Sunday, February 22, 2015

Overcoming Temptation

A Sermon delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Charleston, WV on February 15, 2015, based on: Mark 1:9-15 (Luke 4:1-14a).

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ!

In our Gospel lesson today we see Jesus submitting to something that most of us would rather avoid: Temptation.

Usually we see Temptation as something to be avoided and feared. Jesus even taught us to pray: 'lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil'... And in fact, Temptation is indeed a solicitation by the Evil One to get us to do wrong. So, - not incorrectly we see Temptation as something bad.

However, in Jesus’ life and ministry we observe a different reality.

You’ll remember that after Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. He was full of God, full of the Holy Spirit. And a voice came out of heaven saying, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22).

And yet, immediately afterward, Jesus was led by the very same Holy Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days!

Like my daughter Leslie might say, "What’s the 'dealio'?!"

Well, the dealio seems to be that God had a mission for Jesus to accomplish. Armed with intimate knowledge of God and trust in Him, Jesus allowed himself to be led out into the desert to fast and to be tempted by Satan. Our Lenten fast is an imitation of this Jesus Fast in the wilderness.

But if we’re going to imitate Christ in our Lenten Fast, we need to understand what Jesus understood about Temptation: that it does not come to us because God hates us or is trying to trick us. Rather, God allows Temptation to come to us through Satan, so that, like Jesus, we may be purified and prepared for our own mission up ahead: participating with God in redeeming the world.

So why Temptation? If God wants to teach us things, why not just give us an elaborate video game that you can play over and over until you master the levels - and where if you die, your character just comes back to life digitally?

I think it has to do with the exalted place of Human Beings in God's Plan. God intends for us to be His Friends! – To share Life eternal with Him and to share the Rule of the physical universe with Him. That’s way better than the highest level of powers you can accomplish through any video game!

Sadly, God’s Plan for us seems SO exalted that most of us would settle for something more like a dog’s life:

 being happy, well-fed, free from hard choices, and blissfully unconcerned about being like God.

Temptation comes to ask the question, "Do you want to be LIKE GOD - or do you want to settle for something smaller?

If you want be LIKE GOD, it's not going to be easy. Just like Jesus, you’ll have to endure Temptation in order to be purified, trained and prepared for God's Best: Participation in the Divine Nature and Mission.

In Luke 4:1-12 we read how Jesus faced and overcame Three categories of Temptation,  all of which have to do with taking matters into our own hands: 

   Provision
   Power
   Protection

Jesus resisted the temptation to fulfill his own bodily hunger, and instead trusted God for his daily bread.

He resisted the temptation to grab worldly power and instead became King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

And he resisted the temptation to test God, and instead put the Evil One to flight, just as James says, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7).

Jesus met each of these temptations successfully, and as a result, 'returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee' (Luke 4:4) to begin his ministry. Thus Christ's Temptation was a prelude to ministering in the power of the Spirit.

Our Temptations 
I believe that we as a congregation are facing some of the same temptations Jesus faced – but that if we meet these temptations successfully we have the opportunity to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may minister to our world just as Jesus did.  

We seem to be on the verge of throwing ourselves down into destruction as a congregation. We have concerns about Power and we are worried about our long-term Provision as a church.

We are full of Consternation and Questioning: What is happening to us? 

Why?

Many of us feel discouraged. We may even be Desperate, wondering if we will ever get out of this? Will it last forever?

Please be comforted with this: 

1 Cor, 10:13: says, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

What I’d like to suggest today is some very practical ways of escape.
Ironically, this advice comes from someone who identifies himself first as a scientist, but also as a faithful Jew – John Mordecai Gottman, PhD.

As most of you know, I’m a Professional Counselor by occupation and a Certified Gottman Method Couples Therapist. I’d like to sketch out for you a few of the basic principles the Gottmans have discovered through their research and relate this along the way to our current situation. By doing this I hope we can find some practical ways of meeting and successfully overcoming our Congregational Temptations.

Gottman is famous for what he called the Seattle Love Lab

He and his associates set up an apartment in a local resort as a laboratory for observing couples’ behavior. Over a 40 year period, they worked with some 3000 couples. By recording them for 12 hours per day and then minutely coding and decoding their behavior, the Gottman team discovered two distinct patterns used by two different groups. He termed these the MASTERS and DISASTERS of relationships.

