Saturday, October 31, 2015

Conformation to the One True and Everlasting Gospel Requires Constant Evaluation


On this Reformation Day let us once again thank God that as Lutherans we have been called to believe, teach and confess the eternal Gospel of Christ. The Gospel we believe, and from which we draw all true comfort is of divine and not human origin.  It’s not the social gospel of liberal Christianity; the self-affirming gospel of Evangelicalism; the free-market gospel of political conservatives, the Marxist gospel of political liberals or the prosperity gospel of television evangelists.  It is, rather, a proclamation of divine mercy to sinners in Christ whose sole purpose is to save us from the eternal death and condemnation that our sins merit, and to give us Life with Christ that has no end.  It’s not a gospel of earth but of heaven, sung by angels on Bethlehem’s plains, preached by them at the Lord’s empty tomb, and now seen in a vision by aged St. John as he was exiled on the Isle Patmos because of the Word of God he preached, and the Testimony of Jesus he Confessed. (Rev. 1:7)

Other gospels, false ones, rise out of the earth just like the beast in Revelation chapter thirteen which St. John also saw in his vision.  These false gospels which deceive and delude people all seem to have their little day, they come in with great fanfare but then they are done because there’s nothing divine or durable about them.

But the Gospel of John’s vision was conceived before the world began, in the Secret Counsel of the Holy Trinity and is thus an everlasting gospel.  It is the same for every age, ever glad, ever fresh and ever-enduring.  It speaks to the heart of man and addresses itself to the soul’s long estrangement from God. It declares and imparts reconciliation to enemies of God. It sweetens man’s soul with forgiveness of his sin and unites his scattered spirit with the peace of God which surpasses understanding.  It is a gospel so good and glad and true that it lifts the souls of men to heaven “to sit together in heavenly places with Christ,” and “to show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness towards us through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6-7) who Himself is the Gospel; the very “lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world,” (Rev. 13:8), “the Alpha and Omega the Beginning and the End.” (Rev. 1:11) In this Gospel we can see God’s love so early and so deep that He promised it before the foundation of the world; proclaimed it through thousands of Old Testament years; brought about its realization in the Word made flesh; and guaranteed its power to save sinners throughout all generations.  Here is good news that lasts, and lasts and lasts, never to fade, never to disappoint, never to change.  It is the one, dependable, persisting reality in a world whose only constant is change and decay.

But we don’t only believe the life-giving and everlasting Gospel, we also teach and Confess it, pure and entire as Luther and our fathers in the faith did before us. We must never be satisfied to “serve up half a Christ,” minus His deity, minus His cross, minus His blood or His bodily resurrection from the dead. Our Gospel must be the gospel of divine revelation, exact and accurate as God gave it to His holy apostles and prophets; adding nothing to it and taking nothing from it. It must be the same for us as it was for the Reformers and the faithful of all ages. Herein lies hope for the individual man, and for the whole world of men, “for all nations, and kindreds, and tongues, and people.” So we proclaim that God loved the world; Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; God reconciled the world to Himself by the death of His Son, and we are saved by faith and faith alone. Not by works, prayers, suffering, sacrifices or by being ever so good…but only by grace through faith in Christ and in Him alone.

This everlasting Gospel is also a universal gospel.  It is meant to be preached and carried and spread everywhere to everyone. No one is excluded. Nothing, either in ourselves or in others, dare hinder or prejudice the onward preaching of it to all people – without regard to their status or culture be it ever so high, or ever so low.  The world is awash with pious meddlers who want to improve the world, but nothing can improve the condition of men on earth, or truly unite those separated by culture and language, or make people amenable to one another, like this gospel of peace and the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our dear Lord and God. Faithfully proclaimed and sincerely believed our Gospel produces the exercise of true faith, urged by the angel in John’s vision when he says: “Fear God, give glory to Him and worship Him.”  This is the true practice of faith which the Reformation has bequeathed us.

But where is the voice of Luther today? May it be heard in the church of the Reformation! In her pure doctrine, her catholic practice, her Law-Gospel preaching, her faithful prayers and her blessed sacraments. And may the Holy Spirit of God be gracious to us so that this eternal Gospel might ring out, not just in Lutheran churches but in all churches, in every land, so that all people might know the confidence in Christ and the joy that we have this Reformation Day.

And whenever the church needs reforming, which it always does because sin clouds her judgment, may God grant it to us. When our thoughts, words and deeds need reforming, which they always do because the desires of the Flesh are corrupt, may the everlasting Gospel forgive us our sins, transform us, reform us and conform us to the image of the Son, even Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reformation, Sts. Simon and Jude


This work is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 196
3 and although there may or may not have been a copyright notice, the copyright was not renewed
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?" Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. John 14:22-23

It is a little known fact that The Lutheran Hymnal makes provision for the celebration of a number of saint's days. Unlike the Roman church we do not ask the saints to pray for us, but we do honor their memory and learn from their example. Those whom the church calls saints were, for the first three centuries of her existence, Christians who chose to suffer torment and death rather than renounce their faith. Churches were built in their honor, and their feasts were remembered each year from earliest Christian times. It is to our poverty that we have ignored their memory and their story, but that is now changing. After a century and a half of laboring under the shackles of protestant practice in America, Lutherans are once again discovering their catholicity. We are learning anew that Luther started a reformation, not a revolution; that his intention was to correct the church's many and serious abuses, not to start a competing church. This being the case we should think of the Reformation as the re-birth, or renewal of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and never fail to remember the date, October 31, 1517, and the events it inspired.

Martin Luther (after whom no boulevards are named) was not a martyr, but he was what the church called from early on a confessor. That is someone who suffered for his faith, but lived to tell about it. Within three years of posting The Ninety-Five Theses Luther was excommunicated from the Roman church and became a wanted man, and were it not for his guardian angel he would have been a martyr as well.

Though he did not bleed for the faith, Luther suffered much. Among his crosses was the pain of overwhelming personal sorrow because what he meant for good, produced so many unintended consequences. His Reformation tore the church apart; and radicals began to crawl out of the woodwork, who did turn the Reformation into a Revolution. These are the forebears of all those who call themselves Protestants today, who know plenty about the Law, but precious little about the Gospel.

Luther's Reformation also tore the empire apart, and at the worst possible moment, because the Muslims were about to take Vienna and put an end to the holy Christian faith in Europe. Of course Europe has since taken care of that all on its own. According to Professor John Pless of our Fort Wayne seminary: on any given Sunday there are more Lutherans at worship on the African continent than in all of Europe and North America combined. What hath God wrought! Yet however disconcerting that fact may be we need not work ourselves into an evangelistic frenzy. There is nothing our Lord commands us to do about it except what we have always done, which is to baptize, teach, absolve sinners and to celebrate the Holy Sacrament of our Lord's body and blood, the very thing we are engaged in at this time. An indispensible part of that celebration for 1400 years has been to do so in accordance with the Church Year. On the church's calendar today, October 28th, is the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude.

