Wednesday, December 30, 2015

So that you might believe. . .

Sermon preached for the First Sunday after Christmas, the Festival of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, December 27, 2015.

   It’s very appropriate that today, two days after Christ’s birth, we commemorate St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, because Jesus is the very center of all that John wrote and proclaimed.  John was an eyewitness of the Incarnate God, and he gave testimony to this.  He wrote about what he heard and saw so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior, and that by believing we would have everlasting life. 
I.    The apostle John was one of the inner circle of the Twelve, along with his brother James and Peter.  He refers to himself in the gospel that bears his name as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  Of course Christ loved all of His disciples, but it does seem that John was especially close with our Lord as He walked on earth.  John witnesses many things that some of the other disciples didn’t.  He was present on the mount of Transfiguration and saw Jesus in His divine glory.  He sat next to Christ at the Last Supper.  He was with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as He prayed before He was betrayed.  John was the only one of the Twelve present as Jesus hung on the cross, and Christ even commended His mother Mary into the care of John before He died. 
Besides being a witness to these significant events of Christ’s life, John witnessed everything else Jesus said and did.  He heard all of Jesus’ teachings.  He saw all of Christ’s miracles, His healings, the feeding of 5,000, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and of course, Christ’s resurrection.  This is where our Gospel reading takes place, during the third time the resurrected Christ revealed Himself to His disciples. 
Seven of the disciples, including John, went fishing one evening, but they had no success.  That next morning, Jesus was standing on the shore, but they were unaware that it was Him.  Jesus instructed them to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and they did.  Miraculously, they caught so many fish that they were unable to haul it into the boat.  Right then, John knew that it was the Lord.  John was once again an eyewitness to one of Jesus’ great miracles. 
The job of an eyewitness is to give a testimony.  In a courtroom, witnesses are called before the judge and jury to tell what they have seen and heard.  It is their responsibility to give an accurate and truthful account of what they witnessed so that others may know the evidence and judge rightly a person’s innocence or guilt.  As an eyewitness of Christ Jesus, it was John’s responsibility to testify to others what Jesus said and did, and this is what John tells us He is doing in all of his writings.  At the end of the Gospel of John, he attaches his name writing, “This is the disciple [that is, the disciple whom Jesus loved, John] who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24).  John, and those who helped him put what he saw and heard down on paper, assure us that he was an eyewitness and that what he has testified to is truthful. 
In 1 John, the apostle again explains that he was an observer of Christ, the second person of the Trinity who was from the beginning.  John heard the Almighty God speak, he saw the eternal God with his own eyes, he touched the Incarnate God with his own hands.  And it is about this God, Jesus, that he writes about.  In the book of Revelation, John testifies to the revelation of Jesus Christ, the revelation that was made known to him by and angel.  Everything that John wrote was a testimony of what He saw and heard.  Everything he wrote was about Jesus. 
II.    There are many reasons for people to write today.  Authors of novels write in order to tell stories and to entertain their readers.  Journalists write in order to pass along information and the news.  History writers write in order to record and preserve the past.  Some people write with hope of becoming famous and making a name for themselves.  Others write with the hope of not being forgotten after they die.  And still others write just for the pure enjoyment of it.  There are many reasons to write, but John only had one.  He wore to proclaim Jesus so that we might believe in Him and be saved. 
    Everything that John wrote about Christ was for us.  He wanted us to know, believe, and trust in Jesus our Savior.  In his first epistle, John wrote, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:3).  And he continues, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:1-2). 
    John wrote to tell us who Jesus is and what He has done for you.  From the very first word of his gospel to the very last word of Revelation, John points you to Christ Jesus your Savior.  He points you to the cross where Jesus was the propitiation for your sins, where He shed His blood and gave up His life to pay the penalty for your sins.  He took the punishment you and I rightly deserve from God and He appeased God’s wrath, all for you.  And then, three days later, with His resurrection from the tomb, He defeated death, your death, and He won for you eternal life.  This is what John wrote and proclaimed, so that you might hear what Christ has done for you, so that you can believe and trust in your Savior and have life in Him. 
    The Gospel of John tells the history of Christ Jesus as He walked on this earth.  However, John would fail today as a modern history writer, because John didn’t include everything that Jesus did.  Today, biographers and history writers include everything: a person birth, their childhood, where they went to school, everything they did as an adult, and their death.  John doesn’t do this.  His gospel is void of Jesus nativity.  There’s no mention of His childhood, and there is much that Jesus said and did that John doesn’t include, and he admits this.  In John 20:30 he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.”  And then again, the last words of his gospel are this, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did.  Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).
    John doesn’t tell us everything that Jesus said and did, just like the whole of Scripture doesn’t tell us and explain everything.  There is much about God, the world, and how He interacts with us and the world that we don’t know, and we don’t need to know.  God doesn’t give us an answer to all our questions, but He does give us what is necessary for faith and everlasting life. 
    Through the writers of Scripture, like the apostle and evangelist John, God tells us what we need to know, and what we need to know is Christ Jesus and what He has done for us.  We need to know that He died for our sins so that we may be forgiven.  We need to know that He rose from the dead, giving us life even when we die.  This is why John wrote what he wrote.  The teachings and deeds of Jesus that he records were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:31). 
    As an apostle, John was sent out to give testimony of what he heard and saw.  As an evangelist, John proclaimed, by mouth and pen, the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Today we commemorate John, not because of his good works, but because of the message he proclaimed.  We remember him because he wrote about Christ our Savior, and through his writing we have faith and everlasting life in Jesus.  In His name...Amen.

Brick by brick, board by board. . .

When I was a kid my great uncle purchased the abandoned railroad depot in our town.  It had to go.  He bought it to tear it down and then to use the lumber to build a hog house on his farm.  My brother and I and an old curmudgeon named John were enlisted to do some of the heavy lifting.  We literally tore down the building brick by brick and board by board.  My Uncle Roy was a frugal sort of guy so the nails we pulled out were hammered straight again and put in coffee cans to be reused when it came time to build the thing up again.  It seemed to take forever.  Of course, it did not.  It only seemed that way.  As I look back it is now a brief and passing memory.  The building lived again to fulfill its new purpose.  But now my Uncle Roy and old John are all long dead, my brother and I are heading down the final third of our lives (statistically speaking), and the whole farmstead is all gone, plowed under the earth.

It may seem a strange analogy but the reality is that the Church is also build up one brick at a time, one board at a time.  While you are building it, it seems to take forever -- way too long for our comfort zone.  Yet the whole span of our lives is brief and when we put things into perspective it does not take as long as we think.  It is never quick but always plodding and deliberate.  And tedious.  We have years of neglect to make up for in the catechetical task and in our liturgical practice.  We have many years of ingrained ideas that must be torn down before we can build up confessional integrity and faithful practice.  I do not mean to disparage the generations before us.  They did their work, too.  We would not be where we are without the faithful labors of so many faithful pastors and people.  But the world is constantly tearing down and we must be as constant in our building up or the Church suffers and the mission suffers.

We will never get to the point of putting the last brick in place or nailing the final nail in the board.  The building process is as ongoing as the work on those ancient cathedrals continues, slowly and surely.  It gives you a good sense of perspective to remember a project like that old train depot.  It is a good and healthy reminder that we are ever constant and vigilant in the repetitive labor of the Kingdom of God -- preaching, teaching, worship, prayer, visitation, confession, absolution, baptism and burial...  Brick by brick, board by board.  Pulling out and straightening nails only to pound them back into the wood.  A few years under your belt as a pastor and you realize that you are not there to finish construction but simply to shepherd the people and the task for a given amount of time.  God will bring it to completion -- as long as we are faithful in what we do.

