Monday, January 31, 2022

Why be so fussy. . .

It is not an uncommon question, especially from those who grew up with a more, well, casual approach to the liturgy and the things of worship.  When they encounter a different attitude toward the things of God and the way of worship, the question arises, Why be so fussy?  Could it be only fussiness that is at work here?  Could there not be something more?

Think of it.  We live fussy sort of lives for the things that we deem matter.  When a man proposes to a woman, he sets the stage and scores it was if it were a movie.  Maybe made for TV but still a movie.  Before that point, he has wooed and won the girl with flowers and candy and movies and dinners out and all kinds of things romantic that matter because of how much he values her.  The events of their lives are also chronicled with fussiness.  Anniversaries and birthdays, the birth of their children, the first day of school, the graduations, the learners permit and drivers license, and all such things are caught on video, put in albums, printed in photos, sent in emails, text messages, and snail mail.  

Think of the sports events and the traditions associated with it all.  From the food to the patriotic rituals to the half-time shows to the chants from crowds egged on by cheerleaders, the whole thing is a show, a choreographed event designed to honor the sacred games of sport that not only entertain us but define us.  There is no shortage of reverence and ritual applied to such things because we afford them importance.  Think of the ritual and somber order that we attach to military events and the vesture that clothes the various services and ranks and the watch the honor guard gives to the tomb of the unknown soldier and the rites of veterans.  We do this because this is important to us and these things mean something -- if nothing more than the fact that what they are attached to is important to us.

So if we deem all of these things important, why would we presume that all that fussiness at the altar, the vestments, the ceremonies, the postures, and such are not important and even get in the way of true worship?  Could it be that we actually value our families, our sports, and our nations more than we value the things of God?  Could it be that we are actually relieved about all the talk of spirituality because it leaves us off the hook of providing Him with something more -- like reverence, awe, trust, time, money, and devotion?  

We will spend countless hours watching cars go around the same track or men running balls of varying size up and down a field or batting them or dribbling them up and down a court but we find ourselves fidgeting every time the bewitching hour approaches and it appears that things may not be done yet.   We will spend the big bucks on what we want, from the expensive hobbies or techno toys that promise us everything and then grow old and boring to the educations that are supposed to enable us to purchase our dreams but when the offering plate comes around we get embarrassed.  We will get angry and threaten all kinds of things to a player takes a knee during the national anthem but when a pastor comes along who ditches vestments for khakis and a polo and a sanctuary for a warehouse and acts all casual around about God, we are relieved.  Then we don't have to take the holy ground of God's presence either.

I don't like it when people argue with me and I don't like it when they presume I am a Romanist.  I get tired of the constant questions by people who did not grow up in a church that did not do all that fussy stuff.  I probably get angry too quickly at defending what we do with quotes that nobody cares about.  But actually I am more sad.  Sad that worship is valued so little that the less fuss the better.  Sad that people do not wait with anticipation for Sunday and their time together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Sad that people do not get goosebumps or tingling when when they hear the stirring sound of the choir or approach the Lord's altar to receive His very body and blood.  Sad that they do not sing their hearts out at the great stanzas and mighty melodies of the great hymns of the faith.  Sad that they do not regret how quickly the minutes pass in God's presence.  Sad that people seem so threatened by what the pastors do and they are never asked to that they would rather leave a church than stay.

The reality is that God is pretty fussy.  He is jealous and controlling of time and history -- working all things toward the goal He has appointed and insisting upon every detail in the temple so that a building can be replaced with the flesh and blood of His Son and the adoration given to a place can be offered to the person Jesus Christ by a people redeemed by His sacrifice, washed in His blood, and given the clothing of His righteousness.  The fussiness of reverence and awe does not take anything away from the Lord.  Nobody is worshiping the form or the ritual or the furniture.  But what are we worshiping when the center of that form, the object of that ritual, and the one who speaks at that pulpit and comes to that altar is treated as common, ordinary, and casual?  Is God worth less than the things of life that we do treat as special, extraordinary, and great?

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Fitting. . .

There is nothing that keeps people at church more than good preaching. The true adornment of the churches is godly, useful, and clear doctrine, the devout use of the Sacraments, fervent prayer, and the like. Candles, golden vessels, and similar adornments are fitting, but they are not the specifically unique adornment belonging to the Church.—Ap XXIV:50, 51.

With these words the Apology admits the obvious.  The people are drawn to worship with clear, doctrinal preaching that applies the faith to them in their daily lives, the reverent use of the Sacraments, and the devoted prayer of God's people.  Everyone knows this.  It is as true today as it was nearly 500 years ago.  Everyone who loves the liturgy knows this and believes this.  Reverent worship is not a substitute for good preaching but its accompaniment.  Together the are a powerful duo.  Taking seriously the doctrine of the Word of God and administering faithfully the Sacraments are the foundation for good and faithful liturgy.   Prayer flows from good preaching and a sacramental piety.  But only a fool chooses from these as if they were a buffet of goodness.  Those hungry for the faith are hungry for it all -- the best of Biblical and orthodox preaching, the reverent and devout administration of the Sacraments, and prayer that believes God hears and answers.

The rest of that quote, however, does not disparage candles, golden vessels, adornments, ceremony, ritual, and the like.  These are fitting, says the Apology.  Fitting means right and appropriate and good.  What they are not is a substitute for good preaching, devout use of the Sacraments, fervent prayer, and so on.  Again, no one should argue for this and, to be honest, I know nobody who does.  I certainly do not.  No honest proponent of good, liturgy and ceremony should suggest otherwise.  But no one should disparage these things either.  They have their place.  They are fitting.  They are appropriate and in the service of these things they fulfill their place and purpose.  They are not in the way of the Gospel as some insist or extraneous as others demur or Romanist hangovers as some complain.  This is also part of who we are, what we do, and how we live out our piety on Sunday morning.  They do not replace or compete with good preaching, the devout use of the Sacraments, and the fervent prayer of the faithful but complement them and go together with them -- the fitting external part of the internal faith and piety formed by God Himself working through the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments administered.  Too much is argued from the standpoint of preference and too little is heard about how these work together, the means of grace and the fitting practices of reverence and ritual that accompany them.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Danger. . .

This is by far more dangerous than outright blasphemy.  Its danger is that it takes what is real and profound and powerful and turns it into a casual encounter with a Divine whom we would define, control, and create.  Don't forget the little breathing exercise that begins it all.  And the obligatory smiling faces.  Boomer heaven and a little hell on earth.  It makes worship into a performance, with God as the spectator, and turns us into the actors.  Do we hang on God's Word or does God hang on ours?


 Addendum:  I was asked by a reader why something like this is so dangerous.  My reply is that the danger lies in how the things of God are treated.  The danger lies in making the things of God simply techniques for our own benefit or purpose, the equation of sentiment with faith, and the treating of theater as worship.  Good theater may be good theater but it is not good worship.  Even though I would hardly suggest that this mass is liturgical, the liturgy of this mass is more showy than a highly liturgical service because the mass itself is being used as a tool instead of recognized as the place where the almighty God delivers to us His good gifts.  It is performance art.  Roman Catholics tend to be rather good at this but so do Lutherans.  It is an enemy of God's work and purpose and demeans the means of grace.  It is too clever by half and yet many will mistake the saccharine character of what goes on as how God welcomes us and what God gives to us.  

Friday, January 28, 2022

The greatest failure. . .

Sent to me by a reader.  A Lutheran blogger laments the greatest failure of the church of his generation has been their silence and inaction with respect to climate change.  Of course, he is quick to list other failures -- slowness to adopt the glbtq+++ agenda, the plight of the prisoner, the treatment of the refugee, the homeless, and those who have experienced trauma of some kind from the church.  It is quite a list.  A complicit Christianity is his complaint.  Mine too.  But for a different complicity.  My complaint is that Christianity has been too complacent and agreeable on these things -- at least the state of Protestant churches in America.  