The traditions regarding these two saints are as plentiful as they are contradictory. We know that they were both disciples of Jesus, two of the twelve who launched the church into the world. We know that Simon was a Zealot, a man who believed that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews and that He meant it to be theirs for as long as the world stood. He was a man who was willing to take up the sword against the Roman empire which then ruled over it, in order to make that dream a reality. Now there's nothing wrong with men taking up political causes and overthrowing tyrannical governments when things become intolerable. If that did not happen the world would be in a permanent state of oppression, but Jesus had something different in mind for Simon. He would exchange the sword of steel for the Sword of the Spirit and preach an eternal kingdom.

After Pentecost it is believed that Simon and Jude, who were brothers, traveled east to Persia and preached the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, only to meet with death for doing so, but their work was not without fruit. For the next one thousand two hundred years, the Gospel of Jesus Christ flourished in the area of what is today known as Iraq.

And what about us? We are the fortunate recipients of the great sacrifices made by Sts. Simon, Jude and Martin. By these men, and countless, nameless others, Jesus has manifested Himself to us. At high personal cost they preserved the gospel, and the sacraments which are the means of salvation; so that today we too bless the holy name of Jesus; we are at peace with God through Christ, and we are filled with all joy and peace in believing. Of all the souls on earth God's people in Christ are part of something truly great, the eternal and glorious Kingdom of God! No other cause or human aspiration matches this one, or even comes close. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth made so by Jesus, who manifests Himself to us in the flesh, in the Eucharist, and who manifests Himself to the world through us.

We may not be asked to shed our blood for the cause, or to suffer persecution as do the Assyrian Christians in Iraq today, but then again one never knows. We are called to put our Sinful Nature to death each day, to take up our cross and to follow Jesus who is our Life, not only by holy living, but also by each doing his part, so that the catholic gospel of the Reformation may be heard and believed by future generations. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Think of it! A King that puts on working clothes


I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. John 10:11

ARE there really seven billion people in the world as we are told? No one knows for sure, but whatever the number there is one thing we do know from the prophet Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each man to his own way.”

Do you wonder why the world is such a contrary place? Such a mess? Why it has resisted improvement for all of its history? Why today it is regressing instead progressing, and more rapidly than ever before thanks to technology? Do you ever ask yourself why it is so hard to get ahead? Why danger lies at every turn? Why it is easier to give in to temptation than to live as Christ’s holy people? It’s because there are seven billion people, each going his own way, each doing his own thing, each seeking his own good, each making his own particular contribution to the boiling cauldron of the world’s sin. What a world!

What makes matters even worse is that each of us wants to be his own shepherd, to lead himself away from the pain of the world, into green pastures and beside still waters of his own making! In order to achieve that end we employ all the wiles of sin. The chief fault is that we do not entrust our lives to God who judges justly, as Jesus did even in the face of suffering and death. We deceive others in order to gain advantage over them. When we are scorned we don’t suffer it patiently as Jesus did, but return evil for evil instead. Dear friends, this is the way of the world, the way of darkness, the way of death. It is the standard curriculum taught by the world’s catechism and there is only one dissenting example, our Lord Jesus Christ; one dissenting voice, that of the Good Shepherd.

Thankfully there is a remedy. All three of today’s Scripture lessons work together as a strong corrective admonishing and enabling us to resist the prevailing winds, and to follow the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us.

First we have the epistle lesson (1 Peter 2:18-25) which tells us how Jesus conquered sin and made it a power of the past. St. Peter says, “He bore our sins in His body on the tree.” The words “in His body," are words we can never hear too often. They remind us that the Christian faith is neither a philosophy to be contemplated, or an emotion to be experienced; nor is it merely a set of doctrines to be believed, or a way of life to be lived, though those are vital aspects of it. It is, rather, a tangible and sacramental religion focused on God who came to us in the flesh, in the person of His Son, to be our Shepherd and to lay down His life for the sheep.  Yet His was no ordinary death, the kind that all men die. Instead it was unique! One of a kind! The sinless Savior put Himself in harm’s way in order to redeem the sheep who love to stray, and we are those sheep. He suffered the penalty that we merit on account of our sins, and in so doing justified us before heaven’s court and made us heirs of the eternal kingdom.

The words, “on the tree” are also instructive. Whenever Scripture refers to the cross as the Tree it reminds us of sin’s origin when Adam rebelled against His Creator, ate the forbidden fruit, and made a decision that would change the course of history. It was not mainly Eve’s fault, though she was the first to fold. Scripture does not call sinful Flesh “the old Eve,” but “the old Adam.” That is because he was the divinely appointed bridegroom. He was the one whom God ordained to be the shepherd of earth’s earliest church, but he, too, quickly folded when the wolf, come in the form of a snake, made his deadly appearance, so it was only fitting that “he who by a tree once overcame,” -- that is the devil,-- “might likewise by a Tree be overcome.” God loves symmetry.

If this were not enough today’s Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16) reinforces the lesson in strong language, designed to shatter any notion of self-reliance in spiritual matters into fine dust. In these five memorable verses God uses the first person singular, “I” no less than seventeen times. He says, “I, I myself will search for my sheep...I will rescue them...I will gather them...I will bring them into their own land...I will feed them on the mountains of Israel...I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD...I will seek the lost...I will bring back the strayed...I will bind up the injured...I will strengthen the weak. Indeed, the Lord is our Shepherd, and we are the sheep whom He rescued.

However the crowning words for the second Sunday after Easter are the words of our Lord, also replete with the first person singular, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Dear Christians we make very poor shepherds; so does the devil, and so do the heroes whom the world praises so highly, and the institutions it relies upon so heavily. Only Jesus is the Good Shepherd, God’s Shepherd, who was given all authority in heaven and on earth to do what we can never do for ourselves: to atone for our sins, inspire us to live a new life even now, and to raise us up from the dead on the last day. All this is ours through Christ who shepherds us and strengthens us. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, October 26, 2015

Politicians and policies do not facilitate change; Jesus Christ does so if you want change, dust off the...


SO what was this Reformation business all about? Was it an "enlightenment," an emerging of reason and intellect? No, indeed. It was interpreted that way at one point in history, roughly from the time of Isaac Newton until around the time of the Civil War, but the Reformation was not about intellectual things. Those who see it that way have one eye closed and the other eye clouded. Even the historical philosopher, George Fr. Wilhelm Hegel, completely misunderstood the Reformation because he looked at it in intellectual terms. Was it, then, a breakout of passions and nationalism, a great political event? No, indeed. It is true that there were opportunists during that age who used the religious confusion as an occasion for their ambition. Henry VIII of England comes to mind, but that was merely an unintended side-affect, one that returned to plague Christendom many times thereafter. Early twentieth century historians saw the Reformation in economic terms. That was because they saw all history that way, but we cannot reduce the Reformation like that. Perhaps the best picture I can give you of the Reformation is the title of today's sermon; consider the image of cobwebs on the crucifix, the result of a neglected Gospel.

