Be Still. God is Your Fortress

Readings for the day (Lectionary 30, Sunday, October 28, 2018):

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Psalm 126

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

In July, I traveled to Germany to spend a week visiting and learning more about Martin Luther and the Reformation that began 500 years ago.  We visited the monastery in Erfurt, where he was a monk at.  I spent time in prayer in the same chapel that he celebrated his first mass at after he was ordained as a Catholic priest; which is in that monastery.  We visited the Wartburg Castle where he hid for safety and while he was there, translated the entire New Testament into German in less than 11 weeks.  We stopped in Wittenberg where he was a professor at the university.  We saw the house where he and his wife, Katie, lived and raised their family.  We took pictures by All Saint’s Church, also known as the Castle Church.  This is where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the church on October 31, 1517.  And we also attended a worship service, which was in English.  This service was at St. Mary’s Church, also known as the Town Church.  This is the church where Luther primarily preached at while he was in Wittenberg.

For Lutheran’s one of the most foundational hymns that we have is Luther’s hymn titled A Mighty Fortress.  We sing it every year on Reformation Sunday.  I picked this hymn to be sung at my ordination service.  And this hymn was the closing hymn to our worship service in Wittenberg.  As I was singing this hymn in the church where Luther preached, in the town where the Reformation all began, I couldn’t help but think about the words to this hymn.  And more specifically, what would have the people during Luther’s time thought about this hymn.  I picture this former monk, now priest and professor at the university, who has gone a little rogue, writing this hymn and presenting it to his congregation.  So on a Sunday morning he hands out a sheet of paper with words to a hymn and tells the people that he wrote a new hymn and he’d like to try it during worship.  First of all, I know how much you all enjoy trying new hymns.  So I can just about imagine what these people were thinking.  They were probably thinking something along the lines of, “Oh look, this crazy Luther has done it again.  He has gone and wrote another new hymn!”

Maybe they did think he was crazy.  But then again, maybe they thought his hymns really spoke some truth to their lives.  Luther based A Mighty Fortress off of Psalm 46 which doesn’t shy away from naming the harsh realities of this life.  During Luther’s time, living conditions weren’t great, and life expectancies were low; really low.  When you’re outlook on life is not that great, it becomes quite hard to have a positive attitude and to have any sort of hope in something better.  This hymn though, names the harsh realities of life, and provides hope for overcoming these challenges.

In the first verse, Luther uses a fortress or castle to describe our God.  In Germany there are many castles, some that are still in use today, most are museums or in ruins.  A fortress or castle is secure.  It’s solid.  It’s stable.  It provides a defense for those on the inside.  And it is our God who goes on the offensive, not us.  God is the one who is armed with the sword and the shield.  God is the one who wins and is victorious.  We actually don’t do anything.  This first verse is all about what our God is doing for us.

At the end of the first verse, the devil is arming himself for a fight.  And at the beginning of the second verse, Luther acknowledges that we have no strength comparable to the devil.  We don’t stand a chance.  We will lose.  He says that we will be lost and rejected.  Which is true.  We cannot stand up to the temptations of this life.  Sometimes we can resist that cookie or candy bar or pop.  But some temptations are just too strong for us to tackle on our own.  We need help.  We need some assistance.  We need a champion to come in and fight, as Luther says.  One whom God chooses to fight by our side.  One who fights with us and for us.  And for us as Christians, that victor, that champion, is Jesus.  Specifically, Jesus on the cross and then that same Jesus is standing outside of the empty tomb.

And you would think that would be the end.  The verse even ends with, “Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored.  He holds the field victorious.”  End of story.  Jesus wins.  What more is there to say?  Except, for Luther, Jesus won final victory over the grave 1,500 years earlier.  And he sees that people are still struggling.  They are still dealing with addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity.  So what has changed?  Has Jesus winning final victory over the grave done anything good?  Was it actually final?  How can something that happened 1,500 years earlier be viewed as good news in the time of the Reformation?  How can this good news about Jesus’ final victory over death be seen as good today?

