Saturday, March 07, 2020

I disagree with Stephen King about Woody Allen's book (and agree with Karen Prior)

When Hachette Book Group's plans to publish a memoir by comedian Woody Allen became known, there was a public outcry. This resulted in the company's decision not to publish the Allen book. That caused Stephen King to take to Twitter.

I don't share King's concern and tweeted in reply (though I'm sure he hasn't seen the reply):

I was gratified when author Karen Swallow Prior responded to my tweet with a ringing endorsement. "Yup," she tweeted.

By the way, even though I disagree with King, I recognize that it required courage for him to offer up his tweet. I respect people who assert opinions based on their principles. But I don't think that freedom of expression is even at issue in the Hachette decision not to publish the Allen book. I do think that other principles are at play, like not rewarding sexual exploitation.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

What Are the Ten Commandments For? (Back to Basics: Revisiting the Catechism)

[This message was shared tonight as part of the Lenten midweek devotional series at Living Water Lutheran Church, Back to Basics: Revisiting the Catechism.]

Exodus 20:1-17
During these Wednesdays in Lent, we’re going back to the basics of Christian faith with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as our guide. 

Luther wrote this catechism after he and his Reformation colleagues had visited the by then-Lutheran evangelical churches in Saxony soon after they were let go by the Roman Church. Luther and the other Reformation leaders wanted to see if the Gospel was being rightly proclaimed and the Sacraments--Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--were being rightly administered.

Luther was horrified by what they saw! He writes in the preface to the catechism, published in 1529: “[Most Christians, he said] like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come [through the Reformation], they have nicely learned to abuse all [the] freedom [of the Gospel] like experts.” 

You can’t be a Christian if you don’t know something of what the Bible teaches, what Christians believe. Apart from that, one’s Christianity may be habit or superstition, but it isn’t saving faith in Jesus Christ

To cast the light of God’s truth and the Gospel of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Jesus, Luther wrote his catechism. It was composed of six chief parts, plus a table of duties for everyday tasks and living. Today, in our instruction, we tend to focus on only five of the chief parts: 
  • The Ten Commandments 
  • The Apostles’ Creed 
  • The Lord’s Prayer 
  • Holy Baptism 
  • Holy Communion 
We talk about the content of the other article Luther included, one on confession, but in other contexts. Luther composed the catechism in a simple question-and-answer form and urged that believers review some section of it each day.

So, tonight, a quick overview of the Ten Commandments. (I urge you to read it for yourself this week.) 

The commandments were, of course, given by God to the people of Israel through Moses. In the Hebrew language in which the Old Testament was written, the Ten Commandments are Torah, or instruction or the way. These commandments are the ultimate expression of what theologians call God’s moral law. God gives moral laws elsewhere in the Old Testament; for example in the holiness code of Leviticus. But the Ten Commandments are the ultimate summation of God’s moral law, as valid today as when God first gave them to Moses.

There are other kinds of law in the Old Testament. Two other kinds, in fact. 

One is the ritual/sacrificial law. These are the laws and regulations surrounding the offering of sacrifices to God that include mandates on things like diet and feast days. But, of course, the need for sacrifices ended at the moment Jesus died on the cross. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, after referencing the constant sacrifices offered by priests at the Jerusalem temple that could never completely cover human sins, “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…” (Hebrews 10:10-12) While reading about Old Testament ritual / sacrificial law helps us understand Jesus, unlike the moral law, it’s no longer necessary or valid. 

The third kind of law in the Old Testament is civil law. Ancient Israel functioned as a theocracy. The civil law God lays down in the Old Testament is like the laws we have today that are administered by courts and law enforcement. Obviously, no nation on earth is a theocracy. (Even the ones that claim to be.) So, those laws, while helping us understand God’s heart, aren’t valid any longer either.

But the moral law, as we see in the Ten Commandments, is forever valid. They express God’s unchanged and unchanging will for the human race. Jesus was referring to this moral law when He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.:” (Matthew 5:17)

Wait, you might be thinking. We’re saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. Why do we need the moral law? Isn’t salvation a get-out-of-hell-free card? While it is true that God’s Law can’t save us from sin or death because none of us are capable of perfectly obeying it--only Christ does that, God has given us this law for three major reasons.

