Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Joseph Had A Dream

“Joseph Had a Dream”
(sung to the tune of “Your Table I Approach”)

The angel Gabriel/ appeared to Mary mild
With overwhelming news to tell; that she was now with child.

Her husband Joseph grieved/ young Mary’s newfound state,
To spare her life, Joseph believed/ they had to separate.

Then Joseph had a dream: the angel said to him,
“As difficult as it may seem, you must take Mary in.”

“The baby that now grows, the Spirit worked within
His name is Jesus for he goes/ to save you from your sin.”

Encouraged by this Word, he welcomed home his wife;
Immanuel was given birth/ to bring eternal life.

These things have taken place; the prophet’s words are true:
The virgin’s son has God’s own face, and he is God with you.

I wrote this hymn for our third service of Advent Evening Prayer.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wir Sind Alle Pettler

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3: 23—24

Well over a decade ago I received the book “Luther the Reformer” by James Kittleson. It was an excellent read, however, I remember being fairly disturbed by a detail mentioned with regards to Luther’s final days. A scrap of paper was found in Luther’s pocket that read: Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Pettler.” “This is true. We are all beggars.”
At that time in my life, those words troubled me. They seemed defeatist and depressing. “We are all beggars” did not square with my ideas about the man Martin Luther, his accomplishments, and even my own ideas about Christian faithfulness. Then I graduated, went on to the seminary, and gradually began to see the profound truth: we are all beggars before a righteous holy God. In the words on the hymnist: "Nothing in my hand I bring." In the words of Paul: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Could anything enrage the old Adam more than this? You mean to tell me, preacher, that I have no capital with which to bargain with God? You mean to tell me that who I am; what I have; what I’ve learned; and what I’ve done gives me no leverage with God whatsoever? Even in a minister of Word and sacrament, the impotent old man whispers, “You mean to tell me that my office is no insurance policy against personal tragedy? Don’t I have some pull? All have sinned; We are all beggars, so, no, we deserve no good thing; in fact, were we to get what we deserve for sins dreamed of; conceived and actually committed, we would earn hellish eternal torture. So beggars, beg. All who have sinned and fallen short—which is to say, all—beg for that which we could never earn or purchase. Repent. Our cups are empty. We are at the mercy of the Almighty Almsgiver, who would be justified in passing us by as if we didn’t exist. He would even be justified in treating us contemptuously, offended that we would even ask for help after all that we’ve done to soil ourselves.
Standing as a beggar before with Lord, with our absolute poverty on display, we properly expect the blow of punishment to fall at any moment. We wince in anticipation of it landing. And the blow lands, to be sure, but not upon us. Instead, the blow of death lands squarely upon the Son of the Most High. From his side flows the telltale sign of blood and water. Blood and water for the beggars. Eternal riches for the beggars. The Almsgiver fills our cups to overflowing with these riches. Freely justified by His grace. Incorporated by water and the divine Name into Christ’s death, and raised with His resurrection. Raised to life. Nurtured in faith. Delivered to the heavenly presence of God at this life’s end. All as gift. All by God’s choice. All purely out of fatherly, divine good ness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. “This is true. We are all beggars.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Change Your Mind!

Once there was a man who was a bit of a bum. Talented and successful, he neglected his wife and his children, his work and his friends, his community and his colleagues. He drank too much, lost his temper too often, was cruel too many times. Then one day he had a tremendous religious experience and was transformed totally. He became a good and loving husband, a generous and sympathetic father, a diligent and creative worker, a loyal friend, a dedicated member of his community. He was sober and kind and patient and gentle. At first everyone rejoiced in the change. They said that they had known all along that he was a good man. Then they realized that the change was for real and that, to continue their relationships with him, they would have to change too. He lost his wife and his family and his job and his friends. He went back to being a bum and got everything back.
Today, in a bit of Advent tradition, we have John the Baptist coming out of the wilderness, wearing wild animal skins—kind of an Old Testament prophet costume—looking, acting, probably smelling wild. But his message is even wilder. He’s preaching repentance. He is not genteel or polite, and he has no time for tact. If anyone is offendable, they will be offended. He cuts right to the chase, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. You have been waiting for the Messiah, pay attention – he’s coming.” He is saying to anyone who will listen: “repent, get ready, prepare the way of the Lord.” Cut through all the distractions, eliminate the nonsense in your lives. Stop turning away from God. God is searching for you so quit running after stupid stuff. Let him find you.
Surprise, surprise: There is a group of church leaders who have a problem with John. He’s not part of the “in crowd.” Plus, he’s popular; his message of radical change threatens to upset the status quo. And, they’re about to find out just how radical John is. Pedigree and lineage—values so dearly held by the religious establishment—are meaningless to this wilderness weirdo.
On the television show M*A*S*H, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III made it clear what separated him from everybody else: "I’m a Winchester," he was heard to say more than once. For him, it was his family name that made him superior to everyone else. Other people do it in different ways. One woman received her education at Harvard and found a way to work Harvard into every conversation. That’s what John the Baptist was dealing with here. John the Baptist was completely unimpressed with the very thing that the Pharisaic “in crowd” had built their lives upon. They were the "children of Abraham." It’s like they said, “I’m a Winchester.” That settles it. That’s all you need to know.
Then comes John the Baptist, who tells them, in so many words, “That don’t mean a thing.” Truth be told, we probably hate to hear John the Baptist because we know how he translates to our situation. We can hear him now. "Just because your name is on the membership roster, just because you give an offering, just because your parents or grandparents were in this church, just because you are a volunteer, just because you are the minister; none of those things alone are what saves you. Just saying, “I’m a Winchester," “I’m a Lutheran,” “I’m a Christian,” doesn’t make it so. What’s in your heart? What’s in your mind? That’s the question.
John shows up during this “most wonderful time of the year;” He crashes the “Winter Party” and makes a scene that we dare not ignore. “Repent!” he says. Take a look at your life, see where you have put your priorities, where your treasure really lies. To "repent" means literally to "change one's mind." When you repent of sin, you're saying, "I thought it was a good thing, but now I know it's not.”
Repentance is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but a daily action. We need to “die daily to our sin,” as Martin Luther reminds us. Richard Jensen says it powerfully, “the repentant person comes before God saying, ‘I can’t do it myself God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to new life.’”
Repentance is to stop running after everything else and see that God is pursuing you. Repentance is to make decisions for God each day that show your connection to Him. Clothes, status, the right friends or address means nothing – only the fact that God has claimed you and loves you. Repentance – live like it is true.
And still there’s a Pharisee in us, which says, "What I want out of Jesus is help for this life. If He gets me out of a jam, or cures my sickness, or keeps me wealthy and prosperous and out of most trouble, well, that's the savior I'm looking for. I'm not really concerned with those abstract concepts like final judgment, resurrection of the dead, heaven or hell or eternal life. I want a savior who's going to show results." But if this is the Savior you're looking for, you'll pass right by Jesus. He sacrificed Himself to make you holy with God, not popular or successful. He warns that the world will persecute the Church. He tells you that He disciplines His children and even uses affliction and weakness to strengthen our faith. If you're looking for a savior to make this world paradise, you'll go by Jesus; He came to deliver you from this world to everlasting paradise. Better change your mind while there's time. In other words, repent.
Repent, repent, repent…there’s that side of us that just doesn't want to be righteous, that wants to hold onto sin. That sinner in us constantly tempts us with thoughts like, "Jesus is so loving that I can hold onto this sin. Maybe it makes my life easier. Maybe I'm afraid to live without it. Maybe I just like it. Maybe I'm addicted to it. At any rate, the savior that I have in mind is one who tells me that those sins are okay, that he'll save me anyway." That's a popular idea of Jesus, too; but it's not the Jesus the Scriptures proclaim.
That Jesus says, "Let you hold on to sin? I've already carried all your sins to the cross and suffered them there. The only way you can have them now is to take them back from Me. I didn't go to the cross to let you hold onto poison; I swallowed it all!" Do you see? To hold onto sin now is to say that you want a Savior who dies for most of your sins, but not all of them. It's to say that Jesus isn't quite so holy that He won't let a few sins go by. That's not the Savior Jesus Christ who promises forgiveness and eternal life. Change your mind while there's still time. In other words, repent.
We look forward to Christmas in just a couple weeks' time, and marvel that Mary holds the newborn Son of God in her arms. The King is born in Bethlehem, which is why the shepherds will gather there, too. But the King is just as near to you as He was to Mary the day of His birth. He graces you with His presence in Scripture and at His Supper table. His kingdom of forgiveness is at hand; it is within your grasp. His kingdom of life is here for you, if you want it. Stop running. Find out what it’s like when you finally surrender control to Him. Trust in Jesus and live like you mean it. Clear a path for God to come in and demolish your old self; then watch as he crafts a beautiful new person. Don’t wait. Change your mind. Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fighting the Christmas Creep

Christmas merchandise now begins to appear before Halloween in some big-box stores. A perceptive newspaper columnist has called this phenomenon the “Christmas Creep.” Judging by the number of television commercials that feature Christmas gift-giving that appeared before Thanksgiving, anyone would have to admit that the “Christmas Creep” is real. But is it good?
There’s nothing wrong with getting your Christmas shopping done ahead of time. I’m wondering how good it is that—literally for months--the message is sent that Christmas is all about buying and getting “stuff.” If you are a thoughtful Christian, you know the tension I’m talking about. Impressing upon a child that Jesus really is the reason for the season can seem like an uphill battle.
What are your actions communicating to your children? Are they communicating that Christmas is basically a source of stress and joyless busy-ness? Or are they communicating that Christmas is a time for purposeful service and moments of quiet contemplation? Are you consciously including Christ in you family’s Christmas? If not, wouldn’t this be a great year to start?