The Apostle Paul died a millennium and a half before the Reformation, but he told us what it was all about. Paul was an orator. He could have made his living lecturing on philosophy with the brilliance of a Pericles, but Paul was not an ambassador for himself. He was thoroughly loyal to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the Nations, so he does not direct our attention to the Grove of Academos, neither to Imperial Rome, nor to the counting-houses and museums of Alexandria.  Instead, he points us to Calvary, a small hill outside of Jerusalem. He points to a historical fact, an act of passionate hatred, permitted by an apathetic authority, to indescribable suffering and innocent death, that is, to the crucifixion of Jesus. That is whither our crucifix points as well, and the Reformation was a great crucifix in the midst of church history. Here where our building bears the name of Christ, and our denomination points us to Luther, we point to the cross as well. In Luther's day cobwebs had grown on the crucifix, the Gospel was getting covered up by them. Luther's aim was to sweep those cobwebs away.

We don't have to go very far to find hatred and apathy. The world deals in those constantly. But it has no use for Christ and Him crucified. One would think that the church should be an exception to this. If you know where to look, you can find faithful witnesses, but they are not in the majority, not even in Lutheranism. Instead one finds clergy who are far more concerned with public policy than with the kingdom of God. Let me give you a personal example. For many years I taught children church history. When I tried to teach them about Luther, all too often they had the notion that I was talking about Martin Luther King. Adding that surname changes everything. That latter-day Luther hardly ever mentioned Jesus or the way of salvation. He devoted his ministry - he called it that - to changing public policy, diverting the flock of Christ to a utopian earth instead of leading them to heaven. The original Luther directed his people to the cross, where Jesus said It is finished. When Jesus said that, He was letting us know that the kingdom of God was built. We do not have to build it. Yes, the original Luther did write a few things about public policy, but 95% of his work concerned the way of salvation, leading people to Word and Sacraments. Luther always lifted high the crucifix. No cobwebs could grow on it while he held it.

No one can live without Christ. Neither we, nor our friends and neighbors, nor our scattered families. Earth will never be paradise. No public policy can change the human heart. Christ alone cleanses the soul from sin. That is a short sentence, but it says so much. If your soul is cleansed, then you are reconciled to God. If your soul is cleansed, then your conscience is at peace. If your soul is cleansed, then no earthly misery, no violence of the worst terrorists, no personal disappointment or unfulfilled dreams, no economic ruin, neither grief, nor sickness can take the peace of God from you. Jesus said Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all things shall be yours as well. He did not instruct us to build the kingdom of God. There was nothing wrong with the one He built; it is that one we should seek. That is why Paul was determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is why the church must put aside any nostrum it might have for solving this or that problem. The church has God's Word and Sacraments that lead us to the cross. So among our generation, let us know only Christ crucified!

Even as I say this a problem arises which Luther did not have to face. Today when we preach Christ crucified we cannot assume that everyone will know that we also mean Christ risen from the dead. Today we must be explicit about the resurrection. We do not preach a dead Jesus. We preach a Jesus who died, not a Jesus who is dead. We proclaim Jesus who was dead, but is risen and alive now. He is still God Incarnate. That did not end, neither will it ever end. He assumed our manhood and will never give it up. Jesus is still the Second Adam who resisted temptation. He did not eat of the Tree of Life for Himself, but submitted meekly to the ancient verdict, Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return. He did not have to do that, but freely offered Himself in love. To preach a Savior who is still dead makes no sense at all. God will be just and right. If Jesus did not rise, then He was a sinner, whose death was for His own sins and not for ours. If He died for His own sins, then His soul is in hell, and everyone who was ever born will be in hell with Him. So we preach Christ crucified and risen, no matter how much the devil tries to silence that message, no matter how much he distracts us with false preachers like King, who let cobwebs grow on the crucifix while they call people to political action. Today we remind ourselves to thank God that He cares enough about His church to reform it, that the Reformation of Luther's time will not be in vain, rather, that our generation proclaims the Gospel of God's grace through Christ crucified … and risen. AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Friday, October 23, 2015

How can we be sure of the resurrection?


And Jesus said to them, "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age, and to the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, sons of the resurrection." Luke 20:34-36

Almighty God, we beseech Thee, show Thy mercy unto Thy humble servants, that we who put no trust in our own merits may not be dealt with after the severity of Thy judgment, but according to Thy mercy; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen

THE best prayers are the ones where we first hear a word from God, and then pray that word back to Him.  We did that in today's Collect.  It is the proper order of Christian prayer for as Scripture says, "We love Him because He first loved us," and love us He does!

At first it may seem inelegant to begin a prayer the way our Collect does today, by calling out "Living God" without prologue or preamble, but what does the soul want more urgently than to be in league with its Redeemer and Creator?  What more than to be finished with the culture of death that marks this age, and to know "the fullness of God's grace," so that we might "lay hold of His promises" and live forever in the warmth of His love?  Those are the things the church prays for this day and the very things that God is granting us even now.

There is no question that God gives us His grace.  We are living proof of it.  We received the seed of immortality in baptism.  We are instructed by His Word, taught to process all of life through the lens of God's clear wisdom.  We are absolved of the sins that daily soil us and cling to us like barnacles, and we are given a new song to sing, the church's song, which is Christ.

Why does God do all this?  Very simply because that is who He is and what He does!  His chief attributes are mercy and pity as today's Collect states.  The Word He spoke to Moses still obtains, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.  I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey..."  Now as then God sees your affliction too, and sends His Holy Angel to deliver you daily.  He rescues you from death and the devil by the cross of His Son and brings you into His church.  It is a land flowing with milk and honey; milk to nourish your soul so that it is confident and glad, honey to sweeten every bitterness that sin and death inflict upon you in this present evil age.  While others run about seeking ever greater thrills...stimulations and intoxicants to make the pain go away, to assuage the fear of death, the terror of judgment...we rest like newborn babes in the gentle arms of the Father who begat us by the word of truth. 

By this same grace and kindness we are empowered to "lay hold of His promises," we seek in today's Collect.  Now a promise by its very nature is something to be delivered in the future.  It is a word spoken now about something yet to happen, and can only be accepted by faith.  We know that men make all sorts of promises, and that desperate people easily believe them, suffering one disappointment after another until they are willing to believe nothing.  A brief glance into the political arena or the nearest court room teaches us that men are untrue, but unlike men, God is faithful and never breaks His promises.  He gives us good hope and fine promises that, with Christ, we will overcome the world and attain the age to come. 

