Why the Church? The Experiences of Freely Forgiven Sin

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I started part one by asking the question, why the church?  If the church is full of sinners, and there are plenty of other “sinner-included” options, why do we commit to showing up from week to week?

We come because church is a place of honesty.  Secondly, we come because we’re invited to enjoy the experiences of freely forgiven sin.  Every week we’re invited to be satisfied with a rich meal.

Rich Food

My family does most of our grocery shopping at a store called Aldi, a low cost grocer.  We like Aldi.  The food there is fine.  To be honest, though, shopping at the high end grocer Whole Foods would be better.  The food is better.  It’s rich food. The kind of food you post pictures of on Facebook.  The kind of food you slow down to eat.  You savor it, it’s so good. You don’t mind getting lost wandering the store, exploring the market.

Isaiah 55 begins with the voice of one inviting us to the market.  We’re invited to go shopping.

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;  and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk  without money and without price. -Isaiah 55:1

Free Food

But notice how this shopping works.  It’s not just rich food, it’s free food.

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. -Isaiah 55:1

Nelson (my friend) and I were having a conversation recently.  Nelson, who’s Catholic, said to me, “You know, you Protestants are mad.  You’re mad that if I have a bad week, I can just throw a couple of extra buck in the plate on Sunday.”  I said, “But Nelson, you’re getting a bad deal.  You’re paying for what I get for free.”

We should pay for what we get.  This makes total sense to us.  This kind of food should cost us something.  But that’s not how this works.  This food that we are invited to shop for is free.

I’ve come to appreciate the writings of Robert Capon, especially his thinking about the freeness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  For example, he states:

“Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshiping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see the Epistle to the Hebrews) and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever succeed (see the Epistle to the Romans). The second is that everything religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection.

For Christians, therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical, and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.”  -Robert Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement

There is a rich meal given to us, without merit and without cost inside the doors of the church, week after week.  It is pure gift, no strings attached.

Spiritual Food

But it’s not just a rich meal, and not just a free meal, it’s a spiritual meal.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? -Isaiah 55:2

What do you do with your guilt?  What do you do with your shame?  Do you know the difference between them?  Guilt is feeling I’ve done something wrong.  But shame is different: it’s feeling I am wrong.  I’m a mistake.

When we feel that way, we act to cover those feelings.  (Think Adam & Eve covering their nakedness with fig leaves.)  Why do we spend our lives trying to mask these things?  Where is that coming from?

Here’s where it comes from.  We weren’t made to cover up.  We were made to receive forgiveness.  We were made to enjoy forgiveness.  That’s a funny way to look at it.  You weren’t made to enjoy sinning.  But have you ever felt the pure relief of the kind of forgiveness, the pardon of sin and full acceptance, you had no chance of “earning back”?  You were made for that.  You were made to receive this meal.  It’s for you. 

Food for YOU

My father-in-law, Jack, was telling me that he used to teach at the Police Academy in Puerto Rico.  Jack said to me chicharronesomething profound (and simple).  As we talked, he grabbed the bag of chicharrones I was snacking on and said that as he was teaching his class of cadets, he could talk about the chicharrone, perfectly describe everything about it, tell his students exactly what a chicharrone is.  But then digging into the bag, he grabbed one those delicious little cracklings and said, showing it to me, this is a chicharrone.

In the same way,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.”

He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

This is what the forgiveness of sins looks and tastes like: bread and wine.  

We are reminded of our baptisms, whether we were sprinkled as an infant or submerged as an adult.  That water was given to us, saying we are his.

These are what the experiences of freely forgiven sin feel like and taste like.  At church we are welcomed to enjoyed these gifts.  They are given to us in the rich food of bread and wine at the Lord’s table.  They come to us in the cleansing waters of holy Baptism.  They are freely given gifts.  They are gifts for you, without money and without price.  They are God’s gifts to you.  Why the Church?  We come for the experiences of freely forgiven sin.

 

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Why the Church? A Place for Honesty

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Why the Church?  A Place of Honesty

“Why the church?”  What is it about the church, the collections of people who gather in buildings every Sunday, that interests us enough to commit to showing up week after week?  There are plenty of other Sunday morning activities. You could take a ride around the streets of where you live on Sunday morning and see what’s happening if you need some ideas.  You could sleep in, watch Sunday morning politics, NASCAR or football, or get an early jump on the home project you need finished before the end of the weekend.  Why the church?    

The church isn’t always a safe place.  I’m not talking about every church, but those who’ve spent time in and with different churches might know what I’m talking about.  The reason for this is quite simple: the people who gather in churches are sinners. Sometimes, those in the church, even its pastors and leaders, are as mixed up, as any other person.

Let’s be honest

This is not a new development.  Some 700 years before Jesus Christ, the prophet Isaiah records a vivid description of the kind of people who called the temple of Jerusalem their own, the “church people” of that day.  Isaiah gives us the longest list of clothing and accessories in all of Scripture.

