Out of Shape?

This year, there is a great deal of emphasis being placed upon the importance of the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago. Being repeated so many times, I wonder if the word “Reformation” starts to lose some of its meaning for us when we hear it. To “Re-form” something means, of course, “to form again.” Luther set about his work because he saw that the Church had become misshapen, off kilter, or “out of shape” from what it was when formed originally by the apostles’ teaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified. It needed to be formed once again into what Christ through His apostles had built it.

This gradual falling “out of shape” is not “natural” in a perfect world. At the Creation, God gave us a world where there was no decay, nothing misshapen or off kilter, and things held together the way they were intended. However, with the world cursed by sin, such falling out of shape is an inevitable consequence. We see it in many places besides the Church of the 16th century. Our bodies slow down, our senses deteriorate, our parts settle into unusual positions, and the older we get the more we recognize a general sense of being “out of shape.” Our societies forget or ignore the moral law that God has written upon our hearts, they reject the teachings and traditions of history and our forefathers, and there is a general sense that things are falling apart in our world. Even the family unit can become misshapen and distorted as individual families drift apart through conflict or apathy, parents and children forget their fourth commandment duties to one another, and our world even goes so far as to redefine what “family” is. Let’s face it: everything falls apart in this sinful world.

Thankfully, by the power of the Holy Spirit our faith and hope are in the mercy and grace of the Great Reformer; and no, I don’t mean Martin Luther. Jesus Christ came into this misshapen, off kilter, out-of-shape world to mend what had been broken and lost. He took this world in His mighty, gentle hands and molded it back the way it was meant to be. In His life, we see flashes of Creation restored: the hungry are fed, storms are calmed, the sick are healed, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead rise again. But even greater that all these, we see Him bringing forth the forgiveness of sins through His death and resurrection. We are made alive again in Him, our relationship with God the Father is restored by Jesus’ mediation, and we will live eternally with our Triune God.

The same Potter Who formed the universe by His Word and formed man out of the dust has reformed, restored, and renewed His living Church. In Christ alone is our hope, only by His grace, only by faith, through the power of His Word. To God be the glory! Amen.

By His grace,

Andrew Boll

Video Game Spotlight: A Hero’s Sacrifice

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

~Philippians 4:8

In the last chapter of The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction, I recognized the fact that many secular stories, movies, and games contain wonderful, virtuous elements – even if the source itself is not “Christian”.  I recently discovered one such example in a rather surprising place: the video game series of “Halo”.  I certainly would not say that these games are something I would promote for the development of Christian character in young people, since the theme of the series is violent combat (although against clearly evil, non-human threats) and some of the characters use language that is not exactly Christ-like (although this improves throughout the series).  However, despite these shortcomings, there is a shining star in the midst of these games that provides an incredible example of faithfulness, hope, patience, endurance, humility, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for those around him – even those who hate him.

The main character of the series is known as Master Chief.  Only a few know him by his real name and officer number: John 117.  This is our first glimpse of the hero behind the mask in this series.  John 1:17 in the Bible says, “ For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  The alien forces who threaten mankind in this series are known as “The Covenant”.  While we know that the old covenant under the Law of Moses could promise only death for sinful man, it was Jesus Christ who saved us by overcoming sin, death and the devil through His death and resurrection, establishing a new covenant through His blood.  Halo players quickly surmise that Master Chief is the only hope humanity has against the alien threat which promises destruction for all mankind.  When he appears on the scene, the hopeless, demoralized, embattled troops of earth know that with him, there is life and hope.

Master Chief is never once arrogant or proud, despite knowing that he is all that stands between human beings and utter extinction.  He moves steadily onward, never neglecting his duty for our sake.  In John 11:7, Jesus turns to His disciples and tells them that the time has come for him to return to Judea.  They try to prevent Him, reminding Him that His enemies are waiting there to kill Him.  But the Son of God knows that His path leads to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and nothing will stand the way of His accomplishing the mission for which He was sent.  Likewise, Master Chief is marked by a character of pressing ever onward, even when his path means certain death for himself.  No matter the cost, he will complete his mission to save humanity.

