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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Mercy Seat

Many Old Testament prophecies foretold the coming of the Messiah. Most of them are familiar to us.  Other Old Testament rituals also foreshadowed the gift of a Savior, such as the Passover Lamb.  There is one such Old Testament foreshadowing that many Christians have missed, however.  It is found in Exodus 25, when God described to Moses the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and specifically the cover for the Ark, called the Atonement Cover or the Mercy Seat.

"Then make the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—from pure gold. It must be 45 inches long and 27 inches wide. Then make two cherubim from hammered gold, and place them on the two ends of the atonement cover." (Exodus 25:17-18)

This Atonement Cover took on great importance once a year on the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest was to offer a goat as a sin offering and would then enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle some of the blood of the goat on the mercy seat in order to atone for the sins of the people. Thus the blood of the sacrifice would rest on the flat surface between the two cherubim on each end of the Atonement Cover.

On the first Easter the women went to the tomb and were surprised to find the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. They were greeted by an angel announcing that Jesus had risen from the dead.  They ran to tell the disciples and Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves, with Mary Magdalene following them.  She lingered after they left and John reports in his Gospel: "Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot."  This description of what Mary saw is remarkable. 

The empty tomb of Jesus had essentially become the Most Holy Place. Just as the veil in the temple had been torn when Jesus died, now at his resurrection the stone had been removed, allowing complete access to the tomb.  And instead of the Atonement Cover, there was a flat rock shelf on which the body of Christ had been laid, bloodied from the flogging and crucifixion.  Instead of two cherubim of hammered gold, God sent two angels, one to sit at either end of the place where Jesus' body had been. 

Interestingly, the Ark of the Covenant and its Atonement Cover no longer exist.  They were lost, long before the coming of our Savior.  After the time when King Josiah restored the temple of the Lord the Ark of the Covenant disappeared.  The prophet Jeremiah said that this would happen.

"In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,” declares the LORD, “men will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made." (Jeremiah 3:16)

Thus, the Atonement Cover of the Ark of the Covenant was a foreshadowing of the new place of Atonement that God had in mind, the Atonement Cover of the New Covenant that Jeremiah spoke of.

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel... This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD... I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The empty tomb became the Most Holy Place. The rock shelf where the body of Jesus lay and on which his blood dripped down  became the Atonement Cover, and the angels who spoke to Mary served as the fulfillment of the golden cherubim at each end of the original mercy seat.

The fact that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was alive was the proof positive that his blood was indeed sufficient to atone for our sins, that his sacrifice was acceptable to the Father, and that we have been redeemed and made right with God.

What an awesome God we have who would give us this foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Jesus thousands of years beforehand! This demonstrates the truly unique and amazing character of Holy Scripture as the Word of God.  It gives us all the more confidence to believe that the events recorded in the Gospel which procured our salvation really did take place and really do seal our salvation.  Thank God for Jesus!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Have A Very Merry Materialistic Christmas!

If I told you that I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas, my wife Diana would have said, “Now, that’s an understatement!” I think a big part of my turn off has always been the materialism of Christmas.  Merchants use it to sell everything imaginable at exorbitant prices.  So when I was assigned to preach this year on “The Materialism that Stole Christmas,” I looked forward to the opportunity with relish.  Interestingly, it turned out differently than I expected.  I discovered something about Christmas that I had forgotten, or at least neglected in my mind.

The real message and meaning of Christmas is story about materialism.  It is the story of how the God of the universe who is Spirit, but who created everything material that exists, entered into the world which He created in the person of His Son.  It’s the story of how God became man in order to save sinful human beings. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

In reality, the most important aspect of Christmas is the material one, the fact that Jesus Christ took on flesh and blood in order to become our substitute. Only as a real human being could Jesus take our place in living a life of holiness in perfect obedience to His Father’s will.  This is the life that God’s righteousness demands of us, but that we can never live because of our sinful human nature. Because of our sin, we are under the condemnation of the Law.  We deserve to die eternally.  But Jesus took our place. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

Because Jesus lived His life perfectly in our place, he was able to offer His life as the sacrifice for our sins by dying on the cross.  He was only able to do this because He had a material body, because He was fully human, even though He was also fully divine.  This is the miracle of the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas.

However, since the beginning of Christianity, there have been false prophets who have sought to deny that Jesus was fully human.“Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 John 7) So there is a form of “anti-materialism” that can steal Christmas by denying that Jesus came into the world as both true God and true man.  If Jesus wasn’t fully human He could not take our place.  He could not be our substitute.  He could not die and rise again for us.  And that lie can also rob us of eternity. 

