Friday, December 31, 2021

My times are in His hand. . .

The Psalmist prays in Psalm 31:15:  My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!   These words appear in the pericopes often -- for Passion Sunday, Good Friday, and in Introits in Holy Week, among others.  Of course, that focus is on the times of our Lord, His journey to the cross, and the plan of salvation laid down before the world began but fulfilled in time.  Less often, almost rarely, do these words get applied to us and to our lives.  I fear that this is a problem -- especially in a time in which some within the veil of Christianity keep insisting your best life is now and others willingly surrender everything in pursuit of an insulated life protected from threat, affliction, and death!

Our times are in His hand.  Be they good times or bad, at least in our judgment, it does not matter.  We live out our days in His hand, according to His providence, and trust in Him not in princes, earthly kingdoms, or human powers.  Our lives seem rather chaotic -- especially in the wake of a pandemic, in the midst of economic change and uncertainty, and amid political upheaval and conflict.  We look not so much for order but to control things and to establish order we prefer.  That has always been our problem.  But it is not the solution.

There is no such thing as life without risk.  Sin assured us of that.  We cannot find nor can we build a safety net around our lives to insulate us from physical ill, doubt, fear, or death.  The world may presume that you can negotiate your way around the troubles and trials of this mortal life but God warns us against such a false and misleading dream.  We cannot control things but we can control our response to them.  In that response there are several choices.

We can ignore or dismiss the reality of or the magnitude of our enemies and the powers against us.  We can live as if death were not real or as if we were in control of our lives.  Some do.  Death catches them and they found out, perhaps too late, that ignoring your enemies does not make them go away.  Or we can attempt to make our peace with our defeat.  Some will accept death as long as it waits until their bucket lists are finished, they may be forced to surrender to age or frailty, or they decide when to die and can find a painless way to die.  But death is no respecter of persons and comes to the young as well as the old, to the healthy as well as the sick, and to those who have everything to live for as well as those who have nothing to live for.  But there is another response.  To live in the Christian hope and to die confident that this hope will not disappoint you.  Unfortunately, some Christians have presumed that the first two options are as Christian as the last.

We will be forced to live with COVID just as we are forced to live with risk and death from other sources.  Life is not the discovery of a safe place but faith's surrender to the One whose death and resurrection rescues us from sin, death, and the devil.  You may not be able to choose Christ as your option but He has chosen you.  Faith is not a decision as much as it is the admission of the sin that caused life to be so risky and the confession that only Christ is our answer and security.  When we admit that our times are in His hand, we are not resigning ourselves to the inevitable but rejoicing that there is real hope and promise that none of our enemies can steal.  

Tonight the world will pass from one year to the next in the space of a clocking ticking down the seconds.  In some ways, it makes this night different but in another way it makes this night the same as every other night.  What marks the Christian is not some presumption that time is under our control or that we are masters of our destiny but rather than God who made time has rescued the day for us and us for the day by giving us eternity.  Our times are in His hand.  The clock is not simply ticking down the hours and minutes but moving toward its perfect fulfillment when we are with Him where He is in the place He has prepared where neither clock nor calendar are needed.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Promise Kept, Promise Trusted In

Sermon for Christmas Day, the Nativity of Our Lord, preached on December 25, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)
    Promises have a unique social currency in our world.  We barter and trade with them.  We give people our word and take people at their word.  We make promises all the time. …But we also break promises all the time.  We say we’re going to do something, and then we don’t.  We do this so often, and have this done to us so often, that we don’t think much about it anymore.  We’ve gotten used to broken promises.  We’ve even come to expect broken promises.  Broken promises just don’t seem to be a big deal for us anymore.  But they are a big deal.  They’re a big deal because it’s not just the promise that gets broken…it’s trust.
    We’ve all seen and experienced the distrust and effects of broken promises.  Just last Sunday, Pastor Peters referenced the unbelievable and staggering statistics surrounding the current make-up of our American homes, homes that have been broken because of broken promises.  Divorce is now the norm while husbands and wives remaining faithful to their marriage vows is the exception.  Divorce breeds distrust.  Men and women stop trusting each other.  Children stop trusting adults.  And everyone starts to distrust all established institutions, because the family is the foundation of those institutions.  If we can’t trust our family, if we can’t take them at their word, then who can we trust?  Whose promises are certain and sure? 
    Promises go all the way back to the Garden; to that 6th day of Creation.  When God made man, forming our first father from the dust of the ground, breathing the breath of life into his nostrils, God promised to care for him, to give him everything he needed for life.  He graciously gave to Adam and Eve every tree of the Garden.  They could eat the fruit from every single one, except the one in the middle, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And Adam and Eve responded to that promised care with a promise of their own.  They promised to obey the Lord.  They promised not to eat of that tree…but they broke that promise.  God gave them His Word, but they distrusted it.  Instead of listening to the One who gave them life, they listened to the serpents' lies and temptation.  They broke their promise and they ate.  They broke their promise and sinned.  And ever since then, that promise of obedience has been broken by us sinners.
    Over and over and over again we sinners have promised to obey God, and over and over and over again, we’ve broken that promise.  We see this throughout the whole history of the Old Testament.  The people of Israel promised to obey the Lord.  During the Exodus, after the Lord had given those good 10 Commandments, they all responded saying they would do it.  They promised to obey.  They gave their word that they’d be faithful.  But very quickly they broke that promise.  They  grumbled against the Lord.  They didn’t trust His Word to bring them safely into the promised land.  And after they did enter the promised land, they soon followed the pagan ways of the Cannanites that the Lord drove from that land. 
    We do the very same thing those Israelites did.  We promise to obey the Lord.  We give Him our word that we’ll be faithful and obey.  In the rite of Individual Confession and Absolution, we end our confession of  sin by saying, “I’m sorry for all this and ask for grace.  I want to do better.”  And similarly, in the words of Corporate Confession that we speak at every Divine Service we say, “Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.”  These statements are promises.  We say we want to do better, we say we want to walk in God’s way, but then we don’t.  All of us know our pet sins that we commit over and over.  All of us can remember a time when we’ve stopped and said to ourselves, “You know, I really shouldn’t do this.  It goes against God’s Word.  But…I want to, so I'm going to do it anyways.” 
    When people break promises, when we break our promises, it’s the natural consequence to stop trusting, and it’s a natural consequence of that distrust to write people off.  If someone breaks their promises to you enough times, at some point you’re going to stop listening to them.  You’re going to ignore them.  This would be perfectly understandable for God to do to us.  He would have every right to ignore us.  He would be justified in turning His back on us, letting us suffer the everlasting death consequence that our sin deserves.  But He doesn’t do that, because of the other promise God made in the Garden. 
    After Adam and Eve broke their promise, after Satan led them into temptation, the Lord cursed him.  And in that curse was God’s promise of salvation, the first proclamation of the Gospel.  He promised us that the devil, sin, and death would be defeated.  “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers;  He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel.” (Gen 3:15-NIV)  This promise He spoke over and over again.  He spoke this promise to Abraham, promising to bless all nations through Him.  He spoke it to Moses and the people of Israel saying He would send a prophet like Moses.  He spoke it to David, promising to establish his throne forever.  He spoke it through the prophets; like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Zechariah and Micah.  And He spoke it through John the Baptist, who was blessed to physically point to Jesus, that promise fulfilled.
    At the right time, God fulfilled His promise.  He kept His Word.  That Word became flesh and dwelled among us.  Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin, is that offspring of the woman that God promised in the Garden.   He’s the One who crushed Satan’s head with His sacrificial death on the cross.  He’s the One who enlightens us, who overcomes the darkness of sin and death.  He’s the One who saves us from our sin and broken promises.  That’s why we’re all here this morning, to worship Him who is the fulfillment of that promise God spoke long ago. 
    We’re here to receive the gifts He gives.  Through His Word proclaimed and His Holy Supper, we receive the forgiveness His death won.  Through His Word proclaimed and His Holy Supper, we receive the life His resurrection won.  And through His Word proclaimed and His Holy Supper, we continue to hear about His salvation promised to us, and we’re sustained in that promise, always trusting in it.
    Because God kept His promise, sending His Son on Christmas Day, sending Him to save us from Satan, sin, and death, we know He’ll keep His promise to us about our eternal life in Him.  No matter what happens in our lives, no matter what we see going on around us, no matter how we feel, no matter how long we have to wait, we know with faith that our Lord will come again, delivering to us that salvation He promised.  There’s no doubt about it, because God’s Word is certain and sure.  Christ proves that. 
    God kept His promise from the beginning.  Over and over again, from the Garden onward, He promised to send the Savior who would crush Satan’s head.  He was going to save us from our sin and death.  That promise has been fulfilled in Christ.  The Son of God has rescued you from sin, death, and the devil.  And since that promise is fulfilled, you can trust He’ll keep all His promises to you: His promise of everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name…Amen.

