Thursday, March 07, 2024

Hateful Politics Isn't Christian

 The hatred and vitriol I hear from people who confess Christ as Lord is appalling.

Do you want to know why so many people in America today claim no faith? One big explanation is “Christians.”
Fellow Christians: Jesus has given us a great commission, proclaiming the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to save sinners like us for life with God, today in this imperfect world and eternally in the resurrection. “Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all people,” He says, {because] whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 17:15-16)
Jesus hasn’t told us to insult, dehumanize, or be cruel to others.
He hasn’t told us to vie for power. In fact, we follow a Savior Who said HIS kingdom is not of this world. The apostle Peter picks up on this when he tells Christians: “I appeal to you, my friends, as strangers and refugees in this world! Do not give in to bodily passions, which are always at war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:12, GNT) Venting your spleen about this or that political topic may make you feel good momentarily, but it’s really just worldly self-indulgence.
Be good neighbors. That includes being good citizens.
Be informed.
Serve others.
Pay your taxes.
Participate in the political arena in whatever ways you are called to.

Pray for those in power.
(These are all things the Bible calls us to do as His people.)
But remember that the philosophies of the world, including political philosophies, will never help people face life or death with peace, confidence, or hope.
Only Christ can do that. Your neighbor needs to hear that from you and see that in you way more than they need your angry denouncements or enthusiastic endorsements.
Just like you, your neighbor needs Christ. Our call is to get out of Christ’s way, letting others see Him.

Revelation, Part 4

Here's the latest installment of my podcast. It's the fourth part of a look at the New Testament book of Revelation.

Thematic Arrangement of the Seven Revelation Letters, per Johnson

 Thematic Arrangement of the Seven Letters

(Revelation 2:1-3:22)
Dennis E. Johnson. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation

According to Johnson: “The letters are grouped in two triads, with the longest of the seven, Thyatira, serving as the hinge between the triads.”

First Triad (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum)

Here “the summons to hear precedes the promise to the victor”

Central Letter: Thyatira

Second Triad (Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea)
In all of the last four letters, the order is reversed: promise to the victor precedes the summons to hear.

Within each of the two triads, “the center letter (Smyrna, Philadelphia) contains commendation without rebuke, reference to opposition from those who falsely claim to be Jews, and the promise of a crown.

“The opening and closing letters of the second triad (Sardis, Laodicea) are those in which the dominant tone is rebuke.” (All quotes from Johsnon)

The Sequence of the Seven Letters in Revelation, according to Brighton

 The Sequence of the Seven Letters

(Revelation 2:1-3:22)
Louis A. Brighton, Revelation (Concordia Commentary)

There appears to be a sequence of spiritual deterioration, moving toward alienation from Christ, in the seven letters. Of this, Brighton says, “each sin, when encountered in temptation and then, in commission, leads to the following temptation or sin.”

When Christians lose their first love (2:4)
(it leads to)
The sin or temptation to fear (2:10)
(it leads to)
The attempt to serve God and mammon (2:14)
(it leads to)
Syncretism (denying the uniqueness of Christ) (2:20)
(it leads to)
Deadness (3:1)

Template of the Seven Letters in Revelation according to Johnson

 Template of the Seven Letters

(Revelation 2:1-3:22)

Dennis E. Johnson Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation

1. Address

2. A command to write down what is given

3. “Thus says”

4. Identification of the speaker (Jesus)

5. “I know” description of the individual church’s situation

6. Call to repentance or faithfulness (reinforced by a threat or a promise)

7. A summons to hear

8. A promise to the victor

A note from Pastor Mark: I believe that by this outline, helpful though it is, Johnson may be conflating the two separate ways in which God (Jesus) always speaks to us, either by Law or Gospel. Brighton however, maintains the distinction between the two. The Law is that Word from God that commands us to love God and love neighbor, which we fail to do, preventing us from having life with God. The Gospel is that Word from God that comes to us freely from Jesus that, in Him, all our sins are forgiven. This Word empowers us to repent and to believe in Jesus so that His righteousness covers our unrighteousness.

Pattern of the Seven Letters in Revelation, from Brighton

 Pattern of the Letters to the Seven Churches

(Revelation 2:1-3:22)
Louis A. Brighton Revelation (Concordia Commentary)

1. The addressee (the angel of a city’s church)

2. A descriptive phrase about the glorified Christ, the Author / Sender

3. Acknowledgment of a particular circumstance or work of the addressed church

4. A danger or dangers confronting the particular church, owing to its sins, flaws, or weaknesses

5. A call to repentance, lest the individual church lose its place in the kingdom

6. A promise of blessing

7. An appeal: “Those with ears…” The appeal explicitly is made to all the churches, meaning that the addresses made to individual churches for all the churches of all time

Brighton sees the seven letters as preparation for the three sevenfold visions Christ will reveal to John and, through John. to us all in the ensuing chapters. The visions that follow are not chronological, but all describe the same era between Christ’s ascension and His return at the end of world history.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

What Does It Mean to "Take Up Our Crosses"?

[I was happy to preach on February 25, 2024 at Saint Peter Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas.]