No one is suggesting that we should be poor stewards of God's gifts but the Church's unique concern is not the protection of the environment, advocacy for the imprisoned or the refugee, the homeless, the abused, or any of those causes.  We are God's only voices to address sinners with the call to repentance and to bestow upon the penitent God's absolution.  We are God's only voices to preach the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen with hope that we too shall live even though we die.  We are God's only voices to speak of His coming again as Lord and Judge of all.

As Christian people we have a duty to our neighbor.  As the Church, we have a duty to God.  As Christians we have a duty to God.  As the Church, we have a duty to the world around us.  They ought not be in conflict but sometimes they might appear to be.  We should not put them at odds with each other but  neither should we fail to distinguish these duties.   In reality, our duty to God is never at odds with our neighbor -- only the appearance of a conflict because the neighbor holds values or pleads a cause at odds with Scripture.  In this case, our best duty to our neighbor is fulfilled by being faithful to God, faithful to His Word, and faithful to His will and purpose.  

It is a sham to think that the Church's greatest failure has been to sit on the sidelines while society marches to a tune in conflict with God's revealed will.  But it is no sham to confess that we have too often been silent when we should have been vocal in proclaiming the Lord's Word when that society deviates from God's revealed will and purpose.  There will be many voices in pursuit of these causes but there is only one voice that addresses the world on God's behalf -- that is the voice of His Word spoken through the lips of His people, His ministers, and by His Church.  The Gospel is not a principle or an idea or a cause.  It is the eternal truth of Christ crucified for our sins and risen for our justification.  That Gospel dare not by co-opted by those who would substitute another message and another agenda for the one that God has spared nothing, not even His Son, to accomplish for us and our salvation.   God keep us from those who lament why we have not been in front of the causes that conflict with God's Word and our own faithful confession over the ages.  This is not a repentance recognized by God or blessed by Him.  This is nothing less than a betrayal of that Gospel and the abdication of our own duty to God.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Makes perfect sense. . .

A priest of and a convert to the Roman Catholic faith blogged about how he arrived at the wisdom of purgatory.  I will leave you to his words:

I remember when and why I began to believe in the reality of purgatory. It was after taking a funeral and I wondered where the person who had died had gone. It struck me that the doctrine of purgatory (which I had up to then rejected as “unBiblical”) was simply common sense.

I had come to understand that the faith never contradicts common sense although it often transcends common sense. What made sense about purgatory was the simple realization that most people are not good enough to go straight into God’s presence, but neither are most people bad enough to be consigned to the eternal punishment of hell.

What is purgatory? It is not a third place, but a lower chamber of heaven. Everyone in purgatory will get to heaven, but it may take them a long time for they still need to be purified of their sins.

Purification and forgiveness are two different things. An analogy is this: if little Johnny has been playing outside making mudpies and he comes in covered in mud his mother forgives him, but she still needs to strip off his clothes, put them in the washer and shove him in a hot bath. If he has been playing not in mudpies, but in gloss paint or has been playing with a skunk the forgiveness is just as objective, merciful and loving, but the purification may require a longer scrub, the application of solvent (which might sting) and if he’s been playing with a skunk the burning of his clothes and a bath in tomato juice.

For the purification Johnny will need to participate and furthermore–and most important–he will want to participate.

So it is with purgatory–it is the chance to participate in our purification, and this purification is something we will want  to do–even if it is painful.

What are the pains of purgatory like? They are not the pains of punishment as much as they are the pains we suffer whenever we set out to accomplish some great goal. If heaven is the goal, the greater the ordeal. What pains do you suffer to overcome an addiction, lose weight or make something great and good? What pains do you suffer if you wish to climb Everest, write a novel, win the Olympics or become a saint? These are the kinds of suffering and sacrifice we experience in purgatory.

Finally–the church teaches that these sacrifices and this suffering is easier here and now while he still have physical bodies than it is when we are in the spiritual realm.

 I will agree with the good father.  It does make perfect sense.  Perfectly common sense.  Purgatory is a doctrine written out of a common sense approach to the problem of sin, purification, and heaven.  It seals up all the loose ends and makes rational the dilemma we face of sinners at different places in the path of sanctification when death claims them.  The only problem is this.  It is not Biblical.  What makes perfect sense to us is God's wisdom that is as foreign to our reason and comprehension as heaven is far from earth.  It makes sense to us but it does not make sense to God's wisdom nor is it imagined in the mystery of the faith revealed in His Word.  It is a doctrine that we need but God does not and therefore it is a doctrine that must not stand.

First of all it presumes that the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all our sin is not sufficient to purify us at the last and deliver us without spot or blemish into the eternal presence of our Heavenly Father.  Second it presumes that sanctification, which does occur here with our participation and cooperation under the Spirit, is unfinished business when we die and therefore begs us to finish what God began.  But do we not pray that God will bring to completion the mystery begun in us in our baptism when He comes in His glory?  Is the God who is capable of accomplishing salvation somehow unable to finish what He began and bring us holy and pure by His grace into the eternal kingdom prepared for us and for all who love His appearing -- long before the foundations of the world began?  Finally, if this reasonable truth is from God, where is the clear revelation of it in Scripture?  Sure, hints of it can always be found by those who craft together bits and pieces of God's Word but there is no sedes doctrinae for this -- only the thoroughly reasonable common sense that it surely must be that way.

And that seals the problem.  Either you believe in an infallible pope or church that can extend God's Word to find, promote, and require doctrines not in Scripture or you believe that Scripture is sufficient, not naked or isolated as some might presume, but sufficient in that it is all the revelation we need and all that God has promised until the veil is lifted.  An infallible pope and church may determine that reason requires purgatory.  An infallible Scripture points us not to reason but to the mystery of God, the power of His mercy, and the promise He has and continues to keep.  Hidden in purgatory is our common sense but hidden in the mystery of God that we apprehend by faith is the cross.  How oft I have wished that God appealed to our reason and convinced us with a rational explanation but instead He has given me His Son, crucified for my sins and risen for my future.  Faith lives there or it does not live anywhere. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Think differently. . .

For most of Christian history those inside the Church and those watching from outside thought that God's interest in calling people to repentance was to change their behavior.  To repent meant to change how you behaved, what you did, and what you did not do.  The Christian was expected by those inside and out to be a different person in the way they behaved -- better, nicer, kinder, gentler, and all those other adjectives. 

So it comes as great disappointment to those in the Church when Christians do not behave better or differently just as it comes to the great joy of those outside that the Christians, despite their repentance, are mere hypocrites.  Behavior has become the object of repentance just like it was the object of the Law.  It is as if the Gospel were merely an attempt to accomplish what the law did not -- an external and outward change in the person.

But the truth is that the Gospel is not about behaving better by people who have behaved badly.  It is not that small.  It makes repentance trivial and it makes God's purpose and will trivial.  It makes us small and its makes our God small.  If God were merely concerned about us behaving, the law was more than enough to accomplish this transformation.  Nothing accomplishes a change in behavior faster or better than fear of punishment.  If this were all God intended, He had ample means in the form of the law and with the power to punish the ill-behaved.  Jesus began His ministry with the call to change the mind, the call to repent.  We miss this.  English does not acknowledge that repentance is more than a change in behavior or that the change in behavior flows from the thinking differently about God, about us, and about life itself.  Jesus opens His ministry by saying “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2).  The reform or change of which He speaks is not the reform of the external of our lives.  This is not simply about doing good, not doing evil, ceasing sin.  This connotates a change in thinking that informs this behavior.  It is the will that Jesus is after -- not behavior and not niceness.  