The greatest danger of all. . .

Many Christians and many Americans presume that playing nice is always better than open conflict.  It is a deep concern of many within the churches and within our nation that our people are so bitterly divided over issues that seem to have no compromise.  Polite disagreement is certainly better than open warfare, isn't it?  Nobody likes argue in the open -- much better behind closed doors or only to argue against straw men among those who share your point of view.  And so it goes. . . 

However, the problem here is gradualism -- slowing the pace of change means that we still accept the change but all in its own time.  Gradualism is the surrender of your position bit-by-bit, little by little, in small bites.  The great danger to gradualism is that not only the surrender may be hidden but the people surrendering have every opportunity to justify and excuse their surrender until it becomes normal and even moral.  If only the pace of change is slowed and its direction not diverted, it is practically the same as having no position at all except delay.

I have written before about the betrayal of the cause by politicians whose only purpose is to slow or delay the inevitable.  But in the Church, this tactic is responsible for much damage to our doctrinal integrity, our liturgical identity, and our witness before the world.  Yes, there are occasions when a vote is taken with the clear willingness and purpose to separate themselves from the doctrine, liturgy, creed, and confession once received.  We have all seen this happen.  But the more likely scenario is that the doctrinal stand, liturgical identity, and confessional witness is diluted by small changes, little departures from that which is received from those who went before.  It is this gradual surrender of our theological truth and its historical basis in fact that has left people within the Church as well as those outside with the distinct impression that our faith is built upon myth, legend, and imagination -- a most dangerous and pernicious lie.  It all started with the idea that it would not matter to the faith if some details were not true, not factual, and not reliable.  

The hermeneutic of discontinuity that has marked much of liturgical change (especially in Rome) is an exception to gradualism in one sense but an example of how development pervades modern thinking about doctrine, liturgy, and morality.  Gradualism presumes that development is inevitable.  That inevitability, whether on fast track or slow and deliberate, is what makes gradualism so critical and at least as threatening as a quick and abrupt divergence from our past.  

The world, dizzied by change, looks for something that is eternal, something that is certain, and something that will anchor their hopes and give meaning and purpose of their lives.  The witness of the faithful is muddied before them when we grant that our truth is as relative as anything else in this world.  We surrender hope before the world when we admit either in small point or overall that things change, that this change is inevitable, and that our faith has nothing to offer to counter this drumbeat of change in a world that seems to have a love/hate relationship with that change.

In moral terms, gradualism is a greater danger than abrupt departure from the past.  We have seen it at work time and time again.  Contraception is one area in which small steps lead to Christianity's willingness to grant that any woman or every woman has the right to take the life living within her womb under any or even particular circumstance.  The admission of the wrong of marriage that hides abuse and threat led the churches to change their view toward divorce.  Though no one might have seen no fault divorce come down the pike, there was no great or organized opposition to it when it came.  The seeds for its acceptance had been sown so gradually and minds had changed little by little.  Rightful concern for those marginalized by unpopular sins led not to the redress of the inequity of speaking of some sins but not others.  Rather, it turned into the examination of the church's historic and consistent teaching about homosexuality with the eventual outcome of ignoring what Scripture says. 

The Bible is not silent on the danger of gradualism, particularly in the moral sphere.  In the book of Proverbs, the sluggard gives in gradually—by inches, not miles:  “A little sleep, a little slumber” is the sluggard’s mantra (Prov 24:33).  Jesus addressed how the cares and troubles of this life slowly steal away the hope and faith of the believer in the Parable of the Sower:  “As they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life …” (Luke 8:14).  According to the preacher in Hebrews, the spiritual death of the faithful does not happen simply by great trial or affliction but by the gradual disengagement from the means of grace (Hebrews 10:24-25).  Both inconsistent and infrequent church attendance are small steps toward the larger goal of a faith surrendered to more urgent and practical concerns of present day life.

We have seen freedoms surrendered bit by bit in pursuit of a culture of safety and security -- magnified by the threat of the pandemic.  Included in this is not only the setting aside of personal liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights but also the regulation and restriction of the activities of the Church bit-by-bit to government intervention, restriction, and outright ban to protect the populace.  Certainly the early church did not face this kind of gradual encroachment but the clear and present danger of persecution and martyrdom.  The threat against the Church was not to an institution but through her members and that threat was immediate, direct, violent, and aggressive.  The early church did not foresee nor does the New Testament directly address the difference between gradual threat and immediate and direct threat.  In this way, the New Testament would imply that they are the same -- that any threat upon the Church's life, faith, practice, and witness was the same threat.  And this is something I am not sure church leaders are willing to grant today.

With this comes the threat caused by a willingness to appease the authorities with seemingly minor adjustments in faith, practice, and witness in order, it is said, to protect other liberties.  For example, we will remove any religious content from our preschool in order to have that preschool recognized by the state and funded by the same.  Or we will omit any religious requirements and adjust our stand on moral and social issues of the day to preserve the university from the loss of government funded or subsidized student loans or grants.  Or we will accept restriction upon our witness in the public square in order to preserve private religious expression and practice behind closed doors of church or home.

