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:
(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.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Contentment: the Lost Value

But godliness with contentment is great gain.” 1 Timothy 6: 6

There once was a rich industrialist who was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat. "Why aren't you out there fishing?" he asked.
"Because I've caught enough fish for today," said the fisherman. "Why don't you catch more fish than you need?' the rich man asked. "What would I do with them?"
"You could earn more money," came the impatient reply, "and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you'd have a fleet of boats and be rich like me."
The fisherman asked, "Then what would I do?" "You could sit down and enjoy life," said the industrialist. "What do you think I'm doing now?" the fisherman replied.

Can you relate to that fisherman? Or do you find yourself on the rich man’s side? Today we have the chance to think about one of the lost values of the Christian faith. That “lost value” is contentment.

In our Epistle lesson, Saint Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy, and near the end of his letter, the topic turns to money—specifically, those who think godliness is a means to financial gain. In direct opposition to such a mindset, Paul writes that “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.” So writes the Apostle Paul.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” Paul holds up contentment as a key value for us to live by. God would like for us to be happy with what we have and to enjoy the blessings we’ve been given. But are we happy— do we enjoy our blessings—or is there something always pulling towards more, more, more?

When you live in a culture that issues slogans like: “He who dies with the most toys wins,” you know you’re going to have a hard time living a contented life. You know you’re going to be challenged when you get e-mail like I got this week. The subject heading read: “The more you buy, the more you save.” The more you buy, the more you save. You are being asked to believe that you are saving money as you spend more and more. Contentment is counter-cultural. Have you ever heard an advertisement or a sales pitch that begins by saying, “You know what? What you have right now is OK. You don’t really need anything else”? Of course not! We are immersed and submerged in a consumer culture that is constantly trying to convince you that you won’t really be happy, you won’t really be fulfilled, you are just going to be the world’s biggest outside-looking-in loser if you do not buy this product immediately. What you’ve got isn’t good enough and people will think you are way behind the times (and what could be worse) unless you purchase this item as soon as you possibly can. Keeping up with the Joneses. Chasing the “American Dream”. All are clich├ęs and all are absolutely real forces that influence our thoughts and motivate our actions. We have been trained to want more and our sinful human nature happily complies.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Amos was warning Israel, but it’s like he was thinking of 21st century America when he said: “You lie on beds…and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.” God is crying out through Amos, “Do you realize that you are teetering on the edge of spiritual ruin? Or are you too busy eating, shopping, and entertaining yourself to care?” Who’s he talking about? Israel? Or us?

Contentment may seem like a totally foreign attitude to you, and if it is, you’re not alone. To simply be happy with what you’ve got is like swimming upstream, it’s like refusing to play the game. People just won’t understand if you say, “I like what God has given me.” If your car costs more than my house, the culture of man says: “You’ve got the juice. You are the coolest. You’ve got it made.” But all you have to ask is: “Is that God’s culture? Is that what God values in a person?” The answer simply is “No.”

God knew that we needed to be saved from ourselves and our own out-of-control desires for more. That’s why Jesus became one of us. That’s why he lived perfectly (and remember: his perfect life was totally devoid of huge houses, fancy cars and a mountain of junk). That’s why he sacrificed his life on the cross—because no bigger and better payment we could come up with would work to pay off the debt of sin. That’s why he came back to life—to give you real life—life that never ends—life that is free from the exhausting, ongoing chase after more. In Christ, you truly have all things. Through the adoption of baptism and the gift of faith you become a family member and friend of the Almighty God. He shares his riches with you, and unlike worldly wealth, his are eternal. His riches do go with you out of this world when nothing else does. He gives you identity. He defines you as His own child. You no longer have to define yourself by what you buy and how new it is or how expensive it is. Instead of running after those things, you are free to run after Christ! Content with what you have and who you are, you can run after godliness and faith! Content with the identity God has given you, you can pursue love, endurance and gentleness. It is good and right for you to want more of these things, because they will actually fill you up! Pursue the way of Jesus, and you will find a peace that the world, with all its “bling,” has no ability to give. Let Christ break the cycle of more that controls your thinking. Enjoy the life that flows from Him, and you may just learn that contentment is right under your nose.

Take, for instance, the man who became envious of his friends because they had larger and more luxurious homes. So he listed his house with a real estate firm, planning to sell it and to purchase a more impressive home. Shortly afterward, as he was reading the classified section of the newspaper, he saw an ad for a house that seemed just right. He promptly called the realtor and said, "A house described in today's paper is exactly what I'm looking for. I would like to go through it as soon as possible!" The agent asked him several questions about it and then replied, "But sir, that's your house you’re describing."

In God’s great design, you may already have what you thought you wanted. Let him take off the “more goggles” and take a new look around at your life. What riches you have! What love you’ve been shown! What forgiveness you’ve been given! All of it given in hopes that you will be drawn to the Giver—that you will be overwhelmed by his generosity—that you will be awestruck by a God who pours out blessing after blessing on people who don’t deserve it. That’s grace, my friends. That’s your Father, Savior, and Friend. Can you not be content with Him?

To be sure, contentment is not always easy to maintain. Paul calls the pursuit of contentment and righteousness—the pursuit of God’s way of life—“the good fight of the faith.” And it is a fight. It’s a spiritual struggle and a war of the will. We will sometimes lose the battle and surrender to the current of more. When that happens, don’t hide it; don’t deny it; return to the Lord, be honest in repentance, and be refreshed by God’s forgiveness, bought and paid for by Jesus. Then, recharged and content in Christ, take up the good fight again.

For God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours forever!

September 29 and 30 + Pentecost 18