He assures us that we who were born spiritually dead, who inherited the sin of our parents, and who deserve to be condemned with the world because of our lineage and because of our own actual sins, are pardoned by the blood of Christ, and are in full possession of the gift of God, which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

He is the One who gives us salvation.  He is the one who makes us worthy by the remission of our sins.  He makes us immortal, equal to the angels, sons of God, sons of the resurrection.  That is the Christian faith's hope, but not only a future one.  It will be consummated in the future, true, but has already been inaugurated among us, and in two ways:

First, Christ is still factually present among us, not in human form any longer, but under the forms of bread and wine, in the water, in the Word, and in the holy office of the pastor who stands as His proxy, who acts as His ears in confession and as His tongue in absolution.  In this present evil age we are filled to the full with grace, mercy and peace that God tenders through Christ.

Secondly, let us never forget that along with this blessed status comes a corresponding manner of life.  St. Paul makes clear in today's epistle lesson that the heart established with grace must also be established in every good work and word.  For the hope to which we are called is not only an understanding of the heart, not only a set of rituals and prayers, but also a new life in and with Christ that wishes to serve its one master; not mammon, not the vomit of sin that dogs must always lick up, not the devil who is pure evil, or any false god or false way of life, but whoever has this hope seeks to purify himself even as God is pure.   We learn this better life from the law that once condemned us to death, but now that we are cleared from our every transgression by Christ, who kept the law for us, who died to pay its penalty, it becomes our guide to teach us godly living, a wholesome and blessed manner of life.  May we give our full time and attention then to every good work and word, and to Christ Jesus who is the Living God, the Lord of Life.  Amen

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, October 19, 2015

How does your garden grow?


Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth and all that is in it.  Yet the LORD set His heart in love on your fathers, and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as is the case this day.  Deuteronomy 10:14-15

WHEN God created the heavens and the earth He was constructing the grandest cathedral of all, one He would fill with wondrous beings and finally with a creature that He made from the dust of the ground so that one day even the dust itself might be exalted.  That is what the pristine world was, the universe's most spectacular cathedral, with the Lamb on the cathedra.  The tent in the wilderness, the Jerusalem temple, and every man-made sanctuary that has ever taken your breath away, are but mimics of the heaven of heavens.

For light there was a myriad army of stellar bodies.  Of color, no limit at all, even as we begin to perceive whenever we glance at the autumn sky.  For decoration, milky galaxies so varied and numberless as to send tingles up and down the spine.  And there was music!  The Lord God  made music and angelic choirs of which the grandest earthly choruses are but feeble imitations.

In Genesis we read that:  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  That phrase "heavens and earth" is repeated so often in Scripture that it leads us to believe that of all the things God fashioned, this planet stands alone as most precious and priceless of all!  There may be more noble and resourceful out there, but none more dear, and in all the earth there was no locale more sacred than the Garden called Eden.

In this garden God made a man from the dust of the ground.  It reminds us of the Lord's Sabbath miracle when He mixed His own saliva with dust and made mud to repair the eyes of a man that had been blind from birth, but Adam was not a mere dusty creature because the Lord God blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.  Of earthly origin yes, but also of divine breath.  You are the same: a dusty creature that is imbued with the breath of the living and everlasting God.  No other creature can make this boast and you are of infinitely more worth than the birds of the air.

He did not only make this man, but the Lord God also chose this man to be his son as we read in St. Luke 3:38  "Adam the son of God," and from his opened side the Lord God formed the woman whose creation pointed to the church:  the church that would be formed out of the Lord's own side when a spear opened it, when the blood that IS the New Testament received in the sacrament, and the water that sanctifies baptism left him and fell to the ground to make it alive again.

If the universe was the cathedral, then Eden was the chancel, the holy of holies where life was beautiful all the time, the place where God talked with our first parents in face to face fellowship, sustaining them by His Word and by the Tree of Life.  

But all was not well in paradise!

We don't really know what happened in the war that took place in heaven before the world's creation.  We have hints in Scripture and we do well to put the pieces together if we can, if we are careful, if we do not get too dogmatic.  After all, the clues are not there for nothing.  God knows that creatures made "like Him" love to ferret out mysteries and what greater mystery is there than theology, the study of God, the pursuit known as the Queen of the Sciences?

We know that Lucifer, whose name means Light Bearer, rebelled against God and took a certain number of angels with him.  We might imagine that he was not happy with the Almighty's decision to make this new creature called Man, even if he was "a little lower than the angels."  Perhaps Lucifer did not know, or more likely did not believe, that ever-enduring mercy of God was big enough to care for the angels and for this new creature made "in His own image."  We don't know many details except that his sin was pride and that Jesus, "saw Satan fall out of heaven like lightning," but we do know the result:  that God allowed the snake to enter the garden where he carried out his plan to corrupt God's good creation, and did so.

Yet we must not imagine that God is weak, because from the foundation of the world, the Lord God check-mated the snake.  He planted the Tree of Life in the Garden as a sacrament of salvation, one that pointed to the cross, by which He would redeem His fallen but beloved creation.  You are that creation, redeemed by God through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  you, along with the Corinthians, are the ones St. Paul has in mind when he writes in today's epistle lesson:  God is faithful, by whom you were called into the communion of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Indeed, as life was lost in a garden, it was also regained in a garden because as we have said before, God's justice is always poetic.  Thus we read in John 19:41 "Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden!"  A garden there indeed!  With New Adam, raised from the dust of earth AS THE GARDENER!  For you see Mary had made no mistake at all on Resurrection morning when she supposed that Jesus was the Gardener.  

This Garden is planted in the church today and gives new life to sinners, life that can never be corrupted because the New Adam crushed the snake's head by His cross and resurrection.  Therefore we are now free to love the Lord our God who called us with our whole heart and soul and mind, and to love the neighbor He also redeemed as completely, and as well, as we love ourselves.  That love is made perfect at the altar!  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Is spiritual health purely meditative?


THIS morning we're going to meditate on a miracle. The word "miracle" is derived from the Latin word miraculum, which means "a little attention grabber." We are drawn to miracles because they are so rare, they are newsworthy. In the Bible there are three great clusters of miracles: Moses and the generation following him; Elijah and the generation following him; and the New Testament dealing with Jesus and the Apostles. Are there miracles outside of the Bible? Yes, but nearly all of them are from Church History, because the Church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. Jesus Himself is the Great Miracle, God become man, the wonder of wonders, so in John's Gospel we find God Incarnate walking about Jerusalem. He was obedient to the Law, therefore He "went up" to celebrate the Passover.