This was probably my wife’s favorites Christmas decoration.  She loved it because to her, Santa Claus has come to represent the materialism of Christmas, but Jesus is the reality of Christmas.  So this image shows us the false materialism of Christmas becoming subject and submitting to the real materialism of Christmas, which is Christ, the Son of God born as a real human being.

So do not forget the truth that Christmas really is about something material.  It is all about God becoming a man.  It’s all about the Incarnation.  Without the material gift of God’s Son, we would not have anything to celebrate at Christmas. That’s exactly the reason why we give material gifts at Christmas, to commemorate the gift of God’s own Son.  It is appropriate that we give material gifts to those we love, because God, out of love for us, gave us a material gift of His own, Jesus Christ our Savior.   But even as we buy and wrap and exchange material gifts at Christmas time, let’s make sure that our focus always remains on Jesus, the greatest material gift of all.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Unrestrained Evil!

This afternoon, shortly after returning home from church, I heard the devastating news about the horrific church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  This small town is about 35 miles southeast of where I live in San Antonio.  For such a massacre to take place so close to home forces one to come to grips with the reality of this evil in a whole new way.

I am a man of great faith, but I have to confess that my first reaction to this report was the same as my first reaction to the reports of the massacre in Las Vegas a few weeks ago.  "God, why would you let this happen?"  In a sense, we can never understand the answer to that question because we will never have  a command of anywhere near the knowledge, understanding and information that God has at his command.  God does restrain evil.  His Word makes that clear.  But God does not restrain all evil.  And we probably would not be able to understand why evil is seemingly allowed a free hand on some occasions even if God tried to explain it to us.

As I reflected on this shooting through the course of the day, a number of thoughts came to mind.  This world is very evil.  Why is that?  It's because ever since Adam and Eve misused their free will to rebel against God's command, sin has been a reality in the heart and mind of every human being that ever lived.  Evil is real, but it is not just an impersonal force floating around in the universe. It is a part of the very nature of our being.

If you doubt that evil is a very real part of your being, just imagine a machine that would portray your every thought on a theater screen for everyone to see.  How long do you think you could perfectly control your thoughts while sitting there looking out at the audience of your friends, neighbors, family, co-workers?  How long before thoughts of jealousy, envy, hatred, lust, revenge, greed, or a thousand other sinful ideas would be played out for everyone to see?

Yes, evil resides in everyone of us. Left to our own devices, we are all capable of the worst evil that we can imagine.  But thank God that for those of us who know and believe in Jesus Christ, there is a check on the evil within us.  That check is our faith and the power of the Holy Spirit.  It begins with the realization that there is a God to whom we must answer.  The Bible says that "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."  The fear of God can restrain evil within us and help us make wise choices about our actions.

But even more so, it is our new birth though faith in Jesus Christ that helps us overcome the evil within us and helps us live our lives to the glory of God.  "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation."  It is Christ living in us that empowers us to say no to sin and say yes to God.  Furthermore, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is going on in us to transform us into the image of God's Son.  "It is God's will that you should be sanctified," Scripture says.

The more we immerse ourselves in God's Word, the more we seek God's face in prayer, the more we honor Him in worship, the more we taste of His grace in the Lord's Supper, and the more we serve Him with our hands and feet as we serve others in love, the more the evil within us will be overcome.

What America needs to overcome the kind of evil that we've seen in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs is repentance and faith.  Jesus warned us, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world." Because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ at work in the hearts and lives of God's people all manner of evil is restrained every moment of every day.  But because unrepentance and unbelief is rampant all around us, there will always be evil to contend with.  Some of it God will choose to restrain outwardly. Some of it will be limited by His divine power.  And some will seemingly go unchecked. In the last instance we must trust God's promise that He works all things for the good of those who love Him, even if we cannot comprehend how that will be.

But to give up on faith because of evil men like the one who senselessly massacred 26 people at First Baptist Church this morning will only make the world more evil.  When we who have faith lose it because of evil, we become more evil ourselves.  Cling to faith, it is the only thing that can restrain the evil within us.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Battle of Growing Older

Today was an absolutely picture perfect day in San Antonio: eighty-two degrees, bright sunshine, not a cloud in the sky with a very light breeze in the air.  I just couldn't resist the bike even though I had not ridden since October 10.  Fortunately for me, today was one of my smarter days.  I only did seven miles, with 345 feet of vertical gain at 13 miles per hours.  It was just the right ride for my body in my shape at my age.  It was glorious!

