Monday, February 29, 2016

There may come a day when you won't be ABLE to confess


And He was expelling a demon that was mute, and when the demon was put out the mute man spoke, and the crowds marveled.  Luke 11:14

THE Lord was on a roll that day.  Not only did He send the demons packing, but by His sharp debate He also gives His church vital information about the invisible enemy and how he operates, and to be forewarned is to be fore-armed.

What we learn above all, however, is that Jesus is the Finger of God who came to conquer the devil, came to evict the demons who, like so many squatters, infiltrate the lives of God's noblest creation in order to drag us down with them, to give us a share in their gloom, because what they say is true, that misery loves company.

The demon we encounter in today's gospel had rendered his victim unable to speak, but what should we make of this?  Was the demon simply being mean, thinking up creative ways to make the man's  life difficult?  If so, he succeeded because it isn't an easy life to be mute, but this involves more than that, because demons rarely come into a life uninvited.

The man may have been a victim, but he might also have been a willing participant.  He may have given over the lofty gift of speech, the magnificent ability that distinguishes us from all other creatures and makes us "like God," to the service of sin and of Satan.

It is easy enough to do.  St. James says that the tongue is a world of unrighteousness that sets the entire course of life on fire.  Consider the tongue of one false witness, Dorian Johnson of Ferguson, MO, who by his lying tongue, "hands up don't shoot,"  set the world on fire just as St. James predicts, so St. Paul urgently warns Christ's holy people, "don't give the devil an opportunity."  Said another way: don't dance with the devil because if you do, he will stop on your toes.

Why might we think that this man contributed to his own fall?  because in Scripture silence equals guilt.  St. Paul writes in Romans 3:19, "Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God."

In Isaiah 53 the prophet says of the Lord's passion, "He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth."   He highlights the Lord's silence because Jesus, "who knew no sin, became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."

The man not only would not speak, but could not speak.  His tongue had been tied by a bona fide member of the Hell's Angels.  He could not confess his sins if he wanted to, but you can!  He could not call on the Lord for mercy if he wanted to, but you can!  He could not pray, praise or give thanks for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, but you can, so don't ever stop!

However this demon was about to have a very bad day.  He was about to meet Jesus who came to atone for the sins of our tongues and to evict the demons that make our lives a living hell.  He came to free us from the power of Satan so that, like Israel released from Pharaoh's bondage, we could praise and glorify the One True God, just as we are doing at this very time.

In the gift of holy baptism, our lives were swept clean.  In it we renounced the devil, all his wicked works, all his wicked ways, and we confessed the faith of the Apostle's Creed; faith in God the Father the maker of heaven and earth, faith in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who lived, died, and rose again in order to save us from sin, death and the devil, faith in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the sacrament of holy communion, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  That is to say faith in all the promises of God for they all became our inheritance at baptism.

In holy baptism, God, "delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins," so let us be sober and let us be vigilant!  Let us utilize all the weapons of spiritual warfare the church puts in our hands, the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, and having had our houses swept clean by God's Spirit, let us keep them clean and give no place to the devil in our lives.  To lift just one exhortation from today's epistle lesson:  "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk, nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving."  Or said another way, let us use our tongues to the end for which they were given us, not to talk trash, but to give thanks which in Christian parlance does not only mean to offer songs of thankfulness and praise, but also to celebrate the sacrament of thanksgiving, to receive the heavenly food with tongues untied by the Finger of God, for it is the very body and blood of Christ, given for us Christians to eat and to drink, given to irradiate the cancer of our sin, given to fill us with peace, joy, consolation, faith, hope and love.  Thus the church prays:  O Lord open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise."  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Is your daily bread junk food?


Behold the days are coming says the Lord God when I will send a famine on the land. Not a famine of bread, nor thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they will wander from sea to sea, and run to and fro from north to the east, and they shall seek for the Word of the Lord but shall not find it. Amos 8:11-12

A FEW WEEKS AGO we heard from Ezekiel who is Scripture’s most frightening prophet. Today we hear from Amos who is less alarming but only because his book is nine chapters to Ezekiel’s forty-eight.

Now Christians might wonder why we must be subjected to such a prophet. Why, if Christ redeemed those who are under the law, do we need to hear the Law at all? There is only one reason, dear Christians, because of the Old Adam in us who loves sin and hates God. Old Adam is incorrigible. He cannot be improved or reformed, but the only way to deal with him is to put him to death by daily repentance. Yes, we must hear the Law. If for some reason it were to cease, then sin would soon overtake us and bring us to ruin, so rather than shun the Law, let us gladly hear and learn it because it exposes our sin and prepares the way for the Gospel to make us whole.

Amos’s first word is Behold. By it he calls for Israel’s undivided attention because he sees a day on the horizon when God’s patience would run out; when He would severely judge His people for their unfaithful and immoral lives; a time when the time for talk would be over, a day when God would go silent! The only thing more frightening than God’s voice, is His silence. When God spoke at Sinai, Scripture informs us that the people trembled with fear. They implored Moses: you tell us what God says, but do not let Him talk to us lest we should die. But if God’s voice is alarming His silence is deafening! Deadening! Amos warns his feckless and reckless nation that when God goes silent then destruction will begin. His Word will be withdrawn, the temple will crumble, the earth will return to the void from which it came and darkness will once again cover the face of the deep. Nevertheless, Israel kept sinning.

Is God’s Word really so vital to our well-being that men cannot live without it? Don’t ever doubt it, Dear Christians. It is the source and sustenance of our lives. By it God created all things and sanctifies all things. By the Word made flesh He redeemed us from death. By the preached and sacramental Word He provides us with ongoing remission of our sins, the resurrection of the body, and the matchless gift of life everlasting. Still Amos’ people would not hear it, so God destroyed them all.

A similar situation has occurred in our generation. The church is in shambles today. People starve for a true Word but none is forthcoming. They thirst for a pure message but remain unquenched. It’s not that there is a shortage of Scripture. There are Bibles to be found everywhere: in churches, hotel rooms, hospital rooms, houses, drug houses, in cell phone apps and on the internet. The Bible is God’s Word. It is the spiritual food we need to sustain us for a life time. It diagnoses our true problem. It eradicates our sin. It empowers us to live holy lives and promises visions of wonder greater than St. Paul’s to all who believe. There is no shortage of Scripture, but there are precious few places where it is rightly understood or properly administered.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes: the pulpit leads the world.” But when the pulpit goes silent, when it churns out foolishness instead of the Law and the Gospel then chaos descends. God’s Word, which in a previous age taught virtue, which gave men a reason to live and a reason to die, has gone missing. Without its divine power we run to and fro making more and more regulations to replace the self-control that love once gave. We erect cameras in hopes of forcing good behavior, or if nothing else at least to pilfer a few more dollars from the unsuspecting. When you enter the city of East Cleveland there is a sign that warns, “Be careful, there are cameras everywhere.” Such a sign should be an affront to every Christian and insult to every American.

