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Martin Luther: What does it mean to have a god?

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People talking today about the 10 commandments often loosely quote* the reformer Martin Luther saying, breaking any of the commandments is always a result of breaking the first – i.e. idolatry – or trusting in and worshiping someone or something other than the personal God who gave Israel the 10 commandments.

Background to the 10 Commandments

The first time the 10 commandments appear in the Bible is when God gave them to Moses. Israel had just dramatically escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The introduction to the first commandment mentions this, even though it is often left out.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – Exodus 20:2

The 10 commandments are not a list of morals foisted on children or society so they can become blessed by God in some way. God gave them to Israel AFTER he rescued them. The laws govern the relationship and identity of Israel AFTER their escape from slavery. You could say, first God rescues/saves someone, THEN he calls them to follow him as a student (the bible word used is “disciple’).

If you say breaking the 10 commandments is the reason someone is immoral or going to hell, or that keeping them gets you into heaven, you are getting things back to front in more ways than one.

Luther’s Comments on the First Commandment

Luther mentions a few things to unpack his idea that breaking any of the commandments is a result of breaking the first.

“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress … upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

In other words, Israel fled from the suffering of national slavery and exile because they wanted to freely enjoy and celebrate being identified with the God of their ancestors.

Luther goes on to explain how this idea of “god” works where we look for enjoyment, freedom and identity.

“… one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one.

… He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.

… whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor friendship, and honor has also a god, …

… the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.”

What does it mean to have a god?

According to Luther, it means the same thing for ancient Israel as it does now. What do you think gives you the freedom to enjoy and celebrate something?

Unless your “god” demands that you exclude everyone from your experience, you will probably influence others to share in the same experience. Maybe you do it via posting pictures of your version of happiness – family, beautiful scenery, favourite food, the ideal job.

Maybe you do it by telling everyone about your mad weekend at the club/resort/shopping centre/casino/stadium. Or if you’re a bit keen, maybe you do it by “sharing the good news” in some other way.

Luther said to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts. That defines how you understand things like safety, significance and success.

God is not known today by obeying 10 commandments. God is known in the historical person of Jesus. One of Jesus’ first followers connected that with the first commandment:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
~ 1 John 5:20-21

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* The origin of the loose quote is derived from Luther’s booklet, “A Treatise on Good Works” and his commentary on the Large Catechism. Both of these are available in public domain via the Project Wittenberg website.

 

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Leviticus your neighbour

No, it’s not a naughty word, nor is it the title of a film about the life of Nelson Mandela😉

It’s the 3rd book of the Bible. It’s one of the bits with all the gory sacrifices and (seemingly!) obsolete laws and rituals.

This time of year, many Christians make resolutions and plans to read through the Bible in the coming year. It’s a commendable goal and regular bible reading (& study, in context, history and genre etc) is part of the life of anyone who is serious about knowing, believing in, trusting and living for God. However in an average reading plan, of a few chapters a day (8-15min) many people come unstuck somewhere around the end of January.

Why? Well there are many reasons; lack of discipline, lack of encouragement, overwhelmed by the task, or as is often the case… they hit the book of Leviticus and balk. The stories in the 1st book, Genesis give the background to all those Sunday School lessons with which many are familiar. Tales of Egypt and the amazing crossing of the Red Sea in the 2nd book, Exodus is an easy read, because, after all, most of us have seen the movie and we know the story. Right?

But the 3rd book… What on earth has blood, guts, and weird definitions of cleanliness got to do with the ‘golden rule’ and loving my neighbour and all that stuff Jesus spoke about? Curiously, the first time that is taught in the Bible is, in that same 3rd book, Leviticus 19:18, which says,

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (NIV)

Leviticus told the people of ancient Israel what it meant to be God’s people and how that showed up in their day-to-day life. All that blood mentioned, acted as a divider and separator. It represented a distinction in what required special care (through isolation and an ancient version of immunisation and quarantine) and what was a common everyday experience.

I have spent many occasions teaching through this 3rd book, Leviticus. I still haven’t done so to the extent that I covered off everything – especially some of the saucy parts that cause lots of arguments😉 Nevertheless it’s a book that I keep coming back to as a key part of grasping the religion of Israel and how their worship was understood and practiced. It also has some integral connections to Biblical ethics and a lot of things Jesus taught. If you’re embarking on a yearly Bible reading program, I encourage you to have another go at reading the book of Leviticus. There’s only 27 chapters, read 3 a day and you’ll knock it over in 9 days. Give it a shot.

If you’re still thinking or wondering about a plan to read through the rest the of the Bible, here’s a page with some links that might help out.

Bible Gateway Reading Plans

 
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Posted by on 04/01/2016 in Bible, Jesus, Reading, worship

 

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Christians aren’t immune to battling bitterness

REPOSTED from 2008 – A pertinent self-reminder, after also being “ripped off” that there are better options than bitterness. This is the first of 3 posts on the topic of forgiveness.
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Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Hebrews 12:14-17

Contrasted with the great “cloud of witnesses” mentioned throughout Chapter 11, Esau represents the antithesis of faith. Each person mentioned in Chapter 11 knew to approach God in faith realising that it was otherwise impossible to please God. Esau, rejected God out of anger and bitterness, and result was a life of waste and regret.