There are so many rich elements that we could connect with as Christians in this story that I suspect someone on the game’s writing staff must have been a Christian.  A new threat is introduced soon into the game, a vicious, all-consuming race of parasites known as “The Flood”.  The key to humanity’s survival from this new threat lies in a hidden place called – you guessed it – “The Ark”.

As Master Chief travels on through the series and resolves each crisis toward humanity in turn, many look to him for hope in the darkest of times, trusting him to save them as they know only he can.  However, there are those who doubt him.  In fact, there are even those who hate him.  They reject him as the hero who will save mankind and even seek to get rid of him.  His response?  He fights with all the more determination to save those who have spurned him.

For this Good Friday Video Game Spotlight, I want to present my readers with a description of a scene that I think you will recognize.  The forces of evil have gathered thickly upon a bleak hill outside a city.  It appears the battle has turned against our Hero.  As his body is lifted for all to see, his followers cry out in despair.  How can this be?  He was our only hope, the only one who could save us!  As they gaze upon his lifeless form, all courage vanishes.  Some beat the ground in hopeless rage.  Others flee in terror now that their annihilation is certain, pursued closely by the monsters who seek to devour them.  Some simply hang their heads in anguish and await the inevitable end.  From the host of evil, a triumphant tumult arises.  The Hero is defeated.

Or is he?

Click here instead if you have a few minutes and want the full experience.

In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

Showers of Blessings

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.”  ~Isaiah 45:8

 

“April showers bring May flowers.”

I think these words give us hope as we stare out the windows at the early springtime weather. It’s wet, gray, sloppy, and at times simply depressing out there. So we have to remind ourselves that the current dreariness will soon produce the beautiful and abundant fruits of the earth. God’s blessings for tomorrow often come in the form of cold and bitter rainstorms.

In our personal lives, it is often the same. I know there have been times in my life where I was very angry with God over some temporary pain, loss, or disappointment – only to feel the sting of shame later when I realized how God was bringing about incredible blessings in my life through that same event. Scripture tells us that affliction leads to perseverance and eventually hope. Strangely enough, none of us jump up and down and get excited when affliction comes our way.

Heavy rain certainly reduces visibility. We tend to be so self-centered and short-sighted that we immediately become blind to the many, many other present blessings that God continues to shower down on us, even as we shake our fists at Him for our current discomfort. Our heads are hunkered down against the stinging cold of adversity, forgetting that it is the same rain that will bring forth fruitfulness, life, and abundance in the near future – but also pushing away all thoughts of other comforts and joys that are ours through God’s grace.

Perhaps this is our present state as we feel a certain amount of disgust toward our culture and society. We get frustrated and depressed over the Godlessness and immorality in our country, and forget the fact that God has graciously preserved our ability not only to worship Him openly, but to speak freely and challenge the empty philosophies of secularism. As we despise the humanistic notions that are running rampant around us, we lose sight of the many joys, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we so richly enjoy in our country. And who knows, but that this current shift in culture is not the rain that will moisten the earth and provide the perfect setting for the seed of the Gospel to sprout and flourish in the hearts of millions?

Occasionally, there will be rain showers; financial difficulties, health problems, frustrations and dilemmas in future planning. But we know that in all these things, God is faithful to the work which He has begun. We stay mindful of the hope we have of the growth occurring just below the surface, which will soon spring forth in splendor as God’s Word blossoms in our community and country. And we do not lose sight of the many, many blessings that He continually bestows upon us; the faithful members of our congregations and families, the devoted friends and neighbors, the beautiful children of God who have been entrusted to our care – and most of all, the life and forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ our Savior.

What a blessing it is to be allowed to tend this patch of earth!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  ~Isaiah 55:10-11

Prayer: Heavenly Father, bless Your Word as it goes forth in our communities, our nation, and throughout our world.  Grant that the seed which is sown will fall upon fertile soil, that the harvest be one of hope in the righteousness won for us by Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  In His name we pray.  Amen.