“With one hand, she slips the ivory comb through her wavy black hair.  With the other, she checks her progress in a polished bronze mirror.  Setting aside the comb, she begins to darken her eyelids, using an alabaster wand to spread the black paint.  A pendant for each ear, a ring for the nose.  She slides one bangle after another over her wrist until she clinks musically with each movement.  Over her head and neck, she lowers a delicate necklace, which suspends a small silver scroll, the gift of her father, a priest.  Inside is scribed the benediction he pronounces at the temple on Mount Zion, including the sacred name of Yahweh.  As she rises to leave, she adds one more item: a second necklace, heavy with beads.  At its center hangs an amulet in the figure of Bes, a troll-like Egyptian god of good luck.”

The description is of a person, who in one moment is literally adorning themselves with the Word of God, the silver scroll necklace, and the next is putting on the “god of good luck”.

Christian Sinners?  Yep.

The First of the 10 Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods.”  What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  In other words, whatever you put your trust in, that is your god.  That moment of gossip, that takedown of another person usually behind their back, to get that feeling of being better than that other person.  The hot anger we feel when someone tells us “No” and we don’t get our way.  Our sense of superiority and entitlement because we’re better looking, more educated, worked on the job longer, we’re the oldest, made better life choices, have a better car, clothes, house, and kids.  Our escapes into alcohol, or food, or Netflix, or all three, when life is not going well.  Every time we’re dishonest.  Every time we despise authority.  Every sin we commit is a way of saying there is another god we’re fearing, loving, and trusting, more than the true God.  This is not good.  And yet, this is the people Isaiah is preaching to.  The unfaithful people of God.  These are the scriptures that speak to us when we read them.

Unfaithfulness never goes well for us.  Venturing out on our own, departing God and his ways, is to go to a land where judgement reigns.  “Don’t do this!  Stay with me.  Judgment reigns there. It’s good here.  Don’t go!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve preached that sermon to myself.  I should know better.  I’ve been there and come back too many times.  But there I go again.  “Why do I do that?  Why did I say that?  Why does that make me so angry?  What is wrong with me that I feel those things?”  I’ve been a Christian for some time now.  You’d think I would have stopped those things by now.

I’ve already mentioned the kind of people Isaiah is speaking to, and to a certain extent, I’ve already described God’s message to unfaithful Israel that takes place the first half of the book of Isaiah.  To many of us, that word of judgement would seem appropriate.  A kind of, if you don’t correct this issue, then there will be consequences to pay, kind of message.  And that is certainly true.  But Isaiah’s letter isn’t just divorce papers served to an unfaithful spouse.  Isaiah is a love letter, God’s love letter, to his wayward bride.  God is not intent on judgement.  He is not intent on divorce with the unfaithful.  What does God want with his bride?  He wants her back!

The Church of Honesty

I started off by asking the question, why the church?  If the church is full of sinners, and there are plenty of other “sinner-included” options, why do we commit to showing up from week to week?

The church is a place for honesty.  It has two words to offer: God’s Law and God’s Gospel.   It’s a place to go when you’ve blown it because it tells you like it is and shows you how it’s supposed to be.  But no one is looking for just that kind of honesty.  The church is a place of Good News.  Wherever you go, unless it is place you know you’ll find forgiveness, you’ll never show up.  Unless it offers hope you’ll never be honest about the issues.  The church is a place of honesty, because the church is where good news lives.

Name Calling (Hebrews 3:1)

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession…
(Hebrews 3:1 ESV)

For the first time in the letter, the recipients of Hebrews are addressed personally.

How do you think these people will be described?  What kinds of names do you think they might deserve?

How about backslider?  What could be worse than being labeled such a derogatory name?  But truly, that’s what these men and women were.  We should think that they had relished in knowing that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish Law on their behalf.  He had not stumbled in any point of its demands, surpassing the formal descriptions of God’s requirements, to not murder, honor father and mother, keep the Sabbath, and so forth.  And he fulfilled not just the letter, but the spirit of those commands.  Jesus didn’t just “not murder”, but the Son of Man came that other’s would have life.  This is clearly demonstrated in many of his miracles: producing healing, generating wine for a wedding, releasing (literally) dead men and children from the grave’s lasting grip.  The true meaning of keeping the Sabbath, not just the command of not working, but fulfilling the spirit of the command, giving of life to others, healing in some cases, giving others a pass so they could have a meal they didn’t prepare the night before.  Going beyond the mere statute of honoring his earthly parents, Jesus took every desire of our heavenly Father’s will to the its fullest completion.  He left nothing incomplete in keeping all the commands.  And for those who trusted Jesus’ work for them, he left not a single threat of Law against these men and women.  All the unrelenting demands against them, and their long records of guilt, cancelled by another’s unblemished life.  Jesus’ death, the payment for the penalty of their sins.  Jesus’ life, their positive record of goodness.  And yet, here they were, drifting back to their previous ways of life.  Backsliding, if you will.