The Christmas Creep…or the Christmas Christ? With whom you will spend the holidays is largely up to you.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Advent--Time To Wake Up

The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Romans 13: 11b

My son and I were sharpening our minds watching the Super Friends the other day when we were reminded of an important truth: Never wake up someone who is sleepwalking. The Wonder Twins and their space monkey Gleek made it sound like under no conditions should we ever attempt this. We would certainly cause irreparable physical and mental damage if we were to interrupt a sleepwalker’s meanderings. But after doing a little research, I discovered that although the sleepwalker might be confused and disoriented, it is not actually dangerous to wake them up.
Which is good news, because on this New Year’s Day of the Church Year, you and I are challenged by God’s Word to wake up! It turns out that it’s not dangerous to wake up a sleepwalker—and if that person is sleepwalking through their faith and life with God, it is more dangerous for them not to wake up.
Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
If these words do not stir at least a little excitement within, then you might be sleepwalking in your walk with God. Paul writes that the Day is almost here, and the Day he’s talking about is not Christmas Day; he’s talking about the Day when Jesus will come back to earth in plain sight—the Day when all of the promises that He has made about the future will be fulfilled—the Day when He will return to usher in an eternal era of sinless perfection and complete joy for those who have trusted in Him. That Day is nearer now than it has ever been! So let us put on the armor of light! Let us live out an eager Advent expectation that our Lord could burst through the clouds at any moment, flanked by angels, ready to re-create all things! Is that how you’re living? Is that a daily, controlling thought in your life? Or are you, to be honest, sleepwalking?
Are you sleepwalking through your daily routine? In Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, a young woman named Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks the stage manager narrating the play if she can return for a brief visit with her family. He grants her the wish, advising her to choose the least important day in her life—which "will be important enough," he says. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problems and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. Emily exclaims, "Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I'm dead!" Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. "We don't have time to look at one another…Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" Are you aware of the blessings that surround you? Or are you sleepwalking right past them?
Are you sleepwalking through your daily walk with God? Do thoughts of Him occur to you as you handle your daily responsibilities? How often do you let the Word of God speak to you Monday through Friday? Do you let Christ-like compassion into your relationships? Do you let Christ-like goodness influence your actions and decisions? What does your schedule of activities say about the place that Jesus has in your daily life? If someone followed you around looking for clues, would they be able to pick up on the fact that you are a believer in Jesus?
Are you sleepwalking through your worship of God? Do you realize that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to be with us as we speak and sing His Words? Do you understand that the Son of God has arrived to give you his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins? Could we really be sleepwalking as Christ tries to serve us with His Word and Bread of Life? Could we really resent giving up an hour in which the Lord of creation is trying to give us His good gifts? If we think that we can be Christian with no commitment, or if we think that we can believe in Jesus yet hold him at arm’s length and neglect spending time with him, well, then, we’re sleepwalking right towards the edge of a cliff.
In love and concern for us the apostle Paul cries, “Wake up from your slumber!” Wake up and turn around! Wake up and unplug from those things that keep you asleep! Wake up from a passive, sleepy, brain-neutral spirituality! Become active, wakeful, intentional about bringing Jesus into every corner of your life. Wake up to the reality of Jesus serving you in worship and look for ways you can serve Him in return. Wake up and strap on the armor of light, because living out this Christian faith is going to be a battle! If you think that being a follower of Jesus is kind of boring and bland, I’d be willing to bet that you’re still sleepwalking. If your faith is awake; if you are aware of Jesus’ presence; if you are putting Jesus out there, representing Him, then your life is going to be a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. Living for Jesus will take you to places you never thought you would go; will show you things you never dreamed you would see; and will cause you to give things you never thought you’d be willing to give. You will literally battle evil every day; that’s why you need the armor. Don’t forget, though, God fashioned the armor of light; He has filled it with His power to guard and protect. The Lord’s desire for you is that you would live wide awake for Him.
The time has come to set aside our selfish sins and to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has woven the most beautiful garment for you. He paid for its life-giving fabric with his innocent suffering and death on the cross. Every stitch was made with you in mind. Woven into every seam and strand is the power to forgive sin, and to give the wearer life with eternal purpose. And here is some excellent news: if, at some point in your life, you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at that moment you put this garment on. You were clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ. You may be aware of it; at some times you may have been oblivious to it as you were sleepwalking; the only thing that matters is that today, right now, you wake up and grasp the enormity of what Jesus has done for you. The only thing that matters is that you put on and proudly wear the life that Jesus has created for you. Wake up and put on these clothes and live life to the full! Amen.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Great Santa Debate

Here's a little pre-Advent conversation starter for you. Any and all feedback would be most appreciated.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine told her young son the truth about Santa Claus.
From the reaction of some of her family members, you would’ve thought she had decided to stop feeding him. Some exclaimed, “You’re stealing his childhood!” It became a real controversy.
Now, I have to say that I have nothing against St. Nick. I grew up leaving him milk and cookies, too.
But I have to wonder what’s going on when people are more concerned about their children believing in Santa than they are about their children believing in Jesus. Are we as passionate about the Baby in the manger as we are about the plump elf in the red suit? If not, what has gone wrong?
Please don’t take this as another anti-Santa tirade. It’s not. I just hope that, as parents, we think about what happens when our kids grow up and learn the truth about Mr. Claus. Will they then question the truth of the other Christmas story we’ve told them too--the one with the angels and shepherds the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay?

If you ask my friend’s son what Christmas is all about, he will tell you with no hesitation, “It’s Jesus’ birthday.”

Is there any other answer you’d rather hear?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

There Is Peace In Giving Thanks

In 1636, amid the darkness of the Thirty Years' War, a German pastor, Martin Rinckart, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year—an average of fifteen a day. His parish was ravaged by war, death, and economic disaster. In the heart of that darkness, with the cries of fear outside his window, he sat down and wrote this table grace for his children: 'Now thank we all our God / With heart and hands and voices/ Who wondrous things had done/ In whom His world rejoices. /Who, from our mother's arms/Hath led us on our way/ With countless gifts of love/ And still is ours today.'" Here was a man who knew thanksgiving comes from love of God, not from outward circumstances.
That’s what can trip us up at this time of national Thanksgiving. There may be some of us here tonight who are having a pretty hard time giving thanks. Certain realities in your life may have you feeling less than thankful. If that’s true for you, you’re not alone. After hearing your story, most people would probably agree that you don’t have much reason for gratitude this November 22nd. And then there are people like Martin Rinckart, who find reasons to thank God in the middle of an unimaginable experience. If you’re wondering if you could ever be like that faithful pastor, please listen carefully to the following words written by the apostle Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Are there things in your life that make you anxious? Stressed-out? Lift them up to God in prayer and give thanks. That’s Paul’s message. And notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, lift your requests to God and don’t forget to say thank you when he gives you what you want. Again, Paul says: lift your requests to God, tell him about everything that’s troubling you, and give thanks at the same time. Give thanks before you lift up your concerns. Give thanks while you lift up your concerns. Give thanks after you lift up your concerns. And then what?
Then “the peace that transcends all understanding will guard your heart and minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace that goes beyond understanding is a gift that comes in the midst of our need. It doesn’t remove every care and solve every problem; rather, it guards our hearts and minds in Christ; It keeps you pointed at and plugged into Jesus, so that your problems do not overwhelm you.
In other words, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that being a Christian means that life will never be hard. Believing Him means that joy and peace are available to you even when life is hard. It is possible to give thanks while we lift our concerns to the Lord. Sometimes we’d rather hide our hurt, bury our anger, pretend we’re not afraid or cling to our worry, than open ourselves to the healing touch of Jesus. By nature we resist it. But if we know Jesus at all, we know we have reason to give thanks. Eternal thanks. And through even the tiniest act of thanksgiving, the Holy Spirit can begin to break down our resistance by putting Jesus in focus.
Christian author Henri Nouwen put a real face on human resistance when he described an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center. He writes: “She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.”
Giving thanks reminds us that we are nothing apart from God. Giving thanks loosens the grip of our clenched fist, so that we might let go of ourselves and receive the fullness of Christ and his blessings.
Is your clenched fist clinging to guilt over a long ago sin? As you give thanks to God, you are reminded of the awesome magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Your sin pales in comparison to his self-giving love. Let your coin of guilt fall at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and see which is bigger.
Is your clenched fist clinging to bitterness because you have been wronged by someone? There is no undeserved suffering that Jesus cannot identify with. In my suffering, I may get a glimpse of the cross of Jesus. For that, if nothing else, I can give thanks. Let your coin of bitterness fall at the foot of Jesus’ cross—the cross that makes forgiveness possible.
Is your clenched fist clinging to possessions or people or the desire for future security? Anxiety about the possibility of losing someone or something leads us to cling even more tightly—but that tends to make things worse, not better. The more we give thanks for God’s faithfulness in the past, the more we come to trust in God’s future faithfulness. By reflecting on God’s past guidance and help, you may be able to drop your coin of worry at the foot of the cross, where real and lasting security was purchased for you.
And if there is something going on that is preventing you from giving any type of thanks to God, then lift your clenched fists to Him and ask Him to pry them open for you. Rejoicing and peace will not be out of your reach forever.
When you consider that the Son of God allowed himself to be rejected, battered, and killed for you--for your eternal well-being—is there anything more appropriate than thankfulness? When you remember that the same Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven to secure your eternal future, what else is there but overwhelming gratitude? Living in that gratitude and thankfulness then makes us who we are meant to be.

