challenged and we no longer answer the questions that come from those more interested in their challenge than in our answers.  Yet, as Archbishop Chaput has put it, we cannot afford to be silent or passive in the face of a strangeness which threatens the security and place of Christianity within our nation -- something we once took for granted.

Pastors must be ever diligent in teaching the faith and equipping the saints to be voices for Christ and Him crucified wherever they find themselves.  Parents must be rigorous in their instruction of their children and in speaking the Word of God to each other.  Husband and wife must be conscious of their witness to the world and address each other with the forgiveness which enables them to keep their marital vows and promises.  Children must be given the tools to evaluate the competing claims for their minds and hearts found so often in school, in media, and among their peers.  It may not be difficult but it is surely exhausting.  So do not grow weary in this well-doing for this is one of the most profound and significant things we do as Christian people individual and together as the Church of Christ.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Another Bible translation?

Holman some time ago published the Holman Christian Standard Bible.  They now believe the time has come to update the HCSB and in doing so have created a whole new version (as is we were short of versions).  They insist that this Christian Standard Bible translation reflects advances in biblical scholarship, has received both input and direction from a diverse group of Bible scholars, pastors, and readers, and offers an improvement not found in existing translations. In relation to the HCSB, the claim is made that all the changes incorporate both their strong commitment to the  faithfulness to the original text as well as a desire to create a text with the clarity needed for a modern audience.

The list of  biblical scholars who participated in the CSB comes from 17 denominations -- a variety of conservative, evangelical denominations, including Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, conservative Anglican and non-denominational Bible churches.  Lutherans include Andrew Das (ELS) and Andrew Steinmann (LCMS).  Holman itself is a division of Lifeway, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to their own PR, the translation uses the method Optimal Equivalence, which balances contemporary English readability with linguistic precision to the original languages. This process assures that both the words and thoughts contained in the original text are conveyed as accurately as possible for today’s readers.  You can read some verse comparisons here.

You have already heard of the Lutheran translation project begun by the Wisconsin Synod.  I must admit that while I understand the desire for a new translation (I have often thought that the Peters Perfect Paraphrase would solve all the problems!), I am not sure that anyone needs or wants a new translation.  Further, I am not at all sure that another translation would add anything to the versions already available.  In fact, I fear it would only further divide the readers of the Bible and contribute even more to the idea that a translation is a denominational effort or one guided by presuppositions that determine the outcome -- both of which undermine the idea of objective truth.  In addition, I have often spent a goodly portion of our Bible study time discussing the differences in the translations used by the people there -- time that could have been spent more directly addressing the text and what it means.  I am not at all sure having one more translation in the hands of the people will help and fear it would only further distract us.  That said, I am not ready to condemn something before I have had a chance to review it.

I would love to hear your own opinions.  Tell me if you have looked over the CSB and what you think of this addition to the marketplace.  Unfortunately, that is what it is.  A marketplace.  Not a small measure of the decision to produce a new translation is the desire to make money.  Given the number of editions which accompany every translation, I expect we will see some stir from all of this.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Blessed are those who are not offended by Me. . .

In England, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. . . no one comes to the Father except through Me..." is not protected speech but criminal.
Two street preachers, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, have been embroiled in a legal battle since July last year, when they were arrested and charged with a Public Order Offence after preaching in Bristol city centre.  The two men say they were merely preaching the gospel and answering questions on the difference between Islam and Christianity.  Their lawyer, Michael Phillips, told Bristol Magistrates Court that the prosecution was a “modern-day heresy trial – dressed up under the public order act”.

While in court, the defence argued that Overd and Stockwell have a legal and democratic right to preach and quote from the King James Bible in a public place.  In response, prosecutor Ian Jackson reportedly said: “Whilst it is right that if things are said in the Bible, they can be said to be an expression of religious belief – to use words translated in 1611 in a very different context, in the context of modern British society, must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.”

He is later recorded saying: “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”. . . Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell have been ordered to pay £2,016 each, in fines and costs. They will appeal the conviction.
It remains to be seen if the same standard applies to Muslims who insist that Allah is the only God and Mohammed is his prophet.  But then again, we will see.

It is clear that the path of religious freedom is ever more a path to mere protected thoughts and beliefs and not necessarily anything more.  It may include freedom to worship but even in this context there have been challenges to the freedom of the preacher to preach and the teacher to teach contrary to the so-called protected speech of diversity and to the idea that no truth is objectively true.

It is cutting edge, however, to find such speech criminal.  That may be the path that liberalism in Europe is moving but it remains to be seen if such is on the radar for the US anytime soon.

Some interesting thoughts as we  head down the path to the Cross during Holy Week. . .

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mark your calendar. . .

Mark your calendar.

It comes only every 3 years.

It is coming in July of 2017.

See you there!!

Christmas in March?

Today is March 25 so Merry Christmas!?  Don't get it?  Well, today is the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.  Nine months from today, Jesus' birth will be celebrated.  Oh, sure, you probably have been sold the bill of goods that says that Christmas is some sort of pagan holiday that was taken over the Church to shut down the heathen and fill the gap with something more spiritual.  There are those who continue to spew the old saw that Christ is little more than a baptized version of a Roman, pagan winter solstice celebration. The false history, long ago debunked, is that the Church did not know what to do with this pagan celebration of the "sun" god and so it “christianized” the celebration to given the recently converted pagans their day back but with its focus on Jesus instead of Saturn or Sol or whatever other pagan deity was associated with the switch from shortening days to longer ones.