First, God gives us the law as a hedge to prevent all people, Christian or otherwise, from violating God or others. The Bible says that God’s law is “written on our hearts.” Every human being, though sinful by nature, knows the difference between right and wrong. And even the evilest person, when caught in some sin will try to justify it on the basis of the moral law that we all know. 

Second, God gives us the law as a mirror to show us that we are sinners in need of the forgiveness God makes available only in Jesus Christ. When I read the Ten Commandments and know, as Jesus tells us in the New Testament, that I violate them even when I think about doing them, I realize I need Jesus as my Savior. (See here and here.) The Law as a mirror of my soul drives me to repentance and new life through submission to Jesus. 

Third, God gives us the law as a guide for Christians. In them, God instructs us on how a Christian who wants to live out their gratitude for being saved by grace through faith in Jesus, can do so. When you realize that God has saved you from eternal separation from Him, you’re ready to hear God’s will for you. In the Ten Commandments, God says, “It’s within these gracious boundaries that the blessings of life with Me are experienced.”

In The Small Catechism, Luther penetrates to the underlying meaning of the commandments God gives to the human race He loves.

For example, when explaining the Eighth Commandment, ”You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Luther explains that this isn’t just about refraining from outright lies about others. “We should fear and love God,” he says, “so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.” 

He does the same thing with the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Luther shows that with Christ’s death and resurrection, every day is holy, every day is a time to honor God and receive God’s Word. “We should fear and love God,” he says, “so that we do not despise His Word and the preaching of it, but acknowledge it as holy, and gladly hear and learn it.”

Someone has pointed out that what God has given to the world is the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions. But Luther shows that every one of the commandments was given to us by God to point us to Jesus, the One Who has obeyed the Law perfectly and won salvation and new life for the rest of us who don’t keep it perfectly

In them, God invites us to hold a mirror to our lives and, seeing the ways in which we don’t reflect Jesus living in us, to confess our sins in Jesus’ name and be reconciled again to God. 

Over the next week, I’d like to ask you to spend a few moments each day looking at each of the eleven sections of the catechism’s explanations of the Ten Commandments and their conclusion. That means that several days, you’ll look at two sections. That’s OK; they’re really short. 

If you don’t have a copy of the catechism, let me know; I’ll order one for you. 

You can also find several versions online. 

As you look at each command and its explanation, you might want to ask God, “What do you want me to confess, Lord? What new habit do you want me to incorporate into my life today?” 

Then, thank God for the gift of Jesus Who brings forgiveness of sin to all who confess their sin and believe in Him for both forgiveness and new and everlasting life with God. 

And, no longer a dumb brute or an irrational hog, be at peace with God and yourself. More on The Small Catechism next week.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, March 02, 2020

The One Who Remembers

[This message was shared yesterday during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Matthew 4:1-11
Years ago, a man I knew shared with a group of us what his dad told him every time he went out with friends or with his girl back during his teenage years. “Remember,” his dad said, “who you are.” 

Those seem like wise words to me because it’s so easy in the individual moments of life that come at us like the ocean tide every second of every day to forget who we are and who we’re called to be.

The Word of God teaches that we all have a call, a vocation. This doesn’t refer to our jobs, although our call will usually include what we do as working people. For the Christian though, our vocation is about who we are and who we are called by God to be.

The call we all have as disciples of Jesus Christ is given to us at the moment of our baptisms when, after we are washed in the water charged with God’s life by God’s Word, Christ’s cross is marked on our foreheads and we are given our vocation, our identity, “child of God.” “Mark James,” the pastor said at my baptism, “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Pastors said similar things when you were baptized, whenever you were baptized. 

As Christians, our vocation, our call, is to be God’s children: God’s daughters, God’s sons. 

To be a child of God is an incredible privilege of grace, making us God’s intimates and heirs of all that He has in mind for those who repent and believe in Jesus.