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit a broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, as he fed them. Many years before, in October, 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean.For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark...ten feet long.
But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie's own words, "Cherry," that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, "read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off."
Now this is still Captian Rickenbacker talking..."Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don't know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food...if I could catch it."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Parts of it were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice…and Captain Eddie made it.
And he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset...on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast...you could see an old man walking...white-haired, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls while he walked...to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle...
Jesus Christ has saved you through his self-sacrifice. What walk of giving will thankfulness lead you to take? What “thank you” do you have for the One which, on a day long past, gave himself without a struggle?
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Church and Chicken Little

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 25—28

The Disney version of Chicken Little was released in 2005. The movie told the story of Chicken Little’ dilemma—how do you get others to listen to you when you’ve warned them of doom and gloom and then nothing happens? Chicken Little’s word didn’t mean much after that—so when the aliens show up (remember, this is the Disney version), no one is convinced that he’s telling the truth—until it’s too late.
We have reached a point in our church year where traditionally we talk about the end of the world. At the end of the church year, we talk about the end times. Makes sense. But I have to admit that when I see these kind of Bible passages, I wonder, “Are people going to listen to this? Does anyone really buy into the idea that this world is going to have an endpoint? When it comes to end times stuff, has the Church’s message become like Chicken Little?
I’m afraid so. At least in the eyes of unbelievers, warnings of the end inspire more eye-rolling than anything else. When preachers insist that Jesus is definitely coming back in our lifetime because of things like tsunamis or hurricanes or wildfires or situations in Iraq or Pakistan, the Church’s message becomes a Chicken Little message. A generation comes and goes, the end does not come, and since it was a Christian predicting this or that date, a skeptical world thinks that all Christians are convinced that the sky is falling. Since it hasn’t yet, the real Christian message—the message that centers on Jesus Christ—is dismissed. Christians are painted as half-wits and wacko fundamentalists, and the saving Word of Christ crucified never has a chance to be heard.
That’s bad enough. But within the believing Church there is still a part of us that wants to dismiss “fire and brimstone” preaching with a wink and a chuckle. There is a part of us that has fallen in love with life in this world, even though we publicly confess in our creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Or we might take the stance that it’s just easier not to think about it. That would be nice, but it would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because Jesus spent so much time teaching about the signs of the end and what it all means for us who follow him.
So what did Jesus teach? We have big chunk of it in today’s Gospel lesson. He wasn’t fooling around when he told his disciples about the end of Jerusalem. This is graphically described in verses 20—24. Many people who heard his words were still living when the city (including the Temple) was completely destroyed in 70 A.D. What sets Jesus apart from Chicken Little prophets is that His predictions actually happen, for His Word is truth.
That’s why we must pay attention to what Jesus says next. He speaks vividly about the laws of nature being shaken as God begins to withdraw his patience from the human race. This will be more than the wars and natural disasters that are already plaguing God’s creation. The sun, moon, and stars will be affected as the universe begins to come unglued. We already know that the moon exerts gravitational force upon the earth, and that it controls the tides on the coasts. So imagine if the moon was thrown off its orbit! It sounds like science fiction! How long can the Church proclaim such things before no one listens anymore--before the Church’s message is taken no more seriously than Chicken Little? And yet, and yet, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts through his Word and convinces us that Jesus is the Son of God; is our Savior from sin and hell; is our Lord; is our teacher of the truth: and this is what he says about the end of this world. So he means it when he says that entire nations will be shaking in fear. He means it when he says that people will be fainting with fear and intense apprehension He means it when he says the heavenly bodies will be shaken, and he means it when he says that He, the Son of Man, will be seen coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And there is the good news in all this apocalyptic chaos: These fearsome signs signal the visible return of Christ. Those who are alive at this time in history, who have been waiting for Jesus with faith in their hearts, are told: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
What will that feel like for the faithful? The prophet Malachi says: “..for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.”
“Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The redemption that Jesus talks about here is not redemption from hell. You already have been purchased by Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. You have already been bought by His blood. You have already been adopted in baptism.
The redemption that will be drawing near is release from the consequences of sin that remain with us. Think of it this way: You now have the forgiveness of sins. You now are the recipient of God’s undeserved kindness and the gift of faith. You now have the promise of heavenly life that never ends. You have these things already through Christ Jesus who comes to us and is present with us today. But we still wait for the perfection that will only come when our souls are delivered from this world. In the meantime—in the between-time—we deal with the consequences of sin—of our own sin and the sinful choices of others. Those consequences include, but are hardly limited to, sickness and disease; mental, emotional, physical and spiritual struggle; the pain of broken relationships and families; and finally, death and its ripple effects of grief and loneliness. We are conceived and born in sin, and our bodies must return to dust.
But be certain; be convinced, my Christian friends, that your redemption from these things is drawing near. The same Jesus who was crucified and died for your sins and rose again to conquer your death will return on a cloud as your Redeemer. Now, redeemer is one of those words we need to unpack for a minute. A redeemer is a person who rescues another by paying a ransom. The ransom Jesus paid for your sin was his own precious blood and his innocent suffering and death, and with that ransom payment your account is credited for heaven. When Jesus descends to earth amidst this world’s last violent gasps, he will redeem you from the power of sin’s consequences. That means no more sadness. No more brokenness. No more suffering. No more isolation. No more pain. No more hatred. No more death.
Until that great day, the Church will continue to broadcast the Bible’s simple invitation: Repent. Change. Turn around. Come close to God. Feel terror at your sins. Mourn the wrong you’ve done. Give up your self-reliant ideas. Your sins are forgiven thanks to the sacrifice made by Jesus, the Son of God. Heaven is yours, thanks to his rising from the dead on Easter Day. Trust in his actions. Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And if the sea roars and tosses and the heavenly bodies shake, and you see Jesus coming down on a cloud; you can stand with your head raised to the sky, welcoming your Redeemer.

May the prayer of God’s faithful always be: Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Take Off Your Sandals

Take off your sandals, for the place that you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3: 5

