Devotion of the Day

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If there is a book that influenced Luther and his “Evangelical Breakthrough” more than Galatians, I have not heard.  While Romans is usually touted as being the predominant book to fuel Martin Luther and the reformatory process of the Church, Luther himself found Galatians far more concrete and clear.  This is why he took the time to write his own commentary on the letter to the Galatian churches and did not do so for the book of Romans.  This Commentary on Galatians was so influential for the theological formation of Lutheran pastors and laity that it was given the title of “Luther’s Great Galatian Commentary” after Luther passed away on 18 February 1546.  This title describes the place this Commentary had for the life and thought and formation of the Church in its early years after Reformation. 

The reason that Luther himself, in his commentary, cites for this letter’s great influence upon him is St. Paul’s clear presentation of justification by grace through faith and the righteousness of God that comes with it.  It is in this great commentary that Luther presents a great theological development–a development which is influential to my preaching and teaching.  It is the diagram that I sometimes use from the pulpit, which I presented again in Monday morning bible class, we have a relationship (vertically) between God and us, and then also between us and our neighbors (vertically).  In our relationship with God there is nothing we can do to earn his righteousness.  We receive it by Grace through faith.  But, between our neighbors there is righteousness too.  It is a righteousness that is obtained by works.  It is a righteousness that sometimes needs the sting of the law to motivate sinners to achieve.  This type of righteousness takes many forms, or is practiced in many different arenas.

If you are a business man/woman and have workers under you; treat them well, give them a fair wage, and do not burden them with fear or your anger.  If you are a wife, submit to your husband and do not frustrate him, if you are a husband sacrifice yourself and your pride and childish ambition as Christ sacrificed all for his bride–the Church.  These are the sorts of practices, AND MANY MORE I TELL YOU, that belong to the righteousness we practice in an active way, rather than the righteousness we receive as completely passive creatures by faith. 

To prepare us for reading this jam-packed little letter let me just say that things are not good in the Galatian Churches.  St. Paul has strong language in Galatians.  Perhaps the strongest of any letter he wrote.  He is unhappy because there is a guy, or most likely a group of guys, diverting the Church from the truth that we human creatures are justified by grace through faith.  These false teachers were claiming Paul had no real authrotiy as Apostles because he came so much later than the other Apostles.  And, on this claim, these false teachers were adding to the Gospel of God from the practices of the Jewish religion–circumcision and food laws to be precise.  They were telling these Gentile Christians things like, “to be REAL Christians you need to get Circumcised, or you are not really a child of God.”  This is, of course, the law.  Which has no place in determining the status of a human creatures vertical relationship between God–only Christ determines that status. 

Now the stage is set.  I look forward to what follows.  May the YOUR God who has given you the status as Sons and Daughters by Grace continue in his love and favor for you this day.

Pastor Beltz

Devotion of the Day

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The Destruction of Israel

I saw the Lord standing beside[a] the altar, and he said:

“Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,
    and shatter them on the heads of all the people;[b]
and those who are left of them I will kill with the sword;
    not one of them shall flee away;
    not one of them shall escape.

“If they dig into Sheol,
    from there shall my hand take them;
if they climb up to heaven,
    from there I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
    from there I will search them out and take them;
and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea,
    there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
And if they go into captivity before their enemies,
    there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them;
and I will fix my eyes upon them
    for evil and not for good.”

The Lord God of hosts,
he who touches the earth and it melts,
    and all who dwell in it mourn,
and all of it rises like the Nile,
    and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt;
who builds his upper chambers in the heavens
    and founds his vault upon the earth;
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out upon the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.

“Are you not like the Cushites to me,
    O people of Israel?” declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
    and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?
Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground,
    except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,”
declares the Lord.

“For behold, I will command,
    and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
    but no pebble shall fall to the earth.
10 All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
    who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’

The Restoration of Israel

11 “In that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
    and raise up its ruins
    and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom
    and all the nations who are called by my name,”[c]
    declares the Lord who does this.

13 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
    and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
    and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
    and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
    and they shall never again be uprooted
    out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.

