Pride and Promise

Biblical Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
Full Sermon Draft

This is Trinity Sunday on the Christian calendar. That means a couple of things. The first is that we typically roll out the long creed – the Athanasian Creed. We break it into two logical portions in the service and I’ve tried to capture that here. The second thing that Trinity Sunday invites is a more theological approach. What I mean by that is that the day concerns the nature of God which is something that we can never fully comprehend. If we could, they we aren’t pondering God. This sermon is an attempt to mark out some of the boundaries of pondering God. Not boundaries on God himself, but things that should bind us. And it does this through a contrast between King Uzziah, whom the text starts off telling us died in the year of Isaiah vision, and Isaiah’s vision and call. The contrast I’d boil down to the path of pride and the path of promise. One is the path of life and the other of death. I hope you enjoy this.


“The image of a sweet, gentle Savior, like the thought of an all-loving God, is wonderful, but it is only a small part of the picture. It insulates us from the real power of his touch. Christ comforts and heals, saves and forgives – we know that; but we must not forget that he judges too. If we truly love him, we will love everything in him; not only his compassion and mercy, but his sharpness too. It is his sharpness that prunes and purifies.

There is something in modern thinking which rebels against the Atonement. Perhaps our idea of an all-loving God keeps us from wanting to face judgement. We think that love and forgiveness is all that is needed, yet that is not the whole Gospel – it makes God too human.

Christ’s love is not the soft love of human emotion, but a burning fire that cleanses and sears…” J. Heinrich Arnold

I might change the metaphor slightly. The judgement of Christ is like a skilled surgeon offering to cut out the growing cancer and set the broken bones. These will make us better. Allow us to live lives as we were made to. Yet we cling to our cancer and broken bones. Fearful of the snap into place, or worrying about life without that lump and the near tissue that goes with it.

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Leviticus 16:1-24 and Luke 10:1-22

Leviticus 16:1-24
Luke 10:1-22
The scapegoat, the church, the presence of God and the Lord’s Supper
Choosing to work through the church

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Zechariah 14:1-21 and Titus 2:7-3:15

Zechariah 14:1-21
Titus 2:7-3:15
The eschatological Jerusalem and the Priesthood of All Believers
Freed for our Neighbor

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Joel 1:1-20 and Romans 10:1-21

Joel 1:1-20
Romans 10:1-21
The very thing needed is taken
God’s Word given to those who were not a nation, to those who were foolish…

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Genesis 1:1-19 and Mark 1:1-13

Genesis 1:1-19

Mark 1:1-13

Testing vs. Temptation, By the Power of the Spirit

I don’t mention it in the podcast, but the Ash Wednesday hymn, Savior When in Dust to Thee (LSB 419), (which by the way is one of the few false steps in the hymnal replacing the tune Spanish Chant which we stubbornly refuse to leave with the unpronounceable and not at all memorable tune Aberystwyth) but back to the point that him is a great example of the things enabled by the Spirit.  The words of the hymn are a litany of sorts (another feature of Ash Wednesday), by thy helpless infant years, by thy life of want and tears, etc….  That litany is the very thing that was enabled by the Spirit.  Jesus’ saving work is the work of God.  The Father’s will, Jesus’ work and the Spirit’s power.

An Inside Look

LSB_Icon_hymn_bookThe Christian Century published a couple of articles on the PC-USA’s production of a new hymnal. This is an interesting essay basically defending the publication of hymnals. This is the more interesting story told about the making of it. As the first articles notes, there have been a series of new hymnals produced by denominations in the last 10 years including the LCMS’s Lutheran Service Book. The first article does a fair job of defending the production of a hymnal, although the entry paragraph is one of the worst metaphors I’ve seen in that I don’t think it makes any sense. The author was obviously trying to get to the concept that updating hymnals roughly every generation is a necessary thing. Just because the books in the pews are physically fine doesn’t mean that they serve the spiritual purpose any longer. Instead of reaching for a technology analogy I would have reached for something less ephemeral like maybe the family. Family roles change. We learn new roles, give up some responsibilities, take on other and see others in a completely new light. As the author eventually moves onto, a hymnal shapes a people spiritually over time. It also needs to be shaped by that people. New hymnals allow for new generations to sing to the Lord a new song. Speaking of the Lutheran Service Book, that is one the best things that it has done. The hymn editors did a marvelous job adding “newer” hymns. They also did a marvelous job letting others slip away. For the LCMS this was necessary as the last generational baton pass was dropped. Many had still been using a hymnal produced in 1941. Some had faithfully taken the botched job of 1981 only to find it wanting. And in the confusion created, many wandered outside of the common book. It is hard to form or maintain a Lutheran Spirituality without a common set of hymns.

