I Must Decrease

In the third chapter of John, some of the disciples of John the Baptist are concerned because suddenly Jesus is attracting more followers. John, of course, understands exactly what is going on. Jesus is the bridegroom, the Messiah, the one for whom everyone has been waiting. In consequence of this, John says:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:30

John knows he is only the servant, the messenger. It is Jesus who is the real thing.

If we are united with Christ, the same thing is true of us. We must become more and more like Christ. Our sins and our worldly desires should decrease. Our goal in life will be to show others what Christ is like. When we live with the mind and heart of Christ, we will draw others to Him. We will be the face of Christ in the world.

Lent is a good time to think about this. For some it’s a time to emphasize their piety by giving something up — usually fasting from a food or drink they normally indulge in like coffee, meat or desserts. There’s nothing wrong with this if it serves to remind us of Christ. However, as one poet put it, why not fast from “your sin, not your bin.” For the next few weeks try fasting from anger, or envy, or greed. Add generosity and kindness to your plate. Allow Christ to increase in you. If you do this for forty days, you will have created a habit of holiness that will last the rest of your life.

For more about being the face of Christ see:

Have You Seen Jesus?

Portrait of a Christian

How To Be A Christian Witness

The Agnus Dei

“Agnus Dei” is a Latin phrase which literally means, “lamb of God.”  If you are a Lutheran (or Catholic or Anglican) you will know that it is a liturgical prayer addressed to Christ, our Savior, the lamb who was sacrificed for us. It is based upon these words spoken by John the Baptist:

   “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  John 1:29

It has been included in the liturgy since the 12th century, and used in choral pieces by many famous composers.  In our church we sing it before Holy Communion.  These are the words:

“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us! Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us! Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace!”

The themes are forgiveness and sacrifice, appropriate as we approach the table of the Lord and remember His last supper with the disciples.

For more on the liturgy go to these posts:

Learning from the Liturgy

The Laity and Liturgy

Liturgy as Prayer

 

 

What Then Shall We Do?

“And the crowds asked him (John the Baptist), ‘What then shall we do?  And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none and whoever has food is to do likewise.  Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’  And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.  Soldiers then asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’  And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats for false accusation, and be content with your wages.'”  Luke 3:10-14

 

This was part of the gospel reading in church this past Sunday, and the passage on which the sermon was based.  John the Baptist has just finished rebuking the people for their sins and lack of repentance, and their response is “What shall we do?”

You may remember that we discussed repentance a few months back, and I believe more than one of the Lutheran ladies mentioned that the literal meaning of this word is ‘to turn around’ or ‘go in another direction.’  John the Baptist is telling the crowd that they must turn around and do something different–they must serve others.

He doesn’t tell them to change their occupations or do anything drastic about their circumstances;  they just need to go about their lives in a way that is helpful and fair to others.  Soldiers are not to intimidate;  tax collectors are not to cheat;  everyone who has plenty must share with those who are in need;  everyone is to be content with what they have.

Seems pretty simple, right?  However, we’re still not doing it!  How often do we abuse our authority over others?  How often do we take a little more than we’re entitled to?  How often do we envy that person with the bigger house, nicer car, or glamorous vacations?  How willing are we to give our extra coat or extra cash to the homeless man on the corner?

If you’re anything like me, you don’t always do what you should.  We’re still a brood of vipers and we still need to repent and try every single day to do a little better at being a servant.  It doesn’t come naturally.

Thankfully John also preached some good news.  He said:

“I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”  Luke 3:16

Advent is a time of waiting and a time of repentance.  A time to reflect upon the servanthood of Christ and to try to become better servants ourselves.  Use this special season wisely.  Serve others.

Following the Lamb of God

“…John was standing with two of his disciples and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”  John 1:35-37

The verses above were part of our gospel reading and sermon in church yesterday.  John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the lamb of God, and two of John’s disciples immediately leave and follow Him.  Our pastor made the point that the pair had no idea of what following Jesus would mean, or what that path would lead them to: they knew who he was, and so they followed.

I wish I could say I have that kind of trust and obedience. Too often, I am guilty of this kind of thinking:  “Of course, I want to follow you, Jesus, but where are we going?  What is the point of this activity you are calling me to do (or to give up).”  Remember the old ‘I Love Lucy’ shows, and how Lucy would often say, ‘splain it to me, Ricky.’  I want God to ‘splain it to me” before I put my whole heart and energy into it.

Of course, this is wrong.  I should be willing to obey God because of who He is, one step at a time.  If I trust Him, I trust Him to lead me to the end of journey that He has planned for me.  I’m reminded of the hymn, ‘He Leadeth Me.”

Lord, I would clasp Thy Hand in mine, nor ever murmur nor repine

Content whatever lot I see, Still ’tis His hand that leadeth me.

He leadeth me, He leadeth me, By His own hand He leadeth me;

His faithful follower I would be, For by His Hand He leadeth me.

 

 

 

Christ Alone

Our Elders recently held a workshop on the 5 solas of the Reformation.  There was singing, food and fellowship (what can I say, we’re Lutherans!) and a brief talk on each sola (speakers ranged from age 17-70 something).  I thought I’d post my talk on the topic Christ Alone.  Let me know what this sola means to you!

