Saturday, December 31, 2022

Another year of grace!

Now Greet the Swiftly Changing Year

1 Now greet the swiftly changing year
With joy and penitence sincere.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

2 Remember now the Son of God
And how He shed His infant blood.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

3 This Jesus came to end sin’s war;
This Name of names for us He bore.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

4 His love abundant far exceeds
The volume of a whole year’s needs.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embraceAnother year of grace.

5 With Him as Lord to lead our way
In want and in prosperity,
What need we fear in earth or space
In this new year of grace!

6 “All glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth!” the angels cry.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of grace.

7 God, Father, Son, and Spirit, hear!
To all our pleas incline Your ear;
Upon our lives rich blessing trace
In this new year of grace.

Friday, December 30, 2022

What keeps your pastor up at night. . .

Though you might think it is the ordinary worries of attendance and offerings and finding enough Sunday school teachers that keeps a pastor up at night.  Probably not.  Yes, these are concerns and sometimes weigh heavily on his shoulders.  I have been there watching as Sunday after Sunday weather, illness, and whatever else keeps the attendance low.  I have wondered if the absentees are gone for good or simply on hiatus.  I have been handed a paycheck by a church treasurer and told not to cash it until the next offering or two comes in.  I have sat with treasurers trying to figure out which bills to pay when all cannot be paid.  These are all legitimate concerns.  But that is not what keeps me up at night.

What keeps me up at night is whether or not God's people have the knowledge of their faith and the will to defend that faith against the seemingly constant assaults of the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh.  What keeps me up at night is if we are doing an adequate job preparing our youth and teaching those new to the faith so that they will grow and not be lost along the way to temptation or distraction.  What keeps me up at night is who will be the pastor to my children and grandchildren as the seminary classes decline in numbers.  What keeps me up at night how to sort our way around the potholes and obstacles laid before us by the pace of change and the kinds of changes we see happening all around us.  I suspect I am not alone.

Let me say it is not because I have no confidence in God.  I know that though the jurisdictions of Lutheranism may disappear, its faith will live on.  I know that the Lord has promised the gates of hell will not prevail.  I know that God has pledged us a living and efficacious Word that always accomplishes His purpose in sending it.  I know all of this and do not doubt it. What I also know is that God will not play as as puppets for His purpose but seeks a people willing to walk in the dangerous way of everlasting life.  What I also know is that God has chosen to work through us and not simply for us or in us and so we are not optional extras to His purpose or plan.  What I also know is that we can just as effectively be impediments to Him and the work of His kingdom as we can be agents of that kingdom and instruments through that kingdom comes.  I do not equate God's kingdom with an earthly kingdom or a piece of real estate and I don't know who does.  So what I pray for is what Luther hit on:

“God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives His Holy Spirit so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life now on earth and forever in heaven.”

and again: 

"But what is the kingdom of God? Answer: Nothing else than what we learned in the Creed, that God sent His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil, and to bring us to Himself, and to govern us as a King of righteousness, life and salvation against sin death, and an evil conscience, for which end He has also bestowed His Holy Ghost, who is to bring these things home to us by His holy Word, and to illumine and strengthen us in the faith by His power.

Therefore we pray here in the first place that this may become effective with us, and that His name be so praised through the holy Word of God and a Christian life that both we who have accepted it may abide and daily grow therein, and that it may gain approbation and adherence among other people and proceed with power throughout the world, that many may find entrance into the Kingdom of Grace, be made partakers of redemption, being led thereto by the Holy Ghost, in order that thus we may all together remain forever in the one kingdom now begun.

For the coming of God's Kingdom to us occurs in two ways; first, here in time through the Word and faith; and secondly, in eternity forever through revelation. Now we pray for both these things, that it may come to those who are not yet in it, and, by daily increase, to us who have received the same, and hereafter in eternal life. All this is nothing else than saying: 'Dear Father, we pray, give us first Thy Word, that the Gospel be preached properly throughout the world; and secondly, that it be received in faith, and work and live in us, so that through the Word and the power of the Holy Ghost Thy kingdom may prevail among us, and the kingdom of the devil be put down, that he may have no right or power over us, until at last it shall be utterly destroyed, and sin, death, and hell shall be exterminated, that we may live forever in perfect righteousness and blessedness.'"

What keeps pastors up at night is not the fear that God will let go of us or rescind His promise or deny His Word.  No, indeed.  But we do worry that we will let go of God, no longer trust or expect His promise, or deny the Word either by blasphemy or indifference.  I suspect I am not alone in this.  


Thursday, December 29, 2022

In case you missed it. . .






You can listen to the Christmas at St. Olaf (though, this year it is not at St. Olaf), here (just in case you missed it).

Not ducks in a row. . .

Some, perhaps many, belittle and mock the idea of pure doctrine.  Dogma no longer has a favorable impression upon Christians and especially on those outside the Church.  It is presumed that doctrine is like a checklist of things we must mark off to prove we are worthy.  What a foolish idea!  Doctrine is never mere truth to which we add our assent much less a series of steps to something bigger than better that we must get in order to be saved.  Doctrine is life.

These things we confess are not simply true in the sense of truth vs error but the sublime truth that envelopes us with the steadfast love and mercy of God.  Doctrine is beauty against the ugliness of sin and the hard reality of a world in the shadow of death.  These are not postulated truths of our invention but the revelation of God.  While no human language can fully encompass what God has made known, the same language is most eloquent and elegant when it expresses within our human limitation the fullness of God's self-disclosure.  It is a marvelous thing and not something that holds us captive or imprisoned.  Doctrine is freedom.

Like every pastor, I wonder why so few of our people interested in the Scriptures or in doctrine? How is it that someone can warm the pew for years only to gradually fade away until the truth they believe and the life they live are indistinguishable from the neighbor who does not believe?  Why is it so easy or a Lutheran to surrender the truth and gift of baptism for a believer's baptism in which God is mere spectator?  How can one shrug their shoulders at the Christ who comes in His flesh and blood in the Sacrament for a symbol that does nothing and requires you to do everything to benefit from it?  The surrender of doctrine is not merely the abdication of words on a page but a source of life, the gift of His presence, and the work of His grace?  Why have so many of our children abandoned the church and her doctrine and her life?

Of course, we all need regular warnings against sin and we need the encouragement to keep running the race of faith to its appointed end. We need to be held accountable for the love that saved us and would work through us for our neighbor in need.  Yet by themselves, such warnings and encouragement cannot sustain our faith and will become reasons for falling away unless we live by the beautiful means of grace that our doctrines confess. Unless we live by these dogmas that bestow grace and convey mercy to call us to repentance, to restore us when we fall, and to nourish our faith that we may grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, we will wither and die. Without a clear vision of where the Christian life lives and grows and without the weekly rehearsal of what lies before us, all the rules you can lay down, the cautions you use to warn, and the inspiration speeches you can muster will not keep us in the faith or keep our faith orthodox, normed by the Word of God which is a Word of life and hope.  