Now you may be wondering: is there any good news to be found in the Book of Amos? Yes. God’s Old Testament church faltered and failed and paid the price for her sins that Amos predicted. But all the things she suffered were not an end in themselves, but instead pointed to the greater reality that was fulfilled by our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the One who truly suffered for sin. He is the one on whom all of Amos’ curses fell when He was sacrificed on the altar of the cross. When He prayed: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me He received no answer, but suffered the silence of God in our stead, so that we might hear His never-ending benediction.

And there is another bright spot as well – God is still speaking, still calling, gathering enlightening and sanctifying sinners everywhere, inviting us one and all to come to Calvary’s holy mountain and to drink the sweet wine that flows from it, to find forgiveness in Christ, and to have our fortunes restored by Him. Even now when it appears that a severe spiritual famine has descended upon our land and upon our Lutheran church, the seed is still sown and still received in good and honest hearts. There are still places of plenty, Oases where the water of life can be had until we want no more. By God’s grace we still have His Word, His Sacraments and the sacred ordinances of His house. These are the green pastures, and still waters that the Psalm speaks of and we have them in rich supply, so much so, that we can rightly say with King David: my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Have you had a bad day?

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Suppose you have had a terrible day at work.  Everything you tried to do was wrong, no matter how conscientious you were about it.  People were getting impatient.  When you tried to drive home, the traffic was all tied up.  You were stuck at a dead stop, so you turned on the radio, only to realize that you were right beside a power station.  All you could get was static.  If only you were in your quiet, comfortable home!  You could crawl into a corner and forget this day, but as you open the front door, there's a party going on.  Your son's football team won today, and they want you to celebrate with them.  Your harp has been on the willow tree for hours now.  Can you get it down for the family's sake?  Expand that a bit.  You look to your church for peace and quiet, but in the church there is a celebration.  In fact, we are celebrating the cross.  In the upside-down world of the Triune God, affliction is a cause for celebration.  We embrace every humiliation, savor every sacrifice, bless every bruise.  The secular world can only wonder in astonishment.  Could it be true?  Could being a Christian mean being happy about having a hard time?

There isn't anything delightful about the pain.  The good thing about afflictions is the special meaning they have for us.  We call such troubles the correction of the Almighty.  God disciplines His saints.  The ancient poet who gave us the Book of Job, quite probably the oldest book in the Bible, proclaims Happy is he whom God corrects, therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.   God tested Abraham by demanding his son as a burnt offering.  He tested Joseph by making him a slave and a prisoner before setting him over the Egyptians.  He permitted the Philistines to capture the Holy Ark.  Above all there is Job himself, who was anything but happy about what was going on.  Not only did he pour out the agony of his heart, he took God to task for it.  That was nervy of him, yet I think God must have been pleased by Job's honesty, as well as by his chutzpah.  The words in our text were spoken by Eliphaz, one of the three friends, urging him to find comfort in the divine reproof.

Let's review the story of this remarkable man of very ancient times.  We see Satan, so at the very beginning we have a character who cannot stand to see anyone who is both godly and happy.  He interrupts our walk with God at every point.  He wants to make us ungodly, or unhappy, or if possible both.  God obviously permits trouble.  He permits the hurricane kind of trouble, lonely orphans, runaway teens, drunken drivers, or the kind of violence we remember on this day.  We ask, Can the devil do anything he wants?  We are aware in some sense of catastrophes all over the world, but eventually it is our turn to suffer.  That's when the temptation comes to question God.  The devil wants us to doubt God's mercy, to turn our confidence away from Jesus, to make us angry, to weight us down with self-pity, to spur us into rebellion.  God permits this.  He permits the devil to make it look as though the real winners are the evil ones.

What God does not permit is for the devil to get inside of us.  He cannot join us in our flesh and blood the way God did.  He must keep his angelic form, and his angelic power, but he has nothing divine, and nothing human.  He has to remain outside.  The Bible assures us that Jesus is the Stronger One, yet Jesus was the One on the cross!  What happened here?  God had compassion on us,  so Jesus took our life upon Himself, as a baby, a child, an adolescent, a man.  We have crosses today because of His cross.  It has become the new Tree of Life.  Here we may eat and live, and that is the only way to life.  Technology can never bring us back to Eden, but Jesus is better than Eden.  Certainly He looked like a loser on the cross, but the Holy Spirit gives us special vision, the eyes of faith, to see that Satan is the real loser.  Jesus lays down His life, but takes it back by His own authority.  He can be both, the Suffering Servant and the once and future King.  He bears our griefs and carries our sorrows, but He also brings life.  His cross is the Tree of Life that counts, therefore the Cross is our true delight.

For a hundred and sixteen years we have gathered as a church, hearing the bells, the organ, the choir, the prayers spoken and sung.  For that same century plus we have had afflictions to bear to the glory of God.  We render the highest worship of all by our sorrow.  Job would sympathize.  He had served God all his life, but Satan pointed out that Job had profit-sharing built into his contract.  He had a large family, a huge ranch, flocks, herds, and caravans carrying his goods all over the Middle East.  Then came the correction.  In one day Job's world fell apart.  Shortly after came physical misery.  Soon Job was asking serious questions.  God permitted this.  He allowed the devil to drag Job into the depths to purify him.  

Notice, Job did not go looking for trouble.  Neither do we.  We don't have to, because if we are faithful trouble will come to us.  Jesus is definitely in charge, and He will let us suffer whatever He thinks we can handle.  Consider the widow in the Gospel.  Her son was being carried to the cemetery.  Jesus timed His arrival at the town just as the funeral was passing through the gate.  In front of all those Jewish people who knew the story of Elijah, Jesus did something very Elijah-like.  He gave the widow her son.  Just as it seemed life couldn't get any worse, the Lord turned her weeping into dancing.  Jesus is Lord over death.  He raised others, and He raised Himself.  The correction of the Almighty, however hard, is never the last word.  It is preparation to turn to the One who first says Weep not, and then, Arise!  God never casts off those who humbly seek Him.  For Job it took extraordinary measures.  God came to him in a tornado and straightened him out.  In the end, Job had a stronger faith.  So Jesus also shares His sufferings with us.  He shares His death, but also His resurrection.  He brings down only to raise up.  He wounds but His hands heal.  When we have been corrected, what a delight it will be to stand before God as He intended us, to enjoy the wonderful things He designed for us, far better than the vanities our flesh would choose, but for the present we must trust Him.  Such compassion has certainly earned our trust!  His forgiveness is sure. He is worthy of our complete confidence.  Cleansed by His blood, we can humble ourselves under His mighty hand, for in due time He will exalt us.   AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Do you quit praying before God has answered you?


