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“As they say, It is not good to eat cherries with lords; they eat the cherries and shower you with the pits; and the favor of lords is as capricious as the weather in April.  No lord takes kindly to rebukes, except those of an extraordinarily pious nature who could take it.  David, Josiah, and Jehoshapat did suffer the reprimands of the prophets; but the other kings refused it, and had such prophets and preachers beheaded.”

Concordia and Koinonia

“The Son of God, being about to bring together His Church, first works through his young servant: and so it is well said: the word of the Lord came unto John, etc., so that the Church has its beginning not from man, but from the Word.”(Ambrose on Matthew 3: 1-11, the Season of Advent)

 “…let no one glory in his works since no one is justified by his deeds.  But he who is righteous has it as a gift because he was justified after being washed.  It is faith therefore  that frees men through the blood of Christ;  for ‘blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ (Ps. 32: 1).” (Quoted in The Apology of the Augsburg Confession)

“The Magi come by one way, and return by another. For they who had seen Christ, had come to know Christ; and they…

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Nicholas Meme

Meme

John (ca. 675–749) is known as the great compiler and summarizer of the orthodox faith and the last great Greek theologian. Born in Damascus, John gave up an influential position in the Islamic court to devote himself to the Christian faith. Around 716 he entered a monastery outside of Jerusalem and was ordained a priest. When the Byzantine emperor Leo the Isaurian in 726 issued a decree forbidding images (icons), John forcefully resisted. In his Apostolic Discourses he argued for the legitimacy of the veneration of images, which earned him the condemnation of the Iconoclast Council in 754. John also wrote defenses of the orthodox faith against contemporary heresies. In addition, he was a gifted hymn writer (“Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain”) and contributed to the liturgy of the Byzantine churches. His greatest work was the Fount of Wisdom which was a massive compendium of truth from  previous Christian theologians, covering practically every conceivable doctrinal topic. John’s summary of the orthodox faith left a lasting stamp on both the Eastern and Western churches.(From The Treasury of Daily Prayer, CPH)

O Lord, through Your servant John of Damascus, You proclaimed with power the mysteries of the true faith.  Confirm our faith so that we may confess Jesus to be true God and true man, singing the praise of the risen Lord, and so that by the power the resurrection we also attain the joys of eternal life;  through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Reflection:  If you have ever been in an eastern Orthodox Church, especially during the Divine Liturgy, you have seen people venerating icons by bowing to one and then kissing it. This can be disconcerting for many Christians.     It was controversial in the days of John of Damascus and still can be.

John of Damascus was instrumental in the iconoclast controversy. He wrote On the Divine Images, which is  a defense of the practice of venerating icons.   Our word “iconoclast” as one who challenges cherished beliefs, seems to come from that time.  It is from two Greek words and literally means, “breaker of images”. This was the word’s meaning then.  John was of the opposite position: an iconodule, “one who serves images”.  We live in an age in which we take a prideful pleasure in the breaking of icons yet the word “icon” is bandied about for all sorts of people as in such and such person is, “iconic” even when they do not reflect anything of the Lord and His will.

The Orthodox understanding of icons is this:  an icon is written.   Yes, it is painted but it written as a prayer, or a proclamation of the Word of God which is meet and right and salutary and so to do that was exhibited in a saint in Christ’s life.  The English word  word, “icon” is right from the New Testament and is translated as “image”  (Greek:  eikon, pronounced “icon”):

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-30

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:48-50

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:17-18

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Colossians 1:14-16

John argued in his treatise that we must remember why icons were written. The Word became flesh, the unseen God became flesh and we have beheld Him, therefore, icons/images are aids to worship the Lord.

Now I do not want to get into the particulars of this controversy but to remember: the confession that Jesus Christ,  the  true icon of the invisible God is itself controverted.  The impassable God becoming true man is contested by both Judaism and Islam.  It is a scandal as is the crucifixion (  1 Corinthians 1:23).  The Word, written and spoken was born of the Virgin Mary to be adored as He has saved us and thereby we might cling to Him in faith for His dear life.  This also teaches as C. S. Lewis wrote that to God matter matters, after all He created matter.  We do not worship matter but the Creator of all things and through His creation His goodness is still seen in the things He created.  He became flesh to redeem those whom He created and loves.   Further, redemption is not dis-incarnate spirituality, He came to redeem His creation from it’s bondage to sin, decay and death.  He washes us in real water comprehended in His Word, His Name and in bread and wine, His body and blood.  His Word is preached and taught  into our hearts to sanctify us that we are more and more the icon of Christ in the world.  Our hope is in the life of the world to come.