Unfortunately, too much of our attention inside and outside the Church has been on behavior.  But holiness is not doing the wrong things and doing the right things.  It is a heart made pure so that the thinking of the mind is also transformed.  From these flow the outward changes that preoccupy us.  Although the most common meaning of “to repent” is to reform one’s behavior, to do good and avoid evil, to stop sinning, the Greek word behind it means something much more, much deeper.  Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) literally means “to come to a new mind or way of thinking.”  It comes from meta -- a word rather to translate into English but most often change -- and nous or noieo (meaning mind or thought).   Put them together and metanoeite means to think differently, to come to a new mind.  The call to repentance is then the call to think differently and to come to a new mind, aided and empowered by the Holy Spirit and, indeed, impossible without the ministry of the Spirit.  

Jesus is not your mother telling you it is time to clean up your room because company is coming.  Jesus is not some taskmaster forcing us to labor against our will for a cause not our own.  Christ changes us by changing our hearts, changing our desires, changing what we value, changing what we love, and changing the behavior as a result of this transformation of heart, mind, and will.  He does this not through a new law or command but by drowning the old person in baptismal water and raising us up as His new creation.  Romans is the locus of much of this.  From the hand of St. Paul we hear:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,[g] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Rom. 1:18ff

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people (Heb 8:10).  Echoing Jeremiah, the writer to the Hebrews speaks of so much more than behavior but of God's Word and will written upon the minds and hearts of God's people. 

The legalism of Rome and the practical gospel of Evangelicalism both fall short of the fullness of Christ's intention and His gift.  What was promised is not a new law or command but new ears to hear the voice of God and new minds to understand His revelation and new hearts to desire what it is that He offers.  Only in this context is repentance about behavior.  Perhaps we need to learn how to preach this as much as seem adept at preaching the law. So if you are thinking that God is interested in New Year's resolutions, think again.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

An old idea in the new world. . .

We have lived for too long in a new world in which school is online and the student and the teacher's aide (the parent) sit together at the kitchen or dining room table.  The screen is there, to be sure, but so is the parent -- not only aiding in the lesson but listening to what is taught.  Some public schools have found this disconcerting and view the parent as an outsider in the education process and even a "domestic terrorist" when the things being taught are questioned or challenged.  As schools return to normal, the normal has an asterisk.  Now the parents are more aware of what is in the curriculum and what is not.  The students and parents are aware that many view the online perspective pretty much the same as the in person kind.  And the teachers and education professionals who promoted online classes know that this is not quite the substitute for in person learning that we thought.  That, coupled with the quickness of private and parochial schools to return to in person classes, have caused many to rethink the whole business of public education.

In America it has a more recent vintage.  Perhaps about the time the Missouri Synod was being formed the idea of public schools began to have traction.  These were not the individual classrooms that we think of but more of a one room school, a multi-graded classroom, with a teacher who had little more formal education than the students in the room.  Schools were always places of indoctrination.  Early on they were tools to inculcate the ideals of a young America, the shared values of a Protestant culture, and the duties of a free society.  It did not take long for Roman Catholics to figure this out and begin their own indoctrination centers called religious schools.  The Lutherans followed, learning quickly that the key to religious instruction was to connect the faith to a worldview and a sense of life that was formed from the Scriptures and the Catechism.  Funny, the rest of America was not so sure that religious schools were legitimate and it took a court decision in 1925 before theses schools had a sure constitutional foundation.

The times have caught up with us.  The rise of homeschooling and the variety of private schools competing with public is nothing less than astounding.  With this birth of choices has come the inevitable cry for tax money to be returned to the parents to finance the choices and, with some success, the voucher has been an invaluable benefit to those who did not have the funds to pay for it.  Even more choices are beginning.  Homeschoolers are banding together to form coops in which the home is but one classroom in the larger endeavor.  Microschools are bringing back the one room school and giving us another version of the future to consider.  Lutherans might well pay attention to these.  Parishes that once had or who never had a parochial school could be of assistance to these micro versions of a religious school.  They do not require either the capital or the overhead that brick and mortar schools that attempt to duplicate everything in the public school.  And there is the classical alternative.  Lutheran classical schools can also offer a choice to the parish as well as to the family -- it is a powerful choice that could alter the very kind of education people have come to expect and our children need.

All of these are particularly attractive to those who see the schools as places indoctrinating students into values and truths that are in conflict with their faith.  The growing distance between local control and the long reach of the federal government with its mandates and money feeds into the narrative that the public school is taking your children away from you.  The election in Virginia recently proved that parents do not like being told to put up and shut up when it comes to public education.  This is because America no longer enjoys a consensus on what our values are or ought to be and what truths are true for all and for all time.  The more this conflict grows and the division becomes entrenched, the more opportunity there is for religious schools to enjoy a resurgence.  If we are ready and willing to jump on this possibility, we might find ourselves a real choice to offer our people and a real chance to change what our children learn, value, and believe about the world around them.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Fulfilled in your ears. . .

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, preached on Sunday, 23 January 2022.

The reading from Nehemiah seems almost medieval or theatrical to us.  The people gathered as one man and begged Ezra to bring the Word of God to them.  Ezra did.  Reading to them from early morning to mid-day.  And the ears of the people were attentive to the Word of the Lord.  When he opened the Word, the people stood and then they bent their faces to the ground, adoring the Lord with “amens” and hands raised in prayer.  And after reading the Word of the Lord, Ezra preached that Word to apply it to the lives of the people.  The people wept when they heard the Word of the Lord, some in sorrow over their sins and some in ecstasy at hearing the Word of God.  

The Word of the Lord is serious business.  It does none of us any good to treat the Word casually or presume that our encounter with that Word is meant to entertain us.  Worship is serious business.  We stand and sit and kneel not because we like it but because the posture of our bodies reflects the attitude of our hearts.  And hearing the Word of God, we know that we have been in the presence of the Lord today.  That presence is not an occasion for sadness but for joy.  We are not grieved by the voice of God addressing us but rejoice on the holy day of worship to meet the Lord where He has promised to be.  Here, in this Word read, our sins are forgiven, our spirits revived, our hopes restored, and our joy completed.  It is how it was in the days of the prophets.

It was also that way in the days of Jesus.  As was His habit, we have know His habit since our Lord was a boy of twelve, He was in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day.  As was His habit or custom, wherever He was, He was in the Temple or synagogue and so it was when He came to the synagogue in Nazareth that they recognized Him as rabbi or teacher and handed Him to the scroll to speak the appointed reading of the day.  Unrolling the scroll of Isaiah, our Lord read from the 61st chapter:
    The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...
And the people waited as they did in the days of Ezra to have this Word preached and applied to them.  Their eyes were fixed on Jesus as He rolled the scroll, gave it back to the scribe, and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  And true to form, some marveled and some grumbled.  It is still no different.
It is still as it was in the days of Ezra and in the day of that synagogue in Nazareth.  The Word of God is not a word on a page but the living voice of the Good Shepherd.  It is fulfilled in our ears every time we hear it.  It never fails to accomplish the purpose for which God speaks it – no matter whose lips He uses to speak it.  The poor are given good news, the captives hear freedom, the blind see, the oppressed are loosed, and the Lord’s favor lays upon us all – good, bad, young, old, male, female, and sinners all.

The business of the Church has come to include many things – not bad things but so many other things that the Word among us has become merely one of those things.  It has become a casual thing as if it were simply entertainment or curiosity or amusement.  There are cues from the liturgy and the ceremony that accompanies that liturgy to remind us that the Word is not one thing among many but the one thing needful.  We are prompted to respond to the reading: The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!  We stand for the Gospel and sing as it begins “Glory to You, O Lord” and when it ends “Praise to You, O Christ.”  The lectionary book has a cover plated in silver and embossed with symbols to remind us that this is not just any book.  After the Gospel, the pastor kisses the book on behalf of us all – a symbol of affection and fealty.  But do we hear and realize what is going on?