The old joke about the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story" is that it never actually does tell the story.  But the other side of this is when we stop loving the story and the doctrine that it conveys, the story becomes merely words that no longer do anything and end up being only about us and not about God at all.  Doctrine is not getting your theological ducks in a row.  It is something much grander.  Doctrine is how we express, as best we are able, the wonderful truths of God whose love made us and whose love redeemed us when turned our backs on it.  It is not stuffy or theoretical or boring.  If that is the impression we have given to our people, God will hold us to account.  Doctrine is not some impediment or restraint placed upon the believer but the power to believe and order the life of the redeemed. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Who laughs last. . .

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day, preached on December 25, 2022.

The devil must has surely laughed on Christmas Day.  To think that this is all God has to do battle with an army of darkness, a world set against Him, and the demons that inhabit hell.  Really?  It is as if the devil were expecting something mighty and then finds out it is just a baby.  The devil laughed at the idea that all of his might would be met in the face of a child.  No baby can answer the power of the devil, undo the devil’s ownership of our souls since Eden, or free the world from the grip of death.  What a joke!

The world laughed as well.  So the Son of God is born of a Virgin from an eminently forgettable village and delivered in another forgotten bump in the road.  The disciple got it right.  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  And imagine that, the Savior of the world is turned away from house after house and settles for a stable and a manger as His first home.  The world loves a come back story where the person of humble origins makes it big but this is a joke, right?  No, the world takes no notice of a Savior who cannot even find a decent bed and who is born of people without pedigree or promise.   What a joke!

The people of Israel laughed as well.  The mighty successor to David with the promise of glory to restore the shine to Israel would not be born as this boy was.  He came to His own people – the people whom the prophets has prepared so that they might recognize the Messiah, believe in Him, and follow Him.  They were not ready for the glory of God in flesh and blood – at least in the flesh and blood of an infant.  What a joke!

The joke is on them.  Hidden in flesh is the Word that spoke all things into being.  The Lord of all creation is made flesh not as a joke or even a surprise but so that He may wear our flesh and blood, lived under us according to the Law, and accomplish all things in order to save us.  All thing were made through Him but they did not recognize His face or honor Him as Lord.  The Light of the world cannot be dimmed – even by doubt and rejection.  He shines with the brightness of the one true Light.  He is the face of God and His is the power of God to make sons and daughters of the Most High out of the likes of you and me.  He has come with the new birth of water and the Word so that our sins might be forgiven and our lost lives restored.
The Law was given through Moses, on a mighty mountain, burned into tablets of stone, and carried down to seal a people into a covenant relationship with God. But that Law could not save – it could only highlight the need for a Savior.  Grace and truth is come through Jesus, the Word made flesh.  His fullness fills all who are empty, restores all who are lost, revives all who are marked for death, and delivers heavenly glory to earthly sinners.

The devil and the world laughed that first Christmas and so did the children of Israel who had waited forever for this moment.  This could not be the way God would save us and the face of this child is not the face of God.  But it is.  No one has seen the Father except the Son but the Son has revealed Him.  He is the surprise of a compassionate God who is relentless in His pursuit of a people lost to Him by sin and marked for death.  He is the hope of a God who is merciful and who delivers more than justice but forgiveness.  He is God whose holiness is big enough to cover all who call upon Him and whose blood can cleanse ever sinner from every sin.  That is the miracle of this day.

Though there will always be people to reject Him, the devil is not laughing now. The infant Redeemer accomplished all things for us and when the cost of that salvation was His own suffering and death, He did not shrink from giving it up for us all.  This is the shape of that Word made flesh – He is not some inaccessible and distant deity but the God who was made one of us in order to save all of us.  The people then could not quite wrap themselves around this but you have.  It is for this reason you are here.  God has become His people’s Savior and we know Him as the Word made flesh.  To all who will receive Him He gives power to become the children of God.  They are born again not of flesh but of the Spirit,  God’s own creation made new.  And it begins with the face of a baby who reveals the face of God.

Today is not so different.  The little men who govern think believe their own lies and make war to prove their greatness.  They come and go and do not remain.  To win an inch in this world is to lose your soul.  We all know that. Demons still rule the darkness by lies and deception.  The world is not so different.  Children still are dismissed – not even human.  The child is not worth our time or money because we love ourselves too much to bother with marriage and family.  The pastor who wrote “Your Best Life Now” had his hand on the pulse of our age.  We would give up eternity for a moment every time it was offered.

But Christ is the same.  He is the Word who presided over creation and came in flesh and blood to preside over our redemption.  Like Isaiah in the cave, we are tempted to find God in the mighty and threatening but here He is in the still small voice that speaks love and redemption to all who will hear Him.  Christ is and always will be the Word made flesh for us and our salvation.  But the devil laughs no more.  By the face of a baby, by the face of flesh and blood, by the suffering of the cross, by the death and the tomb’s cold darkness, and by a life the grave could not hold, the devil, the world, and our flesh have been overcome.

In the appearance of weakness, God showed His strength.  In the face of a baby boy, we saw the unseen face of God. In the defeat of the cross, He won our lives. The devil tried laughing and the world tried ignoring, but the baby boy prevailed and won the day.  And to all who will not be scandalized by the surprise of God’s mercy and reject Him who came to save us, there is still hope, still mercy, still grace, and still peace.  That is what we count on today.  To all who receive Him He gives power to become the sons and daughters of God.

Christmas can be real bummer.  Plans get messed up, families fight, hopes are dashed, and we toss out our great expectations with the remains of the wrapping paper.  We had hoped for more, perhaps even thought we deserved more than we got.  What fools we are.  Nothing comes in the way we think it should – not even God and His redemption.  But to all who lay aside their presuppositions and their disappointments, the Word is still there.  The Light still shines.  The glory of God is still revealed.  Sins are still forgiven.  Death is still overcome.  Life will not end.  And it is all because God insisted upon doing it His way.

Don’t laugh at the gift of grace because it shines through the face of Mary’s infant Son.  Don’t write off the baby and the manger because you do not think He is ready for the big enemies that haunt us.  Don’t look at those who rejected Jesus then and those who reject Him still.  Remember this.  To all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become the children of God born not of flesh but of the saving will of our Father in heaven exercised in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, His Son.  No one has ever seen God except those who behold the face of Christ by faith.  We have seen it all.

So what!

Recently, on another forum, a discussion of the role of women in the church (always good for some lively debate) offered another version of a tired old saw.  It seems that someone had been doing research and found that not only did blessed St. Patrick not banish the snakes but he might have tolerated some homosexuality, bestiality, and women serving as bishops/abbesses.  So there.  If he did it, it must be right.  If he tolerated it, so must we.  If he did not attack it, neither should we.  Sort of the domino theory in reverse.