Certainly we have ample evidence to show us the dangers we face.  The more recent history of Nazism displays both the effectiveness of the gradualism of government control of religion as well as the danger of appeasement thought to protect the institution and religious faith from greater threats.  Neither of those choices turned out well for the Church.  Unless and until we face up to these threats, gradualism will erode what we believe, how we worship, what we are able to witness in the public square, and the practice and piety of what we believe at home.  Appeasement is hardly an effective means to address these threats and will only hasten what gradualism steals from us -- except that we are doing this with our consent and not simply under threat or unknowingly.  I realize this is heavy stuff but as we make our passage from one year into the next, these are worthy topics of our conversation as the people of God.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Your Savior Comes to You

Sermon for Christmas Eve, the Divine Service, for the Nativity of Our Lord, December 24, 2021, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

[An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and said,] “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:11b)
    We all know the holidays are busy with travel.  November and December are prime travel months as people move around the country, and even the world, to celebrate the holidays with family and friends.  There’s a reason why at Christmas we sing about going over the river and through the woods.  And even though travel may continue to be less this year than in years past, people are still moving.  Whether it’s by planes, trains, or automobiles, people are on the move to celebrate Christmas. 
    There’s always been movement at Christmas time, even going all the way back to that first Christmas.  Joseph and Mary traveled.  By order of Caesar, everyone had to return to their ancestral home to be registered for a census.  So, Joseph packed up the donkey, and he and nine-month pregnant Mary began the roughly 70 mile trek from Nazareth in Galilee up north to Bethlehem in Judea down south.  Today, by car that trip would take about two hours or so, but on foot, it would’ve been roughly a four day journey, and that’s if they walked an average of 20 miles a day.  Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but I doubt any woman nine-months pregnant would want to walk, or even ride a donkey, 20 miles over rough terrain a day.  So, this wasn’t an easy trip for them…but they made it.  And when they got there, they didn’t get a comfy Airbnb to stay in.  Because of the census, the whole city was filled, and the only place for them to rest was a stable in the back of an inn.  And then to add on top of that, while they slept on the dirt floor and hay, Mary went into labor, and gave birth to Jesus.  But that’s not the end of the story.  There was more traveling that had to be done that night.
    On the outskirts of Bethlehem, the shepherds were watching their sheep, and out of nowhere, a heavenly chorus came to them and announced Jesus’ birth.  They told the shepherds where they could go and  find their newborn Savior, and they sang one of the most beloved Christmas songs ever: “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to His people on earth.” Hearing the news, the shepherds couldn’t stay there.  They had to travel.  They had to move, to get going, to see the wonderful thing that the angels had told them.  And once they found Christ in the manger, they didn’t stop there.  They kept moving, telling everyone what they had heard and seen.
    Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem that first Christmas night.  Angles traveled to the shepherds, and the shepherds traveled to the manger; but these journey’s weren’t the most important movement that night.  The most important movement was our Savior coming to us.  That journey, the Son of God coming to us in humility, born of the Virgin Mary, taking on our flesh and blood, that movement is the most important movement, even though it seems  contrary to how we often think about God and faith and religion.   
    Most of us think about religion and faith being about our movement to God.  It’s about our journey through life, making our way to Him. We think we can do this with our works and our deeds.  If we just strive to do our best, if we work really really hard, if we fight and fight and fight against sin and temptation, then eventually we’ll make our way to God.  We’ll reach that final destination of heaven.  Sure there’ll be roadblocks and rough times.  Sure we’ll falter a time or two, make a wrong turn, pursuing our sinful desires and flesh instead of doing the good we know we should do, but in the end, we’ll reach that destination.  That’s how we view faith and religion.  It’s a roadmap for us to follow as we make our way to God.  But if that’s your roadmap, then you’re completely lost; because it’s not about you.  It’s not about you making your way to God because you can’t make your way to God.  Because of your sin, you can’t do it.  No matter how hard you try, you’ll never reach that final destination.  That’s why your Lord came to you.
    The most important movement is God’s movement toward you.  He’s made His way to you. He came for you, born that first Christmas night in all humility.  He came for you, born to die.  He came for you, to make that journey to the cross where He sacrificed His life for yours.  He died for you, to pay for your sin.  He died for you, so that you’d be forgiven.  He died for you, to remove your sin that is a barrier between you and God.  This is what all that travel that first Christmas night is about; your Savior coming to you.  And He continues to come to you.
    He comes to you tonight, right now, during this very worship service.  He comes to you in His Word.  Just as the angels proclaimed Christ and His salvation to the shepherds, you also hear your Savior and salvation proclaimed through Scripture read and this very sermon.  He comes to you tonight through the Holy Supper of His Body and Blood, sacrificed for you and for the forgiveness of your sins.  He comes to you at all times through these means of grace, every Sunday.  He comes by these means to give you the forgiveness, life, and salvation that His life, death, and resurrection have won for you.  And through this continual coming, He promises to come to you again with all glory on that last day.
    Christ’s first coming was in humility.  Born of the Virgin Mary, He laid aside divine majesty.  He didn’t use them in full.  There were times when we got glimpses of them, through His miracles, but He laid that divine majesty aside so the He could die and be that sacrifice that you needed for salvation.  But having died and risen, the time of Christ’s humility is over.  On that last day, you’ll see Him in His full divine majesty and glory, as once again He comes for you, to give you the full gift of salvation. 
    We often think of our faith as our movement to God.  We have to travel to Him.  We have to make our way to Him.  But that’s not what our faith is about.  That’s not what Christmas is about.  That’s not why we came here in worship tonight.  We came here in worship because our Lord and Savior comes to us.  He came in His Incarnation, in humility, as a helpless baby, laid in a manager, so that He might die on the cross and rise again.  He continues to come to you in His Word and Sacraments, giving you the forgiveness and life His death has won.  And He will come for you again with great glory on that Last Day, giving you in full His promised salvation. 
    Christmas is a time of movement and travel.  We travel to celebrate with our family and friends.  But the most important movement and travel is that of our Lord.  Keep this in mind as you go your way tonight, tomorrow, and the days to come.  Remember, it’s not you who makes your way to the Lord, but your Lord who makes His way to you.  Your Savior comes to you.  In Jesus’ name…Amen. 

Content to slow the pace of change. . .

Conservatives of all kinds seemed resigned to the triumph of progressivism.  As Mollie Hemingway put it, they are insincere in their opposition to the liberal agenda.  Or, perhaps, they have a defeatist attitude toward the fight.  Or, maybe they do not believe that change can be stopped.  Whatever the reason, politically, socially, morally, and theologically the conservatives among us -- especially their leaders -- seem to think that their only recourse is to slow the inevitable.  Either they have lost the intellectual higher ground and believe that their argument is empty or they do not believe that there are enough of them or that they are strong enough to resist the beat of change that has uprooted our culture, society, and the Church.  Whatever the reason, it is sad and wrong.

The pace of change is killing us literally.  Covid may have hastened the speed at which these changes have come and weakened some of our opposition to measures that are claimed to be emergency but which look remarkably permanent to me.  The changes that once were spread across several generations now pass in one generation and, often, in less time.  In the blink of an eye, our world is changing and with it all the things that we once thought somewhat permanent.  It took generations to see the Civil Rights movement achieve the kind of results that the gay and transgender folks have achieved in a few years.  But at what cost?  The rapidity of the changes have further polarized our society and created a seemingly a divide that cannot be traversed.  It has left us with almost minority governments in which the votes were so close as to make it impossible to govern by any consensus.  It has left many in its wake -- cast aside the by the formidable movement of a progress that has labeled masculinity toxic, valued education but left wisdom and real leaning behind, and all of confused by the simple task of assigning a pronoun to somebody.

The power of those working for these changes is frightening.  As I alluded to, emergency measures deemed essential for a pandemic will become ordinary and routine for every situation that is to come.  The smallest of majorities will jettison the rules that forced our government to be slower and more deliberate will be abandoned in favor of emergency rules that can be passed by the fewest of votes.  This kind of government treads heavily over individual rights and constantly points to the benefit of the whole to justify ignoring or constraining liberties that were once the hallmark of our national identity.  Mandates that were once the domain of people and parties elected with wide majorities are now being claimed by those with the smallest political capital -- all in the name of change that will benefit the whole.  From the social issues of same sex marriage and gender identity to the challenges of climate change to the shift from a nation of producers to one of consumers and service providers, we are leaving our past behind at a frightening rate and with it, many of our people.