But the second essay is the more interesting one. One paragraph I believe emphasizes the growing divide between churches that place themselves with the great tradition (what Lewis would call Mere Christianity) and those denominations that are declaring a break (even if they don’t admit it) with that church. (Roman Catholics divide over this around Vatican 2 between those “reading the council in continuity” and those “reading the council as a rupture from that continuity’s summed faults”.) The author of the second piece highlights the discussion and vote around one of the newer hymns they originally wanted to include.

Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.

All involved agreed that this new song (part of the newer praise song canon) expressed a deep and even core expression of the work of Christ on the cross. The hymn is a strong statement of substitutionary atonement. The hymn committee first wanted to delete that understanding replacing the wrath at sin with a vague reference to love. When that was blocked by the hymn writer, the committee voted to excluded it. Substitutionary atonement given modern meaningful expression would not be part of the new PC-USA hymnal. A Presbyterian spirituality formed by this new song collection will not express how Christians for at least 1000 years have primarily understood the cross. And that was exactly the argument of the exclusionary side. It would be bad pastoral practice, “a disservice to this educational mission”, to perpetuate substitutionary atonement. That is a rupture.

If I was driving deep at this I would ask why? Why is a clear expression of substitutionary atonement so offensive that is must be driven out? I would argue that it takes the law seriously. It takes seriously that God commanded certain things that can’t just be forgotten or endlessly twisted. Any reminder of this to a people involved in redefining sin is an offense.

Are there other perfectly biblical expressions of the atonement? Yes, absolutely. Christ the victor finds wonderful expression in that most Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress”. But we should realize that decisions made physical in books like Lutheran Service Book and the other new hymnals are making permanent and wide the rupture or gulf. And atonement, part and parcel of justification, as Luther said about the Augsburg Confession, “the entire church stand or falls on this article”. Erasing the tradition on atonement could be said to be erasing the gospel itself.

Sin, death and the power of the Devil – post 2

First post in series.

Ask yourself what is the summary or shorthand for the gospel. Go ahead, think for a second, what is the gospel……
My guess is that most would answer something like: the forgiveness of sins.

That is good news. It is gospel. But is it the full gospel or even a good summary?

If forgiveness is the gospel, where does the story start and where does it end? If I think of the gospel purely in those terms it starts when I sin and it ends with a sacrifice on the cross. Can you see anything missing in that or slightly off?

Here is my list. First it starts with us – the finite driving the infinite. We sin so God reacts. That doesn’t seem right. Second, in that scenario there is absolutely no need for the resurrection. All you need is the perfect sacrifice. [The resurrection might lend credence to the sacrifice i.e. be proof that it was accepted, but it is not necessary.] Third, the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere but a repeating loop. I sin, God forgives, I feel good until I sin again. Rinse, Wash, repeat. That is one of the most boring and mocked lines ever. If you are trapped in that boring story, no wonder some Christians just want to be raptured. Is that really all the gospel is?

I did a simple search on the word forgiveness in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Take a guess as to how many times the word forgiveness is used in the gospels? Go ahead, even with having read the above take a guess…7. There are seven passages in the gospels that use the word forgiveness. Let’s widen it a little bit and include the verb forgive, not just the reception of forgiveness but the action of forgiving. That adds another 17. Total mentions in the gospels of forgiveness – 24. So it is not unimportant. And some of those passages are key understandings, but 24 mentions in four books can’t be the sum total. Ask a different question. How many times in the gospel is life mentioned? 72 verses. Three times the number of verses as forgiveness.