So the meaning is clear -- if Christendom or any somewhat authoritative representative of Christendom ever tolerated or failed to condemn homosexuality, then we are bound by that example to respect the example for our own time and it does not matter what Scripture says.  If Christendom or any somewhat authoritative representative of Christendom ever tolerated or failed to condemn, or perhaps even approved/participated in the ordination of women as priests or deacons (bishops even?), then it does not matter what Scripture says, we are bound by the exception as well as the rule. 

Oh my, this could be a boon to heresy and apostasy!  Since some Lutheran congregations practiced online communion, we are bound to accept all the way around. You can fill in the blank with your favorite thing or your favorite thing to criticize and see how that works for you and for the rest of the Church.

Every example, whether from the mainstream or an isolated fringe, becomes evidence to challenge the rule and the clear teaching of Scripture.  My answer is so what?  What exactly does that do to the truth to admit and even herald the examples of lies or half truths or errors?  Nothing.  The truth remains whether or not we accept it or approve of it.  It is, by nature, the truth after all.

When someone does research into what someone might have done in the name of orthodoxy or tolerated along the way, that evidence is evidence of nothing substantive except our own ability and tendency to tolerate lies, half truths, and error --- nothing more and nothing less.  Only a fool would suggest that the Church has ever been without those who have preached and taught error as truth.  The issue is not what we have tolerated for whatever reason we have tolerated it, but rather what the Word of God (and, I might add, our own Confessions) say.  Just as I would say this to diminish any argument for the acceptance of the LGBTQ alphabet soup, so I would say it to those who say it matters more what Lutherans did liturgically than what they say confessionally.  Occasionally practice is a high point but the truth always falls flat when it comes up against the way we have always done it here or the way we want it done here.  That is how error operates best -- exceptions become norms and norms allow for more exceptions until nothing is true and everything is what we judge it to be in our own eyes.  It is, in effect, the most childish sort of argument.  But it has worked in the past, so do not look for errorists to take this one out of their tool kit anytime soon.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Who owns Christmas?

Sermon for the Divine Service on the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, preached on December 24, 2022.

At Christmas we Christians get a little nervous – sort of like a kid trying to hold onto a candy bar that everyone wants a bite of.  The world has embraced Christmas and made it its own.  Already in August the stores were filling up shelves with trinkets and knickknacks, cards and garland, Santas and sleighs.  We Christians think that we own Christmas but the world does not care about our claims.  The world has claimed Christmas and stolen it right out from under the noses of pastors and churches and Christian people.  That has set up a battle for us to take back what we think belongs to us.  We are hypocrites in that war for ownership.  There are plenty of Christians standing in line to buy ornaments and gifts long before Thanksgiving and Advent.  

Instead of fighting against those who want their share of Christmas, it would be better for us to help them know what Christmas really is rather than what they might imagine it to be.  Clearly the place to start is with the Christmas story that Luke has told us.  It is more than a story but a gift and a blessing.  Luke 2 belongs to everyone – not because we want it but because the angels have said it is so.  Christ is born for the great joy of all the people.

So let us not hoard what God has meant for all the people nor steal the joy away from the birth that is the incarnation of holy joy itself.  Let us live out this good news of great joy.  That is what St. Paul wrote to young pastor Titus.  The grace of God has appeared to bring salvation for all people.  But with that joy comes the call to renounce the worldly passions that give into desire and to live holy, upright, and godly lives in this age.  What the apostle is talking about here is self-control.  Now there is a term out of place on Christmas Eve.  Self-control?  In a holiday in which we spend too much, eat too much, waste too much, and drink too much!  Yeah, right – self-control.

But the Apostles is not really talking about moments of over indulgence, is he?  No, he is talking about lives that bear no hint of the Savior who is born for us this night.  He is talking about lives that are lived in captivity to a goodness we think we can manage on our own or who believe you can wish away sin and its wrongs without a Savior to do the work.  He is talking about the self-control of love that truly does love God but also loves our neighbor.
Ours is an age that could learn well of this self-control.  We think that it is foolish to limit yourself from any whim or feeling or want or desire.  We live in a self-indulgent world that does not simply want more things but does not value life or virtue or integrity or truth.  We do what seems right in our own eyes and we generally figure God will just have to put up with us if He doesn’t like it.

The self-control St. Paul addresses is the confidence that your life is not about today or even about yourself but about the God who has redeemed you by becoming flesh like you.  It is about the assurance that the good life is not how much you can pack into your day or your lifetime but the everlasting life that begins when the temporary of this life ends.  It is about goodness which is measured not in personal achievement but in trust – trusting that God who has redeemed you knows what is best for you and that the best you can do is to hear and heed the voice of His Word.

The devil is about the opposite of self-control.  He is about self-indulgence.  His is the voice that told Caesar Augustus to take a census lest he might be missing a few tax dollars.  His is the voice of those who insisted that as long as they were comfortably settled in their beds it was somebody else’s problem to find room for the Mother of God and Joseph the Guardian of the Savior as Jesus is born.  His is threat to Mary in childbirth and to Jesus who is born of Mary – the same thing that threatens every mother in labor and every child born of her wombs.  His is the voice that says children are a possession to be discarded as easily as they are valued.

The devil is all about self-indulgence.  His is the whisper to shepherd’s to worry more about their own comfort than the safety of their flock.  His is the voice of fear that has taught us to be afraid of God and of His angels and of anything we cannot control.  His is the voice that finds the Son of Mary a threat so great that years after His birth Herod still must try to kill Him.  The devil has no place for self-control or holy or godly or righteous lives – only about me and the whim of what I want and when I want it.  That is why we must direct the world away from the sentiment of the story Luke tells us to the truth of its facts.

Jesus is born.  That is what the angels sang to the shepherds and the shepherds came to see and the thing that made this night shine with the brightness of light never seen before. It was never about the story but the Savior whose birth it tells.
If the world is missing something, it is not because it did not get the details right but because it missed the central point of it all.  Christ is born.  The Savior of all.  The source of joy to a world where joy is truly in short supply.

Tonight we who know who was born and why He was born have a sacred duty to key in the world around us to the not so secret secret of God’s Son, born in flesh, to be our Savior.  Let the world  have the story but let it have the right story and discover the truth of it all.  Christ is born.  The Savior long promised.  The answer to sin.  The power of life.  The promise of grace.  The gift of mercy.

If there is a Christmas sacrament, it is the Holy Eucharist.  Christ is laid in the manger of bread but not for us to admire.  He is given to us in bread and wine so that we might eat and drink, for the forgiveness of sins, for the pledge and promise of everlasting life, for the food that actually feeds us this life, and for the life of good works that glorifies Him.  We who know the story, know that it is told not simply on Christmas Eve amid candles and carols but every time the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood are given to us.  Here is the food of heaven that opens eyes and hearts and teaches us to renounce all that the world counts as important for the sake of the one thing needful.  Here is the strength to live those holy, upright, and godly lives we are called to live, born again in baptism to live, and that mark us as God’s in a world the devil claims as his.