As if this were only a problem in politics and government and culture, churches are doing the very same things.  Some of those churches elected as bishops people who have a political agenda and little parish experience.  The cause has become most important and that cause is no longer simply Christ crucified and risen.  This Gospel has given way to a new gospel and its heartbeat has been the wholesale embrace of the changes demanded by the liberal and progressive fringe of our nation and culture.  In this world, doctrine is not simply a bad word or an outdated concept but a toxic substance.  Acceptance, tolerance, and a welcoming community (of everything except the once cherished creeds and confessions of the past) are now the marks of the new church and its message to the world.  Such churches do not require assemblies where the Word of God is preached in all its truth and purity and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution but only pipeline access to the social media platforms and digital images of the moment.  Even the Pope cannot resist prodding the toothless lion of Rome's conservative movement -- he knows that they will bark but fall in line.  The see and seat of Peter is too important to them to resist even a Pope who has labeled them the enemy and persona non grata.  But will they ever retain that office again and, if they do, what church will be left to them?

It seems that conservatives in the pews and in politics have surrendered their arguments and accepted defeat.  The most they hope to accomplish is to slow or delay the inevitable remaking of a church and a nation.  Why?  Why are we so afraid?  Why are so willing to fall in line to the drumbeat of social, intellectual, cultural, and religious change?  Despite our pleading to the contrary, we are weak and powerless.  But it is not because our ideas have failed us.  We have failed them.  We have failed to believe what we say and now it seems too many of us are only going through the motions -- leaving the heavy lifting to others.  We have allowed our colleges and universities to become the wombs of progressive ideals and ideas.  We have looked the other way as those same voices have infiltrated all the way down from senior high schools to preschools -- baiting us with the promise of a free education.  We have left our children to the screens that either dull their minds to death or effectively brainwash them into the liberal and progressive point of view -- beginning with our cartoons.  We have focused on what is fun over what is true and now conservatives decry our entertainment culture and its emptiness without confessing to their own part in the surrender of the will to the pace of change.

The opposition to this radical reshaping of life, our values, our freedoms, our hopes and dreams, and our faith must begin by rediscovering the truth, our love of this truth, and our willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of the truth.  In the Church this means bearing the cross with all its pain.  This is no passive activity but the most powerful force in human history.  It does not mean accepting what we think we cannot change but standing up for the truth of Christ no matter how hard, how difficult, and how costly to us.  In the world this means doing something more than playing political games.  It means debating the ideas and challenging the values that are slowly dismantling our national psyche and replacing it with a avatar that is not even real.  It means renewed confidence in our sources, ideas, and truths -- especially among Christians.  No one will be won by our doubts but a world was transformed by the confident faith of the few.  So it will be in voting booth and legislature and executive office.  The strength of our ideas must be accompanied by confidence that they are true and will prevail.  For the faith this means trusting in God and His Word.  For society this means listening to the voice of Him who created us.  From one source will come both revivals.  But conservatives who have lost enthusiasm or confidence must step aside for they will gain us nothing by their contentment to slow what they have deemed inevitable.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Happy Martyrs. . .

A Christian martyr is someone willing to face death rather than deny Jesus Christ or His Gospel.   It began even as Christ was born.  The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, St. John the Forerunner, St. James, St. Stephen, and the whole of the apostles except for St. John.  The deaths were agonizing -- beheading, stoning, sawing, crucifixion, burning at stake, the lions in the Coliseum --  these were were some of the horrific ways Christians were punished for the sake of Christ.   In the latter part of the second century there was a distinction between martyrs and confessors.  Those who were martyrs were those who  suffered the extreme penalty, death, whereas the title of confessors was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief but who bravely endured imprisonment or torture but not death. The word martyr comes from the Koine Greek μάρτυς, mártys, which means "witness" or "testimony".  

Tertullian, from the 2nd century, famously wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church" -- telling us that the martyr's willing sacrifice of his life was what gave credence to the faith and encouraged others to believe so fervently.  Far from cautioning the faith and boldness of God's people, persecution ended up sparking the devotion of the saints, facilitating the rapid growth and spread of Christianity.  It was not without problems.  Though Islam is often seen as the religion of the martyrs, it was and is Christianity that martyrdom is most distinctive.  Unlike Islam, by the third century, Christian theologians were arguing that martyrdom should not be sought but neither should it be avoided unless there was no other alternative.  Within a few decades, the orthodox Christian view was that voluntarily seeking execution was not martyrdom but that did not mean that martyrdom stopped.  More than 70 million have been martyred for the cause of Christ over the years.  

What has changed is Christianity.  Martyrdom has become almost mythological.  How many modern Christians believe that martyrdom is either a possibility or a choice?  We live in an age in which compromise and negotiation is the ordinary path of life.  Martyrdom has become the extreme and while we might admire those who die rather than deny, we are not at all sure we would follow them.  Consider how easily Christians accepted the judgment of the government and the new rules of the pandemic that in person worship was not essential and the Church itself irrelevant to the faith.  Consider how willingly churches closed their doors and switched to screens to replace what has always been an incarnational, face to face, and in person faith.  Consider how those who dared to resist these measures were labeled dangerous or extreme?  I wonder how many Christians have drunk the koolaid of your best life now to the point where they could never imagine a circumstance in which they would be willing to deny themselves anything for the sake of Christ.  We no longer rejoice over the blood of the martyrs whose courage stands as example -- no, we are embarrassed by their extremism and presume that there is always a way to preserve your life even if it comes at the cost of your faith.

Percy Dearmer translated a 10th century Latin text that exemplifies how we once viewed the martyr:

1 Martyr of God, whose strength was steeled

To follow close God’s only Son,
Well didst thou brave thy battlefield,
And well thy heavenly bliss was won!

2 Now join thy prayers with ours, who pray
That God may pardon us and bless;
For prayer keeps evil’s plague away,
And draws from life its weariness.

3 Long, long ago, were loosed the chains
That held thy body once in thrall;
For us how many a bond remains!
O Love of God release us all.

4 All praise to God the Father be,
All praise to thee, eternal Son;
All praise, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
While never-ending ages run. Amen.

His is not the only hymn that does so.  Fifteen texts in Lutheran Service Book mention martyrs.  Sadly, the most profound, Rise Again, Ye Lion-Hearted,  did not make it into that book, not even the four stanzas translated by Martin Franzmann.  But the whole hymn did make it into Walther's Hymnal, translated by Matthew Carver and published by CPH.  Tip, buy it!  

Rise again, ye lion-hearted
Saints of early Christendom.
Whither is your strength departed,
Whither gone your martyrdom?
Lo, love’s light is on them,
Glory’s flame upon them,
And their will to die doth quell
E’en the lord and prince of hell.

These the men by fear unshaken,
Facing danger dauntlessly;
These no witching lust hath taken,
Lust that lures to vanity.
Mid the roar and rattle
Of tumultuous battle
In desire they soar above
All that earth would have them love.

To the truth they own adherence,
On the substance train their sight,
Never trusting in appearance,
Judging all by heav’nly light;
Blest in their conviction,
Even in affliction,
Far from human slavery
And its shackles, they are free.

