Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thoughts at the end of a year. . .

This has been some year.  2016 will be put to rest with some relief by those who could not have predicted how this political season would end and yet 2017 will not begin without the same anxiety over things we could not only control, we could not predict.  Therein lies the rub.  Since the Fall, man has sought to control events and predict history and has done a pitiful job at both, all the while succeeding in distorting the Divine Image placed in man in creation, losing life to death, and living within the captivity of sin.  All because we were not content to be creatures, leaving control and future to God, and insisted upon usurping from Him what we could never possess.

While all of this might be clear enough to good Lutherans who hear solid Law/Gospel sermons on Sunday mornings, they are not at all obvious to the world around us, devoid of the guidance of the Spirit to bring wisdom to fools.  Yet even the secular world is not without its own evidence of our desire to control and predict history and our dismal track record at doing both.  Lacking any clear and universally accepted system of ethics and moral truths to bind us together, our culture has increasingly sought out authority, certainty, and power in the ability to predict and control the future.  For a long time we have rejected history and tradition as a quaint enterprise but one not thoroughly relevant to our present wants or desires (history is bunk).  So without moral compass to guide us or an appreciation of the past to warn us, we have more and more found confidence and comfort in polling that predicts what we want to know and allows us the illusion of using the present to shape and control that future.  Certainly this was the case with the election surprise and the polls and pundits who insisted it could not possibly happen.

Without an objective truth that survives the changes and chances of this mortal age, we seek our certainty in the objectivity of what people think and what they say they will do.  A whole industry has been born of our desire to know what we want to know and absent solid facts, we have increasingly turned to statistics to measure what is both reasonable and right.  I grew up when commercials on TV insisted that doctors recommend L&M cigarettes while Camels insisted more doctors smoked Camels than any other brand.  Under the guise of a “scientific inquiry,” statistics have been used to give credibility to what is not credible at all.  The final effect is to give to statistics the character of truth, unassailable truth, and the legitimacy of reason to which only fools might argue.

The use of polls is merely another use of statistics. Just as our fascination with statistics has invented a whole new industry to feed our appetite for numbers, so have we created a polling industry to survey people and come up with objective and unassailable truths grounded upon "public opinion.”  Now to be sure, I am not at all suggesting that there is merely a problem of reliability.  I presume that those who do these polls are reliable and their results reliable.  The real question here is not reliability but usefulness.  Polls may have proven to be reliable in producing certain results but the questions after the last election have more to do with who was polled, whether the people polled were honest, and whether the results were at all useful when extrapolated to the nation heading to the ballot box.  But even having failed so miserable in allowing us to predict or control the outcome of an election, I do not mean to suggest that we will ever give up on polling (another form of statistics).  We will try to figure out why they did not work and we will continue to pursue these because, quite honestly, the secular world does not have many other options left.

Even while America had no theological unity to bind our national union, we remained united in other doctrinal tenets that sufficed.  We shared an appreciation for freedom and our duty to preserve it -- even when this freedom allowed some to do what we despised.  We shared a sense of personal responsibility that bore real fruit in terms of productivity and the rising tide that floated American households to a wider level of consumerism never before known.  We shared a commitment to invention and to the work ethic to bring to market these products we produced.   Now we face a time in which the boundaries of freedom are being tested like never before, when personal responsibility has been replaced with victimhood, when we cannot find jobs for or products for people to produce in the US, and when we have transformed schools into therapeutic centers for social engineering rather than centers for learning.  Our lack of theological unity and the tearing of the fabric of our social and cultural unity leave us only statistics and polls (what people think and how many people think it) as the basis for our common identity.

It might be an opportune time for the Church to enter again and bring us together around the revealed truths of Christianity -- except that religion itself is increasingly banished not only from the public square but as a force for anything we seem to call good.  Technology is wonderful but it cannot fill our need for God.  Statistics are wonderful but they cannot produce a clear conscience.  Polls are wonderful but they cannot end the reign of death.  At the very time when bold Christian faith and witness is most needed, we are under duress to merely survive.  It is easy to develop a shrinking attitude and leave the job of truth to statistics and polling, to a morality of minimums, and to an ethical identity born of whim, desire, and self-centeredness.  Now is not the time for us to shrink from our convictions or our confessions.  The times call for nothing less that the most vigorous defense of Christian faith and its most vibrant expression in worship, witness, and service. 

What is wrong is our desire to predict and control things to erase all risk and make life safe.  But life is not safe.  Sin has corrupted desire and death has cast its long, dark shadow over all things living.  We need to know our Creator now more than ever and we can only know Him through the Savior whom He has sent and by the Spirit to breaks through the barriers of a sinful and skeptical heart.  Statistics may not be wrong but they cannot heal.  Polls may attempt to predict on the basis of what people whisper anonymously to those who listen but they cannot rescue us from ourselves.  In 2016 and in 2017 we share a common need to be reconnected to the source of our lives, to the Divine Word that has rescued us from our ill-conceived efforts to predict and control history, and to the Spirit who can give us identity, purpose, and hope.

As you close your eyes in 2016 and awaken a year later in 2017, know this.  Despite what statistics say and polls reveal, God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Friday, December 30, 2016

What would Lutherans think if they witnessed these Divine Services?

Whenever the divine service once again follows the old Evangelical-Lutheran agendas (or church books), it seems that many raise a great cry that it is “Roman Catholic”; “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds by chanting “and with thy spirit”; “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants the collect and the blessing and the people respond with a chanted “Amen.” Even the simplest Christian can respond to this outcry: “Prove to me that this chanting is contrary to the Word of God, then I too will call it ‘Roman Catholic’ and have nothing more to do with it. However, you cannot prove this to me.” If you insist upon calling every element in the divine service “Romish” that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also “Romish.” Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also. . . Those who cry out should remember that the Roman Catholic Church possesses every beautiful song of the old orthodox church. The chants and antiphons and responses were brought into the church long before the false teachings of Rome crept in. This Christian Church since the beginning, even in the Old Testament, has derived great joy from chanting. . . For more than 1700 years orthodox Christians have participated joyfully in the divine service. Should we, today, carry on by saying that such joyful participation is “Roman Catholic”? God forbid! Therefore, as we continue to hold and to restore our wonderful divine services in places where they have been forgotten, let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not tie us with the modern sects or with the church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian Church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

— C. F. W. Walther, Der Lutheraner, vol. 9, No. 24 (July 19, 1853), p. 163

 My Comments: 

Clearly the things that make some, perhaps many Lutherans uncomfortable (vestments, chanting, ceremony, etc...) are the things that were once routine and normal among Lutherans.  While no one in their right mind makes this an issue of the thing itself (vestments, chanting, ceremony, etc...), how has our doctrine changed because our practice has become decidedly more Protestant and how has our identity changed because the things once ordinary have become exceptional?  That is the hitch.  Ceremony and church usages are not indifferent things but simply things about which man may not bind the conscience to be saved.  They are not indifferent at all but are the practice or public shaped of our belief, confession, and dogma.  For those who disagree, why do we Americans get so excited when someone burns our flag?  When a football player refuses to stand at the national anthem?  Only a fool says ceremonies don't matter.  Only a legalist insists that they matter enough to require them in order to be saved.  A Lutheran loves the ceremonies and church usages (our confessional terminology) that mirror in action what we believe in words.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The problem of political correctness. . .

“Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.”

Okay.  Who said that?  I doubt that you can guess.  Some of you may presume it is some icon of conservativism who complains about the problems with modern society.  You would be wrong.  It is the maven of political incorrectness.  You know him.  The guy whose  classic routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” has become a standard, one honored even by the Library of Congress for its National Recordings Registry.  Yup, George Carlin.  The date is 2004.  By then his seven words deemed too risque for TV had become the ordinary vocabulary of grandmas and spinster high school English teachers.

Carlin did hit the nail on the head, however.  This is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance.  “Censorship from the right is to be expected,” he argued in 2002, “[but] censorship from the left took me by surprise. And I’m talking, of course, about what originated as campus speech codes at eastern universities and has come to be called politically correct language.”  Our institutions of higher education not only tolerate this intolerance but foster and encourage it.  What is even more shocking is that vulgarity that once was the domain of censorship is now fully embraced in nearly all quarters.  Sure, you may not hear all Carlin's seven words on TV but they have lost their edge, their bite, and their surprise.  They are normal.  The new targets of the speech police on campuses and in the media are those voices that dare to speak against the sacred cows of modernity -- things like the GLBTQ agenda or abortion rights or the so-called sciences of pop culture or the kind of relative truth which makes nothing and everything true at the same time.

If Carlin really wanted to shock or surprise America today, he might just speak out for orthodox Christianity because this has become the message the makes liberality so illiberal.  Dare to speak about a God who becomes incarnate or of a Virgin who consents to the Divine saving will and purpose to mother the Son of God or a Savior who dies to set free those who claim not to be captive or to pay the price of sin in blood for a people who are not so sure it is sin at all.  Dare to speak of the exclusive Gospel which is inclusive for all who come in repentance and by the power of the Spirit believe (not of themselves but by His power and might).  Dare to say that life is sacred and must be protected from womb to grave and no one allowed to decide whose and when life can be ended.  Dare to say that somethings are always wrong and others are always right and that your conscience is the voice of God addressing these rights and wrongs.  Dare to suggest that sin and death remain the chief problems of life that cannot be written off by simply refusing to call them sins or making peace with death by holding happy parties that celebrate the life of the dead by remembering their most embarrassing moments.  That is the new shock and awe that tests the boundaries of acceptability.  And we who call ourselves Christian speak this unacceptable speech to the world at God's own bidding.  No wonder Jesus said "when" you are persecuted or offered up for His sake -- and not "if".  Yup, one of the seven most dangerous words today is the name of Jesus, the one name under heaven and on earth by which any and all who will be saved shall be saved...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Forbearance and Patience. . .

"Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, no knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" Romans 2:4

Patience is hard enough to explain; forbearance is near impossible.  Patience is perhaps best described as anexikakos --  a "holding up" under duress, evil, test, trial, etc...  To be patient is not to give up hope nor to despair when experience is at odds with the promise of God.  We are patient, refusing to give up when we find rejection, when we are persecuted, or when we suffer for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.  Forbearance is anoche -- a  "holding back" and  a refusal to judge or cry out in complaint because we have encounter such suffering, trial, or trouble.  We forbear by biting the tongue when our sinful hearts would rush to judge or condemn others, even God, because of what we see and experience.  For us, these words have their source in our faith.  We trust despite what we see or suffer.  We believe not when things are going as we desire but even when the bottom is falling out of our lives.

While these nuances of definition might help us when patience and forbearance are used of us, these do not quite help when it is God who is patient with us and forbears us.  God forbears those whom He loves.  He does not rush to judge and condemn us but in mercy "passes over" such judgment and wrath for the sake of Christ.  It is God's gracious disposition that He does not react to every one of our sins and retaliate as we might do on earth.  He holds back His righteous judgment and acts in mercy "to lead [us] to repentance." 

The patience of God is often seen as His indifference but it is in reality His gentleness.  He is kind, merciful, compassionate, gentle, etc... not of our worth or merit but always out of His mercy.  Oh give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His steadfast love and mercy endures forever.  He is slow to judge and quick to forgive (even though we often mistake His slowness for indifference).  His slowness is always driven by mercy.  God does not desire the death of the sinner and so the Lord is patient, long suffering, and has pity upon the sinner.  All is designed to bring us to repentance.  Yet even while He works with us and waits for us to repent, His discipline accompanies His mercy (the Lord chastens those whom He loves) -- again all designed to bring us to repentance.

As we bask in the glow of Christmas, we are reminded that God's patience and forbearance is not endless.  Those who refuse Him will suffer, the guilty will face His justice, and the evil will feel the full force of His wrath.  James says, "Let patience have its perfect result" and for God, patience has no more perfect result than the Spirit awakened repentance and faith that rejoices in His gracious favor.  Those who rejoice in this mercy and who know God's patience and forbearance cannot exploit this while living in judgment and rushing to condemn their brothers and sisters (the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35).  We who have seen the face of God's mercy in His Son, bear the face of that mercy one to another in the hopes that the whole world will kneel at the manger and stand in awe of the cross, believing in the Father and the Son whom He has sent.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A great Warrior for a Cosmic Battle. . .

Sermon preached on Christmas Morning 2016 by the Rev. Larry A. Peters.

We have very different perspectives on the Incarnation of our Lord.  St. Matthew sets Christmas in the context of Joseph’s apprehension to take the pregnant Mary as his wife.  Luke gives us the full and familiar details of angels and shepherds, stable and manger, inn and Magi.  Mark skips over the birth entirely and begins with John the Forerunner preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

But John’s Gospel sets Christmas in a much larger context.  Here is the great cosmic war – not between God and man but God and Satan, between darkness and Light.  Before the world was made, the eternal Word of God was, the Logos, the everlasting Son.  His voice spoke and everything was made.  He is the Word of life whose light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old.  The prophets addressed us with the promise through the ages.  Generations rose and fell - kept alive in hope by the prophetic voice.  Then, in the last days, God spoke not through prophets but through His Son.  God raised up a witness to bear witness that this was the day the prophets had foretold – the true Light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.  The days of promise were kept and the new thing long spoken of was now fulfilled.

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory of the One and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.  He came to a broken world, a world of darkness and death, of sin and sadness, of worldliness and wickedness.  He came to a people whose hearts were so soiled by sin they did not know Him, they did not even know the depths of their sin and thought they could cover it up, make peace with death, and still dream of being gods and living in control of their destiny.