God is speaking.  He is speaking not some incidental word but the life-giving Word into the hearts of a people marked by sin for death.  In baptism the Lord placed His Spirit in you so that He could work in you faith to recognize, rejoice, and reflect this life-giving Word.  That Word was fulfilled in your hearing as God claimed Titus for Himself and God is bringing to completion all that He began ini us by baptism.  The problem is that we want to speak, we want to do the talking, and we want God to know what is on our minds and hearts.  He does.  He hear our prayers.  Though our words communicate only ideas, His Word actually does what it says.  That is why we listen and welcome His voice among us.  His Word delivers upon its promise and speaks His kingdom into our ears, our minds, and our hearts.  And this is the source of our everlasting joy.

Somehow or another, we learned the lie that what we say is more important than what God says.  So we listen to God’s Word as if it were about ideas instead of the living voice.  We made interpretation bigger than hearing until doctrine has become about what we think instead of what God says.
Worship has become the platform for us to speak instead of for us to hear the Word of God.  Prayer has become a one way conversation in which we tell the Lord what He already knows.  The end result of all our talking is complaint, frustration, and competition to be heard.  The end result of God’s speaking is joy, thanksgiving, and transformation.  Prayer flows out of the Word and not into it and when we pray God’s Word we pray the words that matter most, that do what we ask, and that glorify God for our good.

How foolish we are to think God’s Word depends upon us to decide what it says!  The Word is not some deep dark secret that must be brought to light but Christ, the Word made flesh who speaks clearly and powerfully forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Through that Word the Spirit works to bring us to faith and keep us in faith so we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom now and forever.  By that Word we are made new, our hearts filled with joy, and we are sanctified and grow in holiness and righteousness.  The Word is not what God says but God speaking, the Word made flesh to tabernacle among us and show forth His glory, and the Word through which we are stilled being called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified as the body of Christ, the people of God.

When we say back to God what God has said to us, we repeat that which is most certain and sure.  When we speak that Word back to God trusting in that Word, we confess this faith within the household of God’s people and before the world.  When we cling to that Word in time of trial, trouble, and temptation, we are made strong by this Word to resist sin and despair and rescued by that Word when we fall.  My friends, this Word is the most important thing of all because it alone has the power to do that of which it speaks and to do it to us, for us, and in us that we might belong to our heavenly Father in life and in death.  God is so gracious that He has given us this Word and its fruits of forgiveness and righteousness also in the visible Word of baptismal water, the personal Word of absolution, and the Word that we eat and drink in the Holy Eucharist.

It is no wonder the people of Ezra’s day were moved to awe and joy as the Word was read and preached to them.  It is no wonder that the people left in amazement and wonder as Jesus preached to the people of Nazareth.  It is no wonder that when you leave today, the Lord bring you to reverence this word, to rejoice in its message of hope, and to cling to this Word in life and in death.  And this Word delivers us peace that passes all understanding.  Amen.

From chaos to order. . .

The path of those who hold evolution dear is one of chaos to order, with the survival of the fittest in the ever improving state of humanity and the world.  The chronicle of God is the opposite -- from the order of Eden's perfection the world has deteriorated more and more.  Chaos is not the past but the future.  It might seem that this is an intellectual discussion but it is in reality the most practical of debates.  Look around you.  We do not see an ever improving world moving from its former chaos into ordered bliss.  The pandemic has proven that disorder is the state of our presence and the shape of our future.  Man is not simply a bystander in this but an accomplice in the move from an orderly world into one in which chaos reigns.  The institutions that once seemed either to mask or aid the illusion of things getting better have been weakened by the so-called progress heralded by the vaunted leaders of our day.  Now they are left to mirror the party line of the woke or cheer from the sidelines as the world changes the definition of marriage, family, sexual orientation, gender identity, and everything else with it.  This includes the liberal Christian churches.  

Along with the fragmentation and division so present in our culture, the woke churches have themselves faced conflict and schism and bleed off members as fast as they pursue the dreams of the woke culture around them.  Once noble communions have been left with the vestiges of their past while they live out their hollow existence.  Think of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that once saw itself as a giant tent that gave testament to the power of diversity but is now a fraction of its size when it was born.  It heralds its union agreements with churches whose confession conflicts with its statement of truth but at the same time has created three churches from the merger of three.  Where is the math in this?  Or think of the Anglican Church in its various national identities.  It prided itself on its history and ceremony but under these there are wonderful buildings that are empty and wonderful words that no longer mean what they say.  The real force of English Christianity can no longer be found in the Church of England.  And the list goes on. . . Presbyterians, Methodists, and the like.

We should not need much to prove that Scripture is true and all the other narratives of our origins are fake but in a world without truth, the Word of God carries little weight.  The evidence is all there.  But chaos renders every lie into plausible truth. The company line insists that things are improving.  That the world is getting better.  That people are happier and better.  That science is united.  That history can be changed.  That the future is ours to define and achieve.  Around us the world is content in the lie whispered by Satan and His minions but in the Church there is no deception tolerated.  We are sinners by nature, unclean and marked for death.  Our only hope lies outside of us and in the God whose mercy overflows to an undeserving and guilty humanity.  In death comes life.  That is the surprise of truth.  What we fear in confessing our chaos becomes hope through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the only force that will break through the lies and there is no reason that can do the Spirit's work.  So facts will not prove this truth.  Only God can open our eyes.  The Lord is not into building kingdoms on earth no matter how much we desire them.  God builds His kingdom one person at a time, washing them clean in baptismal water and raising them holy and righteousness, absolving the guilty as gift, addressing those who were no people with the Word that makes them God's, and feeding them with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  We are not evolving.  We are cycling out of control into our self-imposed destruction.  Unless God rescues us.

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” (1 Cor. 15:24–26)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Rigid uniformity. . .

Often it is presumed that those who advocate for the liturgy are in reality advocating for a rigid uniformity that turns adiaphora things into law.  The Spirit's fruit is diversity in which the local defines and delineates for the moment and in the moment.  Everything else is legalistic and dead.  Strangely enough, the same battles that characterize the Lutheran worship wars are playing out right now in Rome.  Vatican II, which agreed with Luther, said: “Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §37).  But neither adiaphora nor Rome's indulgence of the parish priest's whims could have envisioned the day when worship would become the free for all it has.  Yet that is where we are.  Lutherans are all over the page and Rome is right there with us.  The genie is out of the bottle and nobody knows how to put it back.  Diversity has become the goal and not the glory of the Lord or the fruits of His redeeming work distributed to His people through Word and Sacrament.  It is as if Christ is spectator along with those in the audience who think that participation means enjoyment and not faith.

Rome has complicated the whole thing with its turn against the Extraordinary Form.  They have established a tradition of preference and narrowed their uniformity to a particular expression of their tradition.  They have advocates of the oldest form who disdain the legacy of Vatican II as promulgated by Bugnini and Paul VI.  There is one tradition that is sanctioned and that is it.  So Rome has an internal battle going on.  Lutherans are also in danger of it.  Some among us have decided that the 1941 hymnal represents the gold standard and that the order which owes its roots to the modern liturgical movement is suspect.  Worship wars have fought over the forms for too long.  This long ago ceased to be a skirmish over forms and is instead a battle for the heart and soul of Christianity. 