It’s been a busy day, a full day, lots of running around and now you’re finally at home. It’s time to kick back, relax, and part of the routine of letting yourself wind down, as simple as it sounds, is kicking off those shoes, and as my father would say, “letting those puppies breathe.”
And what I find a little intriguing is when you are invited over to someone else’s home, there’s always a little shoe protocol. Some people want you to take off your shoes in the mud room or garage—others don’t seem to care that you just walked through a mud puddle. At the places where you’re asked to remove your footwear, you can usually see why: the house is kept in wonderful condition. It looks special, and you can immediately understand why you were asked to leave your shoes behind.
It may sound weird, but the same thing is happening in Exodus 3. The burning bush incident takes place here. The Lord wanted Moses’ attention and he got it. If you know your Bible history, you know this is the start of something huge. But in the moment it is happening, all Moses knows is that he sees a burning bush that is not burning up and he goes over to investigate. Then he hears his name being spoken, and then this request: “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” On this holy ground, the Almighty God identifies himself, promises to rescue his suffering people, tells Moses, “I’ve got a job for you,” and promises to be with Moses as he does it. Moses’ life has been changed on this holy ground.
When you came to worship [today], what were your expectations? Did you come not really expecting anything to happen? Did you come because somebody else expects you to? Did you prepare for this experience? Or is this just one of many other places you go; another spot to hit on a busy social and personal calendar? Or maybe, just maybe, did you come here [today] sensing that you were approaching holy ground? Did you come hungry for the true, real, close presence of God? Did you come thirsting for living water and the fiery power of the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that this is a sacred, holy time, during which Jesus speaks to you through the words of the Bible, and during which his own body and blood enters you at the communion table, forgiving you all your sins? Is the experience of worship special, holy ground for you?
We fight an uphill battle for time spent on holy ground. So-called conventional wisdom says, “Nothing is sacred.” Entertainers and authors gain notoriety by attacking the holy things of the Christian faith. Closer to home, time spent on holy ground sometimes takes a back seat to other concerns—and, when we do make it onto holy ground we fight a mental and spiritual battle to stay plugged in and concentrate! However, none of that changes the fact that God Himself is present when His people gather to listen to His Word and be fed at His table. It’s holy ground because the Lord is here. That’s what Moses learned, and we need to re-learn it, if our time spent on holy ground is going to benefit us. And it all starts by taking off your sandals.
When you’re barefoot, you’re vulnerable. Even with socks on, it’s not the same. You’re exposed. Especially if there’s a toe peeking out there. When we approach God’s holy ground, we take off our sandals--we become vulnerable as we expose our sin and confess it before the Lord. Think about it. That’s one of the first things we do in worship. You confess, hopefully with great seriousness, that you are by nature sinful and unclean…that you have sinned against God in thought, word and deed…and you sincerely repent of the wrong that you have done. You admit the sins that peek out of your conscience. You buck the trend of human nature that places the blame on everyone and everything else and you say, in the presence of God and one another, the blame is mine. The sandals are removed, and if you mean what you say and say what you mean as you confess your sins, it’s a humbling thing. I can’t think of another place, group, or organization that asks its members to be as nakedly honest as we are when we take off our sandals in open confession together.
But rather than burn us up in his righteous fire, God tells us who He is on his holy ground. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He calls himself, “I AM WHO I AM”. He further tells us He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And He is not here to kill, but to give life. He is here to rescue us and take us to a better place. That rescue comes through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection and was transmitted to you when you were baptized in His very name; It continues to be sent to you every time you eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. That happens again when a called and ordained servant of the Word says: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It comes yet again when one believer says to another, “I forgive you.” God knows our private miseries and our suffering, and here on holy ground he promises you rescue from sin’s slavery and deliverance to a land flowing with milk and honey—not just the paradise of a future in heaven—but the joy of living in his kingdom right now—the freedom of living as a forgiven person—the confidence of living for a King who has everything under control. Here on holy ground, God not only promises, but delivers. He delivers the goods to you, bought and paid for by Jesus Christ.
There is one more way in which we stand next to Moses [today]. After the sandals are removed, and God identifies himself, and tells of the rescue he will perform, he says, “So now, go, I am sending you…” For Moses that meant being sent back to Egypt, to stand before Pharoah and to speak for God. For you, that means being sent to your homes; your places of business; your circle of friends; if you are a student or teacher, that means being sent to your school; you are being sent to each and every place where you live your life to speak for God and live out his message of rescue and deliverance. Standing next to Moses you may wonder, as he did, “Who am I, that I should go?” “Who am I, that I should represent Christ to my family and friends? Who am I that I should show Jesus to the people I work with?”
God’s response to Moses and you? “I will be with you.” It’s almost as if God is saying, “Look, it’s not about you, it’s about me. It is my desire to use you. I want to send you. I will be with you. So don’t focus on you, focus on me, and let’s go.” At another great moment of sending, God said the very same thing in Jesus: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Standing on holy ground, God says to you and me, “I will be with you as you go for me and serve me.” And Jesus will be with you, and not just in some vaguely spiritual, invisible way, but he will be with you every time you open a Bible and read his Word, or hear it, or study it. He will be with you when you remember your baptismal connection to his death and risen life. He will be with you, always setting a place for you at his table. He will be with you in the compassion and concern of a fellow believer. He will be with you in tangible ways every time you set foot on holy ground, and will stay with you as you return to living room and classroom, board room and garage, office, hospital and care facility. Soon we’ll step back into those places with feet that have stepped on holy ground, and hearts that have been changed by a gracious God. But for the few minutes that we have left, let’s leave our sandals off, just a little longer, in the presence of the great I AM, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, November 5, 2007

These In White Robes--Who Are They?

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.””

These in white robes—who are they? Each one of us here today could name at least a few of those wearing white robes before the throne of God. Today is a day set aside to remember those who have fallen asleep in faith; to remember the example of those who now worship in the Church Triumphant. It is also a day to vigorously take hold of our identity as saints of God in the here and now. But let’s not lose sight of the picture painted in Revelation.

The images in the scene are stunning and beautiful; a true melting pot of people from around the world, gathered into one countless mass of white-robed worshippers; palm branches are being waved about, as if another Palm Sunday is breaking out, which in a better sense, it is; the Lamb is not riding into Jerusalem to bleed and suffer and die; that is past. The living Lamb here in Revelation 7 has accomplished that mission and is now ruling over all things in the realm of heaven. The Hosannas continue. On the dusty road into Jerusalem the people had shouted “Save now!” Here in heaven they sing “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”

We need to look into the picture and study the details. We need to let these images and words speak to us. We need this because we need to be reminded, again and again, that this will truly be our experience someday, and for our loved ones who have died in the Lord, it already is. Our stories turn out this way in Christ. With faith in Him, you will find out what John was trying to describe here. We must not lose sight of this picture.

We need these word pictures of heavenly beauty, worship, and comfort to be held before us again and again because life can often be so ugly. Life in a sin-polluted world can become so grotesque and so sick that in our terror and fear we forget. We forget or discount the fact that this life, so marred by sin and darkness, so twisted by bitterness and evil, so haunted by loneliness and apathy, is not all there is. We forget that day by day we come closer to singing at the Lamb’s High Feast. We forget that we are strangers here and that heaven is our home. And when we lose sight of the Lamb, what else is there but despair? What else is there but pain? Hopelessness?

That’s why we need this picture to be painted. We need to know that every single person who has been touched by the blood of the Lamb and who has washed themselves in Jesus’ shed blood by faith will inherit this heavenly life. We need to know that those who have preceded us in faith and death have received a clean robe from Christ, and now they are—before the throne of God—serving Him with perfect purpose—no longer affected by hunger, thirst, or any type of suffering—and are in joyful and total communion with God.

We also need to know that the white-robed faithful are there for no other reason than this: Jesus the Lamb paid for their sins with His blood, and they trusted in His payment. In this life we loved them and they loved us; in this life they were good to us and others; but it is not their goodness that got them to heaven. Nor will it be our goodness that gets us there. We must abandon any sense of “Well, God’s got to let me into heaven because I’ve been a good a person.” There is no such thing as good enough for heaven, if we are measuring the good we’ve done versus the sin we’ve done. The only way to appear before God’s throne in a white robe ready to sing and serve and celebrate is to depend totally and completely on the Lamb who was slain and who lives again. The only way into heaven is through faith in Jesus, crucified for your sins and raised to life to be your life forever.

This is the sum and substance of the Christian faith. This awe-inspiring picture of the saints in triumph is what it is all about. One of the boldest statements in all of Holy Scripture speaks directly to this point. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘If Christ hasn’t come back to life, your faith is nonsense and sin still has you in its power. Then those who have died as believers in Christ no longer exist. If Christ is our hope for this life only, we deserve more pity than any other people. But Christ has come back from the dead. As everyone dies because of Adam, so also everyone will be made alive because of Christ.’

These in white robes—who are they? As John said to the elder, “Sir, you know.” These are the people who lived real lives in this world; lives affected by sin, hatred, disease, hardship, persecution, and everything else that life can throw at you, and yet these people remained faithful. They trusted not in themselves but in Christ; they knew the key to heaven was not their personal goodness but the shed blood of the Lamb.

Hold onto this key through faith in Christ. Look often into this picture of the gathered multitude of saints, knowing that by God’s merciful decision, the white robe and the palm branch and His never-ending love will always be yours.

Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb! Amen.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

For All the Saints

Take a moment today to remember those who have fallen asleep in Jesus--and to be reminded of your own identity as a saint of Christ.

