“The world is very evil, The times are waxing late: Be sober and keep vigil, The Judge is at the gate: The Judge that comes in mercy, The Judge that comes with might, To terminate the evil, To diadem the right.” TLH #605
Those of us who remember September 11, 2001 have vivid memories of the evil perpetrated that day. We have images burned in our minds that never seem to fade. But evil from terrorists isn’t the only kind we are familiar with. There is the evil of war and the evil of rioting. Evil is present when people die in natural disasters or from the negligence or incompetence of those who constructed a failed bridge or high-rise building. Evil is present in our own hate, anger, and jealousy. Though all evil can be traced back to Satan, Jesus tells us that evil comes out of each one of us. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). I suppose we could rewrite Bernard of Cluny’s hymn quoted above as “The heart is very evil.”
Nevertheless, Jesus also tells us how we should consider the evil we see in the world. Jesus was asked about those who were killed by Pilate as they were offering sacrifices in the temple, an evil intentionally perpetrated by Pilate akin to the September 11th attacks. Jesus responded with another account, the tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 people, an example of a natural disaster or perhaps the negligence of the builder. Jesus’ exhortation concerning these events is found in Luke 13:5, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Such evil in the world should remind us that Jesus is coming again at a time we do not expect, and even our own deaths can come at a time we do not expect. Thus, we should always be ready, living lives of repentance and faith, faith in the one coming in mercy to terminate the evil and reveal the right, our Lord Jesus.
Many people think Luther’s Small Catechism is just for the pastor, just a tool the pastor uses to teach confirmation. In truth, the Small Catechism is for every Christian but foremostly for “the head of the family” to teach their children. If the household does not have a father then the Small Catechism is to be used by whoever is the head of the household to teach their children and others in the household. If the father is not a Christian or refuses to teach his children the ways of the Lord, then the teaching task falls to mom or other family whom God has given to the children.
The Small Catechism is just that, small. Catechism means teaching, and the Small Catechism encapsulates the basic teaching of Christianity. It is always trying to answer the question "What does this mean?" The first three chief parts of the catechism are found throughout Christendom, even before Luther, namely, the 10 commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. These are familiar to most Christians even if they are not Lutheran. Of course, Luther also includes his explanations to open up the full and rich meaning of these words. The last three chief parts are perhaps more uniquely Lutheran, but are drawn solely from the Bible. These are the doctrines of baptism, confession and absolution, and the sacrament of the altar. In a sense, the first three chief parts teach the basics of the Christian faith, and the remaining parts describe the Christian life in that faith.
Every Sunday, we read a portion of the catechism during the Divine Service. This should be review for most of us who had to memorize the catechism at one point (albeit, likely with slightly different words!). I would encourage you to also read parts of it yourself during the week, with your children and grandchildren of course, but also to yourself as part of your devotions. A great place to start is to get in the habit of praying Luther's morning and evening prayers each day and of course the Lord's prayer. Then you can recite the Creed and the 10 commandments. Then add on reading some of Luther's explanations and the remaining three chief parts. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can review the synodical explanations in the back of the catechism book. Meditating on the catechism only reinforces our own understanding of the faith, but it also gives us words we can use to answer others who have questions about what Christians believe.
As mentioned last week, one of the tenets of moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD) is the belief that the primary purpose of life is to be happy. It's not difficult to see that this opinion is rampant in our culture. Of course, we want to be happy. We are even conditioned to believe that we must be happy. How many times have you heard the sentiment, "God just wants me to be happy." Or perhaps you've heard or said about your children, "I just want them to be happy." Social media promotes this belief with all its pictures of happy shining faces. Everybody posts pictures from their happy moments for all the world to see. It would appear that everyone on social media is above average when it comes to happiness. Advertising is designed to promote products that will enhance your life in some way, will make you happy.