He came to the Pool of Bethesda, Aramaic for "house of mercy." In Hebrew it would be "Beth Chesed." This pool was surrounded by five porches to shelter from the elements all those who patiently waited around it. This pool was a place of hope. The porches were filled with sick and disabled people, those who had no medical solution for what ailed them. Hope brought them to the House of Mercy. God always remembered His covenant with the people of Israel. He did not leave Himself without witness, not only to His power but to His grace. At the House of Mercy, God sent an angel at certain seasons to stir up the water. Once it was moving, the first person to get in would be healed instantly. We have no idea what happened to that pool. After the destruction of Jerusalem, it was never rebuilt. It had served its highest purpose that day when Jesus stood beside it, for it provided a type of Holy Baptism, and led to the One who could truly make people whole. After that, God no longer used it.

On one of the porches Jesus found a disabled man who had been waiting for thirty-eight years to get into Bethesda Pool. Do the math in your head -- yes, he had been waiting there since before Jesus was born.   Now Jesus was an adult. He healed the disabled man without using the angel, without putting him into the pool. He merely asked the man, "Do you want to be healed?" Don't think the answer was necessarily obvious. There were those about the city who were content to live on the alms of their neighbors, for whom health would mean the dreadful prospect of having to work, but this man genuinely wanted health. He was outclassed by those less afflicted, so he had little chance of being the first one in. On that day, however, he gained the Savior's compassion. The Great Miracle performed a little miracle. Jesus was already committed to purchasing divine grace with His blood; here He directed that grace to this needy brother.

Who has never been sick? Certainly the experience is universal - in our world fevers burn, wounds become abscessed, headaches hurt. We are limited, and often humbled by our frailty, but sickness does not necessarily mean calamity. It can draw us away from the vanities we otherwise find so distracting. It can force us to pay attention to the eternal. It can cut through our arrogant self-confidence. It can hold up a mirror before us where we see a stranger and sojourner through this passing world. It can lead us to reflect that all is not right, in fact that the world itself is sick and disabled. It might even be terminal, an entrance to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That is one possibility. On the other hand, God might be sharpening our appreciation for what we have, so that when we recover we may be more thankful, and better stewards of what God has placed in our trust. What's more, there is a hell. Jesus warned that man to sin no more lest something worse happen to him. It seems out of place, doesn't it? But Jesus had to say that. Sickness and disability are symptoms of our lost spiritual condition. The dreadful consequence of sin is eternal damnation, which is far worse than thirty-eight years of disability.

God has provided for this! Just as He provided Bethesda for the physically ill, so He has provided the Better Bethesda, the Fountain of Life, for the regeneration and healing of mankind. As the pool in ancient Jerusalem applied God's grace to the body, so Holy Baptism applies His grace to the soul, washing it with the blood of Jesus Christ. Those who call Baptism a human work err badly. It is a commandment of the Lord, which becomes the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the real worker in this Sacrament. He alone can regenerate a sinner. Jesus is Himself the Fountain of Life, and in this Sacrament He meets people. Do not despise the physical means He uses. Remember if that sick man had not been seeking to get into that physical pool, he would never have met the Lord. He would have been crippled all his life. As the Church administers Holy Baptism today, Jesus heals the sickness of sin. It is for us to avail ourselves of what God has given us, not to despise it because we don't think it is spiritual enough.

The cross of Jesus opened the Fountain of Life and released its salutary flow. He alone took pain and death voluntarily. He was born without sin, but subject to death because He was fully human. As He descended into the pool of human misery, so He calls us to follow Him into the depths of sorrow and repentance, into the substitute death of Holy Baptism, and through it to a resurrection like His. Thus He makes us holy. We will have to wait until He returns for the general resurrection. Until that day, the Great Tribulation will continue on earth. For the sake of his chosen saints, God will shorten the days of the Tribulation. Finally, the trumpet will sound, the sleeping will awake, and the Holy Spirit will transform our bodies. Like the man by the pool, we cannot re-create or renew ourselves, but Jesus will come again and make us eternally whole. Then we will see why He is called the Firstborn from the dead, for all of His saints will be raised with Him. The evil will also be raised for punishment.

Baptism is not magic. It makes you a Christian, but it does not necessarily make you a good Christian. No, God has not placed any demands on you that you need to fulfill to merit eternal life, but as a bad Christian you are always taking the risk that your compromises with evil might some day cross the line and become irrevocable, but there is a Bethesda for you. Like the Prodigal, you can return to your Father's house, the Church, where your pastor lifts up the cross in preaching, where God through the pastor offers you Holy Absolution, where Jesus feeds you with His flesh and blood offered as the True Sacrifice for sins. The cure for sin is always the blood of Jesus. Neither do you have to race against the other sinners for it. There is plenty of mercy to go around. AMEN.

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

My Sister, are you looking for a hero? Put your faith where it can never be disappointed


Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

GREAT Faith can only be borne of a great Object worthy of belief. That’s what Jesus was for the Canaanite woman, and still is for us today! He, not the woman, is the true hero of this true story. But still we must give this woman her due. She stands shoulder to shoulder with the other great women of faith. First, Mary the mother of God who died a thousand deaths as she stood before the cross of her dying Son. This should be considered the greatest act of love and valor in history; and though we do not pray to the Virgin, we should think of her as the most blessed among women, and honor her by imitating her faith. Next is Mary the sister of Lazarus who, in deepest devotion, broke open the most expensive jar of fragrance in the house, poured it on the Lord’s feet, and dried then them with her hair in preparation for His imminent burial. Jesus says of this act, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her;” so it is. We must give these women their due, along with all Christian women of the ages who never stop praying for the Lord to have mercy on
their children. But as we do, let us never lose sight of Jesus who is the object of faith, and the hero of the story.

He said to the woman: I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but if that is the case what was He doing outside of Israel in Tyre, one of Israel’s most ancient and bitter foes? The answer is easy of course. He’s there because the love of Jesus embraces all people regardless of national origin or any other consideration, and He became Man in order to gain salvation for all, for Jew and Gentile alike. He is the hero of the story.

In verse twenty-two St. Matthew uses the attention marker that we must never overlook when reading Scripture, the word “behold.” By it he notes with great emphasis that a Canaanite woman, one who was born and bred in hostility towards her Jewish neighbors, recognizes Jesus as the mighty son of David, the One who is more powerful than even the demons. But how did she know this? Where did she learn it? Only one way dear Christians – the Lord’s power can never be concealed because the news is too Good, and His mercy too wonderful, and Jesus, in turn, knows that her faith is great not because of any inherent goodness in her, but because He is the focus of it.

