The theme for this year’s Higher Things Youth gathering attended by many of our high school youth was Coram Deo. Coram Deo is Latin for “standing before God.” Of all the questions that challenge youth of any age, Coram Deo suggests the question, “What is your standing before God?” It’s an important question because all of us must stand Coram Deo, before God, not only now, but on Judgment Day as well. Inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Almighty God, St. Paul writes (Romans 3:19 ) “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
There are any number of ways that people try to stand Coram Deo, before God. Some try to stand Coram Deo by their own supposed goodness. “I’m a good person”, they claim. But Scripture declares, good isn’t good enough for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Some claim that by their lives, as they become better and better, day by day, they’re climbing ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ to godliness. Some don’t concern them with such a ‘foolish’ concept as Coram Deo. After all, “God didn’t make man, man made the gods” as the op ed piece from the LA Times boldly states. (Monday, July 18,2011).
Luther was acutely aware of the fact that he was a sinner who had no righteous standing before God. Before the Reformation, Luther sincerely believed that a person had to earn the righteousness of God through his own efforts. But the more Luther tried to be righteous before God, the more he became aware of his sinful condition. In fact, the closer Luther looked at himself, the more flaws he saw - the more he became aware of his unrighteous standing before God. All Luther was discovering, however, was the truth of Romans 3:20 , “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Luther turned to Holy Scripture, and what he found there through the Holy Spirit sparked the Reformation. God used Luther’s struggles with the righteousness of God to open his eyes to the truth Paul wrote to the Romans (3:21-22) “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
Luther rediscovered the central teaching of Holy Scripture - what we Lutherans call the key to understanding all of Holy Scripture - that we stand Coram Deo, before God as righteous people, not through what we do, but through what God has already done for us in Christ Jesus. In other words, the righteousness that God demands of us is declared ours as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
That righteousness that comes from God was made ours in a very special way - through the incarnation of God’s Son. The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ gave Luther great joy for in it he found God’s great love for sinners, a love that would send His Son (who gave Himself willingly) into the world born of flesh and blood, to redeem flesh and blood. Paul points directly to the incarnation when he writes: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-26 )
Luther was a great preacher of the cross, where Christ made propitiation for us. Propitiation speaks of Christ’s righteousness that covers the sinner - and it was there on the cross that Jesus, the righteousness of God revealed to all mankind, reconciled God and man through His blood. Every believer in Christ stands before God, Coram Deo, a righteous person because each of us is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, which washes away our sins.
Just as the incarnation brought great joy to Luther, the cross brought him great peace. It was through the cross that God gave him the assurance of salvation - the assurance that he stood before God, Coram Deo, a righteous person, declared so, his sins forgiven and washed away in the flood of Christ’s blood.
The benefits of the cross, the righteousness of Christ, is delivered to us in Holy Baptism and that, in part, is why Luther also found great peace in his Baptism. What Jesus did on the cross - the life He gave and the blood He shed is given to us in Baptism, where we die to sin and live with Christ Jesus in newness of life.
“We have, therefore, no greater jewel in body and soul. For by Baptism we are made holy and are saved [1 Corinthians 6:11 ]. No other kind of life, no work upon earth, can do this.” Luther’s Large Catechism Coram Deo - what is your standing before our righteous God? - Under the Law, your standing is guilty. - Under the Gospel, your standing is righteous.
Righteousness gifted. Righteousness declared. And if that’s true, “then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:27-28 )
That’s the heart and soul of the Reformation and that was the heart and soul of all that was taught at Higher Things this year - the central teaching of Scripture - the Gospel - that the believer stands before God, Coram Deo, a righteous person, not by anything we do, but through the forgiveness of sins, purchased for us through the meritorious life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and given to us freely through faith in the incarnate Son of God.