Any measure of their faithfulness would reveal a less than desirable level of indifference and apathy towards the precious blood that supposedly was their life.  Any measure whatsoever.  And we’re the same.  Measure the coolness of my heart at any given moment and I’m not sure what you’re going to get.  It’s certainly not a perpetual bonfire of love and worship (yours either).  But were talking about backsliding, right?  Not just moments of hot and cold.  We’re talking about a “grievous return”.  How cool (lukewarm) had their hearts become that they were willing to trade an endless life with the savior for an easier life in the city of Rome.  How spiritually troubled were these men and women?  How troubled are we?

But look for a moment at the name calling.  “Therefore, holy brothers…” For the first time in the letter, these men and women are addressed, and they’re called “holy.”  Do you understand what that means?  Jesus has done something, and declared something…and he’s not taking it back.  He’s not calling them condemned, backslider, phoney, doubter, garbage, cancer, or imposter.  They are weak and sinful, make no doubt about it, but here he is, still calling them holy brothers, holy sisters, and part of his holy family.  And as part of the family, they are heirs of his kingdom, sharing in the heavenly calling.  They can take it or leave it, but he gives them an undeserved name and status, and promises a future undeserved home.  They can take it or leave it, but he’s not taking it back.  And that’s the point.  They’re not “holy brothers”.  They’re tempted to throw away all the gifts of salvation given us in the Gospel.  They’ve got their eyes on Rome, not on the heavenly city.  If they continue to walk away, it will end disastrously.  Their end will be destruction.  But it’s not just the threatening of Judgement (which troubles the conscience) that turns a heart back.  Only the freely bestowed gifts of Grace truly changes us (which comforts the troubled).  They are “holy brothers and sisters”, made that way by the work of another.  Beloved backsliders.  Loved, even if they (we) never come back.  How much different are we, who think our hope is secured by what we can do, what we can get, and what we become, when every gift has already been given to us in Christ?

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession…

Jesus will continue to be there, arms open, full of mercy and the grace needed for every moment.  There’s no need to go anywhere else.  The need is for Jesus…again.  Come, let us return to the Lord.

 

The Right Man On Our Side (Hebrews 2:10-18)

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

(Hebrews 2:10-18 ESV)

The Christians in Rome, the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, are enslaved to a ruthless captor.

Rejection was ruining them.  There was a serious toll for being separated from the resources and protection of the family.  A certain kind of death hangs over their heads.  Relational death.

And at the same time existed the threat of a real physical death by persecution.  Bloodthirsty Rome was no place for the carefree Christian.  Literal starvation and execution lurked around every corner.

And something more subversive than the others, certainly more personal, constantly nagged at these Christians: the ever-lingering question, “does God really love us?”  “We are suffering so much, how can God be for us?  Look at what’s going on around us and more than that, look at us.  We’re beginning to cave into the social pressure. What kind of faith is that?  How can God love spineless backsliders like us?  Truth be told, he probably doesn’t love us much.  He’s the last one you want to find out about your sin.  That’s holiness for you. 

Being pressed in on all sides, these struggling Christians were losing faith.  Death in its different forms was taking them captive.  This story sounded very similar to a part of their Jewish history.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens…they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. (Exodus 1:8-11, 13-14)

And for 400 years, the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt.  But the story of the Hebrew exodus was one filled with hope and promise:

…And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-25)

Literally held captive, what could they do?  Nothing.  But God saw, and God knew.  And God sent Israel a savior (Moses).

The reality for the Christians in 1st century Rome was they were just like their captives ancestors in Egypt.  With their sin, suffering, and a hostile society pressing in, they were subjects to slavery, but a different slavery.  Slavery that is spiritual, emotional, and psychological.  But, like before, God saw, and God knew.  And once again, God sent a savior.  And of course the new story’s savior was better than the other’s.

The first chapters of the letter to the Hebrews carefully argues that Jesus Christ was no mere man.  Jesus Christ is the divine Son, the “appointed the heir of all things”, and the “creator of the world”. He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”  Jesus Christ cannot be compared to any other being, including angels.  This is what we think about when we think about God.  He is without equal with regard to his holiness, his power, his knowledge, and in every other conceivable way.  But the God of incomparable attributes was lacking, so to speak.   “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”  The God of incomparable attributes, was made perfect through suffering.  

How fitting is it, that just as Moses, a Hebrew son, was sent from the mountain into Egypt freeing Israel from Pharaoh (bringing many sons to glory), so Jesus Christ set aside his majesty for the weakness of flesh and blood?  That God himself became a brother to those enslaved by sin and Satan. and through his own suffering, delivering his brothers and sisters from captivity?  Our perfect savior wasn’t perfect because of his incomparable attributes.  Jesus Christ is perfect because he took on flesh and blood, and suffered for sinners.

