Praying with Luther: The Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments

I do not bind myself to such words or syllables, but say my prayers in one fashion today, in another tomorrow, depending upon my mood and feeling. I stay however, as nearly as I can, with the same general thought and ideas. It may happen occasionally that I may get lost among so many ideas in one petition (of the Lord’s prayer) that I forego the other six. If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.

If I have had time and opportunity to go through the Lord’s Prayer, I do the same with the Ten Commandments. I take one part after another and free myself as much as possible from distractions in order to pray. I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as, first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.

(from Martin Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, pgs. 199-201)

Praying with Luther: First Business of the Morning

It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.

When your heart has been warmed by such recitation to yourself (of the Ten Commandments, the words of Christ, etc.) and is intent upon the matter, kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think as briefly as you can:

O Heavenly Father, dear God, I am a poor unworthy sinner. I do not deserve to raise my eyes or hands toward thee or to pray. But because thou hast commanded us all to pray and hast promised to hear us and through thy dear Son Jesus Christ hast taught us both how and what to pray, I come to thee in obedience to thy word, trusting in thy gracious promise. I pray in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ together with all thy saints and Christians on earth as he has taught us: Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever. Amen.

(from Martin Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, pgs. 193-195)

Christmas with Kierkegaard: Watch for the Light

Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly, we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.

What a difference! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed. They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many dons, but it did not make them move. Who had the more truth? The three kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting with all their knowledge?

What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news they wanted remained quiet in Jerusalem! We are being mocked; the kings might have thought. For indeed what an atrocious self-contradiction that the scribes should have the knowledge and yet remain still. This is as bad as if a person knows all about Christ and his teachings, and his own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that such a person wishes to fool us, unless we admit that he is only fooling himself.

(from Meditations from Kierkegaard, translated and edited by T.H. Croxall, copyright James Nisbet and Co, Ltd., 1955. Used with permission by the publisher.)

Advent with Augustine: Justice from Heaven

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, “I am the Truth,” was born of a virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.

Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh.And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.

Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not proceeded from us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us that to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer by sheer grace.

(from The Liturgy of the Hours, Christmas Eve reflection from St. Augustine)

Let us pray: All-powerful and unseen God, the coming of your light into our world has brightened weary hearts with peace. Teach us to proclaim the birth of your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Advent with Athanasius: Through Christ We Rightly Know the Father

The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body. He was consistent in working through man to reveal Himself everywhere, as well as through the other parts of His creation, so that nothing was left void of His Divinity and knowledge. For I take up now the point I made before, namely that the Savior did this in order that He might fill all things everywhere with the knowledge of Himself, just as they are already filled with His presence, even as the Divine Scripture says, “The whole universe was filled with the knowledge of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:9) If a man looks up to heaven he sees there His ordering; but if he cannot look so high as heaven, but only so far as men, through His works he sees His power, incomparable with human might, and learns from them that He alone among men is God the Word. Or, if a man has gone astray among demons and is in fear of them, he may see this Man drive them out and judge therefrom that He is indeed their Master. Again, if a man has been immersed in the element of water and thinks that it is God—as indeed the Egyptians do worship water—he may see its very nature changed by Him and learn that the Lord is Creator of all. And if a man has gone down even to Hades, and stands awestruck before the heroes who have descended thither, regarding them as gods, still he may see the fact of Christ’s resurrection and His victory over death, and reason from it that, of all these, He alone is very Lord and God.

For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit.
As St. Paul says, “Having put off from Himself the principalities and the powers, He triumphed on the cross,” (Colossians 2:15) so that no one could possibly be any longer deceived, but everywhere might find the very Word of God. For thus man, enclosed on every side by the works of creation and everywhere—in heaven, in Hades, in men and on the earth, beholding the unfolded Godhead of the Word, is no longer deceived concerning God, but worships Christ alone, and through Him rightly knows the Father. 

 (On the Incarnation, §45, pgs. 82)

Advent with Athanasius: The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation, Part II

Athanasius was a Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He was born in the year 298 and died May 2, 373 This week’s excerpt from On the Incarnationexplains the reason for Christ to be born in a manger, grow and mature in the flesh  instead of just immediately going to the cross for our salvation.