Beginning this Sunday, we will be augmenting our traditional Bible Study hour by looking at our orthodox Lutheran church in its own context, and in its relation to the outside world. Lutheranism (and, perhaps particularly the LCMS) has been accused of being insular- it is not a completely baseless accusation. The Sunday School hour at Faith in 2011 will serve to round out the theological/historical context in which we live. Our ministry to our congregants, as well as the many who access our website, presents orthodox Lutheranism via our sermons and catechetical short videos from our pastors. Using the resources that our church has (namely, many Concordia professors) we will be presenting series that seek to expand our understanding of other competing theological claims and church bodies. Dr. Adam Francisco will present a 3 part series on the history of Islam from its foundations with Mohammed up through modern interpretations of Islam and the Christian response. Later in the year he will present a series on the reliability of the New Testament in the face of challenges within, and from outside the church. Dr. Daniel van Voorhis will continue his presentation of the history of Lutheran Pietism through the 19th century as well as the concurrent movements in concurrent "Reformation" movements. Later in the year he will be teaching on the broader history of Christianity in America- from the colonial era up through the Modernist/Fundamentalist split that shaped the 20th century and has laid the foundation for the recent trends in evangelicalism and mainline denominations. In the Fall Dr. Rosendbladt will walk through the book of Galatians with a clear presentation of biblical doctrine in a verse-by-verse exposition. Throughout the year we will also have stand alone lectures from other Concordia professors.
Dr. Adam Francisco
4/10 The Muslim Worldview
4/17An Outline of Islamic Theology
5/1 Islam and Christians in America
Dr. Daniel van Voorhis
5/8 Part Two- Pietism in Germany- Francke and Zinzendorf (Early 18th c.)
5/15 Part Three- Pietism in Colonial America (18th c.)
5/22 Part Four- Radical Pietism in America (19th/20th c.)
5/29 The "Other Reformations"- Zwingli and Calvin
5/5 The "Other Reformations"- The Catholic Counter Reformation
5/12 Dr. Lessing
Our baptismal font is very simple. Four sided instead of the usual eight, made of simple wood stained rough, with a rather small stainless steel kitchen mixing bowl to hold the water. It’s not nearly as ornate as many of the gorgeous stone and marble fonts you can find if you Google ‘baptismal font’ on your computer. Not that there’s anything wrong with these elaborate fonts. It’s just that our font is very simple.
This simplicity, however, does serve one valuable purpose. It reflects the simplicity of Holy Baptism itself. Water and hands that apply it . . . God’s Word of promise . . . in the audible name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our font is simple and the baptismal rite is as simple as well. It’s so simple that it’s temping to brighten things up a bit in order to bring more ‘honor’ to baptism. Remodel the font - or import one from Antioch (or at least have an architect copy one) . . . add more pomp to the liturgy . . . increase the volume of water . . . do something to make baptism a bit more ‘festive.’ Don’t be deceived by it’s simplicity, however. Even though something looks simple doesn’t mean it ought to be overlooked, despised or neglected. And those who reject baptism, in part, because it looks so simple, walk by sight and not by faith in what God says He is doing in baptism.
Baptism’s simplicity shouldn’t blind us to the reality that God’s own power stands behind it. It’s as if God has seen fit to veil or conceal His immense power under this water which is connected with His Word. Instead of using His power to overwhelm us with glory, He hides His glory under weakness. Like Moses, whom God placed in the cleft of a rock and covered with His hand so that Moses wouldn’t gaze on God’s glory and be destroyed, God puts His hands over our face and sets us in the cleft of His Word to keep us from being blinded by the power of His majesty. God refuses to use all the bells and whistles and stars in the sky in order to impress us by the signs of His grace. Rather than bring us up, He comes down. He reduces the scale of His presence by bringing Himself to us in such lowly things. Perhaps God packages His incredible gifts up in simple, seemingly useless things for the purpose of faith.
That a Christian bother with baptism at all is sign that God’s gifts have worked faith. If baptism were some outwardly grand and glorious affair, something not to be missed, perhaps people would want to be baptized simply because of the status. But because baptism is so simple, is it deemed useless by a world that trusts not in His promises and, thus, misses out on His gifts? Still, when God says, “Baptism now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:21) He was not kidding, no matter how insignificant baptism may appear. How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the father which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy.
The next time you make that journey down the aisle to the chancel in order to receive God’s gifts in the Lord’s Supper, pause and look at our simple baptismal font. It’s nothing, really, to write home about and yet what great power God has hidden there. There in those waters the sin washed clean off us is absorbed by the One who became sin for us, in order to save us. There in those waters God kills sin, the sting of death and Satan himself and gives the life of Christ to those who undergo its drowning and rising to new life.
Heaven on earth. Everyone dreams about it. Everyone hopes for it with a hope that seems to be embossed on the
hearts of every human being; written there by the God who created us righteous and in His image. What would it
look like, this heaven on earth; this dream our human spirit strives to attain? Artists have drawn pictures of it, lions lying down with lambs. Philosophers have waxed wise about it. Politicians promise its arrival, if only they get elected, of course. From benevolent dictators to earthly monarchs to the dreams of a perfect democracy; from Ponce-de-Leon’s Fountain of Youth to cryogenic technology (all in hopes that you can either live long enough to see heaven come to earth or be thawed when it finally arrives); from the National Socialists to the Communist party; from multiculturalism to a proud nationalism; Republicans, Democrats, TEA, Libertarian and Greens. Somehow everyone thinks they can storm the gates and bring heaven down to earth.
