Monday, December 31, 2007

Sermon (with video) - Christmas 1 - Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13–23
“Christmas Joy – Christmas Weeping”

It's not even a week after Christmas and already I suspect somewhere, someone is putting up a Valentines' Day display. But in the church we have really just begun to celebrate our Lord's birth. Today is the first Sunday in the short “Christmas Season” and soon it will give way to Epiphany – a season with a Christmas “feel”, in which we recall not only the visit of the Magi, but along with Advent, the season that book-ends our Christmas celebration.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, for as I said, today is the first Sunday in the church's Christmas season, and while the secular world has already moved on, we get to keep singing Christmas songs, celebrating joyfully, and hanging on to that warm fuzzy Christmas feeling, right? Not exactly. Our lectionary smacks us out of any Christmas schmalziness this morning with a terrible story about the slaughter of the innocents.

Herod, that wicked king, in his lust to preserve power at all costs, had a whole village-full of children 2 years and younger killed. Just to be sure he would have no competition for his throne. He had heard, via the wise men from the East, you see, that a king had been born. But they tricked him and returned home without telling him exactly who was the threat. So he did what all evil tyrants tend to do – he killed.

Yes into the season of Christmas cheer the reading comes and ruins it all with the thought of babies dying – innocent babies – at the hand of an evil man. This is how the church celebrates Christmas?

But it happened. The Gospels are not concerned with making us feel good, as much as telling the truth. Matthew is not worried about offending our sense of holiday cheer as much as he is about showing us Christ – and all that that means for us.

So what of it? Why the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, as they are called? Well, one thing we can say is that they weren't truly innocent. Just as all of us, those children of Bethlehem were born into sin. They deserved death just as all of us do. Hard words to swallow, from a human perspective. We look at children, compared to ourselves, and they seem so innocent and pure (and compared to us they are). But God's law doesn't compare us to each other, it only compares us to its own perfect standard. All children of Adam are born sinful and unclean. All are born into a living death, of which physical death is the only foreseeable outcome. Herod just brought their death a little sooner.

But were those children lost? Perhaps not. For these were children of Israel, God's chosen people. And just as we baptize babies today, so did those ancient Jews circumcise their sons. So did they raise all their children in the shadow of God's temple, and under the protection of his promises. They relied on his words of promise which foretold of a Messiah – a Savior from sin and death. And just as sinful David their father before them, and sinful Abraham before him, and yes even sinful Adam himself – they clung to those promises of God's grace and mercy. And so do we.

Those promises were fulfilled in the child Herod was really looking for. The whole point of Christmas is to give hope to tragedies like this. To say to those suffering, in pain, and mourning, “fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy – a Savior is born!”

And the world, like Herod, will try to silence this Word. They will try to distract and make you doubt. The devil will try to make you suffer so much that the pain overwhelms your faith. The world will bring stress and trouble of all fashion and flavor – you know yours as I know mine.

But rather than turn us away from Christ, let us rely on Christ as the Savior from all this. For the promise of his birth, now fulfilled, shows God's faithfulness in all his promises of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and heaven.

And though Rachel was heard weeping in Ramah, in Revelation God himself wipes every tear form his people's eyes. Though in this world, even babies can and do die in sin, also in this world, we are given the rebirth into newness of life that comes from the one who was born for us.

And if you want to talk about joy turned into pain turned into joy again – look to the last week of our Lord's life. There, as he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, the fanfare rivaled any of our Christmas festivals. Then Thursday night began the suffering – with a betrayal, an arrest, torture and sentencing. All seemed lost when they nailed him to a cross, and all his people could do was flee or stand there in tears, watching him die. And when they laid his cold body on the cold slab, no one was joyful but the Herods of the world who thought they had destroyed the King once again. But then the joy came once again, the true triumph, the ultimate glory of resurrection.

Yes, as we consider the Holy Innocents, we must also recall the promise of resurrection. That all who die in Christ will rise to newness of life. There will be an end to Rachel's weeping, when she sees her sons and daughters rise at the last with Christ and all his people.

And that may seem afar off, but it is not. Consider that many of those Bethelehem families were still expecting the Messiah. They didn't know he had arrived! Though perhaps some had heard the rumors of those crazy shepherds not too long ago. It may have seemed a distant future, but for them, he was right there – present among them.

He is present among us today, too. It may seem like his promises are far off, but they are here for us today. His forgiveness and salvation and life are here, just as surely as his body and blood are here, under bread and wine. In humble form, just as he came in humble form to Bethlehem. Whatever tragedy you have faced, whatever cause for weeping and mourning, whatever great sadness or guilt or pain your bring here today – find hope in the Christ. Find forgiveness and blessing. Look forward in faith and trust in a God who always keeps his promises.

God preserved his Son, and kept him from the slaughter, only to give him over to bitter death, later, when the time was right, to a different Herod. God brought his Son, like his ancient people, to Egypt. He recapitulates their journey, for he is the greater Moses who comes to lead all people out of bondage – to sin and death – and to the promised land. And in delivering his Son, he delivers us all. From death as a child, and from the cold dark grave – Jesus was delivered, and so are we.

May your Christmas weeping, whatever it may be, give way to Christmas joy, as you find hope and comfort in the Christ who was born for you.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Considering this coming Sunday's Gospel, I'm thinking of the Flight to Egypt, and how Jesus retraces the steps of ancient Israel in its own flight to Egypt and return to the promised land.

Could we not say that Christ, by doing so, not only recapitulates their sojourn, but also pre-capitulates the journey of us all, out of bondage to sin and into the promised land of his Kingdom of Grace?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sermon - Christmas Day - Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

Today is Christmas. All the shopping and wrapping, all the decorating and preparing, all the card-writing and errand-running has led up to today. In the church, all the Advent hymns, and wreaths, all the mid-week services, all our focus and talk and attention has been leading up to today. The day of Christ's birth, or, at least, the day we celebrate it.

When I was a child and I wasn't doing something as quickly as my parents wanted, I would sometimes hear the sarcastic reminder, “yeah, and Christmas is coming too!” (which worked especially well in January). But today Christmas is here, it's the day we've all been waiting for.
Today – the word, “today” - is also a key word in the Christmas Gospel. It's a word the angels used to announce the news to the shepherds.

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

The Greek word for “today” - “sameron” occurs throughout Luke's Gospel. “Today” Salvation has come to your house, Zaccheus. “Today you will be with me in paradise”. But here is the first instance, in the angelic announcement of Christmas.

There had been many previous announcements. The annunciation to Mary. The dream message to Joseph. The prophets are filled with announcements of the coming Messiah – the Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God. The Immanuel born to the virgin. And we have spent this month-long Advent season rehearsing the promises of the Savior who had long been foretold.

But now, for those shepherds, today is the big day. The day it all comes to fulfillment. The day of Christ's birth.

No, God's salvation isn't sometime, somewhere out there, somehow undefined and unsure. In Christ, in Bethlehem, in the mangers, in swaddling clothes, today, he is born, said the angels. It's as real as it gets.

God always works in time and space for us. It was he who created time, who made the days and cycles of our time, who set the moon and stars in the heavens as signs of time's passage. Who designed the rotation of morning and evening, so that each day begins anew. Who established one special day, the Sabbath, as a day of rest.

There was that day you were baptized, which you probably don't remember. That was a special day. There was the day you were confirmed, which you probably DO remember. Or maybe there are other special, important, momentous days you remember – your wedding day, the birth of a child, a graduation or some other event.

But today, today, is Christmas. It marks that one day, the day in which God's many promises to send a savior came true. He remembered. He came through. Christ the Savior is born.

Today was only necessary because of that dark day in the garden. That day not so long after the first days, when Adam and Eve disobeyed. A truly fateful day which would have ramifications for all other days. But on that same day, God in mercy made a promise, that the serpent's head would be crushed by the seed of the woman. And now, today, Christmas brings that to fruition. Now the offspring of the virgin sets foot on earth – a very human foot, but also divine.

Today he comes for you, too. We mark the first Christmas every year with a special day (even though it probably wasn't December 25th). We remember this day because the Christ-child is born for us, too. Today is our day of good news and great joy- as it is for all people. In the town of David a Savior has been born – to us!

Today. A God who comes in time, to save us who live day to day in sin, and whose days on earth are numbered because of it. Death will come one day. Sometimes the doctors can tell us, roughly, how many days we have left. Sometimes they can even say, “today is your last day”. But what we all know for sure is that one day, sin will come home to roost and bring its wages of death to our body. (Unless Christ comes first, and we see that day.)

But today, death has met its match in the new life of a baby born to die. For as Christmas is a special day, it too points to another day, a Friday. Good Friday, when day turned to night as our Lord suffered. That day when God poured all his wrath and judgment on his Son. That dark day which dealt with all the darkness beginning at Eden and all the shadows that follow.

