Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Son of God (Augsburg Confession, Part 3)

We’re involved in a sermon series that seeks to answer the question, “What is a Lutheran Christian?” We’re using one of the basic confessional documents of Lutheranism, The Augsburg Confession, which presents the Lutheran understanding of Biblical Christian faith, to help us answer that question.

Before launching into an exploration of the Confession's Article 3, “The Son of God,” I want you to know something: The devil worked hard to prevent this sermon from being studied for, written, and delivered. This past week, I have learned anew the truth of the words of Ephesians 6:12: “...our struggle [as followers of Jesus Christ] is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil...” The devil has fought with me every step of the way. I have been in the midst of the very kind of spiritual warfare that Martin Luther wrote about in A Mighty Fortress is Our God. And it is only by the grace of God, given to those who cling to Jesus Christ, that I've been able to push through.

This is a sermon then, that the devil does not want you to hear. So, I ask you all to pray that the Holy Spirit will work powerfully in this moment to open our minds, hearts, and wills to the only Truth we can reliably build our lives upon.

Now, there’s a reason the devil doesn’t want this sermon to be given today. It’s because the truths The Augsburg Confession’s Article 3 asserts about Who Jesus is, about what Jesus has done, and about what Jesus will do in the future, contradict the lies about Jesus that are gaining increasing currency in our time.

And Satan, the one Jesus calls “the father of lies” is behind every one of the lies told about Jesus today. You can’t go through a week without encountering these lies on the Internet, on TV, or in newspapers and magazines. Supposedly knowledgeable people say that Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh, wasn’t born of a virgin, didn’t rise physically from the dead, and isn’t the only pathway to God.

They ignore the testimony of reliable witnesses as to Jesus being the Son of God and Savior of the world.

They also ignore the fact that the ancient documentation for the understanding of Jesus they denigrate came earlier and from more different sources than any of the documentation that exists in relationship to other figures of the ancient world.

For example, Colossians 1:15-20, written by Paul in about 60 AD, is composed of material reflecting the confession of faith that all scholars, conservative and liberal, agree Christians were using to give witness about Jesus almost immediately following Jesus' death and resurrection.

The confession of faith found in these verses came together so close to the days of Jesus' time on earth that to read it is almost like reading an email about an event that happened yesterday. Take a look:
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. [Emphasis is mine.]
It’s bad enough that these lies are being foisted on the world at large. But what’s worse is that these revisionist views, held by people who want to revise God’s truth, have taken root in our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

For example, recently an assistant to the bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of our ELCA, Don Carlson, writing a guest post on his bishop’s web site, wrote of Jesus’ virgin birth: “I think that the [Christmas] stories are made up...”

In 2009, our ELCA publishing house issued a version of the Bible they called Lutheran Study Bible. It had footnotes written by ELCA scholars ostensibly designed to help readers better understand the Bible. Now, one of the most important passages in Scripture is Matthew 28:19-20, in which the risen Jesus, just before ascending into heaven, gives what we call “the great commission” to His Church, commanding us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching people to obey all that He commands.” But Dr. Duane Priebe, professor of systematic theology at another ELCA seminary, Wartburg in Iowa, wrote this in his footnote on Matthew 28:19-20: “[Jesus] does not mean make everyone disciples...Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in Him.”* While the New Testament intimates that people who have not heard the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection and seek to live in accordance with the law that God has written on every human heart (see Romans 2:14-16), will be treated with mercy by God, those who have heard the good news of Jesus and have not believed, according to Jesus, will be eternally separated from God (see John 3:16-18; Mark 16:16; John 8:24).

These incidents of revisionism aren’t isolated. Increasingly, revisionist theology is favored by the hierarchy, clergy, and publications of our denomination.

The reason for revisionism’s popularity is no mystery.  According to Genesis 3:5, Adam and Eve, responding to the temptations of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, wanted to “be like God” and so do we. Deny the revealed truths about Jesus, the Son of God, and you can be a god yourself, the ultimate authority over your life. But, folks, lose these truths about Jesus in order to act as our own gods, and we lose life, hope, peace, our humanity, and our salvation!

Please pull a copy of The Augsburg Confession from the pew racks and turn to Article 3, on page 12. It says:
Our churches teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God..., assumed the human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. So there are two natures--the divine and the human--inseparably joined in one person. There is one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried. He did this to reconcile the Father to us and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt [which we talked about last Sunday], but also for the actual sins of [humankind].

He also descended into hell, and truly rose again in the third day. Afterward, He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. There He forever reigns and has dominion over all creatures. He sanctifies [meaning, He makes holy or sets apart for God] those who believe in Him, by sending the Holy Spirit into their hearts to rule, comfort, and make them alive. He defends them against the devil and the power of sin.

The same Christ will openly come again to judge the living and the dead, and so forth, according to the Apostles’ Creed.
Every word of this article is rooted in the witness of Scripture. Every word lifts up Jesus as the Son of God. And it stands as a condemnation of the lies a revisionist world tells about Jesus.