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

IN today's Collect we urgently call to the Lord to "defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul."  It is a tall order considering the many things that can go wrong, but our prayers are not the desperate plea of people who have no other hope, or of people who have exhausted every other avenue and decide they have nothing to lose if they "try God," as one bumper sticker suggests.  For Christians, nothing is more natural than to pray to the Father of all mercies who promises to defend us against all danger, and to guard and to protect us from all evil, no matter the odds against us.

Where do we obtain such certainty?  From God's Word of course.  Today especially from two of Scripture's well-known personages:  the patriarch Jacob, and the Canaanite woman.  Though separated by eighteen centuries they had much in common!  Both had enemies more powerful than they, both knew where to turn for help, both wrestled with God, and both received the answer they sought.  You are recipients of the same mercy.

Jacob had done very well for himself in the 20 years since he had double-crossed his brother Esau and fled for fear of his life.  He was blessed with a large family and with more wealth than one man could spend in a lifetime.  Now he earnestly desired to return to his ancestral home, but he was afraid; afraid because he knew that the moment he crossed the border he would meet his aggrieved brother, Esau who had vowed to kill Jacob.  Then Esau would claim all of Jacob's blessings as his own.  Jacob was afraid for his life, his future and for his family, so he prayed, but he did not just pray.  He also offered a sacrifice to the LORD, ate sacred bread, and called on the LORD to save him; and God did.  Yet as is often the case, God did things in a most unusual way.  He entered a wrestling match with Jacob, one that Jacob could not possibly win, but one none the less, that ended with great blessing because that is what God does!  The LORD gave Jacob a new name, Israel, even as he gives us today in holy baptism, and with that new name came the salvation that he needed.

Likewise, the Canaanite woman who, by her prayer, persistence and unwavering faith received the relief she sought for her dear daughter and left a legacy for Christians of every generation.  Consider her case if you will.  The Lord's disciples had no interest in her.  She was unclean, an embarrassment, a Gentile dog beyond the ambit of salvation, and unfit to eat the bread of angels, but she displayed more tenacity and faith than all the rest!  Like Jacob of old she wrestled with Jesus and would not let go until she obtained what was most important: the rescue of her dear daughter by the One who is mightier than the cold-blooded, vacant-eyed demons who deflower our children and rob them of their youth, their innocence and their future.

We should do the same, because the prayer we pray today for God to save us from the many adversaries that threaten us is one that He will always answer.  He answered it by sending his Son who came down from heaven to take the fight to the devil and fight to the death in order to release us from his thrall.  St. Peter writes, "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By His wounds you have been healed.  For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls."  So let us pray and never cease.

How do we do that?  We are doing it now.  Scripture says, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations."  You have come to God's house to pray, praise and give thanks, to gladly hear and learn God's Word; the divine Word that fortifies you to resist the devil and makes you bold to fight the good fight.  Here we have access to resources such as today's epistle lesson that warns us against sexual immorality, but why such warning?  Because the devil rarely comes uninvited.  We dangle our fingers in shark infested waters with every sin.  To open an internet porn site is to open a portal for the demons to come into your home.  The internet never forgets and neither do the demons.  To harden your conscience so that you can enjoy your sin then repent later, is to invite the demons in to play.  Repent.  Confess your sins, and God who is faithful and just will forgive your sins, and cleanse you from all unrighteousness, for God has not called us to uncleanness, but to holiness, and today is the day of salvation.

We are come not only to the Lord's house, but also to the Lord's Table where we feast on the crumbs of heaven and O what crumbs they are!  "The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?  The cup which we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ?"  Yes it is, and more besides.  It is the answer to all of your prayers, pardon for all of your wrongs, communion with the Living God, strength to live a holier life, the medicine of immortality, and the sure defense against the adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul.  Through Christ, by His Word and Sacrament, God grants you these blessings today.  Amen

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Do you feel like your prayers sort of stop at the ceiling?


Has the flock of Christ become worn and bedraggled?  Are the Lord’s sheep plodding ahead instead of frisking and gamboling?  Do we appear more like a funeral procession than a caravan of released hostages?  The problem could be that the coals of gratitude are cooling down.  If the coals are not burning, how can the incense rise?  Dr. Luther once said that the incense of prayer depended on the burning coals of gratitude.  Without those coals, prayer is sluggish, awkward, stumbling, but from a grateful heart, prayer ascends fein lustig. 

Interpreting that means like a puppy who has been inside for a week and suddenly gets loose outside.  In that mode one enjoys his prayers, and earnestly seeks their natural fruit in life.

For coals to burn they need to get air.  They can’t get air if they’re buried under layers of ashes.  So as we approach the mercy seat, as we seek God through prayer, we have some difficulty stoking the coals because our gratitude is buried.  Praise must come before prayer.  Praise is not only vocal thanksgiving, important as that is, but also the practical life of thanksgiving to Him who made us to be the firstfruits of redemption.  Just as He first called the Hebrews’ attention to His mighty acts on their behalf in bringing them out of Egypt before He gave them commandments, so today He assures us of our deliverance from sin and death first, then invites us to walk with Him.

Now just what are those layers of ashes that smother our gratitude?  The outermost layer, one which is very public and easily recognizable, is the popular mythology of our day.  We do not live in a Christian society.  We live in a society that is counter-Christian, turning Christmas and Easter into secular holidays, in fact, into occasions to misbehave rather than to remember the Lord.  In modern mythology the world is everything.  How can anyone be grateful to the world?  They thank technology, and all the systems that end in ism – those are substitutes for God, or they attribute their happiness to that demon they call progress.  What might that be?  It never tells you where it’s going, but it is in a dreadful hurry to get there.  You will hear someone say, "You must not stand in the way of progress."  What that means is some rich person has found a new way to steal something from some poor person, so he would appreciate it if you don’t interfere.  Once, in heaven, hell raised a revolution.  Now things are different.  In Christ, heaven has raised a revolution here in the midst of hell.  The Lord is our Shepherd, but He is leading us through the enemy’s back 40.  None of that progress is for us, it's too distracting.  Concentrate on the Good Shepherd’s staff.