Great of heart, they know no turning,
Honor, gold, they laugh to scorn,
Quench desires within them burning,
By no earthly passion torn.
Mid the lions’ roaring
Songs of praise outpouring,
Joyously they take their stand
On th’areana’s bloody sand.

Would to God that I might even
As the martyred saints of old,
With the healing hand of heaven,
Steadfast stand in battle bold!
O my God, I pray Thee,
In the combat stay me.
Grant that I may ever be
Loyal, staunch, and true to Thee.

But for Thee I weakly cower,
Void of any asset small,
Let alone great feats of power;
On Thee only hangeth all.
Lord, my hope’s assurance,
Pledge of my endurance,
Grant me as a champion now
Not to break my knightly vow!

Grant me, armored by the Spirit,
In Thy name, O Christ, to fight
With a lion’s strength and merit,
Slumb’ring not, but by Thy might
Bravely battle waging,
‘Against the devil’s raging.
Let no rout o’ertake my soul,
But support me till the goal.

Time will come when goes, arising,
Rage again to take the field,
Christian souls in war surprising,
Spilling blood on sword and shield;
Ponder well this warning:
Days of shrouds and mourning
Here our homes again shall know —
Yea, and many a martyr’s blow.

Now at last must come the leaven,
For the measure must be filled, —
Martyrs more be crowned in  heaven,
On the cross of glory killed; —
Eve that morn be ruddier,
Church’s dusk be bloodier,
As the Lamb at even died
Which at morn was crucified!

Courage, brethren! Firm and fearless,
Steady in your calling stand:
Follow we that cloud of peerless
Witnesses in warlike band,
Who, the flesh subduing,
Know no cause for ruling;
Flesh must suffer as it will,
And the soul will flourish still.

Count we not the Cross, betpattered,
Like the wise, a foolish thing!
Let us no from thence be scattered
When we should proclaim our King;
Let it be our station
When the generation
Of the Foe attacks the faith,
Threat’ning us with swords of death.

Slacken not, though thou be slaughtered:
Is it not with martyrs’ blood
That the Church’s beds are watered,
And bedewed her fertile mud?
From these crimson showers
Spring her countless flowers;
Oh, what bounties here she yields
In her fruitful battlefields!

Spirit, as a rain descending!
On our drying hearts be poured,
That for Thee we may unbending
Wilt at neither fire nor sword,
In Thy love surrounded,
Firmly in Thee grounded,
Make Thy Church in faith to be
Rich as in her infancy.

Monday, December 27, 2021

I have seen my salvation. . .

Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr, and the First Sunday after Christmas, preached on Sunday, December 26, 2021.

On this day we recall how our Lord was presented in the Temple and Blessed Mary purified AND we remember St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, who was killed giving witness to Jesus.  Their stories may seem very dissimilar but their hope is the same.  They both saw Jesus and that was all they needed to see.  They were ready for whatever the future was because they had seen Jesus.  In faith they clung to God’s Word and promise and nothing else mattered.  Oh, how I wish I could say that I had the same kind of faith they did!

Although Scripture is not explicit in telling us this, we presume that Simeon was old.  In fact, we think of Simeon as a man very near the end of his life.  He had gone to the Temple day after day with the promise of the Lord that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And day after day he went home without having seen Him.  Until this day.  He was shown God’s salvation and Israel’s consolation and he saw it in the face of a 40 day old baby.  Sort of implied in the Gospel is that Simeon died soon thereafter.  But death was not his end.  He had seen the Lord’s Christ and even in the face of this baby boy Simeon saw that death could not contain him or steal his joy or silence his voice.  In Christ he lives.

Stephen was a man full of grace and power.  He had been chosen by the apostles to be a deacon, to serve tables but not only that.  The Lord worked through him mightily if only briefly.  His preaching and works drew undo attention to Stephen and the enemies of the Lord marked him as someone to be silenced.  Like Jesus, false witnesses laid charges against him.  Like Jesus, his face shown like the face of an angel.  Like Jesus, the verdict rendered against Stephen and his preaching was death.  We presume that Stephen was not old but quite probably fairly young.  He was filled with the urgency and brashness of youth.  He did not shy away even when his enemies stood in judgment over him.  He called them out with no uncertain words.  Stiff-necked, uncircumcised, resisters of the Spirit, persecutors of the prophets, and murderers of Jesus.  Stephen died but Stephen now lives.

We might think of Simeon’s story as a nice end.  He realized his dream and was ready for death.  But Stephen’s story was not nice.  He was too young to die and had a bright future that was killed with him.  In reality, their story is the same.  Both of them were ready for whatever happened because they had seen Jesus.  Simeon staring into the face of a baby in the arms of Mary and Joseph.  
Stephen with a vision of heaven opened wide, the glory of God, and the face of Jesus at His right hand.  The end of a long life of waiting and the end of a short life just beginning found a common consolation in the face of Jesus.  Both rejoice that in death they saw life and they saw it in the face of Jesus.  They died without fear.

My friends, it may seem awkward and unkind to speak of death so close to Christmas and its joyous holiday traditions.  But it is not.  Death is always near.  Whether you are old and have lived a long life or you are young and your life has barely begun.  Death is no respecter of persons.  The wages of sin is death.  It is that plain, that simple, and that brutal.  Death does play according to the rules.  It does not wait until we are ready for it nor does death come when we no longer want to live.  Like every enemy, death hides in the shadows of life until it springs forth and claims us.  It is for death that Christ has come to manger and temple and cross.  It is for the sin that has brought death’s curse on us that Christ has come.

To a people who live under the shadow of death and wait for its surprise entrance, there is only one comfort, one consolation, and one means to ready ourselves for its coming.  That is to see Jesus.  To see Jesus where God has promised Jesus will be.  To peer not into the flesh of a 40 day old infant but into the water that has become our womb, our path from death to life in Christ.  To look not with heavenly vision up there somewhere but to the heaven on earth that God has given by setting up among us in the presence of all our enemies the Table of the Lord.  To hear not simply with earthly ears but with the ears of faith the voice of our Good Shepherd calling to us His sheep by His Word.  That is the gift of Christmas.  Not a momentary reprieve from the hard things of life but the vision of Jesus to look at when the worst of life slaps across our faces.

The old Simeon and the young Stephen and every one of us – wherever we are on the spectrum of age and mortality – we are all ready for death because of Christ.  After years of fear, of separation, of threat, of death too near, of hope stretched thin by trouble and trial, we are not without consolation and we are not without hope. St. Paul gives voice to this in Philippians 1: “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  And Hosea the prophet:  ““I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plague! O Grave, I will be your destruction!”  That is what we see in the face of Christ.  The end of sin, the end of death, the beginning of righteousness, and the beginning of everlasting life.

After we come to Holy Communion but before we head back to homes and the routines of our lives, we sing Simeon’s song.  Having now eaten the Body of our Lord and drunk His Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, we see the promise of the future, the foretaste of the eternal feast to come.  Some of us are nearer that feast than others but together we meet death by looking into the face of Jesus.  We are ready.  We cower no more in fear nor do we tremble in uncertainty because the most certain thing of all is Christ for us and Christ in us.   

Like Simeon and Stephen, we will die.  And until we die, we will live.  And whether we life or die, Christ will be magnified in our bodies.  For us, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  That is the gift of Christmas – to see Jesus and in Jesus to see our future.  To see Jesus and to see Jesus so clearly that nothing else matters.  To see Jesus and to be ready and prepared for life and all that it can thrust upon us and for death and all that it takes from us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Missing Markers. . .