Faith in the wrong object always ends in tears, but in this fallen world we are all too prone to believe in the wrong thing; to put our trust in money, progress, government, education the stars and in all manner of superstition besides, but this woman put her trust in no such thing. She had no doubt tried all the solutions available to save her beloved child: doctors, the ministrations of Canaanite religion, force, reason, tough-love, bribery, screaming and grounding but nothing worked. In Jesus she recognized an object worthy of her faith and because He knew the kind of faith that His pure love elicits, He felt free to stretch it, bend it, twist it and pummel it because He knew that it would not break.

Jesus is the hero of the story. He gave the faith, He is the object of it, and here He affirms it for what it is: Great! Not only this, but He also grants it what faith always obtains from God: the forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from death and the devil. By it her dear child is released from the bondage of satan, and this believing mother can once again sleep in peace. Both she and her daughter would spend the rest of their lives in thanksgiving, and their eternity singing with the church triumphant, “worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing…”

Yes, Jesus is the hero of this true story which teaches us several weighty lessons, primarily that there is no family without its problems. Some are so distressing that they consume us and even define us. Besides this we have all made beds of sin that we don’t want to lie in, and are given crosses we are certain will sift us finer than wheat. If this isn’t enough, the devil also delights in tormenting us and tempting us so that we might stop believing in Jesus and keep him company in his eternal misery, but we also learn here that Jesus is greater than the devil by orders of magnitude that tongue cannot tell, and that what He did for this woman and her dear daughter He will do for us still today. He will deliver us, strengthen and comfort us in all our trials and forever keep our faith in tact.

Let us also recall, again today, that this union we have with David’s Son comes through the channels He Himself established. In baptism He forgives us our sins and delivers from death and the devil. Those are its benefits that we learned as catechumens, and they still stand. They still stand and are further enhanced as the church gathers to hear God’s Word, receive the absolution, partake in the Blessed Sacrament, pray, praise and give thanks.

Now at this point Sinful Nature is likely to ask: What must we do to have faith like the Canaanite woman, and get an answer for all our prayers? There is nothing we can do. We can no more strengthen our faith than we can add a day to the span of our lives by being anxious. In God’s reality we are always recipients and nothing more. God provides us the means of grace and shows us what wonders they give, and the only thing we are capable of doing is to weaken our faith and put ourselves in harm’s way by staying away from God’s gifts. However as Jesus elicited the woman’s faith, the love of Christ compels us, too. He causes these wondrous gifts to call to us more loudly than all the ruckus the devil can raise to drown them out. Indeed, Jesus who is the hero of the story and the hero of our lives, says to us again today: Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, all who are sick with sin and harassed by satan, and I will give you rest. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, October 12, 2015

What is my self-worth worth?


For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  Luke 14:11

THIS word of God we hear today seizes us by the throat!  It exposes the core of our being; the person that resides beneath the self-delusions and self-promotions.  It leaves us naked before the eyes of our God and shows us for the self-aggrandizing narcissists that we are,  who always head for the best seat at the table and would not react well if asked to step down a notch.

You may be shocked to learn this about yourself.  You may have a thousand objections to Scripture's conclusions regarding the human heart; everyone does.  You might call forth endless anecdotes about your nobility, accomplishments, and about the glorious trek of human progress, but there is only one virtue that avails before God, and it is humility, as Jesus says.

Yes, you may be shocked at Scripture's assessment of you, but God is not.  He watched the Fall of Man take place in living color.  He looked on with a Father's broken heart as His beloved children spurned His love, stormed out of the family home like so many prodigal sons, and joined the snake in his mutiny.

Lucifer and his crew knew the consequences and made their choice, but Adam and Eve were innocents by comparison;  children enticed by a stranger who offered them candy and invited them to get into the car with him, which they did, and humanity has been paying the price ever since, dedicating its full time and attention to restoring its erstwhile glory.  Yet whatever people do to exalt always turns out to be too expensive, oppressive, dehumanizing, often bloody and always short-lived; never as satisfying as the travel posters make it out to be, and like movie popcorn never tastes as good as it smells, but is there any legitimate glory to be found for sinful men in a sin-filled world?  The Lord answers the question in today's gospel lesson:  "...whoever humbles himself will be exalted."  It is that simple, but still no man can attain it because we have no aptitude in such matters; no man except one man, that is, The Man Christ Jesus who emptied Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, and Who thereby stands as the One Mediator between God and man -- you are that man -- reconciled to God by faith in Jesus Christ.

It first happened for you in baptism.  By this sacrament you are born from above, born anew as the exalted creation of God.  God becomes your Father, Jesus your shepherd, and the Holy Spirit your constant companion who exalts your low desires and extinguishes passion's fire.  Baptism admits you to the church, not just to the building or the membership rolls, but to the church's sacred worship and that is the ultimate exaltation in the world, as far as the heavens are above the earth because in holy worship Jesus communes with His people and not us alone, but also the angels, archangels and the whole, entire, numberless, ubiquitous and glorified company of heaven as they worship Christ on the throne.  Slain yet alive, sacrificed yet resurrected, giving Himself to sinners in the bread and in the wine, lifting you up above the heavens to reign with Him as kings.  In this high and exalted event that takes place every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. earth time, all things are put into perspective for us.  Our sins are pardoned, our Spirit is restored and our future glory is again made plain.  The things that frighten and trouble us, cast against this scene are shown to be nothing more than the light and momentary burdens that St. Paul names them: not worthy to be compared to the glory that is about to be revealed in us.

Outside these walls we are confronted by sin, disappointment, failure, frustration, pain and death, but Jesus speaks to us tenderly in here and assures us that those things do not get the final word, but that He Himself, Who is the resurrection and life does, and that it will be a good word:  judgment on all who would harm us and blessed salvation for us.

Though Christian worship is of a piece, the church has always considered holy communion to be the climax where we humble ourselves before the Lord's throne and await the Lord's touch on bended knee, await His glorified body and life-giving blood to be placed upon our tongues and to course through our being, so that we should be raised up and made well by heaven's own medicine.

We are further exulted when we leave the altar and return to our God-given vocations where we daily drown the Old Man and practice the exalting virtues that St. Paul teaches us today.  He says:  I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  These are the virtues which exalt us all. 

Even more, we are exalted in a most unexpected way; by the humility of death.  We know that on the one hand, dying is the ultimate humility.  People like to talk about "death with dignity," but that is just sugar candy.  Death has always been ignominious, the ultimate humbling, because in death all that we are and know and do and plan vanishes like the morning dew.  Yet on the other hand it is the supreme exaltation because in the words of St Paul:  for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.  Or in the words of St. Bernard of Clairveaux in The Lutheran Hymnal #605, "Exalt O dust and ashes, the Lord shall be thy part, His only His forever, thou shalt be and thou art."

Jesus says:  Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  That being the case, let us close with this admonition from St Peter, the Lord's chief apostle, "Humble yourselves, therefore, beneath the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time."  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Friday, October 9, 2015

Turning our prayers of the heart from prayers of a sinful heart


And will not God vindicate His elect who cry to Him day and night?  Will He delay long?  For their sakes, I say to you, that He will vindicate them quickly.  Luke 18:7

IN today's Collect we pray that the Holy Spirit would govern and direct our hearts in all things.  It is a good and God-pleasing prayer, but one that Old Adam doesn't like very much, which is exactly why the church wrote it down, and regularly puts it on our lips, so that we would not be left to our own devices, each person praying as seems right in his own eyes.  For there are, you see, two versions of the Christian faith:  God's and the devil's.  The devil is too smart to try to tear us away from the faith.  He knows the power of the Spirit.  He knows how much we depend on it, and that it is our refuge and strength, so he goes to Plan B.  He creates a counterfeit version of it, one in which we are in control, not God, His Spirit or His Word.

In the false version, which seems to be the prevailing one, we are able to twist God's arm.  We are able to overpower Him with our persistence, just like the widow did the judge in today's parable.  In some circles they even refer to certain people as "prayer warriors," as if God were an unjust judge who needed to be wrestled to the ground, like Jacob tried to do to the Lord, instead of the Father of all mercies, and God of all comfort, who adopts us as His sons in holy Baptism.

What does Jesus mean when He says quickly?  He was talking about His suffering and death which would shortly take place, for the Lord's crucifixion is the Great Event by which God vindicates His people, and gives them victory over their enemies.  For our true enemies, you see, are not the many unjust judges of the world -- distressing though they be.  Neither are they the impossible circumstances that we live in: the illness, poverty, suffering, danger, injustice and insecurity -- agonizing though they be.  When St.Paul writes, "...for thy sake we are killed all the day long, we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered, " he is talking about us.

No.  Those terrible things are merely the symptoms of a world marked by sin.  It is not now, nor will it ever be, the utopia that many think it should.  Neither will these things stop happening until the world stops spinning.  It doesn't matter how many pink, or purple, or red ribbons we wear, or how many slogans we chant.  Behind all evil is something invisible to the human eye; something that internet campaigns, or even prayer campaigns, cannot fix: the power of hell, death and sin.  That is the battle that Jesus engaged on the cross; one so immense, that all of earth's endless and cruel wars combined do not even come close; a battle that the holy Son of God -- He who IS the life of the world -- fought to the death, and won the decisive victory for us, a fact that was made clear to all the world by his resurrection from the dead, and uninterrupted preaching of that joyful message to the ends of the earth.  Easter is God's declaration that death is dead and that the sin and devil which brought death into the world are now powerless to harm us.  They can still hurt us, but they cannot harm us.  They were conquered at Calvary and at the empty tomb.  This is how God vindicated His people.

We are those people elected by God, chosen by Him before the foundation of the world to be adopted as sons through Christ Jesus. He is the key, and not we ourselves.  Our salvation is not based on a flimsy decision that we made to follow Jesus.  No.  It is based, instead, on the choice and decision of God, who knew us before He formed us in the womb.  This is the meaning of the Lord's words, "you have not chosen me, I have chosen you."  And of St. Paul's words, "For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast."

But what about today?  Does the promise still hold true?  Does God still give victory to this people, and avenge their enemies quickly?  Yes!  Because we are made His people, by the new name given to us at baptism, we are now the beloved children of God, and one of the chief privileges of that sonship is to cry out "Abba, Father,"  That is to say we have an open line of communication with the One who, according to our Collect, is All Mighty and Ever Lasting.

Thankfully, when we call out to God we never get a busy signal, voice mail, or an endless menu option that drives us insane when we need Him the most.  Instead we call on Him day and night to pardon our sins, to right what is wrong, to fix what is broken, and to deliver us from evil whatever form it might happen to take at the moment.  "Ask and it shall be given you!"  There is nothing too big, "for with God nothing shall be impossible."  As we sing in the hymn, "Thou art coming to a king, large petitions with thee bring.  For His grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much." (TLH #459)

We can pray any time and any place, using the words that seem best at the moment, but we should take our cue from the prayers that the church teaches us in her catechism, liturgy and hymns, for they are the "sound words" that God gives us in Holy Scripture.  We should read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, so that we might always learn to think aright and pray aright, not only with our spirit, but also with our mind; and we should never stop; not because we think that for our many words we will be heard, but because that's what children do when they are in need, and we are always in need!  They cry out to their good Father, who knows how to give good gifts to His children, Who will vindicate His elect, and do so quickly.  Come Lord Jesus!  Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Addressing the most common objections to hell and the doctrine of final judgment

This article came to me somehow and it is not signed, therefore it is published here without the author's permission. However I find the message to be well-written and so important that I took the liberty of sharing. If anyone reads and knows who the author is please contact me so that I can get the proper permissions and post the credit.

A man once came to me who was impeccably dressed and articulate. He had an MBA, was successful in the business world, and had lived in three countries before the age of thirty. He had been raised in a family with only the loosest connections to a Christian church -- he had little understanding of Christianity.

It was therefore gratifying to learn of his intense spiritual interest -- recently piqued as he listened to a recent sermon. He said he was ready to embrace the gospel, but there was a final obstacle for him.

"You have said that if we do not believe in Jesus Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I am sorry, but I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they do not believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with that of a loving God -- even if He is holy, too."

This young man expressed what may be the main objection contemporary secular people make to the Christian message. (A close second is the problem of suffering and evil.) Many people today reject the idea of final judgment and hell.

So, it is tempting to avoid such topics in our teaching, but neglecting the unpleasant doctrines of the historic faith will bring about serious negative consequences. There is a balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed.

If an area is rid of its predatory or undesireable animals, the balance of that environment may be so upset that the desirable plants and animals are lost, through over breeding with a limited food supply. The nasty predator that was eliminated actually kept in balance the number of other animals and plants necessary to that particular ecosystem. In the same way, if we play down "bad" or harsh doctrines within the Biblical Christian faith, we will find, to our shock, that we have gutted all our pleasant and comfortable beliefs too.

The loss of the doctrine of hell and judgment and the holiness of God does irreparable damage to our deepest comforts -- our understanding of God's grace and love and our human dignity and value to him. To proclaim the good news, we must also proclaim the bad. But in this age of tolerance, how?

How to Proclaim Hell to Traditionalists

Before expounding on the subject of hell, one must recognize that today, a congregation is made up of two groups: traditionals and postmoderns. The two hear the message of hell completely differently.

People from traditional cultures and mindsets tend to have (1) a belief in God and (2) a strong sense of moral absolutes and the obligation to be good. These people tend to be older, from strong Catholic or religious Jewish backgrounds, from conservative evangelical/Pentecostal backgrounds, from the southern U.S., and first-generation immigrants from non-European countries.