To put an Eight Commandment spin on things, the schemes of men and the agendas of political parties, past or
present, were not necessarily ill conceived nor poorly planned. (Well, maybe some were.) But well planned or not,
those striving to bring heaven to earth were simply up against a cherubim whose flaming sword, which turns every
way, guards the way to that gate to earthly paradise. And so, what always happens? Whoever is elected or appointed,
in spite of whoever usurps power or manipulates the system, what always gets ushered in is a poor excuse for heaven on earth for some folks and quite literally hell for all the others.
Dreams of a heavenly earth stretch beyond the political world, however. If only we could create the perfect family life with compliant, well behaved children, that would be heaven on earth. If only I could get that perfect job (or today, just keep whatever job it is) that would be heaven on earth. If only I could find a safe haven for my money . . . if only I could find (and be able to afford) that perfect sailboat (or whatever it might be for you) . . . if only healing would come . . . if only I had enough to retire and walk out on my responsibilities . . . if only this . . . if only that . . . then we’d be just fine and it would be like heaven had come to earth, at least for me.
Don’t hold your breath, though. Earth may try to storm heaven but it won’t be bringing paradise down any time
soon. But lest you despair, that doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. There is hope, for God created us to inherit eternal life with Him and in spite of sin, God hasn’t changed His mind. God designed us to experience a perfect home in His presence. Our desire for it isn’t wrong. It’s a desire that God has built into us. The problem is, we just can’t create what we so desire to have.
It’s said Mark Twain once quipped, “In the beginning God created man in His image, and ever since then we’ve been
trying to return the favor.” Our desire for heaven on earth isn’t wrong. Our focus is wrong. It’s fatally set upon our own doing and our own activity and our own definition of what heaven ought to be like. We aren’t God. We aren’t the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Only God is the One who can grant us what we so desire.
Does that mean there will never be heaven on earth? On the contrary. God does bring heaven to earth even today. It’s
just that He does so in a way that appears so unspectacular, so unattractive, and so foolish, that, like a diamond in the rough, it’s easily missed. God brings heaven to earth each Lord’s Day and He does it by coming to us - for where He is, His heaven is. Every Lord’s Day He graciously gives us Himself in His most holy supper.
We write it into our liturgy so that we won’t forget it - for it is so easily forgotten - and if it is forgotten, then thoughts of what is truly heaven are replaced with things that only appear to be heaven on earth, things which fail us in our most desperate times of need. Together we say, “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.” We say those words not because we’ve always said them, not because we’re stuck in a liturgical rut, not because we don’t have something else we could say . . . we say those words in order to confess to one another and to the world, the fact that heaven is where the body of the Lord has come. And if Christ is with us as He’s promised to be, then all the heavenly hosts must be present, too . . . the angels, archangels and all the saints - living and dead. And all that means
is, though we will never storm heaven’s gates, heaven bursts in on us through the presence of the Lord’s body among
Heaven on earth is attainable, not by political elections, not through victorious living, not through my perfect little family-life, but only where God gives it to us as a gift. Heaven on earth is where the King is enthroned. This Sunday when you come to church, come knowing that in a very real way, you are leaving earth, or rather heaven is coming to you - to give you a taste of the glories yet to come. Heaven that are yours because Jesus, your King has covered all your sins. That is indeed, nothing less than heaven coming to earth.
“This mystery of the body of Christ makes earth become a heaven to you. Open only once the gates of heaven and look
in; no, rather not of heaven, but of the heaven of heavens; and then you will see what I have been speaking of. For what is most precious of all there, I will show you upon earth. For as in royal palaces, what is most glorious of all is not the walls, nor golden roofs, but the person of the king sitting on the throne. So likewise in heaven the body of the King is most glorious. But this, you are now permitted to see upon earth. For it is not angels, nor archangels, nor heavens and heavens of heavens, that I show you, but their Lord and Owner. Don't you perceive how that which is more precious than all things is seen on earth; and not merely seen, but also touched; and not only touched, but also eaten; and after
receiving it you go home?” - John Chrysostom