The Masters consistently practiced things nurtured their relationship: 

They worked on creating a good Friendship.
They had a Positive Attitude about their relationship
They made Repairs when their conversations got off track.
They acknowledged that not all problems are solvable. And
They Honored and Respected one another.

On the other hand, what predicted failure was also very clear.

The Number One factor in predicting relationship Failure is a pervasive pattern of Negativity…

Couples who showed what we Negative Sentiment Override consistently manifested the Fundamental Attribution Error: I’m Ok and you’re messed up – or Crazy or Demonic!

This Fundamental Attribution Error also manifests itself in what Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse 

- So called because they are the Signs of the End of a relationship. In fact, Gottman now states that if these behaviors are observed in a 15 minute segment of a couple’s conflict conversation, and they go uncorrected over the next three years, he can predict the failure of the relationship 91% of the time.

Criticism - This usually starts with 'YOU...always, YOU never, Why dont' you ever?!... It's finding fault with the other person and starting up Harshly and with an accusing atttiude. 

Naturally, when we are on the receiving end of this we feel: 
Defensive - we put up our shields of defense and might throw it back on the other person: OH, Yeah, what about YOU! What do YOU do?!

Contempt is when we adopt a morally superior attitude towards the other person and become disgusted with the things they do: We roll our eyes or bring back the Left side of our mouth  in a kind a scowl or smirk. Contempt is like pouring sulphuric acid on your relationship. 

Finally, Stonewalling is what happens when we get upset and want to leave the situation, either physically or by emotionally checking out. When our heart rates goes up about 20 beats per minute above its normal resting rate, we get too upset to really talk rationally and we just want to leave. 

Unfortunately, this can be a real source of danger when there is no agreement that taking a Time Out is OK. It would be like a sports team calling a Time Out and just going home. 

Men and women seem to have specific besetting sins in this regard: 
About 80% of the time, women bring up issues for discussion, so women tend to be the ones to start Critically. 

And about 85% of the time, men are the ones to get upset, defensive and who want to check out.

Now in this video, we can see all four horsemen at work in just 30 seconds…www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZUMYU-Ghb0

Any of those seem familiar at St. Timothy?...

While we can’t necessarily generalize from couple data to congregational outcomes, it’s not hard to imagine that a congregation could easily split under the influence of the 4 Horsemen.

If we’re not able to successfully come together and conquer the 4 Horsemen in our midst, the probability of failure could be as high as 91%.
I’m no prophet, but I can tell you what the sign of this would be:
Here’s your sign: 


It’s not impossible. Ask yourself the question: Where are these churches now?  

All Saints Episcopal, South Charleston, WV 
Humphreys United Methodist, Charleston, WV 
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Charleston, WV 

Here's what St. Paul's posted on Facebook on November 27, 2013: 
"We have closed our doors. Our building is for sale. Our church has moved to Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church."

Imagine the future with me for a moment and picture some possible buyers 
for our property:

The Bible Center could probably use a new Senior High School building.

Or River Ridge might be interested in expanding their 20-something ministry.

This space would make a great dinner theater…

Or perhaps the local mosque would like to expand…

And think about what we might offer an incoming pastor if we don’t get our act together. Imagine the Help Wanted Ad:  "We offer:

      Departing Members
      Declining Giving
      Fierce Factions
      Gridlocked Council
      Aging Congregation
      Few or Zero Visitors

It’s vitally important that we meet and overcome this temptation. Listen to this quote from Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl:

"There is a proper sense of having your emotions under rein which precedes any effective service outwards. You have to be free from ungoverned outbreaks of personal need and personal pain if your attempted works of love are not to be marred by self-interest and self-service, even self-sabotage."  (pg. 35 in The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, Barabee and Zahl)

Let’s avoid self-sabotage by starting with applying the Antidotes to the Four Horsemen!


Instead of a Harsh Accusing Start-up, Let's start softer: I feel, I think...instead of YOU, YOU, YOU! 

Instead of Defensiveness, take Responsibility for at least some part of the conflict.  MEA CULPA! I admit it! 

Instead of Contempt, which is like sulphuric acid poured on your relationship, build a culture of appreciation, and show respect for the Image of God in the other person. 