Come to the stable, look upon Christ in the manger of His Sacrament.  Eat and be satisfied; drink and your thirst be quenched.  Do this in remembrance of Him so that you may know the purpose of your life and the goal of your redemption – lives of holiness and godliness, telling a world in darkness of Christ the Light and serving your neighbor in Christ’s name.  God’s intent is not to take away your sin but leave you as you are – helpless before sin and lost in the maze of a world of evil, error, and eroticism.  No, God came to earth to redeem us, to make us His people, to move us from a lifeless end to an endless life, filled with hope, love, and joy.

We all suffer the grave temptation to surrender our self-control to anger when we meet the darkness of the world, when our lives fall apart, when families are in conflict, and when our hopes and dreams are shattered upon the rocks of disappointment.  We are good at distractions to substitute for that which is new, new life, new hope, new obedience, and new love.  

Christ did not come to us because of the wonder of living in this world.  We do not come to Christ because things are going so well.  It is in the pain of loss, the dysfunction of family, the danger of violence, the shame of sin, and the shadow of death we come.  And Christ is there, rescuing us from a world without hope to a hope that cannot disappoint.  Christ is here, forgiving, restoring, and renewing us by His grace and favor.  Christ is here training us for the new life in which we control our passions and order our days according to His commands.  And Christ will be with us when we depart, as the shepherds once did so long ago, returning home with God’s praise on our lips, His glory over our lives, and His story we cannot wait to tell.

A blessed Christmas, my friends.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

 The commercial racket of Christmas; CS Lewis

Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn't go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business.Alastair Sims as Scrooge I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone's business.

    I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

  1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.  
  2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year,  the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

    Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself—gaudy  and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

    The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

    We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 304-305. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came

Dr. Anthony Esolen is a profound writer and wordsmith who is a must read even when you might disagree with him.  Dr. Esolen received an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary in 2017 when I was also graciously honored as alumus of the year.  That is the most visible way our paths have crossed but he is a weekly part of my reading of people whose words are worth my time.  I post here in full his little piece on his subscriber blog Word & Song by Anthony Esolen and he writes for Touchstone and a host of other venues.  Again, read it and enjoy as I take a day off from my pastoral ruminating.

"The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came"

Basque Folk Carol; translated by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould

The man who translated our Hymn of the Week could only have lived in the nineteenth century. Certainly we don’t produce anybody like Sabine Baring-Gould anymore. You must imagine an Anglican priest, happily married, with 15 children. Already I doubt if there’s anybody in the world who qualifies. Then he must be a prolific novelist and writer of short stories; he must be an archaeologist and antiquarian of international repute; he must be a tireless collector of folklore and a publisher and arranger of folk music; he must be a biographer (of Napoleon, of all people, but also of many saints), a writer and publisher of sermons, an amateur painter and ironworker, and an aficionado of many languages, ancient and medieval and modern. Whew! Then imagine the following conversation:

“They say there’s an excellent hymn on the Annunciation that we ought to be singing in English, but nobody’s translated it.”
“Nobody? Why not?”
“It’s in Basque.”
“Oh dear. Basque.” (For Basque, as you may know, isn’t an Indo-European language. The hymn might as well be written in Vietnamese or Algonquin.)
“I guess we’ll have to do without it, then.”
“Or — we could have Sabine do it!”
“Sabine? Sabine can read Basque?”
“Well, if he can’t do it now, he’ll do it for the hymn.”

Since I don’t read Basque myself, I can’t give you any special insights into the original here, Birjina gaztettobat zegoen. The hymn does have eight stanzas, not our four, and it appears to tell the story with admirable swiftness and, if we can trust the good Reverend Baring-Gould, those touches of glory that the folk ever admire. My eyes and my mind’s ear tell me he has preserved the first two lines, a rhyming couplet, as making up ten syllables each, and has cleverly rendered the last three lines, one longer and two shorter, by an eleven or twelve syllable line, followed by a fourth line that divides neatly into two and might be printed as such, “Most highly favored lady,” and “Gloria!”

If ever there was a hymn whose text and whose music fit so perfectly that you can’t imagine the one without the other, this is it. The verses are powerful, no doubt, and there’s no fuss about them, but when you sing them to the Basque melody, that third line stands out with all its urgency, rising high and holding there, and then comes the fourth line, with an interior five-note drop that echoes the end of the first line, right before a most unusual Gloria. It’s the only hymn I know were you’ll hold a note for a count of five — the third-last note of lines two and four — and it works, because the meter of the melody prepares you for it. One two three, one two three go all the pairs of notes, and you pick it up as soon as you’re singing the first words, “The angel Gabriel,” so when you hold a note and continue it into the next, you can actually pull it off: “one two three one two — three,” and there it is, five beats on the first and one on the second. And all in a minor key, too, and I’ve always found it really powerful when a minor key is used for joy, as in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” because then the joy seems to shine out from amidst the darkness, and that makes it so much the brighter and gladsome, like the flame of Gabriel’s eyes from the drifted snow of his wings; like the birth of the Christ Child in the night of sin and folly, like every beam of grace into the human heart.


The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame.
"All hail," said he, "thou lowly maiden Mary!
Most highly favored Lady," Gloria!

"For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee;
Thy son shall be Emmanuel by seers foretold,
Most highly favored Lady," Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
"To me be as it pleaseth God," she said.
"My soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name."
Most highly favored Lady, Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born
in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say,
Most highly favored Lady, Gloria!

Hidden and revealed. . .

Sermon for Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols, preached on the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, December 24, 2022.

The Christmas story begins with a king – Caesar Augustus.  But he is no real king – only a pretender to a throne that is not worth the trouble.  Hidden in the Christmas story is the true King – the King who would give up His only Son to be our Savior and Redeemer.  This King forgives instead condemns and pays the very cost of that forgiveness with the precious treasure of His own Son’s blood.  It may seem that Caesar is the one calling the shots – ordering the census and then requiring the people to register in their own home town.  But his words merely echo the promise of God through the prophets – so clear that even the temple authorities knew where to direct the Magi looking for Him who is born King of the Jews.  Nobody saw it coming except the Holy Spirit and those to whom the Spirit gave eyes of faith – like you and me.

A pretend King and now an impossible birth begins the story.  A virgin conceives and gives birth.  Who would have expected that?  Only those who knew and believed Isaiah.  She gives birth to the Son of God in our flesh and blood.  It is more than a miracle that God can fit in the womb of a Virgin or that He can fit in any human flesh and blood. But God hid His glory in the face of a child and delivered Him up to be the Savior and Redeemer of the whole world.

The night shone with the brightness of the One, True, Light.  Was it a wasted miracle.  Who was there to see, to witness, and to announce what God had done?  Only the Virgin Mother, Joseph the Guardian Father, and a few angels and shepherds.  We would have orchestrated a big splash but the God who comes not in thunder or lightening but in the still small voice would have done it exactly as He did.  God cloaks His kindness in the frame of humility and nothing is more humble than a dark night, a stable’s smell, a manger’s support, and some stars from heaven who come down to sing a lullaby to the Baby Jesus.