There is a greater enemy.  The enemy is not uniformity but diversity -- a diversity in which a confession no longer has any integrity or power over what happens on Sunday morning.  Whether or not you are sympathetic for diversity or uniformity, you must admit that Christianity cannot have multiple faces on Sunday morning.  There is a place for adjustment to local circumstance, to be sure.  No particular place or time is the pristine moment or golden era to be repristinated upon one congregation or another.  But there must be enough uniformity so that the family identity shines through.  Whether you call it the ordo or any other term, the reality is that there is a basic shape and form, a pattern of words, and an identity that connects through time.  What is done locally is not simply a matter of not departing from this ordo but also not conflicting with it.  This means not only the integrity of form but also the music and ceremonial cannot compete with the form.  It needs to work together like a seamless garment -- the readings appointed, the preaching, the hymns, the Eucharist.  So often these things betray themselves and the whole, acting as disjointed preferences.

Rigid uniformity is the straw man laid up against those who hold to the liturgy.  In reality it is the diverse who are rigid in their uniformity that in worship nothing really matters because nothing is really happening at all.  It is merely the moment, merely the preference, merely the pleasure, merely the entertainment.  It is as if we were entertaining ourselves to death -- oh, wait, somebody else beat me to that phrase.  That is what Rome missed and what we Lutherans have overlooked. The screen can only replace in person if nothing is real and nothing is really there to receive -- if it lives only in the imagination or in the feelings of the heart.  That is what threatens us.  This is the most rigid uniformity of all.  It is all about me.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Science may rescue Roe. . .

It was a terrible time in America.  Coming out of Vietnam and the race riots and the sexual revolution and political crisis, the Supremes were given an opportunity to address the subject of life.  Roe v Wade was a foray not simply into morality but into the science that could have and should have given definition to the question before an answer of right or wrong was applied.  We all knew what the culture wanted us to say.  Years of birth control pills and the removal of stigmas attached to the purchase of a condom left us with but one choice -- what to do with what happened when they did not work.  But the court was not ready to apply simply a moral judgment.  They wanted some objective fact to support them.  At that very “point in the development of man’s knowledge,” as Justice Harry Blackmun put it in Roe, science failed.  There was not a uniform understanding at the point at which life began.   It was anyone's best guess whether the fetus was a person or that person was really alive or if that person really alive deserved all the legal protection afforded life in the law.

Now, as it seems the SCOTUS is poised to reconsider Roe, things have changed.  Decades of division of the rightness or wrongness of abortion have not given way to an overpowering consensus on the matter.  We are as conflicted as we ever were over abortion.  But what has changed and what might give us some hope is that the science has changed.  It cannot tell us what is moral or immoral but it can give us clues to the life growing in the womb.  The technology of the ultrasound so new to the 1970s has become absolutely normal, reliable, and trustworthy.  With those machines we have discovered that what lies in the womb is not some faceless clump of cells but the image of a child startlingly real to a culture that wanted it to be fake.  Now we take those ultrasound pictures and pass them around with all the photos of childhood.  The fetus has become a child to us -- even to the promoters of abortion -- and it has changed things profoundly.

Viability of the fetus outside the womb has changed dramatically.  The smallest of infants have survived their delivery from the safety of the womb into a world they were not quite ready for.  If the court had the science of today perhaps the abortion decision might have been different.  I do not know.  But I know that the science that we love has changed the way that baby in the womb has been seen.  So the Supremes will have to choose either to listen to science and adjust their decision or change it entirely OR they will have to admit that science does not matter to this morality call.  It will be day of decision for more than the court -- for America.

I can only lament for those children killed simply for being children.  I can only hope that this scourge across our national identity will come to an end and we will admit that we were wrong as a nation -- just as the Supreme Court was wrong, to decide a question of life on the basis of privacy and convenience.  Until that happens, we are left with this open wound that divides us as a nation and remains a conflict for religion, politics, and ethics.  Pray, brothers and sisters, that it comes to an end sooner and we rediscover a bit of our humanity, perhaps prompted by the changing science that forced us to see the face of a child in the womb of his mother.

Friday, January 21, 2022

The gift of age. . .

As everyone knows, we live in a youth culture.  It is not just that we love youth, we all want to be young and we act young no matter what our age.  We not only hate old age, we fear it.  So we do whatever it takes to be young as long as we live.  On top of that, we hide age.  We use a multitude of creams and pills designed to mask the signs of aging.  We replace our joints with bionic ones that restore the mobility of youth to our old bodies.  We dress the part of youth.  We have decided that independence is prized above all things and we will do anything to prevent being a burden to our children.  We segregate our old people into retirement communities or put them into assisted living facilities or nursing homes that we do not have to bother with the aged or witness the signs of aging.  Then we send the bodies to a funeral home to paint them up so that they look like they are still alive -- as much as possible -- or we simply burn up the bodies so that we are relieved of all the business of grieving.

In the end, we are left with lies and deception.  Worse, we are left without the witness of and the blessing of age.  Scripture reminds us that gray hair is a crown of glory.  It is not, however, the glory that we desire or seek.  We prefer the illusion that lives in our minds to the real image.  The glory of youth rather than the glory of old age.  Our sanitized version of life is no improvement but only that which reveals how shallow and empty our choice. 

I recall the aging of Pope John Paul II.  It was painful to see.  The vigorous man we had come to know was on stage before the world in all his weakness and fragility.  The normal aging was hastened on by an assassin's bullet meant to end his life.  Many wondered how long it could go on.  Yet his was a life with its dignity enhanced by the pain and made even more noble by its weakness.  In many respects he served as a lesson to us about the shape of real life, the strength of will, and the endurance of faith.  Quite apart from anything else he was or did, he left us with an image of a man who came to terms with the three score and ten or perhaps a little more.  In some respects, we have seen the same in the late Prince Philip and still see it in the Queen.  Old age did not leave them without the visible marks of life and yet they endured in their duties, compromised some what by their years but not ended.  They did not retire to some obscure hiding place to live out their days.  Perhaps that is the greatest gift and blessing of a monarchy -- if they age well, they offer us a glimpse of what Scripture says.  I am not sure how that applies to elected leaders.  It could though it does not usually.  Perhaps a bit of that we saw in George H. W. and Barbara Bush.

That is why Benedict XVI's resignation was so disappointing to me.  I know nothing of the real reasons for his abdication.  Perhaps there was some drama and duplicity going on -- a scandal that lies hidden.  Perhaps he was just old and tired (though I doubt it).  He continues to live in the shadows in a church that could have used a visible reminder that our fancy with youth is not the savior of our institutions in decline.  He might have offered us another example of John Paul II's endurance in the midst of age, weakness, and suffering.  We need such examples.  But instead he is in his retirement home while the business of Rome has been left to those who think that the best way through this culture of the moment is to give in to the whims and fancy of those who are not sure what gender fits their mood.  I wish he had not resigned if only to challenge the world to see age not as something to be avoided or a curse to be born but the shape of life since the fall.  Perhaps it could have led to a reappraisal of the hope that is within us the way some reconsidered it by watching JPII age toward death.

The aged are not burdens to us but the mirrors of our mortality that remind us what life is and what it is not.  They show to us what human life is all about when we surrender our infatuation for power and status and image and help us face the truth.   There are those my age who actually voice the wish that they could die in their beds before age steals anything from them.  How sad!  They are willing to trade their days of wisdom for the foolishness of youth.  We need to see people age and watch them deal with infirmity and behold the endurance of faith.  The last days of those who show us old age may be their best gifts to us if only we are to receive them.  I fear the reason the resurrection is no longer such a profound subject for us (even as Christians) is not simply because we prefer this life but also because we have done such a good job of hiding the mark of time and the progress of age.  If that is the case, then ours is an even more impoverished time than I thought.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Lessons from business. . .