Oh, but there's one more today worth mentioning – the new day that dawns that Sunday. Easter is never far from Christmas either. Separated by the calendar, but part and parcel of the same purpose. That day, the Lord's day. Just as the first day of creation was a Sunday, so the New Creation is ushered in a Sunday, with the re-birth into life of the Light of the World. Yes, today is Christmas, in which the dark night of Bethlehem breaks in the glorious dawn of celebration. But for us any day with Christ is a new day, in which the light of his love and grace breaks into our dreary sinful existence. Today.

Each day, we remember our baptism, and the Old Adam drowns and the New Adam arises. Today, our sins are forgiven. Today, new life is yours in Christ. Today, it's Christmas, and the best gift isn't under the tree. But he did die on one, only to rise again. Today, it's the day of his birth, and every day he gives you new birth. Today, he has come and is present for you always – even to the ends of the earth. Today, a Savior has been born to us, he is Christ the Lord!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sermon - Midweek Advent 3 - Luke 1:26-35

“Oh Holy Night”

We've been mulling over the theme of holiness this Advent season, considering the “Holy Smokes” that hide God's glory, and surround his presence. Last week we pondered the sin of pride, and the true holiness that comes from the one, Jesus, who really is “holier-than-thou”.
Tonight, as we approach the manger yet more closely, we consider the holiness of the Christ-child himself, especially on the night of his birth.

“Oh, Holy Night” has been one of my favorite Christmas songs, not so much because of the words but the powerful music.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels' voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night Divine.

Just what is it that makes this night, Christmas Eve, so holy? What makes it so divine? It is the arrival, the presence, the birth of the Holy One himself. The “Infant Holy” as yet another Christmas hymn names him. Jesus the Savior is born.

Babies are special. There is something about a baby that gives you that warm fuzzy feeling. We have a natural instinct to protect and care for these cute little people. And as our youngest turns 1 year old on Sunday, it seems the days of babies will be soon gone from our home. I think it's our natural love for babies that drives much of our Christmas piety in America today. Everyone likes Jesus. But now imagine Jesus as a baby, and he's not only the Messiah, but a cute and cuddly one at that! What's not to love?

But I would encourage you to think more deeply about it. Ponder the meaning of this child in the manger. If babies are special, this one is super-special. If babies are innocent, from a human point of view, this child is innocent and sinless even in God's sight. If we set apart babies for special treatment and attention, how much more should the Christ-child be set apart, in our hearts and minds. How much more, since he is holy?

Holiness means perfection and sinlessness, but it is more than that. Holiness also means something is set apart, or special. We can speak of a holy night, or a holy place, or a holy thing. Nights, places, and things can't sin, so holiness means more that just sinlessness. It means being set apart, usually for a special purpose.

The holy night of Christmas Eve is set apart, because it marks the birth of the Holy One. A place is holy because it is set apart for a holy purpose, like this church, set apart from all the regular buildings, set apart as a place where God's Word is preached and his Sacraments are received.
This holy infant is set apart for purpose – to die. To die for the sins of the world. Let that never be lost in our Christmas celebrations. The warm fuzzies of the cute little baby Jesus cannot be separated from his holy purpose as the lamb of God – the sacrifice for the sins of the world – a holy purpose.

We know how to be un-holy. Sin does that rather well. As we have already seen in our series, God's holiness has no room for sin. The sinner who stands in his holy presence can expect only judgment and wrath. Losing holiness was easy for Adam and Eve – all they had to do was disobey. But once it's gone, once the fall happened, holiness becomes impossible to attain. Even our best works are filthy rags in God's sight.

So how do we get holiness? How can we encounter a holy God?

Dr. John Kleinig, an internationally recognized Lutheran authority on the book of Leviticus, describes holiness: “The Lord alone is inherently and permanently holy . . . . Holiness is derived only from him; it is available only by way of contact with him”
We are not inherently holy, but holiness can be derived from him. But how? Can a sinner earn such holiness from God? Surely not. Can we decide to follow him of our own accord? No. Then how can this be?

“How can this be?” was the question asked by faithful Mary, when she first heard the news. She who had no earthly reason to be pregnant was found with child. She who had not known a man would now give birth to the Son of Man. Mary knew about the birds and the bees well enough to know that this was impossible. But with God, and in faith, all things are possible.

Mary didn't decide for it, ask for it, earn it or deserve it. But she was given a blessing so great – she would bear the “Holy One” - the Son of God. And it would happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And while some revere Mary as perhaps holy in her own right, she was no more holy or sinless than you or I. Yet her role and part in the salvation story are special and holy, by way of contact with the Holy One.

We are much like her. We bring nothing to God. No perfection, no merit or worthiness, no act of will, no bright idea. Salvation is God's plan, God's doing, God's gift to us which he gives out of pure grace. And by the power of the Holy Spirit – like for Mary – Christ comes to us. Just as the Holy Word of the Holy angel that announced God's plan made it reality, so does God's holy word of Absolution make our forgiveness real. So does Holy Baptism truly wash our sins away and make us his holy people. So does Holy Communion make us partakers of his holiness. Without him we are not holy. But he is always holy, and he came to make us holy. As his holy, Christian church, we are a communion of saints, a holy people, a royal priesthood, a chosen nation – set apart for him, and in him.

That precious, holy child, who brings holiness with him. He made the manger holy. He made the night holy. He made his mother holy. He made his people holy. He even made the cross holy. Yes, this torture and execution device of the Romans, like a swastika wrapped up in an electric chair, becomes the symbol of our faith, the very bridge between us and the Holy God. If he can even make the cross holy, then surely his blood can, and does make us holy.

Another word for “making holy” is “sanctifying”. We usually think of this as the Holy Spirit's work, but it is only done by connection to Christ, to his cross, and his Gospel promises. In Christ, by his spirit, we are made holy, that is, we are sanctified. So let me close with Paul's blessing to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5):

“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming (the Advent, that is) of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”
In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

CN Notices Lutheran Blogosphere, Comments

Christian News, which I have previously written about here, is a para-church Lutheran newspaper of some influence. I have argued that influence is waning and is devolving, with a larger and larger chunk of Lutheran news and discussion being found on the internet every day.

This issue of CN does a pretty uncritical cut-and-paste job of the BBOV, claiming more than 250 Lutheran blogs. Actually, the list printed in CN includes Aardie's Confessional Lutheran blogs as well as his other lists of links and non-Lutheran blogs.

CN continues to print cynical commentary on this growing media (and I can understand why "old media" is suspicious and perhaps even threatened by the "new media"). Here's the commentary:

Christian News has often suggested that conservative independent Lutheran publications unite. CN frequently says: "It is better to have one publication reaching 100,000 than 10 separate publications each reaching 10,000."

Most of the millions of Lutherans in the U.S. are not being reached with the truth of what is really going on theologically in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many conservatives spend endless hours speaking to one another on the internet. They are not reaching the vast majority of Lutheans. Some bloggers seem to beleive that if they place something on the internet, they are reaching the world. Jesus First with its Jesus First publication is reaching far more than the conservative Lutheran bloggers. There is much more unity among the liberals than among the conservatives.

Here is a list of bloggers...

I won't deny that some Lutheran bloggers overestimate their influence and reach. But I think most are pretty realistic about it. Heck, most of us have hit counters to tell us exactly who is and how many are reading us!

But who can deny that, as a whole, the Lutheran blogosphere (like every blogosphere) is growing in influence and reach? As more and more people become internet-savvy, and as the collective amount of information in Lutheran blogs grows, this can only continue.

I also think there is far more agreement on the blogs than CN knows.

Are there limitations? Sure. Not every blog is equally helpful, or even speaks truth. Many voices means each one gets less attention. But the targeted nature of blog information is very powerful. If someone wants to know about "Lutheran Resources for Golden Compass", guess what comes up first on a google search? A blog.

Check out the Wittenberg Trail, as another new media... not a blog but inclusive of blogs... a place for reaching out to people investigating Lutheranism. How would CN do that? Another advantage of blogs over a newspaper is they are universally accessible to the Lutheran and Non-Lutheran alike.

And another advantage of new media over old is timeliness. Rarely do I read anything CN reports anymore that I haven't already seen elsewhere on the net, usually in a blog. CN is routinely weeks behind on some of the most interesting Lutheran news stories out there. It's a significant disadvantage of a slower medium, and why most major secular newspapers today also publish online versions - to keep up.

What I think CN is slow to admit, is its own waning in influence and its core audience is graying and dying. I think even Jesus First, with all its funding and ogranizational prowess, is behind the curve of the grassroots blogosphere.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Anyone see anything wrong with this?

Introducing... The Lutheran Blog of the Year Award

The Lutheran Blog Directory will be honoring one blog with the distinction of "Lutheran Blog of the Year - 2007". Voting is now open.