The idol of happiness can be used to justify almost any behavior. Not happy in marriage? Get a divorce. Not happy with something in your church? Find a new one. Not happy with someone God has placed in your life? Shut them out. Of course, relationships with other people are often complicated and they may indeed cause us at some point to be unhappy. Dr. Biermann writes in his recent article on this topic, "but the lure of the therapeutic is also manifest in the unwillingness of Christians to take up the cross of suffering in the name of following Jesus in service to others. Personal sacrifice and even a little discomfort are antithetical to self-care and maintaining personal health and well-being. The therapeutic mindset of individual fulfillment and happiness is utterly opposed to the scriptural truth, that God calls us to die to self and live for the neighbor."
It's important to remember that nowhere in Scripture does God promise us that we will be "happy." This life is full of difficulty, misery, and tragedy, all things that would cause unhappiness. But God also promises that He will give us a blessed life, a life full of joy, and abundance, as we follow Him as disciples. As the Psalmist writes, "Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you." We live lives in service to our neighbor, and while that service may bring discomfort, sadness, and even persecution, we do it gladly and with joy because we know it is the work of our Lord through us. We also know that in eternity our joy will be complete as we live in the presence of Christ's glory forever.
How's that title for a mouthful? Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD for short) has been identified by many as the primary Christian heresy facing our day in this country. The term was coined in 2005 by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, to describe a set of beliefs he uncovered while researching the religious beliefs of young people.
There were 5 points of belief that he observed:
1. There is a God who created the world and who oversees human life on earth.
2. In line with the Bible and most religions, God desires people to be good, nice, and fair to one another.
3. The overall goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
4. God is involved in one's life only to the degree needed to fix problems.
5. Whey they die, good people go to heaven.
As Christians we don't have much argument with numbers 1 and 2 above. But the last three points are problematic. Happiness is not the goal of life; faithfulness to Jesus is. Happiness and feeling good about oneself seems to be the driving force behind many people's choices. In opposition to number 4, we would argue that God is involved in our lives constantly, in good times and bad. We are to pray daily and hear God's word regularly. Our prayers consist of asking for forgiveness, thanking God for His gifts, in addition to asking about our needs. God is our Lord at all times. Point 5 is especially troublesome since it strikes at the heart of Christian teaching. We believe that we cannot earn heaven by our own actions. Faith alone in Christ alone is the means by which we take hold of the gift of heaven that Jesus gives. Apart from Christ, no one is deserving of heaven no matter how good they may be in this life.
In upcoming editions of the Weekly Word, we'll look a little more closely at points 3 through 5, how they manifest themselves in people's lives, and what the Christian answer to those claims is.
(This was adapted from an article by Dr. Joel Biermann in the August '23 issue of the Lutheran Witness, /Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: An impressive name for an everyday heresy./ The article is not available online without a subscription, but an interview with Dr. Biermann about his article can be found on Issues Etc. https://issuesetc.org/2023/07/21/2023-moralistic-therapeutic-deism-dr-joel-biermann-7-21-23/
In John 8:44, Jesus says, "[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
There are two characteristics of Satan that Jesus highlights for us here, to teach us. The first is that the devil is a liar. God's word is truth, and it guides us as a lamp in the darkness showing us our sinfulness and pointing us to Jesus our Savior. The devil seeks to draw you away from the truth of God's word by lying to you, by trying to convince you that God's word is not true. The devil is the chief liar, the source of all lies, the "father of lies" Jesus calls him. His lies are subtle and sneaky. He lies by telling half-truths, by twisting God's word, or by quoting it out of context, just as he did in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and in the wilderness with Jesus.
And why all this lying? In order to serve Satan's second prominent trait; he is a murderer. He seeks to murder you. Satan lies to you to draw you away from God, so that you would serve him, and dwell with him in the everlasting death of hell. That's his goal. He wants to destroy and pervert what God has created good. The highest good of God's creation is human beings, you and me. The devil's eternal destiny is hell, and he wants to pull as many people down with him as possible. He lies in order to murder.