Just a few minutes ago we sang one of the best-known hymns in the world, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The next time you really want to impress someone with Hymn trivia—I know that happens to you a lot—you can astound them with this fact: the tune or melody of “Onward Christian Soldiers” was written by Arthur Sullivan. That may not mean much to you until you hear the name of Sullivan’s writing partner: W.S. Gilbert. Yes, that Gilbert and Sullivan, creators of the Pirates of Penzance and the HMS Pinafore. If you’ve never heard of them before, put Gilbert and Sullivan in a search engine and take a look. This is what people did for fun before HDTV was invented.
Now, Sullivan wrote the music, but what we’re interested in are the words, specifically the ones we sang in the second verse: “Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.” What an interesting way to describe the Christian life. Though our walk on earth continues, let’s not forget the saints who have walked the same path and have influenced our lives so greatly by pointing us to our crucified and risen Lord Jesus.
By the way, the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers” were written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865. Can you guess the occasion for which it was written? A Christian school chapel service. It was meant to be a processional hymn, where one young person would carry a cross and the rest would follow into worship, literally “with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
You know, when people ask me what made me decide to become a pastor, there’s no quick and easy answer, but I always have to start by remembering my time in Lutheran Schools. As I look back, I can see that I was treading where the saints have trod! I was exposed to God’s Word every day of my school career. I sat in who knows how many Lutheran school chapels, and believe me, I’m not claiming to have listened to every single word—but the Word was there, and we know it always accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. In addition, my Christian teachers had an impact on my life I can hardly begin to articulate…but I learned from them and worshipped with them and I can name them all, 3rd through eighth grade, plus Lutheran High School teachers, college and seminary professors who guided, modeled, and otherwise taught me what being a Christian means. I have walked where the saints have walked, that’s for sure.
I can tell that saints have walked here in Painesville too. I hear the stories, and you know them better than I do, of people who sacrificed greatly in order to make this church a reality. People who gave of their time to evangelize this community. And let’s be honest, the saints are still among us, people who don’t draw attention to themselves but who support the gospel ministry in countless time-consuming and often thankless ways. People in whom the light of Jesus shines brightly. Some of those people have departed to be with the Lord, and today we stop to remember; to be thankful; to pledge be more like them insofar as they wanted the attention placed on Jesus Christ, the Son and God and Savior of sinners. Let’s face it: You and I are heirs of the saints who have gone before us.
Now, we Lutherans always have a tendency to shy away from such saintly language. It sounds so…oh, I’ll just go ahead and say it. It sounds so Roman Catholic. And we all know that in the Roman church you get to be a saint by being holier than the rest, even to the point of doing the miraculous, and then a church council steps in and declares you a “saint” after your death, and deep down inside we know we don’t fit the bill. And we hear the word “saints” and along with that comes images of medallions and burying statues upside down so that your house will sell. Sainthood doesn’t seem to belong to us anymore.
It’s time we took it back. It’s time we took back our identity as saints. Why? Because that’s what God calls us. That’s what he calls those whom he has chosen and adopted in Baptism and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. The apostle Paul does it on numerous occasions. He calls the members of the congregations he wrote to “saints.” Which was kind of strange, considering he was usually writing to them to tell them to get their act together. But you see, that’s the tension in which we live. We know we don’t deserve to be called saints. We don’t deserve to be called children of God. We know that when it comes to being holier than the rest, well, that’s just laughable. Except for the times when we do start to believe the hype a little bit and start comparing ourselves to others. We know that if any church council were ever to sift through the evidence of our lives, they would be able to come up with some, and maybe a lot, of stuff that would disqualify us from saintly status. Think of how fast we are to say, “I’m no saint.” We’re almost too fast, as though accepting the title of saint would force us to be more conscious of our Christianity. And what fun would that be?
Despite our warped ideas about sainthood, God considers Jesus’ cross and empty tomb and then calls us his saints. So that’s what we must be. Just as he calls ordinary bread and wine his own body and blood; Just as he calls a bit of water with his name “a washing of rebirth and renewal,” if God calls us saints, we’re saints, through Jesus Christ our Lord. If God can call the day day and night, night, then He can call us saints through the shed blood and risen life of Jesus. Are you going to tell God he’s wrong? That he’s made a mistake? “Not me, Lord, no, I’m not a saint, I’m not perfect.” God hears that kind of false modesty and says, “Hey, listen, I didn’t ask if you’ve earned it. I didn’t even ask if you wanted it. But because of my Son, I can and will say to you that in my eyes, you are a saint. You are someone for whom my Son was beaten and killed. That’s what enables me to call you a saint, if you believe He did it for you. It’s not about your perspiration. It’s about my declaration.”
The great theologians of the church have a Latin phrase just for this occasion: “Simil Justus et Peccator.” That means “Simultaneously or at the same time, Sinner and Saint.” That really nails it, don’t you think? As you are sitting there and I am standing here, we are sinners and saints at the same time. And that really captures us, because we know what we’re like when no one’s around. We know what we’re like behind closed doors, we know what we’re like when we’re not at church, and don’t assume it’s all bad! But we are not perfect, we do screw up in old comfortable ways and sometimes in creatively new ways. And through it all, God our Father stubbornly persists in calling us his saints and in the end, it is the fact that God calls us ‘saints’ thanks to Jesus’ dying and rising that will make an eternal difference for us.
Today we get a glimpse of that eternal difference—a sneak preview of heaven’s wonder—in this passage from Revelation. And there’s so much going on here but let’s just pay attention to two things today. Number one, the best thing about heaven that John notices is God himself is present. No temple is necessary. No sanctuary required. God and the Lamb, his Son, will be available, he will be there, and we with him. That’s a dream come true, don’t you think?
And number two, take a look at the people, they only appear for a brief moment in this passage, but they’re there, walking by the light of the Lamb. In fact, this holy, heavenly city was constructed for them! Without them, what purpose would it serve?
And here’s the thing that hits home with me on this All Saints Day. I know some of those people, and so do you. And with every passing year, heaven gets quite a few more citizens that you and I both know well! What we hear and read in this part of Revelation is their reality now, all because their name has been lovingly written in the Lamb’s book of Life. You might imagine those names written in blood, because it was the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, who made them eligible for heaven. He paid for their ticket and their passport. By God’s gracious choice, they are walking in His light. Thanks be to God for this picture of the saints in triumph. As you imagine the scene in your mind, see if you can pick out those special saints whose lives pointed you to Jesus, and give thanks for them, too.
My friends, we are treading where the saints have trod. In Jesus Christ our Lord, keep walking that path and pointing the way for new generations until the Church triumphant is full and the song begins and the feast is served. I can’t wait to see you there. Amen.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Reformation Day!

I had the great privilege of leading worship at Our Shepherd Lutheran School on Reformation Day, 2007. Asking the question, "What would the Reformation have been like if there were telephones back then?", this is the message I delivered.

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth, how can I help you? Oh, he prefers the white ones. Yes. Yes, with the little frilly parts. Thank you.

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth, how can I help you? Yes…no, no, no. his name is John Tetzel. No, he did not invent the pretzel. Thank you for your call.

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth, how can I help you? Oh good, it’s you. Listen he wanted gold, not bronze. What’s the matter with you? This is the Pope we’re talking about! Get it done!

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth, how can I help you? Who’s that? Martin Luther? All right, just a moment…let’s see here…ah yes, here he is, Martin Luther, of the Augustinian order, professor at the University of Wittenburg, preaching duties at the Castle Church. OK? Thank you.

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth, how can I help you? Well that’s strange, I just pulled his information. Did you just call? Oh, OK. Well, Martin Luther is professor at the University of Wittenburg, he preaches at the Castle Church there. If you don’t mind me asking, uh, why are you asking? He did what? 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences? On the Church door? Oh dear. Are you sure it said “against indulgences?” OK. Uh, well, thank you for your call.

He’s not going to like this at all.

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth, how can I help you? Oh, John Tetzel! Indulgence Preacher Extraordinaire! How are you doing? Oh. Oh dear. Sales are that bad? You know, I just took a call…that’s the guy. Martin Luther, he…yes, 95 theses…but it’s not going to be that big a…they’re making copies? Yeah, but people are still going to want pay for forgiveness. It’s so convenient! Oh. Oh. We’ve got a problem, don’t we? OK. Alright John, we’ll be in touch.


Office of Pope Leo the Tenth. Yes. Luther? No. No one knows where he is. He disappeared after the Diet of Worms, that’s what I heard. Well, that could be. Good riddance, I say. Thank you.

Office of Pope Leo the Tenth. The Diet of Worms? Yes, I heard all about it. Oh, I see. Well, Luther was called in before Emperor Charles the Fifth, our representatives were there, Spanish troops were posted. Oh, the Germans were there, too. And so they bring Luther in, and there’s a table with all his books piled up, right? And the chancellor asks him, Did you write these, and is there a part of them you want to take back? Well, you know he was supposed to say, “yes”…instead, he asks for time to think about it! Can you believe it? Yeah, well, they gave him one day. And he comes back and says, Unless someone can show me from Holy Scripture where I have gone wrong, I will not take back what I have written! Here I stand, I can do no other! Unbelievable! (Laughs.) Right. That’s the last we’ll hear from Martin Luther!


Office of Pope Adrian the Sixth. Yes, under new management, hardee-har-har. Get lost!

Office of Pope Adrian the Sixth, how can I help you? Yes, of course we know Luther is alive. Well, the German princes are not about to let anything happen to their little…yes, we know. We know…he what? Married a former nun? If this is a joke, it is in very poor…yes, we’ve seen his writings…a German language Bible? The Word of God in the language of the common people…well, it’s turning Germany upside down, I can tell you that. Good-bye.

Office of Pope Adrian the Sixth. Yes, hello? Yes. Yes, of course, of course I’ve heard of Martin Luther, it’s all I talk about all day long!!! Uh, I’m sorry. Well, yes, we’re aware of his writings, of course. They’re what got him into all this trouble, after all. Have I ever read them? Personally? Well, no, no I haven’t. Who are you, anyway? You want to read me part of Luther’s writings? I really don’t think that would be…What did you say? The good news of Jesus demands no works of us to become holy and redeemed. It requires only that we trust in Jesus, because he has overcome sin, death, and hell for us…but…but…what was that? Every Christian is a little Christ in service to our neighbors? But that’s…The righteousness of God is a gift we get by faith? Luther felt that the gates of paradise were opened to him once he understood this, huh? You mean to tell me that I can have all the benefits of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection just by believing it? Yes, that’s what you mean. And good works are done because we’re thankful. That’s what this Reformation is all about? Hmm. No, thank you. Thank you for your call. No, I mean it. Bye-bye.

Guess I’m under new management, too. Where did I put those want ads?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More Perspectives on Halloween

The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod takes no "official stance" on Halloween and its surrounding practices. That might seem a bit strange to some. But there is a nuanced approach involved that honors what the Bible has to say about Christian freedom. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, since I grew up really enjoying all things spooky. For a good example of the issues involved, I invite you to check out a helpful collection of articles at: http://www.stpaulskingsville.org/halloween1.htm
(Just click on this link to go there.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

You Are My Rock

I have had a few inquiries about the sermon preached on October 20 and 21. I preached it from an outline, as opposed to a manuscript, but since a few people have asked about it I will post what I used.

Psalm 31: 1—5

Part One: We don’t always feel that “it is well with our soul.”
David in Psalm 31 (verse 9)
Examples from life today

Part Two: We can know that it is well—with the Lord’s presence.
David in Psalm 31 (verses 3 and 5)
The ability to turn to God for deliverance was put it you when you were baptized.