It started with a dumb decision prompted by tiredness and exhaustion. In the field at the point of complete exhaustion and hunger he begs his deceitful conniving brother to give him some food. In exchange, Jacob rips him off by stealing his inheritance rights, giving Esau the modern equivalent of a cold Junior Burger. Jacob of course follows through with his coup (with his mother’s help) and deceives Isaac into conferring the full inheritance.

Esau’s reaction: anger towards his brother for deceiving him, anger towards his mother for helping Jacob, anger towards his father for not detecting the rort and ultimately anger towards God for not overriding the result of his mistake and stupidity.

Esau’s response: is to dwell continually on the mistreatment (forgetting it was his own fault that started the chain of events) and he became bitter. Turning to a life of immorality and unholiness he is no different to the teenager who takes to drugs, illicit lifestyle, mutilation or suicide. They engage in destructive behaviour, isolate themselves and spiral into an unrecoverable despair.

Forgiveness is the vaccine to prevent the “root of bitterness”.

First there must be the forgiveness of God through Christ – made possible by Christ dying for our sins and overcoming the ultimate despair and defeat proffered by Satan.

Second there must be the forgiveness of others. Bitterness is better prevented than recovered from as Hebrews 12 indicates – see to it that you don’t fail to obtain the grace of God and become defiled by the root of bitterness.

The grace of God only comes through Christ – thus our final remedy, restoration and redemption is through him. Education and counselling is helpful and can identify the symptoms or perhaps the cause event(s) of bitterness and they can help begin healing – Jesus can inspire and provide complete redemption. This prompts the author of Hebrews to say in Hebrews 12:3 – “Consider Christ”, he who endured the ultimate hostility was able to say from the cross, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”

 
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Posted by on 23/09/2015 in counselling, Gospel, Jesus

 

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The truth about trust

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The 1994 Season One finale of X-Files featured the tag line “Trust No One“. It was a warning of the inevitable deceit and betrayal awaiting anyone gullible enough to buy into cover ups perpetuated by authorities about the real causes of unusual and paranormal activities investigated by the show’s characters each week.

As a meme it represents cynicism that eschews personal transparency and vulnerability. It often covers the frustration and pain suffered by those who have experienced betrayal, deceit and abuse first-hand.

A contrasting response promoted by some says that you can and should have faith in people, give them the benefit of the doubt and trust them. This is a well-intentioned attempt to avoid negativity and anti-social cynicism.

In my last post I outlined the simple starting point for an approach Christians follow when addressing one another when they sin. The approach is based on a brief quote by Jesus, mentioned in the book of Matthew, about one of the ways people of the Church represent God. The goal in that quote is forgiveness and restoration of relationships. A similar quote is found in the book of Luke, also stressing the importance of forgiveness.

Jesus said to his disciples: … “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Like the Matthew quote, this is brief and doesn’t cover every possible aspect or scenario. It doesn’t mention what consequences might apply for different types of sins. The context, in Luke, is the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. We can never put God in our debt. A humble follower of God will never consider anyone else in their debt either, whether through wrong-doing or otherwise. The Genesis story of Lamech, a descendent of Cain, comes to mind. Lamech insisted that anyone who injured him would receive seventy-seven times the vengeance. Here Jesus says, “No.” It’s no wonder the apostles with Jesus responded with a plea to increase their faith.

It is one thing to forgive. It was freely received, so ought to be freely given. It is another altogether to trust the forgiven one. Forgiving someone who has done wrong against you does not require that you trust them or freely allow yourself to be harmed by them again.

For example, if I owe a bank $5000 and I can’t afford to repay it. They may choose to forgive the debt and write it off. I will no longer owe the amount. They will not prosecute me for not paying and won’t pursue the payment. However, if I was to come back the next day and try to borrow another $5000, or even just $1000, the bank will not trust me to repay them and won’t lend me the money.

In the same way, if someone has hurt, offended, harassed, bullied, intimidated or abused you. You may, if you choose, forgive them and not seek to prosecute them or have them charged for the offense. You are not required to entrust yourself to them only to risk them repeating the offense. The Apostle Paul wrote of how he evaded capture and attacks. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can to survive and keep going forward in your life is to run away from those trying to hurt you.

This doesn’t mean you’re not forgiving. It means you’re not trusting the person or people to hurt you again. Women and children should never to be told to stay in an abusive relationship or to trust an abuser. The abuser may have said sorry. The abuser may be genuine in their remorse and regret for their action. But while forgiveness is given freely, trust is not.

How do you know if or when the person is trustworthy? Maybe you never will. But you have no reason to feel as though you have failed in some way because someone else has not yet proven trustworthy. Go back to the bank example again. In some cases after failing to meet a loan payment, you will need to wait seven years or longer and then show evidence of positive changes to your saving and payment habits before the bank will talk to you about borrowing. Someone who has “borrowed” your trust in the past and not repaid it isn’t in your debt in the same way you are to a bank. If they can’t show evidence of positive change then you have no obligation to “loan” your trust to them.