Finally, instead of Stonewalling, take a TIME-OUT and calm down. (More about that in just a bit.) 

Dreams in Conflict
Sometimes our conflict is because we have differing Dreams and those dreams end up causing us to become gridlocked in conflict. For example, one person has a dream of Preserving the past and another has a dream of forging ahead with new programs. Who is right? Both!

What’s the solution? In a word, Dialogue… and that entails: Confessing your sins according to James 5:16. We also need to ask questions of our opponents so that we can truly understand their position.

Here are some of the types of questions to ask: (no sarcasms please!) 

Why is this so important to you?
What are your guiding feelings?
What do we agree about?
What are our common goals?
How might these goals be accomplished?
How can we reach a compromise?
How can I help to meet your core needs?

Surely having a conversation like this and really listening to one another can only help to heal our wounds!

Process your Fights
One very important thing for couples and for congregations is to Process your Fights – talk about them without getting back into the fight!
Here is a 5-step process for talking through a fight:

State your Feelings
Tell your Story
Identify your triggers
Take responsibility
Think about next time.  What can we do better?

Make Repairs
During such a conversation, it’s possible you might get off track. 
Be alert to the other person’s attempt at making a REPAIR. Accept the repair in a spirit of gentleness and humility – and make one of your own as well! The classic one for Christians is: “I’m sorry, please forgive me.”
Take the time to actually ask for forgiveness. Also take the time to actually say: "I forgive you!" 

If you get too upset (Heart rate 100 bpm or greater) Take a time out!

Rules for a Time Out: 
Agree about taking a time out
      Set a specific time to talk about it again
      Soothe Self:  Physically, mentally, spiritually
      Think hopeful thoughts: We can make it!

Remember:
 For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (II Tim 1:7 NKJV)

And : God is WITH US:
Mt. 28:20, ..." behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)

Challenge: Conquer the Temptation by Resurrection Day!
Lent is the season for repentance and returning to the Lord. If we as Christians cannot get our act together, it is as if we are saying that Jesus was crucified and stayed in the ground. We serve a RISEN, not a dead Savior! 

What to Expect: 
By meeting temptation successfully, we can expect to be prepared for:
Increased effectiveness in ministry, and Further Temptations! (You can count on there being more as we go along - as we progress in the Christian faith and we become stronger, the temptations also become stronger!) 

Summary: 
Friends, Temptation does not come from God, it's not God's first choice for us. Temptation is a solicitation from our Enemy to choose second best and so use our God-given freedom for our own harm. But God, in his wisdom, knows how to turn even the temptation to evil into a good thing for our benefit.

Jesus showed us the way to resist Temptation successfully. It has all to do with being full of God's Word and Spirit and using some very basic tools to talk respectfully to one another. If we can do these two basic things, God will help us and use the temptation to make us stronger for His kingdom.


May God grant us grace to appropriate the gifts he has given us in order to successfully meet and overcome every temptation. In the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Receiving Vocations

A Sermon Delivered to the Company of Jesus
And Assembled Guests during the Ordination/Profession Service
At Newport News, VA 1/19/2015 

                                                                                              
Grace to you and Peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ!

We are here today to receive Vocations - to receive those who are answering Jesus' call, "Come follow me...". The word ‘vocation’ actually comes from the Latin, ‘Vocare’, “to call”. When we say that someone has found, or missed his calling, we’re talking about Vocation. Most of the time, we use the word to describe our work, our ‘job’. But properly speaking, Vocation means that Something or Someone outside of me has called to something deep within me. This Call then stirs something in me I cannot ignore and I become driven to fulfill the Call.  

Jesus called the first disciples to follow Him and become fishers of men and shepherds of the flock of God.  They heard the call, left everything and followed Jesus.

 In similar fashion, we receive those today who have heard the Call of Christ and have left the comfort of their former ways to follow Him as fishers and shepherds, clergy and monastics.

The Calling of those we receive today is relatively rare. Not everyone is called to be an ordained Deacon, or a Third Order Franciscan or Benedictine – whatever that is…

But these specific callings are just special cases of God’s first and foremost calling to us all: “Come to me; follow Me

This Call is not "instrumental": 'follow me, so that - you can win people, build a church, change the world - or even be a ‘better person’ - but just to follow Christ.  St. Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule: “the voice of the Lord invites us, in His loving-kindness, to find the way of life” - which is precisely Christ, “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. (John 14:6).