But Satan is defeated. The war between Satan and the Lord, begun in Eden, continued as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, was finished at the cross and Jesus' empty tomb. Satan lost. Though the war is over, and Satan's final destination is assured, he still wages battles against humanity, especially against God's people. He continues to lie. He wants you to conform to the culture instead of God's word. He wants to confuse good and evil, right and wrong in your mind. He wants you to doubt the promise of your baptism, the certainty that your sins are forgiven, and the continued mercy of God in your life. He wants you to do something, anything, other than being in church on Sunday morning where God's word, and Christ's body and blood strengthen your faith. Don't listen to him. Instead, trust your Lord who has called you out of Satan's darkness into His marvelous light.
In the Book of Deuteronomy God was preparing His people to finally enter the promised land after 40 years of wilderness wandering. He renewed His promises to them and reiterated the 10 commandments (Deut. 5). In Deuteronomy 6, the Lord commands the people that when they enter the land, "You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the people around you" (Deut. 6:14).
This past Sunday we heard of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness by Satan. For forty days Jesus was fasting and being tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1-11). In every case Jesus refutes Satan's attacks with words from Scripture; all three temptations are countered with words found in Deuteronomy 6 and 8. The final temptation, to fall down and worship Satan, Jesus refutes with Deut. 6:13, "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve."
Obviously, Deuteronomy 6 verses 13 and 14 go together. In order to worship the true God we must avoid the "gods of the people around" us. What are the gods of the people around us in our culture in our day and age? You may see a statue of Buddha around town or a mosque but there are many other gods of the people around us. Money, sex, fame, power, or security can all become gods.
What other things does our culture value more than God? One way to ponder that question is to identify where our culture spends its money. Consider the great buildings of our day, sports venues, resorts, universities, government buildings, airports. Compare those to the number of churches built. Government data estimates that in 2020 roughly 3.5 billion dollars was spent on construction for religious purposes. Compare that to 98 billion for educational construction, 82 billion for office space, or 25 billion for amusement and recreation construction. Does our culture value those things more than worship of the true God? As Jesus says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
We too would do well to heed the words of the Lord to the Israelites, "You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the people around you."
This week we begin our annual observance of the season of Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. 40 is a common number in Scripture. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years between the time they left Egypt and when they entered the promised land. Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). These two events are typically referenced as to why our Lenten observance lasts 40 days.
There is another 40-day period from the Old Testament I want to consider as we reflect on Lent, the 40 days that the spies (or scouts) went out to observe the land of Canaan in Numbers 13. Twelve men, one from each tribe, were appointed to go to the land of Canaan to do reconnaissance. They were to see what sorts of things grew in the land, what the people were like, how the cities were fortified, etc. They made their observations for 40 days then reported back to Moses and the others what they had found.
Upon their return all twelve spies reported that the land was indeed fertile and prosperous, a land flowing with milk and honey. Ten of the twelve, however, said that the inhabitants and the cities were too great, too strong to be defeated by the Israelites. They put fear into the hearts of the people. The other two, Joshua and Caleb, responded that with the help of the Lord the people who dwelt in the land would be no match for Israel. The majority prevailed however, convincing the assembly that they could not take the land. This greatly displeased the Lord, and the people were consigned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they would enter the promised land.
In a sense, we are like those spies. In Lent we are considering the battles that wage war in our lives, the struggles we face over our own sinfulness, the temptations of this world, and the assaults of Satan. We take time to observe our situation, that we are by nature sinful and unclean, lost without God's mercy and protection. We are waiting to see what the Lord will do about our sin-filled situation. Will he be able to conquer our enemies for us? Will we trust in Him alone, or will we fall back in fear and despair doubting whether God's strength will overcome all our weaknesses? The promised land of heaven is indeed rich and prosperous, but how will we enter there?
We know what awaits us at the end of 40 days as we look forward to Good Friday and Easter. The Lord would defeat our greatest enemies, sin, death, and the devil. On the cross Jesus died for our sin, opening the promised land of heaven to us, and on Easter we see in Jesus’ resurrection a preview of our own. Let us be like Joshua and Caleb confident in our Lord’s promises that he gives us the victory in Jesus.