There was no pristine moment to recapture but only the constant struggle which we, in our own time and experience, add our own energy and effort to what has been passed down to us.  The past is there both to warn us when we become complacent (as we see what happened to the complacent in the past) and to encourage us when we become weary (as is too easy a temptation for us all) and finally to remind us that the Church is not ours to own but ours (as pastors) for a moment to shepherd.  We anticipate and face the East, the future, the tomorrow of God's own revelation and accomplishment.  Brick by brick. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The spoilers are spoiled!

Sermon for Christmas Day, preached on Friday, December 25, 2015.

    So how many of you have not yet seen the new Star Wars movie?  Well, you won't need to because I am going to spoil the ending for you.  Don't you hate when people spoil something for you?  Don't you hate it when the surprise is revealed or the joke is spoiled?  Well, what about when spoilers intrude upon our happy lives?  I am here to tell you that nothing can spoil Christmas.
    Wait a minute, you say.  Pastor, you don’t know my family.  They can spoil anything.  You don’t know the troubles I am dealing with at home or at work.  You don’t know what the doctor just told me.  You don’t know what is going on with my finances.  There are a lot of things that can spoil Christmas.  Well, you are correct.  I don’t know all that is going on at home and work.  But I do know that none of this can spoil what God has done.  Because He has come for exactly this.
    Today on Christmas morning we heard of the Word made flesh, the glory of God incarnate in a baby.  This is John’s version of Immanuel – God with us.  What is beyond the reach of our Immanuel God?  The Word that spoke in creation is now made flesh to speak forgiveness, life, and salvation.  What can spoil this miracle news?  What can steal God’s glory made to shine in the dark night of all our sins, all our problems, all our ills, all our fears, and all our anxieties?
    The Light shines in the darkness.  This is not a conditional statement.  It is not that the Light might shine or could shine but a declaration.  The Light shines in the darkness.  The darkness of sin and guilt and unworthy sinners.  That is where the Light shines.  The darkness of infection and affliction.
    That is where the Light shines.  All that troubles us in this body and this life.  That is where the Light shines.  In the darkness of our weakened condition because of sin and the death that threatens to erase our life and all our memories.  That is where the Light shines.  Every affliction of the soul, from despair to desperation.  That is where the Light shines.
    The Light shines and the darkness has not overcome it.  No matter how it appears to your eyes.  The darkness has not over come it.  This again is not a conditional statement – not a what if or what might be or even what could be.  This is God’s declaration.  This is what is.  No matter how it appears to you now, the darkness has not overcome the Light of Christ.
    His forgiveness is greater than all our sins.  No matter how lost and guilty we are, we are not beyond the reach of His Light that cleanses, forgives, and renews.  No matter how wounded our bodies and our down our spirits, we are not beyond the reach of His healing and sustaining grace.  He gives us what we need for this moment and He gives us eternal life.  The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
    Not even death can steal the light or take from what God has done.  The Light shines even in graveyards and funeral homes.  Death’s sting has been stolen and right here, in the midst of the world where the devil loves to gloat, God has delivered life to us.
    We have this life now and we keep it for eternity.  The world is filled with spoilers – just like those who tell you about the movie you have not yet seen.  The devil snickers thinking he can cast his long dark shadow of disappointment over everything.  But not Christ.  Not the Light.  It shines and the darkness can’t win.
    It’s true.  The party will end.  The bills will have to be paid.  Gifts will be returned.  Memories will fade.  But Christ remains. The world didn’t recognize Him but even that did not stop Him.  His own people did not receive Him; so He welcomed strangers like you and me.  To all who receive Him, God makes them His sons and daughters and opens heaven’s splendor to us all.
    You surely do have troubles.  You have spoilers all around you.  But these will end and Christ remains.  Satan, the world, your worst enemies, your worst fears, your wounded heart, and your bitter memories... they cannot spoil Christmas.  Christ has shown us His glory and His truth.  We have seen it.  It is the glory of the everlasting Son of the Father, shining with light, life, forgiveness, hope, and truth. 
     All that is left to us is to believe this, to rejoice in the God who delivers us from all the spoilers in our lives – even those we cause for ourselves.  All that is left to us is to keep our eyes, our hearts, and our focus on the Light that shines in the darkness.

But you are not gay, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkerds, revilers, nor swindlers. . .

Scripture insists that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.  (I Cor. 6:9-11).  You can find the same words in a dozen or more places.  At first I am tempted to say but that is exactly the point -- God HAS opened the Kingdom of God to exactly such as these.  And I suppose from our earthly perspective, so conscious of original sin and the battle with the old Adam that is how it seems.  But that is not how it is.

The key verse is such were some of you.  Note the tense.  You WERE.  And this comes the all important but...  But you were washed, sanctified, and justified.  This is not some mere formality but a change in who you are.  Here is the most radical truth of Christian life -- God changes us and transforms us so that we are not who we were, but we were bought, purchased, washed, cleansed, and reborn to new life.  Our culture is shocked by the idea that we might not define ourselves.  It repudiates as utterly oppressive and alien the idea that someone else names us and gives us our identity.  Christianity is truly counter-cultural.  For the genius of God is that what He declares to be is what He makes happen.  So we are not sinners defined by our sins and condemned to live in their chains but set free in Christ to live out the new life of His creation and definition.  In Christ we receive this new identity and this new life and it is not the result of our own pious desire or achievement but by grace alone -- received by faith.

The world insists that we define ourselves, that we choose something to be the mark of our identity.  Nothing is more pure to the world than the unadulterated expression of our desire.  So it would be natural (according to our old nature, that is) to define ourselves by those desires.  So some would say they are gay and others straight and others something in between or perhaps completely off the beaten path.  That becomes the thing the defines us and everything we are is lived out through that lens.  But this is the worst kind of prison and it forces us to introspection and decision.  Youth becomes the start of this journey of self-awareness, experimentation, and definition.

But that is not how it is in the Kingdom of God.  Here is the radical notion.  WE do not define ourselves but God defines us.  Our identity is not the fruit of our own self-exploration and determination but His declaration which gives to us a new nature and life by baptism and faith.  The world insists "I am gay" or "I am straight" or whatever.  Christ insists that we are created in Him as new people, bought with a price so that we are not our own, and created for the good works of light and not of darkness.  The message of the Church is not simply that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God but that that baptized are no longer the unrighteous.  We need to strive to live within the domain of this new nature and new life, eschewing anything and everything of our old lives that would enslave us and deprive us of all that Christ has done.  So Paul says Let each one lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him and to which the Lord has called him...  In this is the overriding principle that all things are possible but not all things are beneficial or helpful or good.  Freedom in the Kingdom of God is exercised not by the removal of boundaries but by the exercise of self-control.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Lowliness of Christ's Birth

Sermon preached for Christmass Eve, on Thursday, December 24, 2015, by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich.

Around Christmas time, there's always a sense of wonderment, magnificence, and grandeur.  Homes are brightly lit up with hundreds, if not thousands, of lights.  Churches hold elaborate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services.  Huge parties are thrown and beautifully wrapped gifts are exchanged.  At this time of year we’re filled with wonder and joy.  All of this grandeur and majesty are good things because we’re celebrating the birth of our Savior.  But, all of this grandeur and majesty is very different from that first Christmas night when our Almighty God came to us in a lowly way. 