This is God’s call to every one of us: Come to Me and find Life!

Those we receive today have heard that call and have followed Christ by repenting of their sins and being baptized into the family of God. They have already made what we call “Baptismal Vows” and now come to make specific Vocational Vows.

To make a Vow means to ‘swear an oath’, invoking the Name of God in such a way that God becomes an active party to the Oath. When we testify in court, we solemnly “swear to tell the truth the whole and notion but the truth, so help me God.”

The Ancient Romans used the term “Sacramentum” for the sacred oath sworn by men on entering the Roman military. It was understood that swearing the Sacramentum, changed the status of a man from Civilian to Soldier under absolute obedience to his officers. Without the Sacramentum, one could not become a soldier, and the soldier could only be released from the Sacramentum by death or being demobilized.  

In the Anglican Church, we understand that there are two Sacraments proper: Baptism and The Lord’s Supper. Every Christian is urged and expected to participate in them.

But what we do today is also Sacramental. Ordination and Profession Services are sometimes called “Sacramental Rites” because these Brothers and Sisters will 'swear an oath’.

By swearing this Oath and calling God to witness and participate in it, these Called Ones enter into what the Bible calls a Covenant. A Covenant is not like a Contract, which is an exchange of goods or services. Rather, a Covenant is an exchange of Persons.
Those who enter a Covenant give themselves to one another. Our candidates today give themselves to Christ, and He gives Himself to them, helping them to fulfill the Covenant they have sworn –  all for the purpose of Love.

When Jesus was Baptized by John in the Jordan river, he came up out of the water and God spoke audibly:   “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased!” That’s what we’re about today: affirming our Love Relationship with God by entering into specific Covenants that reflect the Vocation, or calling of these specific individuals.

But one very important thing to note about these Covenants is that the Blessing they confer is not only for the people entering into the Covenant, but for others as well. When God made a Covenant with Abraham, the promise was that Abraham would be the father of many nations and that in him, all the families of the earth would be blessed! (Gen 12:3).

So too, those who enter into the Covenants we witness today are called to take their blessing out into the world. The basic mission of the Company of Jesus is to ‘make Jesus known’. We do this by practicing our spiritual lives in the manner of Francis and Benedict, and by working in various ministries that make Jesus known to others, such as the Five Loaves Food Pantry. Members of the Company of Jesus also serve as pastors, teachers, counselors, health care workers, etc.

In Br. Tim’s case, as an Ordained Permanent Deacon his job will be to serve the poor and needy, and then call the Church’s attention to these needs. In addition, he will serve at the altar, setting up the table and assisting to distribute communion. He is also empowered to preach and to conduct what is called a 'Deacon' Mass" using the consecrated elements. 

 Regarding Ordination itself, we find the pattern for it in the book of Numbers, Chapter 27, where God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor. Moses was told to “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority…” (Num.27:18-20).

Ordination to the Diaconate finds its first New Testament expression in the book of Acts, Chapter 6, where the Disciples appoint seven men to help with the distribution of food to widows so that they themselves could devote their time to prayer.
   
And just as Moses stood Joshua before the people and ordained him for his ministry, so too did the first disciples stand the first seven deacons before them, and ordain them, or set them aside for ministry, by laying hands on them and commissioning them.

Now an important point to make about the various professions we receive today is that they are all simply intensifications of the basic Baptismal Covenant or Vow that every Christian makes when they profess their faith in Christ and follow Him in Baptism.

That’s why we are so glad that so many of you from so many different expressions of the Body of Christ have joined us here today to witness and affirm these Vows -  and ideally also to reaffirm your own Baptismal Vows.

For those of you who have never made such a Baptismal Vow, this involves re-enacting the pattern of Baptism: going down into the water to die to Sin, to be cleansed and renewed, so that we may walk in newness of life. It also involves affirming our belief in the basic outline of our faith, which you will hear in a few minutes as we ask the Baptized to reaffirm their Vows in the pattern of the Apostles Creed.
  
Today, we are Ordaining brother Tim to the office of Deacon, based first and foremost on his Baptismal Vow – his Covenant with God to turn from the old life of Sin, to be buried with Christ in Baptism, to be raised, like Christ to walk in newness of life, and to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit and to be acclaimed, just like Christ as God’s Beloved.