If you start in genesis 3 with the fall you only need to read until Matthew 27. But that is a shortened gospel. The scriptures start with Genesis 1, with God creating life. They end in Revelation 22 with God re-creating the heavens and the earth and the River of Life flowing from the throne. The gospels include a resurrection and one of them the ascension. The gospel, the good news, is something more. The gospels tell a bigger story.

Two verses from the Gospel of John. John 10:10 – “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 17:3 – “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you , the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

God created you. But the thief – Satan, our accuser – came to steal you and kill you and destroy you. Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, so death spread to all men (Rom 5:12). The gospel is that Jesus Christ has come to give life, life in the full. You might ask what is this life? The sent one’s answer – that you might know God. The life of the world to come is build around the throne of God and the lamb in the midst of their people (Rev 22:1-2). That life starts now. Those waters of life flowed in baptism. The church, the people of God, gathers around Christ – body and blood.

We might know God not just because Jesus has forgiven us, but also because he has won our victory over death that covered all and cast that thief into the pit. Sin, death and the power of the devil have been broken through the advent of the Kingdom of God. More on that next time.

Sin, Death and the Power of the Devil – part 1

That is a beloved phrase of Luther. The explanation of the 2nd article of the creed goes, “I believe the Jesus Christ …has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil.”

There is a woodcut from the Book of Concord – Power and Primacy of Pope with the same phrase nearby showing Christ’s victory over hell as an active bursting of the gates.

There are three things running in my head as I start this. The first is the emotional heft. Our church organist and choir director has been sick and remains so. Two other items are the intellectual fodder. Here is Richard Beck working on a series he is calling the slavery of death. And here is Scot McKnight talking about his book and what he sees as a poor shortening of the gospel.

Most protestants probably operate with what Scot McKnight is calling the soterian gospel. The soterian gospel is all about being “saved”. A more theological way of saying that in Lutheran terms would be saying that ‘the church stands or falls on Article 4 (of the Augsburg Confession on justification)’ or what I would label as using only legal metaphors for what God does. It is not that the statement “God declares you righteous through the atoning sacrifice of Christ” is wrong, but that it is not the whole story. The legal metaphors apply greatly to sin. We feel in absolution that God has moved our sin away from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). We see Jesus having the power to forgive sin with his word. (Luke 5:20) This is very legal and very in the moment.

But the legal metaphors feel like a sham in the face of death. We still experience something that in our personal experience can’t be undone. If being saved, if being declared righteous, still ends up here – tell me why this is important?

Read for a second 1 Cor 15:54-57.

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Co 15:54 ESV)”

While sin might be a legal metaphor, when the Bible talks about death or the devil it talks victory…it talks freedom. The gates of brass are burst. The iron fetters yield. If the gospel is just about clearing my conscience and making me feel better about myself – well rubbish. I can go to a shrink and say my daily affirmation. And there is no need to think about supernatural things. But the gospel is bigger. The gospel is about who is Lord.

This one who was crucified. Who was placed in the ground for three days. This Jesus Christ has been raised. He has defeated death. And those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death so that they might also rise like him. (Rom 6:3-4) This risen one is Lord. Satan doesn’t want us to know that, or he wants us to despair of that.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1Th 4:13-14 NIV)

What I hope to do in this series is unpack that a little and see how we make more real in our lives not just the forgiveness of sin but the victory over death and the devil.

Groaning (Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus)

Full Text

If you had the power to raise the dead, but it cost you your life, would you do it?

That is the central question. I think we could answer that question no. Jesus answered that question yes.

There are a whole bunch of spiritual truths that come from the sacrifice and resurrection pattern. Not the least is the one who holds onto his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for me, will find it. It’s Good Friday and Easter. You don’t get one without the other. Each one corresponds to a theory of want Jesus did for us – substitute and victory. They are both tied in each other. A church that only preaches one is missing something…