Having reached my late 60's (67 to be precise) I think I've finally figured out that growing older is a battle.  Soon after Diana passed away (and I realized that I would no longer have to be devoting large chunks of time each day to her care) I decided I was going to get back intro shape.  I went at it with a passion that soon left me burned out.  Then I gave up.  It didn't take too long for me to realize, however, that I was losing strength and mobility much too quickly by just sitting around.  But when I did try to exercise I would usually go overboard and leave myself feeling drained at least for the rest of the day, if not for several days.

Now I recognize that growing older is a battle, and no matter how hard I try to win, it is a losing battle.  That's because nothing in this world can prevent the infirmities of age from eventually overtaking my body.  Scripture says, "The wages of sin is death," and I am now collecting my pay for all the sins I've been guilty of in the past nearly seven decades of my life.  Like it or not I will die, and the best I can hope for is to maintain enough health and strength to remain independent for as long as possible.

It will not do me any good to abuse my body in an effort to become again what I can no longer be.  I will never be the cyclist I was at age 55 when I rode the 206 miles from Seattle to Portland in one day at an average speed of 17 miles per hour.  I will never again be able to climb from the Puyallup Valley to the end of the road at Sunrise on the top of Mount Rainier, climbing 9000 feet and covering 140 miles in a single day. No matter how much I abuse my body, my age will forestall such achievements in the future.

On the other hand, it will not do me any good to abuse my body by sheer neglect.  Though the easy chair clamors and the cockpit of my Corvette lures me, I cannot allow myself to just sit around and wait to die.  Somewhere in the middle there is a better place to be, and I think I found it on today's bike ride.

A reasonable ride at a steady pace on a regular basis will do my heart good.  Some light weights and some moderate resistance training will keep me as strong as possible.  Some casual swimming of laps will keep me relatively flexible. And between it all I hope to be able to slow down sin's payments long enough to experience life for a few more years of independence and enjoyment.  It should also allow me to enjoy watching my wonderful grandsons grow up to be godly young men.

However, the prideful sin inside me keeps wanting to tell me, "Go a little harder, Bob, you can do better, think of what you used to be!"  So growing old is a battle.  It's a battle against foolishness and pride,  but also against neglect and slothfulness.  One thing's for sure, I agree with my mother-in-law's assessment (who at 87 still lives independently): "Growing old ain't for wimps."

Monday, July 11, 2016

My Amazing, Wild and Crazy Life that I Never Dreamed Of!

I recently changed my profile picture on Facebook.  It was a picture taken of me behind the wheel of a red Corvette at Spring Mountain Racetrack in Nevada.  Looking at it made me pause and think about all the incredible things have happened in my life that I would have never dreamed would happen.

Growing up in Detroit I started working at the family business at age 12.  At first I thought I would probably work there the rest of my life.  Then I started Confirmation class and fell in love with the Word of God.  I never dreamed that God would call me to be a pastor instead of a wholesale florist.  But that's what happened.

I married my childhood sweetheart.  Yes, I did dream about that for many years before it came to pass. That was no surprise, but then Diana and I discovered that instead of children of our own God's plan was for us to adopt two beautiful girls and make them our own.  And along came Rebekah and MaryBeth.   Growing up I had hardly even heard of adoption.  Who would have thought it?

I was a young, active pastor in suburban Chicago.  I played racquetball, swam one kilometer several times a week.  I was thin and fit when at age 34 when I woke up in the middle of the night with a heart attack.  And two weeks later I had a second heart attack! I would have never dreamed that such a thing would happen to me at such a young age.  But it did.

I was studying Scripture with my associate pastor and the outcome of our learning was a book published by Concordia Publishing House, our church's denominational publisher.  I had dreamed of writing a book, so that was not a surprise.  But when a few years later I was charged with false doctrine based on what I wrote in a book approved by the Missouri Synod I was shocked!  I never dreamed that would happen.  I never dreamed I would have to fight a four year battle to remain a pastor.  Not in my wildest imagination.

I got through all of that and received several calls at the same time.  Two were to Chicago, where we had lived previously for 12 years.  I never dreamed I would end up accepting a call to Tacoma, Washington.  I barely knew the Pacific Northwest existed, let alone that I would end up living there for almost ten years.  What a blessing Our Savior, Tacoma turned out to be!

But after twenty five years of ministry and three heart attacks I was far from the thin and fit young man that I was when I had my first heart attack in 1984.  I never dreamed that I would get back in shape in my mid 50's.  Then God convicted me of the sin of gluttony and after losing 100 pounds I found myself riding my bike all over the west coast, literally.  In five years I rode more than 20,00 miles. I never imagined I would ride from Canada to Mexico in three weeks and raise $11000 for ultrasound machines for Crisis Pregnancy Centers.