 

–Devotion–

Destruction and restoration.  It has been some time that God has been threatening to come down, but now it will finally happen.  He is coming to fold up the tents of the Israelites for a time, and wipe them off the map.  The “sinful Kingdom” will meet its end, and there will be no place to run.  Not Sheol (which is an ancient Israelite term for the place dead people go.  It is much like the way we use the term heaven.  A place dead people go no matter their place before the one true God), nor will they be able to climb high enough into the heavens.  This is perhaps a reference all the way back to Babel.  What is more intriguing is the last line of God’s promised threat, “All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’”  If God kills all the Sinners in Israel won’t he have to kill everyone?  Apparently not.  If he did that then there would be no one left to hear his promises in the following section. 

He promises to restore the people and the land.  With the promise that they will never again be uprooted.  Now, that promise does not seem to be fulfilled yet.  This is exactly why the writer of the Hebrews extends this promise of land and security to the Hebrew Christians.  Indeed, the promise of land and peace does extend to all Christians.  As we await the day when God will come back and give us promised rest and security in a new and recreated Earth.

Pastor Beltz

Devotion of the Day

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The Coming Day of Bitter Mourning

This is what the Lord God showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me,

“The end[a] has come upon my people Israel;
    I will never again pass by them.
The songs of the temple[b] shall become wailings[c] in that day,”
declares the Lord God.
“So many dead bodies!”
“They are thrown everywhere!”
“Silence!”

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
    and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
    that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
    that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel[d] great
    and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals
    and sell the chaff of the wheat?”

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
    and everyone mourn who dwells in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
    and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?”

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
    “I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning
    and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
    and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.

11 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
    “when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
    and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
    but they shall not find it.

13 “In that day the lovely virgins and the young men
    shall faint for thirst.
14 Those who swear by the Guilt of Samaria,
    and say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’
and, ‘As the Way of Beersheba lives,’
    they shall fall, and never rise again.”

–Devotion–

In this chapter we see a little more clearly just how Israel has corrupted the justice and righteousness of God.  They are being economically unrighteous.  They are using fixed scales when they measure the grain–to their advantage.  They are bringing the poor and needy to an end in the land rather than leaving the end-rows in the field for their benefit.  All-in-all they are being foolish.  And, after some reading and research, I found that the title “fool” was a title given to people who believed God had no power, or did not exist at all.  That is exactly what Israel is doing.  They have heard his Words in the Torah, or Law, and now they are acting as if His Word is impotent to determine their practice and compassion.  So, I will say, and not Amos, that they are being fools. 

This passage should have a great impact on us Christians that are regularly engaged in the economics of this society and culture.  Is our calling to make the needy and poor come to nothing?  Is our place to take from some for the benefit of others, or even ourselves economically?  Are we to fix the scales in our advantage as Christians and acts as if God did not exist?  No.  If it was unfit for Israel back then and brought the wrath of God, it will lead to the same this day.  Therefore, if you are a business person or engaged in commerce, be faithful and fear God and love your neighbor more than the bottom line, which is the God of American Economics. 

Pastor Beltz

Devotion of the Day

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Seek the Lord and Live

5 Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

“Fallen, no more to rise,     is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land,     with none to raise her up.”

For thus says the Lord God:

“The city that went out a thousand     shall have a hundred left, and that which went out a hundred     shall have ten left     to the house of Israel.”

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

“Seek me and live;     but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal     or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,     and Bethel shall come to nothing.”

Seek the Lord and live,     lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,     and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood[a]     and cast down righteousness to the earth!

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,     and turns deep darkness into the morning     and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea     and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name; who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,     so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

10 They hate him who reproves in the gate,     and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on[b] the poor     and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone,     but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards,     but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions     and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,     and turn aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time,     for it is an evil time.