Too many times I continue to find myself controlled by Satan’s accusations.  I operate under an assumption, that if I’m good, I’ll win at life.  I think that if I’m good, everyone around me will be happy and happy with me.  Then If I’m good, and people are happy with me, I’ll like myself.  Failure and the opinions of others too often rule my wicked heart.   Satan knows our sin and weaknesses and goes after them.  He knows we fear losing relationships.  He knows we struggle with liking ourselves or thinking too much of ourselves.  He knows we all have perfection complexes and we hate to think we’re worse than we actually are.

And yet we think God is the last one who will be gracious with us in our weakness.  The reality is, the Devil is the last one you want knowing about your sin.  He’s a tempter and a tattle-tale.  He wants you to sin and then gloat over your fall.

But Jesus Christ knows what it is to face Satan’s temptation and prevail without sin. And his victory over temptation was not simply an example we should follow.  There’s something to be said about faithfully enduring temptation.  But how clean are our records?  The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews we failing and falling away?  Am I better than they?

Jesus victory over Satan’s temptation is not only an example for us to follow.  His victory is the payment made for those who stumble when tempted.  His victory is something for us to have.  Jesus had a perfect record against Satan.  And while our record of sin screams against us, and Satan continually whispers “not loved, not good enough, you should just give up”, all condemnation is forever silenced by the voice of Jesus calling out, “My record, not theirs.”  Jesus sets us free from the relentless fear of death, giving us his righteousness, and taking rightfully deserved punishment.  The prisoners have been emancipated.  He dies.  They’re released.  He gives his life so we can go free.

I love to sing Martin Luther’s great hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  In fact, this hymn completely sums us what Hebrews is telling us.  When we’re struggling to find peace because of the frequent reminders we get that death lurks around every corner, it lets us declare where our help comes from.  It reminds us that we have a strong savior.  And not just a strong savior, but also a perfect brother who stands in our place.  The right man on our side.  Christus Victor.

Receive Me as I Am (Hebrews 1:5-14; 2:5-9)

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  –Hebrews 2:9

What is so significant, great, valuable, or important  that you would trade Jesus Christ to possess it?  Would it be a million dollars?  Would it be a relationship you’ve waited many years to have (or to have back)?  How about influence?  What about an easier life?  What would you be willing to do?  Would you be willing to tweak Christianity if it changes the quality of your life?  Would you drop the “Jesus” bit altogether if it made things better?

When I was 20, I had just re-started college after a disaster first semester at the community college and some other traumatic life events (for a 20 year old).  Before I left for school, I made a teary-eyed recommittment to Jesus and dedicated to get life back on track.  And now there I was three hours from home on the campus of a Christian university.  I had no friends.  None.  The homesickness was terrible.  I desperately missed the friends I had left back home.  I remember praying one night that I would meet some people. In those weeks, I was trying really hard to do everything the right way.  And I was actually doing pretty well.  I was taking classes very seriously.  I attended all the events going on.  I was staying out of trouble.  As days turned into weeks, though, my bitterness toward Jesus grew as I never met anyone I felt I could be friends with.  How could he put me in that place and not even give me a single friend.  How much had I committed to him that I was going to turn things around.  How could he let me down over such a small thing like that?  What good was being good?  Before the semester ended I dropped out and started partying again, just like before.  Just this time very much hardened by the experience.   If Jesus wasn’t going to give me what I wanted, I knew where I could get it myself.

Imagine a similar scene just before the letter to the Hebrews arrives to the Christians in Rome.  “There’s gotta be a better way.  If we tone this down a little, maybe it takes some of the heat off us.  Maybe we just understand this whole thing wrong to begin with?  What if Jesus was just an angel?  It’s possible.  Look at all other times God has acted through angels.  It could be we just misunderstand all this.  If he’s just an angel, maybe people will understand us better and things won’t be so hard for us.”

That’s the conclusion the Christians in Rome had made.  Taking Jesus as he is, isn’t working.  The suffering, the doubt, the oppression are becoming too much.  Something must change.  Either the situation changes, something about Jesus changes, or if comes to it, they go back to their old ways of living.

The truth is we can’t change Jesus to fit our situation.  He simply is who he is.  But can you see what’s going on?  Something is ruling this person.  A need is controlling the person.  This is exactly what was occurring when this letter reached the Hebrews.  It what was happening with me at the Christian college (and a theme I continue to frequent now almost 20 years later.)  It’s what’s at work at the root of every sinful inclination that occurs.  There’s an idolatry issue happening.  Who Jesus actually is, simply isn’t enough.  This is the reason for such a focused comparison between Jesus and the angels.  Life had become much too difficult.  The recipients of Hebrews had demoted Jesus to angel to escape the pressure of life between their former Jewish faith and ruthless persecution from the Romans.  Jesus’ usefulness was wearing thin.