The “Why” and “How” of Teaching Obedience to God

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

We all know and believe that obedience to God is important. We see that God’s law is not only for our earthly good, but that our obedience serves as a light and a witness to those apart from God. God does not make His blessings and salvation to the Israelites contingent upon their obedience. God has given them the Promised Land. Now they in response are to show obedience to Him, thereby glorifying His name to those apart from the covenant community and drawing them unto Him.

Of course the Israelites would not follow God in perfect obedience. If they had, what need would there have been for the promise of Jesus, the Savior? But the obedience that they did have – where did it come from? I think verse 7 holds the answer: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray?”

You see, God did not draw close to the Israelites because of their perfect obedience. You don’t have to read much of their history to understand how true this is. Rather, the obedience that they showed to God was a response to His having drawn near to them, loving them, and redeeming them from oppression and slavery.

We are not redeemed because of our obedience. Obedience follows redemption. This was, is, and always will be the proper order. “Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:134-135). God does not love the writer of this psalm because of his obedience. Rather, the psalm writer obeys God and gladly learns His decrees because he loves God. Why does he love God? Because God has first loved him saved him.

Teaching obedience is important. We want our children to have peaceful, happy, orderly lives. We want them to be lights and witnesses to the Lord our God. We want to equip them with the full armor of God, so that they may be able to take their stand against the devil’s schemes (Eph. 6). We want them to be able to quell the wickedness that comes from their own human hearts (Mark 7:20-23).

So where do we start? We start by helping them to realize that they don’t always obey God’s law. Sometimes their lives will not be peaceful and orderly, and they will not be content. Sometimes they will fall victim to the traps and snares that Satan sets for them. Sometimes the wickedness of their own hearts will rise up and spill forth in their thoughts, words, and actions.

But then comes the best part: showing them that Jesus Christ came to earth for them, lived the life of perfect obedience that we could never achieve, and finally died and rose again so that we might also enter the Promised Land by His grace. Redemption.

We do not begin teaching our children obedience to God by telling them to obey. We begin by teaching them love for God through the story of our redemption in Holy Scripture. As they grow to understand and appreciate just how much God has done for them, we see the beautiful and natural response in their lives: obedience. And when this obedience inevitably fails, they will know it. Then it is our joy once again to point them back to God’s Word, to the cross, to the waters of their baptism, to their redemption through God’s love and grace.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to teach others love for You through sharing the Gospel of what you have done for them.  Guard my heart from doubt and disbelief when I fail to obey Your Law.  Send Your Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament to bolster my faith, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (Psalm 91:4)

The title of this devotion is a Latin phrase which my family recently came across in their studies and shared with me.  Literally translated, it means, “So much the better, we will fight in the shade.”  Allow me to share with you the story behind these words:

The Roman orator Cicero (hence the Latin) retold Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, led a mere 7,000 men against over 100,000 Persian invaders.  When asked to report, a scout betrayed his sense of despair at seeing such a tremendous force with these words to Dienekes, a Spartan soldier: “Their arrows will blot out the sun!”

To which Dienekes replied, “IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS!”

“So much the better, we will fight in the shade!”

Friends and fellow warriors, the darkness is gathering more thickly each day in our world.  Many of our former comrades have fled or turned against us, succumbing to the approaching terror and abandoning the truth of the Gospel for the sake of preserving their own temporal well-being.  As we stand near the battle-lines and survey the vast host of the armies of darkness that have been arrayed against us, paralyzing fear grips our hearts.  What is our response to this seemingly insurmountable threat?

Very well, then.  We will fight in the shade.

And indeed we will.  I do not mean to say that Satan’s hordes could ever blot out the light of God’s truth with their onslaught of fiery darts; truly, it shines all the more clearly in the face of darkness and adversity.  However, we will be shaded by the wings of our mighty and caring Heavenly Father.  His love, His mercy, and His strength will form a shield around us to protect and preserve our faith even in the face of every evil that comes swarming against us, no matter how dark the days may become.