The early Church did not celebrate Christmas much -- this is true -- but that was because the focus was centrally on the resurrection of Christ from the dead (Read what Paul wrote to the Corinthians).  This was the big deal -- dying and rising.  Easter remains the Queen of Seasons even though the marketplace has not done to Easter what it did to Christmas.  The date of Christmas was fixed not by pagan celebrations but by the passion and death of Christ.  In the West the date calculated was March 25 (in the East they used and still use a different calendar system).  March 25 was the first date fixed because at the time of Christ it was commonly held that prophets died on their birth or conception date. It’s the idea of “integral age,” as scholar William J. Tighe has noted in such detail. The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary is liturgically celebrated on March 25, the date of Christ’s conception through the Word spoken by Gabriel and enacted by the Spirit.   In addition, you can read of the theologically-important connection between the womb and tomb in the work of  John Behr in The Mystery of Christ.  So because Christ died on the same date of the Annunciation (his conception), then Christmas Day has to be exactly nine months later OR March 25.

But this is not the only reason to interrupt Lent with this wonderful day of rejoicing.  For Blessed Mary is the first Christian (pondering all these things in her heart after consenting to the will of the Lord).  She is our own best example of faith under fire, of trust where eyes and experience say "no".  She is our mother in the faith and from her we learn what it means to believe the Word of the Lord (which came to her with more than an inconvenient message and one that challenged everything she had come to know and believe of life).  On this day we rejoice to stand with her before her Lord and ours, in whom we have forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Let me close this day with a little paragraph from Augustine from On The Trinity:
For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.
 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Like a candy bar. . .

I recently heard an interesting defense and description of the manifold twists of this person's church membership.  According to this fellow, his faith is like a candy bar -- not so much about the wrapper on the outside but more about the content in the middle.  It's no wonder folks warm up to such a statement.  After all, it sounds so deep and it seems so true.  Faith is not a matter of mere membership affiliation and membership affiliation is no mere matter of a name written on a list somewhere.  We all get that.  And it is true.  Denominations are remarkably diverse and there are people who believe more like Lutherans than some Lutherans -- you know what I mean.  But is this all its cracked up to be?

The wrapper DOES count.  When I want a Snickers, I want the content -- nougat topped with caramel and peanuts, covered in milk chocolate.  But the only way I am going to find that delicious nougat topped with caramel and peanuts all covered in milk chocolate is by looking for the Snickers wrapper.  The wrapper tells us what is inside.  The wrapper is the guarantor of consistency.  I have never opened a Hershey bar only to find a Mr. Goodbar or a Mounds or a Salted Nut Roll.  Nope, it has never happened.  When I feel like toffee covered in milk chocolate, I go for a Heath Bar -- I do not open wrapper after wrapper in search of my craving.  The wrapper tells me where I will find it.

The truth is the wrapper counts.  It counts more than we admit.  With candy bars and with denominations.  The Lutheran wrapper tells you what you should be able to find inside -- a Lutheran faith sourced from Scripture, consistent with the catholic tradition, bound by the Confessions, framed by the Law and Gospel distinction, creedal, liturgical, sacramental, etc...  Just like if you open up a Baptist wrapper you can bet the doctrine will be fundamentalist, oriented toward decision theology, and non-sacramental, non-liturgical, and non-creedal.  In the Roman Catholic wrapper you will find a pope, a cardinal or two, a bishop or many, priests, and deacons.  I am not trying to be definitive but to suggest that we count on wrappers to tell us what is inside.  We do not open wrapper after wrapper in search of something -- the wrapper guides us and tells us what we can expect to find therein.  It is a good thing for candy but even better for churches.  Nothing is more problematic that the kind of diversity which makes the wrapper a lie or deception. 

So no, it is not more about the content than the wrapper.  They are both important and should not compete.  They ought to reflect a consistency that informs us and comforts us when it delivers what it promises.  I do not like Mounds and I do not like Almond Joy.  I really don't want to open a Babe Ruth and find coconut.  I really don't want to open the doors to a Lutheran Church and find something different inside.  Neither do you.

BTW that is why even Whitman's Sampler and other boxes of chocolates have a diagram to tell you where to find what you want.  Is there any one of us who has not selected a chocolate from one of those mixed boxes, thought and hoped we were getting one thing, and then bit down only to be disappointed?  Some of us like to play the game of hide and seek.  Some of us don't.  But you should not have to be surprised when you bite down on a church.  The wrapper has a purpose -- and a good and salutary one.  The wrapper tells you what is on the inside. 

Now. . . if only that were uniformly true people would not enter a Lutheran congregation only to leave disappointed because they did not find one there!  The best ecumenism is to be who you are and then to let who you are be shaped by Scripture and tradition (best sense of that word).  If every church strives for this, we would not have so many different wrappers and churches would not be sold for taste but for truth!  Oh, well, that is a topic for another post.