Hebrews has something to say to these people ready to throw in the towel.  It’s that Jesus is better that anything they can compare him too.  It’s that Jesus is so much better than any other options they’re considering. It’s that Jesus isn’t just useful…Jesus is beautiful.  And this is the difference.  An idolatrous life or religious life (in the worst sense of the word) just finds Jesus useful.  But what Christianity actually is, what worship really is, is finding Jesus beautiful.  When suffering presses in on a person, the death Jesus suffered on the cross is the actual source of strength and hope for that person.  His death makes sense of the suffering and brutality in this world.  When the guilt of sin is overwhelming a person, Christ’s forgiveness of sins and gift of righteousness is their comfort and great assurance.  That’s whats hopeful about receiving Jesus as he actually is.  When everything is falling apart, we see not just the difficulties around us, but ourselves raised up with him, our lives hidden with his in God.

And here we need to take this somewhat further.  The recipients of the letter are not just being put on notice for demoting and dishonoring Jesus.  They certainly were dishonoring Jesus and in a very real sense forfeiting the force that comes with trusting Jesus as he actually is.  But instead of a word of condemnation, letter’s message comes like a strong hands plunging down into dark water to rescue drowning sinners.  The news it brings: “See how much he is for you.”  How greatly dishonoring it is to demote Jesus, and here he is supremely ruling over all things, and yet “made…for a little while lower than the angels” for them (Heb 2:7).

This is the beautiful picture we’re left with.  Because of the suffering of death, Jesus is “crowned again with glory and honor”, victory over his enemies in hand.  And he is taking them just as they are—suffering, sinful, weak, and tired.  He is saying, don’t give up on me…all things are under my feet.  He is saying, don’t throw away your confidence in me…nothing is outside of my control.  He is saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”  (Matthew 11:28)   He is saying, “let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

He is saying come, I know your weakness and I receive you as you are…receive me as I am.

(Hebrews 1:5-14)  For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.” But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” And to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

(Hebrews 2:5-9) For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Struggling Saints

From Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God… 080665130Xb

For a while he sat in silence, not knowing what he should say. Then words came to his lips, he hardly knew from whence:

“I wish you God’s peace, God’s eternal peace and blessing.”

The sick man shook his head.

“Not for me! Not for me! Eternal damnation, punishment according to the measure of my sin, the judgment of wrath, and the everlasting flames – that is for me. To me he will say, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!’”

“But God is good,” said Savonius quietly.

The sick man looked straight up at the ceiling.

“Yes, God is good, very good. It is just for that reason I am in such a bad way. Pastor, you do not know how good God has been to me. He has sought my soul and bidden me walk the way of life. But I have not done so. He has shown me heaven’s purity, but I shall never win it. I sat in Ravelunda church and heard the angels sing. Then I saw my mother in the women’s pew, and I thought: Mother has aged, this winter she may die; then I shall inherit the farm. And my heart wept, for I saw that, more than I loved my Mother, I loved the filthy dollars. Then the pastor came to the pulpit. Potbelly, I thought. You can play cards and fish for trout, but you cannot feed God’s poor little lambs with the Word. But I had not prayed for him. Was that love? I walked along the road and saw the rye in full bloom. Then I thought: Rye as thick as this is never to be seen on the crofter’s stony field. But the captain has taken all the good ground for himself. He is rich in this world, but he will burn in hell. Was that love, Pastor?”

Johannes had suddenly turned his fever-reddened eyes toward the pastor and looked penetratingly at him.

“That is how it is with me, Pastor. Day after day, moment upon moment, it is sin added to sin, and nothing but sin.”

“But God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” were the words that came from Savonius’ lips.

“But that he should turn from his way and live,” said the sick man, completing the passage. “That is why there is no hope for me, Pastor. For thirty years God has given me the opportunity to turn and repent. Thirty years I have been on that way. But I shall never reach the goal. Have I turned from the evil way? No! I have lamented and called upon God. But the heart is just as evil. Falseness and darkness within, pretense and hypocrisy on the surface.”

“But confess your sins, and God will forgive you.” Savonius tried to give his voice the ring of authority.

“Confess?” said Johannes, and his head fell back with infinite weariness. It was not terror that showed on his face now, but a dying despair that seemed almost more unendurable. He started upwards with lifeless eyes.

“For thirty years, as Thou knowest, Lord, I have confessed my sins. And Thou didst forgive everything – the salt I stole, the grouse I snared, adultery and profanity – all was forgiven. It was like the singing of larks that day in the church, and it was Thy voice, O Lord, that I heard when the pastor read the absolution. That day I knelt in prayer at the gates of Borsebo, and blessedness and peace lay like sunshine on the grass, Lord, all this Thou didst for me. I believed then that I was Thine. But the heart of stone remained. The uncircumcised, adulterous heart continued to be just as evil. I wept and confessed, and Thou didst forgive me afresh. I came with new confessions. Thy grace was great, Lord. Twenty times, fifty times, I came; but I was still no better. Then the door of grace was shut. He who repents and believes will be received into the kingdom. But I did not repent.”