Why shepherds?  Shepherds were not exactly high up on the social ladder and their witness would not exactly have held much sway in the esteem of society.  But who better to welcome the Good Shepherd who is born to fulfill Ezekiel’s promise than shepherds who know what it is like to handle stubborn, unruly, and rebellious sheep.  The appearance of angels gave a hint of God’s power but to a very small and humble audience.  Nobody in Bethlehem noticed them or Jesus.
Oddly enough, their announcement to the shepherds promised great joy for all the people.  Was it hyperbole given the humble setting?  Maybe not.  After all, the angels did not promise that the world would be better, lives would be better, people would be happy, healthy, and wise.  They promised great joy that was not just for the chosen but was for all the people of the world.

The end of it hits on the humility – A Savior, Christ the Lord, is born, and you will find Him not in a palace but in a stable, not in a royal bed but in a manger.  There were probably other babies born on that Christmas Eve so long ago but they had houses and families to surround them.  The shepherds would find the Baby whom the angel’s announced not in a house but in a stable, lying not in comfortable bed but in a manger.   This miracle of God’s grace is hidden in humility that makes it easy to miss what God was doing then and now.

That is always the way it is.  In fact, Jesus, later in His ministry, says so.  “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and powerful and revealed them to children.”  Christmas has always been for children or those who would surrender their pride, arrogance, and self-importance to meet God where God has promised to be found.  It is true on Sunday morning as well.  God hides Himself in the obvious but surprise of water that washes us clean, of absolution that declares forgiveness on heaven and on earth, and of bread and wine that tastes of heaven with Christ’s body and blood hidden under these earthly forms.

Indeed, the manger is always the key.  You have to know where Jesus is to find Him there and you have to listen to God’s Word to know where to find Him.  It is this miracle that we stand in awe of tonight.  Not a story with pleasant details or a curious plot twist but the God who reveals Himself through His Word so that we might meet Him in the mercy of His Son, our Savior.  You think that you need to find God but God has never been lost.  Hidden, yes, but never lost. And God has always announced where He has hidden Himself – from the parting of the waters to the burning bush to the prophets who said “Thus saith the Lord.”

Now God continues to do what He has always done.  He tells you where He has hidden Himself so that you can find Him where He has promised to be.  Maybe your family hides the presents for you to find but not God.  God announces where He placed the richest treasure and greatest gift of all.  In Christ’s flesh.

In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old through the prophets but NOW He has spoken through His Son.  If you are wise, you will give up your well-intended but dead end attempts to find God and let God announce Himself and reveal Himself.  If you are wise, you will surrender your pride and hear and heed the sound of God’s voice in His Word.  If you are wise, you will show forth repentance and its fruits.  If you are wise, you will open your eyes to the Savior hidden in baptismal water and in Eucharistic bread and wine.  If you are wise, you will meet the Lord not where you want Him to be but where He has promised to be.

There you will discover the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the Savior who dies for the sins of His people and the Lord of death who offers to you the life death cannot overcome.  There you will meet the Lord not in sentiment to tear up the eye but in power to end the reign of sin, overcome the deceit of the devil, and release us from the punishment of death.  There you will learn of great joy that no circumstance of life can steal and of contentment worth so much more than happiness.  There you will find the God who comes not for the good or the holy or the rich or the powerful but for sinners to redeem and for the dying to give life and for the troubled to enjoy peace that passes understanding.

My friends, tonight is God’s invitation.  It is the night that cries out to the lonely and forgotten, to the troubled and sorrowful, and to the lost and afraid.  God meets you where you are but He will not leave you there.  He brings you family and community, the welcome of your truest friend, where there is hope and joy, where there is home and peace.  That place is here.  As you are gathered around the Word of the Lord.  As you sing the lovely carols of old.  As you hear the story of the ages.  As you meet God where He has always been and will always be – in His Word, in the face of His Son, in the cross where forgiveness was accomplished, and in the empty tomb where your hope of eternal life lives.

You need to look in the right manger.  God tells us where that is.  You need to look for the right Child.  God shows us who His Son is by what His Son has accomplished for us.  Your value lies not in you or in others around you;  your value lies in the God who gives His only Son to be born in flesh, die for your sins, and rise to give you eternal life.  This is the joy meant for all the people and this is your joy tonight.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen. 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Christmass + The Nativity of Our Lord

John 1:1–18

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

    There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

    The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

    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. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. 

Listen here for Lutheran Public Radio. . . . 


Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning from Gabrieli Consort & Players on Vimeo.




Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Nativity of Our Lord + Christmas Eve

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.





Or just tune into Lutheran Public Radio. . .

Friday, December 23, 2022

On the Eve of the Eve. . .


On the Eve of the Eve, let us take time to prepare for the Christmass by rehearsing again the readings and hymns of Advent.




Thursday, December 22, 2022

A few thoughts certain to offend. . .

Let me take this opportunity before Christmas to grate on a few nerves.  One of the disquieting circumstances of a typical Lutheran parish is the state of music.  Whether we are talking about discs that replace a person at the keys or speakers that play recorded music instead of live singers or spoken services that replace the sung liturgy that is our norm, things are not good.  Pipe organs are being ripped out of congregations that have chosen to focus on the diva and praise band and of buildings being closed because the congregation is dwindling.  It is a sad state of affairs, to be sure.  Included in that is not only the lack of song from the pews but the demise of the parish choir.

While deeply personal, music is also a public expression -- dare I say public confession?  It is one that joins the voices of individuals into a larger common voice.  The parish choir was once a staple of Lutheran congregations.  Whether they sang the traditional anthems or the liturgical songs of the pericopes (Introit, Gradual, Psalm, etc.), the parish choir was not there to entertain but to lead the congregational song.  Music is one of the truly unifying forces within the community of the Church but it has become a divisive one along preference lines rather than liturgical.  The ministry of music within the Lutheran congregation has been not only one of our distinctives but a profound and powerful force by which we are served by the Word in song and uplifted as people who praise the Lord with musical instrument and the voice.

Why do we sing? Why sing in the Divine Service?  Have we forgotten the answer to those questions?  Music is not simply or even primarily about self-expression but is God's gift to a people whom He has delighted to cause His own and on which He has bestowed the riches of His mercy.  In response, we sing.  It is literally that simple.  The Church could make a theological explanation on so many different levels but it is probably best to begin with this.  We sing because God has given us something to sing about.

Though we attribute to Saint Augustine the quote, “He who sings once, prays twice,” what Saint Augustine did say is even more profound: “To sing is a sign of love. The singer of this new song is full of the warmth of God’s love.” (Sermon 336)  We pray, praise, and give thanks and all of these are framed by the gift of music and manifested in the voices united in song.  It can be as simple as Kyrie eleison in response to the bidding of the pastor or deacon or it can be as elaborate as a polyphonic setting of the Gloria in Excelsis.  In any case, the Church's song is more urgently needed now in the state of Christianity's fractured witness to the world and our compromise with culture against the doctrines of Scripture.