The second layer of ash is more private.   It’s simply that we don’t look in the right places to find God’s blessings.  He could be sending showers, springs, and wells of water all around us, but we remain thankless because none of it is coming through our favorite pipe.  We say He didn’t answer us, even though the answers are all over the place; in fact you couldn’t help but look right at them.  Maybe things didn’t happen as quickly as you would like, or maybe the answer came when it was inconvenient to receive it.  Sometimes God waits until He’s downright interrupting to answer your prayers.  Nevertheless, He did answer.  Be thankful!

The third layer of ash is how we look at ourselves. Our society has taught us to make excuses for everything under the sun.  It teaches people to consider themselves victims rather than sinners.  We must use the word "sin."  Nothing else tells it the same way.  We need repentance rather than complaints.  If we see ourselves as sinners, we will thank the Redeemer who saved us with His blood.

During His ministry Jesus encountered all the layers of ashes we find in our lives.  He met the popular mythology in His disciple, Peter.  The common belief was that the Messiah would be a king, so when Jesus predicted His crucifixion Peter objected loudly.  All popular mythology, including progress and evolution, come from hell.  The Incarnation came from heaven.  The only progress Jesus was interested in was His inexorable approach to Calvary. 
Jesus also knew about people looking in the wrong place.  When Nathanael asked Philip "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he was affirming that he would never look there.  At the very time when Jesus was incarnate to be the Messiah there was a large group called the Herodians who believed that Herod was the Messiah.  At the same time there were Sadducees who denied that there would ever be a Messiah.  And there were Pharisees, who expected a Messiah, but not one that ate with tax collectors.  How sad, even as God was fulfilling His promises, people were looking everywhere else.  God was opening the Fountain of Life while they argued about who had the best canteen.

None of these setbacks had the last word.  Satan tried to keep Jesus from sacrificing Himself, but He roughly pushed him out of the way.  The sectarians of His day wanted a sign before they would listen to Him.  By rising from the dead the Lord gave them the sign of Jonah . When the disciples wondered who could be saved, Jesus understood their question.  So He told them plainly, "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible."  Because of sin we cannot save ourselves, but God has acted to save us.  That is the best reason to be grateful that anyone could ever have.

Unless you have a profound sense of sin you will never be grateful enough to pray persistently, effectively, thankfully.   The coals have to be burning for the incense to rise.  St. Paul had such a sense.   He knew what a sinner he was, and how greatly God had blessed him.  Only when he came to grips with those facts, and to be sure they are facts, can feelings come into it.  The facts are our personal facts.  They involve us.  Even if we merely read about them, they would still be deeply moving, but we actually live them.  This gratitude comes from people who are actually saved.  That’s us.   AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What do I do with all this time?


We read in the Bible that with the Lord a thousand years are as one day, and one day is as a thousand years.  Apparently in heaven there is fast time and slow time, if we can speak of time at all.  God, to be sure, sees as a canvas what we see as a movie, but even for the blessed there seems to be no standard measure that corresponds to the hour.  In our situation, time is constant, but it presents us with an illusion.  When we're enjoying ourselves it flies by, but when we're waiting, or suffering, the minutes seem like hours.  Many ancient peoples, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks, all thought of time as an endless circle.  Other ancient peoples saw time as a line, particularly the Persians.  For them each day and hour was unrepeatable.  Christians combine those views.  We see time as a phonograph record, spinning around but with a track that has a beginning and an end.   That definite end is Judgment Day.  Time will continue until God stops it with a bang.  We confess with Luther that this world is a "vale of tears," and at the end of it stands the Judgment, criticizing our every move, casting its threatening shadow over all the valley.  The seasons follow one another until that time, as God promised Noah, but time is a one way street.  We also learn from God's Word how time began, definitely not with a bang, as the pseudo-scientists would have us believe, but with precise well-planned moves.  Time and the earth are creatures that God made together, as He divided the light from the darkness, making it evening, then morning, throughout creation week.  Man, like time, is bound to the earth.  God gives us time as a gift.  We may use it, but we cannot stop it.  If it weren't for sin, time would be a great blessing, but sin brought death into time, and made us slaves to it.

As Christians we also know that time has a definite middle.  The center of history is the Incarnation of the Son of God.   Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word, Jehovah, Son of the Most High, came into the world in the middle of time to redeem us by dying on the cross.  From that mid-point of time He calls us to repentance, forgives our sins, and renews us by the Holy Spirit.  Therefore we have to look at both ends of time through the lens of its middle.  God has dealt with the Fall.  In Jesus He has taken away the fear of death and judgment.  He has not taken away frustration, poverty, pain, despair, and confusing situations, but today we see these as crosses to be carried with Jesus.  We have to go through them, unpleasant as they are, but we know there is a resurrection on the other side.  Pause a minute here:  we are indeed talking about the middle of time, but that is not predicting the date of the end.  We have no idea how many years elapsed between creation and redemption, neither do we know whether the redemption is the chronological middle.  Such predictions are vain.  The point is that within our history there is a before and after point, when Jesus died and rose again, He redeemed time for us.

So as we look at St. Paul's words, we must understand that Jesus has given us the stewardship of time, to use it for Him in grateful zeal.  Whether Judgment Day is in two days, or twenty thousand years, our stewardship of time is the same.  The people of Thessalonika knew the end was coming, so they all quit their jobs and sat around minding everybody else's business.  Thus St. Paul admonishes them, do not grow weary of doing good, appreciate that God has made you a steward of time, thank Him who made time and gave it to us, and also thank Him who placed His forgiveness into the middle of time to set us free from its tyranny.  You would think that would make us happy and confident, but for some reason it doesn't.  Instead we get nervous about time:  Change and decay in all around I see; Oh, Thou that changest not, abide with me.

There is something frightening about time.  Unless we look at it with the eyes of faith, we are going to draw back in fear.  Even though we know better, we find ourselves sulking and complaining instead of using our time wisely.  The earth and time are indeed temporary, but that does not make them unimportant.  We don't have to be afraid of these things.  They cannot drag us away from God.  Earth and time are the setting in which we do the will of God.  Of course there are evil elements: people prefer doing things the devil's way.  God wants His kingdom to displace Satan's system.  He urges us to take the Sword of the Spirit, the Word and Sacraments, to defeat the Old Adam.  With the shield of faith on our left hand, the sword of the spirit in our right, we can do good works, not as hired hands seeking a reward, but as sons and heirs of the heavenly household.  We will inherit all things in any case.  That confidence moves us to kindness, charity, wisdom, courage, honesty, loyalty, and the love of beauty.  Christ's death and resurrection assure us of eternal life.  Now we want to serve God with gladness.