Though He was in the world, the world was blinded by sin.  His voice was a stranger to their ears.  Though His voice called all things into being, they did not know Him or welcome Him. 
His own people, set apart by the covenant, Law, and promise were blind to their God.  They had perpetuated a religion of self-justifying works over a faith that trusted in the mercy of God.  They did not know the prophets and the promise so they did not know Him whom the prophets proclaiimed.

So radical was this warrior Child whom God sent, that they could not ignore Him but rejected Him, His message, His kingdom, and His repentance. Well not all.  A remnant believed just as had always been. A people in misery because of the terrible guilt of their sin, whose shame refused to allow them to look into the face of God without fear, who were desperate for hope to answer the emptiness and despair within, who longed for a clear conscience and its peace, a righteousness big enough to cover them all, and who stood in fear of death, this remnant looked for the Savior whom the Father sent.

To all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become the sons of inheritance, the children of God born not of blood, nor the will of the flesh not the lust of the heart, nor the power of man, but of God.  You are this remnant now assembled and to you this day St. John has spoken of the great warrior who fought for you with His own blood and who has brought Light to shine in the darkness of your lives.

This Word made flesh bore on His innocent shoulders the weight of your sin.  He died as the innocent for the guilty to break the shackles of death.  He stood before Your enemy Satan – tempted like you are but without sin – to be your champion and to write a new story never before written – a story of redemption, of the pioneer who marks His way through death that we  might follow, and who leads His captive people to the freedom no one can steal from them anymore.

He is the finisher who began it all with the His voice in the emptiness of that first day and now He brings all things to their consummation and completion in the last day, the eternal day, when darkness is banished to hell and the people whom He delivered at the cost of His own blood will dwell in Light forevermore.  He will not relinquish the children of Light to the darkness, not now in this present life and not in eternity.

We are tempted to believe that it all began in Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is not where it began and it is not where it ends.  Site after Site from Eden to heaven is but a vantage point upon which we glimpse the saving purpose of God. Horan, Moriah, Sinai, Gerazim, Nebo, Shiloh, Jerusalem, Calvary, and Clarksville. These are but stops on the way to an eternal victory and an eternal dwelling place delivered to you by Him who fought for you with His own blood.

The Law through Moses, grace and truth through Jesus the Word made flesh.  He is the face of the unseen God, the revealer of all that is hidden. He is the army of one who fights for us and wins where we lost, restoring to us more than Satan took.  He is the sufferer who gives meaning to our own sufferings.  His death means that our death is not the end.  He is the Light to shine in every darkness of our discontent, disappointment, and despair.  He is the Life to rescue the lives of all who trust in Him.

There is a bigger story than Bethlehem but Bethlehem is part of it.  There is a bigger story than you, but you are a part of it.  The Lord has bared His holy arm before the face of all the nations and all the peoples and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.  Even you.

Matthew’s story is good enough.  Luke’s is sweet and tender.  Mark’s is too urgent to tarry at a manger.  But John has given us the big picture.  The Word became flesh in the cosmic clash of Light and darkness, sin and righteousness, death and life.  You have come to celebrate a birthday but God has given you so much more.  He has hastened with the beautiful feet of the messengers of good news to plant the victory standard in our world and in our lives and to remind us in our troubles, trials, and temptation, “Your God reigns!”  We thought we came to celebrate the birthday of our Lord.  We did not realize the birthday we celebrate today is our own.

A blind eye and deaf ear. . .

A recent story on the leftward shift toward more political activism on the part ESPN (yeah, you got it right, the sports network) pointed out that there is still great conflict between what some define as human rights and others define as a progressive or liberal stance.  It would seem, however, that the folks at ESPN, like many on the left, do not get the conflict.

When ESPN President John Skipper was asked about the perceived political shift many ESPN employees and consumers have felt and if this was, indeed, a conscious move on the part of the network, he responded: “It is accurate that the Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion.  These are long-standing values that drive fundamental fairness while providing us with the widest possible pool of talent to create the smartest and most creative staff. We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy.”

Therein lies the rub.  Tolerance.  The tolerance Skipper is speaking of goes only one way -- they are tolerant of every new found gender identity and every leftward leaning cause but they do not and refuse to tolerate any diversity within this social agenda.  Their understanding of human rights is one that is shaped and defined by an already leftward leaning stance toward those who claim such rights (especially those not spelled out in our constitution).

ESPN and its owner Disney before it have a definite aversion to unpopular ideas that were once mainstream (only recently, in fact) and are the doctrinal stance of the Roman Catholic Church and many others (including the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod).  What will not be tolerated is any diversity with respect to the unfolding definition of gender identity and how it works out in everything from discrimination to bathrooms.  What will not be tolerated is any deviation from the united front of what ESPN and most all media outlets consider the sacred cause of the GLBTQ.  Remember what happened when baseball commentator tweeted out something about the transgender bathroom issue that did not mirror the tolerant opinion of ESPN.  The response was quick and decisive.  "ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated." Sure, different points of view relative to Colin Kaepernick’s actions were allowed but that is because his actions did not touch upon the tolerant ideas of social justice that are increasingly intolerant.

The classic idea of media objectivity has suffered mightily over the last decade or more.  Perhaps social media has accelerated what was already a trend.  For ESPN it is impossible to cover sports without acknowledging that an increasing number of athletes are taking political stances but does that mean that the journalists themselves must take sides upon the issue and surrender their objectivity to become advocates of a cause?

According to Federal Election Commission data, between 2012 and today, there were 104 individual political contributions from ESPN employees to identifiable partisan entities. Of those, 80 percent went to Democratic candidates, committees or PACs. Only 20 percent went to Republican candidates, committees or PACs.  Yes, it is an old saw and no, reporters of any stripe need not remain apolitical in their private lives, but the media bias is hardly evenly dispersed and even in sports reporting has shown why so many Americans find it hard to trust (or even stomach) those who claim tolerance when it is the most intolerant attitude of all.  Almost with one fell swoop the media overall have decided that what is believed and confessed by a majority of Christians is incompatible with democratic values and social justice.  When that happens, we have a big problem.  Perhaps the fourth estate has just surrendered its right to judge what is right and wrong, tolerant and intolerant.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Gift that Gives

Sermon for Christmas Eve, the Nativity of Our Lord, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on December 24, 2016.

And the angel said [to the shepherds] "Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11-12). 

Gifts, gifts, and more gifts...Christmas is all about gifts, and we start thinking about them at midnight on Black Friday, if not before.  We think about the boxes that need to go under the tree.  We search all over town and the internet to find the perfect presents for loved ones.  We spend hours making our Christmas lists.  Gifts, gifts, and more gifts...Christmas is all about the gifts. 

For a long time, people have bemoaned the fact that Christmas has become all about gifts.  But the truth is, Christmas IS about gifts; rather, it's about the ONE gift that always gives.  Christmas is about the gift of Jesus Christ given to us by God the Father, given to us so that our sins might be forgiven, given to us so that we might have salvation. 