As the Church, we are in a very difficult state and that is surely reflected in the state of music within the parish.  We waited for years to welcome back with open arms a flock dispersed in and after the height of the pandemic.  Some of them have yet to return and may never.  Many parishes find their weekly life around the Word preached and the Eucharist administered compromised by those who are missing and are preoccupied with the struggle to get their families, parishioners, and singers to return.  The choirs were threatened long before Covid but now the state of the choir is severely stressed -- having lost members and in limbo for two years.  Many choirs are only now rebuilding, recruiting, and trying to redevelop what was.  Support them.  Support them with your encouragement and your dollars but most of all with your presence.  The choral life of every parish depends upon your presence, your voice, and your witness --now more than ever!

Rise up, people of God!  Reclaim the Church's song with your voice in liturgy and hymn.  Reclaim the Church's grand and glorious choral heritage by demanding a choir, a good parish musician, decent instruments to lead God's praises, and by showing up to rehearsal to lead God's people in song.  I write this now because none of us could imagine a Christmas Eve service without carols and songs and hymns.  We miss the choir at the festival times more than ever.  So work now to make sure what is missing at Christmas or tenuous for the rest of the year has your support and presence after Christmas.  Music moves the soul -- not simply with rhythm or sound but with the wonderful and God's given unity between text and tune that opens our mouths and gives us something to sing about.  Join the choir.  Start one if there is none.  Aid and assist your parish organist and choir director so that they are not out there alone.  Insist to your pastor that he gives the musical life of the parish his fullest and most visible support.

We are the Church of Telemann, Pachelbel, Brahms, Scheidt, Schein, Walther, Kuhnau, Schuetz, Mendelssohn, and, of course, Bach.  Are we going to let the legacy of these individuals become a ruin in our age? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bigger than Bach. . .

Lutherans have a richer heritage of musical genius than any other liturgical tradition.  Sadly, tragically, our Lutheran congregations and Lutheran people know little of this grand and glorious musical heritage.  We know a few names (Bach, for example) but little of Bach's amazing legacy is heard on Sunday morning either by organist or choir.  For some strange reason, Lutheran choir directors and pastors seem more enamored with non-Lutheran sources for the choral music of the day and the hymns chosen for the Divine Service.  I cannot quite get that but I know it is true.  Ask any Lutheran choir director how much Lutheran choral music by the great Luteran masters is sung by their choir and it will be a small number but inevitably it will include spirituals, works by English composers, and plenty of contemporary works.

I say this in part because I urge everyone to listen again to the music for Christmas Day written by Praetorius.  Praetorius, the first great composer of Lutheran church music, wrote countless pieces based on popular Lutheran chorale tunes, ranging from simple harmonizations to flamboyant fantasias for multiple choirs with instruments. He also provided detailed instructions regarding various performance options--including ways to involve the congregation. In this CD you hear a marvelously extravagant Christmas service  --  elaborately scored Mass movements, simple harmonizations, the Creed (with Luther's own music), lusty congregational singing, and spirited organ improvisations. Plan now to download it to your music library or see the playlist on YouTube here.

As good as this is, there is another giant more known for his secular compositions than his churchly ones.  He was also a Lutheran, son of a Lutheran pastor, whose compositional output embarrassess all the giants -- Lutheran or otherwise.  BBC’s Donald Macleod once observed that Telemann “probably composed more music than Bach and Handel put together, and the sheer quantity of his work has probably tarnished his reputation for modern audiences [who assume that] if music flowed from him like water from a tap, surely most of it can’t be any good.”  More than 3,600 of his works have survived either in print or manuscript. The church cantatas alone—written for liturgical use—account for half -- between 1,400 and 1,700 compositions, on top of which were dozens of settings of the Passion for use during Holy Week. 

Over 200 of Telemann's works were written for use during Advent and Christmas, most of which have never been recorded or even published in modern performance scores.  Typical of his compositions is their extended use of the Lutheran chorale -- giving interpretation and focus to the great hymns of Paul Gerhardt, Johann Franck, and Philipp Nicolai -- among others.  So, if you will do me the favor of listening to Praetorius this Christmastide, please do not forget Georg Philip Telemann.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The influencers. . .

There was an age in which there were nationally known figures in our church body, a sort of informal back bench of leaders who worked either behind the scenes or up front as both loyal opposition and support for the formal leaders.  Walter A. Maier did not hold national office but was more widely known across America than were the formal leaders of our Synod who did hold office.  Perhaps it also extended to Oswald Hoffmann.  They were profound influencers over the life and thought of our church body and our church members.  

There was a time in which the local pastor was the authority over matters of faith and life.  In fact, I can recall a time in which farmers in my home church would ask their pastor when he thought it was time to plant -- even though he had never lived on a farm!  They presumed, as one of the most highly educated men in the community, that he would have words worth their consideration even in their own occupations.  Many church workers look back to the advice and counsel of their pastor in choosing to become a pastor or teacher of the church.  The local pastor was a profound influencer over their life and thought. 

Today we have fewer widely known leaders who do not have national office.  In fact, we have such a diversity of leaders and influencers in our church that there are few who have a wide following or much impact upon the life and thought of many people in our church.  That does not mean that our people are not listening to others.  In fact, that is part of the problem.  They are listening to other voices, voices from outside our theological tradition, to inform their faith and shape their lives in that faith.  However, most of those influenced do not view the voices they listen to as their leaders.  That is part of the problem.

One of those influencers is generic Christian radio.  The stations are out there all over the place.  Everything from the local Christian radio station to the networks (like Bott or Moody radio) who offer the Christian once source for a variety of teachers and teachings missing only a denominational label.  Much of it comes in the form of contemporary Christian music and the ears of our people hear Jesus and presume it is all good.  But when the hymnody of their own church becomes alien to them, this contemporary Christian music is not benign at all.  It is a force that has subtly moved people away from their church and their confession -- all while they believe they are remaining steadfast in that church and confession.  Along with CCM are the plethora of name teachers (everyone from Charles Stanley to Chuck Swindoll to John MacArthur to John Piper).  They are certainly polished and prepared for their work of presenting the faith on radio stations that presume not to have a formal theological identity or denominational tie.  But are they neutral?  Is there such a thing as generic Christian teaching that supports our Lutheran identity without drawing the hearer away from that identity?

Another of those influencers is the print and podcast media.  I lump them together only because print supports the internet outreach and the internet outreach feeds the print media.  They work together.  Nearly everyone who is on some form of media has a book to sell (or give away with the right amount of donation to support that media presence) and every book sold points you to their web address.  People are listening and they are presuming that the people they are listening to are credible, authentic, and consistent with their own theological tradition.  That is, in my mind, a bit of a stretch.  I know that it is impossible for me to speak outside the sphere of my Lutheran confession and faith and I am pretty sure that this is true for nearly every other Christian preacher or teacher.  The big names may not parade their presuppositions but they do not preach and teach outside of them.  Even such seemingly generic terms like faith are not without the nuance of their theological presuppositions -- decision theology is but one example.  Go down the road to baptism, the Lord's Supper, eschatology, the role of the law in the life of the Christian, and a host of other subjects and you will see that there is no real generic Christian view of these things.  Even without a label they are denominational and confessional.

