Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Who God Is: The Apostles' Creed (Back to Basics: Revisiting the Catechism)

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Genesis 1:1
Job 33:4
Romans 3:22-24
John 14:25-26
1 Corinthians 12:3

Last week, as we began this series, Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism, we took a 30,000-foot view of the Ten Commandments through the prism of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.

Tonight, we move into the Catechism’s second part, the Apostles’ Creed

In The Large Catechism, which he wrote for adult disciples and pastors, Luther explained the rationale for starting with the commandments, then moving to the Creed: “So far we have heard the first part of Christian doctrine. We have seen all that God wants us to do or not to do. Now there properly follows the Creed, which sets forth to us everything that we must expect and receive from God...the Creed teaches us to know [God] fully…” He then writes: “...the Ten Commandments are set so high that all human ability is far too feeble and weak to keep them…” 

In other words, when the proud delusion of our goodness, righteousness, and worthiness of life with God, of life beyond the grave, is punctured by God’s Law, then we are ready to meet the God Whose fondest hope is to give new and righteous lives to the dead and dying sinners the commandments show us to be.

If the Ten Commandments show us the chasm between the pure and omnipotent God of the universe and us unrighteous and powerless human beings, the Creed shows us that this same God cares about us so much that He creates (and re-creates) us, redeems us (or buys us back from sin and death) through Christ, and sanctifies us (makes us holy, set apart, fit for everlasting life with Him)

The Apostles’ Creed, of course, can’t be found in the Bible and wasn’t written by the apostles themselves. 

But it does summarize what the apostles, Jesus’ designated first teachers of His gospel word, taught, and is accepted by every major Christian tradition in the world. 

In the Creed, we see that God bridges the chasm between God and us, allowing us to know Him personally and eternally. So, let’s come into God’s presence again tonight through the doorway of the Creed.

The Creed is divided into three parts, each corresponding to the three Persons of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

The first article is almost deceptively simple: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” It goes by so quickly that we may miss something. The Old Testament rarely referred to the Creator of the universe as Father. It’s Jesus Who teaches those who have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Him to address God as, “our Father.” “This, then, is how you should pray,” Jesus tells His Church, “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’” (Matthew 6:9) 

In the first words of the Creed then--I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, we see that God is both infinite, eternal, and almighty on the one hand, and loving, accessible, and our Father on the other.

The catechism emphasizes that God didn’t just create the universe with its stars and planets, suns and black holes. He also made us and He’s still in the creating business: “I believe that God has created me and all that exists [isn’t it interesting that Luther starts by talking about how God created me and then mentions “all that exists”?], that He has given me and still preserves my body and soul, eyes and ears,” etc. 

And then, Luther explains, “He does this purely out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it.” And then Luther says in a burst of joyful worship, “Therefore I ought to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true!”

The Creed then shifts to the second article, dealing with the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, Jesus the Christ (or, Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed King). It summarizes the basics about Jesus: 

  • that He was born of a virgin, not because the normal way of human conception and birth are wrong, but because if God was going to create a new human race, He couldn’t do so through an ordinary human being inheriting the sins of his or her parents; 
  • that He suffered, died, was buried; 
  • that He rose again from the dead;
  • that He is now on the right hand of the Father in heaven, interceding for those who dare to believe in Him; and
  • that He will come back to this world to finally and fully, make all things right, ushering those who have believed in Him into eternity with God and consigning all who have rejected Him to the condemnation in hell they have chosen.
In the Small Catechism, Luther talks about how Jesus offered His own innocent life on the cross in order to free us “from sin, death, and the power of the devil.” And then, Luther tells us the reason that God the Son did these things is the same one for which the Father created us and all that exists: His absolute goodness. “He has done all this,” Luther writes, “in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns for all eternity. This is most certainly true!”

There were some in the early centuries of the Church who misunderstood the nature of the Trinity, the Biblical teaching that we worship one God Who is in three Persons. But the Creed, Luther says, summarizes what we see in the gospels, that Jesus is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity and also true man, [was] born of the virgin Mary--is [just like the Father] my Lord.” 