Savonius’ brain worked desperately. The man was certainly out of his head; his hand was very hot. Still, one could sense a certain logic in his wanderings of mind. The curate knew that sinners could repent and be absolved, but he had scarcely thought that it took place except as the obligatory absolution of adulteresses in the sacristy. But it was evident that this man had long ago experienced sorrow for his sins, which for that matter did not seem to be so great. Why in the world did he, then, doubt the grace of God? Savonius could very well understand that one could doubt such things as the miracles and the sacraments, Adam, the fall into sin, and hell. But grace – nothing could be more obvious than that. Must not all who believe in the Most High God also acknowledge His goodness? Could not even Voltaire be quoted in support of this? But how should he get this strange man to believe it?

Suddenly Savonius called to mind what the driver had said, that if only he were instructed as to the evidences of being in the state of grace, Johannes would surely be able to understand that his soul was in no danger. The good man was evidently right. It was clear that Johannes was unnecessarily troubled. The fragments of a human life that flitted by as he continued his fevered talk showed a piety and godly fear so deep and earnest that Savonius could hardly remember that he had ever witnessed anything like it. This man’s soul was completely dominated by the quest for God – that was evident. Why, then, did he not understand that God was good? How could he be made to understand that he had nothing to fear?

Savonius stood up. With an assertion of his priestly authority, he laid his narrow hand as heavily as he could on Johannes’ shoulder, and said, “Johannes of Borsebo, I say to you that, if anyone in this settlement will die in peace, it is you.”

The sick man looked up. A quivering gleam of hope shone in his eyes.

“How can that be, Pastor?”

“You are a better and a more upright soul than anyone I have ever met.”

Then the little gleam of light in Johannes’ eyes died away. There was a piercing earnestness in his eyes as he looked up at the pastor.

“The Judge will not judge the soul by other souls, Pastor. The books will be opened, and the dead will be judged by what is written in the books. ‘Every idle word that men speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.’ And my doom is already sealed.”

Savonius’ arms hung limply. He was powerless against this chilling logic. The man was really right. Each man would indeed be judged according to his works. He had himself preached on that text at the communion service on Quinquagesima. But he had certainly experienced no anguish of soul.

Not knowing what to say, he sat down. Should he read something? He fingered the books on the other chair. He was glad to find the Church Book among them. He took the worn, brown volume in his hands and paused for a moment. Something about inner conflict and comfort in distress should fit, he thought. But where would he find this?

He did not need to search. The edges of the book were dark with use, and here and there the pages opened readily because their corners had been worn away. He put his thumb in the first notch that showed evidence of frequent use and found the section entitled: “Psalms to be read in soul distress, in cross bearing, and in inner conflict.” But then he sat a long time without moving. These pages had been thumbed so much that they had slowly become darkened. Hundreds upon hundreds of times they must have been turned by earth-stained hands. Had not Johannes said that he had been walking that way for thirty years? Was all this the marks of his journey? Quietly, Savonius laid the book aside. He understood that it would do no good to read one of those hymns that the sick man must have read a thousand times without finding cure for his inner despair. He felt unworthy to read anything from this book. He thought of his own beautiful copy of the same church hymnal, its fine white pages clean and unmussed, like the sheets of a bed that is never used.

He felt, suddenly, that someone was looking at him. He turned his head. He had, he realized, almost forgotten the others in the house. The woman, who evidently was the wife of Peter and the sister of the sick man, sat on the sofa at the other end of the room. It was she who looked so intently that he had to turn his head. Her eyes were wide open and lay deep and frightened within dark rings that had come from long night watches. She continued to look at the pastor with eyes that were wise, but sorrowful. Her shoulders drooped and her hands lay in her lap as if benumbed. Her whole being reflected a great disappointment, a last hope that she must have considered crushed. And then, her big, sad, accusing eyes!

Savonius turned his face from her and felt how he blushed. He surmised what the woman was thinking. He had an idea of what she must have gone through during the night in her lonely vigil with the sick man, especially when darkness fell and her husband never seemed to return. Then finally the help had come. But what a sorry help it turned out to be!

….

The curate shyly averted his eyes. How long had Peter knelt there? He was praying, then, while he, Henrik Samuel Savonius, a doctor from the widely reputed philosophical faculty at Upsala and a servant of the Holy Word, had not prayed a single little prayer since coming to this house. For that matter, he had not done so on the journey either, nor even in his room before starting out. When was it really that he last prayed? It must have been at morning devotions yesterday – if indeed he had prayed then.

His first impulse was to bow his head and try to pray. If the woman were not watching him, he might have done so. But now he was ashamed to show that he had learned from a peasant’s example. He remained perfectly rigid in his chair.

The sick man had lifted his big hands and folded them under his chin. The eyes were closed, and he talked feverishly.

“Now Johannes stands in prayer in the pasture at Mysebacke. The wind blows, and the angels listen. ‘How does Johannes pray today?’ they ask.” The voice sank to a whisper. “Lord, I pray for the tailor at Hyltet. He beats his wife and milks our cow and spreads poisonous slander about our Anna.” The voice was again at it’s normal pitch. “That is how Johannes is praying for his enemy. But when Johannes has said Amen, and sits down to think it over, and he sees how the sheriff comes into the forest and finds the tailor’s whiskey still and takes him to court, and the judge puts the tailor behind bars, the thought of it makes Johanne’s evil heart feel good. Now the sun is hid by clouds, and cold, cold rain begins to fall. It is the angels who are weeping, ‘Johannes has an uncircumcised heart,’ they say. ‘He is hard though God has been so good to him. He is just as spiteful as God is merciful. Therefore he shall die eternally and will never come to heaven.’ ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? He that hath… a pure heart.’ But never, never I.”