In a sense, “image is everything”, but not to impress others with a veneer to sell a product.  The icon of the invisible God is to look, by His Word, in the one true faith, into the Lord’s very heart and His will toward us.  Other religions do not know God’s will toward us all, but in the Son we see the Father who has loved us before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1: 3-5).

John of Damascus knew the image of God was present thoroughly in the Scripture.  This has a better Authority than written icons of men!  I think churches can get far afield dwelling too much on such human customs and forget the icons of His written Word, the Bible.

John  wrote hymns to picture in music and lyrics of the Word made flesh.  In the Lutheran Service Book are two hymns by John of Damascus, both Paschal (Easter) hymns:  “The Day of Resurrection” #478 and “Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain” #487. The day of His birth points to the day of His Resurrection:  the Icon of the Invisible God bearing the marks of the Cross for us and our salvation so we, “…be conformed to the image of his Son.”

One of the Gospel lessons for the 1st Sunday in Advent is the narrative of Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, a crucial Advent and the culmination of the 1st Advent. 

From Pastor Johann Gerhard’s Sermon on the Lord Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem:

For we do not preach ourselves, St. Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:5, but we preach Jesus Christ, that He is the Lord. We, however, are your servants for Jesus’ sake. It’s as if the apostle wants to say: There are many of those who preach themselves, who present dreams and ordinances of men, who direct everything to the end of themselves being held in high esteem. But that should not be. Christ alone must be set upon the colt. He alone with His Spirit and Word should rule in the hearts of mankind. His glory alone should be sought and proclaimed…the evangelists record that the little people took off their garments and spread them out before Him along the way…For whoever does a good thing for one of the least ones in Christ’s name, has done it also for Christ Himself (Mat 10: 42;25: 40)…If one gives food and clothing, i.e., temporal livelihood, to the servants of the churches and schools (1 Tim 6: 18-19), that is nothing more than a person spreading clothes to prepare the way for Christ in order for Him to make His entry to us.”

Introduction:  On this date in 2004, at a joint chapter retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity in HickoryNorth Carolina,  a dear mentor and friend, Pastor Louis A. Smith died.   He was born in New Jersey and married to Helen.  They have four daughters.  Lou could preach in German, sight translate Greek and Hebrew and knew other languages. He was a campus minister, parish pastor, writer and spent three years teaching the Confessions in Namibia.  He loved British football.  He was also the funniest person I ever knew.  He knew the Lutheran Confessions as he knew the stats for his beloved N. Y. Yankees…even better! He was faithful pastor and theologian of the Church. He is a major reason why I stayed in the Lutheran Church.

The following quotes are either from Pr. Smith’s sermons and articles or from my memory of many conversations with him.  Talking with Lou epitomized Luther’s saying that the conversation and the consolation of the brethren is almost a sacrament.

  • Note:  the NT Greek, episcopos, means “oversight” and which is translated “bishop” or “overseer”.  We were talking about bishops in the ELCA and Pastor Smith said:  “Episcopos” means oversight, not overlook.”

  • “Most bad theology begins with bad taste.”

  • “In this creation, life is received in faith as the sheer unmerited gift of God and then shared as freely as it is given in love for the neighbor. If you take creation, subtract faith, and love from it, the remainder is “the world.” Take away faith and love and the creation becomes clueless about God and itself and ends up looking to itself and when it “gets religion”, as the saying goes, the world makes itself into a god. “A god,” says Luther “is whatever you look to as the source of your good.” In addition, what creation, minus faith and love, looks to for its good is itself. And just so, creation becomes “the world”. The “world”, theologically is the creation bent on being its own god.” 