14 Seek good, and not evil,     that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,     as you have said. 15 Hate evil, and love good,     and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,     will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

16 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:

“In all the squares there shall be wailing,     and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning     and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, 17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing,     for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

–Devotion–

“Seek me and live.”  We hear and see the Mercy of God for the faithful and righteous here.  God is calling out to his people, and his people are the ones who listen to him.  His people are not to go to other cities or nations to find relief.  They are to come to God alone.  This God identifies himself yet again in vss. 8-9.  He is the God of Creation who stretched out the stars and brings destruction.  Again, God gives us some insight into just what displeases him among his people.  There are many in Israel who are doing evil deeds.  Namely, not practicing the righteousness, justice, and goodness of God.

We learn an important term here also.  “Remnant,” is the term that God uses to describe those in Israel who have not bowed a knee to idols or those who have at least repented of such treachery.  Even though God is preparing to act against Israel, it might be that he relents and perhaps he will be gracious to the remnant…perhaps.  

The people are called together to lament and wail.  And, why are they to wail?  Because they are about to meet their God.  They have tested his patience.  They have tried his reality and god-ness.  And now he is getting ready to come down and show his people all his reality, power, might, and god-ness.  He will pass through their midst, and that is not good news for anyone in Israel.  But it might be better news for the Remnant than it is for those found outside that group. 

I have drawn several parallels over the past few weeks to the situation Israel faced back then and the situation we face today as a Church in the American West.  In a similar way there is an increasingly small number of people who are interested listening to Jesus as spokesman of the God of Israel as if he is sole authority over a people.  Too many add, or more commonly subtract, from the Words of Jesus.  Or, worse yet, we make Jesus a liar!  We say, or hear preachers say, “What Jesus really means here is…”  Listening to Jesus and doing what he says is the only way be assured that you are practicing in thoughts, words, and deeds the justice, righteousness, goodness, and truth of God. 

Pastor Beltz

Not the Sermon I am Preaching this Week

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When I was a child, the adult members of Pittsburgh society adverted to the Bible unreasonably often. What arcana! Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels.
Annie Dillard, “The Book of Luke,” The Annie Dillard Reader, 276
By the twelfth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel we get it: Jesus and the kingdom he inaugurates turn everything upside down. The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty, the poor find good news, the captives are released, the blind recover their sight, the oppressed go free. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep; woe to the rich, the full-bellied, and those who are laughing now.
These words of justice and compassion stir us, move us, inspire us. Occupying a place somewhere between the destitute poor and the obscenely wealthy, we want what Jesus wants. Preach it, Jesus.
But then he gets a little too personal, going to the heart of our middle-class presumptions and preoccupations. He tells the story of a man who, if we’re honest, seems worthy of respect for his prudence and foresight, his hard work that resulted in abundance, his savvy and strategic preparation. Isn’t this a man to admire?
Jesus calls him a fool.
Not because he’s rich but because he’s poor and doesn’t know it. In his greed–his desire to secure his own happiness–he can’t discern his lack. He can’t feel the big, gaping hole that he (and we) strive unsucessfully to fill. Or maybe he feels it all too well.
Qoheleth felt it. The Teacher (or Preacher) from Ecclesisastes is chillingly blunt, stark and straightforward, morose, even, in his assessment of our human striving for happiness: “All is vanity.”
In the mid-1960s, poet John Ciardi identified the cultural forces that make us “deliberately unhappy.” Advertising and the whole of the American economy, he observed, are predicated on a “dedicated insatiability.” Contrary to what we might suppose, it isn’t that our consumer culture makes possible the satisfaction of all our wants–material goods to store in our barns (and big houses); rather, advertisers train us to be perpetually dissatisfied. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.
This Word of the Lord may sit uneasy with us this week but the news is still–always–good. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The writer to the Colossians encourages us to live deeply into the truth of who we are: icons of our Creator (v. 10). To bear the image of the triune God is to participate in, however fleetingly in this life, real abundance–the overflow of love and generosity that is God’s life and even our own as we seek to love neighbors and friends, strangers and enemies. In and through such love we are “rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21).
The Happiness Market (Ciardi’s term), it turns out, sells no such thing. But the texts this week, in proclaiming “virulent opposition to [our] world”–its vanity, its greed–point to where ultimate contentedness is found.