Rules are as follows:

1. Vote only once

2. Do not vote for your own blog

3. Vote before January 1st, when I will tabulate results and announce the winner.

Vote by simply dropping a line here, to the LBD webmaster (me).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Props to the Thrift Shops

One of the quiet ways Lutherans have volunteered in this town for decades has been at the Racine Lutheran High Thrift Shops. Over the course of time, they have generated more than a million dollars of support for the school. It's nice to see the local paper giving them some attention here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Farewell Dr. Luther!

Alas, one of my favorite blogs is being discontinued. "Luther at the Movies", explains the good doctor, will be no more.

I will have to follow Luther's good-for-nothing assistant as his other blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sermon - Midweek Advent 2 - Matthew 3:1-11

Matthew 3:1-11
“Holier than Thou”

Tonight we continue our midweek Advent series, “Holy, holy, holy”. Last week we considered God's holiness and the “holy smokes” which surround it, and found sin and grace in the smokes mentioned in Scripture. This week, we ponder John the Baptist and the Pharisees, and turn to another everyday phrase with biblical application.

It's one of the ugliest insults someone call make today – that someone is “holier than thou”. And yet it's also a charge leveled at many of us Christians. Those of us who believe in God's word, who practice our faith, who go to church and try to live lives pleasing to him – aren't always regarded so highly by those who do not. And whether it's something you say that tweaks them or just your example of faith, chances are many of you have been called “holier than thou”, whether you even know it or not.

Sometimes, it's because you give a witness or testimony to the truth of God's word. Sometimes you just tell someone about Jesus. Sometimes you call a sin a sin, even in a very gentle way, not because you are proud and arrogant, but because that's what the Bible says. God forbids homosexual activity. He hates divorce. He does not condone abortion. But now you are a self-righteous so-and-so, a bible thumper, a goody-goody ultra-conservative right-wing-nut-job for simply pointing to the clear word of God.

And then you think to yourself: It's unfair of them, isn't it? Those heathens and unbelievers. Those false teachers and poor lost sheep following them. If only they believed the right doctrine, as we do. If only that had faith as we do. If only they weren't so proud and arrogant – and if they were a little more humble, like me. Yes, I am the perfect believer, the true child of God. Ok, I'll admit it, I'm not exactly perfect. Oh, I'm not holier-than-thou, but I sure do try harder than those guys. God must like me more, because of it. Of course, because I'm... well....

Pride. What an insidious sin. For all the sins of the unbelievers and wrong-believers, we church-going Lutheran types are oh-so susceptible to pride, arrogance, and vanity. Pride was the sin of the Pharisees, well a big one anyway. They thought they had it all together. They thought they were right with God. After all, they were good Jews, with Abraham as their father! But John called them out. He said they were children of snakes.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” Wow.

If someone talked to you that way... well, the nerve! If someone talked to me that way, I'd be ready for a fight. Our natural inclination to that sort of verbal attack is to put up our mental dukes and prepare to swing back.

“Who are you to tell me!?” “Oh, you're so much better!” “You don't know me. Walk a mile in my shoes.” Or you simply dismiss the messenger as holier-than-thou so you don't have to hear the message any more.

But that message is the law of God, and it won't go away. The pointing finger of John the baptist keeps poking at us, and the flimsy shield of our pride cannot long protect us from the laser-beam of God's accusation. You are a sinner. You need to repent. Turn from those sins. Don't just go through the motions. Don't make excuses. Don't kill the messenger. Don't try to put the focus on the other guy's sins. Repent. Turn from your wicked ways and ask God's forgiveness for the wrongs you have done.

For the truth is, as much as we get unjustly called “holier than thou”... sometimes, it is true. Sometimes we do feel self-righteous when we tell someone off. When we get into an argument about religion at the holiday family gathering, and forget that we too are poor sinners that need God's correction. When we make a snide comment about what the world is coming to nowadays, and forget we are a part of that sinful world. When we get that sense of satisfaction and glee in showing how this sinner or that sinner is so sinful, because it takes the spotlight off of this sinner (me).

I once saw a T-shirt, that I almost bought, “Proud to be Lutheran (but not too proud)”. It's true that we believe our Missouri-Synod Lutheran understanding of the Bible is the best, the truest, the most faithful. We have the right understanding of the sacraments, of being saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. We guard against decision theology and works-righteousness. We are careful not to be influenced by those, even other Christians, who teach falsely. But how often do the blessings of good doctrine become, for us, another temptation to pride and arrogance? Like any other good gift and blessing of God, we can find a way to make it sinful.

For the sin of pride, for being holier than thou, and for all our other sins, we repent, O Lord. Help us to truly listen to your accusing law, and not turn it away, but instead to confess before you all our wrongdoing, all our failures and faults. May we bring them to the foot of the cross, before the one who takes them away, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yes, Jesus Christ, the one who truly is holier-than-thou, but in a good way. Never arrogant but always humble. He if anyone had a right to assert his holiness. For he was like us in every way, yet without sin, says the book of Hebrews. He is the Holy One of Israel, who was long expected by God's people of old. Foretold by the prophets, those ancient holy men. And John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, the last of the prophets, would testify the same. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals”. He is that much more holy.

And we might expect that someone so holy came to give us a perfect law that we could follow. We might expect that he would come to show us the truth path, the right way to please God. That by following his example we could qualify for heaven. But he doesn't. Jesus wasn't about teaching us how to be holy or showing us how to make ourselves holy. Instead, he makes us holy.

He lives a holy life of perfection, and gives us the credit. We are clothed in him, and so also, in his holiness. In Baptism, we receive his holy name, indeed, the name of the Triune God, and all the benefits that go with it. We are made holy ones, saints of God.

He dies a holy death, the once and for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God, as John called him, to take away the sin of the world. It is that sin that made us unholy, and holy precious blood shed by him takes it away, making us holy again.

Holiness, not my holiness but the holiness of Christ, becomes a way of life then for the Christian. And so we strive to walk the fine line.

Maintaining the truth, while remaining humble, is no easy task. Staying faithful to God without being prideful about it – easier said than done. Living a holy life, worthy of our calling, is always a goal. But saints who are also sinners will come up short. And so we live lives of continual repentance.

Even our repentance can never be perfect, but God's grace in Christ is. We can't do it without him, in fact, we can't do it at all. But he does it all for us. His Spirit assists and empowers us, calls us to repentance, and points us to the forgiveness Jesus brings. He makes us holy, and we live in his grace.

So in humble faith, turn away from sin, and from arrogant pride, and turn toward him. And he will guard your hearts and minds with a peace that passes understanding, in Jesus Christ, who is holier-than-thou, for your blessing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Jew on Christians on Mormons

Dennis Prager, the Jewish columnist, writes a handy little piece with which a Lutheran like me can agree. "In Politics Values Matter, Not Theology"

Prager may use some different lingo than we may, "morals" instead of "civil righteousness" for instance...

I also agree with his take on the objection many Christian have with Mormons - that it would be less strenuous if Mormons didn't insist on calling themselves Christians.

I guess, having said all this, I too would echo Prager:
"None of this is an endorsement of Mitt Romney's candidacy or of his values. It is an endorsement of the irrelevance of his theological beliefs. "

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sermon - Isaiah 6:1-11 - Midweek Advent 1

Isaiah 6:1-11
“Holy Smokes”

Can you imagine being Isaiah, and seeing this sight? He has a vision of the temple, and, well, he would have been to the temple many times. But this time, in his vision, it's not only the house of the Lord, but the Lord is “in the house”. God's throne is there, and Isaiah sees it, and the train of the Lord's very impressive robe fills the entire temple. He also sees some pretty impressive angels.. the Seraphim... God's personal attendants. And they are singing that eternal song, a song we still echo, the Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty” and while the temple is filled with the train of his robe, the “whole earth is filled with his glory”

For this series of midweek Advent services, we will keep that ancient canticle in mind, and consider the theme of holiness.

Tonight, a new twist on an old saying that we use to express surprise and wonder – perhaps you've said it yourself, “Holy Smokes!”

No, it's not just an exclamation from our everyday speech, it's also a description of God's Old Testament appearances. Holy smokes surround God as he descends onto Mt. Sinai. Holy smokes fill the temple air at his appearance to Isaiah. But why the smoke? What does it mean?

To understand, we first must appreciate what holiness is. God's holiness. Most of us would define holiness as being without sin. And that's a good start. God certainly is that. But more than that, God's holiness is so pure and perfect that anything unholy or less than holy cannot be in his presence. Or, put another way, God hates what is unholy and his righteous anger destroys it.

And it's not just like Isaiah was encountering a little bit of holiness. He wasn't simply standing in the Holy Place of the temple, where the priests got to go. He wasn't even in the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest went once a year. He was in the presence of the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty. The most holy, the superlative holy, the one whose holiness out-holies any other holy. And Isaiah comes to a shocking revelation. “I am not holy. I am dead.”