There is something of an upstream swim about all this.  The world never stands still.  We are only human.  The cross is foreign to the Old Adam, and difficult for our weak flesh.  Such adversities make us want to stop and rest, or as St. Paul puts it, grow weary in well-doing.  The trouble is, whenever you rest, you slide backwards.  That's right, backwards is downstream, where we don't want to go.  Whenever the level of godliness sinks down, the level of wickedness rises to fill the vacuum.  Anyone who grows weary in well-doing, grows fond of evil-doing.  What can anyone do about it?

Turn to the Word of God.  Read the Sacred Scriptures.  Partake of the Holy Eucharist.  Confess your sins and receive Christ's own Absolution, who has all authority in heaven and earth.  Thus God speaks to your heart.   Answer back with prayer, especially praying for the Holy Spirit, for a stronger faith, for a view of things from the perspective of the middle of time, for the eternal blessings, and help meanwhile to bear the cross.  Because Jesus appeared for us in the middle of time, we can look back to the past with thanksgiving, and forward to the future with hope.  God was infinitely wise in giving us the gift of time.  By His grace, by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we can be eager to use it wisely.  That does not mean we will understand God's ways.  We don't need to.  Rather we enjoy His mercy and grace, thus filled with hope, constantly refreshed with the Fountain of Life, we will not grow weary of well-doing.   AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Friday, February 19, 2016

Follow your Heart

Sigmund Freud, whose theories have mostly been discredited today, claimed that people invented the idea of heaven because they wished that it existed.  He didn't know the difference between wishing and hoping.  We Christians do not wish for anything. We do hope, we look confidently for the city where our true citizenship lies, not so much the city itself but the King who rules there. With the Psalmist we sigh, As the deer pants for the streams, so my soul thirsts for the living God.  St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I desire to depart this life and be with Christ, which is far better.  Several centuries after Paul, St. Augustine wrote, My soul finds no rest until it rest in Thee.   God has implanted a homing device in the human heart.  It is like a motor that drives us to find God.  This is what we mean by A Street Named Desire.

The enemy of God and man has confused things by building some streets of his own.  These intersect the main road at many points, distracting us to the right or to the left.  Jesus told a parable about the rich man who turned down one of these streets and lost his soul in vanities.  No longer did he thirst after life, but was satisfied with the saltwater of wealth.  That is more of an adult temptation, but it happens to the young in different ways.  School children are often drawn away by the temptation to become members of the school aristocracy.  To gain entrance to this "in group," they have to have the right clothes, the right friends, the right dates, the right cd's.  They even have to do poorly in those subjects in which "geeks do well." What is the prize?  The passing vanity of being in this group.  If this sounds like high school to you, believe me it starts much earlier.  They do what they must to climb that ladder.  They abandon children who have been their friends for years because they aren't the "right friends."  They deceive their parents who try to put common sense into them.  They say things that they know they shouldn't say.  But this comes from the enemy.  The genuine "in group" is with God, who is not down this side street.

Adults do a similar thing.  They want to be part of the office aristocracy, the faculty aristocracy, the hospital aristocracy, or even the coffee break pecking order.  It happens in service clubs and lodges, in politics, and also in Christian congregations and denominational headquarters.  Most adults are too sophisticated to adopt high school tactics, but the lures are there: stress management, sensitivity, or the archdemon of our age, self-esteem.   Perhaps these are most severe in the middle management sector, but they lurk to some degree in every career environment.  Do you want self-esteem?  It is waiting for you in your Father's house.  Any other esteem is a counterfeit, an idol, a substitute for the real thing.  We must long for our Fatherland, where Christ is our esteem.  That is no vain wish.  That is the reality of Him who conquered death.  Those who introduce ideas from oriental religions would have us believe that desire itself is evil.  I assure you it is not. It is the little motor God put into us to drive us to Himself.  The problem is it seeks its own good instead of the one God intended.

If you dodge all of those side streets, there is one more which is even more deceitful.  This one tempts us to be part of the celestial aristocracy.  We may be left out of the best parties down here, but just wait until we cross the bar.  Then we'll be part of the everlasting "in group."  My dear spiritual fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, that is no good either.  The street named Desire may lead us over some difficult hills, but it is going the right way.  It's confusing to come to a fork where both roads are marked "heaven." One leads there for the right reason, the other for any number of wrong ones.  The only proper reason for wanting to go to heaven is to magnify the Lord.  All the rest is distraction.  In heaven there is honorable work and honorable rest.  Those who have been faithful over a little, Jesus sets over much.

The street named desire leads to heaven, but there is one huge river to cross, and the bridge is out.  Do not get into arguments about how many roads lead to God.  There are none.  Not any.  One led to Him once but the Fall caused it to collapse.  That is the unbridgeable river, sin, rebellion, unholiness.  Desire can take us up to the river, it can show us the other side, but it cannot get us there.  The only way we can cross is for Somebody from the other side to come get us.  It took the incarnation of the Son of God to bridge this river.  That is why we celebrate the Baby of Christmas, the Youth in the temple, the Carpenter coming to be baptized, the Prophet speaking on the Mount, the Healer moving through the streets of Capernaum, the Son of David riding on the donkey, and on Good Friday, the Outcast being tormented with the criminals.  How can that bleeding body be the object of our Desire?  If we stopped there we would have no answer,  but we must finish the story, consider the Risen Lord, the Victor over Satan, for He is the same as the Outcast.  Would He carry us across the river?  It doesn't look that way.  After forty days He went to heaven without us, but He is Himself the bridge. We can cross by faith, and He gave us the Church to build and nurture that faith.

So, you say, it seems impossible to get rid of the wrong reasons for wanting to go to heaven. Are we going to be permitted to enter with mixed motives?  Are we chiefly moved by the desire to escape damnation?  Are we lured by the idea of an enhanced self in more comfortable surroundings?  Yes, it is very confusing.  That's because the bridge is out.  Remember this: we are already involved in heaven now.  By being on God's side rather than the devil's, we are participating in our Fatherland.  If life is hard, if we have illness, poverty, adversity, disappointment, God does not fault you for wanting these trials to be over.  Remember, Jesus was glad to say "It is finished."  His torment ended at that time.  Ours will end when we depart this life.  Remember also, Jesus is coming back to this earth.  Martha wanted the resurrection to come so she could see Lazarus again.  Jesus didn't say she was wrong.  Desire is a gift of God.  Desire leads along the road to God as far as any roads will take us.  Pagan pantheists will tell you that it is bad, but it is only the devil's side streets that are bad.  Desire can at least lead you up to the river.  Then Jesus calls you with the voice that wakes the dead, that summoned the historical Lazarus to His side even though He had been dead for three days.  That same voice summons you across the bridge of faith, transforming all that is bent in your desires and crowning them with eternal goodness. AMEN

Reverend Lloyd E. Gross

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Are we really sure we want to question what is fair?