As Luther goes into verse three, he begins to answer these questions.  The verse begins, “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us.”  Not just devils, but hordes of devils.  Meaning – many or a large group of them.  And they are all threatening to get us.  To devour us.  It appears that this would be the end for us, the devil winning.  But the verse goes on to say that we don’t tremble.  We stand unmoved.  We will not be overpowered because God’s judgment will prevail.  It must prevail.  It does prevail.  All because of God’s Word.  Yes, his word of judgment which defeats the hordes of devils, but God’s Word that is found in Jesus Christ comes to our aid.  He fights by our side.  So that the addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity will not win.  Jesus wins.  He wins final victory.  He did so nearly 2,000 years ago.  And He is still winning final victory today.

Just like in Luther’s time, we will not see complete relief from the hardships of this life.  But through our faith and trust in God, we are given the strength, the perseverance, the ability to get through those hardships.  Psalm 46, which A Mighty Fortress is based on, ends by saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Even though there are hardships.  Even though it appears that society is going in a direction that you might not agree with.  Even though it seems that we are doomed to fail, the Psalmist, aware of all of this, simply says, “Be still.”  In this fast paced world, it is quite hard for us to “Be still.”  And yet it is in the stillness where we can realize that God is in control and that in the end Jesus will have final victory over all.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

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Cutting with Precision

Readings for the day (Lectionary 28, Sunday, October 14, 2018):

Amos 5:6-15

Psalm 90:12-17

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Some of you know that I am left handed.  How many of you are left handed?  If you’re left handed then you understand the difficulties of living in a right handed world.  Handwriting from left to right results in leaving ink marks on your hand, and on the paper leaving smear marks that makes it look like a 4 year old was writing.  Or coffee mugs that have designs or sayings on them that when held by the handle with your left hand are backwards.  Or carefully and strategically finding the “safe” place to sit at a table when you eat with a group so that you don’t bump elbows with the right handed person sitting to your left.  If you’re left handed, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  And if you’re right handed, you just don’t get it.  You probably think that I’m weird and complaining about the littlest of things.

But it’s true.  There are many things in our world that have been created for the majority of people who are right handed.  And a perfect example of this is, the scissors.  Have you ever tried to use a scissors to cut something using your left hand?  I have.  And so has every other left handed person.  It is nearly impossible to cut something.  And in the few moments when you actually can be successful in cutting something, it is by no means straight or perfect or precise.

Some people are very steady with their hands and can make some of the most intricate and precise moves.  I can do some detailed work that requires some precision, like putting some details into a wood project.  But give me a right handed scissors and you better not have any grand expectations of seeing a masterpiece when I’m done.  Because it’ll never happen.

Our readings today, especially the reading from Mark’s Gospel and from Hebrews are about precision.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the precision of threading a camel through the eye of a needle.  And the writer of Hebrews talks about the precise cutting that God’s Word does as a two edged sword.  The writer of Hebrews is somewhat of a mystery.  The majority of the book is a sermon and some of the theories on the authorship of this sermon include: Paul, Luke, Barnabas, or Apollos.  But none of these theories are convincing enough for Biblical scholars.  So it is left as an unsolved mystery as to who wrote Hebrews.  In the sermon, the writer says that God’s Word is living and active; that God’s Word is a two edged sword.  Now the two edged sword is often used as a metaphor to mean that something can be both favorable and unfavorable.