We Christians aren’t the first on whom God has conferred the title and the call, child of God, daughter of God, son of God. Moses once told Egypt’s king, Pharaoh: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Israel is my firstborn son,  and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.’” (Exodus 4:22-23) Through Abraham, Israel had been given its call to be God’s children. Israel was to be a light to the nations, helping the whole world to see the God Who loves us and saves all who turn to Him in faith from sin, death, and darkness. 

History shows that Israel failed in its calling as God’s son. The people of Israel--the children of God--forgot who they were. They chased after false gods, temporary pleasures, worldly power. They became diverted from their mission as God’s children to be God’s light to the nations.

Our first lesson for this morning shows us that it was always God’s intention to send a Messiah into the world in order to save the human race and the universe our sin has impacted. After the fall of Adam and Eve, from whom we all inherit the condition of sin, God told the serpent, the devil, speaking of the Messiah Who would be born of a woman in Bethlehem thousands of years later, “...I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:18) 

Jesus was to fulfill the call that Israel--and no human being in their own power--ever could fulfill: the call of being the perfectly obedient child of God, the Son of God, Who by going to the cross as God the Father willed, would crush the power of Satan over you and me.

Our gospel lesson for today picks up Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ story right after Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan River. There, you’ll remember, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17) Jesus was given His call, His call as the Son of God. But in today’s lesson, Matthew 4:1-11, we see that Jesus was given no time to savor that. The first verse says: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”  

Notice that while Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism emphasized Jesus’ deity, here Matthew underscores Jesus’ humanity. Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, but He is also a human being. He had to take on our humanity in order to save us from the inside out, becoming the perfect human sacrifice for our sins, paying the debt we owe for failing to remember our call to be children of God. Jesus is, like all human beings, even those who know nothing of God or who reject the very idea that God exists, under the authority of the other Persons of the Trinity: the Father and the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of Jesus being tempted by the devil. Like ancient Israel, who God had called His Son, Jesus, just proclaimed God’s Son at the Jordan, goes into the wilderness. In Jesus’ forty days, He was tempted in the same ways that ancient Israel was once tempted for forty years. But with a different result: Jesus resists every temptation, fulfilling His call as the Son of God.

Jesus is tempted in three ways by the devil. 

Knowing that Jesus is hungry, the devil tells Jesus to turn stones into bread. But citing words Moses uses in Deuteronomy to speak of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, Jesus refuses to perform this miracle to prove Himself or to feed His groaning belly. “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) 

Next, the devil tells Jesus that He should throw Himself from the top of the Temple in Jerusalem to show people how the Father takes care of Him. Again, citing words from Israel’s wilderness days, Jesus refuses saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7) 

Finally, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says that Jesus can have them all without suffering, scorn, rejection, cross, death, or grave, if Jesus will just worship him. “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:10) 

Although the devil continued to try to prevent Jesus from dying on the cross for our redemption, tried to lure Jesus into turning from His call as our Savior, and still tempts people today, the devil knew at that moment that the jig was up. Jesus had defeated the devil by remembering Who He was and that His call was and is to save us.

We often read this account and think of it as a how-to guide: “how to evade temptation by knowing God’s Word.” I've even preached on this lesson that very way.

Being steeped in God’s Word will help us to avoid the temptation to individual sins: adultery, cursing, thievery, gluttony, covetousness, murder, idolatry, not worshiping with God’s people, or lying. 

But if that’s why we think the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, we miss the point. 

In Jesus' temptations, God is not telling us to so much remember who we are, but more to remember Who Jesus is

And who is Jesus? 

He is God the Son Who willingly became one of us, bore the rejection of the world, flogging, hatred, condemnation, and crucifixion because He never forgot you. 

He never forgot that you need to be saved from sin, death, and the grave. 

He always remembered His vocation. 

In Jesus, the preacher of the New Testament book of Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) 

Jesus remembered Who He was--He remembered His call, so that He could save you from yourself, from the temptations we all face and the sins we all commit to be something other than what He died and rose to make us, children of God

The Savior Who went to the wilderness and the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, always remembers you. May we never forget that! Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]