And so is the response of the sinner to holiness. God's holiness, righteousness, perfection and glory are so incredibly overwhelming and supreme, that for us as flawed and sinful and wicked as we are – to stand in his presence – means total annihilation. Like the light chasing away darkness or the way the snow outside would melt if you put it on the surface of the very sun.

We too, would be ruined in the presence of God. And we too, should fear such a judgment, if we try to stand on our own merits in the face of his holiness. We'd be exposed for all our evil deeds. We would fall so short on the judgment day before his throne, if we had to list our good deeds and answer for our bad ones. We couldn't even approach his holiness.

But like Isaiah, we don't have to. For he makes us clean. Just as Isaiah was cleansed by the hot coal from the altar of sacrifice, we are cleansed by the once and for all sacrifice, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Just as a man of unclean lips was saved from ruin by the will of a gracious God, so are we saved and forgiven when Christ's body and blood touch our lips, and his word reaches our ears.

And then, Christ's righteousness, Christ's merit, Christ's holiness, become ours.

But back to the smoke. Smoke has several connotations, which are instructive to our faith.

First, is the idea of hiding or obscuring. There are certain things about God that cannot be known. Certain things are hidden. The day and hour of Christ's second coming, for instance. Or why he allows this or that evil to occur. The Bible, his revelation to us, says much. Many things we could not otherwise know are there revealed. But the Bible doesn't have ALL the answers. God retains for himself the knowledge of many things above and beyond us. And as such, it's as if they are enshrouded in smoke. Behind the veil, or as the hymn says, “beyond our ken” (or knowledge).

Similarly, God's glory is obscured at times, his true nature and essence, so that we sinners are not overwhelmed by it. Moses was not to see God, but from behind – lest he look him face to face and be destroyed. God comes to us, so often, under a hidden form. In a burning bush. In a pillar of smoke. In simple bread and wine. As a tiny babe in swaddling clothes. And yet there, is the hidden-ness dwells all the majesty of his eternal glory – for us, and for our benefit and blessing. Holy Smokes, indeed.

And, where there's smoke, there's fire. Smoke can be what is left after God's wrath is poured out, as on Sodom and Gamorrah. “Smoke in his nostrils” is a wonderful Old Testament expression for God's righteous anger over sin. But such anger is put away for us in Christ.

Another idea associated with smoke, in biblical terms, is the smoke of the sacrifices and the incense of prayers that rise up to God. Perhaps this was the smoke that filled the temple in Isaiah's vision. This smoke is pictured in the book of Revelation, the prayers of the saints, carried to God by an angel. When we receive God's grace and mercy, we respond in faith and love and prayer, and as those prayers rise to God's presence, they are a pleasing aroma.

And finally, smoke is easily blown away, and so serves as a picture of the fleeting nature of this world. The Psalmist writes, “my days vanish like smoke” and Isaiah writes about the day of judgment, “the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.” Yes, though this world and this life are temporary and will be blown away like wisps of smoke, the Lord and his word endure. Though this holiday season will last only a short time, the reason for the season remains throughout the year. Though Christmas will come and go, his salvation shall never end.

For many years, God's people saw only dimly, as through smoke, the salvation that was planned for them in the person of Jesus Christ. But they still trusted a God who always kept his promises. Then a child was born, a humble man taught and preached and died. And in that hidden form was God's salvation for all people. And one day that same Christ will return, to visit judgment on sin, death and the devil, and to take us who share in his holiness to an eternity with him and the Father. Holy smokes! What a wonderful surprise, what a wonderful Advent promise. In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reformation Polka

Romeny on Lutherans

From his "big speech" on being a Mormon:

"I love... the confident independence of the Lutherans"

... interesting. Here's the full paragraph:

"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings."

When did Christianity Begin?

A minor flap on the TV show "The View". The new co-host Sherri Shepherd made some ill-informed comments about the origins of Christianity (meaning well I am sure).

The discussion came to, "when did Christianity begin" and Shepherd argued it was around at the time of Epicurius and the Greek philosophers, in fact, "I don't think anything predated Christians," she remarked.

Well, no and yes.

Epicurius lived about 300 years before the birth of Christ. In one sense, the sense that most people will understand, Shepherd is obviously mistaken.

But was she right, in spite of herself?

Maybe if we take the label "Christianity" off of it, and simply call it "Faith in Christ", the questions changes. When did people begin having "Faith in Christ"?

Hebrews 11 (one of my favorite chapters of the Bible) clearly shows the faith of many Old Testament believers. That faith was, ultimately, in Christ. They didn't know his name would be Jesus, and that he would die on a cross for them. But they looked forward in faith and trusted God's promise to send a savior.

In fact, the first Christians were really Adam and Eve. They received the first promise of the Christ, in the midst of God's curse on the serpent, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." That seed, the snake-head-crusher, is Christ.

In a sense, Abel was a Christian. Enoch was a Christian. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab were all Christians. As were "Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets", and every other believer who anticiapted the advent of the promised Messiah.

So Christianity really is the oldest religion, from this perspective. But try explaining THAT on "The View".

Everything I Need to Know....

St. James the Hoosier with a nice post, Everything I need to know about Life in Christ, I learned in the Divine Service

Monday, December 03, 2007

In the LCMS E-News....

Title of article: "Synod colleges see record enrollment"

Buried at the bottom:
"This year's 2,237 church-work students include 1,294 teachers (down 8), 356 directors of Christian education (down 64), 326 pre-seminary (down 42), 152 lay ministers (down 17), 35 directors of family life ministry (down 25), 33 directors of parish music (up 2), 21 deaconesses (down 6), 20 directors of Christian outreach (down 9).

Also down is the number of LCMS students attending CUS schools -- that figure fell from 4,878 in 2006 to 4,841 this year, a drop of 37 students, or 1 percent. The number of "other Lutherans" rose, though -- from 1,261 to 1,466, an increase of 205 students, or 16 percent."

Perhaps the headline should have read: "Synod colleges see less Lutherans and Church Workers"

Lutheran question: "What does this mean?"

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Wittenberg Trail on Ning

Just found the neatest new site - sort of a MySpace for Confessional Lutherans:

Check it out.

Monday, November 26, 2007

WSJ on Tithing

The Wall Street Journal has a recent piece on "The Backlash Against Tithing".

For a good Lutheran perspective on tithing, I would refer you to this Q & A from "Ask the Pastor" by Rev. Walter Snyder. I wholeheartedly agree with his entire answer!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sermon (with video) - Last Sunday of Church Year - Luke 23:27-43

It's good to be back from my recent visit to Israel, and I thank you all for your kinds thoughts and prayers for the safe journey of our group from Grace that went along with me. We had a wonderful time, learned a lot, took many pictures, and have many stories to tell. Sometime in January, in fact, I plan to make a presentation of our trip for any who are interested.

Among the sites we saw was the “Via Dolorossa”, or the way of the cross. As Jesus carried his cross from his condemnation before Pilate to the hill where he would be crucified, Christians have marked out the supposed path and the various events along the way. Whether the Via Dolorossa is accurate or not, we will likely never know for sure. But scripture does tell us some of what happened along that road. We read some of it today from Luke's Gospel.... (text)

As you probably know, our church calendar begins in December, and closes this last Sunday in November. And as the calendar draws to a close, the readings highlight the theme of the end times. Judgment day. The final harvest, the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of all things.

But here in Luke's Gospel, we find ourselves not on the last day, but on the day of Christ's crucifixion. A dark day in which the forces of evil are seeming to triumph. A day in which a guilty man is freed and an innocent man is condemned. A day of much weeping and moaning and grieving and mourning. A bitter day for the man of sorrows, the suffering servant.
But on his way to the ultimate suffering for our sake, Jesus makes this strange comment about weeping not for him, but for Jerusalem. What?

You've probably all heard someone talk about their own funeral like this, “When I go, I don't want anybody crying. I want it to be a party! No funeral dirges. It should be a celebration!” Such sentiments are usually a statement of the person's faith and trust that their death will not be the end of them, and thus, with the Lord, a happy ending.

Don't cry for me... but how can we not? How can our love for Christ not make us weep at the sight of his execution. Who wants to see Jesus suffer? We certainly view the cross of Christ with a sober and solemn eye. But for Christians, it is also a cause for joy. We know the meaning of the cross, and that the blood shed there is for our life. The sorrow there sets us free from sorrow. His suffering brings us eternal comfort and rest with God. And this cross would not be the end of him, as his resurrection would bring the victory. So don't weep for Jesus. He doesn't want your tears of pity.

But he also isn't simply telling us to think happy thoughts and turn our frown upside down. There will be plenty of weeping to do.