When, then, the minds of men had fallen finally to the level of sensible things, the Word submitted to appear in a body, in order that He, as Man, might center their senses on Himself, and convince them through His human acts that He Himself is not man only but also God, the Word and Wisdom of the true God. This is what Paul wants to tell us when he says: “That ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the length and breadth and height and depth, and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge, so that ye may be filled unto all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17ff).” The Self- revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God. 

For this reason He did not offer the sacrifice on behalf of all immediately He came, for if He had surrendered His body to death and then raised it again at once He would have ceased to be an object of our senses. Instead of that, He stayed in His body and let Himself be seen in it, doing acts and giving signs which showed Him to be not only man, but also God the Word. There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation. 

 (On the Incarnation, §16, pgs. 44-45)

Advent with Athanasius: The Divine Dilemma and Its Solution in the Incarnation

Athanasius was a Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He was born in the year 298 and died May 2, 373. His writing, On the Incarnation impacted C.S. Lewis, among many others, and specifically informed Lewis’s writing throughout his life. This excerpt from On the Incarnation begins to answer the question, “Why was the Incarnation needed?”

Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. 

(On the Incarnation, §6, pgs. 31-32)

The Pastor as Teacher

St. Augustine has said, “The purpose of Scripture study is both to discover its meaning and to pass it on to others; both tasks to be undertaken with God’s help” (On Christian Doctrine, 106).  Within these words, we can ascertain the importance of a pastor serving as a teacher of the Bible.  To be an obedient teacher of the Bible, a pastor must possess numerous qualities, but three of these that merit discussion at this time are the prayerfulness of a pastor, the studiousness of a pastor, and the generosity of a pastor.  These characteristics will not only prepare the pastor to teach the truth of the Bible to those entrusted to their care, but they also serve as a model for those under that pastor’s care to become teachers of the Bible themselves. 

The central aspect of teaching the Bible is prayer.  In fact, prayer is what ultimately determines the profitability of the study of the Bible for both the teacher and the student.  Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”  Prayer guides the teacher and student of the Bible to discern howthe Scriptures are true for the people of God.  Prayer makes people teachable and humble.  It causes one to be submissive to the instruction of the Holy Spirit as it relates to teachers and students.  While some attempt to teach the Bible simply as observation, prayer communicates to the teacher and student the personal necessity of understanding the “living and active” nature of the Bible (Hebrews 4:12-13). Most of all, prayer for teachers and students connects them with the very act of Jesus Christ, who spent a great amount of time in prayer before and after teaching and preaching the Bible to others (see Mark 1:35-39, et. al.).      

A good teacher of the Bible must also be a student of the Bible.  This places the pastor in the role as a perpetual student of the Scriptures, never graduating from the study of the sacred text, but always learning and wrestling with the meaning and application of the Bible.  The most effective teacher is one who still enjoys and is impacted by the lessons they teach.  Jesus, when instructing his disciples about the persecution they will endure, tells them in John 15:20, “A servant is not greater than his master.” The teacher of the Bible is a servant of the Master, Jesus Christ, and therefore, must be continually instructed in the truth of the Bible in order to properly instruct others. 

Lastly, a pastor must be a generous teacher.  A pastor must not withhold instruction from those in their care.  A pastor might be tempted to use preaching and teaching as an opportunity for self-promotion by attempting to impress his or her hearers with Bible knowledge instead of seeking to be a humble communicator of God’s life-changing message of forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. After prayerful study, the pastor as teacher of the Bible will be prepared to deliver to the student the profitable meaning of the text and provide them with a grace-filled, vital application for life situations.  Again, the teaching of the Bible should not be a showcase of skillful rhetoric presenting interesting information—it is the communication of the life-giving truth of God, intended to edify and encourage the saints of God as they sojourn in this world, bringing to the saint the comfort of God in difficult times and relief from the condemnation of sin.  The generous teacher of the Bible equips their students with the ability to continue studying the Bible and encourages them to also become a teacher of the Bible themselves.