“Be quiet, Johannes! Be quiet!”

It was the woman who cried out thus. She sat with her chin pressed into her hands, staring ceaselessly straight ahead. Her eyes glistened with tears.

“These two are related,” thought Savonius. “What if she also goes out of her mind!”

He was so unhappy and despairing that he felt physically ill. The whole scene, the sick man’s mad imaginings, which were so irresistibly logical, the woman’s worn face red and swollen with weeping, the oppressive air and stench from the spittoon at his feet – all these got the better of him. He got up and walked unsteadily toward the door. His face must have been white as chalk. He had hardly gotten outside before his repugnance and nausea found release in violent vomitings.

Here then, stood the curate of Odesjo church in knee breeches and elegant shoes, a blue silken scarf about his neck and a little bit of lace peeping out of the black coat-sleeves, leaning against a projecting log of Peter’s house at Hyltamalen. He had too little strength left to be aware of the comical in the situation. All he could see was shame and humiliation. The sun was already shining, the morning song of the birds filled the air, and a well-sweep creaked somewhere in the village beyond the farm.

With a pale grimace Savonius mopped his face with the handkerchief…. He felt only a great longing to be back in his study at Upsala.

——

“Is Johannes already dead, Pastor?”

Savonius looked up, startled. This was an altogether new voice, a woman’s deep, warm alto voice. The stranger must have come from down the road. She wore a kerchief over her black hair, which was combed straight back. The face was middle-aged, wise, with soft and gentle lines under the tan.

Savonius’ face must have betrayed his bewilderment, since the woman went on to explain who she was.

“I am Katrina Filip from Hersmalen. They have asked me to come because the situation is so critical. We were once neighbors. But now I suppose he has already gone to his rest.”

There was a questioning anxiety in her voice and even more in her childlike eyes. Savonius realized that she had innocently construed his strange conduct as the result of his own sadness over Johannes’ death. If only she could continue to think that!

“Johannes still lives, but he is in very sad straits indeed,” he said hoarsely.

The woman nodded silently and went into the house. The curate sat still a moment longer, undecided as to his course. Finally, he rose and followed her. If I am present, they will at least not speak ill of me, he thought. Just inside the door he slumped down on a chair.

The woman was already at the bedside. Peter’s wife bend down and shouted in the sick man’s ear.

“Johannes, wake up! Katrina is here. It’s Katrina, do you hear?”

The sick man was in his right mind again.

“Katrina, it was good of you to come. You are kind, Katrina. God will reward you. And me, he will punish. So will He be exalted and declared righteous in all his judgments. But it will go badly for me. Katrina, why is it not as it used to be? Do you remember when we sang the old songs from The Songs of Moses and the Lamb? Then my heart was glad in the Lord. But it never became clean. Katrina, I am a sinner, a great sinner.”

“Yes, that you are, Johannes. But Jesus is a still greater Savior.”

The sick man breathed heavily before answering. He seemed to be going over something in his mind.

“Yes, he is a great Savior for those who let themselves be saved. But my heart is not clean, my mind is evil; I do not have the new spirit.”

“They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

“Yes, Katrina, but it reads ‘to repentance.’ It is repentance that I lack.”

“You do not lack repentance, Johannes, but faith. You have walked the way of repentance for thirty years.”

“And still not attained to it!”

“Johannes,” said the woman, almost sternly, “answer me this question: Do you really want your heart to be clean?”

“Yes, Katrina. God knows that I want that.:

“Then your repentance is also as true as it can be in a corrupt child of Adam in this world. Your danger is not that you lack repentance, but that you have been drifting away from faith.”

“What, then, shall I believe, Katrina?”

“You must believe this living Word of God: ‘But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ Up to this day you have believed in works and looked at your own heart. You saw only sin and wretchedness, because God anointed your eyes with the salve of the Spirit to see the truth. Do you have sin in your heart, Johannes.”

“Yes,” answered the sick man timidly, “much sin, altogether too much.”

“Just that should make clear to you that God has not forsaken you,” said the woman firmly. “Only he can see his sin who has the Holy Spirit.”

“Do you mean to say, Katrina, that it could be a work of God, that my heart is so unclean?”

“Not that your heart is unclean – that is the work of sin – but that you now see it, that is the work of God.”

“But why, then, have I not received a clean heart?”

“That you might learn to love Jesus,” said the woman as calmly as before.