Weep for Jerusalem. Jesus, Son of God but also the ultimate prophet, knew that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed. And history tells us that some 40 years after Good Friday, the Romans did just that. They laid siege to the city, slaughtered her inhabitants, and destroyed the Temple itself. Jesus knew it was coming. He told his disciples as much: “not one stone here will be left upon another”.

But more than that, it was the Jewish rejection of the Messiah that was true cause for weeping. For though some did receive Jesus as the Christ, many did not. And for them, physical destruction such as happened to Jerusalem is really a small concern. Jesus wept for a city and a people who should have welcomed him as the promised one, the long-awaited savior, but instead who rejected him, mocked him, and put him to death. The earthly destruction on their horizon was merely a taste of the eternal destruction faced by all who reject Christ.

Today the church weeps for all the lost. We call out with the Gospel to the nations Jew and Gentile, who do not know Christ and don't even want to. We cry out with words of law, calling for repentance. We are decried as legalists and hypocrites and worse for simply pointing to God's written words of law. No one likes to hear they are wrong, much less the unbeliever.
But we also cry out with the good news of Christ's forgiveness. Like the voice of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, “repent, for the kingdom is near!” The church offers hope to the sinner, the same hope we have received in Christ. And when sinners repent and receive the kingdom, we cry tears of joy, along with the angels in heaven.

And if we weep, it should also be over our own sin, which sent Jesus to the cross. It should be over our continuing failure to do God's will and our ongoing love affair with evil. What wretched, miserable sinners we are. Tears of repentance and sorrow are appropriate. But they are followed by the joy of forgiveness, the blessed peace that passes understanding, the comfort of a holy and certain hope in Christ who takes our weeping and mourning away. And the promise that God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Today, the New Jerusalem, that is, the Church, also undergoes suffering and trouble. Whether it is persecution for the sake of Christ, or simply the troubles and woes of a life lived in a sinful world, there is always some cause for weeping. We are living in the end times, after all, and creation's birth pangs come and go as the day of fulfillment draws near.

There are days, when we look around us and see the wretched state of the world, we may wish we never had children. Why bring them into a world like this? There are days, when things get bad, we may wish that we were never born, or that we could hide under a rock.

But as bad as things get, even in our text, with Christ there is always hope. Look at what happens here. How hopeless it seems. Jesus is condemned, he is hung on a cross. The final sentence is passed. And yet there is hope.

The crowds mock him. The Jewish leaders mock him. Pilate mocks him with the sign above him. He has no friends left. Just his mother and a few others who stand by helplessly watching him die. We know that even God the Father would soon forsake him. And yet there is hope.

The soldiers even divide his clothes – his only remaining earthly possessions. He truly has nothing, and it would seem, has nothing to look forward to but a shameful and despicable death. And yet there is hope.

As the thief on the next cross – himself in hopeless – turns to Christ, faith makes a request – remember me. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

How could a man in the midst of dying for his crimes, a man who was just as bad off as Jesus, a man with no hope – turn to another man with no hope and speak of the future? A kingdom? Does he look like a king to this thief, or to anyone else? Does he look like he has a future?

But faith sees it. Faith believes and trusts in the King of the Jews who came to save Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world. Faith looks to Christ on the cross, and amidst the blood and sweat and tears, sees life and forgiveness and hope. And faith is not disappointed.

There is hope. Jesus promises paradise to the thief, and to you and me. Not someday afar off. Not only at the last day, or even only at the day of our death. But today. We are in his kingdom. We are citizens of heaven. We enjoy the blessings of his grace, by the gift of faith. And we have paradise.

We have paradise when we hear his word of forgiveness, when we remember our baptism, and when we receive his body and blood. We are then with Jesus, today, even here and now. And with Jesus there is always hope, even amidst weeping. Even for Jerusalem.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 on Willow Creek

Friends of Preachrblog over at have some comments on the recent admission by Willow Creek that it is not producing "mature Christians".

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Why My Trip to Israel Wasn't "Spiritually Uplifting"

Well, Scott, I guess I should expand on that comment...

I suppose anyone who goes to Israel and has some knowledge of it from their Christian faith would find it departs from expectations. I know mine did in many ways. But I don't think I was expecting to be "spiritually uplifted" in the first place.

Some take trips like this for religious purposes. I did not. I saw, of course, many who were on a spiritual pilgrimage, and found great meaning at these holy sites. Every rock or cave with a purported biblical event attached had a church (sometimes several) built on top of it. And a stream of the faithful would usually be right there to kiss the rock or toss in their dollars and notes of prayer. I found this, in a way, strangely sad.

I wasn't on a pilgrimage, or looking for renewal of my faith. This was no "haj" for me. I didn't kiss the stones, or even touch them. I didn't carry the cross down the Via Dolorssa. I didn't "feel the presence of God" any more or less than I would somewhere else.

I find everything I need for my faith in God's Word and Sacraments. In fact, looking elsewhere for spiritual blessing seems dangerous, to me. So many things, even the explicitly religious things, even Christian shrines and holy sites, can so easily take our focus off of Christ. So much of what I saw there smacked of Roman Catholic suprerstition "Kissing the Blarney Stone for Christians".

This is not to mention the tourist-ification of these sites. I recall several pictures I took which illustrate the crass juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane.

Who knows if these sites were legitimate? In many cases, I think they were not. But in some, they were likely the right spot. Even if they were, so what? God has made no promise of blessing from touching Christ's footprint on the site of the Ascension, or the table where he cooked the disciples breakfast on the beach. God is no more likely to hear your prayer stuffed in the crack of an ancient temple wall than the one uttered in your queit thoughts.

But God has promised that he can be found in his word. He has promised to forgive our sins in his Supper. He has promised to save us by baptism. These promises are not only all we need, but they are the only apporpriate places for Christians to seek his blessing.

Was the trip worthwile? Sure! I found it very educational, interesting, and even fun. But not "spiritually uplifting".

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Back from Israel

Man, what a trip! You should go.

It was amazing and educational and fascinating and lots of fun. I don't know that I could say it was spiritually uplifting, but here are some of my general impressions:

Everything was so much SMALLER than I thought it would be. Even the Sea of Galillee... I never pictured that you could so easily see all the way across. The Old City of Jerusalem, likewise... not so big.

The culture(s) - very different from our own. I was also struck by the stark contrast between the Israeli/Jewish areas and the Palestinian/Arab areas. I do feel I have a better grasp of the complex nature of the dilemma over there now too.

Most of the "holy sites" were not very impressive. Kudos to the Garden Tomb people though for actually sharing the Gospel as part of their tour (talked about sin and the atonement and Christ's work on the cross for us, and everything!) Up until then we hadn't heard any such message from any of the sites we visited. But lots of icons and brass candlesticks and other stuff.

I will try to post some of my 1000 pictures here for you to see, but I won't bore you with them all of course. Sometime in January maybe I will do a powerpoint type presentation for the congregation about my trip - again, an abridged version.

Here's one of my favorite pics, from the window above the altar at the church of Dominus Flevit (the Lord's Weeping for Jerualem). This window looks out over the old city, to the west, from the Mt. of Olives. I just liked the ironwork and the depiction of the Sacrament there in particular.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sermon - Reformation Day (Observed) - John 8:31-36

John 8:31-36
“Free at Last”

“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last” So ends the famous “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the well-known civil rights activist. I don't know if you have ever listened to that speech, but it was part of my studies in a public speaking class long ago, and to this day, when I hear it, it gives me chills. What a powerful case King made for the freedom – the true freedom – of African Americans from discrimination and institutional racism.

Today, we celebrate Reformation Day. And we have on our minds another Martin Luther – the original one. He too was concerned with freedom, but of a different kind. He too had some powerful words to share. His famous speech, the “Here I Stand” speech, was uttered before the Roman Emperor who told him to recant or face the consequences. For Luther, a different kind of freedom was at stake.

And then there is Jesus Christ himself, whose words in John 8 tell us what true freedom is really about. Freedom from sin, which comes by knowing the truth. Freedom from slavery. Freedom as sons. This freedom in Christ, the freedom of the Gospel, is what the Reformation of the Church was all about, and what it's still all about today.

Someone recently pointed out to me that when we Americans think of freedom, we usually think of the freedom to work where we want, to practice what religion we want, to choose what to eat and how to dress. But liberty, freedom, is much more than just this kind of thing.

Throughout the ages, people have often been enslaved – or at least had their freedoms limited. The ugly history of African slavery in America is just one chapter in the long story of humans being cruel to one another. Despots and tyrants of all fashions have enslaved and taken captive various peoples for various reasons. I just heard this week on the radio, that some 25-40 million people around the world today are still effectively living in slavery.

Slaves are treated poorly, usually. They are considered to be worth less than the free man. Perhaps not even thought of as persons, but as property to be used and abused at the master's will. None of us would like to be a slave of any kind in any place or time of history.
But we're not here today for a history lesson or a lecture on contemporary social justice. We have bigger fish to fry.

Jesus gets to the heart of it. Slavery to sin is the real problem. Since everyone who sins is a slave to sin, then that must include all of us. This slavery cuts across ethnic and national lines. It is a slavery of the rich and poor alike. It affects all who have Adam's blood running through us. All who have inherited his nature and likeness. We are slaves from birth. Slaves to sin and under the shadow of the death sin brings.

But this slavery goes deeper. Every time we do wrong, every time we break the law, sin becomes our master all the more. Though we are born into the slavery of original sin, we have no hope of working or earning our way free. Sin rules our lives, our speech, even our thoughts. Everything we do is touched and tainted by sin. We are captives. We wouldn't even now how to get out of our predicament, much less where to run if we could.

And what a cruel master sin is. It causes us heartaches and pain while promising pleasures untold. How many times have you been tempted to sin, to do something you full well know is wrong, and you also know exactly what the consequences will be, and you go ahead and do it anyway. Sin becomes the master. We are enslaved.

Sin brings discord and dissension, war, suffering and death. Sin is worse, because it separates us from our true master and Lord, the one who created us in his own image – an image now smeared and unholy. We are slaves to the cruel master sin which would bring us to the worst of places – an eternity separated from our God, an everlasting punishment we so thoroughly deserve.

As slaves to sin, we are also prisoners. There is no escaping to an underground railroad of good works. There is no sneaking away from sin, or fighting it. We are not strong enough. We are helpless, and we are hopeless. Until Jesus comes.

Jesus tells us the truth that sets us free. What is this truth? We call it the Gospel. The Good News. The Good News that he, Jesus Christ, died on the cross to earn forgiveness for your sins. The Good News is not that you have the opportunity to pay for your own sins. The Good News is not that if you try hard enough, God will do the rest. The Good News is that Jesus has done it all – as a pure gift, free, without cost – by grace.

He is the truth that sets us free, he is the way to the Father, he is the life that never dies. The way, the truth, the life, Jesus Christ. His Gospel sets us free from sin, death and the devil, and even from hell and its fiery threats.

In our nation's history, one man in particular is credited with freeing the slaves. Abraham Lincoln, who delivered the Emancipation Proclamation and thus declared all slaves in the southern states to be free. For this, and for winning America's bloodiest war that finally did bring the institution of slavery to an end, Lincoln is known as “the Great Emancipator”.

We Christians have an even greater Emancipator, who frees us from an even worse slavery. Jesus Christ declares, proclaims, decrees: “The Truth will set you free”. Jesus Christ wins the freedom for you, for me, for all the world. He paid a bloody price, gave his own body into death, so that we are freed for eternal life. And he still gives his own body and blood to us, in his Supper, for the forgiveness of our sins, for our life and salvation.
Martin Luther was merely a man whom God used to bring the truth to light again. It was never fully lost, only obscured. The church was never really enslaved, but she was beset by false teaching. So in his great mercy, God brought reform and renewal. That's what the Reformation was about, and what we remember on this day. Many of those who taught and preached falsely repented, and learned about freedom anew. Today we too step back and appreciate the freedom of the Gospel – freedom from sin, freedom from death, and freedom to live as Christ's people, walking in his light. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last! Amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Trip to Israel... Upcoming

On November 4th I leave for a tour of Israel with a small group from our congregation. We will be sharing a bus and tour guide with a group of Roman Catholics from Hawaii and some Presbyterians from Pittsburgh. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right?

"So a bunch of Catholics, Presbyterians and Lutherans get on a bus..."

Anyway, as I make preparations for the tour, I was wondering if any of my kind blog readers had ever been to the Holy Land and could offer some advice, like....

Any "must see" attractions? Anything to avoid?

Anything I should take that might not be obvious?

A food or beverage I should try while there? (I am looking forward to some good falafel and Israeli beer)

Or other advice for my trip?


Monday, October 22, 2007

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Genesis 32:22-30

“Struggling With God”

Life is tough. Everybody's got their story. Some are better, or worse than others. But even people way better off than you have their problems, their struggles.

Jacob was just trying to do his thing, make a good life for himself. Maybe he thought it was easy street once he tricked his brother out of the blessing. But then he had to flee for fear of Esau's vengeance.

Maybe he thought he had it made when he met that beautiful woman at the well, but then he learned he would have to work 7 years for her hand in marriage. Of course, then he was the one that was tricked when he had to marry her sister Leah first, and then work another 7 years. More struggle.

Maybe he thought he had it made when his flocks and herds were so successful, but his Father-in-law couldn't take it anymore, and so Jacob had to pick up his life, his stuff, and his family, and flee again.

But as he came to the Jabbock River, Jacob would have the struggle of his life. He met a man, and there they wrestled. All night long, a stalemate, neither prevailing. Finally Jacob realized this was no mere man, but a manifestation of God himself, and Jacob asked for his blessing.

A cycle of struggle and success, such was Jacob's life. And such was the life of the children of Israel. Struggling to make ends meet in Canaan. Struggling under the rod of the Egyptian oppressor. Struggling against the Philistines and Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Wrestling with God and faith in the midst of a pagan world, with temptations to be like the other nations, worship their idols, practice their immorality. It was a struggle in which they often failed. Yet it was also a struggle in which God blessed them.

He blessed them in so many ways. By rescuing them from slavery. By feeding them in the desert. By telling them his personal name, and by showing his identity through his actions. By bringing them to the promised land, and conquering it for them. He blessed them with his presence in Tabernacle and later Temple. He gave an entire system of sacrifice, by which their sins could be dealt with. And he would bless them powerfully in a little town called Bethlehem, and at a place called Golgotha.

In all their struggles with enemies and hardships, their greatest struggle was to remain faithful. Of all the blessings given, the one that meant the most was the coming Savior in whom that faith rested.

Then there are the modern day children of Israel, who follow in their father Jacob's footsteps. I'm not speaking of the Jewish people, but the children of Israel by faith. The church of Jesus Christ. We too struggle, wrestle, and contend with God.

We, like all people, have struggles in life. I don't have to tell you what your problems are – you know them. Whether it is people problems, family issues, conflicts at work, failing health, or some other heartache. These all spring from sin in its various forms.

Then there is the spiritual struggle. We strive to live as Christians, to do God's will, but we fail so easily. Sometimes it seems the more you try not to sin, the more you end up sinning. If we could just go one day, one hour, one minute without sin! But, no. Sin's gotten into our nature.

We mean to do well, but we end up doing wrong. Like St. Paul who struggled with the Old Adam, “the good that I want I do not do, but the evil that I do not want to do, this I do. Wretched man that I am!”

Maybe there's a particular sin on your mind, with which you are struggling. Maybe you've been hounded by it for years, and you cannot overcome it. Only Christ can.

Struggling with sin is also a struggle with God. Will we rely on ourselves and our own devices, or will we acknowledge God as the giver of gifts? Jacob came to the realization, after his long struggle, that he needed God's blessing. And so must we.

We cannot win the struggle against God. But he continues to engage us. Sometimes he shows us who's really in control, as he did by touching Jacob's hip and throwing it out of joint. A reminder of his helplessness before God that would be with him the rest of his life. But in helplessness there is blessing. The passive reception of God's gifts is way better than the false dream of earning it on our own.

For God ended the struggle at the cross, through his Son, Jesus. There the night of our rebellion becomes the dawn of a new life with God. There he gives us his blessing, and changes our name – giving us the name of Christ to bear. More than that, the Triune name of God which is placed on us at baptism.

As Christians, we carry the cross with us every day to remind us how the struggle ended there. His cross makes our little crosses bearable, and we struggle and suffer with his strength and by his power.

And just as God blessed his people Israel in ways too countless to mention, so does he bless us, the New Israel.

Like the wicked, he gives us the blessings of physical life. Home and family, food and shelter, land, animals and all we have.

But unlike the wicked, we who are in Christ receive every spiritual blessing through him. So now, forgiveness, life, salvation. A promised future of eternal joy in his presence. A resurrection and restoration of this failing flesh, and a joyful reunion with God and all the saints who have gone before us.

As Jacob, now Israel, crossed the river into the promised land, his struggles would continue. Famine would bring him at his life's sunset to a foreign land, where God would continue to provide for him and his family. But in spite of and in the midst of such struggles, God's plan of salvation moved forward. A mighty nation was born, forged in oppression, purified in desert wandering, and brought by God's mighty hand back to their homeland.

So does God's plan for the struggles of our life conclude with a happy ending, when we reach the shores of the promised land.

So wrestle. Struggle. But as you hang on to God, look also for his blessing, freely given in Christ. And you will find the struggle is worth it. Great things are in store for you, his people Israel.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Join the Movement

The movement has begun. No, not Ablaze! The Anti-Mauve Movement.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shopping for Clergy Shirts

oh man.. this is wrong on so many levels.

Monday, October 08, 2007

New Resources on Church Site

I just finished posting some resources to our church website, including "Faith Facts" blurbs and a collection of FAQs. The Faith Facts are short blurbs, a sentence or two, with a "did you know?" flavor. The FAQs are longer, sized for bulletin inserts, and mostly adapted from the LCMS FAQ collection. Check it out, use it as you wish, and let us know what you think!

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
“How Long, O Lord?”

Every parent who's ever taken a car trip with a child has heard that infamous and nagging question, “Are we there yet?” Only slightly less annoying to the parent is the persistent question, “How much longer?”

Just as children have asked these questions of their parents since the dawn of time, so too have God's children asked their Heavenly Father the same. Go back to Habakkuk, and we hear the question. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”

In fact these two passages from Habakkuk chapters 1 and 2, are called “Habakkuk's first complaint” and “Habakkuk's second complaint” They represent the cry of a faithful man of God who is frustrated that God hasn't answered, hasn't answered him quickly enough, and hasn't answered the way he wanted him to answer.

Habakkuk lived in a time of increasing danger in the world. About 600 years before Christ, he and the Israelites watched the fall of the Assyrian empire, and the rise of the Babylonians. The Egyptians were on the march to help the Assyrians, and the Israelites tried to stop this powerful army at the battle of Meggido – which is where we get the term, “Armageddon”.

With all of this war and violence surrounding him, Habakkuk had plenty to complain about. Especially to a God who promises peace and an end to warfare. Who says that swords will be beaten into plowshares, and lions will lay down with lambs. Where is this promised peace? How much longer, oh Lord? Are we there yet? And why not?

Some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door a while back, and showed me one of those passages, where God promises a future in which peace reigns on earth. They asked me if that sounded good. I said, “sure, if it were possible”. We then proceeded to have a small battle of our own for the next hour on my front porch.

But we do live in a world of war. Whether it is Taliban or Al-Qaeda or Iran or Iraq or the Nazis or the Communists, or the Babylonians or Assyrians. Violence surrounds us. Even in our own backyard. There was a shooting down on Byrd Avenue last week, and the Latin Kings gang was somehow involved. Milwaukee has become a war-zone in its own right with shootings almost daily. How long, O Lord, until you bring such violence to an end?

Our culture glorifies violence – from movies with unspeakable acts for which the commercials are even disturbing, to nightly news stories which sensationalize the latest shocking case. There is a part of us that is disgusted and repelled by the violence we see, but a part of us that doesn't mind so much.

What about the violence in my own life. Some of you suffer from physical abuse, even at the hands of a loved one. But even for the rest of us -What about when barbed tongues lash out from wife to husband and child to parent? What about when we use guilt as a club to get what we want, or when we employ the passive aggressive weapons at our disposal? For just as the Fifth Commandment prohibits murder, so too does it forbid us to hurt or harm our neighbor in any way. And Jesus even applies this to our sinful thoughts. How long, oh Lord, must I see such violence against me? And how long must I be captive to my own sinful, violent, deeds, words, and thoughts?

For when it comes down to it, I am violent. I do violence to my neighbor and even to myself. I hurt and harm, and my sinful nature gets a sick thrill from the violence.

Well God knows violence. And his Justice will prevail. From the flaming sword of the angel that barred the gate to paradise, to the sword of the evil empire that God uses for his own purposes. God's justice will be done.

Which should scare us. Since we deserve his wrath. That sword of judgment should be pointed at us! While we might wait impatiently for God's wrath to come on those who hurt us – we don't mind if God takes his sweet time in giving us what we deserve. In fact, the question, “how much longer?” takes on a new meaning when I am on the receiving end of such judgment.

But as Christians, we know we need not fear. We know that God's sword of judgment is not pointed at us, nor will it ever be. We know that all our violence has been forgiven. Christ has made that peace.

In fact God's wrath was poured, instead, on him. When Jesus went to the cross and his hands and feet and side were pierced for our transgressions. When violence was done to him who had no sin of his own. When the lamb of God was slain for the sins of the world. The cross is the ultimate violence of God's own wrath, and punishment, and judgment poured out on God's own Son. And not that the physical suffering and violence were anything to sneeze at, but I like how the hymn says it, “...but the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that justice gave.”

That is to say, that if the nail wounds and crown of thorns seem painful to you, think of the agony of enduring God's wrath for sin – and not just one sin, but all the sins of all the sinners that had ever sinned and ever would.
Just as we cry out to God in our distress, “How long, oh Lord?” Jesus called, “My God, why have your forsaken me” at the moment of his ultimate sorrow.

God heard Habakkuk's prayer. And God hears our prayers. When his people cry out, “how long, oh Lord?” We have only to look to the cross for our answer. For there in the blood and sweat and darkness and agony and hopelessness of the cross – do we find our peace. The cross is God's answer to all human violence and warring madness.

Habakkuk would see violence his whole life. And eventually the Babylonians would even destroy Jerusalem, and decimate the very Temple of God.

You will see violence your whole life, and one day the violence of death will take down the temple of your body into the grave.

But Jesus. Jesus gives us a hope beyond the violence. In him, the temple is rebuilt. For in him, there is life after death. In him, there is calm after storm, and peace after the battle. In his resurrection from the dead we find the guarantee of our own resurrection. We receive the peace with God that passes all understanding. We find a clear conscience, and strength for the ongoing battle against sin.

“How long, oh Lord?” is not a bad prayer. It is the prayer of God's people who wait patiently for his deliverance. But it is a prayer that has been answered in Jesus, at the cross. And yet there is another answer to come. When Jesus Christ returns in glory, and we see him face to face. Then the battle and the war are finally over. Satan will be cast away forever, and we will enter into eternal rest with all the saints and angels. What a day of victory that will be. Are we there yet? No. But that day is coming, for so he has promised.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cool Website - New Cliche's

Check out this website recommended by Yahoo! Daily Picks:

Defective Yeti - The Cliche Rotation Project

They list new and improved versions of tired old cliche's. Lots of fun here, and you can also submit your own!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Old Media, New Media

Wikipedia says...

The old media or legacy media are traditional means of communication and expression that have existed since before the advent of the new medium of the Internet. Industries that are generally considered part of the old media are broadcast and cable television, movie and music studios, newspapers, books and most print publications. Many of those industries are now less profitable than they used to be and this is has been attributed to the growth of the new media.

This division between the new and old media is a hot topic on talk radio. Which seems ironic to me, as radio is an older form of media than TV, and yet they seem to fall in with the "new" media crowd.

I bring this up because of another blurb I read in Christian News (decidedly an OLD media publication). CN reprinted an article from a Roman Catholic publication under the title, "Internet and Blogsphere (sic) Threaten Publications". The RC publication comes to the obvious conclusion that the "print era is drawing to a close" and "magazines... are having a hard time surviving".

CN then adds an editorial comment:

Some spend so much time with their computers that they don not have time to read newspapers and magazines. They believe all they need to know about what is going on in the church and world can be found on the internet. Publications like Christian News, according to them, are no longer necessary. Readers will have to judge for themselves if they find all of the information CN publishes each week on the internet.

I suppose I just find it fascinating to watch the Old Media react to the New. There seems to be some antagonism.

Personally, I read less in print and more on the screen every day. I watch less TV and get more news and information from the net every day. I still pick up magazines and books, and I don't think they will ever completely go away. But I don't rely on them nearly as much as I used to.

And, quite frankly, most of what I find worth reading in CN, I already HAVE read on the internet. Most, but not all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Issues Etc. Michigan Visit

I've been asked to help plug this weekend's live broadcast of "Issues, Etc." The live broadcast will be held in Dearborn, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit).

Check out more information at The Unknown Lutheran....

Reading the Bible Literally

"I don't agree with people who take the Bible literally" - a common objection of many Burger King type Christians ("have it your way!")

But let's examine this. What are they really saying?

To read something literally means to take it word for word at face value. Like, "I am going to the store today" means, literally, "I am going to the store today."

But, "Go fly a kite" does not mean to literally go fly a kite, but is a figure of speech which means for you to go away.

Sometimes the Bible uses figures of speech. Sometimes it speaks plainly, or literally. And it's important to know which is which! When Jesus says you should hate your father and mother, he's obviously not speaking literally. But when it says he rose from the dead, it is!

Many Christians and sects get into trouble when they interpret passages from the Bible using an incorrect grammatical approach. Literal speech should be taken literally. Figurative figuratively. Apocalyptic, Poetic, Epistlary... all these forms of literature have their own rules for interpretation. Break the rules and you will get the meaning wrong.

This is, unforunately what has happened with many who teach all sorts of wacky things about the end times. They take literally what they shouldn't.