Now in the case of God’s Word as a two edged sword, the Word can be unfavorable.  Unfavorable for us and unfavorable for our neighbors.  The Hebrews writer says that God’s Word divides, it judges, it reveals everything that is hidden – even those things that we wish would remain hidden and never seen.  For certain aspects of our life, we strive to keep things out of the public eye.  I recently got a notification that the Facebook data breach included my account.  The notification said that the following information might have taken: my phone number, my email address, my birthdate, and where I live.  Things that were supposed to remain private were made public without my consent.  Things that are private are to remain private; especially your personal information.  But with God, it’s different.  He has full access to all of your personal information.  You can’t hide anything from God.  You can try, but it won’t.  God knows every sin, every shortcoming, every failure.  He knows it all, and with God’s Word as a two edged sword, the unfavorable side is that He knows and remembers everything.  And as a result, we are called to confess our sins and repent of those actions that have hurt ourselves and others.  Confession isn’t fun because it is opening up a wound.  Confession opens our hearts to God, fully and completely exposing us to God for the true sinner that we are.  And when we don’t confess our sins, when we don’t admit to ourselves and to God our shortcomings, it is like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound.  The wound will eventually scab over, but it won’t fully heal unless it heals from the inside out.  Confession opens the wound up, making it possible to heal from the inside out.

Which leads us to the favorable side of God’s Word as a two edged sword.  The writer of Hebrews first talks about how God’s Word judges and divides with great precision, but the writer continues by showing how God’s Word which is made flesh in Jesus Christ, sympathizes with us in our weaknesses.  That God’s Word is filled with mercy and grace, boldly helping in times of need.  As a result, we receive healing and restoration from our Heavenly Father through the forgiveness of our sins.  In the church, we call this the absolution.  The wonderful words that declare us forgiven of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus, our great high priest.  If confession is what opens up our hearts, opening up the wounds and exposing our true sinful selves, then the absolution is the healing that is brought to those wounds; allowing us to be healed from the inside out.  Absolution without confession is like expecting to be healed without medicine or any medical intervention.  It’s not helpful and it certainly will not get you very far.  Similarly, confession without the absolution is also not helpful.  In fact it is quite harmful to confess and admit you’ve screwed up, but never hear those promising words of forgiveness.

God’s Word is a two edged sword, precisely cutting us to the heart, exposing our sinful wounds and revealing our true identity.  God doesn’t do it this to show how awful we are, but rather to show how much we need Him.  And more precisely, how much we are in need of a savior.  Jesus on the cross was no accident.  It was a very precise move by God.  He was bridging the otherwise infinite gap between Himself and humanity.  Sceptics will say that’s impossible.  It’s impossible to save poor, helpless sinners who cannot help themselves.  Not for God though.  They also say that a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle.  It is impossible.  Not for God though.  “For mortal it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”[1]  Including the precise cutting away of all your sins to bring you healing, wholeness, and make you righteous before God.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

[1] Mark 10:27, NRSV

Boxes Don’t Work!

Readings for the day (Lectionary 26, Sunday, September 30, 2018):

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

If you were here a few weeks ago, the Gospel reading was the eight verses that precede the reading for today.  However, the way the lectionary divides the reading up makes it appear that there are two different stories going on.  But that’s not true.  This is the same story.  The same people.  The same setting.

To refresh your memory, Jesus is traveling with His disciples and He gives them the second of three predictions about His death and resurrection.  He tells them that He is going to be betrayed, killed and three days later, rise.  But the disciples of course don’t understand any of this and instead argue amongst themselves over who is the favorite and best disciple.  So to get their attention, when they stop traveling for the day, Jesus takes a child in His arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Now that is where the lectionary ended this reading.  Today’s reading picks up with the next verse.  Keep in mind, however, that this is still the same store.  The same people.  The same setting.  So we can assume that this child that Jesus took in His arms, is still there.  We are not told that the child left.  So this child is still in Jesus’ arms when John interrupts Jesus while He is teaching to ask about someone who he noticed was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but who wasn’t a part of their group.  It would seem that what John is most concerned about is having complete control of the work they are doing.  This person that John saw wasn’t one of the disciples or a close follower of Jesus.  John wanted to control the situation because this person was doing work in Jesus’ name but he wasn’t an insider.  He wasn’t part of their group.  Plus John figured Jesus would be concerned about this too.  So if he interrupts Jesus while He is lecturing the disciples on how they screwed up, AGAIN, then maybe, just maybe, this would redirect Jesus on to a different topic and He would forget all about what the disciples were arguing about.  Nice try John.  It didn’t work.  In fact, the whole idea backfires on him.  Instead of Jesus being glad that John was concerned about the whole thing, Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Don’t stop or prevent people who are trying to help our cause.