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God Who was with God the Father and was one with God before the creation

The New Testament book of Colossians tells us that everything created by God is created through God the Son and for Him

Jesus says of Himself, “I and the Father are one.’ (John 10:30) 

And, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) 

Jesus has revealed the Father’s heart for the fallen human race and from this great love, gives Himself on the cross for us so that all who believe in Him everlasting life with God.

But how can people born in sin, inclined to worship ourselves, or other people, or the things of this world we see rather than the God Who, right now, we can’t see? 

How can people for whom the basic psychological developmental conflict from birth is trust versus mistrust, trust in Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ?

This is where God the Holy Spirit, subject of the Third Article of the Creed, comes in. He is the One Who makes it possible for us to believe. 

In the Small Catechism, Luther writes of Him: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified me [that is, set me apart for God] and preserved me in the true faith.” 

The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “ one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” 

It’s the Holy Spirit speaking the Word of the Gospel to us through the pages of Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, the witness of other Christians, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, Who makes it possible for us to have saving faith in Jesus Christ.

The Creed reminds us that God, perfect in righteousness, hates the rift between Himself and the children He creates, redeems, and to whom He seeks to give ever-new life. He hates all the death and suffering that our sin condition unleashes on us in this life. And He seeks to give us new life. 

This is the gracious God we know in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Next week, we begin a discussion of three ways that this perfect God strengthens His relationship with us, as well as our faith in Him.

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

Monday, March 09, 2020

Jesus: The Light of God for Our Darkness

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

John 3:1-18

A man I know lost his wife at a young age. It was devastating for him. 

We lived in the same city at the time and I did my best to be there for him. There were times though when I prayed for him that I wondered whether the darkness that enveloped his life would ever go away. 

We both later moved and largely lost touch with each other. 

But then, unexpectedly, I ran into him at a conference. I could hardly believe it. The darkness in his life had given way to the undeniable light of God’s love given to believers in Jesus Christ even in a world that can be tragically dark.

As followers--disciples--of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, we are as prone as anybody else to fall into the darkness that can fill our lives as human beings: the darkness of sin and doubt that lead to things like self-pity, fear, the denial of realities we don’t want to face, and the demonizing of those with whom we disagree. 

Of Jesus, we confess with the apostle John: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) 

And yet, we can often be like the first-century world--Jewish and Roman--that nailed Jesus to a cross, of which John writes, “...though the world was made through [Christ], the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10)

Why is that? Why did the world reject Jesus? Why is the first impulse of every human being to reject Jesus or our need for Him?

Jesus tells us the answer to those questions in John 3:19: “This is the verdict [He says of the human race]: Light has come into the world [Jesus has come into the world], but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” 

When we are honest, we must admit that we do prefer darkness. We wouldn’t say so overtly, but there are parts of ourselves that we like to keep tucked away in the darkness, places that we think are out of God’s sight. 

But it’s no good. To God, Jesus says, “...there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17)

Our Gospel lesson for this morning, John 3:1-18, tells us that a teacher of the Jewish religion, Nicodemus, went to see night...a time when it would be less likely that his peers or the peons he was supposed to be qualified to teach could see him. 

You see, by the time Nicodemus makes his visit to Jesus, associating with Jesus was starting to be suspicious, even dangerous, stuff. 

If you wanted to have others’ respect...if you wanted to get ahead in the world, you didn’t have anything to do with Jesus. 

Isn’t that still true today? 

How often have you wanted to tell a friend living in darkness about Jesus but kept quiet? 

How often have you wanted to pray with someone in Jesus’ name when you were in a public place but didn’t offer for fear that people might think you weird? 

How often have you wanted to tell people at the office that a decision being contemplated is more filled with the darkness of sin than with the light of God’s love, but clammed up? 

Then you know why Nicodemus visited Jesus at night. 