Back in his corner Savonius had raised his aching head. He followed with fixed attention the conversation at the bedside. Peter now stood at the foot of the bed, and his wife reclined on a chair. Katrina sad on the edge of the bed. The curate was amazed to see that the sick man’s hands were at rest. They lay broad and clumsy on the quilt and were perfectly still. His eyes were glued to the woman’s lips.

“What do you mean, Katrina?”

“I mean, Johannes, that if you had received a clean heart and for that reason had been able to earn salvation – to what end would you then need the Savior? If the law could save a single one of us, Jesus would surely not have needed to die on the cross. ‘Because the law worketh wrath,’ and God stops every mouth by his holy commandments, that ‘all the world may become guilty before God.’”

The sick man had become perfectly still. His sister fanned the flies from his face. Except for that, no one moved.

“Have you anything more to say, Katrina?”

“Yes, one thing more, Johannes. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.’”

He lay quiet a moment.

“Do you mean…? Do you really mean that he takes away also the sin that dwells in my unclean heart?”

“Yes, as surely as Paul also still had it with him. Have you never read, ‘I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.’”

“Yes, that’s how it is,” whispered Johannes.

“That is the way it has always been for us, and for all others. ‘With his stripes we are healed.’ ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and… also for the sins of the whole world.’”

The sick man lay breathlessly quiet. Then he whispered, “One word more, Katrina, a sure word, and I will believe it.”

The woman got up quietly, took the Bible that lay on the table, and sat down again. Opening the Bible, she read:

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

“Amen. I believe!” said Johannes, in a voice that could barely be heard.

Katrina rose and replaced the Bible on the table.

“Now God’s work has taken place. Now you must ask the pastor to give you the holy sacrament.”

Just Listen (Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4)

“In these last days God has spoken to us by his Son…”

The letter to the Hebrews is someone standing in front of us, preaching an inspired sermon.  Can you hear it?  Things begin with an abrupt start.  “Long ago, at many times and in many ways.”  Other New Testament letters allow us time to warm up with introductions but this letter starts without even the chance to say “hi”.  The reason?  Hebrews is not just a letter, it’s a sermon.  It was intended to be heard, not just read.

What we hear is that, “In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son…”   Just like us, the difficulties from suffering and setbacks were taking their toll on the 1st century Christians in Rome.  They’re wondering if it’s all worth it.  How can they keep going when they’re wearing down?

I’m sure you can hear their friends now.  “Well, you just need read your bible, brother. I know it’s a struggle.  Just take it to the Lord.  It will be ok. Keep your chin up.  You just need to keep going.”

The “just give a little more” speeches are beginning to wear thin.  We’re failing.  We feel like we’re losing ground.  Trying harder isn’t working.  We need something else.  Hebrews gives us a different solution.  Just listen. “In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son…”

It’s very appropriate for those who need their faith strengthened and their hearts refreshed to hear.  That’s why hearing is the classic analogy to faith.  “Faith comes by hearing…” To hear and receive words of good news.  “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)

And what is the good news, the word of Christ, that us weary and wandering Christians need to hear?  Very briefly…

1.  Jesus is the superior Son.

We need to hear that Jesus is the superior Son.  We need to hear that the creation (including our very lives) exists for and by Christ.  And that, when we are dealing with Jesus, he is, by his very nature, God himself.

“…in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” (Heb 1:2-3) 

2. Jesus is the sustaining Son.

But we also need to hear that Jesus as creator and heir is not an absentee landlord, but actively attending over this world of his.  The universe itself, from unseeable subatomic particles to unmeasurable supergalaxies, weather to world events, all continue at his word.

“…and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Heb 1:3).  

And lastly…

3.  Jesus is the saving Son.

“…after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (Heb 1:3)

Yes, God is powerful.  But what if our weariness is an offense to this God of might?  What if my wandering puts me on the outs and jeopardizes my good standing with this all-powerful being?  Can he handle my faithlessness?  Can I go another round of mustering up enough strength to keep the big man happy?  What’s keeping me from throwing in the towel all together?

That God is all-powerful is not good news if he’s angry with me and I am his enemy.  Whats good for me to hear in my weariness and wandering is that Jesus has made purification for my sin.  And let’s call it that, because that’s what my wandering is.  I am the wandering sheep he left the ninety-nine for.  When I’m tempted to throw in the towel, he comes to me in with a towel around his waist to wash my feet.  When I run from home and come to my senses, he sees me from afar and runs to me, not even accepting my “I’m sorry” speech.  I need to hear again and again, that Jesus is the saving Son, otherwise his power is nothing but a threat to me.  But hearing he made purification for sin lets me know that his power will be at work, not against me, but for me.

Now when Hebrews says “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (2:1), we know who we are hearing from.  It is not Angels who delivered a law that read “Do this and live”.  Angels whose word proved reliable and every transgression was met with retribution.  But we hear from the Son who has said, “Look at all this I have done.  I will never leave or forsake you.”  We are warned that we will not escape if we neglect his voice.  But we have so much to gain when we hear.

And that’s what is being asked of us.  Just listen.

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4

(1:1-4) Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs…

(2:1-4) Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.