In our daily lives we are inundated with words, words on TV, on the internet, from our radios, in papers, from friends and coworkers. Our world is awash in information and opinions. It's hard to know which pieces of information are true and which ones are not. It's even harder to know whose opinions to listen to and whose to ignore.
The areas of religion and spirituality are not immune to this influx of words. Everyone has a religious opinion it seems, even those who claim to not be religious but only "spiritual." The source of religious authority that would seem to be most dominant in our world today seems to be feelings. The logic goes like this, "If God is causing me to feel this way, then it must be right."
God has a different message for us. This coming Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday, when we hear the account of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. There, He is transfigured before them, with his face shining like the sun, His Divine glory on full display. The disciples see Him having a conversation with Moses and Elijah. What a sight that must have been to behold. What feelings must have welled up in those disciples. But perhaps the most important aspect of that event was the voice of God the Father saying about Jesus, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him" (Matt 17:5).
We must measure the words of the world and the feelings of our hearts by what Jesus says. We are to listen to Him. That is, we gauge the soundness of new ideas, the importance of the opinions of men, and the thoughts of our minds by the sure and certain words of Jesus that we find in Holy Scripture. We can be sure what God says is true, and His Word is life-giving.
In Matthew 5, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:17-18). Jesus doesn’t abolish or nullify the commandments. Neither does He come to simply reiterate them. Instead, he “fulfills” them. He keeps them. He accomplishes them. Jesus obeys the entire law. He is God, the law is God’s will, so the law is Jesus’ will.
In 1 Corinthians 2, St. Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The content of Paul’s preaching and teaching to the Corinthians is Christ’s death to save us sinners. That’s the Gospel.
The question is, how are these two truths related? Jesus kept the law. In baptism the victory He won over sin and death on the cross is given to you. You are counted as righteous before God on account of faith in the promises of Christ. How then does the law fit in to the Christian life? Remember, Jesus didn’t abolish the law. He fulfilled it. He kept it. He was righteous. So, if Jesus kept the law, and you are clothed with His righteousness, then in the sight of God you have kept the law. You have fulfilled the law. You are counted, like Jesus, as righteous.
The law is not abolished, but our relationship to the law is no longer one of fear or terror. The eternal punishments that come from violating God’s law are rendered null and void for the Christian, because we possess Christ’s righteousness. As Christians, citizens of Christ’s kingdom, our desire is to keep God’s law, to follow His will. Why? Because we know it is good for us. We know God gives us the law for our own good and the good of our neighbor. Our loving Father wants us to promote good and oppose evil. Good works do not save us, yet they are a necessary to the Christian life, and through the power of God's Spirit we do them. Thanks be to God that Jesus has fulfilled the law, given us His righteousness, and stirred up in us the desire to do good.
"For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;" (1 Cor 1:25,27).
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,” Paul also writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:22). It seems that things are no different today. People tend to demand both signs and wisdom. On the one hand we want science to prove everything. We want proofs for God, trying to find out what God is like through human wisdom. If God is as good and as loving as he says he is, we want a logical explanation as to why so much evil happens in this world and so much trouble happens in our own lives. Or we treat our own feelings as signs from God. If God’s law is so perfect, we wonder why I feel this way or that way in opposition to that law. If God is so powerful, why doesn’t he fix this problem or that problem. People still want God to give them signs, and they still want to use human wisdom to figure him out.
But the church doesn't have those things available to give. We don’t have the answers to all the world's questions, at least not answers that the world wants. We have only the word of the cross, which to the world today, as it was to many centuries ago, is folly, foolishness. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;”
We don't like looking dumb or foolish. The world thinks the church is foolish with her antiquated ideas of gender, sex, justice, and life. We worship a God who died on a cross. Foolish. Our faith is predicated on that dead man rising from the dead. Foolish. We believe there is a life after death, and eternal bliss for those who trust not in themselves but in the promises of Christ. Foolish. But God chooses the foolish things to bring to naught all the wisdom of this world. “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23). May we always be those who in Godly wisdom follow our foolish God.