I.    Over the years it seems that we’ve lost the lowliness of Christ’s birth.  We’ve “cleaned up” our nativity scenes, making them more fit for God.  Yes, the nativity is still displayed in a stable and Jesus is still laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  But everything else seems to de-emphasize the true lowliness and humility of what really happened that night.  The animals are standing and laying peacefully around the manger.  Mary and Joseph are calmly watching over the newborn Jesus.  The heavenly star announcing the King’s birth hangs prominently above the stable.  A heavenly chorus of angels is displayed singing God’s peace.  And there is a halo hanging around Jesus’ head, marking His holiness and divinity. 

All of these things are good, and they help teach us about what happened at Christ’s birth.  In the nativity, God became incarnate, and therefore it’s appropriate that His divinity and holiness are marked with a halo.  Christ Jesus’ birth does bring peace on earth; therefore it’s right that we see this peace in the calmness of Mary and Joseph.  That night, God did announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds through a chorus of angels, so their presence is appropriate too. 

But, all of this “cleaning up” can lead us to forget how truly lowly Christ’s birth was.  Jesus was born in a stable, the home of livestock.  This stable would have been filled with all the unseemly sights, noisy sounds, and pungent smells that you would expect a stable to have.  It isn’t a place where we’d like to spend a night, and it certainly isn’t a place where we’d expect a young mother to give birth.  The reality of this situation is lost on us because most of us haven’t experienced anything like this, and it’s hard to show this lowly reality in our pictures and displays. 

One day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook page, I came across a post from one of my friends.  It was a beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus.  When I quickly glanced at this painting it appeared to be a normal depiction of Mary and Jesus.  But the longer I looked at it, the more intriguing the painting became.  Unlike most paintings of Mary and her Son, this one was void of halos.  Not seeing any halos, it hit Jesus’ birth God was completely clothed in our humanity.  You couldn’t tell that in this child, God was visiting us.  At Jesus’ birth, the Almighty God completely set aside His majesty. 

The second intriguing thing I noticed about this painting was how closely Mary held Jesus and how He rested on her shoulder.  It almost appeared as if Jesus was clinging to her for safety.  The Christ Child was completely helpless.  He was weak and needy.  He relied on Mary’s protection and care.  At Jesus’ birth, the Almighty God humbled Himself and set aside His power.  Our Lord and Savior came to us in weakness, the weakness of a child, so that He might save us from our weakness. This beautiful painting illustrates the great mystery of the faith, God becoming man.  Because of God’s great love for us, He sent His only begotten Son, true God, completely humbled in our flesh in blood.  He came to us in the smallest, weakest, and lowliest way possible, so that He might serve us, so that He might save us. 

The arrival of our Savior is worthy of a great celebration.  It deserves to be welcomed by all with festivities; and yet, this wasn’t the case that first Christmas night.  Yes, there was a heavenly chorus that announced Christ’s birth, and this announcement was grand.  But, this grand announcement was shared with only a few lowly shepherds who were tending their flocks outside the city.  These men went into Bethlehem to find Jesus, and they were the only ones there to celebrate His birth.  That night, there weren’t any family and friends at the stable to congratulate Mary and Joseph.  There was no huge party in that makeshift delivery room to welcome Jesus into the world.  It was just Joseph, Mary, a few no name shepherds, and the animals.  Again, Christ’s arrival was lowly, the world wasn’t there to welcome its King. 

II.    Our Lord and Savior came in a truly lowly way that first Christmas night, and He continued in this lowliness all the way to His death.  The lowliness of the wooden manger that Jesus slept in gave way to the lowliness of the wooden cross where He breathed His last.  Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate form of humiliation.  There, He died a criminal’s death, even though He wasn’t a criminal.  He broke no civil law.  He never transgressed God’s Law, in thought, word, or deed.  From the time of His birth to the time of His death on the cross He was completely perfect, He was innocent of all wrong, He was sinless; and yet, He still willingly received the punishment of a sinner.
At the cross, Christ allowed Himself to be stripped naked, to be mocked, to be beaten, to be executed.  He hung there on that tree by Himself, all alone.  Even though there was a crowd around Him, even though Mary His mother was there at the foot of the cross, there was no one to help Him.  As a child, Mary held Christ in her arms, she protected Him; but now, there was nothing she could do.  Christ was on His own, He was alone.  Even God the Father forsook His only Son, allowing Him to die the most terrible and horrific death possible.  And He did this for you.

Talking about the lowliness of Christ’s birth and death doesn’t seem to be great Christmas Eve sermon material; and yet, that is exactly what it is.  The lowliness of Christ is exactly what Christmas is all about.  It’s about our God, who loves you so much that He humbled Himself.  He became incarnate.  He came to earth, born of the Virgin Mary.  He came as a weak and needy child so that He could grow and live the perfect life that God requires of us, so that He could then sacrifice this life on the cross, for you.  Christ came to take your place.  He came to suffer the punishment of sin that you and I deserve.  We should be the ones who are crucified, who hang naked and all alone on the cross.  But because of God’s unending love for you, He sent His Son to take this punishment for you.  God condemned His Son to death, so that you can have life. 
The lowliness of the stable and manger, the lowliness of the cross aren’t meant to bring the joy Christmas down.  Instead, it makes Christmas even more grand, even more joyful because it shows how much God loves you.  He loves you so much that He willing gave up His life, so that you might have life, so that you might have great joy and hope in Him, not just during the Christmas season, but every day of your life.  This is why it’s important for us to know, to realize just how lowly Christ’s birth was, so that we know how much He loves us.
Our God, our Savior, came to us in a lowly way.  He was born in a stable, a weak and needy child.  Christ humbled Himself in this way so that He could die a salvific death, so that we can be forgiven and have a glorious and everlasting life with Him in Heaven.  As we celebrate Christmas and make it big, we remember and thank God for coming to us small, in the Christ Child Jesus, and we thank and praise Him for His lowly death on the cross, through which we’ve been given the greatest gift of all, everlasting life with Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

How many do you worship?

One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.  No, really?  How many do you worship?

I hate it when decent nouns that we all know are turned into verbs and verbs become nouns.  How many do you worship?  Sure, I get it.  The question is how many people show up in a given week for the Divine Service (or for entertainment worship, depending on what you do, I guess).  But really?  Has it come down to this?

I fear it has.

We worship statistics.  We worship bigness.  We worship size.  God is working more in the mega churches than in the small, country parishes that make up more than significant number of LCMS parishes.  We all know that.  They have more people, more resources, more expertise, and more results.  They know how to be church better than the little guys, right???

No, they don't.

We confuse activity with mission.  We equate size with success.  We value results over faithfulness.  So when we must send in our stats to a district office or the national office of statistics for our church body, we are giving them a score card of our ability and God's reward.  Or are we?  Does being busy automatically mean being faithful?  I am beginning to have grave suspicions about the way we worship at the altar of statistics and how we judge our work and God's by measurable results.  It sounds good but is it good?

Jesus got lots of stats from eager disciples whom He had sent forth without many resources or much of program.  They were happy to tell Him how demons trembled and doubters fainted away and sick were raised.  But then Jesus does something interesting.  He insists that they should not focus on these tangible results but rejoice that their names are written in the Book of Life.  Frankly, we don't rejoice much over that today.  We bust open in pride when we have good stats to show, when money comes rolling in, and when everyone thinks we are the cat's meow.  But we have forgotten the joy that Jesus countered with the irrational exuberance of the disciples over results they thought were the marks of success.

How many do you worship?  One God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And Him only.  That is how many we worship.  Anything else and it does not matter.  The unholy trinity of me, myself, and I may be puffed up by the numbers but if we are not faithfully proclaiming the whole counsel of God's Word, we are still not successful.  Perhaps we need to hear this message just as urgently as the disciples did so long ago.