Where is the Church?  This is not an academic question or a theoretical one.  It is the most practical of all questions -- one relevant to the Reformation and no less urgent and relevant to us today awash in a sea of church choices.  As Sasse once noted and many Lutherans with him, this question must accompany and be on the forefront of the mind of all Lutherans.  It is not a statement once answered and then filed away to be forgotten but a question and its answer that daily arise and daily are answered not by opinion but by the very Word of God that endures forever.

Toward the very end of his life, Martin Luther addressed this question through a rather lengthy critique of the medieval church and its need for and a justification of its reformation.  This was not Luther simply lambasting his opponents but searching the Scriptures for the marks of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  His answer is, then, not a guess but based on Holy Scripture.  If you read his words you will find typical Luther -- prodding, offending, and challenging but also comforting, teaching, and assuring.  Near its end, Luther identified what he called the seven marks of the Church.  By these marks, then, one can know where the Church is located (even though its full extent may not be visible to you).  These marks are God’s Word; Holy Baptism; the Sacrament of the Altar; the Office of the Keys; called ministers; and prayer, praise and thanksgiving to God.  To this list Luther appended a seventh mark of the Church: the true and sacred Cross (we might actually call this the Gospel itself). 

In his 1539 treatise, On the Councils and the Church, Luther addresses what I as a Lutheran address on almost a daily basis and that which compels me to answer for me, for my ordination, and for my minister on behalf of and to the people of my parish.  I hope and pray that I am not alone in this.  It is the most urgent and relevant consideration we as Lutherans (and every serious Christian and Christian minister) should have.  Where is the Church?

Rome is clear about this.  For Rome the Church is where the Pope is and there is no Church not in communion with the Pope, not under his staff and authority, not under his vicarage.  I will admit that as a Lutheran I would like to believe this.  It would solve so many problems I face as a Lutheran and as a Christian in a world where churches are a flavor of the month and within each communion is such diversity of doctrine and practice as to render any commonality almost an exception.  But as much as I would love this to be the case, it is not the answer of Scripture or even the witness of the earliest Christianity.  How do you go from Ignatius' where the bishop is, there is the Church to the Roman claim of exclusivity (except, of course with respect to the Orthodox and even the Jews, with their own way to God's grace apart from Christ)? 

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.  Does this offend against Luther's seven marks or does this accord with them?  Does the creed conflict with Luther's extended list or does it agree with them?  How does Rome's claim of exclusivity fit within these marks and Ignatius' claim?  These are things I wrestle with and I suspect many Lutherans and true Christians also do.  I am not so sure that many within Rome struggle much with the answer to this question.  I fear that this is a settled issue with them and the simple answer of the Pope has left them with an easy out.

This is certainly a reason why I am a Lutheran and why I have not swum the Tiber, so to speak.  If Luther is in any way correct in the marks of the Church, then we should be able to judge the whole on the basis of its parts, its faithfulness to those parts.  And it is in this arena where Rome comes up short.  Rome is hardly a church of God's Word.  Oh, yes, the Scriptures are read seriously within the mass but Rome has officially sided with the idea that the factual basis of what that Word says does not necessarily relate to its truth.  Rome is surely not alone in this but how can any church desiring to be the Church countenance treating the Word of God as included in Scripture but not Scripture?

Holy Baptism is another problematic area.  When the issue of a priest's baptism was addressed, Rome struggled to know how to deal with the deacon's straying from the script.  You surely recall the story.  But in the end, the failure of the deacon to say I baptize left the priest's ordination and all his sacramental presiding invalid.  Is baptism rooted simply in this form?  What about the East and its more ancient formula of You are baptized in. . . ?  While none of this is pivotal it seems that Rome's preoccupation is with validity and licit sacraments more than Romans 6.

When it comes to the Sacrament of the Altar, Rome seems to suggest that the sacramental grace is apart from the eating and drinking but in sacrificial offering.  Perhaps I am mistaken in this, I often am, but Rome equates the adoration of the Corpus Christi with its eating and drinking and there is no Scriptural warrant for this conflagration.  Even then, the sacramental liturgy, especially in the Latin Mass, seems to see the faithful as disinterested spectators while the real action lies in the hushed tones of the priest at the altar.  How does that accord with Scripture?  I will not even begin to address the liturgical oddities and hurried masses that betray the reverence demanded by taking seriously what is happening within this Eucharist.

With the Office of the Keys we face the same problem -- how is this sacrament administered?  While there is nothing wrong with and something salutary about encouraging the sinner seeking absolution to address the behaviors that make them vulnerable to temptation and wrong, emphasizing the satisfaction over the absolution dramatically changes the whole thing.  I envy how normal confession is in Roman Catholicism but the penance assigned has become larger than the grace imparted.

For Rome, the ministry is all about the form.  Apostolic succession has become a formality and line instead of a succession not only of office but of doctrine and teaching and preaching.  I actually do have a couple of good Roman Catholic preachers whose sermons I listen to every now and then but the reality is that the sermon or homily is routinely the weakest part of the mass and that thing which the priest spends the least amount of his time upon -- listen in just about anywhere.

Finally, with its rushed pace and casual and irreverent attitude toward the things of God, what happens among Roman parishes in prayer, praise and thanksgiving to God so often pales in comparison to the reverence, enthusiastic singing, and strong vocal participation of the place where I serve.  In this the question is rather simple: Does what we actually see in the worship and liturgical life of the Roman Catholic Church look like that which we expect of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?  I think you know my answer.  Rome looks like the worst of Protestantism more than it looks like anything else.

Markers.  I look for them.  When I look to Rome, I find mixed signals in the words and a distinct lack of markers in the practice.  So when it comes to the claims made, I have little recourse but to reject them because where I am, I do not see them lived out.  This ought to the goal and purpose of every parish no matter the name -- we preach, teach, preside, and sing like the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. 

We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and peace. We interpret them in a more moderate way and reject the opinion that they justify…. We can truly declare that the public form of the churches is more fitting with us than with the adversaries… Among us many use the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. They do after they have been first instructed, examined, and absolved. The children sing psalms in order that they may learn. The people also sing so that they may either learn or pray… Among us the pastors and ministers of the churches are encouraged publicly to instruct and hear the youth. This ceremony produces the best fruit… In our churches all the sermons are filled with topics such as these: repentance; the fear of God; faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, the comfort of consciences by faith; the exercises of faith; prayer, what its nature should be, and that we should be fully confident that it is powerful, that it is heard; the cross; the authority of officials and all civil ordinances; the distinction between the kingdom of Christ, or the spiritual kingdom, and political affairs; marriage; the education and instruction of children; chastity; all the offices of love. From this condition of the churches it may be determined that we earnestly keep Church discipline, godly ceremonies, and good Church customs.—Ap XV:38-44

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Our "no" and God's YES!

Sermon for the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, Lessons and Carols, for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021.

We live in a world of no’s.  In fact, the last couple of years have only reinforced this no.  No to work, no to school, no to shopping, no to church, no to kindness, no to travel, no to just about everything we thought made our lives bearable and gave us joy.  We surrendered everything that once was sacred to us and thought it was worth it – worth it just to get through such a terrible time of fear, uncertainty, and death.  Still our lives ache for things to get back to the time when we did not fear a hand stretched out in welcome or a stranger too close in line at the register or politics of division and hate.  Will things go back to normal?  Will we ever forget what we have endured?