We can certainly relate to John.  We like control.  We long for control.  We feel more comfortable when life is happening on our terms, on our timeline, under our control.  We like to have control of our life.  But the reality is, is that many parts of our lives are out of our control.  Take this year’s harvest for example.  And when that happens, when we don’t have a sense of control of our own lives, we tend to turn to attempts at controlling someone else’s life.  But we all know that NEVER works.  When counseling couples before they get married, I tell them that the only person they can change is themselves.  They will not be able to change their spouse (or anyone else for that matter).  And yet for some reason, even though we know that controlling other people never works, that doesn’t stop us from trying.  And then when we realize that it really doesn’t work to control someone else’s life, then we turn to trying to control God.  As if controlling God is easier than controlling our neighbor’s life.  John was uncomfortable with someone from outside their inner circle doing healings in Jesus’ name.  John thought that only the people who have been with Jesus since the beginning should be able to do that work.  John was trying to put God into a box.  It is very easy as a church to put God into a box.  You’ve used or heard the phrases, “We’ve always done it that way.”  Or, “We’ve never done that before.”  We, too, get uneasy with God acting in ways that are outside of our expectations and norms.  It is uncomfortable for us for God to work outside of our box.  Much of Jesus’ ministry, though, was showing that this just doesn’t work.  That God does not and will not fit into a box of our own fabrication.  Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans and lepers and tax collectors and demon possessed people and anyone else who knew that they were a sinner and in need of redemption.

Our God does not fit into any size box.  And Jesus continuing His lesson to the disciples, says that not only will a box not contain the actions of God, but the odds will certainly not be in anyone’s favor if they get in the way of God’s actions and become a stumbling block.  Jesus says all of this while still holding this child in His arms.  He says that if anyone becomes a stumbling block for this little one (or any little one for that matter), it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and thrown into the sea.  Better?  Having a huge rock tied to your neck and thrown into the sea would be the BETTER punishment for being a stumbling block for others?  Jesus is so annoyed with His disciples right now.  They have begun their journey to Jerusalem for His crucifixion and they STILL don’t get it.  They think this ministry is about them.  It’s not!  It’s not about them.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God’s love for His children.  And there is no one who understands true love more than a child who is picked up and held in the loving arms of a parent or grandparent because they fell down and hurt themselves.  Jesus uses children as an example on how we ought to love God, because children get it.  Children understand true, simple, no strings attached kind of love.

Jesus’ point is that He cares about people.  He cares about all people.  That is, all people who know that they are sinners.  People who know that they have screwed up and should be thrown into the sea with a great millstone around their neck – or maybe even something worse.  Jesus doesn’t care about who is the greatest.  He doesn’t care about how you compare to your neighbor.  Jesus doesn’t care how much money you have or what car you drive or how fast run.  All Jesus cares about is saving the people whom He loves from the punishment for their sins.  That’s it!  That’s what Jesus is most concerned about.  He is most concerned about you, and your well-being.  More so your spiritual well-being, than your physical well-being.  But nevertheless, Jesus cares about you!  And He is heading to Jerusalem to show you just how much He really does care about you.  Jesus didn’t go to the cross for Himself.  He went to the cross for you.  To save you.  To forgive you.  To free you.  Not out of obligation, but out of love.  So no matter how this harvest turns out in the end, God’s love for you is so great and He cares about you so much, that as a child of God, He picks you up in His arms and holds you tight; no matter what!  Just as Jesus did while He was talking to His disciples.  You are loved by God.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.