Oh, by the way.  That parochial report will soon be due.  Yes, fill it out.  I would not suggest otherwise.  But do not equate good numbers with success.  We could give the people everything they want and boy would we look good... except to God. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ever wonder what Wham!'s Last Christmas might sound like if Bach had run into it?

Okay it is a little crazy but, hey, that is how I think!

How would Ken Burns tell the story of the Galactic Civil War?

The myth of progress. . .

Nothing is more attractive or more false than the myth of progress. We all want to believe that with enough effort and after expending sufficient resources, we will make a better life, a better world.  We all want to believe that a better future is waiting for us to care enough, to work hard enough, and to be committed enough to make it all happen. Even the dreaded conservatives believe in this myth of progress -- they just believe it will happen best by a free marketplace inhabited by a free people instead of by government, committee, or experts.

The myth of progress is not only a problem in the realm of culture and society; it is a problem within the church.  It has gripped the Scriptures until Christians have come to believe that the Word of God does grow, evolve, and change and that this is its promise -- not its forever sameness.  We put the Bible through its paces to figure out who wrote it, what they meant when they wrote it, who the readers were who first read it, what they heard it say, and how we cannot trust what it says now.  The historical critical movement has virtually erased common confidence that Scripture is clear, that it speaks one message, and that its Word endures forever.  With the power of the Enlightenment and the disappearance of any teaching magisterium, Protestants have replaced the voice of God with their own individual conscience and reason.  So if we don't like what the Scriptures say, we either remodel the words themselves or we posit the radical thought that we never really heard it rightly or understood it correctly before.

The liturgical movement took the Divine Service as a starting point and not a means of grace.  What happens in worship is an evolving and changing reality that the Spirit is flourishing among us and the best thing we can do is to surrender our dogmatic certainties and get out of the way to let whatever happen.  Sunday morning became an experiment and people were surprised by what might happen so that worship attendance became an experience of curiosity rather than the invitation of certainty.  What we think, what we like, and what we find relevant became the all important gauges of propriety and success for the worship of the church.  Progress was the goal -- aesthetic progress toward some unknown spiritual event or progress in the practical terms of what works to pack them in.  Evangelicals judge everything by size and faithfulness can mean only one thing -- market success.  This is the progress that has swallowed up both liturgical theology and practice and evangelistic fervor.

The myth of progress presumes that a new idea is automatically better than the ideas of yesterday.  So creeds that once united the voices spanning centuries of time and miles of geography are replaced by local creeds invented for the moment.  Church music has fallen into the same tired rut of relevance and preference.  Gone are the hymns of old to which we once added our own voices and in their place are the throw away songs of the moment who fit what we feel and what we think that second.  In theological education books are printed that claim new insights and we gobble them up without thinking about the consequences of the fact that we might have gotten it wrong all those years.  History is only as long as our memory and so we define everything by what we can recall.

God's kingdom has gotten swallowed up in the myth of progress so that social advocacy and social justice presumes that the divine will is for us to fix what the Lord did not and to make the world a better place and leave things better than we found them.  Nevermind that this contradicts the word of Scripture which insists that the world is decaying, moving step by step to its destruction, and that the world will most certainly become less and less friendly (if it ever was) to the Gospel.  We have forgotten the blunt words of warning Jesus issued to those who would follow Him.  We no longer expect a cross but a long life, well live, filled with rich experiences, and great happiness.  We do not expect to suffer but have decided that suffering in all forms is wrong and that the goal of everything from medicine to marriage is to relieve suffering. 

The myth of progress fits what we think but the only problem is that it conflicts with what the Lord has said and the honest reality of experience.  We are not becoming happier or better people and our world is not become safer and more just and God does not exist to make these things so.  But that is the fruits of the old Adam who continues to be deaf to the voice of God but who can hear loud and clear the voice of the devil.  We must not only fight the good fight of faith but battle the myth of progress if we would be faithful to Christ.  We are as god once was and what god is we shall become.  That is the myth of progress and only the cross can rescue us from its terrible and cursed lie.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas -- God owns our mess!

Sermon for Christmas Eve Morning, preached on Thursday, December 24, 2015.

The forgotten man of Christmas is Joseph.  We can recall the names of all of Santa’s reindeer and all the variations of Jingle Bells and Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer but we find Joseph a strange figure in all of this – one that discourages us from taking more than a cursory look at him.

Joseph could have rightfully been angry.  Mary, his intended, was pregnant and he knew darn well he had nothing to do with the birth.  The explanation was a stretch of the imagination – angels and God and the Son of God and a Savior of the world.  Well, who could refuse Joseph his righteous anger?  Why we might even allow him to express a little bitterness and revenge at his best laid plans gone astray!

But that is not Joseph.  Joseph is, even more than Bartholomew, a man without guile.  He has no wounded pride to vindicate, no public hubris to express.  He will put Mary away quietly and protect her reputation even as he preserves his own – all the while living with the disappointment of what might have and should have been.

An angel intervened to give Joseph what Mary had already received – the assurance that this was not a story or an excuse but the long promised will of God fulfilled right there in the midst of their surprise.  The child within her womb was by the Holy Spirit and Mary’s virginity was in tact.  Her betrothal to Joseph was not threatened by the work of God.

None of this would protect Joseph or Mary from the wagging tongues of those who be happy to gossip about the pregnancy.  Joseph was given no assurance he would not suffer from all of this but only the promise that this was God’s saving will and purpose at work.  Joseph was morally, legally, and honorably free to say “no” and walk away from it all.  But here we see that just like God saw the heart of faith in the blessed Virgin Mary, so did God choose well Joseph as a righteous and good man of faith.

God never calls us when it is convenient.  His plans are never parallel to our will and desires.  It does not work out just right.  Life is messy and faith only makes it messier.  Those preachers who would tell you otherwise are lying through their teeth.  Do not listen to them.  But neither should you despair that now for a little while you must suffer various kinds of trials that prove your faith genuine.  You stand in a good crowd, people.

Christmas is not a nice story.  It never was.  But it is the story of God’s abiding love that proceeded with creation even when He knew how it would turn out.  It is the story of the God who knew it would cost Him His Son when He breathed the breath of life into dust and called him Adam and when he stole a rib and called her Eve.  It is the story of the God who would love us more than life itself, surrendering Himself to our flesh and blood for the one purpose of walking to the cross where our salvation would be won.  It is the story of the God who does not reward the worthy but declares the guilty and unworthy righteous.

So Christmas is come and with it will come many wonderful moments.  And many not so wonderful.  It is my families first Christmas without my father-in-law and my dad, with one son nearly a thousand miles away, and with a son whom we must now share with his own in-laws.  I expect we will be more alone than we ever expected a year ago.  So many of you find yourselves in the same boat.  Death, distance, and other details conspire to disrupt the perfect plans.  Life is messy.  Christmas is even messier.

But God owns our mess.  That is Christmas.  God has come to our world and in our flesh to own our sin, to carry our guilt, to bear the burden of our disappointment, and to herd us reluctant sheep into the blessed fold of His mercy and grace.  God owns our mess.  That is Christmas.  We could be bitter or resentful.  But Joseph shows us the path of faith.  We don’t have to like God’s plan or timing but we can trust it.  God will probably never do what we want but He will always do for us what we need and cannot supply.

He has given us a Savior, God in flesh.  He has called us to approach this mystery not with reasoned logic or dreamless wonder but bringing all our sins, all our disappointment, all our shame, and all our doubts and dumping them into the Manger where Christ was born and at the cross where He died.  Swallow up your pride and let go of your disappointment.  God has done something wonderful.  Faith alone can see it.  It is shocking, messy, and surprising but it is the will and love of God to own our mess, to buy us out of our captivity, and to deliver to us a life not even death can quell.