By its very definition, a gift is freely given, undeserved.  No one can earn a gift, otherwise it be a reward or payment.  Gifts are selflessly given out of love and we like to think we give our presents out of selfless love. 

We buy exciting toys for our children because we want them to be happy.  We exchange thoughtful gifts with our family and friends to say "thank you" and to show them we care.  We give sentimental cards that express our love.   

But our presents aren't given purely out of selfless love...they're also given out of selfish love, love for ourselves.  Haven't we all begrudgingly given a present because we felt obligated to?  Isn't there that one gift we give only because we knew someone was going to give us a gift and we didn't want to look bad?  What about those gifts we give because of the thanks and praise we know we'll get in return?

This selfish love is our sinful nature, and it infects everything we think, say, and do.  It turns gift giving into a self promoting endeavor, something we do because we get something out of it.  This something may be the good feeling of making someone else smile, but this too is directed inward towards ourself.  Our sin puts us first, it drives us to seek out our wants and desires before we care for another person's needs.    

Our sin separates us from one another, turning us against each other.  Gossip and hateful words on social media break up relationships.  Brothers and sisters fight over toys and the TV.  Husbands and wives get divorced, parents and children refuse to speak.  Sin keeps us from living in peace with one another and also with God. 

Our sin separates us from the Father, the one who gave us life.  We stand as His enemies in opposition to Him in every way.  We want to live life our way, to fulfill our sinful desires, engaging in self love.  This love is far from good because it leads to death.  The wages of sin is death (Rm 6:23).  Our sin kills us, permanently separating us from God, forever suffering the torments of hell...and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it. 

We can't save ourselves, we can't overcome sin and death.  Only God can do this.  Only God can give us the gifts of peace and life...and He has, and He does through the gift of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. 

God gave the world, He gave you the gift of Christ out of His pure selfless love.  "God is love.  [And] in this the love of God was [made known, was shown] among us, that He sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him" (1Jn 4:8b-9).  Even though we don't deserve it, God gave you the gift of His Son so that you might be forgiven through His death on the cross.

We wrap our gifts in pretty paper tied with colored bows...God wrapped His gift in flesh, tied with swaddling cloths.  Born of the Virgin Mary, God became incarnate.  Jesus took on our flesh and blood and was laid in the manger.  He came to us in our sinful world so that He could die on the cross and make payment for our sin.  Sinless, He took on our sins and paid the price of death they demand.  Out of selfless love, Jesus freely gave you the gift of His life so that you might forgiven and have everlasting life and peace with God.  

Every Christmas Eve we gather together here to receive the gift of Jesus.  In faith, we trust in the forgiveness, life, and salvation that God has freely given to us in Christ.  But the gift of Christ isn't a one time gift, given 2,000 years ago.  Jesus isn't given only on Christmas Eve and Day.  The gift of Christ is here for you today and everyday: for tomorrow, for next week, next month, and for all the years to come.  Jesus is God's gift to you now and forever, and He continually gives you the gift of His Son.   

The gift of Christ always gives you forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Every day Jesus is there with the forgiveness He won for you on the cross.  Every time you confess your sins and repent of your selfish love, He's there with forgiveness.  Every Sunday, when you confess your sins in thought, word, and deed, what you've done and what you've left undone, your Savior is there giving you His forgiveness in the words of His absolution spoken to you by His pastors.

At every baptism, Jesus is there, washing away sins, giving new life to the person as God's Triune name is spoken and the waters flow over their head.  As you witness this heavenly birth of new life, God is there reminding you of the new life you were given in your baptism.  This life is a gift freely given to you so that you might be raised from the dead just as your Savior was. 

Every Sunday, at this altar, God gives you the gift of Jesus' sacrificed body and blood.  He gives you the present of peace.  As you eat and drink your sins are forgiven and the Father nourishes the life of faith He's given to you.  And you live this life out with thanksgiving and praise, living in response to the gift of Christ you've received. 

When the shepherds heard the angel's message, they went to the stable to see the gift of Jesus Christ.  They received this life giving gift from God.  But that's not all they did.  Like all great gifts, they share it with others.  They went out and told everyone what they saw and heard concerning the gift of Jesus.  Out of selfless love they generously told others. 

And we do the same.  Having received the gift of Jesus we extend His pure and selfless love to others.  We do this through our gifts and our words.  Signs stand throughout our city that say "Jesus is the reason for the season."  We celebrate Christmas, we give gifts and presents because of the gift of Christ, because of the gifts He continually gives to you.  We tell others about these gifts, we share His forgiveness with them, we extend His peace, and we invite them to come to church to receive these gifts too. 

Not only to we give to others, but we also give back to our Lord.  God has given us everything: our families, our possessions, our very lives.  He's even given us the gift of His Son.  And in thanksgiving we give back to Him.  We give Him our offerings so that His Word can continue to be preached and His Sacraments administered, so that we and others can continually receive His gifts.  

We give Him thanks and praise.  When we receive gifts, we thank the giver.  We write cards and speak words of appreciation.  We do the same for our Lord.  We sing His praises.  We come to His house and join our voices together with His saints, we join our voices together with the heavenly hosts, and we sing glory to God in the Highest. 

Christmas is all about the gift of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem.  God gave us the gift of His Son so that we might be forgiven and have everlasting life with Him.  Christ is the greatest gift ever given, He's the gift that always gives.  Every Sunday He comes to you here, giving you the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through His Word and Sacrament.  And in faith, we come to the Lord's house: we come here to receive these gifts.  We come here to praise Him and His name.  In Jesus' name...Amen.

Oldest Alphabet is Hebrew?

The world’s earliest alphabet, inscribed on stone slabs at several Egyptian sites, was an early form of Hebrew, a controversial new analysis concludes.  Israelites living in Egypt transformed that civilization’s hieroglyphics into Hebrew 1.0 more than 3,800 years ago, at a time when the Old Testament describes Jews living in Egypt, says archaeologist and epigrapher Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Hebrew speakers seeking a way to communicate in writing with other Egyptian Jews simplified the pharaohs’ complex hieroglyphic writing system into 22 alphabetic letters, Petrovich proposed on November 17 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Several biblical figures turn up in the translated inscriptions, including Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his half-brothers and then became a powerful political figure in Egypt, Joseph’s wife Asenath and Joseph’s son Manasseh, a leading figure in a turquoise-mining business that involved yearly trips to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, is also mentioned, Petrovich says.

Read more here. . .

Of course, not much needs to be said.  Suffice it that the standard position of science has been that writing is not very old and therefore the claims of Scripture are not credible.  As Dr. Paul Maier often reminds us, archeology is a friend to the Scriptures and to its timeline.  What could not possibly be true is what turns out to be the evidence of antiquity.  Scripture is reliable.  Christianity is credible.  Truth endures and will triumph over postulated opinion that passes as science.  Just give it time.  Thankfully, we live at a time when some of the smug presuppositions of an earlier era are being undone not by argument but by physical evidence.  What a day for Christianity!!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord

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 Judaea, 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, 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 firstborn 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; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.  And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Another hit from Lutheran Satire. . .