Therefore, the pastor who properly teaches the truth of Scripture is first and foremost a prayerful, generous student who understands the teaching of Luke 12:48, “to whom much was given, much will be required.”  The pastor has been given the word of life, found in the Bible, to discern and proclaim. May all pastors realize this and be faithful teachers of God’s truth to those God has entrusted to them.

The Nature of Grace

“Elisha Refusing the Gifts of Naaman” by Ferdinand Bol

2 Kings 5:19-27

19 He said to him, “Go in peace.”

But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, 20 Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, thought, “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” 21 So Gehazi went after Naaman. When Naaman saw someone running after him, he jumped down from the chariot to meet him and said, “Is everything all right?” 22 He replied, “Yes, but my master has sent me to say, ‘Two members of a company of prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim; please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.’” 23 Naaman said, “Please accept two talents.” He urged him and tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of clothing, and gave them to two of his servants, who carried them in front of Gehazi. 24 When he came to the citadel, he took the bags from them, and stored them inside; he dismissed the men, and they left.

25 He went in and stood before his master; and Elisha said to him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” He answered, “Your servant has not gone anywhere at all.” 26 But he said to him, “Did I not go with you in spirit when someone left his chariot to meet you? Is this a time to accept money and to accept clothing, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves? 27 Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.

It is no secret that I find great inspiration and wisdom from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His life and witness is a powerful example of following Jesus no matter the cost. In his well-known book Discipleship, Bonhoeffer begins by identifying cheap grace as the “mortal enemy of the church” and that the struggle in the church is for costly grace. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the result of ignoring or abusing gift of God in Christ Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. It denies God’s living word and the incarnation. It is selfish and impersonal at the same time. It requires nothing except a weak wink and nod at its general truth and is not a lived faith. Cheap grace is only sought for the benefit of appearance and/or personal gain.

Costly grace, on the other hand, is grace that cannot ignore Jesus. It is grace that requires us to hear his command and obey. It is the grace that encourages us to count the cost and follow Him. It is the grace that makes no sense to an upside-down world of gratuitous living and indulgence. Costly grace reminds the Christian that the freedom we live in was not achieved by some throw-away event; it was achieved by the horrific death of the Eternal Son of God. Costly grace is the grace that unites the Savior with the sinner so that the sinner may live because the Savior dies. It cannot ever forget nor take for granted the cost of such an amazing grace.

For Bonhoeffer, it was cheap grace vs. costly grace. For Luther, it was a theology of glory vs. theology of the cross. In 2 Kings, it’s Elisha vs. Gehazi. Elisha has gone to great lengths to make clear that the one who heals is the Living God, not Elisha. He is not the authority or the power. He is only a messenger and vessel. His refusal to greet the great Naaman with an elaborate welcoming ceremony leading to a powerful service of healing testifies to his humility and submission to the LORD. Instead, Elisha speaks the words that God gave him and Elisha steps aside and God does the healing. This humility and submission is further witnessed when we see Elisha refuse the gifts from an appreciative Naaman. Why would Elisha accept gifts for something he didn’t have the power to do? Any response of Naaman should be directed in the form of worship of the Living God, not Elisha. We see this witness impact Naaman when he requests two mounds of dirt so he can worship the God who healed him. 

Gehazi is not like Elisha. While Elisha points attention away from himself, Gehazi sees an opportunity for personal enrichment and perhaps even a bit of disdain with Naaman seeing that he is a Gentile. Gehazi stops at nothing to find a way to benefit from this miracle of God. He follows Naaman out of the city and tells Naaman a lie—that Elisha has requested some money and clothing for two prophets who have returned from Ephraim. This lie is especially sinister because Gehazi is not only attempting to benefit himself, he is manipulating Naaman, who no doubt is excited to return home healed from leprosy. In the goodness of Naaman’s heart, he is genuinely concerned with pleasing not only Elisha, caring for two returning prophets, but the LORD who had healed him. Naaman approves the request of Gehazi and gives him what he requests. Phase 1 of “Operation Get Rich Quick” has been completed.

