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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Fourteen Words (Part 1)

"God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

In Russian Orthodox circles, a "staretz" refers to a much-experienced spiritual advisor.  One day it was reported to a certain staretz that a man had experienced seeing angels.  Such a vision, it was thought, must mark great spiritual progress!  But the staretz answered very wisely, "This is not surprising, that he sees angels, but I would marvel at a person who saw his own sins."

In Luke 18, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is called a parable, but it should also be viewed as a miracle.  For in it, a man truly sees his own sins.

"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner'" (Luke 18:13).

This tax collector, normally known for taking people's money, is here giving the world a gift: the perfect (seven-word) prayer.  "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

This prayer goes to great spiritual depths and heights.  It accomplishes two things.  First, it keeps you from becoming proud, by remembering that you are a sinner.  In Greek, it does not say "a sinner," but "the sinner."  Think of yourself as the only sinner.  You will never look down on another.

Second, the prayer keeps you from despairing, by remembering that God is merciful.  The words "God, be merciful" are in fact a promise that God is merciful and forgiving.  It is a prayer of faith and trust in God's mercies.

It seems clear that the tax collector prayed this prayer several times.  You too pray it several times today - and often.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Coming March 25

We're almost a third of the way through Lent.  We're looking forward to Easter.  But don't miss Annunciation, coming March 25.  Faith Lutheran will celebrate it this Sunday, the day before.

March 25 should be considered a great holy and happy day!  Called "Annunciation" for the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary, it comes nine months to the day before Christmas.  If on Christmas we celebrate the birth of our Savior, on Annunciation we celebrate His conception.  "Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary" (Apostles' Creed).

Let's go for a moment to Nazareth as it stands today.  We enter the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the Grotto of the Annunciation, held by tradition to be the place where the angel came to Mary.  Inside the grotto, or cave, is an altar bearing five Latin words: "Verbum caro hic factum est."  They belong to John 1:14.  One word, however, is added: hic (in English, "here").  And so it reads: "Here the Word became flesh."

While there is no way to confirm that this was the exact location, the words should be understood more deeply as pointing to the Virgin's womb.  Of that location we can be certain!

Sadly, many Christians miss the significance of March 25 as an opportunity to remember, ponder, and celebrate the Incarnation: God's Son putting on our flesh.  But you needn't miss it at all!

Take time to read Luke 1:26-38, say the Creed, and sing perhaps this ancient hymn:

Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh -
Woman's offspring, pure and fresh.

Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

And celebrate the day with your family and Christian friends!  Forget your Lenten fasting for a day and prepare a feast instead!  Give thanks with greatest joy for the love of God shown to us in the incarnation of His dear Son!

Pray the Holy Spirit to come upon you.  See your faith as the womb in which Christ is conceived and grows.  Then give birth to Him through words and works of love so that He may touch the lives of others.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Hymn Notes

Stanza 1 is based on the first seven words, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13), and stanza 2 on the second seven, "Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven" (Matt. 9:2).

In stanza 1 "O God, be merciful to me" is prayed three times.  I had multiple things in mind.  The Greek of Luke 18 would indicate that the tax collector prayed his prayer several times.  Then, there is something earnest about praying three times (see Matt. 26:44 and 2 Cor. 12:8).  I also had the Trinity in mind.  But above all, I wanted to do what the second line says.  There is for the sinner nothing else to pray.

Stanza 1 ends with the word "me."  Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector never uses the word "I."  "I" and "me" are very different.  "I" is the subject, the doer.  "Me" is the object, the one "done to."  The difference is grammatical, but also theological.  That is why stanza 2 begins with "I" - "I am your God."  God is the "I."  I am the "me," the object of His mercy.

God hears the sinner's prayer and reveals that He is Our Father.  This revelation and His word to us all takes place through His own dear Son, the crucified-risen Jesus Christ.  The Father's voice is heard through the Son: "Dear child...."  And the Breath with which the word is spoken is the Holy Spirit.

The forgiveness is personal: "I say to you...your sins."

And whatever He calls a thing, that it must be!  He calls death "sleep" (Matt. 9:24).  He calls the bread "My body" (Matt. 26:26).  He calls my sins "forgiven."  No matter appearances, I am only to believe.

"Take heart" is from Matthew 9 and is full of faith and courage.  "Look up" remembers that the tax collector in Luke 18 "would not even lift up his eyes to heaven."  But now he should and is ordered to!  For you will see a heaven and life with God that is opened wide by Christ (Matt. 3:16).  Things are "looking up"!

"Heaven" rhymes with "forgiven" in more than one way.  They rhyme spiritually!

The hymn is first a confession of sin, and then a confession of faith.  This is the core of the true spiritual life!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Hymn for the Fourteen Words

O God, be merciful to me;
The sinner knows no other plea.
O God, be merciful to me.
O God, be merciful to me.

I am your God, your Father too,
And through My Son I say to you,
Dear child, your sins, they are forgiv'n;
Take heart, look up: an open heav'n!