It's all good.  At least that is how our people have judged things.  The more Christians you hear on radio (or podcasts) and the more Christian music you listen to, the better it is for you and for your faith and for your Christian walk.  It's all good.  It is not all good.  We become dulled by what we hear to presume that what we hear is just as correct as what we were taught in catechism.  The real danger today is that the influencers of our faith are not of our faith and that we don't notice it or care anymore.  We have become complacent about the doctrinal divisions that exist because there are right and wrong ways to hear God's Word and we want to get beyond those divisions and enter the illusion of a doctrinally free Christianity.  That is not simply wrong.  It is the lie that is both diluting our confession and contributing to the weak witness we have before the world.  It is not all good.  Lutherans need to know their faith well enough to know when it is not all good -- when the music that appeals to our taste may actually be drawing us away from our faith and the teachers who do a compelling job of teaching may actually be leading us away from our faith.

I wish we had more internal influencers (like Issues, Etc.) and paid attention to those whose confession mirrors our own and who can strengthen our faith and lives in this faith rather that weaken them.  I wish our people were as alert to the theological perspectives of popular preachers and teachers as they were aware of the ideological perspectives of the national news outlets.  I wish that local pastors warned our people more that listening to generic Christianity is not listening to something generic at all but all Christian music and the popular media figures have a confession, a denomination, and a perspective.  You cannot listen to it without being alert to this and once alert to that maybe you should not be listening to it at all -- if you are a Lutheran!

Monday, December 19, 2022

Do as the Lord commands

We often think the world has gone mad.  Maybe it has.  We hear the craziest of lies paraded as truth and the truth dismissed as so much foolishness.  We are a proud people who insist that we deserve to be treated better than we are and who are quick to hit send or delete and punish the offenders on the unsocial social media.  We refuse to sacrifice for anyone and anything and we will not wait for anyone or anything. If we are proud, our leaders are downright arrogant.  But not Joseph.  St. Joseph is the epitome of the humble man of God.  He was a wise man, conscientious, and did nothing quickly or without careful thought.  So it was when Mary was betrothed or promised to Joseph, yet before they were married, he discovered that she as with child.  

Tradition suggests that Joseph was no teenager but a mature man, that those named as Jesus’ brothers were His step-brothers, children from Joseph’s first marriage that had ended in death.  This family thought Joseph was crazy – even certifiable.  Here was Mary, the Virgin whose only commendation was her purity, and now she was found to be with child.  They were not fools.  They knew where children came from.  Joseph was not a fool.  But he was pious and compassionate.  He had no animus against Mary.  He would quietly put away the betrothal and let her go.  Undoubtedly his family would have wanted to make a scene.  But not Joseph.  He was an honorable man.  He wanted to believe Mary.


Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (A) preached on Sunday, December 18, 2022.

Nobody would have blamed Joseph for tearing up the betrothal.  In fact, even God admired the character of this strong but gentle man.  Yet it was not quite what Joseph or his family had presumed.  The child in Mary’s womb was not the child of another man but the Son of God by the Holy Spirit.  If Joseph was patient and honorable in wanting to put Mary away without a fuss, he was not quite ready to believe a story like that.  So just as the angel had come once to the blessed Virgin to place the Son of God in her womb, now the angel came to Joseph to assure him that what Mary said was true and to calm his fears with the voice of God.

In one sense, God was the spoiler.  He took the blessed Virgin from Joseph but even God did not take her virginity.  Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the Annunciation.  Even after the delivery.  Let there be no confusion here.  The God who had taken Mary from Joseph, returned Mary to Him.  And with Mary, entrusted His only begotten Son into the care of this faithful, wise, patient, and honorable man.  Joseph was legally free to walk away from Mary but he was not free in faith to walk away.  In fact, his faith compelled him to believe the angel who visited him in a dream and his faith compelled him to become the faithful guardian of God’s only begotten Son.  It was his faith that enabled him not to forgive Mary but to believe her and to honor her as the Mother of God’s Son more than even the wife he had been betrothed to take.

Perhaps Joseph would never escape the whispers of Nazareth gossips or the cynical laughter of the old men who thought him a fool.  Joseph would never be understood in his patience or in his faith.  But that did not matter.  Joseph submitted to God’s will just as Mary had.  He consented to God’s will just as Mary had.  He trusted in the goodness of the Lord just as Mary had.  He believed against hope, just as Mary had, that this was about more than Mary, more than Joseph, but the fulfillment of the prophet’s promise and for the redemption of the whole world.  The world might have laughed at Joseph but God did not.

When Joseph went to Bethlehem and found no place for Mary and Jesus, it came as no surprise.  Petty people and dirty minds had long ago looked askance at Joseph and kept their distance from him.  But Joseph trusted God more than he feared man and he believed the Lord even when the cross he was asked to bear was great.  If his family and friends knew anything about Joseph, they should have know this.  He believed the Lord and this faith counted him righteous in the sight of God.

An old saying puts it this way.  In marriage, it is the job of the man to die for his wife and children and it is the job of his wife and children to let him.  You can laugh if you want but it is a profound truth.  Self-serving acts and self-interest have come to dominate marriage and what is the result?  More conflict, disappointment, and divorce than ever before.  And the world is cheering on men who would put away their wives and wives who would mock their husbands and children who refuse to honor either mother or father.  But where a man will heed the example of Joseph, die for his wife and children, there we see the glimpse of the Church and Christ the bridegroom who did just that for us.  A man could do far worse than to emulate Joseph, live by faith, act with honor, and serve by sacrifice the God of our salvation and the family placed in his care.

Joseph was not acting out of noble principle, it was love.  No, not the foolish, impetuous, lusty, infatuation that we usually call love.  Joseph was showing to Mary the love that God had shown him.  If you want to talk romance, a man who will sacrifice himself at God’s call and for his family is far more romantic than one who will curl up beside you because he wants something from you.  Joseph was not some uncaring man who did not talk about his feelings – the common portrayal of masculinity that is subject to ridicule by our feminized society.  Joseph was a man of God who lived by faith and acted in obedience to God’s command.  We could use strong husbands and fathers like him.

In the end, Joseph got Mary.  The words of the angel freed Joseph to do what he had wanted to do – to take Mary as his wife not out of lust but reverence and in the fear of God.  So God set him free to do what Joseph really wanted to do.  And Joseph was glad to do it.  So do not feel sorry for Joseph but admire him.  Do not forget him but remember the shape of his love, his patience, and his sacrifice.  Men, do like Joseph and die for the sake your wives and children.  And women, let him do it.  And follow his example by submitting to him not in coercion or fear but in love that returns the favor.  This is what God has done for you.  In faith, do it back to Him but loving those in your care as He has loved you.  It is not only what you live for that defines you but what you will die for.