Even the fool. . .

Even the fool. The highway the Lord shall establish to recover His lost people is called the Way of Holiness and the unclean shall not pass over it but the fool shall not go astray. . . Now there is a verse to hold onto. The Lord distinguishes between the unclean (unrepentant) and the fool (the unlearned, the simple) shall not wander from it. Think how St. Paul distinguishes the between the foolishness of the Gospel and the wisdom of the world. Those whom the world counts as the simple, the unlearned, or the foolish, they shall not be so regarded by the Lord. Again the contrast here is with the world who values the wisdom of those they deem wise even if their hearts are poisoned by pride, arrogance, conceit, and selfishness. The people of God are so often regarded as fools by the world precisely because they do not buy into the same value system and their reason is directed by their faith (not the other way around). Though many may live a humbler character of life, this is not about crude and bare circumstance. This is again the juxtaposition of human learning (erudition) and worldly wisdom with the path of faith. Think how our Savior preached the Gospel to the poor and visited with His presence those marginalized and disdained by the mighty. Recall the words of the Magnificat and St. Mary's song of the proud sent empty away and the humble whom the Lord lifts up. Fools like me rejoice in the promise in this verse. What about you?

As we approach the Manger again, let us come as those with a great sense of wonder, who marvel in the night what God has done. It is childlike, to be sure, but unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God. As we approach the blessing night when we commemorate the Nativity of our Lord, let us likewise pray for the foolishness of faith and the childlike heart that continues to approach the mystery of the incarnation with the wonder of faith. What Child is this, indeed!
The Ransomed Shall Return (ESV)

35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
2 it shall blossom abundantly
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

3 Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

8 And a highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
    It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
    even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.

9 No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain gladness and joy,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is. . .

A friend and colleague suggested that his favorite communion hymn is LSB 372, O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is.  I must admit that I had not thought much about either the idea of a favorite distribution hymn or this Christmas hymn as a distribution hymn.  But he is clearly correct.

O Jesus Christ,
Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord,
Doth lie the Word
Made flesh for us; herein Thy grace forth shineth.
He whom the sea
And wind obey
Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God's own Son,
With us art one,
Dost join us and our children in our weakness.

Thy light and grace
Our guilt efface,
Thy heav'nly riches all our loss retrieving.
Thy birth doth quell
The pow'r of hell and Satan's bold deceiving.

Thou Christian heart,
Whoe'er thou art,
Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee!
For God's own Child,
In mercy mild,
Joins thee to Him; how greatly God must love thee!

Remember thou
What glory now
The Lord prepared thee for all earthly sadness.
The angel host
Can never boast
Of greater glory, greater bliss or gladness.

The world may hold
Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true treasure.
To Him hold fast
Until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure.  

For Paul Gerhardt the manger is not simply the place where Mary and Joseph went to deliver her first born, the familiar manger or creche with its feed bunk holding the Baby Jesus.  No, it is certainly that but more in the sense of remembering an event long ago in the past of which none of us are witnesses and to which none of us may return.  No, for Gerhardt the manger is not a far off image but the very present reality of the Divine Service and the Christ who comes to us in His flesh and blood under bread and wine in the Eucharist.

The manger where we find the Lord Jesus in His flesh and blood, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, buried, risen,  and ascended, is the Eucharist.  Our manger given by God is not made of wood but the bread that is His flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sins.

Nowhere is the centrality of this all more obvious than at Christmas.  We as Lutherans are very incarnational -- especially in our sacramental theology.  We treat the Sacraments incarnationally.  So Christ is present not according to one nature only but in the earthly element of bread wherein His flesh is given to us to eat and in the wine wherein His blood is given to us to drink drink.  For this blest communion we give Him thanks and praise every bit as much as for the Bethlehem miracle of His birth, God in flesh by the Spirit and the blessed Virgin.

So now read through the words one more time and think of Gerhardt's wonderful hymn as not only a Christmas hymn but a communion hymn as well.  And when you commune upon His precious body and blood this holy season of our Savior's nativity, sing the song of joy the angel's sang for Christ is born in us today by this holy and blessed Sacrament and our communion upon it.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Joseph, a godly man. . .

Sermon for Advent 4A, preached on Sunday, December 18, 2016.

Every other fourth Sunday in Advent is Mary’s Day – the day when we hear the whole story of the Angel Gabriel who comes to Mary the Virgin and tells her the news that God has chosen her to bear His own Son in order to save the world.  The story always ends in Mary’s Song – the Magnificat.  But not this year.  This year we do not hear of the visit of the angel to Mary. We do hear the story of the angel’s visit to Joseph.

Joseph is no dufus but neither is he some idealized man.  He is a real man with honest doubts and honest fears.  He is a man who takes things seriously and who expects others to live up to their part of the deal.

So today we meet Joseph in the midst of some wedding bell blues and we hear with him the word that Scripture speaks more than any other.  Do not be afraid. 

But how could Joseph not be afraid or angry or disappointed or frustrated or bitter?  How could Jesus NOT have wedding bell blues?  After all he has just found out that his virgin bride is pregnant.  She is pregnant and he knows that this child is not HIS child.  How much disappointment can mar what is supposed to be one of life’s happiest days?

However, Joseph is an honorable man.  No matter how tempted he is by his bitterness or anger or disappointment or frustration or fears, Joseph will not rant on Face book or Tweet an expletive deleted or Instagram Mary’s plight to a world that just loves to judge and condemn.  Joseph is intent upon exiting this relationship gracefully, doing harm neither to Mary nor to himself and trying to escape this terrible situation with his dignity in tact.

You have to hand it to him.  That is not how we would act today.  We have grown used to the send button, to the post button, and to airing our dirty laundry before the world.  We are experts at getting back at people, at remembering grudges, and at getting back at the people who dare to cross us.  But there were people like that in Joseph’s day as well.
Joseph was not one of them.  Now do you get a hint why God chose Joseph? We know why God chose Mary.  She believed the Word the angel spoke, she consented to the will of God no matter how that impacted on her own life plans, and she pondered and trusted all these things right through the Manger to the cross and the stable to the empty tomb.  Now we find that just as Mary was a woman of faith, Joseph was a man of faith.

Everyone of you meets life in hills and valleys, in triumphs and failures, in good and in bad.  Everyone of you has had to hear things you did not want to hear, to face things you thought you would never face, and to go on paths you never expected to tread.  Joseph has nothing on you.  The circumstances may be different but the disappointment, the bitterness, the pain, the anger, and the temptation is all the same.  Faith is the only answer.