But how can we know that the revisionists are wrong?

How can you and I know that Jesus is the Son of God Who can fill both dead consciences and dead bodies with new life?
Let me lay before you one rational, empirical reason for believing that Jesus is the Son of God.

And then let me tell how I believe you can personally know that what the Bible and The Augsburg Confession teach about Jesus is true.

The revisionists say that the first Christians didn’t really meet the resurrected Jesus. They say that after Jesus’ death on the cross, the first Christians thought back on Him and had good feelings. These good feelings, the revisionists claim, caused the first Christians to think of Jesus as being with them in some way. Then, they claim, the Christians made up the stories of Jesus’ resurrection to convince others that they could have good feelings too.

Please pull out the pew Bibles and turn to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

First Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul in about 55 AD to the church at Corinth, which he had founded. Here, he reminds them, of the most basic evidence that Jesus is Lord. He says:
...I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [Cephas is the Latin version of the apostle Peter’s name], then by the twelve [apostles, including  Matthias, who took the place of Judas after Judas betrayed Jesus and took his own life]. After that He was seen by over five hundred [believers in Jesus] at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep [some had died by 55 AD]. After that [the risen Jesus] was seen by James [this is one of physical sons of Mary and Joseph and Jesus grew up in the same household with James], then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also...
Paul claims that more than 500 people had seen the risen Jesus!

He was no figment of their good feelings.

He was real.

He was true God and true man, born of a virgin, the only way to peace with God, Who died and rose to give us a life with that not even death can destroy.

The first Christians never wavered in affirming the reality of Who Jesus was, of His physical resurrection, or of His promise to return one day to fully establish His kingdom.

They staked their lives on these truths, hard as nails people who had drunk deeply of life and of sin, but who had been given new life through Christ.

And many of these tough people--fishermen, tax collectors, former prostitutes, soldiers, manual laborers, scholars, rich, poor, men, and women would, like Paul and Peter, accept execution a punishment for their belief in the Son of God, rather than turning their backs on Jesus!

The first followers of Jesus weren't firebrands. They weren't kooks. They weren't desperate. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain from sticking with their story about Jesus. Yet they did stick with it!

When you see rational people staking their lives on the veracity of a truth they claim to have experienced--John says that he and the other first Christians had heard, seen, and touched with their hands the crucified and risen Son of God (see 1 John 1:1-3)--that’s an empirical reason for believing that Jesus is the Son of God.

But trusting in Jesus--having faith in Jesus--isn’t the result of believing in empirical evidence.

I have known people and you have too, who believed that Jesus is the Son of God, that He was born of a virgin, and that after suffering for us, He rose from the dead. Yet they still don't believe in Jesus. They don't trust Him. They trust themselves. Or they put their trust in things of the world, every one of which will die.

The simple truth is that we can’t be forced into believing in Jesus by trotting out facts. Nor can we be said to believe in Jesus just because we accept the veracity of the New Testament's claims about Jesus. According to 1 Corinthians 12:3, faith in Jesus is a gift that God’s Holy Spirit creates only in those who are willing to believe in Jesus.

And this leads us to how, finally, you and I can know that Jesus, the Son of God, is, has done, and will do all the things claimed by Article 3 of the Confession.

Turn please to Hebrews 11:1. It says:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen
You’ve heard me tell many times of my experience as an atheist who came to faith in Jesus Christ.  Intrigued by the Lutheran Christians of Ann’s home church, I attended a 16-week class called, Life with God.

I read the book we used for the class.

I read and wrote down all the Bible verses to which it referred.

I asked questions.

I listened.

The more I heard and read about Jesus, the more I wanted Him as my Lord!

I was still resistant. I had my own plans. I really wanted to be my own god.

But, in the midst of all this, even when I still thought of myself as an atheist, I found myself praying to the God revealed to the whole world in Jesus.

There wasn’t a lightning flash moment when faith came to me. I simply had been open to believing and the closer I got to Jesus, the more firmly the Holy Spirit created faith in Jesus within me.

I believed in the Son of God.

As the passage from Hebrews tells us, my faith became the evidence of things unseen.

Among the people I've meet on this earth, I’ve never known a person born of a virgin.

Or a sinless human being.

Or someone who rose from the dead days after their death.

And neither have you.

But by faith I came to know and I still know such a person, the God-man Jesus.

And if we will open ourselves to Him, all of us can, by faith, know Him.

We can experience His presence with us as a constant companion who will usher us into the presence and love of God.

And as we hold onto that faith, as we cling to Jesus, we can be assured that one day we will see Him face to face.

This is a sermon the devil didn’t want you to hear, which only proves how important it is to know, follow, and surrender to Jesus, the Son of God. Amen!

[This was shared during both worship services with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio today.]

*After numerous protests, Priebe's comments were excised from the next edition of Lutheran Study Bible. However, he never recanted for the position he took on Matthew 28:19-20. Nor, apparently, was there ever any attempt on the part of the ELCA or the synod to correct him or the church's publishing house for his original comments.

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