And so the last shall be first and the first last. Mt. 20:16

It’s almost impossible to understand this parable today because modern culture has distorted the way things really work. It has turned everything upside down so that idle people are praised and rewarded, while those who earn their money through hard work and honest labor are looked at with suspicion and envy, but there are important lessons that we need to learn from it so we must untangle things as best we can.

How do things really work in this world? St. Paul sums it up like this, “if any man does not work, neither should he eat.” Or to use a modern adage, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Every time someone gets paid without working, someone else must work without getting paid and that is un-natural! It conflicts with the way things work in the fallen world and leads to all kinds of misery.

The Lord’s hearers understood this very well, they knew that much labor brought much pay, and that little labor brought little pay. But if that is the case, what was the owner of the vineyard thinking with his harebrained scheme to pay the same wage to those who worked for an hour as those who worked for the whole day? Didn’t he know that he was opening Pandora’s Box? Didn’t he know that you cannot challenge the laws of economics anymore than you can the laws of gravity? However the story is just that, a story, a parable. It never really happened, but our Lord uses it to enlighten us on how things work in the divine economy.

We need to be so enlightened by Jesus because without his instruction we can never understand life’s most profound and far-reaching truths. That’s because sin has blinded us and clouded our judgment, so that apart from the bright light of God’s Word we can understand nothing of Him, but must idle away our lives in the market place of sin from here to eternity. Therefore the parable imparts several important lessons to us.

First, that we cannot do business with God. The last words of Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion who died in 483 b.c. were this, “Work hard to gain your own salvation.” But we must not think like that. We must never think that we can deal with God the way we transact with other men – quid pro quo, something given for something received. God doesn’t operate that way. This is what the parable teaches us. Instead He chooses to be gracious and merciful, and to deal with us in steadfast love, not counting our sins against us or repaying us for our many offenses. Rather, He justifies us by Christ, makes us righteous in His sight, and showers us with every imaginable blessing.

Above all the parable affirms for us once again that God is Good! He is Good and that He has expressed His goodness by the death of Jesus on the cross. By giving His Son, who is the Firstborn of Creation and Firstborn of the Virgin to humble Himself and make Himself last, in order to accomplish a singular and sacred mission – that of collecting the collective wages of our sin, taking them to the cross, to the grave, and giving us His righteousness in exchange. We learn here that Jesus who is the Alpha made Himself the Omega for us, and that we who are last on account of our sins, are made first in righteousness, innocence and blessedness by His blood. Not only has God saved us in this manner, but He also chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and called us by the Gospel so that today we find ourselves as laborers in the vineyard of grace and full-fledged citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We also learn, by the vineyard owner's many trips into the market place even up to the eleventh hour, that God never stops calling sinners to Himself, that He unremittingly pours out His grace upon the whole earth and upon all men, earnestly desiring for all to be saved, to turn from the idleness of their sin, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

This brings up another important lesson: that we need not work ourselves into an evangelistic frenzy, or think that by our clever efforts we can grow the church, save her from extinction or populate the Kingdom of Heaven. We are not the masters of the vineyard, God is, and His Spirit is the one in charge of calling sinners from death into life, but there is work for us to do both collectively and individually. However, because of all the confusion that surrounds this matter let us proceed carefully.

First we should know that God commissions His church as a whole to gather every week in order to hear the gospel and receive the sacraments. He does this not only for the benefit of His people, but also to provide an earthly temple for the Holy Spirit to gather those whom He calls, a place of grace where sinners are baptized, catechized, absolved and fed with Christ’s own flesh and blood for their daily blessing and eternal salvation.

As individual Christians we also have a role in bringing people into the Kingdom of Heaven, but not the one that is so relentlessly urged upon us. It is not our job to knock on doors or attend evangelism seminars where we learn techniques to close the deal, and to convert people to Christ. Instead every Christian is charged by the Lord to, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.” We are encouraged and yes even compelled by the love of Christ to run the race that is set before us as if we mean to win it; to subdue the Flesh and to live holy and godly lives in this present age. These are the things that speak louder than words, and make the love of God attractive to others. These are the labors of love that mark those who have been graciously called into God’s vineyard.

And now may Christ, who put Himself last in order to put us first, make us steadfast and immoveable in our calling, knowing that our labor in the Lord is never in vain. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Are you trying to fight spirits with physical strength?


"It is written."  Matthew 4:4

THE 40 days of Lent are observed in memory of the 40 days that our Lord spent in the wilderness fasting, praying and overcoming the temptations of Satan for us.  His time there was a microcosm of humanity ejected from Paradise as the punishment for sin, and living in the wilderness of the world.  There are many warnings today about things that are "harmful to your health," but what they fail to say is that living in the world is "harmful to your health," and that no one makes it out alive.

The planet, for all its beauty and charm, is out to get you, to "bring you back down to earth," as it were, to return you to the dust from which you came.  It is angry with you, even jealous perhaps, in a poetic kind of way.  If it could speak it might say, "Who do you think you are, O man, to rise up from the dust and receive into your nostrils the breath of life from the Lord God, and to become a living soul?"  Like Nikita Khrushchev of old the dust cries out, "We will bury you," but as the redeemed of Christ we "tremble not, we fear no ill," because we believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Not only is the inhospitable planet against us, but so is the one who Jesus calls, "the Prince of this world," and who St. Paul names, "the Prince of the power of the air."  St. John of Damascus, the last of the "early church fathers" speculates that in calling Satan a Prince neither the Lord nor St. Paul were engaging in figurative speech, but instead that Satan, before he fell, when he was still Lucifer the angel of light, was given charge of this world by God to be its guardian angel.  Again, this is before he fell.  He did fall.  He did rebel, and Scripture indicates in Revelation 12:4 that he took one third of God's angels with him in his mutiny, and that further, in order to take revenge on God who now excluded him from paradise, who now cursed him with eternal darkness, he turned against God's children and set out to corrupt them, which he did!

Eve was no match for the snake who  must have been as charming as he was crafty, perhaps even beautiful to behold.  A case of Satan appearing as an angel of light, to quote St. Paul.  In any case the Old Evil Foe made short work of Eve, who in turn made short work of Adam.  Now a redeemer was needed, because even in our rebellion, God did not despise His good creation, or leave us in the cruel ministrations of the one who, according to our Lord, "comes only to steal and to butcher and to destroy."  Instead our Lord says to Nicodemus that, "God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever should believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."  We are those people.