The only way for Joseph to meet his disappointment was to trust in the voice of the Lord.  For the same angel who came calling on Mary, visited Joseph in his doubts, fears, anger, and discontent.  “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child in her is by the Holy Spirit, and she will bear a son whom you shall call Jesus, for He will saved His people from their sins.” 

You see the Lord never asks us to understand Him nor does He ask for us to approve of what He is doing.  He calls us merely to trust Him, to believe in His Word, and to have confidence that the outcome will be for our benefit.  He did not ask for Joseph’s permission nor for His approval and He does not ask for yours.  Like Job of old we cry to the Lord for answers but the answer of the Lord is always the same.  Do not fear.  Only believe.

Fear has an answer and Christ is that answer.  The same God who delivered up His own Son, will He not also give us all things in Him?  Meet the Lord in the manger of His Word and that is where fears end.  Meet the Lord in the water that gives life and fears find an end.  Meet the Lord where bread is His body and wine His blood, and fears some to an end.  Fear does not end because the circumstances of our lives change, fear ends because it has been answered in Christ our Lord, the Immanuel of God, with us in everything.

Joseph’s circumstances remained – his bride was pregnant with the Son of God who would save the world.  What changed was the heart of Joseph, the man of faith, who found in that faith the end to his fears.  He believed because the Spirit was in that Word of the Lord and because the Son born of Mary would become His own Savior as well as the Savior of the world. 

Your circumstances will not change.  The diagnosis of the doctor will not magically be taken back, the broken heart in you will not magically heal, the hurt you have been nursing for so long will not magically disappear, and the struggles of this mortal life will not magically come to an end.  But Christ the Immanuel of God is with you.  Do not be afraid.  You are not alone.  The Spirit is in you by baptism whether you feel it or not.  The Savior who is born of Mary is born for you, for your sin, and for your death.

Feelings do not validate faith.  Faith transcends the feeling.  What did Joseph do?  Did he give into to his fear and disappointment?  Did he lash out in anger or bitterness? Did he reject the voice of God because it did not make sense or conflicted with Joseph’s plan for his life?  No, Joseph took the hardest path of all – the path of faith.  He believed the Lord and obeyed the Word of God.  He did as the angel had said.  He kept the Word of God with faith.  He gave without taking so that Christ could take all our sins and give what none of us deserve – forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Christmas is coming and some of you think you have it all under control.  And some of you fear the lid to the chaos will come off and spoil everything.  Some of you fear you will never be ready.  Some of you fear you just don’t care anymore.  Some of you dread the day because of painful memories of painful wounds the holiday exposes.  Some of you have forgotten what the day is all about and are trying to cover up your emptiness with gifts and plans.  To all of you the message is the same.  Do not fear.  Christ is with you.  Believe the word of God, trust in what God has promised, and obey the voice of God with faith.  Joseph turned out to be every bit as much a person of faith as Mary.  How about you?  Fear not.  God is with you.  He has saved you from your sins.  He has redeemed you from the curse death.  And this is the only thing that really matters.  Amen

Loving Virtue. . .

It is an oft repeated fallacy that Lutherans and Lutheranism is unfriendly to virtue, to the pursuit of goodness.  Now to be sure, Luther and the Lutherans are adamant that no amout of virtue adds to the virtue of Christ whose sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection has provided all that is needed to atone for the sins of the whole world.  We are most especially grace alone people who refuse to taint the perfect goodness of Christ's perfect obedience and virtue with our own flawed and imperfect obedience and virtue.  That said, Luther and the Lutherans are not against virtue.  In fact, Lutherans are as adamant for virtue and goodness in the life of the Christian as they are that none of this contributes one bit to our salvation.

The sad truth is that the word virtue itself has become old-fashioned, even somewhat quaint in an age of self-indulgence and the celebration of desire (being true to this desire the highest of all good and the noblest virtue).  We have come to think of goodness in a far different way than Scripture or the fathers of the Church.  We call causes good and programs good and even people good but it is a relative goodness that has not much to do with the morality of the person or their pursuit of a life of obedience and keeping of the commandments.  Good is relative and has as much to do with the prevailing causes of society and this social justice as it does with individual acts of holiness (another word rather antique in our modern vocabulary).

The King James translation uses the word “virtue” in a rather surprising way.  From the story of the woman with the issue of blood, who was healed when she secretly touched Christ's vestments, the AV records:
And Jesus said, “Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.” (8:46)
“Virtue” here translates the word dynamis, which is normally rendered “power.”  This meaning of virtue is quite foreign to us but it is an old definition. This virtue is the “power” of a person to do what is good, right, and salutary.  While we might think of virtue as resident in the individual, this kind of virtue is acquired, learned, if you will.  Doing what is good and right and salutary requires a certain sacrifice, a self-emptying gesture, that is not inherent to the person (original sin) but the fruit of the Spirit's energy and life in the person. 

Though it is true we call people good, this goodness has more to do with what they have not done than what they have.  A good man avoids too much sin and evil but does not necessarily pursue goodness or holiness.  To be good is not to be excessive -- not even in the areas of holiness, piety, and truth.  We are not quite comfortable with people who are too holy, whose piety shows too much, and who are too wedded to a truth that refuses to adjust or evolve.  Principles get in the way of doing things, of making deals, and of compromise.  Instead of a virtuous society, we are a society that celebrates vice -- a vicious culture that indulges self within bounds and appeals to the desires of the heart.  So in our culture, sex sells.  If you don't believe me, watch some commercials.  Like children giggling when we learn a new bad word, we delight in the risque, at least in what is shocking enough to surprise.

For the Christian, redeemed by the blood of Christ and set right by God through an alien righteousness unearned but freely given by God in baptism, virtue IS the pursuit of this mortal life.  The commandments of God are not suggestions of what we might do but the very pattern of the life of those who have died and been reborn as God's own.  No, we do not presume that this life of holiness, obedience, and virtue is easy or easily accomplished or perhaps ever accomplished.  Yet it does not in any way diminish this Christ shaped life as the goal of our whole body, mind, soul, and strength.  Indeed to walk in the Light of Christ is to walk like Christ, disdaining the ways of sin and loving what is righteous, holy, good, and true.

The same St. Paul who insists by grace through faith and without works insists that Christians will walk worthy of their calling:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.  Philippians 4:8-9 ESV

For Paul this is personal as well:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  Philippians 2:12-16 ESV
Contemporary Christianity has become an enemy of this virtue and assumes that the more effective pursuit of  “evangelism” is to appeal to people's own desires, wants, and felt needs.  It is a church that has taken as Gospel "to thine own self be true" instead of the Christ who says "if you will not renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me, you cannot be My disciple."  You cannot save people by appealing to their passions and desires. These have become the prey of demons for they are our weakness, first to Adam and Eve and in every generation of those born of woman (except Christ).   Virtue is certainly not the precondition of salvation but it is the result of the Spirit's work in those who are saved, by grace, through faith, in Christ alone.  Until we begin to rescue virtue from its obscurity and reconnect the people of God to the power of virtue (which too many presume is a weakness), we turn the saved back over to their sinful desires and give them the false dream of life that is true to self instead of true to God. 