As many of you know, Brother Tim’s spiritual journey has been Epic!
His life is a testament to God’s saving and redeeming power – and to his own passion to serve Christ in every person he meets. He has studied the Bible extensively. He has also been prepared and examined minutely through his process of formation towards his Franciscan profession and through preparation for his ordination to the Diaconate. He has been found to be a Character – excuse me -  to be of good character, and to be worthy of this investiture today.

The same is true for the Franciscans and the Benedictine we receive. They have all been put through spiritual formation and will continue to be formed over next five years as they make four annual renewals of their vows, and then finally, at the fifth year, Life Vows in their respective vocations.

In every case, what we do today is not something random, but a ratification of something God has already been doing. As Henry Blackaby has so famously advised, today in this service, we are noticing what God is already doing and joining Him in it!

Now just a note about these ceremonies and the people who perform them:  

Today, Bishop Ames will ordain our brother. As Bishop, this is part of the ministry he is empowered to do. Like Moses with Joshua, Bishop Ames will lay his hand on him Tim before all of us and commission him in our sight with some of his own authority. A Bishop typically ordains Deacons and Priests to serve in local churches. He oversees a grouping of churches called a Diocese. Bishop Ames also serves the Company of Jesus as our Episcopal Visitor and Protector. Our Order resides within his Diocese, but is not a parish or church per se.

In a first for our Order, Brother Tim is being ordained to serve within the Company of Jesus as a Deacon working with the Five Loaves Food Pantry and serving the community in and around this ministry.

After the Ordination, I, as Abbot of the Company of Jesus will receive the Professions of Seven Franciscans and one Benedictine. I am not a Bishop, but I am an ordained priest, and have been consecrated to be the spiritual father of this Order.

Those who make their professions today are basically lay people.
Although Terry Troyer and Mark Scotton are ordained priests, and Nile Gomez and Mark Hanna are Deacons, Corey Chorba, Leslie Hanna, Darby Louis and Robert Rubinow are not. Nor need they be. Monasticsm is essentially a movement of lay people, not ordained clergy.

So there you have it – enough terms and definitions to fill a large glossary. But again, all of this we do today is in the service of Love and of serving and ministering to God’s people, wherever they may be found. 

To those being Ordained and Professing today, I say to you, My brothers and sisters, your vocations are truly a sign of hope and joy to the whole world. I am pleased and privileged to receive your professions and to charge you to Follow HIM as He calls to you through Francis and Benedict.

To those of you who join us to witness these vocations today, I say Thank You for joining us!  And God Bless you in your vocations as Christians, as spouses and single persons, workers, and servants to all in the world!

I’d like to close now with a Collect from the Book of Common Prayer and then ask us to stand and reaffirm our Baptismal Vows together.

  Let us pray:
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.


Walking out our Baptismal Vows

A Sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
Delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church
January 11, 2015

Last week, my wife Cindy and I endured the vagaries of air travel, took time off and spent a bucket of money visiting a family in the Ft. Worth, TX area.
As you might guess, it wasn't just any family – it was the family of our daughter, Leah, consisting of herself, her husband and their three children.

Now, why did we take all the trouble to do this? There are plenty of fine young families here at St. Timothy, plenty of beautiful children to enjoy right here without inconveniencing ourselves...Why not just be content with seeing them?...

Those of you who are grandparents are surely rolling your eyes about now. Why do you go to visit your family? Because it's YOUR FAMILY.  DUH! Those children are part of you – they carry your bloodline within them. And the husbands and wives who are your in-laws are also part of your family by virtue of  marriage. ( Sometimes that's nice, and sometimes that's a challenge...)

At any rate, your family is part of you and that makes those people extremely special to you. … In a nutshell, that's what we're talking about today: Family.

The Baptism of Jesus publicly and officially recognized Jesus as God's Son, conferred God's special blessing upon Him, and prepared him to begin his  ministry as the Messiah.  In essence, the same is true for us: In Baptism, we are officially and publicly ushered into the Family of God, given God's Blessing and prepared to walk in the ministries God gives us to do.