So, what did you get for Christmas?  We got Jesus – the gift we did not ask for and were not sure we needed or wanted but He has proven to be more than we could ever hope for.  He has opened heaven to us and now we can live in life’s messes and deal with life’s disappointments.  What He has come to bestow, no one can steal.  Thanks be to God!

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

We have beheld His glory, glory as of the one and only-begotten Son of the Father

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, she being great with child.

And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered; and she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes; and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: That ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 

Click here for the continuous Christmas music from Lutheran Public Radio. . .



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When the day of our homecoming puts and end to our exile. . .

A reading from Cyprian as we close in on Christmas. . .  (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314).
How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!  Instead we struggle and resist [death] like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.

And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here, than reign with Christ?  The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?

John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live forever.

Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be.  Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.

We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.

What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!

There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.

My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently...

Christmas brings this ever more clearly into focus.  God has not come to baptize this world, whether its greatest joys and wonders or its worst moments of pain and sorrow.  No, the Lord has come to deliver to us a kingdom that does not fade or pass away, in which sin is no longer part of the vocabulary, and where death is forgotten from our memories forever.  He has come to heal the breech of the living and the dead and unite us in the wonders that mind cannot imagine.  So great is that which He has prepared for those who love Him.

At the same time that Christmas brings this into focus, we find ourselves severely tested and tried by the temptations of the world -- happiness which is purchased like a commodity, satisfaction and peace with the world and its limitations of sin and death (sort of the love the one you are with mentality), and contentment with the moment over anticipation of eternity.

Now but days before we renew our celebration of our Lord's nativity, we pray the Lord to make us uncomfortable enough with life (both its joys and sorrows) so that we may long for and desire what He has come to deliver (heaven and its glory).  Honestly, one of the worst of worldly ideas is a truce with death that presumes that if death can be postponed long enough or earthly joys great enough, it is not so bad to die.  As we long for those who will not be present with us in the pews at church or around the table at home or opening their gifts with us in wonderful clamor of gifts given and received, let us renew our hope in the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting which God has prepared for all who have loved our Lord's appearing.  And let us live so that our lives reveal this hope (both in the explicit words that we speak and the character of our values and actions every day).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thoughts on good works

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) once proclaimed “When God crowns our merits (merita), He crowns nothing other than His own gifts (munera)” (ep. 194, 5, 19). There are many things said about good works, some good and many bad. There are many misconceptions about what Lutherans say about good works and what we don't. This is one statement that in briefest form well describes how Lutherans speak -- for Lutherans are, if anything, profoundly Augustinian.

God does not need our good works but our neighbor does.  Good works do not merit grace or earn salvation but are the fruit of God's redeeming and sanctifying work in us.  Good works are not required as a condition of salvation but faith does not exist apart from good works.  Good works are what we have been redeemed to do -- the works of Him who has called us from darkness into His own marvelous light.  Good works are the realm of our cooperation with the Holy Spirit just as salvation involves no cooperation from us whatsoever but is the result of Jesus one, all-sufficient sacrifice alone.

These are but a few of the statements one often finds in a Lutheran discussion of good works.  There are also statements which falsely describe Lutheran teaching.

Good works are not necessary.  Good works can even be harmful to salvation.  Good works involve nothing of our will or efforts but are only God's works alone. Good works do not need to be preached for where faith lives, good works will come spontaneously and without prompting.  Read the Lutheran Confessions for some of the encouragement to good works that it seems Lutherans and their critics often overlook.  Try the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, IV:

First, there is no controversy among our theologians concerning the following points in this article, namely: that it is God's will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works; and that truly good works are not those which every one contrives himself from a good intention, or which are done according to traditions of men, but those which God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word; also, that truly good works are done, not from our own natural powers, but in this way: when the person by faith is reconciled with God and renewed by the Holy Ghost, or, as Paul says, is created anew in Christ Jesus to good works, Eph. 2:10

8] Nor is there a controversy as to how and why the good works of believers, although in this flesh they are impure and incomplete, are pleasing and acceptable to God, namely, for the sake of the Lord Christ, by faith, because the person is acceptable to God. For the works which pertain to the maintenance of external discipline, which are also done by, and required of, the unbelieving and unconverted, although commendable before the world, and besides rewarded by God in this world with temporal blessings, are nevertheless, because they do not proceed from true faith, in God's sight sins, that is, stained with sin, and are regarded by God as sins and impure on account of the corrupt nature and because the person is not reconciled with God. For a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, Matt. 7:18, as it is also written Rom. 14:23: Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. For the person must first be accepted of God, and that for the sake of Christ alone, if also the works of that person are to please Him. 

9] Therefore, of works that are truly good and well-pleasing to God, which God will reward in this world and in the world to come, faith must be the mother and source; and on this account they are called by St. Paul true fruits of faith, as also of the Spirit. 10] For, as Dr. Luther writes in the Preface to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: Thus faith is a divine work in us, that changes us and regenerates us of God, and puts to death the old Adam, makes us entirely different men in heart, spirit, mind, and all powers, and brings with it [confers] the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, powerful thing that we have in faith, so that it is impossible for it not to do good without ceasing. 11] Nor does it ask whether good works are to be done; but before the question is asked, it has wrought them, and is always engaged in doing them. But he who does not do such works is void of faith, and gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith nor what good works are, yet babbles and prates with many words concerning faith and good works. 12] [Justifying] faith is a living, bold [firm] trust in God's grace, so certain that a man would die a thousand times for it [rather than suffer this trust to be wrested from him]. And this trust and knowledge of divine grace renders joyful, fearless, and cheerful towards God and all creatures, which [joy and cheerfulness] the Holy Ghost works through faith; and on account of this, man becomes ready and cheerful, without coercion, to do good to every one, to serve every one, and to suffer everything for love and praise to God, who has conferred this grace on him, so that it is impossible to separate works from faith, yea, just as impossible as it is for heat and light to be separated from fire. 

and. . .

Therefore the expressions or propositions mentioned [that good works are necessary, and that it is necessary to do good] are unjustly censured and rejected in this Christian and proper sense, as has been done by some. . . since Christians should not be deterred from good works, but should be admonished and urged thereto most diligently, this bare proposition cannot and must not be tolerated, employed, nor defended in the Church [of Christ].

But do not stop there. . .

Monday, December 21, 2015

NIV the winner???

[T]he Scripture Committee drafted a translation rubric that was approved at the first meeting of the XC [“Translation Committee” – which is also the “Scripture Committee” according to this update] in September of 2013. Their rubric followed the eclectic choice method which was approved at the 2013 synod convention. The primary working translation of the project is NIV2011, with NIV1984 serving as the backup choice where there are weaknesses or deficiencies that require changes. Since the time that resolution was approved, it has been established that NIV1984 won’t be available as a backup choice, so the committee will be bringing an updated recommendation for a backup translation... The SC reviewed all scripture references or strong scriptural allusions in the CW line of products (not including psalms). Of just under 200 instances, it identified four instances where it recommended replacing NIV2011 with NIV1984. Similarly, the PC has compared both of the NIV translations of all CW/NSS/CWOS/CWS psalmody, marking those places where changes may be necessary.

So says the Spring 2015 Director’s Update of the WELS Hymnal Project, issued May 10, 2015, by Project Director Michael Schultz, in the section entitled “Scripture Committee (SC)” – a committee of the Project chaired by Rev. Jonathan Schroeder.

You will recall that the WELS has targeted 2017 as the date for the publication of the new Wisconsin Synod hymnal and at the same time recall that the WELS and ELS have jointly worked together on The Wartburg Project, with the goal of producing a Lutheran translation of the Bible.  You might also recall that the WELS has long used the NIV 1984 (no longer in print).  In their review of the NIV 2011 (which has not been without its own controversy), WELS could identify only 200 instances in which they referenced the 1984 NIV over the 2011 and only four instances in which the translation from 1984 would be used over 2011.  While this comes as not necessarily a surprise, it does raise questions about the ambitious undertaking of an entirely new translation from Lutheran sources.  Only time will tell. . .   BTW you can already check out what The Wartburg Project has done so far or look at these:

Matthew – Kindle  Sample Matthew
Psalms – Kindle  Sample Psalms
Passion History – Northwestern Publishing House  NPH Complimentary Copy

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Good things going on. . .

Meant to mock... perhaps it ends up poetic justice

The blogosphere has been abuzz with the jarring episode of the popular television show “Scandal” on ABC. The Nov. 19 episode took on Congressional efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood and glorified main character Olivia Pope’s abortion to the tune of “Silent Night.”  “The episode was a sickening hour-long “advertisement for Planned Parenthood,” Alexa Moutevelis wrote for Newsbusters.

The Planned Parenthood abortion business ultimately praised the episode and actors on the show defended the decision to show the killing of an unborn baby in an abortion during the Christmas song.  ABC aired the primetime show in which an abortion took place while "Silent Night" played in the background. 
In the middle of the episode, viewers suddenly saw Olivia arrive at a medical office and then lie down on an operating table as a doctor began the procedure. There was no dialogue from Olivia - just the sound of “Silent Night” playing in the background, along with voice-over of Olivia’s father Rowan (Joe Morton) delivering this speech in another scene:  “Family is a burden … a pressure point, soft tissue, an illness, an antidote to greatness. You think you’re better off with people who rely on you, depend on you, but you’re wrong, because you will inevitably end up needing them, which makes you weak, pliable. Family doesn’t complete you. It destroys you.”
What is striking is that while the episode was designed to attack the Gospel and even to flaunt the pro-abortion stance, there was a kind of poetic justice to it all.  For that is exactly the point.  Christ did not come to pat us on our back for our erudition, our sophistication, our profound wisdom, or our advocacy of social justice.  Rather, He came exactly for our sins, the sins against ourselves, our nature, and our future that abortion represents.  The fact that our culture does not get it does not erase the profound truth that sin has turned us not simply against God but against ourselves and our very nature.

This Christmas we will hear voices throughout the world sing again "Silent Night" -- not as sentimental words of the season but as the witness of God who comes to us to rescue us not only from the devil and the sinful world but from our own sinful selves.  What was meant to mock has only heightened for the orthodox Christian the very core and center of the Gospel -- that Christ was born, lived, and died for sinners such as these.  There is a certain poetic justice in this.  Yes, it was awful and it was meant to make a mockery of Christian witness and truth but what they did not get was that Christmas is precisely for this -- Christ took flesh and was born to save us even from ourselves!  Pray that the Holy Spirit will help many to hear the witness, to see the contradiction, and to believe in Him who was born to save us.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent Sermons. . . 2015

Sermons for the Advent Services based upon the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis...  Hope you enjoy...

Scripture is filled with miracle births – from the children of Noah who re-filled the earth after the flood to Isaac born to Sarah and Abraham when their bodies could no longer fulfill the promise of new life to Hannah whose barren womb is filled with the son Samuel whom she cannot keep and returns to the Lord.  But in the fullness of time, these miracles give way to the greater surprise of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit and of the messenger whom the Lord sent to prepare His way.

That is why we are here.  We are waiting not for birth but because of that birth, waiting not for the consolation of Israel but for the consummation of all things already begun but not yet complete.  Every Advent finds us here watching, waiting, singing, and praying.

Zechariah’s story is typical.  He doubts the Lord.  It is too much even for a righteous man to believe that his empty house will hear the sound of a baby’s cry.  As great as this surprise, it is made even greater by the promise that He will fulfill the spirit and power of Elijah to restore the obedience of faith and repentance to the disobedient children of God  – just in time to welcome the Savior whom the Lord will send.

Zechariah asks with fearful sigh what the blessed Virgin Mary will ask.  How can this be?  But unlike the Virgin who knew her innocense, Zechariah knew his disappointment and bore in his heart the hope and longing in the face of Elizabeth, his wife.  He could not believe even what he wanted more than life itself.  So the Archangel Gabriel shut his tongue to keep him from speaking of their holy encounter within the temple.  He could only watch and wait.

Elizabeth heard nothing from Zechariah as her womb grew.  Her old age made the child an embarrassment instead of glory until she could no longer conceal the sign of the Lord.  Instead of shame, her neighbors and relatives share in her joy.  When the day came for the baby to be delivered, they were set to name him for his father, Elizabeth insisted that he be called John.  The blessed joy of circumcision and its first blood of the covenant became a point of conflict and controversy.  Even the mute Zechariah was called to weigh in on a name.

When his mouth finally spoke, he could not stop praising God and the people realized that this was a sign from God.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesied:
    “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
    and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,
    as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...”
A horn of salvation, the promise to David now kept, and the fulfillment of the prophets’ hope.  This was a miracle birth.  John would be the last of the prophets until He who is the very Word of the prophets is born.  After John the Word of the Lord would no longer be spoken but would be enfleshed in the Son of God incarnate and those who serve Him would not speak in His place but would become the mouthpieces of the Word.

And why?  Why should this take place?
    “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;  to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us...”
The end of enemies, the end of hate, only mercy would remain.  Mercy covenanted in blood not of ox or bull but of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  This was the promise Abraham believed and which counted him righteous, him and all his sons and daughters who shared this faith and hope.

And what result?  Not for us or our self-indulgence, not even for our earthly happiness and contentment but for one purpose only:
    “That we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
God’s grace is poured out upon us and His mercy lavished upon us unworthy sinners so that we might no longer live lives unworthy of Him, but serve Him in holiness and righteousness.  Why is it that we find it so easy to squander the gift and blessing given us in the font?  Why do we count what we want so highly and shrug off the perfect will of the Father so easily?  Are we like Zechariah who did not believe and rejected the gift the Lord offered for the supposed comfort of doubt and sin?

Then comes the promise given to John:
    “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah would not make the same mistake twice.  Having once given his voice back, the aging man of God made good on the promise of God by raising his son to be a prophet, schooled in the Word of God, that he might be a fitting instrument for God and His glory.

I only know my own failings as a father and you know yours.  But one lasting legacy of a father’s faithful duty is the faith of his son or daughter.  If you have done this well, you have done all things well and if you have done everything else but failed to bring your child to the Lord’s house and showed him faith in your words and deeds, what success can you enjoy?

God’s tender mercy has come near us.  We have seen His messenger.  We have seen His one and only Son.  Now we watch and wait for the Sonrise – SON.  For the day when night will not come and only daylight endures.  Let our watching and waiting be faithful, teaching the faith to our children, fulfilling the command and promise of God.  And our way will be guided to the pathway of peace and when earthly sleep overtakes our eyes and unspoken prayers still linger on our quiet lips, we will know the peace of a clear conscience through the forgiveness of our sins.  And just maybe we will learn to sing with Zechariah, “Blest be the God of Israel.”

Magnificat. . .

Mary has always been a problem for Protestants but not for Lutherans.  Unlike those who would give Mary only her 15 minutes of fame in the Christmas story, Lutherans have always looked to Mary as the first Christian, the model for all of us as Christians, and in this way our mother in the faith.  Lutherans may have learned from Protestants to be uncomfortable and live in fear of too much attention to Mary but we might also be worried about too little attention, failing to honor her as Scripture speaks about her.

Mary is not confused about who Jesus is, about her place in the story of Jesus, and about the part she played in God’s work of redemption.  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”  We may be confused but she is not.  She knows that God is her glory, the source of her joy, her Savior from sin and its death, and her job is to magnify the Lord who has done such marvelous things.

We may be nervous about Mary but Mary is not nervous at all.  The Lord “looked on the humble estate of His servant.”  God saw Mary’s humility – not her shyness or her willingness to deflect the praise of others.  No, the humility God saw was her faith, her confidence in the promises of God and her willingness to defer to this Word alone.  God saw in her heart not the perfect purity of a sinless one but strong faith of a sinner who sought to be righteous and holy. 
We may be hesitant to say “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed are thou among woman and blessed the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  But Scripture speaks these words and the Holy Spirit taught these words to Mary and the Spirit teaches to us these words that we might believe them as Mary first did.  “From this time forward all generations shall call me blessed.”  Mary said this under inspiration of the Spirit and if we are unwilling to say them of her, then we are unworthy of the Son whose womb she bore.  For us to be blessed, we meet first the blessedness of her whom the Lord chose to carry His Son and deliver Him.

“He who is mighty has done great things for me... and holy is His name.”  We Christians often speak how good God is – at least when life is going well and things are good.  But Mary is not speaking in some generic or casual way.  She is not speaking as one who find life easy living.  She is the pregnant, unwed mother who claims her womb carries the almighty Son of God.  What the rest of us might be ashamed to claim, this is her glory, her only glory.

“The mercy of God is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.  Christ is not some new character introduced into an evolving old story.  Nope, Christ is the story, its beginning and end.  There is no mercy of God apart from Him and this has not and will not change, even though the generations come and go before Him.  “He has shown strength with His arm, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts and tearing down the thrones of the mighty to life up the lowly – those who have no righteousness and no hope except in God and the promise of His Word.  “He has filled the hungry with good things while the rich are sent away empty handed.”  Only repentant sinners find hope in Christ.  No one else.

He hath holpen His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy, spoken to our fathers, to Abraham and to His offspring forever...”  What God did for Mary in revealing His mercy and His gracious purpose, God has done for those who stand with Mary, or should I say kneel with her, acknowledging God’s mercy as the reason they stand and claiming to be sons and daughters of Abraham by faith.  Abraham’s children stand in faith in Christ with Mary, Joseph, all the apostles, and those of every generation who believe the Gospel.

If we are embarrassed or uneasy about Mary, we are embarrassed, ashamed, or uneasy about the God who singled her out, called her to mother His one and only Son, and judged her faith righteous like Abraham who went before her.  Blessed are those who are not scandalized by Me, says the Lord.  We might also say, “blessed are those who are not scandalized by Mary, by the mercy of God given to unworthy sinners, and by those who willingly surrender the righteousness of works for the judgement of God’s grace.

Don’t make too much of Mary, we think...  It is a slippery slope.  Well, maybe somebody should have warned God.  Because God makes much of her – much of her faith in His Word, much of her willingness to consent to God’s will, much of her delight in what God did in delivering His Son to our flesh and blood, and much of her example as the first Christian, pondering these things into her heart while trusting her past, present, and future to this mercy.

But you know how Mary wishes to be honored?  Not by singling her out apart from Christ but by following her example in trusting the angel’s Word, by consenting to the Lord’s will (thy will be done), by accepting the Lord’s wisdom instead of trying to argue with or teach the Lord a better way, by doing in faith what the Lord commanded, be believing with her that the Christ whom she bore is Your Savior as well as hers, and by confessing this Gospel to the ends of the earth.

We talk too little about Mary.  We ought to be saying more.  For when we speak of Mary as Scripture speaks of her, Christ is the focus, His Word front and center, and His Gospel our one and only hope.  Mary asks us for one thing.  To love Jesus as she loves Him.  To trust in Jesus as she has trusted Him for her own salvation.  To follow Jesus where He has led the way.  And to rejoice in the mercy of God and His gracious will – no matter how strange or alien or shocking that will is. 

We need more Mary’s in a world that likes the sound of its voice more than the sound of God’s voice in His Son...  We need more Mary’s in a world prone to tell God how it needs to work instead of trusting in His Word when everything around says “how can this be.”  We need more Mary’s who gladly exchange their paltry works for Christ’s gracious work of salvation on the cross.  We need more Mary’s who when God asks, will give their consent to His will follow where the Lord has led.  We need more Mary’s who rejoice not in themselves but confess their low degree, repent of their sins, and rejoice in Christ’s salvation.

May it be said of us as we say it of Mary – Blessed art you.... for the Christ you believe, the faith you confess, the Gospel you trust – the only blessedness that counts. Amen

Nunc Dimittis. . .

Twice in the rite of baptism I extend my hand upon the head of the baptized to ask the Lord to bless his or her coming in and going out.  This is not some trite little ditty about traveling but about our entrance into life and our departure into death.  That is our lot.  We come and we go but we do not endure – not until and not unless the eternal Lord wills it.  For a people living in the moment of this brief life and in the shadow of death, it requires something more than we have to trust that death is not the end and this life is not all we get.  It requires the Holy Spirit to engender faith in our sinful, suspicious, and skeptical hearts.

That is what we celebrate and sing with Simeon of old.  We sing of life that is lived out before the Lord and dependent upon His gracious will.  We sing of death and its shadow that looms over us and what our eyes have not seen but our hearts believed in the promise of life stronger than death.  We sing of waiting upon the time of the Lord, the ticking not of the clock on the wall but redemption’s clock and of the fullness of time when the Savior is revealed.

Simeon was an old man and we have become conditioned to think of long life as a good thing. I suppose it is considering the alternative.  But this life can never fill our endless wanting or satisfy our endless quest for more.  Simeon was old but his life was not filled with the things of old age – he waited.  He waited at the Temple.  He waited on the Lord.  He took the promise of God personally and daily he entered the Temple to pray to the Lord and wait upon the Lord to fulfill the promise and give the eyes of an old man the blessing of seeing the promised future unfold.

Simeon could have been disappointed that day when Joseph brought Mary to be purified according to the law and Jesus to be presented to the Lord.  For all his waiting, all Simeon got to see was a baby – a child like the many first borns who were brought to the Lord with rejoicing and with thanksgiving for a mother delivered from the peril of childbirth.  You can say all you want but a baby's face is a baby's face.  Coming and going into the Temple these people came until one day the tired old eyes saw with the fresh sight of faith not a baby but the Lord's Christ.  This child was the one who is set for the falling and rising of many.  This is the One he was waiting for.

Simeon saw with the clear vision of faith and knew his time of waiting was over.  He had seen the Lord’s salvation and now his life was full.

Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal You to the nations and the glory of Your people Israel.

Life is an entrance and an exit and, apart from God who gives more, it is only what you can compact into the time you have between your coming in and your going forth.  It’s sad, really, even pathetic. Even long life is not enough unless pain and weakness torment that life.  But you and I stand with Simeon of old.  We refuse to let life be defined by birth and death and however much you can compress between.  We want more.  We expect more.  We dare even to stand in God's presence and demand more, that He deliver to us nothing less than His full promise.  Not a longer today but a new tomorrow in which life is no longer tormented by the fear of death and sin’s guilt and shame are no more.  We want nothing less that what God has promised.  We want to see with our own eyes of faith now the salvation God has promised and we want to see with new eyes the eternity the Lord has prepared for those who love Him.  We want light that darkness cannot over come and we want the glory that will not depart from God’s people ever.