You don’t need to be as cynical as Agents Mulder and Scully, but you don’t have to believe everyone either. They are not in your debt, and you are definitely not in theirs. The truth is out there.

 
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Posted by on 26/08/2015 in Bible, church, Jesus

 

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Ministry is

saving-friend-battle-of-verdunIn a recent discussion around the formation and shape of Christian ministry there was a reflection exercise. In-part, the reflection considered how, if at all, Biblical patterns informed present day ministry practice. The term, “Ministry” can be quite ambiguous and is not simple to define.

Bible passages that stand out to me, (along with many others you could probably mention) are Aaron’s act as described in Numbers 16:47-48. Paul’s description of himself to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), Jesus summary commission recorded in the fourth gospel (John 20:21) and Paul’s commission from God in Acts 26:17-18.

My “reflection” on these is a free-verse composition.

I love you, he said.
Here is everything I have. It’s yours.
I hate you, I replied.
I don’t want what you have.
I will burn it, despise it and destroy all you are.
My pain is too great. I cannot bear it.
I want to die and end it all.
Let me, take it from you, he said.
But why? I replied
It’s worthless, broken and full of shame.
Let me take it from you and give mine instead.
And then he died.
In brokenness, shame and indignity.
I am still broken.
I am NOT destroyed.
I AM re-made.
I have a treasure now he gave me.
Yet. It’s not for me.
It’s for all the broken people I can see.
I can love them. With his love.
Though they hate me.
Their pain is too great and they cannot bear it too.
I can take it from them.
They can be remade.
Because I can die for them.
Death can work in me and life will work in them.
I stand. Between the living and the dead.
He stood for me.

 What is ministry? It’s not heroic. It’s not taken for granted. It is something to live up to … and then die for.

 
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Posted by on 01/05/2015 in church, discipleship, Jesus, leadership, ministry

 

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After the Sydney siege, please be a messenger of peace

In the wake of the Sydney siege in Martin Place and continuing to be prayerfully sensitive about how to respond and move forward, I have noticed some comments by “christians” protesting the presence of Muslims and refugees in our community. These comments, often, come from a reaction of fear and confusion. But some are nothing more than racist rants and are not in any way representative of Jesus Christ, Christianity or the grace and compassion that ought to characterise Christian people. This is not an occasion to slander refugees or target Muslims in our society as though they are all terrorists. Such behaviour is beyond ridiculous and infantile. Please stop it.

In the first few hours of the siege yesterday I was concerned about the association of the gunman with Islam and why Islamic leaders had not been given an opportunity to decry his actions as outrageous evil. However, they did do exactly that later in the day. Why it didn’t happen earlier, I cannot say. However, were I in their place I would have been extremely tenuous about how to respond in a sensitive and compassionate way. No reasonable person of any faith or ideology could support or condone what was happening.

I am appalled by the tragedy. I am so sorry for the hostages and their families particularly those who were killed. I say that as an Australian man and yes, also as a Christian. However disgusted and angry I may be that this occurred in my home city, I cannot respond to terror, horror and inhumanity with words, threats or actions of violence and abuse. Peace engenders peace. If I want to pursue and develop peace in my community among my neighbours there is no place for vile hatred that perpetuates racism and discrimination. That means extending peace, friendship and hospitality to all regardless of their religion, irreligion or come what may.

The gospel of Jesus is a message of peace. We celebrate that great message every Christmas when we rehearse the announcement of the angels at his birth:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14 NIV

Peace comes to all recipients of God’s good will or favour. The followers of Jesus are ambassadors of peace; not strife, not hatred, not bigotry, not disdain, not animosity; but peace.

You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. Acts 10:36

That offer of peace extends to everyone, believer, unbeliever, anywhere in-between.

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. Ephesians 2:17

We are to model peace and offer peace to all, without exception.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Luke 10:5-6

To offer peace does not mean you agree with or endorse the views, opinions, or beliefs of the other person. An offer of peace does not mean that you agree with their religions, philosophies or ideals, or that you accept their position as equal alternatives to Jesus as the only way to the Father.

It does mean that you will seek to serve, love and support any and all: Christian, Non-christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, or otherwise.

You can do that and repudiate the evils perpetuated in the name of various ideologies and religions. You can do that and be friendly and hospitable to Muslim neighbours and repudiate stupid racist jokes, name calling and other abuse or mistreatment (particularly of Muslim women wearing head coverings). You can do that and welcome and support refugees without maligning or misjudging their motives on account of one who happened to have an evil agenda.

To that end, I join with many others throughout Sydney who have offered to ride with or stand with Muslim friends, neighbours and coworkers and oppose any mistreatment or hatred. Some of you may not be comfortable entering a Christian Church building, but I extend an invitation to you to join us this Sunday for a Christmas lunch. (post edited in 2015 – comment for details on address)

I’ll ride with you.

I’ll pray with (and for) you.

I’ll welcome you.

In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Photo on 16-12-2014 at 10.10 am #2

 
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Posted by on 16/12/2014 in Culture, Gospel, Jesus, ministry, Prayer

 

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The Night Before Good Friday

Read about it 

or…

 
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Posted by on 17/04/2014 in Jesus, video

 

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