Now, this could be the end of our message today (and many of you would rejoice at that prospect...) But there's much, much more to understand about this basic truth – much that I think will bless you. In fact I'd like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to ponder and proclaim this message. I hope that I can convey even some of the blessing I experienced in researching this sermon, which I entitle “Walking Out Our Baptismal Vows”.

Let's begin by examining this notion of a Vow. 
Synonyms for the noun Vow are: Oath, Pledge, promise, bond, covenant, commitment, or profession. As a verb, 'to vow' means to Swear, pledge, promise, undertake, engage – or in archaic English, to plight: as in the old marriage vows: “I plight thee my Troth.”

For our purposes, we are particularly interested in the notion of Vow as an Oath or Covenant. We also want to bring in the word Sacrament because it conveys an important sense of all of these words. We'll start with the word “Covenant”.

 A Covenant binds two parties together as family; it creates a family relationship where none existed previously. A Covenant is different than a contract in that a Contract exchanges goods or services for money or other goods. It says “I will exchange this for that”. In contrast, a Covenant is an Exchange of Persons. A Covenant says, “I am yours and you are mine.”

God's characteristic way of dealing with his people down through the ages has been to make Covenants with them. Beginning in Genesis chapter 6, we read about God's judgment upon mankind and His dealings with Noah:

For behold, [says God] I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. (Gen 6: 17,18)

To ratify the Covenant Noah built an altar to the Lord and  sacrificed animals to Him. God accepted the sacrifice, and promised
that never again would there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11).

In Genesis 15-17, we read how God appeared to Abram and made a Covenant with him, changing his name to Abraham and promising that he would become the father of a multitude of nations.
Like Noah, Abraham prepared a sacrifice, splitting the sacrificial animals in two. God then accepted these sacrifices by burning them with fire.


In both cases the covenant was 'cut' by means of a sacrifice.  And in both cases there was a Sign to accompany the Covenant. To Noah and all humanity, God gave the Rainbow as an everlasting sign never again to destroy the world by water. (Gen. 9:12-17).

To Abraham and Sarah, God gave a son, Isaac, as a child of the Promise, and then established the Sign of Circumcision to indicate that a Covenant had been cut. All of Abraham's male descendants had to be circumcised to participate in this covenant. If not, they would be cut off from his family; the Covenant was considered broken. (Gen. 17:9-14).

So the pattern of Covenant is: Promise, Sacrifice, Sign. And the purpose is to create a special family bond between God and man.
The effect of a Covenant is to Bind the two parties together. God binds himself to us, and we to him through Covenant.

And this is where the ideas of Oath and Sacrament come in. 
An Oath is the invocation of  God's Name as a witness to truth. As we invoke His name, God becomes an active partner in our actions.
When we testify in court, we solemnly “swear to tell the truth the whole and notion but the truth, so help me God.” When we make the sign of the cross on our bodies, we pray, “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” and we conclude it with the Hebrew word 'Amen', which indicates solemn acceptance of the covenant oath and its terms.

On God's side, since there is no one greater to swear by, He swears by Himself (Heb. 6:17)



The Ancient Romans used the term “Sacramentum” for the sacred oath sworn by men on entering the Roman military. It was understood that swearing the Sacramentum, changed the status of a man from Civilian to Soldier under absolute obedience to his officers. Without the Sacramentum, one could not become a soldier, and the soldier could only be released from the Sacramentum by death or being demobilized. 

In Lutheran theology, a sacrament is "a divine covenant of grace and blessing transmitted in the visible form." It is a combination of the Word of promise with a sign. 

So now we have the links established.  A Covenant establishes a family relationship between God and man. The Covenant is 'cut' or sworn by means of a sacred and binding Oath, which God Himself institutes and activates. The Covenant carries with it a Sign and there are consequences for keeping and breaking the Covenant. In the life of the Church we enter into and renew Covenant with God by means of a 'Sacrament'- an oath we swear that permanently changes our status.  

This notion of Covenant is perhaps the most important in the Bible. We speak of the Old Covenant, or “Testament” in Latin. In the days of the Old Covenant, a New, Everlasting Covenant was promised through Jeremiah (31:31). Jesus later affirmed that this prophecy was being fulfilled: “This is the New Covenant in my blood...” he declares at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20).

This leads us to another feature of Covenant making: eating a meal after the ceremony.