Luther and the Lutherans are for virtue.  God does not need it but our neighbor does.  Faith does not live without creating a new heart that loves God and goodness, even if such love is within the bounds of human frailty.  No matter how virtuous we become, we never outgrow our need to finish our righteousness with Christ's and to complete our holiness with His -- which is His gracious favor to do to those who belong to Him.  So if you are Lutheran, do not disdain virtue.  Love it.  Pursue it.  Claim only Christ's virtue before the throne of God but in the domain of the world endeavor to live out this virtue with all that you are and all that you have. . . and may God be glorified!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Problems with the Psalms. . .

A friend sent me some notes on the redone Breviary (Liturgy of the Hours) and specifically about its abbreviation of the body of the Psalms and its excising of certain problematic verses of Psalms.  Now none of this happened recently and most of it began a lifetime ago.  All this is of great interest to the priests who are expected to pray the Breviary daily.  But what does it say about us and how comfortable we are with the words of God?

Check below to see what was omitted:

Three Psalms (57/58, 82/83, and 108/109 [*]) were expunged in their entirety from the pages of the Liturgy of the Hours (have a look at them some time), while three others (77/78, 104/105, 105/106) were confined to Advent, Christmastide, Lent, and Eastertide. The following verses were permanently omitted from other psalms[**]:
Psalm 5 – 10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you. Psalm 20/21 – 8 Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. 9 You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. 10 You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind. 11 If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed. 12 For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows. Psalm 27/28 – 4 Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward. 5 Because they do not regard the works of the LORD, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more. Psalm 30/31 – 17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol. 18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt. Psalm 34/35 – 3 Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers. 4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. 5 Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on. 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them. 7 For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. 8 Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it to their ruin. … 20 For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.  21 They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.” … 24 Vindicate me, O LORD, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me. 25 Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.” 26 Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor.
Psalm 39/40 – 14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt. 15 Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
Psalm 53/54:5  He will repay my enemies for their evil. In your faithfulness, put an end to them. Psalm 54/55:15  Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts. Psalm 55/56:6b-7  As they hoped to have my life, 7 so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God! Psalm 58/59 – 5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Selah  6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.  7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips—for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”  8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision. … 11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield. 12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, 13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob. Selah 14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city. 15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill. Psalm 62/63 – 9 But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; 10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals. 11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped. Psalm 68/69 – 22 Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies. 23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. 24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. 25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents. 26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more. 27 Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you. 28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. Psalm 78/79 – 6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name. 7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. … 12 Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord! Psalm 109/110:6  He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. Psalm 136/137 – 7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” 8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! Psalm 138/139 – 19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Psalm 139/140 – 9 Those who surround me lift up their heads; let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! 10 Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! 11 Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent! Psalm 140/141:10  Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I alone escape. Psalm 142/143:12  In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant.
Not being Roman Catholic, I did not know of the omission.  Nevertheless, being Lutheran I am fully aware of the editing of lessons and the questionable criteria used by those who oversee lectionary revision (mostly the RCL).  In an effort to avoid unpleasant words from God, we simply remove those sections from the readings appointed for the day.  It is not a new practice, by any means, but it illustrates the lengths we will go to escape problematic words spoken by the Lord through His apostles and prophets.  They may be "God-breathed" but that is not enough to prevent us from editing the Lord.

I have had several things come up over the years.  I have heard how insensitive it is to women who cannot conceive to hear of the barren women mentioned in Scripture.  I have heard how insensitive it is to speak of disabilities or to call those with these disabilities crippled or lame etc...  I have heard how insensitive it is for God to turn people over to the desires of their sinful hearts.  I have heard how insensitive it is to speak of behaviors as sinful that the world has deemed morally upright and normal.  I could go on.  You get the idea.  But the question is misdirected.  It is not the Scriptures that have the problem.  We are the ones with the problem.

Whether the Psalms or the Prophets or the Gospels or other books of the Bible, the problem lies not with God and His Word but with our own sinful hearts and our refusal to be subject to the truth (that is, to a truth not sifted through the politically correct ideas of what is acceptable to our apparently weak and fragile egos and sensibilities.  
      The real problem . . . is not with the psalm, but with ourselves. We modern Christians are far too disposed to establish our personal sentiments, our own spontaneous feelings, as the standard for our prayer. Thus, if the words of a particular prayer (in this case, a psalm inspired by the Holy Spirit) express emotions and responses with which we do not “feel” comfortable, we tend to think that we are being insincere in praying it. Contemporary Christians have made a virtual fetish of spontaneity in worship, and sincerity nowadays is measured by pulse rhythm. One would think that our Lord had said: “I have come that you may have sincere and heartfelt emotions, and have them more abundantly.”
       It is a big mistake to adopt this attitude, for it places even the authority of God’s inspired Word under the tribunal of our subjective sentiments. Is it not obvious that to set up our own feelings as the measure of our worship is utterly arrogant? The proper standard for the worship of God is already established in His unfailing Word, and no one will pray as he should unless he submits his prayer entirely to the authority of that Word. Otherwise there is a real danger that our worship will express only the unredeemed sentiments of unrepentant hearts.
       If we are going to pray as Christians, it is essential that we submit ourselves unreservedly to the authority of the Holy Spirit who speaks in the inspired words of the psalms. In the present case, this will likely mean ignoring our feelings on the matter and going on to understand exactly what this psalm does, in fact, say.  (Christ in the Psalms [Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000], 215)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Safe Spaces. . .

By all means schools are to be safe places.  Living in a nation where school shooters have torn the fabric of our neighborhoods and communities asunder, we all understand the need for safe spaces.  But what we do not agree is how to define safe spaces.

The rash of colleges and universities offering everything from aroma therapy to counseling to hot chocolate to calm the troubled souls of students so upset by the election of Trump that they are held captive to their fears.  It is a joke.  The safe spaces these protesting students cry out for are not safe at all.  They are simply spaces that do not tolerate disagreement.  They do not countenance facts. They refuse to allow a diverging view except the politically correct prevailing view of the moment.

Ben Shapiro found protesters at the University of Wisconsin when he spoke on “Dismantling Safe Spaces: Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings.”   It is no wonder.  The modern perspective on truth refuses to allow facts to intrude upon the sacred domain of feelings, preferences, desires, and ideas.  He is not the first and will not be the last of those who are castigated by the audacity of inconvenient truth and unpleasant facts.  How strange it is that scientific guesses that are not universally shared are called truth and the witness of history, the ages, and religion is considered offensive.