So it is begun but not complete and until then we wait.  That is what life is – oh, not the aimless waiting of those who simply fear death but the purposeful waiting of a Simeon who trust the Lord and wait for Him to finish what He has begun, the hopeful waiting that knows the future will be better than the best of the present, the waiting that is relieved to know troubles, trials, temptations, and toil will not follow us past the gate of death and the grave where we pass with Christ to our own joyful resurrection.  And waiting we come to the Temple not built of wood and stone but of Christ’s flesh and blood and the flesh and blood saints who kneel to eat and drink what the Lord has given.

Like Simeon we could be disappointed.  After all it looks, tastes, and smells like only bread and only wine.  Or, like Simeon, we can see with eyes of faith what God has hidden in bread and in wine – the flesh and blood of Christ that feeds us grace for today, forgiveness for our sins, and the pledge and promise of the eternal banquet that is to come.  I have had youth say after their first communion that they were disappointed.  They expected more – bells, whistles, lights, and drama.  But God is hidden in weakness – in suffering on the cross, in plain water that washes with heavenly grace, and in ordinary bread and wine that is Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sin.  In this life we are constantly tempted by earthly senses and the devil who insists that if you have to believe in it, it cannot be real.  In this life we constantly struggle in faith to believe what we cannot see with our eyes, to trust the timetable of the Lord, to believe the promise of God in His Word, and to see Christ where He has promised to be.

It might surprise you that in the early years of the Reformation little distinguished the Lutheran Divine Service from the Roman Mass -- not ceremony or vestment or words or even language. Only what was proclaimed from the pulpit loud and clear and a little addition to the Mass made by Luther.  Luther’s greatest modification to the mass was to add this canticle as the post communion song of those who met at the altar the God of their dreams in ordinary bread and wine.  Here in this wondrous encounter, comings and goings finally make sense.  We belong to the Lord.  Whether we life or die, as this worlds count’s life, we are the Lord’s.  Because of this Gospel we are not without hope, not without grace to sustain us, not without purpose to our waiting, and not without all we need to be ready now and every day to meet our Lord and enter into His heavenly glory where He has prepared a place for us, that we may be where He is. 

Like Simeon of old, we carry this hope in earthly vessels that need constant reassurance lest we end up settling for the moment and miss eternity.  These too God has provided so that what He began in us in our baptism, He might bring to completion on that great and final day of the Lord, when our sins shall be a memory, death shall be no more, and we shall be presented before Him holy and blameless, for the eternal future and blessing He prepared.  And then we shall hear in the voice of the Almighty:  Well done, Good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master!   And then the waiting we love to complain about will be over and it will be shown to be worth it all.  Amen.

So what did the Lutheran get from Francis' comments?

Read the whole story here...  quotes below.

A Lutheran pastor has said he believes Pope Francis “opened the door” to intercommunion when the Holy Father spoke to his church last month, and that his parishioners generally have the same opinion.  Pastor Jens Kruse of Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church said in a Dec. 12 interview with the Register (see full transcript below) that he thinks his flock feel freer, in accordance with their conscience, to receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church after Francis’ comments.

The Holy Father caused controversy during his visit to Pastor Kruse’s church Nov. 15 when he urged a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic to "talk to the Lord" about receiving holy Communion "and then go forward", but added that he "wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence.” (The video of the exchange with English subtitles can be seen here). Some felt the Pope, although his comments were not immediately clear, had by no means allowed intercommunion.
But in this interview, Pastor Kruse says he believes a door has been opened to celebrate the Eucharist together — a door that Lutherans had thought had been closed “for an eternity.” He also says he feels there is “no danger” of a Lutheran receiving the Eucharist “in the wrong way” because he would be “receiving Jesus Christ and not the teachings of the Catholic Church.” He further states that the Pope had introduced a new approach to the Eucharist, no longer viewing it as the end of ecumenism, but rather a “gift on the way to unity”.

His comments in support of Lutherans receiving the Eucharist run contrary to those of Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who, in a Nov. 30 interview with Aleteia, stressed “there is no intercommunion” between Catholics and Protestants and that it wouldn't create unity but rather “promote profanation”.
Though we do not always treat it that way, the language of theology and the language of the ecumenical conversation is carefully chosen so that misunderstandings do not occur.  It is pretty clear that either Rome has misunderstood the Pope or the Lutheran Pastor misunderstood him.  Either that or the world is upside down and the Pope with the magisterium of Rome is forgetting the Reformation conflict and judging Augustana a catholic confession.  But I am pretty sure that this is not the case.  This interview took place Dec. 12 and it will not take long for the machinery of the Vatican to start printing a more carefully worded and nuanced statement of what the Pope meant to say or should have said.  Either way it shows what a problem Rome has when Popes begin to wing it while the world is listening.  And this Pope has a habit of it.  Which may or may not be his intention but it does not help the ecumenical conversation one bit!

Thoughts on the subject of Lutheran schools. . .

I must begin by admitting that I have never served a parish that had a day school (other than preschool) and so I speak from the vantage point of never having had to deal with such things as student recruitment, tuition collection, finding faculty, paying the bills, etc...  That said, I am always disappointed when I hear of another Lutheran school closing.  I am sure that the struggles are great and that the decision to close was not made lightly -- yet I cannot help but wonder if they really have to close.

If there is anything I could say to those with schools that are struggling or those who feel that they have no decision left but to close a parish school, it is this.  Be Lutheran!  Instead trying to morph the school into a generic Christian school, be Lutheran and offer both a classical liberal arts style education that seems to be in short supply outside the realm of church run and private schools.  Be a school OF the Church -- teach the kids matins and sing it every morning and have a weekly Eucharist.  Don't skimp on the church part of the school.  Teach the faith and teach the children to think and live as the faithful.  Root the identity of the school in baptism and raise up the vocation of the baptized.  Sing the great Lutheran chorales and teach them music (not just to sing to a soundtrack).  Teach them the great Lutherans of their past -- from the theologians to the great musicians (don't banish Bach from the sound of the school).  Let us teach our kids how to read and to appreciate great literature.  Let us instruct them in science from the perspective of science that we know glorifies God and honors the intellect with which the Lord has endowed us.  Let us not fail to be clear in who we are and why we have a school.

If we will die, let us die as Lutherans doing Lutheran school as best we can -- solid academics, classical liberal arts focus, sung liturgy, great hymnody, and catechetical instruction.  Yup, if we will go down let us go down fighting like Lutherans against the cultural Christianity that dominates the world around us, against the shallow and trite music that passes as the sound of Christians at worship, and instill a reverence for the Lord and for His house.  Let us not water down our Lutheran identity in the vain hope that a creedless Christianity might be more appealing to the masses more than a creedal and confessional church and school.  And let us put our money where our mouth is.  If we think schools are worthy, then let us not apologize to ask for the funding to raise up tomorrow's churchmen and church women.  If we are not willing to step up to the plate with resources, then let us stop trying finance Lutheran schools on the backs of underpaid teachers and children selling us things we neither need nor desire.

I fear that one of the reasons our Lutheran schools are struggling the dying is that we have held up a less than compelling vision of Lutheran education and sold our souls to make ourselves more appealing to those who do not know us.  This the same reason many of our congregations and pastors have given up the Divine Service.  I may be wrong and very often am but I would rather try being intentionally Lutheran and failing than end up failing because we had no flavor or identity at all.  And if there is a place for a non-denominational Christian school, let it stand or fall on its own merits and not as a Lutheran school in disguise.