Yes, Jesus is the one Who God sent to crush the serpent's head and to free us from his tyranny, but we still live in the world, and what our Lord faced in the wilderness, we encounter every day of our lives, so we must stay spiritually strong and arm ourselves with what St. Paul calls "the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left," but what are those weapons, and how do we use them?

The weapon is the Word of God, because, you see, unlike earthly warfare, spiritual warfare is a war of words:  God's true words against the devil's lies.  This is how it happened in the Garden on that fateful day.  The Serpent engaged the woman in a conversation.  He wasn't there to talk about the weather, but to corrupt God's good creature by his lies.  This is why Jesus calls Satan, "the Father of Lies," and "A murderer from the beginning," because by his clever use of words, he deceived our first parents and caused them to fall under the curse that came with rebellion:  "The day you eat of it you will surely die."  Yet the death they were to die was a slow motion one.  The woman would suffer in childbirth, and after a lifetime of the labor and stress that accompany motherhood, and of sorrows that included her older son Cain, murdering her younger son Abel, she would breathe her last and return to the dust from which she came.  Adam likewise, after a lifetime of frustrating, back-breaking labor in a hostile world that produced nothing but thorns, would finally exhaust himself, breathe his last and return to the ground from which he came.

Eve did not have the words to win that war, but the LORD God did.  He came to the rescue, even as He comes to ours.  He cursed the Serpent, broke up the newly formed friendship he had struck with the woman, and He gave a golden promise:  that through her Offspring, meaning Christ Jesus our Lord, He would destroy the devil's power and redeem His beloved children.

Fast forward many centuries now -- we don't know how many -- and we find the Son of God engaged in a war of words with the prince of this world.  Satan too knows Scripture, we find, and can quote it, but like so many who quote the bible today, he does it for his own end, so beware of false prophets.  You will know them by their works, by their liturgy, their creeds, their doctrines, their sacraments and by the morality they teach.  It is in line with the faith once delivered unto the saints?  Is it in line with the catechism?

What our first parents could not do, our Lord handily did under the most contrary conditions possible.  Our Hero did not only win in the wilderness, but at their next match as well, on Calvary.  He did not talk His way out of crucifixion, come down from the cross, or in any way shrink from the death that gained our salvation.  Instead, even affixed to the cross, broken and bloody, in the worst imaginable agony, He fully trusted that God would deliver Him and raise Him from the dead, which He did, and which He will do for you, O beloved child of God.

What, then of our daily warfare with temptation, with the devil's siren song that the culture sings to us day and night?  As the hymn says "One little word can fell him."  What word?  The word of the Gospel, of course, the one we pray, sing, recite and confess in the Lord's House and on the Lord's Day:

"I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."
"Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the World."
"Take, eat.  This is my body."
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."
"The Kingdom ours remaineth."  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Taking a Closer Look at the Family of God

Mark 6:4-6

THIS Lenten season we are looking at the New Testament teaching concerning the family of God. We are talking about far more than just the extended family of Jesus, which historically was normal size. We are looking at the larger family which Jesus created through His loving words and actions.

The text shows us a picture of Jesus in His role as son to His Mother, brother to His siblings, and yet the Teacher and Master of all. Is that an impossible combination? It certainly led to some hard words on this occasion. We might wonder whether He cared about His earthly family at all. Was Jesus an unfaithful son? Before we answer that, let's get the question right. Was Jesus unfaithful because He spoke the truth? Wasn't it the more charitable of Him to point out that the members of His family were unbelievers? Would it have been better for Him to allow them to slide into hell unopposed? Look also at the people He affirmed on this occasion, the disciples, the town people around Him. Didn't He need to be a brother to those who followed Him? Didn't they need His support for their struggling faith? Wasn't He helping them by preferring their company to that of His family? Jesus was including in His family anyone who took the Gospel seriously.

Does charity begin at home? Yes, it does, but it must be true charity, not just telling people what they want to hear. When Jesus said, "A prophet is without honor in his own country," He was saying something we all have suspected. Sometimes church administrators have defined an "expert" as "someone who does what we do in another city." There were two reputations in conflict in Nazareth… the reputation Jesus had as "the Carpenter," and the reputation He had recently made for Himself as a prophet who preached and healed. The evangelist wants us to know how offended the Lord's relatives and neighbors were. They even called Him, "Mary's son…" very unusual since Jews always identified themselves with their fathers. They were insulting Jesus by calling Him the son of a woman.

So we might naturally ask, why did Mark decide to write this down? Mark was not trying to insult Jesus, He ingeniously left the insult in the narrative to point out that Jesus is the Son of God. Yes, He was the Carpenter, but He was far more than just a carpenter. Yes, He was the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, as well as some unnamed sisters, but He wasn't helping them any by staying close.  It was their very familiarity with Jesus that was causing the Nazarenes to stumble.  Yet even that was a divine instrument.   By breaking the earthly family, Jesus was able to extend the Holy Family to ever greater dimensions.  He did not teach the disciples to say, "Jesus' Father who art in heaven…" He taught, "Our Father." The disciples were part of God's Family. It was wrong for the earthly brothers to demand that He choose between them and the disciples. He wanted to be a brother to both, but only the disciples would let Him.

On a previous visit to Nazareth described in chapter 3 (See Mark 3:31-35), the Lord's relatives thought He was insane, and actually sought to restrain Him. Just at that time some lawyers came from Jerusalem saying that He was using the power of hell. Then, what He really needed at that moment, His mother and brothers showed up. If they believed Him, they wouldn't be trying to put Him away. Was Jesus an unfaithful son because He wouldn't let them silence the Gospel? They had heard what was happening in other towns around them, but now they couldn't believe it was anything good. Why was that? We can't blame it on the Prophet's country. The Judeans didn't believe any more than the Galileans. The devil was corrupting the Word as soon as these people heard it. He knew that what Jesus was offering went far beyond His family, beyond His own ethnic group. He could not stop it, but he could and did oppose it. Even now the devil's aim is to shrink the family of God down to the lowest possible number. By forcing Jesus to choose between giving offense and denying His mission, he saw to it that the evangelizing would never be easy.