 As part of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel sacrificed a lamb, put the blood on the door, 

 and then ate the roasted lamb. 

If you didn't eat the lamb, you would not be protected from death. As with circumcision, those who failed to partake were cut off from the family.

 We can see this pattern reflected in the New Covenant. Jesus is the Promised Messiah, the Ultimate Child of Promise. He is the sacrifice Lamb, accepted by God as propitiation for our sins. And we eat the Lamb every time we take communion, thus reaffirming our covenant relationship with God, our Father.

Very interesting, you may say, but what about the Sign of the New Covenant?  …  In a word, it's Baptism.
Whereas in the Old Covenant, the cutting of Circumcision signified membership in the Covenant People of God, in the New Covenant, Baptism now ushers us into the Family of God, signifying washing from sin, death to the old self and rebirth and newness of life.

In his first epistle, Peter indicates that Baptism corresponds to the family of Noah being brought safely through the flood waters. (I Peter, 3: 20,21).

And in Romans 6:4, Paul declares that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
It’s from this verse we get the imagery of WALKING out our Baptismal Vows.

But wait a minute, you might object, wasn't Jesus already God's Son?
Wasn't he sinless? Why did he have to be Baptized?

And the answer to those questions is Yes, he was sinless – but Jesus made a decision to actively identify with our sins. If you will, he made a faith-based salvation decision for God and was baptized to indicate his acceptance of the mission God had for him. Jesus chose to be baptized by John, but it was God the Father who did something during that Baptism; namely, He approved and publicly accepted Jesus as His Beloved Son. He also equipped and empowered Jesus with the Holy Spirit, who came down upon him as a Dove.
 
In the Larger Catechism, Martin Luther discusses the interaction of Divine work and human faith:  “Baptism,” says Luther “is nothing else than water and the Word of God in and with each other, that is when the Word is added to the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it. Now, Baptism does not become invalid even though it be wrongly received or employed; since it is not bound ... to our faith, but to the Word.”

This is a rather amazing thought – that an action I participate in – with the wrong motives, or without faith is effective just because it is God doing the work!

This then, becomes part of the rationale for baptizing infants.
 Luther again: “Thus we do also in infant baptism. We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptize it upon that, but solely upon the command of God.”

So too, if any one comes to Christ as an adult, we follow Christ in Baptism, in obedience to His command and trusting in the power and work of God, not in our own faith, which after all, is itself a gift from God. (Eph. 2:8).

But the really good news is that as we follow Christ in Baptism, we become, like Christ, Beloved of God!

Just as Cindy and I love our grandkids because they are part of us, so too God loves us because we have become His Kids by the Sacrament of Baptism.

In some ways this is almost too good to really comprehend. We have trouble believing that God loves us unconditionally when we are prone to sin and failure. But it’s precisely because of our Baptism that we can rest in this confidence.

 “...what a great, excellent thing Baptism is,” says Luther, “which delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own, suppresses and takes away sin, and then daily strengthens the new man, and is and remains ever efficacious until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.”
All of this is God’s own doing.  The old hymn expresses this truth: 

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name. ...

His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Nevertheless Doctor Luther insists that “if we would be Christians, we must practice the work whereby we are Christians.” This is what we mean by Walking out our Baptismal Vows. It involves consciously “putting to death the old Adam, and then focusing on 'the resurrection of the new man” … in such a way that 'a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.”

If then, our Christian life is a daily baptism, a daily death to self and daily becoming alive to God, so too God the Father is daily pleased with us, and daily affirms that we are His Beloved children. I encourage you Beloved brothers and sisters to take to contemplate this. Take an hour sometime to just sit still and think about God's blessing in your life. Claim it as your own.

It will be rather difficult at first. There are many voices coming at us daily that accuse and tear us down – and it's very tempting to listen to those voices and internalize them. But always bring to mind the Word of God, “You are my Beloved”. His Word is always True – even when you don't feel it to be so.

As you live into this awareness of His pleasure, that sense of blessing should begin to bubble up and spill out to others – giving them a sample of God's intended blessing for them as well.

This is God's intended Covenantal pattern: He blesses us so that we might be a blessing to others (Gen. 22:18) and that all the ends of the earth may fear him ( Ps. 67:7). 

Do this and you will truly Walk Out your Baptismal Vows!
AMEN and again AMEN.

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