Part Three: Difficult times can be times of special blessing.
The story of Horatio Spafford and the writing of “It is Well With My Soul.”
(Spafford lost all four of his daughters at sea, but remained faithful, eventually writing his famous hymn.)
God has promised to wipe away our tears in glory (Isaiah 25: 8 and Revelation 7: 17), but he also comes to us now in our suffering.

Part Four: It is well with my soul—in Christ.
The mission and message of the LWML—Rest On Christ the King
God has brought you into the fortress of his care.

Reformation Day--Hans' Story

For my Reformation Day sermon, I took an imaginative and narrative approach, creating a character named Hans who lived in Wittenburg at the time of Luther. I was inspired yet again by reading "Luther the Reformer" by James M. Kittelson. If you have any interest in Luther's life, you owe it to yourself to check out this book.

Greetings. My name is Hans. By some wrinkle in time I find myself in your midst today, and I am delighted and amazed to see you celebrating a Day of Reformation! It is incredible to find myself here in a church that calls itself Lutheran. You see, I was born in 1490 AD, and Martin Luther was my pastor.
I was born and grew up in the north-central part of Germany, in a town called Wittenburg. There weren’t many more than 2,000 people living there at the time, though that would change. My family scratched out a living. My father worked for the local brewery, and most of what was brewed stayed in town. I wish I could tell you something romantic about life back then, but I can’t. Existence was hard, sometimes brutal, often short.
Death haunted Europe in our time. The Plague, which is just a history book story to you, was a real thing to us. 16,000 people died in the city of Strasbourg in one year’s time. 300 villages in the region around this city were left deserted. More babies died than survived after childbirth. Beggars and panhandlers were everywhere, not to mention thieves and swindlers. We German peasants were far from being peaceful workers of the land. We tended to solve a lot of things with fists, knives, and clubs. It’s a wonder I lived as long as I did.
Having said all that, the Church was an ever-present part of life, even in Wittenburg. On our town square sat the city church and the Castle Church was a few blocks away. An Augustinian monastery and a small university were there, too. I was baptized the same day I was born, because my survival was not guaranteed. I made it, though, and grew up like so many others in our little town, aware of the great importance of the Church, but with very little understanding of basic Christianity. I know how strange this must sound to you, but back then, we simply did what the Church told us to do. The idea of picking up a Bible and reading what it said wasn’t even a thought that we had. We believed what the priests told us, without question. Of course, no one wanted to suffer the torments of hell. So we did as we were told. And what we were told was this: We were told that all people have a little spark of good inside them. God gives you some grace to get things going, and then it’s up to you to make your salvation sure by doing enough good in the world. I suppose another way of saying it is: we were taught that we could earn the grace of God by doing our best. So that’s what we did.
That meant doing our best for our beloved dead. The Church had told us of a place called purgatory, a kind of holding tank for the souls of our departed loved ones. Their souls stayed there for thousands upon thousands of years, unless we did something about it. And we did our best. We spent more money than we should have buying certificates called indulgences, which promised that our loved ones would escape purgatory more quickly and be in heaven sooner. Please understand, we were just doing what we were told. We truly didn’t know better.
Well, what can I say…in 1511, when I was 21 years old, a monk named Martin Luther was sent to Wittenburg to begin teaching at the university and preaching at the Castle Church in my town. This was news, but not big news. Everyone thought he had come to ask for more money to be sent to Rome. Were we wrong.
At first, Dr. Luther’s preaching was not all that different than what we had heard before. But it seemed that the longer he stayed in Wittenburg; and the longer he studied and taught at the university, the more his messages changed. We started hearing more and more about Christ Jesus. For Dr. Luther, everything came right back to Christ. But this was a different Jesus than we were used to—we were used to Jesus the Righteous Judge, Jesus the Perfect Example of what we were to strive to be. The Jesus that Dr. Luther preached was different—he showed us Jesus our Savior; Jesus our loving sacrifice for sins; Jesus our peace. At first this was hard to understand because it was so different than anything we had heard before. But then one day Dr. Luther read to us a passage from Romans that said: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” I’ll never forget the way Dr. Luther explained that passage. He said, “If some complaint should be registered against a heart that believes in Christ, and testify against it concerning some evil deed, then the heart turns itself away, and turns to Christ, and says, ‘But he made satisfaction. He is the righteous one, and this is my defense. He died for me, he made his righteousness mine and made my sin his own; and if he made my sin his own, then I do not have it, and I am free.’ ”
This, I had never heard before. It seemed too good to be true. I struggled to grasp what Dr. Luther was saying. I wanted very much for such words to be true for me, but I could not escape feeling not good enough. I felt my sins surely had disqualified me from God’s favor. I approached Dr. Luther one evening about five years after he had come to Wittenburg, and I poured out my heart to him, confessing my guilt, my sinful acts. He looked me right in the eye, with a look of great compassion, and told me, “Hans, learn Christ and him crucified; despairing of yourself, learn to pray to him, saying, “You, Lord Jesus are my righteousness, but I am your sin; you have taken on yourself what you were not and have given me what I was not.” I prayed that prayer for the rest of my life.
When I was 27 years old, Dr. Luther began publicly asking questions about the sale of indulgences. On October 31, 1517, he posted his 95 theses against the sale of indulgences on the door of our church. His life would never be the same. Neither would my life, nor Wittenburg’s, nor, dare I say, would the world ever be the same. Maybe you know the story of how Dr. Luther was declared a heretic, how he went into hiding, how he came back to Wittenburg to preach and teach again. Maybe you know about his writings, such as the Small Catechism; maybe you have sung his hymns, like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” And perhaps you know about the protection the German princes gave his fellow pastors when they made their statement of faith at Augsburg. You may even know how many millions of people worship in churches that were part of the Reformation that accompanied and followed Dr. Luther’s work. Whether or not you know about those things, here’s what I know.
Dr. Luther was my pastor. If it hadn’t been for him, I would’ve bought indulgences for my loved ones until the day I died, and then hoped that they would buy them for me. If it hadn’t been for him, I would’ve never had a Bible in my own mother tongue—the Scriptures in the German language! And if it hadn’t been for him, I would’ve never known Jesus Christ the way the Bible describes Him—not as a frowning judge but as a loving brother, who went even to the cross to purchase my soul. It was also Dr. Luther who taught me that being a good husband and father and doing my job well honored God as much as a priest or pastor honored God with their duties. Was Dr. Luther a perfect man? He’d be the first to emphatically tell you “No.” But he was my pastor. He showed me who Jesus really was. I am eternally grateful.
That’s my story, part of it, at least. But before I go, I’m fascinated to ask you brothers and sisters who bear the Lutheran name, what is it like? What is it like to live free from the ignorance that held people like me captive? What is it like to have the Bible so easily accessible—right in your own language, available everywhere? What is it like to have Jesus Christ clearly and rightly proclaimed in pulpit and classroom and home? Certainly the good news of Christ crucified and risen is still reforming the Church and the world, isn’t it? Please tell me it is. Please tell me you are running to your world with Jesus’ own words: “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” Please tell me you are letting Jesus’ Words reform you.


Monday, October 22, 2007

"Doctrine" Is Not A Dirty Word

What do you do when the emperor, for the fifth time in three decades, sends you into exile, and you’re 70 years old. A normal person would consider his options. Check out retirement villas; cruise the Aegean Sea; book a trip to the Holy Land. With a lifetime of accomplishments, Athanasius deserved better than a one-way ticket to nowhere.
In earlier years, the ‘black dwarf’ (as his enemies called the short man with dark skin) had been elected bishop of Alexandria, he’d written a landmark book about the fact that Jesus was God, and he had played a significant role at the council of Nicea—the first worldwide conference of the church.
He’d fought his whole life for what he thought was decided at Nicea: that Jesus was fully human and fully divine: begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things are made. When the council voted in favor of this creed, which we still speak today as the Nicene Creed, Athanasius thought that the Arian viewpoint (the viewpoint that Jesus was created and therefore not equal with God) would finally be put to rest.
But he was wrong. Arians not only hung around, but managed to gain positions of power. They whispered into the emperor’s ear that Athanasius, who kept publicly insisting that the emperor enforce the Nicene decisions, trafficked in murder, sorcery, and treason.
Emperor Constantine, who craved peace rather than truth, and didn’t have much patience with critics, held a hearing. Condemned on trumped-up charges, Athanasius was send packing to what today we would call Germany. When Constantine died two years later, Athanasius was allowed to return to his post. Two years after that, when Arians gained control of key leadership positions in the church, Athanasius had to flee to Rome for asylum. On and on it went for decades, where Athanasius would repeatedly lose and regain his office. When he was allowed to return to Alexandria at age 68, he no doubt was looking to end his service in peace. Not quite. Within two years, Valens, the western emperor and—you guessed it, an Arian—ordered Athanasius banished again.
To make a long story short, Valens reversed his decree four months later, and Athanasius was allowed to come back, and for seven more years he served in Alexandria until his death in 373 AD. The Arian point of view still held firm sway in the church. It seemed that Athanasius’ bold stand for the truth—and all the heartache it had caused him—had been to no avail.
However, eight years later, when Emperor Theodosius took the throne, Arianism was banned, and the decision of the Council of Nicea was reaffirmed. The church never considered Arianism an option again, and the Nicene Creed is still used as a basic statement of the universal, Biblical, true Christian faith. For this we have—at least in part—the black dwarf Athanasius to thank.
I share his story with you today for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you would take the blue hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and open it up to page 134 in the front—before you get to the hymns—you’ll find a little something called the Athanasian Creed. From time to time this creed is spoken on Trinity Sunday, because it carefully—some might say to the point of exhaustion—says what can be said about our triune God. And as you scan this document, which Athanasius at least had a hand in writing, you can see his concerns rising to the surface, especially page two, the first column, ‘For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect man…’ In other words, Jesus is no second class citizen, he wasn’t just a nice guy that God chose, Jesus is God. Period. Whether of not we’re conscious of it, this was a battle the church had to fight. People like Athanasius had to endure all kinds of difficulties just to say that Jesus is true God and true man, and those who say that Jesus is only God or only man have got it wrong.
It’s interesting to note that Trinity Sunday is the only festival or observance in our Church Year that is not based on a historical event, like Pentecost, for example, or Jesus’ birth. Instead it is based on the nature of God himself. Some might therefore say that it is based on a teaching or a doctrine. That seems a little impersonal to me, but whatever you say about Trinity Sunday, the bottom line is this: it is of utmost importance—in fact it is of eternal importance—to know who God is, and the way God has described himself to us is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There are an awful lot of people out there who will tell you they believe in God. But what God are they talking about? The grandfatherly god of a child’s drawing? The inventor god who created the world and then stepped back to watch things unfold? The faceless Force that runs through the universe? Or Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the God of Holy Scripture? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who has acted in time and history to produce forgiveness of sins and endless life through the cross and empty tomb of the Son, Jesus Christ? If you want to call this personal knowledge of God “doctrine,” that’s fine. And I hope that you will see, for this very reason, that having the right doctrine really matters. It’s the difference between a God who is watching us from a distance and a God who came down here and got his hands dirty, who got his heart and his body broken just to tell us that he loves us and wants us back. That’s what is at stake when we talk about doctrine. Doctrine is not a dirty word. Doctrine is knowing God the right way—the way he wants to be known. And when you get right down to it—what is more important than that?
Athanasius felt that knowing God the right way was so important that he was willing to roll with the punches. To him, it wasn’t even a choice. He would not stay silent. How about you? When you know that standing for the truth might hurt someone’s feelings or make somebody mad, what do you do? When I consider that question myself, I know that I must repent before the Lord and seek his forgiveness. There have been plenty of times when I have massaged my response or not answered as fully as I could have, for fear of offending someone—even though I knew that what I wanted to say was God’s truth, drawn right from Scripture. For that I must repent.
If you share this conviction with me—there is hope and good news. The God who explains himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit offers full pardon and forgiveness to those who trust in the substitute sacrifice of Jesus, the Son. The Father waits for us and welcomes us with open arms. The Spirit generates faith in our hearts. That same Holy Spirit performs a spiritual makeover on us, changing us into bold and loving Christians, people who will speak the truth in love and who will live that love and whatever happens, happens.
Some folks will get upset at that. They’ll claim that truth is relative—there are no absolutes. Others won’t really care one way or the other. And once in a while you’ll even run into some presumably well-meaning Christians who suggest that love and doctrine don’t go together real well. When that happens, we can take a page from Athanasius and just keep standing in there, holding onto what’s true. Love doesn’t let a child play on a busy street; or stick his hand in boiling water, and it’s love that causes us to share this simple message: There is a right way to know God—a way he wants to be known—and when you know him that way, you have everything.

What about Halloween?

Where do you stand on Halloween “practices?”

Viewpoint #1

It is absolutely evil to do anything that reflects Halloween. It began and remains a pagan holiday. Christians have no business carving a jack-o-lantern or putting up Halloween decorations of any kind.

Viewpoint # 2

Christians are free to do anything they want with respect to Halloween. Satan has no power over us—Jesus broke that power on the cross and at Easter. We can laugh at Satan, and so Halloween is just harmless fun.

What do you think of these two viewpoints? Where do you stand?

Is there room for more than these two opinions regarding Halloween? What might those be?

Look up Deuteronomy 18: 9—13. How might this passage help us when we think about Halloween?

What is God’s attitude towards witches and “fortune tellers”? See Isaiah 8: 19

What is the Devil Always trying to do to the Church? (2 Peter 5: 8—9 and 1 Timothy 4: 1).

Who will win the battle between good and evil? See 1 John 3:8 and Matthew 25: 41.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Little Lectionary Lesson

What is a lectionary?

A ‘lectionary’ is a set cycle of readings. In the Church, a lectionary is a series of Bible passages chosen for every Sunday of the Church Year.

Where did the lectionary come from?

In the early Church, the celebration of the great Festival Days of Christmas and Easter developed first. Over time, other days of special observance were gradually added. Eventually, Bible readings that supported the ‘flow’ of the Church Year were identified and used in worship. Originally, this was a one-year cycle, meaning that the same readings were used each year. For example, every year the readings for the First Sunday in Advent would be the same.

Do we still use a one-year lectionary?

From 1570 until 1969, the Roman Catholic Church used a one-year lectionary that seemed set in stone. During those centuries Lutherans honored a version of the same lectionary that stemmed from Reformation times.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church published a revised lectionary that took a three-year pattern. Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the United States began using their own versions of it in 1970. It came into use in the Lutheran Church with the publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) in 1978, and was picked up with little to no alteration in Lutheran Worship (LW), published in 1982. The readings were carefully selected by the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship.

What are the advantages of a three-year lectionary?

· It widens the range and variety of Scripture heard by congregations.
· It promotes historical knowledge of the Bible
· It enriches the church’s preaching.

It must be noted that there are some Lutheran churches that continue to use a one-year lectionary (and are free to do so). A one-year lectionary carries with it ancient precedent, along with the strengths and weaknesses of repetition.

The content of this summary is taken from James L. Brauer’s “The Church Year,” published in Lutheran Worship: History and Practice (CPH, 1993).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

If You're Reading This Right Now...

...please post a comment and let me know that you've visited. To do so, just click on "0 comments" and follow the instructions. If you post anonymously, that's fine, but I'd like to know who is reading "The Lake County Lutheran." I guess I'd like to be assured that I'm not posting these writings for my own amusement.

That's all. Thanks!

Jesus Comes To Us In Worship! Really!

The Lamb who was killed is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and strength, honor and glory and praise!” Revelation 5: 12

I’ve got a couple of true or false questions for you. Just answer them according to what you really think. Your answers will be known only to you. Here they are:

True or false: Worship is the most important thing the church does. True or false?

Number two: True or false: Worship is the most important thing you and I will do this week. True or false?