"Children of God" is one of those catchy phrases we like to throw around. We mean, usually, that we trust God enough to be secure in His love, and want to please Him by what we do and say. Did you know there is a cult called Children of God? Do you know that one of the things this cult demands is that its members turn upon their families in complete rejection? They teach, "We are all the family you need." They point to passages like the one we are studying to try to prove that Jesus wants us to hate our natural families. That is horribly evil. Jesus wrote the Fourth Commandment. He has never set it aside. You cannot be doing God's will if you hate your natural family. Jesus did not hate His. He turned away from them because He loved them enough to leave them alone, to keep from getting tangled up in family matters when He had to make atonement for the world. Why did He speak as He did? Because He had to call us away from all that is vanity. There are some who worship their family. They look at a pedigree going back to John Alden, or they are waiting for an inheritance that would make them very comfortable, or they think they have to control their brothers and sisters, or their children, or all of the above. We must leave such vanity behind us, and look to Jesus alone for what really counts. All vanities end with death.

God's family does not end with death, rather it begins with death, with Holy Baptism, a very real death which is the normal way to become a child of God. The Holy Spirit pushes out our Old Adam, our sinful nature. We say it is drowned. God forgives our sins, and renews us with the Holy Spirit. As we grow in holiness, we become mature as members of God's family. Jesus calls us His brothers, sisters, and mother because He has extended the Holy Family to include us. As we learn that all-important memory work, as we pray with more maturity and conviction, as we pass more confidently through trials and temptations, as we meditate daily on the Word of God, as we become more loving, and if it be God's will, wiser, our heavenly Father is looking at us the way our own fathers did when we took our first steps, proud of what we were doing, but certainly not content to let it rest there. We will pass through another death when our souls leave our bodies, remaining members of God's family. And finally, on the glorious Day of the Resurrection, there will be a reunion of the extended Holy Family. Universal mankind, unfortunately, will not be there, but the faithful will, gathered at the home of Jesus, our Brother. AMEN.

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Enduring the tests of temptation and adversity


As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger… 2 Corinthians 6:4-5

IF we were fans of drive-by theology we would reduce today’s readings, the season of Lent, and the entire Christian life to one word on the church sign, the word endurance.

We don’t much care for that word, though, because it implies trouble, and we are so soft that a slow internet connection can send us into a tailspin. Besides this the world’s catechism teaches us that we deserve only good things, and more than a few ecclesiastical voices confirm that false message, but Paul’s word still stands.

In common usage endurance means the bitter acceptance of things that we cannot change. It is the frame of mind that folds its hands in passive resignation as torrents of trouble sweep over it. It hunkers down in the face of adversity, reaches for its favorite elixir, and hopes the storm will soon pass, never understanding or benefitting from any of it, but when St. Paul speaks of endurance he means something very different. He means the ability to bear all things in such a way as to turn tragedy into triumph. St. John Chrysostom calls endurance: the root of all goods, the fruit that never withers, a fortress that is never taken, peace in war, calm in tempest and security in plots. Endurance is the catalyst which turns tribulation into glory.

Please don’t confuse it with ‘positive thinking.' In worldly tasks there is a benefit to positive thinking and believing you can succeed, but optimism is of no help when we face tests of Abrahamic proportion, when the devil tempts us, or when the pressures of life fly at us like they did at St. Paul. Consider the things that Christians must endure and then judge for yourself if human strength is adequate, or if it is only through Christ that we can bear all things, and emerge victorious from them.

Abraham endured testing by God, and so must we all, but why does God test us? Does He do it to learn what we are made of or to discover how much we love Him? That’s not reasonable.  God is omniscient. He knows our thoughts before we think them and our words before we speak them (Psalm 139). He doesn’t test us to satisfy His curiosity, but to teach us how powerless we are without Him; to teach us to trust Him no matter how perilous the path, and finally so that we might attain to mature spiritual manhood and rise to the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

In any endeavor testing is necessary. It’s what makes a person competent and confident. We might read about shooting a gun, but until we do it it’s only a theory. We might study painting, but until we complete a canvas it’s only a concept. We might think ourselves very brave in the face of danger, but until we are actually tested we can never be sure. What was asked of Abraham was beyond the ken of human ability and ran counter to every instinct, natural or theological. God has asked many of us to do the same, to give up our loved ones, to lose control of them for a time, but to trust without wavering in Him who is able to raise the dead.

Abraham did not bury his head in the sand and run to the liquor cabinet until the storm had passed, and neither should we. He had seen too many impossible things happen where God was involved so he didn’t stagger. Armed with heroic faith, the kind that the Holy Spirit will give each of us when we need it, he endured the test, received his son ‘back from the dead,’ and gave us the Old Testament’s most distinct prophecy of what God would do for us in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). It wasn’t Abraham who “so loved the world” but God, and it wasn’t Abraham’s son that would be sacrificed on the wooden altar but God’s, in order to save us from our sins and deliver us from death and the devil.

It’s not only testing that we must endure, but the temptation of the devil as well. What happened to our Lord was as intense as it gets, and the temptations that come to us are just as real, just as distressing and if we fall for them, destructive in the extreme for us and everyone we love. Jesus didn’t look for a bush to hide behind until the temptation passed and neither should we. Instead He confronted the ordeal head on, steadfast and immovable, abounding in the work that His Father had given Him to do. Far from destroying Him this temptation made Him stronger so that there was nothing that He could not handle, even the death of the Cross (Philippians 2:7). We too can learn from Jesus to resist temptation, to pray, to have the knowledge of Scripture as our weapon, and to be ready to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him wherever He leads.

Neither are testing and temptation the only thing we must endure. Paul suffered all those and was hard pressed, besides, by the numerous troubles associated with his unique ministry. In today’s epistle lesson he mentions just a few: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger, but none of these dampened his spirit. Instead, the pressure cooker of life formed him. It made him that much more dedicated, that much more experienced, and that much more ready to handle the next calamity. We all need Pauline endurance because life is not a dress rehearsal and God calls each one of us, not to a life of self-indulgence, but to serious and important work for Him.

Does adversity humble us and evoke faith, or does it make us hard and cruel? Don’t answer the question, only repent. Lent is a season of “spiritual re-hab” dedicated to repentance and renewal, but don’t make the common error that many do about this season. It’s not about us, our sacrifices, our tears, our emotions or our piety, but like all of Scripture Lent is about God who gave us His Son, who provides the Law and the Gospel, the Word and the Sacraments, the church and the ministry, and who gives us the humility and faith to be saved and to live a different life in Christ.

Whatever your track record has been is of no consequence because in Christ there is no condemnation, He is the end of the Law for all who believe (Romans 10:4). Every sin is pardoned, every weakness forgotten, and every failure wiped out; and with remission comes new mercies every morning, so that with Christ we too might endure testing, temptation and every trouble that comes our way, and emerge with grace. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras