As we've been studying the book of Acts during Sunday morning Bible Study, we've read about the miracles performed by Jesus' apostles. Their miracles bear a striking similarity to Jesus' own miracles that we study in the Gospels. But there is one important difference. Jesus performed miracles by His own power. The apostles don't have the power of healing except by calling on the name of Jesus. They must rely on His power, and not their own.
But what is the point of the miracles in the first place? First, Jesus had a great desire to heal the brokenness that He saw around Him. As the crowds were coming to Jesus to be healed, we are told "He had compassion on them" (Matt. 14:14). God created a good and perfect world with no sickness, infirmity, or death. So, it makes sense that when the Creator is with His creatures, He would desire to restore some of that goodness amid so much suffering and evil.
But that's not the main point of the miracles, either those performed by Jesus or by His apostles. Those Jesus healed even those he brought back from physical death, would one day die. We get a hint of the real purpose of the miracles throughout scripture, but especially in the book of John where the miracles are referred to as "signs." Signs point to something else. Road signs inform us of what's ahead. The miracles of Jesus point to Him as true God; only God Himself could do the miraculous things that Jesus did. So, if Jesus is God, it would make sense that the people listen to what He says. So, the signs, the miracles, are performed to convince the people that they should listen to Jesus, and later to His apostles.
We see in Jesus' day that not all the people who saw miracles became disciples of Jesus. Some of them may have followed for a while, but then later fell away. Toward the end of His earthly ministry, the miracles tapered off, and so did the number of His followers. Many people just wanted to see more miracles and remained uninterested in Jesus' words. This phenomenon is reminiscent of the Israelites after they left Egypt as recorded in Exodus. They had seen the plagues, witnessed the Red Sea parting, yet still didn't trust in God, and doubted his faithfulness and power. But it is only God’s Word that can create true faith. Remember, miracles point to Jesus and His word. Faith in Jesus doesn't come from seeing miracles. "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17).
You may have seen the inscription "ICXC NIKA" in church art or on pieces of church furniture in the chancel area. These letters are frequently found painted or engraved on church altars. But what does this mean?
The 8 letters are sort of an abbreviation (sometimes called a Christogram) that comes from Greek. The first two letters "IC" are the first and last letters of the name Jesus in Greek. "XC" are the first and last letters of the title Christ in Greek. (Christ is equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah.) Finally, "NIKA" is a single Greek word from which the "Nike" athletic brand takes it's name. It simply means to overcome, conquer, or be victorious over. Put it all together and you get "Jesus Christ conquers," or if you prefer "Victory in (Jesus) Christ!"
What or whom does Jesus Christ conquer? On the cross Christ conquered sin. In His resurrection, we see that Christ conquered death. Through His perfect obedience to God's law and by His death and resurrection, Christ has defeated Satan. These are three enemies against which we are powerless. Without Jesus we are slaves to sin, in fear of death, and prisoners of the devil. But Jesus defeats them all and gives us the benefits of His victory. Because of what Jesus has done, it is as if we have defeated sin, death, and the devil.
Why have such symbols, like the ICXC NIKA, in the church? They serve as visual reminders. Why have Christ-focused art in the church, or crucifixes? Again, these are reminders for the faithful. Faith comes through hearing the Word of God, it's true. But things we see can reinforce God’s Word. God gave us the gift of sight. This sense can lead us away from a godly life when we look at things we should not, or when we covet things we do not have. But Godly images and symbols can remind us of heavenly things, of what Jesus has done for us, and who He is. So, when we see the ICXC NIKA, we are reminded that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and He is victorious over all our enemies.
"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There is perhaps no more concise, compact, beautiful statement of who Jesus is than these words from John the Baptist. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold, Look, there, that person you see that man named Jesus of Nazareth, look at Him. He is by all appearances merely a man but He is much more than that. He is the lamb. Which is to say, He is the sacrifice. But not just any lamb not any sacrifice, not a lamb raised by a herdsman, but a lamb from God, the lamb of God, indeed this lamb is God. And He comes for a purpose. He comes to take away the sin of the world. All the world’s sin He will atone for, all of it, all at once, forever. Your sin, my sin, the sin of every man, woman, and child, that ever has lived or ever will, Jesus, the lamb of God, takes away that sin.
John continues. “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.” John and Jesus are related by birth, cousins of some sort. John is roughly six months older than Jesus. Yet He says of Jesus, “He was before me.” John recognizes that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, begotten of the Father before all things were made. He is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. All things were created through Him. Jesus is greater than every prophet, even John the Baptist, because every word the prophets spoke is a word from Jesus, for He is the Word made flesh.
“I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel”, says John. John’s purpose is clear. He is but the forerunner. He is but the herald. He himself is not the light, but he bears witness to the light, the light that was coming into the world, Jesus Christ. John’s ministry has a singular purpose, to reveal Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and to reveal Him as the Savior of the nations. “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God,” says John. And through John’s words recorded in Scripture, John reveals Jesus to us. John is a witness to us about who Jesus is and what He has done. Jesus is God’s eternal Son. He comes as the Lamb of God, to die on the cross for you, to take away your sin, to give you eternal life. "O Christ Thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us."
Click here to edSamuel, son of Elkanah and Hannah, was dedicated to God's service at a young age. He served at the tabernacle in Shiloh under Eli the priest (1 Sam. 1-2), ministering to the Lord. One day while Samuel was about His duties the voice of the Lord called to Him, "Samuel!" While neither Eli nor Samuel initially understood what was happening, eventually Eli realized it was the Lord calling to Samuel. After calling out to Samuel a fourth time, Samuel replied to the Lord's call, "Speak, for your servant hears" (1 Sam. 3:10). Some translation render Samuel's words as "Speak, for your servant is listening."
Samuel's response to the Lord, should be our response to the Lord. God desires to speak to us as well, regularly. It should be our constant desire to hear and listen. Of course, God speaks to us through His Word, the very words of Scripture. These are God's words to us. Whether we are reading His word or listening to it recorded or in person, God is speaking, and we are to do the hearing.
Sometimes parents will make a distinction between whether their children "hear" them and whether they are "listening" to them. When we "hear," the sounds are coming into our ears and we may even perceive what the sounds are, but it's sort of a passive experience. "Listening" is more active. It includes hearing, but also includes acting upon what is heard. If our children are listening to us, they are acting upon what they hear us saying.
It is the same with God's word. It is one thing to hear the word, to know what the words mean, to understand what is being said. It is another to listen and put God's word into practice. Samuel would show throughout his life that he not only heard the Lord but also listened to Him, carrying out God's instructions. Whenever we hear God's word, we should pray that His Spirit would give us hearts, minds, and wills to listen to Him, to actively believe what God is saying to us, and to seek to live according to His word.it.
Click here to edNo this topic is not a month early. This coming Sunday marks the 1st Sunday in Advent which is the beginning of a new church year. So, Happy New Year!
Many people make New Year resolutions on January 1st, things like eating better, getting in shape, building something, trying to earn a promotion, etc. Such a practice can be good and beneficial. But what about New Church Year resolutions? What sorts of spiritual resolutions can you make? Here's a few ideas (in order of importance).
1. Prioritize regular church attendance. What is "regular" church attendance? Every week is ideal. If you're not there yet maybe try doubling your attendance, or shoot for twice a month. In the Divine Service we receive God's incredible gifts of His Word sung, proclaimed, and preached, and the Lord's Supper.
2. For parents of young children, get your children to church and Sunday School.
3. Commit to reading your Bible every day. There is a reading schedule in the newsletter and weekly word, as well as others online. Or just pick a book of the Bible and read through it at your own pace. Even 10 minutes a day is very beneficial!
4. Have daily devotions. Portals of Prayer are available at church, as well as Advent and Lenten devotions during those seasons. There are video and audio devotions available online as well.
5. Start attending Bible Study. We have Bible Study every Sunday morning at 11, women's Bible study on Tuesday's at 1:30, and men's Bible Study twice a month on Saturday mornings. If you have an idea for another midweek Bible study time/topic, please pass the idea along!
6. Listen to a Lutheran podcast. There's Issues Etc., The Word of the Lord Endures Forever, Sharper Iron, A Brief History of Power, and others.
7. Listen to Lutheran Public Radio.it.
“Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day." Deuteronomy 8:11-18.
These words were spoken by Moses to God's people as they were about to enter the promised land. It had been a hard 40 years in the wilderness, but now the promise of rest in the land of Canaan was within sight. This would be a prosperous place for them to live. God had promised to drive out all their enemies from the land and settle them in towns and cities. They would have wealth in silver and gold, flocks and herds.
But God knows there is a problem with us when we have plenty, and it is a problem about which he warned His people. The danger was that they would "forget the Lord." The danger was that they would start to look highly upon themselves, and not thank God. "Look at all the enemies we have defeated. Look at how successful we have been with our flocks and herds and with acquiring wealth for ourselves." This is an easy trap for any of us to fall into.
Moses is reminding them that it is the Lord who brought them out of Egypt, cared for them in the wilderness, and is giving them this land. We must also remember that it is the Lord's hand that gives us all things, and He promises to continue to do that. Afterall, He even sent Jesus to die for our sins. "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). As we give thanks this year, let us not be filled with generic feelings of thankfulness. Let us not focus on ourselves and what our hands have accomplished. Instead, let us "remember the LORD your God," and give Him all thanks and praise.
“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/