I live in a city of about 200,000 about an hour away from Nashville.  In some ways, our economies are connected and intertwined so deeply as to be somewhat seamless.  People live here and work in Nashville and people who work in Nashville depend upon business from Clarksville.  Our industry, medical institutions, and recreational ties are deep and wide.  That said, I do not know much about the business scene in Nashville.  What I do know is what I see in Clarksville as I drive around this city.  Instead of big box stores opening in the malls, we have new strip malls with small stores opening up all around us.  It is crazy.  We have our giant Wal-Marts but even Wal-Mart has opened Neighborhood Markets to compete with the Dollar Generals and other smaller stores.  The trend here is definitely to small stores with narrow product and service lines.  If I had a clue about how and why these small businesses keep opening up their doors, I would be a rich man.  But I watch as new strip malls open up and the small spaces fill up with niche businesses from nail salons to vape stores to CBD sellers and even bank branches.

Christianity has always tried to be a big presence.  From the cathedrals to the megachurches, we want to go big.  Small and medium congregations yearn to be like the big boys in their stadium sized churches with their large staffs and huge sound systems producing flashy videos and edgy digital content.  Our experts tell us that this is what we must do to survive and thrive and it almost always looks like translating what we see among the few giants into something we can do with 25-70 in worship.  We ditched the hymnals and organs and set up praise bands and seeker friendly services.  We put designer coffee into our pots and talked about climate change and sexual orientation and gender identity and racial justice as the Gospel.  And what happened?  We -- the small size congregations with all kinds of denominational labels and physical addresses -- did not grow.  We continued our decline, hastened by COVID and a political climate hostile to the Gospel and the Scriptures.  Perhaps we should have taken a cue from the business models in Clarksville.

The church will always be small -- not the total numbers of those who confess Christ but the congregations around us.  Of course, there will be middle and large sized congregations.  There will always be.  But most Christians will gather in local assemblies that are small.  It is not failure but a sign of how Christianity thrives.  It is perhaps easier to be more visible when gathered in large groups but it is easier to survive the onslaught of secularization and the competition and the judgment that worship and church are non-essential as small communities.  It is easier to keep in touch with our people as small communities than to keep large groups connected.  The Church will always depend upon small communities as much as or even more than the large and visible assemblies.  The way is hard that leads to life and those who find it few...said Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14).

We have to stop beating up on small congregations and insisting that they are failing or have betrayed their right to be Christian because they are small.  Small congregations have to stop being jealous of and envying those megachurches out there.  It is a fool's errand to mimic what happens in cathedrals and stadiums and think this is what is real and effective, what is true to Christ, and what is the model of Christian success.  Yet that is what we have done.  We have berated small congregations as dying, maintenance, and selfish communities that need to merge or die or just die.  We have been fools.  And those who paid attention to such talk were fools.  Yes, well meaning fools, perhaps, but still fools.  So it is time to burst the balloon.  There will be and should be middle and large size congregations -- even some mega sized giant churches (almost like denominations!).  These are not the norm.  These are not the typical shape of congregations.  These will live side by side the small congregation that will live like the small businesses that dot the strip malls in my city.  They will live not by mirroring the practices of either large businesses or large churches but as the Church has always lived and thrived -- by the Word of the Lord that endures forever and by the Sacraments that impart Christ and the fruits of His redeeming work to us.  That is how any successful congregations -- large or small -- live, grow, and thrive.  It is this we have forgotten.  In our pursuit of a magic elixir for what ails the the church we have turned to business, sociology, psychology, and the like -- everything except the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace that are the seed and the lifeblood of the Church.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The influencers. . .

For a long time some have been talking about a dark and hidden set of authorities, a shadow government.  We heard about some of it during and after the last election.  It has been well chronicled.  Facebook and other social media platforms readily admit that they poured money and expertise into the support of the progressive agenda and therefore into Biden's campaign.  This is probably true enough.  I do not doubt those who suspected it and I do not doubt those who admitted it.  While it is not a good thing, it is not a new thing.  Corporate America has been shopping candidates and positions for as long as there has been an America.  We all knew that.  Maybe we did not suspect the level of their involvement into the elections process but we were fools to deny that this existed.  I am somewhat jaded to it all.  I do not believe that laws can be written or enforced to prevent it and the laws only force it underground where it is even more dangerous.  What will help is transparency -- not the admission of what was done after the fact but owning up to the political involvement before and during the campaigns and elections.

There is another side to this.  It has nothing to do with elections and everything to do the progressive agenda.  Its purpose is not to change votes but to change minds.  The goal here is not to effect specific outcomes but to shape a moral view among the people -- not just here but throughout the world.  This has to do with the obvious things of climate change and social justice but it also has to do with such issues as sexual attraction and gender identity.  While these corporate giant are interested in traditional issues like tax codes and liability laws and everything in between, they are also interested in promoting a worldview that is not simply in competition with Christianity but in conflict with the faith.  This is the thing that remains hidden -- a dark and hidden challenge to everything that once was held to be right and true and moral.

This is an overt example of not simply changing people's minds about gay and lesbian people but about Christianity.  Heaven is the domain of Christianity and here Doritos is selling a version of heaven that is not simply in competition with but in conflict with the faith.  It is never too late to be your true self.  That is the Gospel of this progressive viewpoint and yet it is not the absolute freedom it appears but only the freedom sanctioned by the liberal agenda.  You are freed to be your true self unless that disagrees with their agenda.  And Christianity is co-opted as a tool of this woke culture in which self is god and god is self.

From the advertising of snacks to the toys promoted for our children at Christmas to the corporate sponsorship of news and opinion, there is a progressive influence on us, our beliefs, and our lives all around us.  The problem is that we do not see it.  Advertising in the past was usually concerned about selling products but now the products are being sold to change minds and the ads package this all up in such a way that it is hard to resist and even harder to identify.  Again, it is not new.  Rosie the Riveter was created to popularize a war as well as to rally a people to fight it at home and abroad.  But Rosie has nothing on the efforts of corporate America and its CEOs to change the way we see ourselves even more than the way we see them.  The most effective ad campaigns almost defy norms by making the product less visible or central than the point of view being promoted by that product.  

Christianity is the subject of powerful forces seeking to redefine not the doctrine taught in the churches but the minds of the people attending.  We are seeing the progressives put serious distance between what the Scriptures and the Church teach and what people believe.  Perhaps the Evangelicals have been on top of this trend for a long time -- separating teaching from the mood and style of worship to the point where what you believe is less important or not even important to the church you choose.  Among us as Lutherans, this reached its zenith when the LCMS publishing house published a book promoting the idea that you can have a different style or face on Sunday morning while preserving doctrinal integrity in belief (at least the theory said that).  As nearly every conservative church has learned, this is a grave fallacy and a deceptive lie.  We are only slowly waking up to this -- especially after a pandemic pushed us even more to the direction of these distinctions.  But now we face more than rebels within our own denominations, we face a corporate world intent upon reshaping Christianity for us by changing the minds of our people.  Rome, conservative Anglicans, Lutherans like the LCMS, and Orthodox are the target of those who find the church's teachings in conflict with progressive agenda.  We are not simply fighting against a culture but a corporate culture, well funded, well organized, and intent upon redefining the Christian message.  Unless we wake up soon, we will lose the battle for the minds and hearts of our people.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

We do not pretend. . .

Private Confession is not a common practice among Lutherans, even though it is a common topic of discussion in our Symbols!  Yet it is a blessed and profound exercise of piety to seek out the pastor and confess sin and receive absolution.  Often the first time is the worst time -- fraught with nerves and fears that disappear through the rite.  In fact, the whole thing is designed to deal exactly with what causes our nerves to be on edge and to fear God (his punishment or anger, anyway).  Yet in this rite there is an opportunity for pastoral conversation with those who come with burdened consciences.