Now for phase 2—to hide these new possessions without Elisha finding out. He brings them back to his house, stealthily hides them, and then returns to the service of Elisha. However, we know that Elisha is not easily deceived. It is hard to believe that Gehazi, who had seen first-hand how God works through Elisha in mighty ways healing uncurable disease, would think he could pull a fast one on God and Elisha. Elisha knows the answer to his question before he asks it of Gehazi. In many ways, this echoes the question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” God knew the answer. He knew they had fallen into sin. The question was asked to see how they would respond—with repentance or pride. As Adam and Eve chose pride, so does Gehazi. Elisha’s question to Gehazi, “Where have you been?” is an opportunity for confession and repentance for Gehazi, but he chose to protect his deceitful selfishness and lies to Elisha. He thinks his lie, “I went nowhere.” was sufficient. But because God knew different, so did Elisha. The falling of Gehazi is made complete in the lie and then the punishment for sin was delivered—Gehazi is now a leper along with his descendants. 

Cheap grace consumes us because it does not require us to confess or repent. It doesn’t take seriously the offenses of sins. Cheap grace is a perversion of grace, plain and simple. As we think about our lives and our faith, do we ever act like Gehazi? I would say we do when we try to reap all the good things of God with the sole purpose of becoming rich or comfortable. Cheap grace doesn’t consider God’s grace as sufficient. It becomes a “plus-and” situation where we can find ourselves not trusting God as we pray. Cheap grace treats prayer as a habit we must do, but then after we pray, we think, “Now what are we REALLY going to do?”

May we never forget the riches of God’s grace and promise. He has promised to provide for his children because he is a good Father. May we not fall into the trap of Gehazi and allow selfish ambition and hopes to supplant the promise of God. Trust God. Obey God. Know he is for you and he provides your every need. Amen.

Two Mule-Loads of Earth

Elisha Refusing the Gifts of Naaman by Ferdinand Bol

2 Kings 5:15-19

15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18 But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” 19 He said to him, “Go in peace.”

Naaman’s life has changed. His experience with the Living God and his messengers in the world has shown him the power and reality of truth. He desires to respond with gratitude and to give Elisha gifts, but Elisha has no interest in what Naaman has to offer. If anything, Elisha wants Naaman and us to understand one key truth about this event: Elisha has no power to do anything miraculous on his own. He is a prophet only at the behest and calling of God. God has provided for him in all he does so he doesn’t need to peddle miracles for personal gain. The LORD is sufficient and only the LORD is due glory, praise, credit, and honor. More importantly, Naaman’s gratitude should be solely focused upon the God who healed him.

Naaman understands this and asks for something else instead. He desires to take two mule-loads of earth from Israel back to Syria. Though the request sounds bizarre, we are more familiar with it than we realize. Naaman desires to take dirt from the land where he was healed so that he may make a space where he can worship the Living God. He has had a change of heart from earlier when he was offended by Elisha telling him to dip himself in the Jordan seven times to be healed. Before his healing, the water of the Jordan was not valuable to Naaman, but after, the very dirt evoked new respect and worship in Naaman’s heart. 

It is important for us that see the fine line between worship of the Living God and empty sentimentalism which could evolve into idolatry, but nevertheless, Naaman’s impulse to take holy ground back home to worship the Living God is something that strikes a cord with me. We live as strangers in a foreign land surrounded by the idols and desires of sinful flesh. Reminders of how God has saved us can be helpful for us as we tell our stories of salvation to others. But what is certain, nothing can bear witness of the power of God quite like our changed lives empowered by Jesus Christ.

May we understand and know that we are living testimonies of the One true God who has saved us in Jesus Christ. May the two mule-loads of dirt that is our lives be reminders to all who see and know us that God is great and worthy of all praise.

Prayer: Merciful God, you alone are great and worthy to be praised. Strengthen us and guide us as we serve you in this world. May our words and deeds declare your majesty and splendor so that all nations and all peoples would know Jesus Christ and his salvation. Amen.