Why does this matter?  It matters because orthodox Christian doctrine and teaching IS offensive and shocking -- especially to those who have been raised to believe that their feelings are the most sure and certain voices to be believed and followed.  What is more offensive to the modern mind than original sin?  What do you mean I am by nature sinful and cannot repair this defect?  What do you mean that sin has marked me for death and no amount of science and technology will save me?  What do you mean that I am captive and bound by this sin so that the good that I should I do not and the evil that I should not I do?

It matters because the Gospel is offensive.  The mere idea that God had to take flesh and blood in order to redeem His lost creation is offensive to our self-centered image of goodness.  The idea of a God who would kill His Son for the sins of His enemies who chose to rebel against Him is hardly the kind of love that our world appreciates.  The idea that our redemption could not be paid for with good works, wealth, noble intentions, or spirituality but required the shedding of blood and the Innocent to die for the guilty shames us.  The idea that this Son of God died our death and rose from the grave to give to us His life (new and eternal) is shocking.

One pundit suggested that there are already safe places on campuses -- they are called chapels!  But that is exactly the point.  There is nothing safe about a Christian chapel -- at least to the mind of those who believe safety comes in being insulated from the things you find objectionable!  For it is in the chapel that we confront what we would rather ignore and run from -- that we are sinners who cannot free ourselves, that death has passed to all through sin, that our good works avail us nothing to save us or pay the price of our sin, and that God planned before the foundation of the world to send us His one and only Son to be the Savior and Redeemer not of the good or worthy but of the whole world.

Christianity is anything but safe.  It is radical.  Perhaps the protesters recognize this more than some of us who have shaved off the rough edges of the faith to produce a more palatable but bland version of Christianity!

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Weight of Glory. . .

Although I certainly understand in my mind why a publisher might package an edition of Scripture in newsprint and inexpensive paper cover, I do not get it in my heart.  Though I can get my mind around the idea that a cheap edition of Scripture might be useful for mass distribution, I cannot relieve my heart of the shame of the written Word of God meant to be read and tossed out.

Perhaps it is my great affection for books in general that clouds my view to a book meant for a glance and no more.  I cannot fully tell you why but I am against such cheap editions of the Bible.  They teach something directly at odds with the Word of God itself.  For the Word of God is living and active, a two-edged sword, that speaks and faith is born, and that delivers what it says (an efficacious means of grace).  Putting the Bible on newsprint paper and binding it with cheap glue sure to release its pages to use, loss, and trash goes against the idea that this Word is eternal.

Why no one worth his salt approaches his beloved with a cheap plastic ring to seal his eternal affection and promise!  No, indeed.  A cheap ring rings cheap affections.  That is why we have jewelers and diamonds and gold and the like.  Love demands the best.  Does not the Word of God deserve something of our best as well?

Put Scripture in a book of decent binding, made with craft and art, pages that honor the words upon them, and covers that speak weight, value, and worth.  Give the Word of God its due not only in the honor of the heart but the labor of the hand.  It surely is worth the effort and the financial investment.

I have books on my shelves whose date of publication coincides with the honor of a real maker of books and the value assigned to those books with willing investment of the reader.  They have endured the test of time and still address the reader and insist that these are volumes of substance and worth.  I also have books on my shelves only available in cheap paperback -- whose bindings have given up pages to my hands and are no longer complete.  I keep them but whenever I peruse their pages I must remind myself that not all pages are present and the book is less a noble teacher than it was -- a testament to its present handicapped state of broken binding and absent pages.   As much as in us lies, we ought not to dishonor the Word of God by passing it on with in incomplete state.

So it caught my attention when Crossway decided to publish a 6 volume readers edition of the English Standard Version.  It is made with care and pride of craftsmanship to honor its content and signify the weight of its voice.  This edition befits the Word of God.  I only wish they all did!

Introducing the 'ESV Reader's Bible, Six-Volume Set' from Crossway on Vimeo.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

I am but a stranger here. . .

In our hymnal is a hymn no longer sung all that often.  I'm But a Stranger Here.  When I was a child, it was an often sung hymn by a people who knew that its words were not a disdain of the world God created but an acknowledgement that, as good as this world is, it is but a shadow of what God intended and sin stole.

1    I’m but a stranger here, 
    Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear,
    Heav’n is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand
Round me on ev’ry hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland,
    Heav’n is my home.

2    What though the tempest rage,
    Heav’n is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage,
    Heav’n is my home;
And time’s wild wintry blast
Soon shall be overpast;
I shall reach home at last,
    Heav’n is my home.

3    Therefore I murmur not,
    Heav’n is my home;
Whate’er my earthly lot,
    Heav’n is my home;
And I shall surely stand
There at my Lord’s right hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland,
    Heav’n is my home.

Growing up amid a people who had emigrated to NE Nebraska from their family homes in Sweden and Germany, I understood this.  They still identified as Swedes and Germans, often spoke in the mother tongue, and kept the traditions of their homeland even in the new land that became their home.  They translated this experience into faith and sang I'm But a Stranger Here while still loving their new country, living as patriotic citizens, and keeping alive the memory of the land of their ancestors.  They understood that all human life itself is an experience of exile and homesickness - no matter where you live or where you were originally from.

As Christians, they understood that we are all separated from our true homeland.  We are all strangers to the world around us because we were created for something other.  The danger lies either when we long so for the home we once knew that we reject the present as itself a domain from God or when we fall so in love with the world around us that we forget it is passing away and this is not the eternal we were created to know.

Genesis 3 speaks eloquently of our condition. We live outside the gates of Paradise where our Creator placed us.  We live at odds with God who has become a stranger to us and before whom we live either in fear and terror or ignorance and disdain.  We have become suspicious of our neighbor and friendship has become the exception rather than the norm of our fearful hearts.  We live in the natural world that has become unnatural since the Fall and not only man is under the curse of death but all the world God made and every creature in it.

I fear that we no longer sing this hymn because we no longer yearn for the courts of the Lord's eternal house nor lament the distance that sin has created between us and the God who made us (for Himself).  In other words, we are already at home and do not miss the home of God's intention in creation.  We have made our peace with death.  We have become content with life (within certain parameters).  We are as much at home as we can be.

Think, for example of the romance of cremation and ashes spread over the haunts where we lived or the places we wanted to be.  Let me tell you a story.  I had a funeral once for an older German lady; she had married a soldier and moved with him to the US.  But clearly, her heart was still in Germany.  As I was preparing for the committal in the cemetery, her son pulled out a jar of dirt and poured it into the grave wherein the coffin would rest.  He saw me look and explained.  "This was a jar of German soil Mom picked up when visiting her family.  She wanted to be buried on German soil."

Do you get my meaning?  We are creatures of exile until we are delivered from death to the place prepared for us before the foundation of the world.  We are pilgrims on earth until we are raised to everlasting life with God.  This is not a rejection of this world or this life but an acknowledgement that this is not our eternal home (whether we believer or not).  Advent seems more than any other season (except, perhaps, the Sundays at the end of the Pentecost season) to remind us.  We are but strangers here; heaven is our home.