Along the way Rebekah found herself with child and no place to live.  Yes, Diana and I urged her to move back in with us, but deep inside I confess that I was angry.  I knew my life would never be the same.  Now I'm ashamed of those thoughts, because I never dreamed what a blessing Elijah would be.  If someone told me that I would get to be "father" to a boy 25 years after Diana and I adopted a baby girl I would have said they were crazy. I was right that my life would never be the same, in the most wonderful ways!

Then came Texas.  Diana and I have always lived "up north."  Then MaryBeth received a DCE Internship in Houston, Texas.  The next thing we knew she was married and we had a brand new grandson "down south." Diana and I never dreamed that her last home would be in San Antonio, Texas, home of the Alamo. Yet, as we dug through her family history we found she had ancestors buried just a hundred miles from our home in Texas. And, yes, I had been to conferences at Concordia Lutheran Church, but I never dreamed that I would serve in ministry there.  Yet, here I am blessed to be a part of this wonderful church family and their exciting ministry.

But God had another surprise in store for us, one that neither one of us would have ever dreamed of in our worst nightmares.  Diana never smoked a day in her life so the diagnosis of Stage 4 Lung Cancer almost knocked us off our feet.  She fought her battle for 18 months with faith, courage, and above all hope through Jesus.  I never would have dreamed Diana would have died from lung cancer, but I should have known that she would bear her cross with grace and strength.

I never really thought about it that way, but I guess that in a certain sense in addition to being a pastor, I've been a wholesale florist most of my life.  Ever since my grandfather passed away some of his shares in the family business were placed in trust for his grandchildren. When my father died I inherited some more shares. I never would have dreamed that at exactly the right time, when we were facing extra expenses from Diana's illness, the family business would be sold.  It was a windfall that Diana and I never, ever counted on or even hoped for.

For my last birthday before she died Diana gave me a radio controlled C7 Corvette.  She knew that I've dreamed of owning a Corvette my whole life.  As she presented it to me she said, "This is the closest you'll ever come to owning a Corvette."  At the time, I thought she was right.  Then, the impossible happened, and I was able to not only own a Corvette but to drive one on a race track at Corvette Owners School.

My point in all of this meandering is that our plans are never God's plans. I ticked off about a dozen things that I never dreamed would happen in my life, but they did.  If I started to name all the amazing, wild and crazy things that have happened in this world during my lifetime that I would have never dreamed of happening, I couldn't even count them all.  The world today scares me.  But when I look at my own amazing, wild and crazy life and see how God has been faithful through it all to uphold, sustain and bless me over and over again, then I have peace.

What has God done in your life that you would have never dreamed of happening?  The next time life goes crazy and something wild happens, just remember that even though you never dreamed that would happen, God knew about it from the beginning of time.  And He will see you through it, just as He has me.  Otherwise, I wouldn't be driving that Corvette.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Delighted All Along... and at Long Last!

Having grown up in Detroit, the Motor City, cars run in my blood.  I have yet to buy my first foreign car.  In Detroit, if you didn’t buy a new American made car every two or three years you were not a loyal American.  My dad was bit by the new car bug at least every two years and sometimes more often than that.  I will always remember his 1964 metal flake gold Oldsmobile 442 convertible with a red interior. After a couple of years he passed it on to me, and I had way too much fun driving that muscle car along Woodward Avenue.  As a result, over the years I’ve spent far too much money buying new American cars.  Some of them were great (like the 365 horsepower Ford Explorer Sport I now own).  Some of them were awful (like the Chevy Citation whose hatch I had to prop open with a broom stick).  Some were fun (like my Dodge Neon with a sunroof and a four on the floor). And some were rather forgettable (what year was that Buick something or other?).

There’s one car that I will never forget, however.  It was September of 1956, and as usual all the new car dealers up and down Woodward Avenue had papered over their showroom windows in anticipation of revealing their newest models.  I was just seven years old, clinging to my father’s hand as the dealer unlocked the showroom doors and let the public in for our first glimpse of the new 1957 Chevys.  I’m sure there was at least one iconic 1957 Chevy Bel Air on that showroom floor but that’s not the car I saw.  The one that caught my eye and captured my heart that day was a Corvette convertible.  It was a gorgeous shade of blue with white coves and a white interior.  I drooled all over that car while my dad walked around looking at the more practical, family oriented options.  “Someday,” I thought, “I’m going to own a Corvette.”