The truth is that our generation is not unique.  Every time and age has known its terrible sorrows and struggles.  We have been struggling for a long time and did not even know it until the obvious was made clear.  We hid our sorrows behind Amazon deliveries and online entertainment and social media.  We took comfort in making this life better or safer and did not dare presume to hope for something more.  Faced with all kinds of social ills, we hoped for some justice and prayed that justice would satisfy the noisy complainers and give us a reprieve from all that troubles us.

God has heard our prayers, known our fears, and felt our pain.  But His answer to all our needs has come not in a better life but a new one, not in a safer life but an eternal one.  Our God has come to us in our desperation and announced that death will not get the last word.  He has done this by a baby’s cry out into the silent night of a world so long ago and yet so much like the one in which we live today.  

The shepherds were minding their own business when angels turned their predictable lives upside down.  We have minded our own business but God has turned our lives upside down as well.  This night is the birth of joy and hope to a people who have ached for some joy and hope for so very long.  And if we will listen, we will find that what happened so long ago in Bethlehem of Judea has transformed every corner of this present world and transformed the very foundation of our lives.

There, standing across the great divide between heaven and earth, the angels called to the shepherds to come and see.  There, between the tear in heaven and the rip of the earthly veil, Jesus has come.  He has ended once for all the war between us and God, released to us the power to resolve what anger and bitterness divide with the healing grace of forgiveness, and opened to us the new door of everlasting life to a people too willing to make our peace with death.

The music of heaven is heard on earth and we have been invited to join our voices with the heavenly angels.  The promise of the future has been delivered to a people who had only a past.  And in the manger of bread and wine, water and Word, God comes to us still.  Here is the flesh powerful enough to undo the curse placed in our flesh by the rebellion of Eden.  And yet herein is the flesh tender enough not to wound but to heal, not to condemn but to forgive the sinner.

The shepherds were afraid.  Who could look upon angels and not be terrified by their power and their reality.  Like them, we see God through the lens of our fears and doubts, our pain and problems, our darkness and death.  We wonder where God was when things went bad and why He did not just deliver us then and there from all that troubled us.  We have forgotten that in the war of sin and death, we pulled the trigger first and we chose evil over good.  God remembers the wrongs we have thought and said and done but He is determined to rescue us from them.  In spite of our unworthiness, He is worthy and He has kept His promise to us.  Absolved, He remembers our sin no more.

The Gospel is not some panacea for all that troubles us.  Our Lord has not come to relieve our pain with the opiates of distraction and addiction.  This is not about getting what we want but about God bestowing upon us what we need.  And then giving us the Holy Spirit so that we might see as He does the curse of sin and how terrible death is.  We needed more than a temporary medicine or vaccine but to be healed from death once for all and to be delivered from death to life everlasting.

This is His gift.  This is what we find as we peer into the manger.  Christ is a baby but not just any baby.  He is the end to our past, the release from our present disappointment, and the promise of a brand new future.  He is the YES death cannot still in the face of all the ways we have heard “no” last year and the year before and the generations before it.  He is our yes and He is our hope to answer all that is wrong and turn the page once for all on despair and death.  But to receive His gift, we must confess the false hopes and dreams we have built upon lies, deception, and excuses.  
Sin has told us so often that the lie of our dreams is better than the truth of reality that we have forgotten how to repent.  But repentance is where hope begins anew.

My friends, we have forgotten that our warfare is over, our battle done, and our journey ended.  Lying in the manger is the only life strong enough to rescue us from our own lives and the only death strong enough to redeems us from our fears. In the midst of a world of no’s and our heart always quick to choose the path of complaint, God has spoken forever His YES in Christ.  That is His gift to us.  That is the marvel of this night and the blessing in the manger.

Sin began with a “no” to God’s Word.  It seemed such a simple thing.  Thanks, God, but no thanks.  We will do it ourselves.  The commandments seemed to us like God was saying “no” to everything we wanted to do but it is only in Christ that we realize what we want is harmful to us.  Still, we instinctively prefer the prison of our sins to the freedom of a life directed by God.  We are always about the “no” – insisting that our sins are not so bad, that we are not responsible, that we can make our peace with death, and that if God really loved us He would just do what we want Him to do when we want it done.  But God is about the YES!

God’s “yes” comes not to acquiesce to our demands or to surrender to our wants but as the power to end sin’s prison and restore us as His own, the power to meet death and the grave and make a pass through which we go to life everlasting, and the power to give new birth to our old lives in baptismal water.  God’s “yes” is His willingness to take from us the burden of our sin and pay it with the blood of His only-begotten Son.  God’s “yes” is to give to us new and glorious bodies that never are diseased, age or wear out.  God’s “yes” is to give us this priceless treasure without cost to us.  God’s “yes” to us is to shine the light of the Holy Spirit into the darkness of our hearts and minds so that faith may grow.

My friends, we have lived too long in a world filled with “no’s” and with hearts to quick to condemn and complain.  Our bodies ache for the promise of a new life and a new world, without division, complaint, and fear.  That is what God has given to us here.  His Son.  His “yes” to all the “no’s” of this mortal life.  Yes, God loves you.  Yes, He is with you.  Yes, He has kept His promises.  Yes, He has forgiven you.  Yes, He has delivered you from death to everlasting life.  Look into the face of Jesus and you see God’s “yes” now and forevermore.  Amen.

Worse than bad taste. . .

The good folks at the Bradford Exchange have upped the ante when it comes to Nativity Scenes in poor taste -- this one is outright blashphemy!


But as bad as this is, perhaps this is worse.  Timely, ironic, but terrible!

Faces . . .

It has been a long time since we routinely saw faces.  Masks have been the norm for many of the last months and more than a year.  I must confess that I forget I am wearing a mask.  Sometimes I smile at people oblivious to the fact that they cannot see that smile.  Perhaps I am not the only one.  It is hard to see people without the full on facial view.  Faces communicate so much and it is hard to know much of someone without looking over the face -- the wrinkles of age and experience, the eyes that sparkle with joy, and the mouth that purses the lips or breaks into a wide grin.  We have been deprived of this view for a long time.  I hope that it comes to an end soon.

We are living in the age of faces -- not so much the personal face viewed directly with the eye but the digital one.  On my computer I am asked to put a face on some of my programs -- an avatar or profile picture that identifies me to my techno gadgets and me to the people on the other end.  Some of them are less than pictures, more personas or caricatures.  You can find places to sell you a face for use on those profiles or free sources that will turn your picture into an avatar.  It is you and it is not you.  Social media has replaced the face with likes, dislikes, and a host of stock statements about us.  Curious that such a thing might pass for the face of a person. 

Though we are living in the age of the face and one of the most popular platforms of social media is called Facebook, I am not sure that faces define us anymore.  Our fascination with technology came long before the advent of the small screens we carry around but they have left us with a false idea of face to face.  God does not give us a caricature of Himself or even an image.  He give us the face of His Son.  In the face of Jesus we see the invisible God.  From the early Church we learn that the word for face (prosopon) is also the word for person.  In the face of Jesus we see the whole person of God.  To read His face is to know God's disposition toward us.  Scripture offers us the hope and promise of seeing God face to face, even more intimately than Moses saw God pass by.  St. Paul describes this beholding of Christ face-to-face as the fulfillment of salvation itself. 