On one such occasion the question came back at me.  How am I supposed to forgive and forget?  The forgive part is straight forward enough but the forget part seems an impossible task.  So it has seemed to me at times and to many Christians who actually do wrestle with the call of the Lord to forgive as we have been forgiven.  To be sure, forgiving is not the same as forgetting.  While it is dangerous to suggest that the two are conditioned (forgiveness without forgetting is not forgiveness), it is not a bad thing that these two are paired together.  The Lord has not only forgiven our sins but removed them so that they are no longer between us -- as far as the East is from the West!  What is left is only the righteousness of Christ that is our baptismal clothing.  We are not the Lord but we are to forgive as He has forgiven us.  And this also involves that pesky word forget.

First of all, it is good to remember that we do not pretend.  We do not pretend that our sins do not matter and we do not pretend that the sins did not take place.  Absolution is not about pretending -- God is not pretending and He has not called us to imagine it had never taken place.  A forgiven monetary debt does not make believe the debt did not occur in the first place.  Instead, it affirms that the debt is no longer owed and its obligation completed and its duty finished even though it has not been repaid.  God does not play games with sin.  We are forgiven because the debt has been paid though we did not pay it and we are afforded its grace through faith.  So forgetting the sin does NOT mean pretending it never happened.  What does it mean?

God is always aware of the cost of forgiveness.  The cross stands in time and eternity as the price love was willing to pay.  God does not pretend a sin away but forgives it for the sake of Christ, whose suffering and death paid sin's debt fully and completely.  It is because He has focused on the redemption that the sin fades away.  And so it is for you and for me.  Because our focus is on the forgiveness (the redemption), the sin fades away.  Its power is broken by forgiveness and the sin is no longer what stands between us -- the grace of forgiveness and the mercy willing to forgive the sin fills its place.  We forget not by concentrating on the sin but by concentrating on the forgiveness.  It is not that the sin disappears from our memories but that it no longer has power to shape what and how we remember.  It has been disarmed and disarmed it is no longer a threat to how we stand before God and how we stand before each other.

Pretending away the sin is cheap and dishonors everyone.  But confronting the sin with a power greater than the sin is costly and honors the relationship above all.  We love not because we no longer recall the wrong but we love in spite of the wrong and because the wrong has been overcome with a greater power.  If you go to confession and find yourself still doting on the sin you confessed or struggling to forgive another, you do not make any headway by pretending anything.  Instead, you focus on the forgiveness.  Where I customarily hear confession there is a kneeler before a large crucifix.  The penitent kneels to face that cross.  I am by the side until the absolution.  The visual focus is the same as the mental one -- we focus on Christ, on His suffering and death, and on the blood that cleanses us from all our sins.  When this begins to consume us, the memory of the sin or the wound we carry because of that sin fades.  The exercise is not to wish the sin away but to turn your attention to that which forgives the sin -- our sin before God and the sins of others against us and our sins against others.

That is what we think about as confess individually and privately with the pastor before God and that is what we think about as we live this out in the consolation of the brethren, God's people forgiving one another in Christ's name.

Monday, January 17, 2022

An end. . . and a beginning. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord, preached on Sunday, January 16, 2022.

There are always competing emotions at a wedding.  Sadness and happiness.  Sadness because somebodies little boy and little girl are growing up and leaving home.  Happiness because a young man and a young woman are beginning a new life together.  There is an even greater sense of something coming to an end and something beginning anew in the account of Jesus at the wedding of Cana in Galilee.  This is not confined to a family giving a child away but to the fulfillment of one covenant and the establishment of a new and greater one to supercede it.

It was a day of firsts.  St. John is clear that this is the first of the Lord’s signs to manifest His glory and call forth faith from His disciples.  Perhaps it seems a rather small miracle.  After all, this is the same Lord who acted in the Old Testament to manifest His hidden glory and the same Lord whose birth was the intersection of heavenly glory on an earthly plain.  Though we might presume that turning water into wine was the miracle, greater things than this happened on this day.  Though few people got that water had been turned into the best wine, even fewer saw this as the introduction of the God in flesh who was come to be His people’s Savior, fulfilling all righteousness for them and delivering sinners by His blood.

This new covenant does not reside in jars of water for purification and it does not reside in jars that become containers of the best wine saved for last.  The new covenant is in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus permanently destroyed those earthenware jars.  Once wine had soaked into them, they were stained forever and could no longer fulfill their original purpose.  In the same way, His blood on the altar of the cross would make it impossible for any animal blood to atone for sin.  The old covenant would be destroyed just as those jars could no longer deliver on the promise for which they had been made.

Instead, Jesus would establish a new rite of purification.  His blood that cleanses us from all sin would be splashed upon sinners in the water of baptism.  The rites that once had to be repeated over and over again would be replaced by the one baptism of the one Lord who would impart the one saving faith by the Spirit – once for all!  The old covenant is not cast aside because it is bad but because their rites have been fulfilled in Christ.  The two covenants cannot stand side by side but the new must fulfill and replace the old.  What was once meant to be temporary was replaced with that which is permanent, the eternal covenant of His blood.

Our Lord Jesus came to a wedding.  He stood with the guests who watched as one family’s tears giving away their daughter were met by the tears of another family whose son was receiving her as his own.  Everyone there thought Jesus was merely a guest – even the servants and apostles who knew about the water turned into wine did not realize that Jesus had come to be the bridegroom, to take the Church as His own bride, and to present her to the Father pure, holy, spotless, and perfect.  This was no deception but the preview of all that He would accomplish by His suffering, death, and resurrection.  The turning of water into wine is not a symbol – the water was real and the wine was real.  Just as baptismal water is real and the cup of Holy Communion is real.  They are not symbols but means to a greater reality that can only be seen by the eyes of faith.

The guests were already feeling good.  They had enjoyed plenty from the wine that was spent.  The old covenant did all that it could do and Israel was content with it.  But Jesus had come to give more, to bestow a greater grace that defied every human logic or reason and was generous to a fault.  Jesus is embarrassingly lavish with His grace – giving to those who neither deserve it nor are worth it the greatest treasure of all – forgiveness, life, and salvation.  God’s grace always seems foolish to it because of its generosity.  We would never be so free as God is but His grace freely given does not come without cost.  The wine prefigures the blood that must be shed and the blood that becomes the new drink of the Kingdom forevermore.

And then there is again this little detail.  It happened on the third day.  St. John is not simply framing out in time when this took place but marking this miracle in the redemptive time of the third day, when the reign of death and the victory of the grave is end and sin can no more threaten.  The bride, the groom, the guests, the servants, and the disciples are all there to see the day of salvation begin.  And so is Mary, the mother of our Lord.  One more thing for her to ponder and treasure in her heart.  And one more thing for us to grasp by faith.  Jesus lives to save and He saves by His blood and everything in the past gives way to this wedding and everything in the future happens because of it.

As long as we are in this flesh and living in this mortal life, we are at the wedding.  He cleanses us that we might be His Church, the bride.  He washes us clean with the new water of purification in baptism.  He gives us the best of wine which is His blood for the sins of the world.  We have the Spirit and a future.  Though we do not yet know in full what that future will be, we know this.
We will be Christ’s and He will be ours and we will together stand before the Father, celebrating the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom without end.

All that is left is for us to hold onto this gift by faith, to daily be persuaded by the Spirit that this is enough to face whatever comes our way – even death – and, to find the comfort Christ has placed in this promise.

