Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The decline of the moderately religious. . .

According to an article in The Federalist, religion in America is not on the decline but moderate religion is.  You can read the whole article here.   The article references a study accessible at
The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research by Landon Schnabel (Indiana University Bloomington) and Sean Bock (Harvard University).
The rise of the unaffiliated is due solely to a dramatic decline of the moderately religious. Because strong affiliation remains stable while weaker affiliations have declined, those with a strong affiliation actually make up a larger share of the affiliated population over time. In 1989, 39 percent of those with an affiliation were strongly affiliated (36 percent of Americans had a strong affiliation, which is 39 percent of the 92 percent of Americans who were religiously affiliated in 1989). But in 2017, 47 percent of those with an affiliation were strongly affiliated.Therefore, as a larger proportion of the population disaffiliates, a larger share of the remaining religionists identify as more intensely religious. (p. 689) (emphasis mine)
You can read and see for yourself.  The great decline in American Christianity is due mostly to the decline in mainline Protestantism, also known as liberal Protestantism, which has been bleeding off members for decades.  While this is due in part to the aggressive social positions which have also divided some of those churches, it is also due to the fact that the factual basis in history has been eroded in these churches so that there is literally less to believe.  What is left is a deistic religion which promotes the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man humanity people and a militant approach to enforcing and even anticipating the liberal social agenda of everything from abortion to same sex marriage to war to immigration policy to, well, you get the drift.

The ELCA is a poster child for this decline.  Once having some 5.2 million members, that body has declined some 2 million people, spun off two more denominations (the NALC and the LCMC), and left more than a million on the roadside in the process.  But, that is another blog post.  Let it suffice for me to say that becoming less Christian (or less distinctly Lutheran, for that matter) is hardly a path to a reinvigorated Christianity or church body.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  The less of the faith a church offers, the less there is to attract people from their generic spiritual but not religious identity or from no religion at all.  It is this that has fueled most of the nones.  They find it less than compelling to join a church that stands for little but embracing the train of social and moral change.  Even the young of our age who have fully embraced those sexual ethics have found this not enough to interest them, attract them, or keep them in these graying mainline churches.  And where other denominations have portions of their members or segments of their parishes who sympathize with liberal, progressive Christianity, they find that those parts of their church are also on the decline.

So let me end with my familiar point.  Being less Lutheran or less than Lutheran does not attract anyone nor will it offer anything but a more rapid decline to those who are Lutheran.  We do ourselves no service to fawn over the Evangelicals who pass around people to the newest, next best, emerging curve of technology and self-help religion any more than we advance the cause of Christ by abandoning the historical basis of the faith and turn Christianity into another version of the spiritual but not religious religion of the internet.  The Gospel works folks.  The Word does what it says.  The Sacraments deliver what they sign and promise.  Give up the gimmicks and stop trying to turn the church into an agent of social change and simply preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified, administer the sacraments He has instituted, worship with the reverence and awe due the mystery of the God who comes to us in flesh, sing the hymns that testify to this faith, and teach the whole counsel of God's Word.  It is not flashy or on the cutting edge of anything but it is the means by which the purpose of God is fulfilled among us and the Kingdom of God comes in our midst.

Moderation may be laudable in a variety of settings but the moderately religious are worthy of little praise.  Remember the lukewarm and how God has promised to deal with them?  Perhaps we don't need to be fanatical but we do need to be faithful and being faithful in our modern age may risk being labeled fanatical.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Clearly the Cross. . .

Sermon for Lent 2B, preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018.

   There are things in the Bible we do not get.  We find it hard to condemn when others do not get them because we find Jesus’ words dark, hidden, mystical, or just plain obtuse.  But when it comes to what He has come to do, Jesus is nothing but plain and open.  He repeats it over and over again just in case His disciples are not listening.  And He asks them over and over again to see if they are, indeed, listening to Him (as we heard the Father command on the Transfiguration mountain).

       Who am I?  Who do others say I am?  Who do you say I am?  You will notice that Jesus is not interested in what people feel or even think but the confession of their words.  Who Jesus is not a private thought or a passing attraction but the confession of words that hold you accountable.  So, who do you say I am?  Peter jumps in both as one man and as the public leader of the twelve.  “You are the Christ.”  Matthew fills it is a bit.  The Son of the Living God.  And Matthew includes the solemn statement that flesh and blood did not reveal this to Peter but the Father in heaven by the power of the Spirit.

    Peter might have thought it was over.  We all want to end on a high note.  Peter is no different.  But Jesus pressed on.  Jesus will define what it means for Him to be the Christ, the Messiah.  It is this that Jesus says plainly and openly.  No wiggle room.  No parables or figurative statements.  Just as the confession of Peter was specific, so will Jesus be specific in saying what it means for Him to be the Christ.

    Our Lord began to teach them.  This is what it means.  The Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  Nobody was ready for that.  Certainly not Peter.  He was ready to confess Jesus but only within certain parameters.  The cross was not one of them.

    So St. Peter took matters into his own hands.  Jesus had to be dissuaded of this notion of suffering and death.  Surely there is another way.  We think the same thing.  Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?  Could not God have saved us some other way?  Surely sin is not so bad as to require death?  What good ever comes from suffering?  We spend our lives avoiding it.  What kind of Savior would embrace suffering and surrender His life to death?

    It backfired.  I do not know what gave Peter the idea that he could talk Jesus out of anything.  But St. Peter must have known at some point that this was not a smooth move at all. I like the detail Mark has put in here, perhaps directly from Peter’s recollection.  Jesus looked around and saw His disciples.  In other words, just as Peter’s confession was a public word, so was his rebuke of Jesus a public word.  This cannot be simply between Jesus and Peter.  So right there in public, before the rest of the disciples, Jesus called Peter a demon, Satan himself, and warned him to get his mind out of the gutter of self-interest and onto the cross.

    Peter was not a private individual here but the defacto leader of the apostles.  Peter’s words are not private.  This is a word of warning for ever pastor and, indeed, for every Christian.  Words have consequences.  You own your words no matter what the consequences.  Make the good confession and Jesus owns you.  Make the bad confession and Jesus will call you out and condemn you.

    Until Jesus condemns him, Peter does not see the problem.  He is only trying to protect Jesus from Himself.  He is only trying to find a way around the cross.  Wouldn’t we all prefer that Jesus not have to suffer and die to save us?  But to stand in the way of the cross is to stand in the shoes of Satan.  For Satan does not want Jesus to suffer and die.  Satan knows that this suffering and death will undo him and end his reign of fear.  Jesus seems so harsh and cruel.  Peter was only trying to help.  But whoever puts a roadblock before the cross and whoever preaches Christ without the cross is nothing less than an agent of Satan.

    To his credit, Peter did not fight it.  He backed down.  He repents.  If Mark’s Gospel is really the memoirs of St. Peter, he could have tried to explain it all away but Peter does not.  He owns his sin.  He repents of that sin.  He shuts his mouth before the Lord.  He lets Jesus be the Christ. 

    Why is it so hard to let Jesus be the Christ, to suffer and die and rise?  That is what the rest of this reading is about.  For it is not simply Jesus who is called to suffer and die.  Once we prayed every Sunday “for those who suffer for Thy name’s sake and for Thy truth, that they may receive and acknowledge their afflictions as the manifestation of Thy fatherly will.” What?  God’s will is that I suffer for His sake?  Ahhh, there is the rub.  This is not simply about Jesus suffering for us but about our suffering for Him?  Who wants that?

    If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and taken up his cross and follow me. Whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the Gospel’s will save it.  If you are ashamed of me and my words now, then I will be ashamed of you when I come in my glory with the holy angels.  Do you get it now?

    We want a life without suffering and we want to be redeemed without suffering.  We want a Gospel which is easy and comfortable and reasonable.  We are just like Peter.  The reason we don’t want Jesus to suffer and die is because we don’t want to suffer and die.  If we follow Jesus, we know where that road leads.  Who wants to go there?  Who among us ever prays to accept suffering as part of God’s Fatherly will for us?

    We need to repent with Peter.  Not my way but God’s way.  Not my will but God’s will. Not some fairy tale Gospel of happily ever afters but the real Gospel that leads to Easter only first through Good Friday.  Not some Hallmark card life but the real life in which we willingly take up the cross and follow Jesus and where we own our confession publicly even it if means suffering for the sake of the Gospel. . . or worse dying for that faith.

    Jesus knows He goes as the Lamb of God to the slaughter of the cross.  There is no nice way of avoiding this or sugar coating what happens there.  He must die.  But His life will not be taken from Him.  He willingly surrenders it knowing that the redemption of the world can only happen by this sacrificial decision.  Who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross and scorned its shame.  He does not flinch from the cost of redeeming us even though He has no death wish and He does not minimize the cost of fulfilling the saving will of the Father.
    So no wonder Peter says “not today Jesus.”  And no wonder Jesus says “Peter, you talk like Satan.”  And that is exactly where we find ourselves.  Between the “no” of Peter to the way of suffering and the “no” of Jesus to any way but the cross.  Peter got it right between the eyes.  If you don’t like it, Peter, get out of here.  And our Lord shows us the same out.

    This is not about half baked solutions because the problems we face are not small.  The world is dying and our hearts are filled with evil.  The world cannot be saved except by the suffering and death that can pay the full freight of sin’s cost and by the life that can overcome death.  It is the cross or nothing.  And in the same way, our confession is the cross or it is no confession at all.  And our lives in Christ are cross shaped or they are death bound. It is not the solution we wanted but it is the only salvation that saves.  Jesus is perfectly plain and open about this.  And this is our call before the world.  To be just as plain and open.

    The love of God for sinners is cross shaped.  The victory of Christ over sin is cross shaped.  The life of those for whom He died is cross shaped.  The witness we give to the world is cross shaped.  The sufferings we endure in this mortal life are cross shaped.  And because all these are cross shaped, they deliver to us the full promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  This is the Gospel and nothing else.  Amen.

Wanting to believe that there is a "there" are important.  As a child packed into a car on a Sunday afternoon for a random tour that seemed aimless, I began to discover that my dad (the person behind the wheel) may not have known where this journey would go but he did know where it would end up.  Usually at the home of one my aunts or uncles where with some Lutheran style beverages and lots of snack foods, the adults in the room would tell the story of their lives to the children (who were not sure they wanted to hear it all).  As it is now, well more than a half century removed with nearly all of my family now dead, I wish I would have listened more intently and could recall what was said.

As I recall the 25th Anniversary of Installation in my current parish, I am mindful of the fact that the journey of my life has more days behind me than before me.  It is a time in which one tends to reflect less upon the journey than upon the desire to see a destination.  We have been inculturated into the idea that our lives have a direction and a purpose and, I might say, an outcome.  Christians have baptized this thinking and some of us think that God pulls the strings and directs us toward specific outcomes (everything from career to spouse to children to accomplishment).  I do not join those who think everything is in God's plan and I am merely His marionette.  I believe that the remnants of free will remain enough for us to choose and decide the twists and turns of this mortal life.

Sometimes it is this very idea of a "there" or end point that becomes the occasion for Lutherans to look with longing at other churches (especially those with deeper institutional roots).  I reread the reasons behind Russ Saltzman's decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church and found it has just this idea.  Lutheranism is a mess (more in an institutional sense than theologically).  Of course, Rome and Constantinople are also a mess.  So what is different?  Our mess seems to highlight our weaknesses in such a way that the "there" or the outcome is more in question than in certainty.  Rome and Constantinople have their own messes but they also have an institutional history somewhat longer than Lutheran jurisdictions and it provides a comfortable refuge for those who are not sure what will happen to Lutheranism down the pike.

As I have written often before, every Lutheran pastor who has worked to establish confessional identity, orthodox teaching, and consistent practice within a parish or several parishes, finds himself wondering what will happen when the next fellow comes along.  It is not a lack of faith that causes us concern.  We have seen someone come in and undo years of authentic Lutheran pastoral care in weeks or months.  Congregations have declined and even split over such things.  It is hard to see evidence of the kind of ecclesiastical supervision that would prevent such pendulum swings that create angst in the pew and in the pulpit over just such things.  So I am not unsympathetic toward those Lutheran pastors who wonder about the "there" or the destination. All Lutheran jurisdictions are in some sort of decline.  The "there" we fear may just be the "there" we cannot avoid.  Read Saltzman:

What I sought for my faith was an ecclesial density; the feeling that there is a “there” there. The state of Lutheran church bodies in America simply does not approach it.

That said, it is not the Lutheranism that is the problem.  It is the Lutherans who devalue or diminish their Lutheran identity in pursuit of success.  I was interested to read again how Saltzman put it.  He was not running away from Lutheranism as much as the state of affairs among Lutheran jurisdictions.  He was not disowning his past but seeing his future clouded by the mess that Lutherans have created out of their once vibrant confessional identity.  I hear some Lutherans who have jumped ship and seem to delight in shaking the dust off their feet but I also hear some who ache to remain Lutheran but who believe it is hard to be Lutheran in a Lutheran jurisdiction today.
I reject nothing of being a Lutheran. That is the transition, not the conversion; I am moving, but the Christian faith that has marked my life is coming with me. I learned my prayers as a Lutheran, memorized the catechism, and when I was struggling out of the well of agnosticism tending to atheism every third or fourth day, God put in my life some challenging, passionate, authentic Lutheran pastors who taught me well. For a guy who in those years did not believe Christ was raised, it was in a Lutheran community founded in the Resurrection of Christ that I first believed there had been a resurrection. What may I do with that, save give God praise?
FWIW, I do not share that judgment.  If I am ever going to jump ship, it will not be to exchange messes.  That said, twenty-five years in one parish (after thirteen in another), I will do everything in my power to make sure that the confessional identity in teaching and practice will outlive me.  Because, as we must recall from time to time, it is not about me, my preference, or my opinion, but about the Word of the Lord and the confessional exposition of that Word founded faith in which we confess the unchanging catholic and apostolic faith.  The "there" may not be a more orderly institution but the fruits of the Word preached and the Sacraments administered in your term of service.  The only question left is whether or not that is enough for me. . .

Monday, February 26, 2018

Some in Rome are leading the way. . .

So, on December 2-3, 2017, Cardinal John Dew, the Archbishop of Wellington, Bishop Patrick Dunn of Auckland, and Bishop Stephen Lowe of Hamilton, held a workshop for young Catholics called “Bishop’s Banter” at St Mary’s College in Ponsonby, New Zealand. According to an article appearing in NZCatholic, many of the questions dealt with the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  Their answers may surprise you. . . or maybe not. . .
Bishop Lowe said he thinks young people are leading the way in terms of relating with the LGBT community.  “I think young people are prophets of the Church. They always have something to say to the Church. And that’s what has come up. Young people want the Church to be more engaging with them (LGBT people),” he said.

He said the issue of homosexuality may be a “Galileo moment” for the Church.  He continued:  “The psychology is still up for debate but the Church has got to engage with the science and engage with the experience of couples with same-sex attraction.”  Bishop Dunn said:  “We need to make the LGBT people feel welcome. They are beautiful people but they feel rejected by the Church.”
Remember Fr. James Martin who wrote a book encouraging a bridge to the LGBTQ community?  Well, apparently Fr. Martin, SJ, has a favorite iconographer. The artist is Robert Lentz. Lentz famously painted an icon of the Berrigan brothers (for you younger folk, try Googling it).  He is also known for painting icons of the so-called “gay saints.” Perhaps his most famous of these gay icon subjects is one he painted of Harvey Milk. According to one critic: “The icon of Harvey Milk, Martyr is a national gay treasure.”

Concerning homosexuality and the Harvey Milk icon, according to Lentz’s official websiteRegardless of his commitment to God’s poor and the price he [Milk] was willing to pay for that commitment, many Christians are unwilling to forgive Harvey Milk’s sexual orientation. His icon disturbs them deeply…The Jewish Scriptures make negative references to homosexuality, as do some letters attributed to St. Paul. Modern scholars debate what these passages actually mean. There was a time when Christians thought epilepsy was demon-possession, based on their reading of the Bible. There was a time when it was heresy to believe the earth revolved around the sun.

Another “gay” subject explored by Lentz is his interpretation of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus; see picture above. Lentz’s icon contains the following description
Sts. Sergius and Bacchus are ancient Christian martyrs who were tortured to death in Syria because they refused to attend sacrifices in honor of Jupiter. Recent attention to early Greek manuscripts has also revealed that they were openly gay men. These manuscripts indicate acceptance of homosexuality by earlier Christians. Bacchus died first and appeared that night to Sergius who was beginning to consider giving in to his torturers. Bacchus told Sergius to persevere, that the delights of heaven were greater than any suffering, and that part of their reward would be to be reunited in heaven as lovers.
As I have said before, so often the way these things become mainstream in the Church is through the backdoor rather than through theological debate and direct confrontation of controversial issues.  It only takes a generation or so before people began thinking that that which was rejected has become the new normal.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A case for a kinder, gentler liturgical translation. . .

Dynamic Translation. . . embraced by Google Translator. . . maybe it is time for a liturgical change????

 Of course, it would not be right to forget the rest of the Kyrie. . .

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Empty pews. . . on a papal scale. . .

You know what it is like when the weather is bad and there are too many empty pews. . . apparently the Pope knows the same feeling.  If you look at the photo below you can clearly see the boundary markers for the crowd expected for a papal mass in Chile but the crowd is not so big. . .

Friday, February 23, 2018

Simply stunning. . .

Watch this video to see how light flows through stained glass from dawn to darkness. This time lapse video -- part of the exhibition "Scaling Washington" at the National Building Museum -- highlights the movement of stained glass light at the Washington National Cathedral. Photographer Colin Winterbottom was making fine art and documentary photographs of earthquake repairs at the Cathedral when he noticed the beautiful spray of colored light moving through scaffolded work spaces. He had little experience making time lapse, but thought the phenomenon had to be captured, especially as it moved over surfaces across time.

The final video shows movement of light through areas of the Cathedral familiar to visitors as well as through temporary work spaces with limited access. Most of these vantages could only be accessed while scaffold was in place. The opening and closing images, for example -- with the west rose window centered straight ahead within the nave -- cannot be recreated now that scaffold is down.

Stained glass time lapse, Final edit from Colin Winterbottom on Vimeo.

For more timelapse Cathedral fun, see this:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Killing me softly . . .

A kinder, gentler church.  That is what we need to counter the decline of a harsh, rigid, doctrinaire church without compassion. . . without love.  The church is being killed by people who put doctrine above people and ritual above people and truth above people.  We need to soften the church and take away its spine to make it grow.  Surely a gentler church would be more inviting than a strong and unbending one.  Right?

Germany is currently the hotbed of places and people dedicated to the task of stealing away doctrine and emphasizing a more compassionate, a kinder, and a gentler practice.  Read some of the German Cardinals and their take on Amoris Laetitia.  A more accommodating church to those on the fringes.  That is what many of them think they need.  Right?

However, at the same time the German Roman Catholic Church is rolling in dough, it is without much yeast.  In 2017, only 76 priests were ordained in all of Germany.  Go back almost a generation and you would see that in 2000 twice as many, some 154, were ordained.  When the stats were first kept, in 1962, there were even 557 ordinations to the priesthood in Germany.  Remember that 1962 was before Novus Ordo and all the efforts to make the mass more participatory and more user friendly.  And it was long before anyone had a hint of needing to address issues of divorced receiving the Sacrament and making some sort of opening to GLBTQ folks.  So, now that the church there is kinder and gentler, they have fewer people going to mass and fewer priests to say mass.  The Roman Catholic Church is being starved.  The dough is a lump without leaven -- no means of grace and no priests to administer the sacraments through whom the Spirit works to grow and give life to the Church.

We would do well to watch.  Liberal Christianity is NOT vibrant and alive.  It is deader than a door nail.  It has no confidence in the Word of God, no certainty even in Jesus and in what Jesus has done (the Gospel), no belief that the sacraments actually have any power or do anything, and no answer to the world except "I'm sorry" and "you are right."  Accommodation is not the answer.  Kindness that chooses to ignore sin and diminish the cross is not kindness at all.  There is no gentleness in looking away or patting the sinner on the back as they make their way to meet the Lord in judgment.  There is no compassion in people who refuse to speak the eternal truth to a specific moment in time and a people who are caught up in that moment, in their feelings, and in the throws of desire.

Church renewal comes by proclaiming the truth without embarrassment or apology.  It comes with the real kindness and compassion of the God who puts our sins into the light of day so that the blood of Christ may cleanse us from those sins.  It comes with the real love that challenges sin, immorality, and error.  And, surprise of all surprises, this is what encourages vocations to the Ministry.  A therapeutic Gospel does not encourage vocations.  Who can find meaning and purpose in helping people become comfortable with their sins?  But those who wish to find meaning and a purpose in life are drawn to the cause of the Word that offers real rescue to the sinner and real life to the dead in trespasses in sin (awaiting their bodies to catch up and surrender their lives also). 

Recruitment of good men to the pastoral office is aided and encouraged by a church confident in the truth of God's Word and the answer the Gospel gives to any and all sinners.  Faith comes by hearing.  We know that.  But hearing what?  The Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  And how shall they hear unless there are men to send?  Think about it as the German Church (both Roman Catholic and the EKD) withers and dies. . .

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How do you incarnate the Gospel in the family. . . and other questions. . .

Amoris Laetitia, according to Cardinal Parolin, as well as indicating the Church’s “embrace of the family and its problems in the world today, really helps to incarnate the Gospel in the family — which is already a gospel: the Gospel of the family — and at the same time is a request for help from families that they might collaborate and contribute to the growth of the Church.”

I generally do not see myself as stupid, perhaps not all that smart, but not stupid, yet for the life of me I cannot figure out what the good Cardinal is talking about.  What does it mean to incarnate the Gospel in the family?  What does it mean the Gospel of the family?  This is one of those strange terms which is bantered about as if it had real meaning but in reality is mean as an obfuscation, a deliberate use of words not to illuminate but to hide how a change in their meaning is being promoted.

How does one incarnate the Gospel in the family EXCEPT through the means of grace?  How is there a Gospel of the Family EXCEPT in the means of grace through which the Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying the Church?

And then there is the issue of Amoris Laetitia and its apparent opening of a door to people who yesterday were living in sin but today may not be. . .

Is it necessary to minimize sin in order to maximize the Gospel?  In other words, must the Church overlook doctrine in order to address the broken families with the Gospel?  Does the Gospel overlook sin?  I thought that the Gospel confronted sin with forgiveness and called the forgiven to "go and sin no more. . . "  Perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps the Gospel really is telling people living in broken and sinful relationships that it is no big deal -- as long as your intentions are good, God is good with you.

I know Lutherans and Roman Catholic do not deal with the issue of divorce in the same way.  That said, I had no idea that Rome was going to shift its paradigm by ignoring sin and its brokenness or by mitigating that sin and brokenness with the healing balm of good intent.  To be honest, I know of no one ending a marriage or remarrying without a good intent.  Don't we all want the next marriage to be better than the last one?  Don't we all want the divorce to release us from the broken and irreconcilable circumstance of the broken marriage and believe we would do better the next time around?  Very few of the people I know intend for their marriage to fail or do not intend for their life together to be anything but happy and satisfying.  Do good intentions minimize our culpability when we sin?

Far be it from me to tell Rome what to do 😇 but it seems to me already fairly evident from liberal Protestantism what happens when you begin heading down the slippery slope of relativizing sin or raising good intention above the sin.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Temptation and Testing -- what is the difference. . .

Sermon for Lent 1B, preached on Sunday, February 18, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.               “And lead us not into temptation…”  We pray this every day in the Lord’s Prayer.  With faith, we come before our Father in heaven and ask Him not to do something that He already doesn’t do.  Luther explains this petition by first saying, “God tempts no one.”  If God tempts no one, then why do we pray this? … Because we need Him to guard us from temptation, to keep us from the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.  We need Him to deliver us from evil through Christ Jesus who resisted all temptation. 
               When Luther explained the 6th petition by saying “God tempts no one,” he wasn’t making it up.  This is exactly what God says, “Let no one say when he is being tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (Jas 1:13).  God can’t tempt us because temptation is evil, it leads to sin.  If God tempted us then He would be the cause of sin; He’d be evil.  But this can’t be because God is pure, holy, and righteous. 
               Scripture is clear, God tempts no one...but Scripture is also clear saying God tests His saints.  We see this in the Old Testament reading, the Binding of Isaac.  In the very first verse we hear “After these things God tested Abraham” (Gn 22:1).  God tested Abraham by commanding him to take his only son Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. 
               Often temptation and testing appear to be the same thing.  They may even feel the same...but they’re not.  Temptation and testing come from two totally different places, for two totally different purposes. 
               Temptation comes from within each and every one of us.  It comes from our sinful nature, from our perverse and turned inward desires.  Temptation comes from the world around us that tells us to pursue these desires, that they’re okay.  Everyone else is doing it, why can’t we?  In order to enjoy this short life, to live it to the full, we need to be true to these desires.  Temptation comes from Satan who delights in us putting ourselves first.  He lies to us through any means he can, convincing us that our selfish desires are good and that God really wants us to fulfill them in order to be happy.  This is the very thing he did with our first parents in the Garden, and it’s the very thing he does with us today. 
               Even though Satan, the world, and our sinful nature try to convince us that temptation is good, that giving in will make us happy and give us life, it won’t.  We always think if I just give in to these feelings or those feelings, if I satisfy that sexual desire, if I let loose and scream obscenities at that person, if I just give into you name whatever temptation you want to name, then everything will be alright.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Temptation doesn’t lead to good and life, it only leads to death.  “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jas 1:14-15).  This is the purpose of temptation, to lure you away from God into death. 
               But that’s not the purpose of testing.  Testings leads us to God, it strengthens our faith in Christ. 
               Earlier in James’ letter he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2-4).  St. Paul encourages us similarly in Romans.  “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3). 
               Although it may be difficult and even seem downright impossible at times to rejoice in our sufferings, with faith we can take joy in them because we know that God is using them to strengthen our faith.  Testing isn’t for our harm but our benefit.  Like an athlete who undergoes the trials and testing of training to strengthen his muscles, our faith is strengthened through testing for the purpose of holding on to Christ and receiving the crown of life. 
               God tests His saints actively and passively.  Actively, He puts trials before them, like Abraham.  The command to sacrifice his son was certainly a difficult test of Abraham’s faith.  But trusting in the Lord’s promises, Abraham endured and through this test his faith was strengthened.  After the binding of Isaac, Abraham’s trust in God was stronger, knowing God would always keep all His promises. 
               Passively, God tests His saints by allowing trials to befall them.  Think of Paul, who endured all sorts of tribulations: beatings; imprisonments; hunger; even shipwrecks.  Scripture doesn’t say God caused these and yet He used these tests to strengthen Paul’s faith. 
These are the most common tests that we endure.  We endure all sorts of tests and trials in life.  Health issues, financial hardships, strife in relationships.  We’re not promised an easy life just because we’re Christians.  We suffer many things.  We suffer the consequences of sin left and right.  When we encounter these types of tests, with eyes of faith we see them for what they are.  We recognize our sin, we repent of it, and we look toward God trusting He’ll bring us through them all the while making our faith stronger. 
Testing and temptation aren’t the same.  Temptation is from our sinful flesh, from the world, and Satan for the evil purpose of leading us away from God.  Testing is from God for the purpose of leading us to Him.  Two totally different things, but the answer to enduring both is the same...Jesus Christ.
               The answer to enduring temptation is Christ who overcome all temptation and sin.  The author of Hebrews says Christ was tempted in every way that we are, and yet He did not sin (Heb 4:15).  This temptation happened all of Jesus’ life: as a boy, as a teen, and as a man.  He faced the devil one on one in the wilderness, resisting his temptations.  On the cross, He resisted the temptations to come down and save Himself.  Every day Jesus had to overcome temptations that tried to lead Him away from God’s will and plan of salvation.  And thanks be to God that He overcame every single one. 
               If Christ gave in to any one of these temptations, then there’d be no hope for us, we’d be enslaved to sin forever.  Jesus’ sacrifice would’ve been useless for us.  Only the death of a sinless Savior could save us.  Jesus is that sinless Savior.  He faced the devil and resisted all temptations for you.  He died for you, for the forgiveness of your sin.  Through His blood temptation, sin, and Satan have been overcome.  No longer are you enslaved to it.  Clothed in Christ’s righteousness you strive to resist temptation.  You endure with faith knowing Jesus has overcome, knowing you’ve been forgiven! 
               Christ our Savior is also the answer to enduring all tests from God, for He is the fulfillment of all God’s promises.  Abraham was able to endure the binding of Isaac because he trusted God would fulfill His promise to make Abraham a great nation and bless all people through Isaac.  Abraham believed that God would raise his son from the dead (Heb 11:19).  This is how Abraham could’ve gotten all the way up the mountain, he knew God was faithful.  And we know this too, for God has fulfilled all His promises in Jesus.
               When our first parents gave into temptation, God promised to send us a Savior.  Jesus is that Savior, dying on the cross and rising again, crushing Satan’s head and overcoming sin and death for us.  God is faithful in His promises.  He kept His promise to save us and He’ll keep His promise to keep us.  Knowing this, with faith, we know we can endure all testing, because we are God’s, redeemed in Christ, saved in Christ. 
               We pray “lead us not into temptation,” knowing God tempts no one.  We pray this with faith in God’s promises to deliver us from all evil.  We pray this with faith in our Savior who resisted all temptation for us, who died for us for the forgiveness of our sin.  With eyes looking to Jesus, we endure temptation knowing it’s been defeated in Him, and we endure testing knowing it’s for our good, for the strengthening of our faith, that we might receive the crown of life in Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.  

Dream Life without God. . .

Like children who dream about ice cream for breakfast and candy for dinner and life without chores or school or anything they neither like nor desire, so do we relish the thought of life without God.  Without God, we think ourselves free from constraint and therefore free to indulge ourselves and be happy.  Without God, we smile at the prospect that no one can tell us no -- not even our conscience.  It is all good that we deem good.  Words can mean what we want them to mean and life can be about what we want it to be about.  In the midst of it all, we will find the happiness that seems to elude us.

As anyone who has read Dostoyevsky knows, his fear was not the unfair fettering of liberty but unfettered pursuit of it.  It is not that the absence of God might mean another who will place limits upon our freedom but that if God does not exist, everything will be permitted.   It is the fool who thinks this is the path to ultimate fulfillment, freedom, and happiness.  For the fools has decided that God exists only to rain upon your parade, to steal your fun, and to shut down your self-indulgence.  In reality, it is wisdom from above that strips away the layers so that we might see that fun was never enough, is never enough, and will never be enough to supply us with happiness or to end the wanderlust within.  The constraints of God do not deprive us of happiness but teach us what is true happiness (contentment).  Apart from this, it is all vanity.

Even in the Church we are quick to accuse any rule of intrusive legalism antithetical to the Gospel.  What we forget is that God does not trivialize sin or minimize it in any way.  Though we here on earth tell one another "It's okay" when we are offended and the offender seems to have noticed, it is not okay with God.  God does not shrug off our sin nor does He invite us to do the same.  He invites us to see what it is for real -- not the imagined ideas of sin that offend no one and cause no serious consequence but the honest sin that distances us from God and imparts death to the sinner.  This sin is so evil and so mighty that it requires the blood sacrifice of the one and only righteous One in flesh and blood.  The cross does not wish away sin but overcomes it with the ultimate act of mercy.

In the same way, the fruit of that redemption is not liberty to do as one might please but rather to love God above all things and to love your neighbor as yourself. Redeemed in Christ, we see the Law in a new light and it reveals to us the shape of the righteous life we were created for and have now been redeemed to pursue.  Even the admission that we will not pursue it perfectly or even mostly successfully does not shrink our endeavor to become the people we were declared to be in baptism. The end of it all is that the elusive thing called happiness was never hidden in the fog of fun, desire, and freedom but in the God who has revealed Himself most of all through His mercy.

Sin is not some arbitrary thing but the pursuit of whatever seems right or desirable in our own eyes  -- not because we just might have fun and be happy but because this is the undoing that will steal our humanity once and for all, isolate and abandon us for anything greater or grander than the moment, and imprison us forever in the pain of getting what we thought we wanted.  This is vanity.  At least God loves us enough to keep us from this vanity, to address the darkness of this life with His light, and to redeem us ultimately from ourselves.

I was asked once whether Jesus was happy in the life He lived born of Mary to death on the cross.  I admitted I had never actually thought about it.  At first I was tempted to say yes.  After all, we want Jesus to be happy because we think that there just might be a chance for us to find such happiness.  But I am not sure.  The happiness that we generally speak of -- freedom from -- is a happiness foreign to Jesus and His purpose.  He is not come to pursue His goal but to do the will of the Father.  And what is the will of the Father except our redemption?!  In this our Lord is perfectly content.  If this is what you call happiness, then I guess Jesus was happy in His mortal life growing up the child of Mary to fulfill the saving purpose of the Father in Heaven.  But I am not sure that even Christians mean happiness in this way.  We want to think of Jesus as enjoying a good joke and telling a better one in reply, of knowing how to balance life's stresses and pressures by blowing off steam, having varied interests and hobbies, and living a generally dream life of success and happiness.  But. . . does our ideal of a carefree and happy life square with the Jesus of the Gospels?  Note, I am not saying that Jesus was unhappy but that His joy was located not in Himself but in you and in me.  And for this joy set before Him, He endured the cross and scorned its shame and did not return evil for evil but found perfect contentment in a holy life.  And just maybe that should say something to us. . .