God had other plans, however, and called me into the pastoral ministry, which made it impossible for me to even consider such an expensive and impractical automobile.  Nevertheless, I still nurtured a secret passion in my soul for that two seater that would snap necks on take off, and turn heads as it flew by.  I’ve inwardly drooled over just about every generation of Corvette ever since.  The 1963 split window coupe is an all time favorite of mine.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really love the C4, and 5 iterations nearly as much as the early versions.  Somehow the smoothed-out fenders with bug-eye, pop-up headlamps never really did much for me.  But when the C6 Corvette came out in 2005 I fell in love all over again. 

Then, in 2014 Chevrolet did something that pushed me over the edge.  For the first time since 1983 they brought back the Stingray nameplate.  When I first saw a picture of the C7 Corvette Stingray online the styling took my breath away.  I knew I had to own one, but how?  Then, almost unbelievably, God graciously provided a once in a lifetime financial windfall that actually made it possible for me to consider such an outlandish idea.  At last, after almost 60 years of “wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin', plannin' and dreamin’ each night of [its] charms” (thank you, Dusty Springfield), I finally ordered my own 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51 coupe.  I was able to justify it, in part, as an investment, since it won’t be my daily driver.  Although it may never sell for more than its purchase price, it will retain a significant portion of its value for that day when my kids decide to sell it, after I’ve enjoyed it here on earth and can no longer drive it, or have moved on to better things in heaven.

I am delighted to praise the name of the gracious God I serve.  Throughout my entire lifetime God has consistently met every single need in my life.  I have never wanted for anything I truly had need of.  And on top of all that, God has time and time again fulfilled my wishes and longings for things that I really didn’t need, but only wanted to enjoy.  In fact, God has been so good that there were only two things left on my "bucket list." One is to ride my bike in France and watch a stage of the Tour de France.  I'm confident that God will one day make that too happen.  The other was to own a Corvette.

This gift of God's grace is one more example of His divine goodness, of which there is absolutely no merit or worthiness on my part, whatsoever.  It is just amazing that God would be so kind and generous to me!  But all of this is perfectly in line with the promises of His Word. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him.” (Psalm 145:18-19)  In this incredible piece of automotive engineering God certainly has fulfilled the "driving" desires of my heart. What else can I say but, “Thanks, Lord!”  Incidentally, that's the license plate I chose for my new "Vette." THXLRD!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

When Life Becomes Death

I just finished reading a book from the New York Times best seller list.  The book is entitled, "When Breath Becomes Air."  It was written by Paul Kalanithi.  Paul was a 36 year old neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer on March 9, 2015 almost two months to the day before Diana died.  Like Diana, he had never smoked, and was first diagnosed in Stage IV of the disease.  

Reading his book was profoundly difficult for me, but also healing in a very real sense.  It helped me relive some of the joys and sorrows Diana and I experienced during her battle with cancer.  It made me appreciate how good God was to us during the course of Diana's illness, allowing us to enjoy many good days, probably  many more than Paul did in the course of his battle. It also helped me see Diana's courage, grace, faith and hope, qualities that were clearly present in Paul's life as he fought against cancer.  

Paul died before he had the opportunity to finish his book.  The epilogue was written by his wife, Lucy. She wrote beautifully of the final days of Paul's life.  It was as though I was sitting once again in the easy chair in my study, next to Diana's hospital bed, holding her hand during her final days.  One paragraph she wrote was particularly poignant to me.

"Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult— sometimes almost impossible— they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love." (Kalanithi, Paul (2016-01-12). When Breath Becomes Air (p. 219). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) 

I've written before that at a certain level I was thankful for Diana's cancer, because it brought us closer together than ever before.  I now realize that it was also a blessing in many other ways.  It gave me the opportunity to serve Diana more lovingly and selflessly than I had ever done before.  It allowed me to see her faith profoundly at work in a terribly difficult time.  It truly was a time of "holding life and death, joy and pain in balance."  It absolutely did allow me to "explore new depths of gratitude and love," in my relationship with both Diana and our Lord.

Reading Paul's book was a little bit like tearing the scab off a wound before it was ready to come off on its own. As I read, I remembered and I wept.  It brought all my pain to the forefront again.  I believe, however that in the end I will heal better for having read it.  I strongly recommend it to anyone who would like to wrestle with the issues of life and death.  The truth is, every single one of us is terminally ill from sin.  And none of us, not even those diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer knows exactly when or how we will die.  But when we have our faith and hope securely anchored in Jesus, in the reality of his life, death, and resurrection, then we can die well no matter when or how we die, because we know with certainty that we will live forever.