The way to show traditional persons their need for the gospel is by saying, "Your sin separates you from God! You cannot be righteous enough for Him." Imperfection is the duty-worshiper's horror. Traditionalists are motivated toward God by the idea of punishment in hell. They sense the seriousness of sin.

But traditionalists may respond to the gospel only out of fear of hell, unless they are shown that Jesus experienced not only pain in general on the cross but hell in particular. This must be held up until they are attracted to Christ for the beauty of the costly love of what He did. To the traditional person, hell must be preached as the only way to know how much Christ loved you.

Here is one way this might be done:

Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to His soul. When He cried out that His God had forsaken Him, He was experiencing hell itself.

If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you -- that hurts. If a good friend does the same -- the hurt is far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, saying, "I never want to see you again," that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous is any separation.

But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginning-less and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God, He went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. And He did it voluntarily, for us.

How to Preach Hell to Postmoderns

In contrast to the traditionalist, the postmodern person is hostile to the very idea of hell. People with more secular and postmodern mindsets tend to have (1) only a vague belief in the divine, if at all, and (2) little sense of moral absolutes, but rather a sense they need to be true to their dreams. They tend to be younger, from nominal Catholic or nonreligious Jewish backgrounds, from liberal mainline Protestant backgrounds, from the western and northeastern U.S., and Europeans.

When teaching hell to people of this mind set, one must make four arguments.

1. Sin is Slavery

Sin is not just breaking the rules but also as "making something besides God our ultimate value and worth." These good things, which become gods, will drive us relentlessly, enslaving us mentally and spiritually, even to hell forever if we let them.

We need to say: "You are actually being religious, though you do not know it -- you are trying to find salvation through worshipping things that end up controlling you in a destructive way." Slavery is the choice-worshiper's horror.

C.S. Lewis's depictions of hell are important for postmodern people, In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. There they are urged to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell. The descriptions Lewis makes of people in hell are so striking because we recognize the denial and self-delusion of substance addictions. When addicted to alcohol, we are miserable, but we blame others and pity ourselves; we do not take responsibility for our behavior or see the roots of our problem. Lewis wrote:

"Hell ... begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps even criticizing it ... You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine."

Modern people struggle with the idea of God's thinking up punishments to inflict on disobedient people. When sin is seen as slavery and hell is the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe, hell becomes much more comprehensible.

Here is an example of how this might be explained:

First, sin separates us from the presence of God (Isa. 59:2), Who is the source of all joy (Psalm 16:11), love, wisdom, or good thing of any sort (James 1:17) ...

Second, to understand hell we must understand sin as slavery. Romans 1:21-25 tells us that we were built to live for God supremely, but instead we live for love, work, achievement, or morality to give us meaning and worth. Thus every person, religious or not, is worshiping something -- idols, pseudo-saviors -- to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them) or anger (if someone blocks them from us) or fear (if they are threatened) or driveness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, and fear are like fire that destroys us. Sin is worshiping anything but Jesus -- and the wages of sin is slavery.

 Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the people on Lewis's bus from hell are enslaved because they freely chose to be. They would rather have their freedom (as they define it) than salvation. Their relentless delusion is that if they glorified God, they would lose their human greatness (Genesis 3:4-5), but their choice has really ruined their human greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, "the greatest monument to human freedom."

2. Hell is Less Exclusive Than So-Called Tolerance

Nothing is more characteristic of the modern mindset than the statement: "I think Christ is fine, but I believe a devout Muslim or Buddhist or even a good agnostic will certainly find God." A slightly different version is: "I do not think God would send a person who lives a good life to hell just for holding the wrong belief." This approach is seen as more inclusive.

In teaching about hell, we need to counter this argument:

The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then He owes us. The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we own Him (Romans 1:17). In short, to say a good person, not just Christians, can find God is to say good works are enough to find God.

You can believe that faith in Jesus is not necessary or you can belive that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once.

So the apparently inclusive approach is really quite exclusive. It says, "The good people can find God, and the bad people do not." But what about us moral failures? We are excluded.

The gospel says, "The people who know they are not good can find God, and the people who think they are good do not." Then what about non-Christians, all of whom must, by definition, believe their moral efforts help them reach God? They are excluded.

So both approaches are exclusive, but the gospel's is the more inclusive exclusivity. It says joyfully, "It does not matter who you are or what you have done. It does not matter if you have been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ Jesus."

3.  Christianity's View of Hell is More Personal Than the Alternative View

Fairly often, people say, "I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I do not believe in Jesus Christ at all."

"Why not?" one asks.

They reply, "My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering for sin."

But then a question remains: "What did it cost this kind of God to love us and embrace us? What did He endure in order to receive us? Where did this God agonize, cry out? Where were His nails and thorns?"

The only answer is: "I don't think that was necessary."

How ironic. In our effort to make God more loving, we have made God less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a God like this will be impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We would not sing to such a being, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

The postmodern "sensitive" approach to the subject of hell is actually impersonal. It says, "It does not matter if you believe in the person of Jesus Christ, as long as you follow His example."

But to say that is to say the essence of religion is intellectual and ethical -- not personal. If any good person can find God, then the essential core of religion is understanding and following the rules.

When teaching about hell, one needs to try to show how impersonal this view is: To say that any good person can find God is to create a religion without tears, without experience, without contact.

The gospel certainly is not less than the understanding of truths and principles, but it is infinitely more. The essence of salvation is knowing a Person (John 17:3). As with knowing any person, there is repenting and weeping and rejoicing and encountering. The gospel calls us to a wildly passionate, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ, and calls that "the core of true salvation."

Two points here: (1) Know who is part of the community of people where God has called you to witness and proclaim the Good News, and (2) Recognize that everyone in it will always need your appropriate input and support.

4. There is No Love Without Wrath

What rankles people is the idea of judgment and the wrath of God: "I cannot believe in a God Who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?"

So in teaching about hell, we must explain that a wrathless God cannot be a loving God. Here is how one might try to do that:

People ask, "What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?" But any loving person is often filled with wrath. In Hope Has Its Reasons, Becky Pippert writes, "Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it ... Anger isn't the opposite of love; hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference."

Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, "Human love here offeres a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor."

She conludes, "If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone's condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God's wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being."

A God Like This

After one teaching session on hell, the group began discussing what had been presented. An older businesswoman said, "Well, I'm not much of a churchgoer, and I'm in some shock now. I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me."

Then a mature Christian made a connection with a sermon on Jesus at Lazarus' tomb in John 11. "The text tells us that Jesus wept," he said, "yet He was also extremely angry at evil. That helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping loving God -- He is both. He does not ony judge evil, but He also takes the hell and judgment Himself for us on the cross."

The second woman nodded, "Yes. I always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I did not know it also told me about how much He was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus' love. It is very moving."

It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.