“And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife,

though these all be gone, our victory has been won;

The Kingdom ours remaineth.” ~Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)

Yes, my friends; the battle belongs to the Lord.  Our faith rests securely in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sealed and delivered to us in faith solely through His grace.  What have we to fear?  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice as the mediator between God and mankind, God is and ever will be for us and with us, sheltering us beneath the wings of His love.  Though all the adversity of this world rails against us, it cannot prevail against the ultimate victory that we have through the cross.  Christ Himself tells us, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

King Leonidas himself was approached by the Persian ambassadors before the battle at Thermopylae began.  Knowing the odds against this king and his lowly army, and expecting him to immediately comply, they commanded him to lay down his arms.  To which he replied:

“Come get them.”

Do not despair, my friends.  Our eternal equipment will see us through whatever battles may rage in the days to come.  The Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, is strong to save.  Let Satan come and once more taste the Blade which brought about his destruction.  Though the hands that wield this supreme Weapon are frail and weak, the foe will never pry it from our grasp, for the Sword itself is invincible, and One who forged it and delivered it to us is ever by our side.

Does Satan come roaring against us?  Fine.  Come and get it.  Do the evils of the world gather more thickly with each passing day?  Very well.  Then we will fight in the shade.  Our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world and all its troubles.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Give your Church the everlasting rest she longs for.

Until that time, we will fight.

“Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.  I put no trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.  In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.”  (Psalm 44:5-8)

See also 2 Chron. 20:12-19

Prayer: Heavenly Father, arm us with Your Word, that we may go boldly forth and proclaim the Good News of salvation to all who are in the clutches of sin and darkness.  Keep us steadfast in faith against the attacks of Satan, this world, and our own flesh.  Preserve and sanctify us by Your Holy Spirit, holding us ever in Your strong hand, that we may come at last to everlasting life and rest; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Commander, King, and Friend.  Amen.

 

From the pages of Building Christian Character through The Hobbit – Now available!  Click the “Books Available” tab at the top of this page to preview chapters 1-4 or to order a copy.

 

Chapter XIV – “Fire and Water”

 

“The dragon is inevitable – and let it come!  I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

Like the colonists living in Patrick Henry’s day, the people of Esgaroth have been living in the shadow of terror for too long.  Until they face the dragon that looms over them, they can never truly be free.  The dwarves and Bilbo have awakened the dragon’s wrath and stirred up his malice toward the men of Lake-town, but that is just as well – especially knowing that Smaug is destined to die in this battle.

Mr. Henry goes on in his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace…What is it that gentlemen wish?  What would they have?  Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!”

The people of Esgaroth are so focused on their present suffering and the destruction of their town that they fail to see the wonderful, miraculous fact that seems so plain to us: Smaug is dead!  The monster of the north has been slain and the people of this region are now free from his centuries-long reign of terror.  While they may curse Thorin and Company for causing their present hardship, they ought to also recognize that the dwarves set into motion the chain of events that would lead to this great victory.

People have a way of delaying the inevitable.  As Christians, we often put off unpleasant battles in the hopes that the threat will just go away on its own, or remain sleeping beneath the mountain.  But the truth is, the monster is growing in size and strength with each passing day and year that we avoid confronting it – and the best we can hope for is that it will be our children or grandchildren who will have to combat the beast someday.  What terrible cowardice!

There are many difficult issues in our society that Christians are often reluctant to grapple with.  At best, we engage in minor skirmishes, hoping that it will be enough to stave off the threat without risking open war.  We make concessions to our faith and values, hoping that these compromises will reconcile us to the world.  They won’t.

So let it come.  Let us be the ones to wage spiritual warfare in our nation and world over issues of life, social values, and religious freedoms.  Let us boldly confront the evils in our society, even though it may mean a breach between Christianity and secular complacency.  Old alliances with those who undermine all that we believe and stand for may need to be cast down as we fend off the Dragon’s assault.  But it’s better that we take our stand now – while yet free to speak up and armed with the Gospel – than to relegate the task to our offspring who may be shackled and fettered with oppressive laws and a government that silences truth and wisdom.

We need to sound the alarm and take up arms against the Dragon right now, because he comes swiftly toward us breathing out deadly lies and fiery deceptions.  Christians at this time must especially take a stand on who God is and what He came to do.  There are many today calling themselves Christians who preach that Jesus came only to teach morality and self-enlightenment; that He was merely a wise teacher who set an example for how to live.  The battle-lines must be drawn here and now.  We must preach Christ crucified; that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God who died and rose again to atone for the sins of the world.  On this, there must be no compromise, because this is the truth and the difference between eternal life and everlasting death.

This will be a fierce battle.  We may risk much of what we have built up in times of prosperity to face the Dragon on this issue right now.  It will cause division and discord within our communities and country, because the world does not want to hear that Jesus is the only Way to the Father.  We will be condemned as intolerant – the worst possible sin of in postmodern society.  But the longer we postpone this battle, the stronger the Dragon will be when we finally face him and the more divided the Church will become, leaving the conflict to our descendants to fight with less hope and less strength than we currently possess.

We cannot afford to let sleeping dragons lie.  We must proclaim God’s Word – Law and Gospel – in truth and purity; even if it awakens all the fire-breathing menaces of every pagan religion, every secular humanist philosophy, and every false prophet that preaches any other Jesus than the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We mustn’t allow our cowardice to hand down this great task to our children for the sake of a false sense of peace and unity in Church and world.  We must fight.

 

The Dragonslayer’s sacrifice…

He spoke harsh words that were difficult to hear and were rejected by many.  He warned the people of the approaching doom, and fought on their behalf so that they could have life and freedom.  He was a descendant of kings, and the only one who could know the secret to defeating the evil monster.  He stood alone at last, enduring the flames of the dragon’s wrath, scorned by many and abandoned by his companions, because he alone could defeat the menacing beast and save them all.  He gave up his life to defeat the dragon, quelling its fierce might forever, but falling under the death-throes of his terrible enemy.  And when all hope had faded, he rose again victoriously and was exalted as king.

Sound familiar?  The triumph of Bard over Smaug is a striking parallel to the victory of Jesus Christ over the Devil.  While Bard may not be a perfect Christ-figure throughout the rest of the book, this particular instance provides an awesome image of the Son of God come to save those who had rejected Him.  And all in all, Bard serves as a great example of Christian virtue contrasted with the greed and hypocrisy around him.

Bard was condemned by his contemporaries for prophesying “gloomy” things; not that anyone disputed the truth and veracity of his claims, but it just wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.  Similarly, Jesus lost many followers and was rejected by a number of would-be disciples because of his hard teachings; things like being willing to give up earthly possessions and duties to follow Him, being “born again,” forgiveness based on faith by God’s grace, eating and drinking His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, and even His own death at the hands of His enemies.  Like Bard, Jesus would eventually be vindicated in all of His claims.  Those who rejected His words didn’t do so based on evidence to the contrary, but rather simply because it was easier for them to believe something else.

Just as Bard is the last descendant in the line of Girion, Lord of Dale, so Jesus was the Promised One in fulfillment of the Messianic line, reaching back to King David, Abraham, and all the way to Adam – the first recipient of the Gospel promise.  Being of the race of Dale, Bard was the only one who could understand the thrush and unlock the secret to defeating Smaug.  His black arrow that had been passed down from his father and “came from the forges of the true king” would prove to be the key to Smaug’s downfall.  Jesus, as the only begotten Son of God, was the only One whose blood was free from the curse of sin and who knew the way to defeat Satan, the great Dragon.  He was “from the True King,” and the black arrow of His divinity would be the shaft that would pierce the Dragon’s heart and bring him crashing down in ruin.

In the end Bard stood alone, abandoned by his companions, and faced the dragon while surrounded by the flames of his wrath.  Jesus’ companions all fled to save themselves, though they had sworn to stay by His side – even if it meant death.  He faced down the dragon, enduring the agony of the very flames of Hell as the Devil’s malice was poured out upon Him.  He fought our battle upon the cross so that we could enter the lifeboat of His Church and freely obtain life and salvation through the waters of baptism, just as the people of Esgaroth fled to safety through the waters of the Long Lake while Bard battled Smaug.

Jesus certainly did not escape the battle unscathed.  Just as Smaug came crashing down upon Bard in his last throes, so too did Satan strike the heel of Jesus with physical death and the torments of Hell even as he fell in utter defeat.  But like Bard, Jesus emerged victoriously amidst cries of mourning to claim His rightful title of King and Lord, claiming the honor of defeating the Dragon and freeing the people from his reign of terror – and of securing all the treasures of heaven on our behalf!

The Parable of the Foolish Branch

Text: John 15:1-17

Once upon a time there was a great Vine with a very foolish branch.  One day this foolish branch was thinking about how strong and thick he was, how green and shiny its leaves were, and how plump and juicy fruit always grew on its stems.  Seeing all this, he decided that he didn’t need the Vine anymore.  So he cut himself off from the Vine and set off on his own.

The foolish branch experienced all kinds of wild, exciting things in the days to come, and he knew that he had made a very wise decision.  After all, these were experiences he had never had before, in places he had only dreamed of visiting.  He felt sorry for all the other branches back in the vineyard, stuck firmly in place, rooted to the Vine.  Oh, if only they knew what they were missing!  A wave of superiority flooded over him as he compared his newly enlightened lifestyle with the boring, mundane life of his old friends.

However, these new experiences were taking their toll on the foolish branch, which he soon began to discover.  His delicate leaves weren’t used the abuse of gallivanting all over the countryside, and he noticed after some time that his foliage wasn’t quite as thick as it had been when he was attached to the Vine.  Many of his fine, shimmering leaves had fallen or been knocked off during his adventures outside the vineyard.  He wisely concluded that he would just have to be more careful – but this was no crisis too terrible for one such as him.

At first, the foolish branch didn’t even notice the parching thirst that came over him – he was so distracted with all the fun he was having away from the Vine.  He was not accustomed to this lack of water.  All his life it had constantly been supplied to him through a constant and invisible mystery; but that was when he had been attached to the Vine, and its distended veins allowed the sweet, life-giving liquid to flow steadily into him.  But now, his few remaining leaves lost their sheen, growing dry and brown around the edges.  The foolish branch knew that he must find a water source on his own if he was to survive, but without the strong, deep roots of the Vine, this was proving very difficult indeed.  When he finally did manage to locate a filthy little mud puddle, he was shocked to learn that the healthy veins that had connected him to the Vine were steadily closing up, as though an invisible firebrand had cauterized the place that had once secured him to life and health.  The foolish branch became worried.

As the branch trudged along, no longer reveling in the liberty and excitement of his enlightened lifestyle, he stopped to rest against the fence behind the barn.  Peering across the field, he saw something strange; the vineyard workers carried sad, dilapidated bundles of something brown and twisted.  Squinting, the foolish branch recoiled in horror as he realized what it was; it was the branches that year after year produced no fruit and had been cut off from the Vine.  When he had seen them last, they looked healthy enough; true, they had no fruit on their stems, but their leaves had been green and lustrous as his own…

He looked down at himself and almost withered on the spot.  He was no longer bearing even the slightest bit of fruit.  His leaves were wilted and dried up.  Everything about him bore a striking exactitude to the branches now being carried by the vineyard workers, to…where were they taking them?  The branch’s eyes were drawn toward a thick billowing cloud of inky black smoke on top of the hill.  His eyes continued to follow the workers as they approached the burning heap, stopped, and promptly cast the great burden into the waiting flames!  The horror, the shock of seeing it sent the foolish branch reeling.  What was he doing here?  Why did he leave the Vine in the first place?  Who did he think he was?  He was a branch, grown to produce fruit – not amble about the countryside idly enjoying the sights!  There was only one thing to do; he must produce fruit, and now!

The foolish branch thought that perhaps he could produce fruit on his own, without the Vine.  Yes!  That’s it!  The branch hunkered down where he lie and squeezed with all his might.  He pushed and grunted and heaved, but it was no good.  He suddenly came upon the terrible realization that he had no idea how to produce to a single grape.  Sure, he had produced thousands before, while still attached to the Vine, but back then it had just sort of…happened.  Now, now that he must perform this feat for himself or be destroyed, it was simply impossible.  The same life-giving waters that the Vine had poured into him had been the very source of the nutrition that produced each and every grape on his stems.  He realized now that – by himself – he had never been able to produce any fruit to begin with.

Parched, wilted, and despairing, the branch crawled its way back to the Vine.  He could see, well up the Vine, the very place where he had cut himself off from life.  The spot was healed over now.  Even if he could reach it – which he knew was impossible – there would be no way to be grafted back onto the Vine at this point.  He was as good as dead.  He lay down on the ground and waited for the inevitable – when the vineyard workers came and made their rounds, picking up the dead branches to be cast into the fire.

Toward evening, he heard steps approaching.  The footsteps stopped just next to where he lay.  He felt himself being slowly lifted from the ground, saw the bundle of brown, twisted, fruitless branches a few yards away, and waited to be tossed atop the pile.  But something happened then that he wasn’t expecting.  As gentle hands turned him over, he found himself looking at no mere worker; it was the face of the very Gardener Himself.  The Gardener just looked at him; looked at him for a long while with a very sad, compassionate look on his face.  He then nodded to himself, took a knife out of his pocket, and trimmed away the crusted surface where the branch had once held onto the Vine.  What was he doing?  The foolish branch looked on apprehensively as the Gardener reached out to his own Vine, the Vine he had loved and cared for all these years, and sliced into the surface of that Vine directly where the branch had cut itself away.  The branch could have cried out for pity’s sake – don’t hurt the Vine!  It’s my fault!  I was the fool!  I deserve the fire!

The branch didn’t understand what was happening, but watched with shame and sorrow as the sap poured out of the Vine which had been wounded because of him.  The Gardener continued to work, pressing the now clean surface of the branch to the freshly-wounded Vine, grafting the branch back in its very own place.  He bound the foolish branch there with strong and gentle cloth, working with care and diligence.  The foolish branch felt life flowing back into it once more through the wound of the Vine.  In time, his leaves began to green once more and luscious fruits ripened and filled on his stems.  And the once-foolish branch never again forgot that this miracle was only possible because of the ever-sustaining Vine and the love and sacrifice of the Vine and the Gardener.


 

My friends, it is a very dangerous thing to cut ourselves off from Jesus, the true Vine.  We know that in Him, and in Him alone, is found life and salvation.  Yet we neglect His Word, always finding something “better” to do with our time than read the life-giving Scriptures.  We fail to pray, to call upon him in praise and thanksgiving, to put our every sorrow and need into His loving hands, opting instead to face the impossible in our own feeble power.  We stray from our worship habits, relishing Sunday mornings as “our own time,” and not even noticing the slow withering of our leaves and the decay of our fruits as we distance ourselves from the Church that would feed and nourish us with His Word and Sacraments, cleansing our sinful wounds through the confession and absolution of sins.

We, like the branch, are all fools.  We go our own way, looking for excitement and adventure even at the very cost of our own destruction.  We cannot produce any good work that is pleasing to God apart from Jesus, for Jesus is ultimately all that matters in this world.  We cannot even take credit for the growth of our faith, just a branch does not decide to grow itself, but starts as nothing and grows up out of the Vine, by its power and discretion.  And when we fall away, it is only through the caring, gentle hands of the Father that we are brought back to life and salvation through the True Vine, Jesus Christ, who poured out His own blood on the cross that we might live in Him and through Him.