  • Towards the end of her life, Pastor Smith’s mother lived with Lou and his wife Helen.  Mom was quite a handful for Pastor and Mrs. Smith because of her rather cantankerous personality.  Lou and I were talking about that and Lou said, “You know, it is really hard to keep the 4th Commandment”.

  • Me: “I’ve always had troubles with the “unity” or “Cana” candle ceremony in a wedding service and I can’t put my finger on why.”Lou:  “Note:  you don’t need two candles to light one candle, so yeah, something is going on here.  The physical element of the sacrament of marriage is the two become one flesh.  Since most couples have already done that and so the ‘unity candle’ has been introduced  and has  become  an ersatz ‘sacrament’”.

  • First, the law (of God) functions civilly; to civilize, if you will, the Old Adamic beast that strives against God. While normatively expressed in the Bible’s Decalogue, this Law is active in the world whether or not we accept the Bible’s authority. If anyone does not want to believe that, just have them check the death rate. It remains at a constant one per person. The way in which the Law civilizes us is by confronting us with our own mortality. Where sexual license, for example, replaces marital fidelity, the risk of disease and most horrid death rises. Where property is not honored all our lives are in jeopardy. Where parents are not honored, the aged are in danger. And the problem with a youth culture is that nobody remains a youth. The result of this confrontation with God’s law, is the great variety of human law. This human law is natural law, not in the sense that the discreet detail corresponds to some natural underlying law code, but in the sense that every law, even the most perverse, is rooted in the effort to deal with our sense of mortality.

  • “Cheer up, things could get worse. So I cheered up and sure enough things got worse.” The old joke catches the problem. In fact change is not always for the better. Not by a long shot. But the ideology of progress has no way to deal with that.”

  • “I’ve told Church Councils at meetings about my salary, that when it comes to preaching, baptizing and presiding, I do this for nothing.  Church council meetings:  This is what I get paid for.”

  • Me:  “I usually am flummoxed when asked, When did the Lord call you into the Ministry?” Lou:  “When you were ordained, Mark.”

  • Me:  It is said that Lutheran Church is a “confessing movement” in the church catholic.  Lou:  “I was not baptized into a movement but the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

  • “The interpretive task is not so much to understand the Word of the Bible as it is to stand under the Word of the Bible. It is, after all, not the Bible that is the puzzle that we need to solve. It is we who are the puzzle and the Bible that will solve us.” (from an address in my possession)

  • “…the Bible is clear…the Biblical writers say what they mean and mean what they say. This, of course, does not mean that we immediately grasp what they say and mean. But the fault for that does not lie with the Biblical text. It lies with us; and that for any number of reasons. We might not yet have learned the grammar. We might not yet have learned the vocabulary or the particular idiom of an author. Luther’s struggle with the “righteousness” of God might be an example. He had imported a foreign notion of righteousness into the Biblical text and so misunderstood the text; to his own great pain. And it took a goodly amount of reading before the Bible could straighten him out. But in the end, the Bible’s clarity won the day”(from an address in my possession)

  • “…both hunger and thirst make us aware of our mortality. Guess what? THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO! That is their theological meaning. Hunger and thirst are sacraments of our mortality. They are the felt reminders of the fact that we do not have life within us.” (from a  Lenten sermon)

  • “Proper (Godly)  repentance is not a sorrow or a terror or a vow to change, so that we can escape the divine death sentence. Proper (Godly)  repentance is to accept the rightness of the death sentence and to submit to it; to submit to being put to death under the law. And without the real Gospel that is never done.”

  • “…I finally discovered the difference between a eulogy and a sermon.  Forgive me if I tell you what you already know. The difference is this:  In a eulogy, one person who purports to know another, stands up and says some nice things that are not necessarily true about a dead human being.  In a sermon, a person authorized by the Gospel of Jesus Christ says some true things that are not necessarily nice about a living God.”(from  a Lenten sermon)

  • “God does not justify ungodliness but the ungodly.”

When we seek relief
From a long-felt grief;
When temptations come alluring,
Make us patient and enduring;
Show us that bright shore
Where we weep no more.

(“Jesus, Lead Thou On, Lutheran Service Book #718, stanza 3)

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