His hour has come and He has fulfilled all of its promise.  But your hour and mine is not yet.  The day would come for blessed Mary, His mother, and His disciples, and for the servants witnessed the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, but for us it is not yet.  Until then, we must live not by sight but by faith, trusting in what He has done to accomplish what He has promised.  There will be pressure to give it up, persecution from the enemies of Christ, trials that will test our faith, and troubles that will try us with doubt.  But no one and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.  The hour and the day of our redemption is coming.  There will be well marbled meat and good wine, enough for everyone who has loved the Lord’s appearing and enough to keep our joy full forevermore.  Amen.

That is not my Jesus. . .

A conversation online was both shocking and expected.  The typical issues of sex and gender came up -- well, really, they were the reason why the conversation began.  In speaking to sex and gender from the perspective of Scripture and tradition, it did not take long for the great divide to show up.  "That's not my Jesus!"  The Jesus that this person knew was affirming, encouraging, tolerant, accepting, and approving.  This Jesus did not challenge -- only empathized.  This was not a Jesus of right and wrong but of freedom and self-expression and choice.  Sadly, that is typically how such a conversation usually ends.  The Jesus I am talking about ends up being labeled a hater and the Jesus who does not hate is powerless except to affirm what people have chosen or decided for themselves.  

Scripture plays an unusual role in this conversation.  The Bible ends up offering mere suggestions instead of any definitive or authoritative answers.  It ends up more with questions than conclusions and we end up being the ones who decide what is truth and what is true in this truth.  It is presumed that Scriptures offers no one answer but only many choices, each subject to many interpretations.  Therefore there cannot really be any end to this conversation or any resolution or consensus.  Perhaps that is the point.  The conversation exists only for us to express ourselves and not for any meaningful communication.  It could be that social media encouraged this kind of conversation or it could be that we defined social media to showcase a conversation already begun.  I honestly am not sure which came first -- the chicken or the egg.

There was no end to the conversation because it could not begin.  Without any common understanding that Scripture spoke with one voice to address these issues or just about anything else, there was basis for any conversation.  If everything was merely subject to their own opinions or preferences or truths, there is no Jesus to be known at all -- except the individual Jesus in essence created by every individual person.  What began as a post about an online conversation is ending with the problem of Christianity as a whole.  At the time of the Reformation the facts of Christianity were not in question or dispute.  God's creation, the history of His chosen people, the content of the Law, the voice of the prophets, the facts of Jesus' conception, birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection, and so many other things were not in dispute.  There was no conflict about the creeds.  Of course, there was a great divide over what this meant and how it would be applied to us as God's people but not on the facts of the faith.  There was no "my Jesus" or "your Jesus."

Now the individualism that has characterized Christian views of Scripture, its facts, its history, and its meaning has gravitated to the churches.  Churches omit and reinterpret and dismiss the facts of the faith and presume that the faith is somehow divorced from or aloof from the facts.  If there is a my Jesus and a your Jesus, there can be no real Jesus at all -- only the Jesus of our imagination or definition.  Perhaps that is why there is no real ecumenism left.  We have no common facts of the faith so what do we have to discuss?  Our preferences?  Is the ecumenical conversation merely a discussion of likes or dislikes or do we have something more to speak about?  The modern version of ecumenism has no common confession at the end of it but is satisfied with vague words that mean what the churches want them to mean.  So, for example, in the ELCA, a broad diversity of views about baptism and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are not church dividing but there is no latitude allowed when it comes to allowing a broad diversity of sex and gender choices left to personal preference.  The dividing line of church fellowship has moved from the facts of Scripture to the realm of personal choice about me -- my sexual desires, my gender identity, my right, my wrong, and my Jesus who is good with it all.

Well, that is not my Jesus but not because I have a preference.  It is not my Jesus because it is not THE Jesus.  There is only one Christ -- the Christ of the Scriptures.  He is the God of creation and the God-man of history and the God breath of life.  There is no God to be known but Him and no way to know this God but through His Word -- His self-disclosure.  This faith lives not in our imagination and not in our feelings but in the facts of God's mighty work.  Only because it lives there first can it live in us and inform the mind and direct the heart and will.  It seems that many, too many, are in love with the idea of Christ and Christianity but reject Him and His Church.  It is no wonder why the pews are emptying and the witness ineffective.  Come on, Christians.  Get your story straight and things might be different.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The redemption of suffering. . .

I remain mystified by the change in medicine when the driving factor became reducing the level of pain.  My wife, the ICU nurse, was there to watch how that question become what defined the treatment of the patient.  Suddenly, and it was overnight, the biggest single indicator of health was the absence of pain and the goal of medicine to relieve suffering.  Some have suggested that this was, perhaps, the genesis of the opioid and pain killer addictions that plagued our nation and still cause so many problems.  I do not know but it seems logical to me.  When suffering is the focus, relief of suffering is the goal, and the means to that end becomes the right treatment.

What happened in microcosm in medicine, happened overall to our culture.  We remain convinced that suffering is always a bad thing and that the goal of this life and the purpose of God is to relieve such suffering.  We are sure that there is no good thing that could come of suffering and there is no purpose in suffering.  It has become our greatest evil.  We are ready to end the lives of the aged or afflicted because we have judged their lives too painful to continue and we wait with great anticipation their own consent that they have become unlivable.  Such is our quest to end suffering that we have decided that death is better than suffering.  It is the same at the other end of life.  No child should be brought into this world unless they are wanted, can expect to have a decent and full life, and are not hindered by physical or mental defect.  We have decided that such suffering is so great that to abort the life before birth is the noblest act of a compassionate humanity.  Suffering is worse than life and death is merciful.  How odd for a Christian society to come to the conclusion that there is no redeeming purpose in suffering when it is suffering that redeemed us!

Even more that this, Christians know that suffering is the ultimate mark of love -- what we are willing to suffer for others is the most profound statement of love.  This we have learned from our Lord.  And this is the suffering that love endures -- husband for wife and wife for husband and parent for child and, eventually, child for parent.  Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friend.  This is Jesus' love for us and it is the mark of our love for Him and for those around us.  Christ has not only redeemed us through suffering but has redeemed suffering for us that we may participate in His suffering.  Oh, what glorious gift.  Or is it?  Have we as Christians refused suffering while still grasping hold of what His suffering won?

If you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. (1 Peter 3:14)  Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24)  I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death... (Philippians 3:10)  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance perseverance, character; and character, hope... (Romans 5:3-4)   Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13)  In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Jesus warns us of what is to come if we stand with Him and walk in His ways.  Persecution, pain, and even death are the consequences of being Christ's in a world that is His enemy.  His call to take up our cross and follow Him is a call not to avoid suffering but to embrace it.  He insists that we will suffer many things for the sake of His name but not to give up.  Christ has not simply redeemed us by suffering but redeemed us for suffering -- not randomly or without purpose but for the purpose of His glory and to show forth who we are to the world.  Yet too many Christians continue to take the pills of sentiment and self-indulgence -- demanding that God free them from any suffering or pain and holding God responsible for even the suffering and pain we bring upon ourselves.  What kind of shallow Gospel is this?  How dare we call ourselves Christians if we make suffering the test of our devotion!  How foolish we are to insist that God would not want us to suffer, not even to deny our wants and desires for any cause, or to presume that God's job is to relieve us of such suffering!  The reality is that pain is the condition of this world and a life without pain is either an illusion or an addiction which consumes us.  We do not make our peace with suffering but rejoice in it when we suffer for righteousness' sake.  It is our glory in this world to suffer at least briefly before our tears are dried up and our hearts occupied with everlasting joy.  

All of this became even more clear when in a Bible study we discussed the sufferings of our Lord in graphic terms.  It is hard to hear because we don't want to believe that anyone should have to suffer so -- not sinners for their sin and not a Savior who would redeem us from that sin!  But such is the measure of His great love for us that we were redeemed by suffering to suffer with Him as His own in a world that knows Him not.  Start preaching this and watch how many Christians will leave!