May Jesus sustain and nourish you always through His Word, and may you always rest in the loving hands of God the Father.  Amen.

A Break, and a Look Ahead…

Dear Readers:

Yesterday’s devotional marked the completion of the “Spiritual Self-Defense” series, and I feel that it also serves as a good breaking-off point for the full-length devotions (for a while).  God has graciously called me to serve at Mayer Lutheran High School as English teacher this coming school year, and my ministry there compels me to devote much of my time in the next few weeks and months to preparing lessons and developing classes.  I will still try to post full-length devotions occasionally (perhaps once a week – on the weekends…?), but otherwise my posts in the coming months will probably consist mainly of key verses and short thoughts on how God is equipping the Church today to fight against the evils that continue to press in upon us.

I thank you for your kindness in giving me your time for these past many days.  I pray that God would continue to guide and equip us all through His Word as we daily venture down new paths and face difficult challenges and incredible opportunities.  I thank Him for the opportunity to serve at Mayer Lutheran and share the Word of God with another generation of warriors of the faith!

His servant and yours,

AB

P.S. Please note that readers will no longer be able to post comments unless you have already posted a previously approved comment.  The reason for this is simply the vast amount of spam comments I am receiving (I have over 5,000 waiting for moderation…).  If you have a single comment for me or would like to be approved for future comments, please email me at Andrew.Boll@cune.org.  Thanks!

Drunkenness, Orgies, and the Like – Indulging Sinful Sensuality

“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22)

Our sinful nature constantly wages war upon us.  Our selfish will defies God’s good decrees and vainly seeks temporal pleasures instead.  The corrupt flesh holds such power over us that we willingly forfeit true peace and lasting happiness for fleeting physical gratification.

One the one hand, as redeemed children of God, we deeply and sincerely desire to serve and glorify Him for the great gift of salvation He has given us through His only Son, Jesus Christ.  But on the other hand, our wicked impulses drive us to flout the commands of our great God and Father, bringing shame and trouble upon ourselves and rendering our ministry flimsy and hypocritical at best.

We know that our own good works have no power to save us – that victory is complete and final, by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and triumphant resurrection.  And yet, as God’s chosen warriors in a world filled with darkness and despair, we earnestly yearn to please Him through thankful service that extends the fruits of His love to those around us.  Paul tells Timothy that “cleansing” is necessary if the Christian soldier is to be set to serve: “If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Paul doesn’t say, “Do this in order to be saved” – he says, “Do this in order to serve.”  What child in a loving family doesn’t wish to please his or her parents?  What student wouldn’t want to please and honor his wise, kindly teacher?  What noble soldier wouldn’t willingly go above and beyond the call of duty for a faithful and caring commander who has saved the lives of his men time and again?

Perhaps you, like many others, long to do what is pleasing in the eyes of God, but find that your sinful flesh often gets the best of you.  Some may even be at a point where they find very little desire to do what God wills, and are wondering what that means for their spiritual state.  In either case, the answer can be found in the same place: the Word of God.  The Law convicts us of wrongdoing, guiding and directing us in the way we should go.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God has taken our sins and placed them upon the cross of our Redeemer, making us free from the terrible eternal consequences of our sin and releasing us from the power it holds over us here and now.

If you desire to be prepared to serve God as a loving child, a faithful student and a noble soldier, turn to God’s Word for the weapons of faith.  In an amazing, miraculous way, the Holy Spirit equips us with all of the spiritual armaments we need to fight evil wherever it may lie; in our world, in our nation, in our community, in our household, and in our own hearts.  Through weapons like the love, peace, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control which the Spirit imparts through the Word, God adds to the joy of our salvation by showing us true meaning for our lives in service to Him.  And when faced with the most deadly attack that can be directed at our souls – the ugly accusations of Satan himself over our failures – our defense is in much more capable hands; it rests securely upon the breastplate of Christ’s own righteousness and the helmet of His salvation.

“The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8)

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Prayer: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me – help me to know the fullness of Your love and mercy, that I may ever serve You joyfully; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.