At first blush, Christ Alone may seem like a no brainer.  After all, we call ourselves Christians and we don’t have a collection of gods for every occasion like the ancient Greeks or modern day Hindus.  Doesn’t that mean we worship Christ alone?  Well, think again.  How many people, even Christians, have you heard say things like this:

  1. We all worship the same God by different names
  2. There are many paths to God
  3. God is loving and would not condemn anyone who is a good person, or has sincere religious beliefs, even if they are wrong.  After all, how can someone be held accountable for the family or culture  they are born into?

Because we live in a society that values tolerance and diversity ideas like this are widespread.  They may seem fair.  They may make sense to us. Unfortunately, they aren’t scriptural.  In John Chapter 14, verse 6 Jesus says:

 “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the father but by me.”

He doesn’t say I am one of the ways that some people come to God.  He says he is the way, the only way.  There is no wiggle room.

This is a big challenge to us as American Christians today, and one we should keep in mind when we think about “Christ Alone.”  Those of us studying the book of Ezekiel in our evening Bible Study are learning that God’s wrath was aroused not because his people abandoned Him, but because they were worshipping the gods of other nations along with Him.

The Christians of Martin Luther’s time had a different challenge to face, and in order to understand why “Christ Alone” was a rallying cry of the Reformation we need to know what it meant to them.  If you want a fancy term for this, it’s “sitz im leben”, a German phrase which means the setting or context in which something is placed.

In the 1500’s the Christian church in the West was the Roman Catholic Church.   Although the church taught that Christ’s death atoned for our sins, church doctrine added to Christ’s work by teaching that our souls must go to purgatory after death where they suffer and are purified of any sins not dealt with in life.  The prayers of the saints and the faithful could release them more quickly from purgatory. Good works and certain rites of the church (especially confession and penance) would also shorten the time in purgatory.  This led to many abuses, such as the selling of indulgences, and caused anxiety among the faithful, who could never be sure that they, or their loved ones had done enough, or fulfilled all the requirements necessary to be saved.  If you’ve read a biography of Martin Luther you know that he also fell prey to these kinds of doubts and fears.  Luther spent as much as 6 hours a day confessing his sins and still felt no true peace with God.

The Catholic Church no longer sells indulgences but their basic doctrines have not changed.  Indulgences are now granted for a long list of things that include studying the scripture, praying the rosary or obtaining a blessing from the Pope. They can be earned by individuals and also religious institutions and still have the same purpose – to lessen the time of suffering in purgatory.

As Protestants we do not believe in purgatory but many of our denominations have fallen into other kinds of legalistic practices.  Perhaps you have heard someone say “do your best and then rely upon Christ to do the rest?”  Or met a Christian who insisted that you must “invite Christ into your heart”, pray the sinner’s prayer, be fully immersed in baptism or perform certain specific works if you want to be saved.

Again, this thinking may make sense to us.  We like to know the rules.  We are accustomed to believing we get what we deserve and what we earn.  But the Bible tells us in Romans 10:9:

 “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in you heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And in 1 Timothy 2:5-6

 “For there is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.”

The Reformers pointed to these and similar verses to prove that the sacrifice of Christ for our sins is sufficient. In fact it’s presumptuous to think man can add anything to what God has done.

I’ve been a Lutheran for most of my life and have had good Lutheran instruction, so I find it fairly easy to accept and understand the doctrine of Christ Alone intellectually. Maybe you feel the same way.  However, as I prepared this talk, I realized that if I owe my eternal life entirely to Christ, shouldn’t I also be living completely for Him?  I’be been asking myself questions like this:

  1. Do I trust in Christ Alone?  Or do I trust in my pension, my savings accounts, my education or the military might of my country?
  2. Is Christ Alone my heart’s desire?  Or are things like an attractive home, a successful family life, or an exciting vacation what I really want?
  3. Do I strive to “put on the mind of Christ when making a decision?  Or am I influenced by my friends, family and even well-known experts?
  4. Do I long to hear Christ say “well done good and faithful servant”?  Or would I rather hear words of approval from my fellow church members, spouse, children or friends?
  5. Is my service to the church and my works of charity something I do for Christ?  Or something I do look good in the eyes of others and gain their admiration?
  6. Do I mean it when I say ‘thy will be done’?  Or do I really want my own plans to be blessed by God?

So today, I’m asking you….

Where do your thoughts linger?  How do you spend your time and your money?  Do your checkbook, your calendar and your thoughts reflect a life lived for Christ alone?  Remember John the Baptist said, “I must decrease so he can increase.” Are you living your life every day so that people will see more of Christ and less of you?

I’d like to close with a quote from a Christian classic called The Christian’s Guide to a Happy Life by Hannah Whitehall Smith that I find personally challenging.

“Once it was ‘I and not Christ’.  Next it was ‘I and Christ.’  Perhaps now it is even ‘Christ and I.’ But has it come yet to be Christ only and not I at all?”