The tension of orthodoxy and current reality…

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Romans 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Paul continues challenging the “Judaizers” – those who taught that Christians (Jews and Gentiles) must follow the law of Moses. For such persons the story of Abraham is problematic since Abraham is considered the father of Israel yet did not follow the law of Moses. Why? The law did not come into existence until long after Abraham’s death. Nevertheless Abraham was considered “righteous” in the eyes of God and of Isreal. Abraham’s was a righteousness of “faith” (trusting in the Lord and believing his promises) not of fidelity to the law.

I get the sensitivity of the Jews around the issue of adherence to the law, given the widely-held belief that Israel’s historical struggles were fundamentally a result of violating the law. Yet Paul reminds the Judaizers their history is a bit more nuanced than “follow the law or else”. There is precedent in Israel’s history for a righteousness by faith, which is a fundamental theological foundation for Christian believers then and now.

We Christians are constantly being challenged to apply historical theology to our modern context. As one who tends to take a more traditional view of theology and faith, I appreciate the impulse of the Judaizers to lean into historical orthodoxy. Without a firm foundation, the faithful would surely be lost. But as Paul illustrates for us, orthodoxy too narrowly applied can create problems of its own. And so we live in the tension of the past and the present. Now more than ever. We desperately need the wisdom of God to guide the Church faithfully into the future. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Faith/believe/trust…

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Romans 4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

The apostle Paul continues his teaching that Christians are no longer required to pursue righteousness by following the law of Moses. In this passage he uses Abraham as an example. Abraham, the ultimate Jewish patriarch, lived in a time before the law of Moses existed – yet he was considered “righteous” by the Jews. If there was no law to follow how can this be? V.3 answers the question:

Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

You will recall that Abraham and his wife Sarah, 80 years old and childless, had not known God when God called them to leave their home and their people for a two-fold promise:

1) Children – even at such an advanced age

2) A land of their own in which to settle

The fact they believed the Lord’s promises enough to act on them reflects a right relationship with God, what the bible refers to as “righteousness”. Even though there was no law to follow. In fact, the words “faith”, “believe”, and “trust” (all of which are present in our passage) stem from the same Greek root “πιστεύω” (pisteou). Hence, according to Paul, we are “righteous” before God by faith – which is expressed via belief and trust in the Lord. Not by works of the law.

This morning I’m thinking about faith/belief/trust, praying for the Lord to reveal to me where I am being challenged to deepen my trust of God. Lord give me grace to let go of my fears and follow after you. Amen.

…for all who believe…

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Romans 3: 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Paul is addressing a group of Jewish leaders of the church in Rome who teach that Christians (Jews or Gentiles) must continue to follow the law of Moses (the 10 commandments and such). In v.20 Paul explains why he opposes this teaching, for the law doesn’t bring life but “knowledge of sin”. As a result v.24 says we are “justified by his grace as a gift”. This is obviously a very important point in Christian theology. We will never be right with God based on works because sin will always get in the way. Hence our need for a Savior.

What gets my particular attention this morning is v.22 “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (my emphasis). Those last four words are crucial. I find that my friends in more evangelical traditions take this part seriously, placing significant emphasis on verbally sharing the gospel of Jesus and giving people an opportunity to respond in faith. Why? Because eternal life is at stake. What could be more important?

My own Lutheran tradition tends to shrink back from this, referring to such practices as “proselytizing” or some other pejorative term. We see practices of other Christians around evangelism we are not comfortable with, so we de-emphasize a verbal sharing of the gospel altogether. Our cultural roots in northern European Christendom may have also contributed to a weak Lutheran theology and practice of religious conversion. This must change if we are to stay relevant in an increasingly post-Christian world. Lord let it be so. Amen.

The promise of “rescue”?

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Psalm 34: 19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. 

This verse makes clear that “the righteous” are not spared afflictions, but must endure them like everyone else. In fact, the afflictions are described as “many”. But then there is the promise of God who “rescues”. As I look around my network of friends and family I see people experiencing affliction, pain, loss. In scripture we read of God’s people enduring great struggle and even death for their faith. That doesn’t look like rescue to me.

That said, despite the afflictions of this life, we DO have the promise of everlasting life in Jesus Christ. So this is the promise to which I cling today. Suffering and struggle are part of the human experience. Faith does not change this. In fact death itself will come one day, but death no longer has the last word. Thank you Lord. Amen.

The Lord is good…

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Psalm 34: 8 O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. 

Approximately one year ago the initial coronavirus shut-down occurred. We had no idea at the time just how radically this small organism would change our world. And it’s not over yet. Along the way we have had to figure out how to live in this new reality – at home, with friends and loved-ones, at work, at school, in the community at-large. It has not been fun, in any way.

And yet I can truly say I’ve probably leaned on the Lord more in the last year than at any time in recent memory. And despite the difficulties and obstacles along the way I am glad to agree with the words of this psalm, “the Lord is good”. Thanks for sharing the journey with me in this space dear sisters and brothers.

A brutal remedy…

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Ezra 10:1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” 5 Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore.

This is a brutal remedy, for sure. I find it interesting that God did not command the purging of foreign wives and their children. This was done at the recommendation of Shecaniah, not God. It’s difficult to imagine the grief and heartbreak involved. Makes me all the more grateful we are no longer under the covenant of the law, but under the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ. Thank you Jesus that you willingly paid the price for our sin, taking our sin on the cross and to the grave while giving to us your righteousness. Amen.

The battle is won or lost in the temple…

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Psalm 33:13 The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind. 14 From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth — 15 he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds. 16 A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. 17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. 18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, 

V.16-17 really got my attention today. David is articulating an important truth. it is our God who “looks down from heaven” who raises up and tears down. What I most appreciate about David is that he didn’t just write about dependence on God, he walked the talk. When faced with battle and uncertain outcomes, David could often be found worshipping the Lord – not consulting with his generals or checking his horses and chariots or meeting with his diplomats. David understood that…

the battle is won or lost in the temple, not the war room…

What would it look like for you and me to apply this principal? Lord show us the way, for you are God of heaven and earth. Amen.

Vocation and purpose…

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Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name…

The book of Romans is a favorite of many Christian believers. As we launch into Romans this morning it’s v.5 that gets my attention. Paul says of himself (and those with him) three very important things:

  1. Through Jesus they have received grace for salvation and for vocation
  2. The nature of that vocation is “apostleship” – being sent out for God’s purposes
  3. The purpose of their apostleship is “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles”

While all believers receive grace for salvation through Jesus, not all of us are called to the vocation of apostleship – or for the purpose of bringing about faith among the Gentiles (persons who are not Jewish ). But we are all called, sisters and brothers. And we all have a purpose. Clarity of vocation and purpose is a powerful thing. This morning I’m again reflecting on my own vocation and purpose. What about you? Who are you called to be? For what purpose?

Lord you have claimed us as sons and daughters of God. Give us grace to be clear about these important questions. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Being a witness… whoever you are…

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Acts 28:30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. 

It’s strange to get to the end of the book of Acts and not read about the conclusion of Paul’s story – especially given the description of Paul’s long and eventful journey to Rome in the first place. Tradition holds that Paul did eventually get his opportunity to testify before the emperor and that Paul was sentenced to death by beheading. One wonders why Luke did not report this. There are several theories among scholars, none of which is conclusive.

I suppose it’s possible that for Luke (the writer of Acts) the outcome of Paul’s journey to Rome is unimportant. What is important is the way in which Paul endured suffering for the name of Jesus over and over again, how God gave to Paul grace to endure, and how that suffering served the purposes of the gospel as Paul testified to the authorities in every city and town. I would think this letter was particularly meaningful to persecuted Christians who were encouraged by Paul’s story.

I’ve not been called to suffer for the sake of the gospel as Paul suffered, that’s for sure. I’m guessing the same is true of you. But that doesn’t mean we are not called to serve God’s purposes by telling the story of Jesus. This morning I’m wondering how the Lord might give me an opportunity to be a witness to Jesus and all he has done for me. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Let your heart take courage…

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Psalm 31: 21 Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege. 22 I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help. 23 Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. 24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. 

This is David again pleading with the Lord under difficult circumstances. What gets my attention is the contrast between what David’s eyes say about his situation and what his heart says. His eyes tell him he is surrounded, as a city under siege (v.21). He has doubts as to whether the Lord is still with him “I am driven far from your sight”. But then there’s v.24 in which he implores the reader to “let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord”. I think this is David writing from experience. There were many times in David’s life when things looked particularly bleak, only to have the Lord eventually come to his aid.

There is a difference between the testimony of the eyes and the testimony of the heart.

The eyes say the situation is hopeless. The heart says with God there is always hope. That’s a good word for me today. There are places in my life where I am waiting on the Lord to act, to show me the way, to turn around a difficult situation. Lord give me grace that, like David, my heart might take courage. Amen.