Mark 8:31-38
In a community where we once lived, a judge put together a committee of about twenty people. It was charged with creating strategies to prevent drug abuse among local teens. When the committee first met, the judge asked everyone to introduce themselves and to give their theory of why so many kids were involved with drugs.

Each person gave a theory. The answers included low self-esteem, poverty, academic difficulties, peer pressure, mental health, and parental abuse. With each theory, there were affirming nods all around. The last person to speak was Clarence. Clarence headed a program that helped youth get off drugs. He himself was an addict in recovery. “I’ve seen all of the issues that have been mentioned as factors,” he said. “But, in the end, I think addiction is a spiritual problem. People turn to drug and alcohol abuse to find the life and hope only found in Christ.” 

I was in the room where that happened. I wanted to applaud Clarence. But I saw no approving nods and heard no affirming words. There was silence.

I think there was one major reason for that silence. 

People there didn’t want to hear that the answers to any problem they faced, at least in their professional lives, was beyond their competence, their understanding, their effort. They didn’t want to hear that the basic problem for all of us, is our inborn impulse to be our own gods, to sin

They also didn’t want to hear that the only One Who can free us from our sin and the death and problems that come from it is Jesus, God the Son

It’s only through the grace of God given to us through the crucified and risen Jesus and the faith in Jesus we receive through God’s Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, that we are given the life and wholeness we crave.

Jesus is the One Who gives us the ability to face this life and the next life in the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

But like the people on that community committee, we Christians don’t always like to hear any of that. Even the resurrection part. 

Neither, it turns out, did the apostle Peter. 

Just before the incident recounted in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was. Peter said, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29) 

It’s the right answer. But as we learn in today’s lesson, Peter had no idea what his answer meant. 

This is why Mark says Jesus started to clarify things for Peter and for us. Mark writes: “And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

Wait a minute, the disciples must have thought: The Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed, is supposed to be a king who conquers and makes everything right. What’s this about the Messiah suffering, being rejected, and being killed?

But the difference between the disciples’ expectations of a triumphant Messiah and Jesus’ prediction of His own suffering, rejection, and murder isn’t the only reason for what happens next. 

Mark says: “...Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him.” (Mark 8:32) Peter knew what Jesus was getting at when Jesus said that the Son of Man was going to be killed. God had said of the Messiah through Isaiah centuries earlier, “he was crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5) But Peter couldn’t accept that he was so lost in his sin–in his failure to love God and love neighbor–that he, like the rest of us, needed the Messiah to save him by the good news–the gospel–of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners. It’s fairly easy for us to accept that Christ died for sinners, isn’t it? But it’s harder to accept that we’re among the sinners that need saving! 

God’s Word is unambiguous though: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

After Peter rebuked Him, Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! [Jesus knew that the self-righteous words coming from Peter’s mouth were coming from Satan, echoing the words of Satan to Jesus in the wilderness when he tried to tempt the Savior not to go to the cross to save us.] [“Get behind me, Satan”] For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33) Then Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) And then this: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) Take all the power, prestige, money, and advantages of this world into your hands and it will all still one day crumble to ashes, as surely as you and I will in our graves or in our urns.

But the story of both this life and the one to come ends differently for those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus. 

To take up our cross means two things, I think. 

First, it means, to acknowledge our sins, to take the cross Jesus bore for us as our rightful condemnation. Our sin put Jesus on the cross. 

Second, taking up our cross means speaking plainly that Jesus is our Lord, to confess His Gospel

When Jesus spoke the Gospel, the good news, that He was dying and rising, to save the sinners of the world, it led to His crucifixion by first-centuries Jews and Gentiles, who were no more anxious than the rest of us to admit their sin was so bad they needed the Messiah to die and rise to make them (and us) fit for life with God, righteous. 

Whenever we confess Jesus is Lord, we will encounter things like stony silence, rejection, or, as happens to Christians all over the world even today, death. Suffering for our faith in Jesus in this world is as much a part of being a Christian as living in the confidence of the resurrection. So, Jesus says elsewhere: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus warns that when we lack the humility to acknowledge our sin or confess Him as “the way, and the truth, and the life,” there will be consequences in eternity. (John 14:6) If we refuse the shelter of His grace and forgiveness, our sin will be our eternal undoing. Jesus says: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38) 

The corollary to that, of course, is that as, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in God’s Word, we are empowered to take up our crosses and follow Jesus–living our faith in Jesus in plain view, Jesus tells God the Father, “This is My child for all eternity!”

Friends, God’s Law says that we deserve death. 

But the Gospel of Christ gives us life we don’t deserve and could never earn. By grace–God’s charitable and unearned forgiveness given in Christ–we are saved through God’s gift to us of faith in Jesus. 

The gospel tells you even today that in Christ, all your sins are forgiven and you have everlasting life with God, so that you may believe, even on your worst day on earth, this is true

When all your strength and all the people and things of this world fail you, even at the moment death comes to you, you can trust in Christ and the saving work He already accomplished for you when He said from the cross, “It is finished!” 

The promise of the risen and ascended to Jesus to the first-century church at Smyrna is the same promise He makes to you this morning, at this moment: “Be faithful [–keep repenting, keep trusting, keep taking up your cross, keep following Me–] unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10) Amen