He knew that Jesus wasn’t just some preacher, that there was something more to Jesus than that. Still, Nicodemus wanted no one else to see Him fraternizing with Jesus.

How often do we justify dwelling in the shadows, hiding our faith from others, hiding our lives from God, by saying that faith is a private matter or that we don’t want to offend others? If Jesus is our Savior, our faith is not a private matter. It is a deeply public matter

After Jesus had died, risen, and ascended back into heaven, the apostles Peter and John told temple leaders who had ordered them to never again speak about Jesus, “...we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20) They refused to conceal Jesus, the light of the world, from others!

So, in our lesson for this morning, we go with Nicodemus to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Even in the dark though, Jesus sees Nicodemus for the man cowering in the darkness he truly is. Nicodemus, Jesus sees, is a man afraid of being seen by his friends, of losing his position, of having his self-righteous religious belief exposed by Jesus, to seek out Jesus. 

So, Jesus tells him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3) 

The word translated as again that John uses to quote Jesus here is anothen in the Greek in which John wrote his gospel. It can mean again, but it also means above. And, as is typical of John, it’s safe to say that he has both meanings in mind here
  • We must be born again if we’re to have life in God’s kingdom. We are born sinners. The sinner must die to sin and rise to newness of life through repentance and faith in Jesus. 
  • We must also be born from above. It’s God Who gives us new life. We have no control over it. And in the final analysis, when we are reborn matters less than that we are reborn. Listen: Even if you don’t have your birth certificate, your existence proves that you were born. Just so, the fact that you can confess that Jesus is your Lord, tells you that even if you don’t remember the time or the place it happened, Jesus has given you new life, you are born again, born from above.
Jesus underscores that being born again is God’s work and not ours when He tells the incredulous Nicodemus: “ one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) 

Your salvation, your born again life, your birth from above, is God’s work. 

It’s a gift that came to you when you were baptized when the Holy Spirit moved over the waters of Holy Baptism and you were made God’s child. 

Just as you had no control over when your parents conceived you, you had no control over when the Spirit moved over your baptismal waters to give you new life with God. 

This is true even if you were baptized in later childhood or adulthood. Only the Holy Spirit would impel you to believe in Jesus and want to be baptized at that point

After the lay evangelist Philip explained the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus, an Ethiopian eunuch spied a desert wadi and asked Philip, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?" (Acts 8:36) 

It was the Holy Spirit who caused that man to be born from above, born again, not his own decision, not his ethnicity, not reason, not emotion, not an experience, not his parents. 

“The wind blows wherever it pleases,” Jesus tells Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) 

Left to our own inborn devices and impulses, we will always choose darkness, choose life without God, which is death, over life with God. 

We are so mired in ourselves, in our inborn desire to exercise power over our own lives, that we wouldn’t even think to turn to God. The desire we inherit from Adam and Eve--to 'be like God'--is integral to our characters and personalities. 

But when the gospel--the good news of new life for all who entrust themselves to the crucified and risen Jesus--comes to us, the Holy Spirit batters away at our defenses

He tears down the walled cities we erect around our hearts, minds, and wills. 

He floods our lives with light so that we first, see our need of God’s forgiveness and grace, and second, see Christ not just as the light of the world, but as the way to eternal life with God. 

Jesus becomes our light and we confess that what Jesus says of Himself is true: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

In the Bible’s most famous verse, Jesus tells Nicodemus today, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) 

Friends, if you believe in Jesus, imperfect though you may be, imperfect though your faith may be, you have been born from above. 

The Holy Spirit has done His work in you, creating faith in Christ within you. 

So, no more quaking in fear. 

No more hiding in the dark. 

Live in the light of God’s love given through Jesus, because all who can confess their faith in Jesus belong to the Kingdom of God. 

You belong to Jesus now and forever. Amen

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

[The photo above shows sunrise on an ocean body. It's a NASA satellite image. Jesus is the Light Who banishes the darkness of sin and death for all who believe in Him.]