If we have learned anything from Joseph, we will have learned this.  God help us.  Amen.  

Thoughts on manners. . .

Manners have become relics of the past -- misunderstood and not appreciated much by folks today.  We think of them as formal rules for a casual society and about as out of date as your wardrobe of 50 years ago.  But wait, that wardrobe is coming back in style.  Could it be that there is a chance for manners?  I hope so.

We have forgotten much of what made being with other people pleasant.  Some of it is due to our servitude to the ever present screens that define our lives today.  My wife and I watch others as we go out to eat and it is amazing how many tables have people whose focus is not on the food or each other but on their screens.  If they do look up to speak, it is most likely a reference to what the screen just displayed before them.  How sad it is that we have allowed those screens to steal away the very rules of polite company that once marked our progress!

It is not simply the screen that is the problem.  We no longer pay much attention to anything formal.  We wear what feels good to us and not what makes us look good.  I remember a meme that contrasted Cary Grant in a fedora, overcoat, and suit with a guy in a manbun, way too short shorts, and the equivalent of a masculine tube top.  Underneath was the statement, "They call this evolution?"  Manners are not quite popular but they are more valuable than we would think.

I wish that we were more, well, “polite.”  Polite means being mannerly.  The polite person is someone who knows and uses manners in dealing with others.  Of course, it assumes the basic kindness of saying please and thank you but that is not simply it.  Linguistically, the origin of the word has more to do with polish than with rules to govern life.  Think of it as the final polish that makes a pair of shoes shine and the polite person as one who has gone the extra mile to shine in their conversation and relations with individuals or a group.  The Latin roots of the word polite are in politus, the past participle of polire, which means to smooth or polish.  All the way through Middle English and well into the 1700s, the word referenced something that had been buffed up -- like a silver tea pot.  Like every word, it also developed another meaning, parallel to its first but extending the shine to something larger.  A polite person was refined or elegant or cultured or cultivated or courteous or respectful. 

Your shoes might be polite as might be your silver service.  But we don't polish shoes much anymore nor do we set out a silver tea pot.  Apparently, neither do we foster or recognize manners and social skills as all that important.  Better in our age to be true to self even if that means being a rude lump to the rest of us.  It is even common to ridicule or resent what were once the markers of manners and the expectation of polite society -- holding a door for a lady or tipping the hat or shaking hands.  But are we a better society for giving up the polish?  Have we raised the level of conversation and behavior at the same time we have cast aside the books on etiquette and the learning of manners?

Soon we will find ourselves packed around tables and feasting upon the Christmas goose with people we may not get along with all that well.  I wish for us manners.  Learn to be polite.  Shut up.  You do not have to say what is on your mind or your heart.  There is no obligation to say out loud what you are thinking.  In fact, before you open your mouth to drop a bomb, think twice about it, even three times, and ask yourself if this is the polite thing to do.  Are you showing your polished side or the tarnished side of your personality.  I, for one, am not amused by our penchant to be honest when it is merely a ruse to being cruel.  There may not be many on my side but I long for the days when we know more for our politeness and manners than for our bluntness and honesty.  If we could learn that from a screen, I might even allow us to pay attention to those pesky things while in company with others.  We have become a self-indulgent, rude, and ignorant lot in our social relations and it is not helping with anything.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Read or study?

Far be it from me to say that Bible study is overrated but there, I did say it.  Okay, I got your attention.  So what am I saying when I say that?  I fear that we read the Bible in bits and pieces and that the way we study the Scriptures reflects this tidbit approach to the Word of God.  We know bits and pieces well and we are well acquainted with tidbits of Scripture in part because they are favorite verses and in part because they are the verses that locate important doctrines and in part because they are the verses we are searching for to answer our questions or salve our wounds at the time.  But that does not mean we know the Bible.

I heard a teacher say that pastors spend more time reading about the Bible than reading the Bible.  Ouch.  That was not only hard to hear, it was pretty accurate.  If that is true of pastors, could it be true of our people as well?  Have we trained ourselves as pastors and therefore trained the people in our care to read more about Scripture than Scripture itself?  As a pastor it is hard to read Scripture as Scripture and not read it professionally always looking for a sermon handle or a quick authoritative answer to a question or a prospective Bible study.  Is that an attitude we have passed on to our people?

The conservative Protestants put us Lutherans to shame in their overall knowledge of Scripture.  In part it is because they read the Bible -- the whole Bible and not just bits and pieces.  I have to admit it came late in my ministry that I first encountered a Bible version without verses or chapters or center reference columns or notes on the bottom of the page.  At first I found it strange but also somewhat compelling.  In the end it was really quite liberating.  Imagine, to read the Bible as one text instead of verses -- some more important to my need, vocation, or interest.  It makes me wonder about the value of the study Bible or the way we tend to study the Scriptures.  Are we too focused on specific texts to the point where we do not read or know or are even interested in the rest of Scripture?

Everyone wants to study Revelation or jump into the controversial texts but are we saying that some Scripture is more important than others?  Have we decided something that God did not say?  Has the Bible anywhere said there are texts of varying importance and we need to concentrate on the more significant ones?  Does not Jesus say that all of Scripture points to Him, reveals Him, and is fulfilled in Him?  We say that the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings all testify to Christ but we routinely skip or omit the historical books over the prophetic, the texts we have decided are Messianic over the ones we have decided are not, and the texts we have labeled cultural or set in a time over those that are objective and forever.  It is as if we are saying this Word of God is not important or relevant or necessary.

Lutherans do this all the time with respect to the hobby horses of our own tradition (justification by grace, Law and Gospel, etc.).  I understand why.  These are the formative things of our history and identity and major emphases within the Word of God -- so I get why we do it.  Does that mean that what we are doing is right?  Is there something more to Romans than chapter 3?  Lutherans are not the only ones who do it.  Some chose the sovereignty of God as their lens on Scripture and others choose other things.  Lutherans are certainly not alone in this.  Even Rome has its particular texts that it uses all the time while others languish.  But I fear that this has become so normative that we do not know the Scriptures; we only know specific texts.

The three year lectionary certainly gives us a broader exposure to Scripture and may help but the lectionary was never meant to be the only Scripture the people of God heard nor was it meant to convey the whole of Scripture.  Reading the Bible with the Church is not simply reading the lectionary -- although it certainly includes that.  It means being acquainted with the Word of God as the whole Word of God -- the full story of God's work and the full revelation of His will and purpose.  An exposure to Scripture from a daily devotional or from what is heard in the Divine Service is certainly not bad and is salutary but knowing these does not mean we know Scripture -- we know bits and pieces.

I guess what I am urging is that we not only study books or topics but actually make time and find time to read the whole Word of God.  A setting of Scripture without verse numbers or chapter designations or references may be a help to this.  If you have not done this, do it at least once in your life.  It may actually encourage you to read the Bible this way more than once.