Though the manger and the cross have become symbols, they were not originally.  The manger was nothing important but the Holy Child the manger held was and is.  In the same way, the cross has become shorthand not for a simple event but a person, Jesus the Christ, who suffered in our place, died our death, and rose to bestow upon us eternal life.  The crucifix is one of the ways we remember this.  It is not simply a cross but the man upon the cross who accomplishes all things for our salvation.  But it begins with a manger and the child in the manger.  Therein we see the face of God.  That is the great mystery of Christmass.  And the reason it is not just and can never be a holiday.  It is the holy day in which God revealed Himself not as smoke in the sky or fire at night or thunder or lightening or sign or wonder but flesh and blood.  Still we meet Him in the manger of bread and wine wherein we receive His body and blood.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Blessed Christ Mass

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. . . 


Friday, December 24, 2021

O come, let us adore Him. . .

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.










Thursday, December 23, 2021

What are you looking at?

Where you are looking determines what you see.  That has always been true.  It is even more true now. Looking at the world is not only depressing but dangerous.  It steals not only the confidence and hope from the heart but over time can steal faith itself.  But that is the temptation.  It is a consuming addiction to think of the world, of all the things that are wrong, and of all the things that cause us fear and anxiety.

Scripture is filled with calls to look to the Lord or seek the Lord:

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.  Psalm 105:4   

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me. Micah 7:7

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:18

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Hebrews 12:2

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen.  Revelation 1:7

Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! 1 Chronicles 16:10-11

And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you. Psalm 9:10

You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Psalm 27:8

Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!  Psalm 105:4

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.  Isaiah 55:6

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  Mattthew 6:33

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Colossians 3:1

The good counsel of God's Word knows that if our focus is not on the Lord, it will be upon things that distract us from the Lord, compete with Him, and pull us from the grasp of His love.  As true as this is for individual Christians, it is even more true for the Church as a whole.

How easy it is for the Church to turn our focus to the world, to make a gospel that is palatable to the modern mind, amenable to the values of the moment, and in step with the direction of the people not of the Kingdom!  How tempting it is to keep the focus on what kind of worship people outside the Church might like or what kind of buildings or what kind of preaching or what kind of programs!  How urgent seems the cause of making the faith relevant to what people are thinking or feeling outside the Church!  But the cost of this focus is unfaithfulness, the willing surrender of the sharp edged truth for a therapeutic faith that is powerless to do any more than console people to follow their hearts.  The cost of seeking the approval of man is to lose the approval of God, to exchange the true Gospel for lies, deceptions, and distortions that can save no one.

Christmas is the call to look at the manger, to see the face of God in the Child Mary bore, and to rejoice in the gift of hope, forgiveness, comfort, and life.  These ought to be our focus.  The Spirit makes this Gospel relevant by confronting the heart and mind of man with despair, the prison of sin, the discomfort of loneliness, and death.  And it is the Spirit who makes a home for this Gospel in the heart of unbelievers by the preaching of the Church and her ministers.  It is the Spirit who fills the cold home with the warm fire of God's love as husband, wife, parent, and child teach and proclaim this Gospel one to another. Somehow churches seem to have forgotten that it is the Word we seek and the Word by which we live and the Word that we deliver to the nations in our Savior's name.  And when the Church forgets this, the home is in danger of being consumed by distractions and temptations as well.

When Christians come wounded and weary by the cares of the world, the answer is not therapy but the Gospel.  Keep your eyes upon Jesus and turn off the distractions.  Turn off the news if you have become addicted to the incessant political battles that are never resolved and the string of evils and wrongs that consume the news cycle.  Seek the Lord and your heart will rest in peace.  When the Church has lost her way and looks out upon empty pews after surrendering truth to a feel good religion whose music has a good dance beat, maybe we need to do the same thing.  God has not called us to analyze the world and its evils but to call out and confront them with the Law in all its sharpness and with the Gospel, to those who repent, with all its sweet comfort.  If we do that, it will be enough -- no matter what the world around us chooses to do.  The Word of the Lord endures forever and those who endure in this Word to the end shall be saved.  Look to the Lord and seek His Word.  It has always been true.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The manner of our words. . .

I am sure that to the slow drawl of the South, my speech patterns are too fast.  I will admit that I, on the other hand, am sometimes frustrated by the time it takes for some folks to spit the words out.  Strangely, then, I find myself on the other side of things when it comes to the Divine Service.  It is shocking to me how fast some clergy can spit out the words of the liturgy, as if they were under a time constraint or would be rewarded if they came in first in the sprint to the finish.  As much as this happens among Lutherans -- and it does! -- it is more frequently the practice of Roman Catholic fathers who seem to be motivated by the seeming impatience of their children as they make the Mass take as little time as possible.  This is even more true of those priests who make available their priestly obligation of the daily masses through digital means -- here I am referring to the Latin Mass in particular.  It is as if the words did not matter except to repeat them as quickly as possible.

For Lutherans, the Eucharist is a word that acts; it is the visible Word -- not quite, as some would say, a a sermon dramatized but something that is not done but does.  The Eucharist is not offered to the Father while people happen to be there while this happens but is God descending to us, full of grace, truth, and glory, and bestowing His gifts to us through the means He has appointed.  Here is Christ, the crucified One, who delivers to us the fruits of His suffering, death, and resurrection.  Here is the Spirit, the breath of God, to plant faith where there is none and to strengthen faith where this is.  But for the Roman Catholic, the mass is an opus operatum; an action which by the powerful and indefectible promise of Christ is objectively (not merely subjectively and in the heart of the believer) effective and its direction is less to the pew than to the unseen Father on high.  The Lutheran does not seen the Eucharist as educational program or converting power (though it may certainly do these things).  Rather, ,the Eucharist is where God meets us in the means of grace He has appointed with the gifts He has won for us, freely given though they cost Christ everything.  The pace needs be deliberate and not hurried.  There is much here -- too much to be taken casually or to be rushed.  It is not for the same of understanding but for faithfulness that the Word is given its due in the Divine Service -- especially the words of Christ.  On the other hand, in the Roman Catholic mass, it is the priest's intrinsic purpose is to confect the Body and Blood of the Redeemer and to offer this in sacrifice for the sins of men. Rome might complaint that relevant liturgy is a misnomer and Lutherans would condemn it for very different reason but the contrast between Rome and Lutherans is hard to miss.

For Rome, the words of the Mass almost must be hurried as if neither God nor man can wait for the sacrifice to be offered.  That is what I encounter so often.  As a Lutheran, I do know well the words of the mass but seldom in a mass do I have a chance to respond to the liturgical dialog portions that are mine.  The priest has his foot on the gas pedal and speaks his part and mine before I can spit the words out.  For the Lutheran this is a problem but not for Rome whose priest is hurrying on as if impatient to get to the end. Quickly the words are said and quickly the thing moves to its climax for Rome.  The awful words , the words of sacrifice, are too great a thing to dilly dally with and must not be denied, even, seemingly, by the need to catch a breath.  For Rome it seems the mass pace must be fast to get there.  For the Lutheran, as the hymnwriter put it, too soon we rise, the vessels disappear...  

Lutherans, slow down.  Do not emulate Rome.  We are not in a rush to get there or impatient to leave.  I have noticed that former Roman Catholics often tell me that when they went to mass they would get through the liturgy and commune 800 people in half the time it takes for the Lutheran Divine Service at Grace.  Maybe so.  Maybe, it should be so.