They way you answered those questions depends on your understanding of what worship is. What is worship? To echo a question I asked on Easter: what brings you to worship? If you had to describe a worship service to a non-Christian friend, what would you say?
It may come as no surprise to you that I am of the opinion that worship is the most important thing the church does and it is the most important thing you and I will do this week. I believe that with all my heart. Why do I believe that? Well, simply put, worship is a unique and specific way that Jesus Christ himself comes into our lives. We hear his words; he gives his own body and blood in His Holy Supper; He adopts new family members at the baptismal font; and we respond to our living Lord and Savior. The focus of our worship; the center of our worship; the object of our worship is Jesus—the Lamb of God—as the songs of Revelation teach so clearly. In short, Jesus gives himself to us in worship and we react. With that understanding, those true or false questions are pretty easy to answer.
However, it’s no secret that there are many obstacles that get in the way of this simple understanding. If worship is the most important thing we can do, then of course the devil is going to try to distract us or mess up our expectations of worship, or, best of all, prevent us from even making it to worship! Let’s take a moment to identify those obstacles that can rob us of a closer experience of Jesus Christ.
One obstacle—and it is huge—is the fact that you and I live in an entertainment culture. Everywhere we go today, we expect to be entertained. We even have TV shows and entire networks devoted to being entertained. We want to continually be on the edge of our seats. We want to be made to laugh. We want our emotions to be skillfully manipulated; scare us! Make us cry! Inspire us! Make us feel like winners! So we fiddle with the remote until we feel a part of what is happening. We want entertainment. Not only do we want it, we have come to expect it, and if we are not careful, even committed Christians can bring that quest for entertainment into the pew. Because of the culture we live in, we need the reminder that worship is not meant to entertain. Worship is after bigger, better, and deeper goals.
We also find ourselves living in a highly politicized culture. Now hear me right. Holy Scripture can and does speak to every issue of human existence. Our faith ought to be the primary thing that shapes our politics. But if and when political ideology takes the place of God’s Word in the congregation; then you might have a political pep rally, but you are not at worship.
All of this comes together in the fact that our entertainment-centered, highly politicized culture is also consumer-driven, where everything is about me and the bottom line. Worship is really about me, right? Fix me. Entertain me. Make me feel good. Pump me up. Recharge me. Make me feel better. And if you don’t, I’ll go down the street to a church that does. Or I’ll find another god that will revolve around me. This begs the question, “When me-centeredness drives worship choices, who is the one really being worshipped?”
As you can see, we are up against it when it comes to authentic, God pleasing worship. But when we turn to Holy Scripture it becomes all so clear. If you are going to take cues from anyone on how to “do worship,” wouldn’t you take those cues from the Bible—and from heaven itself? So, according to Revelation 5, what is heaven’s worship service like? Let’s take a look!
You have the passage in your bulletin as the Epistle Lesson. The picture is painted in simple strokes. The Lamb, that is, Jesus, is on the throne of God. Angels and faithful people have made a circle around the throne—their worship is literally Christ—centered—and they sing. And as you look at that passage, take note of who the song is directed to. Who and what is this song about? It’s all about what Jesus has done; what Jesus is doing; what Jesus is worthy to do. The focus, the center, the object of worship is Jesus, whose blood purchased people for God from every language and nation.
At the funeral of Louis XIV, perhaps France’s greatest king, the cathedral was packed with mourners. The funeral was held at night, and the only light in that vast sanctuary was one lone candle right by the king’s casket. At the appointed time, the court preacher got up to address the assembly, and he began by snuffing out the candle that had symbolized the greatness of the king. Then, in total darkness he spoke four words: “Only God is great.”
Only God is great. Worthy is the Lamb. The words of our hymns and our liturgy are about what Jesus has done and what He is still doing. Our hymns and services put God’s own Words into our mouths, so that we recount and repeat what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
That brings up another important idea. The Christian faith is a singing faith. Music can express things that words alone cannot. Music can support and enhance our understanding of God’s saving Word. Here in Revelation 5, the heavenly chorus bursts into joyful song. Therefore the church throughout the ages has used music as a vehicle to transport the good news of Jesus. Now having said that, music alone does not save us. That is the work of the Lamb who was slain and lives again. His Word and Sacraments are the pipelines through which his forgiveness and new life flows. The music that has the privilege of carrying this good news serves the message, and as a carrier of the Word it has great power; it conveys a wide range of emotion; and above all it is directed at Jesus; crucified and risen. In the church, we enjoy a vast tradition of faithful song—in today’s service alone, we’re using church music from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. One of the hymns we sang today says it best: “Through the Church the song goes on.” The Song of the Lamb goes on and on…we who make up the Church on earth continue to practice for heaven by encircling the throne of the Lamb and directing our song about him to him. Our slain and living Lamb feeds us and comforts us. Worship that has Jesus at its center really is a slice of heaven on earth.
And boy, how we need to be plugged into that. In a world of car bombs and burnt bodies, how we need Jesus to give us himself and to have the chance to react to him. In a world of false friendships and broken promises, we need to have a place that is ruled by truth and faithfulness. In a world of school shootings and sex offenders, we need to know that in the end, evil does not win. In fact, the kingdom of Jesus Christ has already broken into this world, and it’s found wherever people gather to receive his gifts and to give thanks. How we need heaven to touch down on earth. The secret that is right under our noses is that it does, week after week. The Lamb of God comes to you in Word and Sacrament; and your song blends with heaven’s song.
Maybe the better question to ask about worship is: How can you live without it? Amen.

Monday, October 8, 2007

What Does It Mean to Live By Faith?

My wife and I went to Game Two of the ALDS between the Indians and the Yankees Friday afternoon at Jacobs Field. What a game! I guess you can really see my love for theology and sports intertwine in this message.

“…but the righteous will live by his faith…” Habakkuk 2: 4

If you are a sports fan, you will understand. Even if you’re not, chances are you’ve heard the term, “fair-weather fan.” You know the type. When the team is winning, beating up the competition, going far into the playoffs, the fair-weather fan is front and center. They’ve got the latest merchandise, they talk about how cool the stars of the team are, they’ve got the hot ticket in town and they know it.
But then, when the winning team begins a slide into mediocrity, star players are let go or traded, and the glory days are in the rear-view mirror, the fair-weather fan backs away pretty quickly from the team they used to love, quote-unquote. The fair-weather fan might complain about how bad things have gotten, or they might just bag up the t-shirts and send them to the thrift store.
That is, until the home team starts to put a few wins together again.
LeBron James got in some hot water last weekend when he declared his fan loyalty to the New York Yankees. Regardless of how you feel about that, does it really surprise you that someone would root for the front runner? It’s human nature to attach yourself to a winner. We want to identify with success. The truth is, the fair-weather fans are in the majority, and that’s just the way it is. And so I got on my little sports soapbox today in order to ask you this question. It’s not an easy question to ask or answer. The important questions never are. So here it is:
Are you a fair-weather fan of God?
When you are chalking up wins in your life it’s easy to be God’s fan. However, it’s also easy to start believing that much of the success you’re experiencing is really a result of your talent, determination, and hard work. When you’re on a tear, it’s easy for God to become the coach standing off to the side—yeah, he’s there, he’s watching, he gave me some tips, but I’m the one scoring the points. God is good because he’s helped me win the game of life.
But one loss comes, then another, and as the numbers in the loss column start to climb, we want to look for someone to blame. Heaven knows it can’t be me, since I was the one responsible for all the past victory, so that leaves—oh yeah—the coach. Of course! He should’ve seen this coming! If God was really so great, he would have kept my winning streak alive. Maybe this coach needs to get canned.
Could it be possible that we have been fair-weather fans of God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth?
Six hundred years before the time of Christ, a man named Habakkuk took a look around at his society and all he saw were losses. He saw a culture crumbling in corruption. He saw the courts of law perverting justice. He saw the powerful crushing the weak and the rich abusing the poor. He saw wicked, godless people prospering and good people suffering. His reaction to all this was to say, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”
You know that prayer, and I know it, too. It is the prayer of the faithful person trying not to be a fair-weather fan of God, but having a hard time. If you haven’t prayed this prayer from the depths of a shattered heart yet—just know that the time will come. And if you have, no further description is necessary.
In response to Habakkuk—and to you in your struggles—the Lord says this: “The righteous will live by his faith.”
In response to the person who says, “I am lonely and heartbroken,” the Lord says: “Live by your faith.”
In response to the person who says, “My health is going downhill,” the Lord says, “Live by your faith.”
In response to the person who says, “I’ve lost my job and I don’t know how to support my family,” the Lord says, “Live by your faith.”
In response to the person who says, “There is so much evil and injustice and suffering in the world—Why?” the Lord says, “Live by your faith.”
But what kind of answer is that? What does it mean to live by faith? Does it mean that we bury our heads in the sand? Fiddle while Rome burns? Whistle “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” whenever we feel stressed? Or what?
Living by faith is, first and foremost, a kind of stubborn insistence that what God says is true, and there’s no changing it. If God has said, “I love you,” then He loves me. If God has said, I want to bless you, then he’s going to bless me. If God has said, “I know the plans I have for you—plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future, then hope and a future is what I’m looking forward to. Living by faith is allowing God the final word in all matters of life, with no “buts.” Living by faith is the being sure—absolutely certain—that despite the circumstances staring me in the face, God is going to work in my situation to my good and his glory. And part of living by faith is accepting God’s timing over our own. It’s no secret that we usually want things done yesterday. That may not be God’s timing at all—God told Habakkuk, “Wait for [my help. Living by faith means learning to wait on God, and, oh boy, does this hurt, surrendering control of everything to Him, even our beloved schedule.
Again, living by faith is a kind of stubborn insistence that what God says is true, and there’s no changing it, and that means we remember what God says. It means that even throughout the worst kind of torturous trial we consciously remember that God has said an eternal “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ, His Son, sent to this world to put on our humanity. He said an eternal “yes” to you by dying on the cross as your replacement. He said an eternal “yes” to you by coming out the tomb with the gift of endless life to give. He said an eternal “yes” to you by ascending into heaven, where he stands as your advocate. He said an eternal “yes” to you when you were baptized and connected to Christ. He says an eternal “yes” to you in his body and blood at the Lord’s Table. He says an eternal “yes” to you in the promise of his eventual return. And his “yes” will continue on forever when you take your place at the celebration feast of heaven. Living by faith means stacking up God’s eternal “yes” to you, made possible by Jesus, next to the problems and concerns you wrestle with. What is going to define you? What’s your bottom line going to be? Your circumstances, or God’s “yes,” spoken in Jesus’ name?
And here might be the best news of all. Living by faith is not up to you. The source of your faith is not you. Faith is a gift. God is the Giver. Faith is a tool God gives through the combination of His Word, His Spirit, and His Washing, and by using the tool of faith you are able to live holding onto God’s “yes.” The very ability to live by faith comes from God—and that relieves an enormous amount of pressure on us. Here’s the difference it makes. On our own, we think, “If God loves me, he’ll change the circumstances that trouble me. I’ll try to persuade him to change my circumstances by being as good as I can.” With the gift of faith, we are able to believe, “No matter what my circumstances, I know that God loves me, thanks to Jesus.” On our own, we are fair-weather fans of a God we cannot control. With the gift of faith, we are able to believe that God is always working “behind the scenes” to bring us great good. No wonder St. Paul was moved to write that there is nothing in all creation that is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God has given you the righteousness of his Son to wear like a robe. Wrap yourself in what Jesus has done, and live by your faith. God has made incredible, generous promises to you. Hold him to it. Live by your faith, and live in God’s “yes” today. Amen.