Likewise, many protestants take the literal words of Christ in a figurative or symbolic way, while "This is my body" really means it is, literally, somehow, his body!

Back to the original question. What do people mean when they say "I don't take the Bible literally"? They don't likely mean that they clearly distinguish between Scripture which is and isn't a figure of speech. I don't think this sort of statement often comes from a well-reasoned and researched view of the Bible. In my experience it's a tactic of argumentation meant to eliminate an entire line of debate.

I think what they really mean is, "I don't take the Bible seriously."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Suing God

You've probably seen the offbeat story of the week...

Nebraska State Senator Sues God Over Natural Disasters

Check out the senator with an apparent halo in this photo. (He's the one on the right).

What a buffet of bloggable buffoonery this is. The humorous reactions are almost limitless. My former neighbor, a lawyer, wrote:

Hmmm.....I wonder if anyone will answer on God's behalf or put in a notice of appearance for God? Now that could be interesting.....Maybe the pope or a local priest, pastor or rabbi? Maybe someone will answer and the rest will intervene in the lawsuit.....Maybe an atheist will file a motion to dismiss saying that God can't be sued because he doesn't exist. I wonder who he has served with the lawsuit...or if there will be substitute service on a priest, pastor, or rabbi, etc. As God's registered agent. This could be a good virtual lawsuit. I copied my friend Tom, who is a pastor in case he wants to intervene inthe lawsuit or accept service on behalf of God.

To which I responded with some smart aleck comments about what God must think of lawyers.

Some liberal judge will probably convict the Almighty and order punitive damages.

Don't they also list a defendant's various aliases in a legal proceeding? That list could get long... "A one Yahweh, aka, Elohim, aka, Jehovah, aka, El Shaddai, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Holy One of Israel"

Then we could bring in the Trinity. Which person is being sued? If one is sued, are all three sued?

I thought a bit deeper on this, and realized this isn't the first time the Lord has been on trial. I expect him to say even less this time.

I wonder if this story doesn't catch so much attention because it is such a reversal of truth. For in the "cosmic courtroom", we are on trial, God is the Judge, and our advocate (yes, Lawyer) is Jesus Christ. We'd certainly be convicted had he not reversed the verdict at the cross.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Two New Sites

Two very interesting Lutheran sites have appeared.

Lutheran Lucciola
A Lutheran blogger who is a convert from paganism. A very interesting read!
A St. Louis student has set up this site with some really cool design. Not a blog, but more of a resource site for Lutherans. Discussion forums are just getting off the ground. Lots of potential here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Colson on Christians and Demographics

"The Fertility Gap: More Christians on the Way" is a recent piece by conservative Christian pundit Chuck Colson.

Colson is mostly commenting on the effects such demographics will have on the future of politics. But what, also, of the future of the church itself?

Various church demographers have observed the decline of many major denominations - largely because rates of reproduction have declined. I believe this is true in our own LCMS.

If the LCMS, like most conservative Christian bodies, does see an increase in its birth rate (perhaps a big "if", but certainly possible), then we might see numerical growth on a scale that no marketing program had ever dreamed of. Call it "Church Growth - the Old Fashioned Way".

I would be interested to see LCMS demographic information, if anyone has a link....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Forum Letter Summary of LCMS 2007 Convention

Rev. Peter Speckhard, who went to Houston as a reporter for the ALPB, has written an interesting summary of the LCMS 2007 Convention.

I didn't see the outcome quite as favorably as he did, but I appreciate some of his basic diagnosis:

"Yet social issues are perhaps the only area where the LCMS is growing closer to the Roman Catholic Communion. Evangelical Catholics are increasingly outnumbered by the Just Plain Old Evangelicals in the LCMS. The Ablaze! campaign with all its trappings could easily be adapted for use by Baptists, Assemblies of God, and various independent evangelical megachurches, but would stand out like a kazoo in an orchestra pit in an Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or high-church Anglican or Lutheran setting."

Nice analogy.

Also, he observes the "conservative opposition" thinks we have disagreements, while the "moderate majority" doesn't.

I agree with this observation. I therefore wonder: if you think you are agreed, and your wife thinks you disagree, don't you, by definition, have a disagreement?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Church Cancelled. Report to Soup Kitchen.

The LCMS office of Youth Ministry sends out an occasional Email update, which usually consists mostly of promoting their next conference or youth gathering, as well as a list of district youth happenings from around the synod (and sometimes a list of resources). Then they usually include a little selection of quotes and such called "Teens and Trends". Of course, these nuggets vary in usefulness.

I gleaned the following little paragraph from the latest email:

MINISTRY SHAPES FAITH MORE THAN WORSHIP . . . If you want to influence a teenager's faith, have them serve meals to the homeless or do other hands-on service projects. "Involvement in community service is far more significant to the faith development of teens than involvement in worship," says Michael Sherr, one of the Baylor University researchers who conducted the study (Associated Baptist Press, February 8, 2007).

So, here's a note for all the Youth from our congregation: I have decided to cancel church on Sunday. We will instead be meeting at the local soup kitchen. Email me for details.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Luke 13:22-30

Luke 13:22-30
“Who Gets Saved?”

Jesus, as a great teacher and authoritative preacher, was asked many questions. Sometimes the questions were designed to trick him, like, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar??” or “What about marriage in heaven?'
Sometimes they were meant to change the subject: “Oh, I see you are a prophet! Let's talk religion; Where should we worship?”
Sometimes the questions are asked with honest intentions, “Teacher, how shall we pray?” and sometimes looking for self-affirmation, “What must I do to be saved?”

Today we have another question asked of Jesus in our Gospel reading from Luke, “Lord, will those who are saved be few??”

It seems like a fair enough question. Perhaps asked from general curiosity. Who gets in to the kingdom? How many are saved? Is it 90%? 50%? Only 1 in 5?

When we pastors are yet in school, an handy rule of thumb we are taught is not to answer a tough question too hastily. But rather, ask often, “why do you want to know?” Jesus, of course, doesn't need to ask that question. He already knows what the real questions is, or at least, should be. So his answer is not as straightforward as we might like, or as the original asker might have liked. Jesus doesn't simply say yes or no.

In a way, he answers the question behind the question. “What are MY odds of getting in?” or “am I likely to be saved?” Now that we make it personal, that question becomes much more important, and much more real.

What about you? Do you think you are likely to be saved? What if you had to put a percentage chance on it? 50-50? 75%? Of course we know in our heads, the answer we've learned, what we SHOULD say is 100%, of course, pastor! But is our faith always so unwavering? Or do we doubt and wonder?

Jesus says, in effect, “Don't you worry about how many others are saved. You be concerned about yourself, first. Make sure you strive toward the narrow door. For many will seek to enter and not be able.” WOW! So Jesus does answer – there are many who will not be saved! But am I one of them?

When he goes on to talk about those who will not be saved – it's not a pretty picture. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. The sense that those who are cast out know their misery well, and know that others have escaped it. We're talking about the torments of hell – eternal damnation. It's what we all deserve. Which makes the question even more pressing!
How likely is it that I get in that narrow door? Or will I be one of those on the outside, suffering the punishment I deserve?
Well there is a time when Jesus will cast away the wicked. Not everyone gets in. And it certainly isn't enough that we THINK we're deserving. Some will attempt to enter the kingdom on that basis, and Jesus will not accept them. He will look at all their supposed good works of merit and call them evildoers.

Nor is it enough to have a casual association with Jesus. Even some of those who met him in person, ate with him, and heard him preach will not enter the kingdom.

Nor is it enough to have the right birthright. To be born into the chosen people, whether we consider that to be as an ethnic Jew, or if we are born and raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. No, even some of those will certainly be turned away at the door.
So what is it then? What is the narrow door? How do I strive? How can I be certain? Forget how many and how likely. I want to know about my own soul, my own salvation, and have my own assurance that I get in!
Fear not, Christian, for Jesus has opened the door to you. And he has given you the kingdom. And you can be assured.

We know that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to die for it... so that whoever believes will not perish but have eternal life. That means that the sins of the world are paid for – that no one is forbidden from the door. God's grace is an open invitation – even more – it is an undeserved kindness for all sinners. Salvation was won by Jesus at the cross where his blood was shed for all sin. But still, not all will receive this gift.

Some, even many, reject it. This is the broad road, the wide path to destruction. Disbelief. Those who do not trust in what Christ has done for them are doomed to eternal punishment.

But for us who believe, we are promised eternal life, freedom from hell, and all the blessings God has in store for his people. Faith in Jesus Christ is the narrow door. Only through him – the Way – can we receive the kingdom.
Faith, as we have said, is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty of things unseen. Faith makes our salvation a certainly, not a likelihood. Faith says, I believe it, not because I am so good, but because God is! I trust, not because I am so trusting, but because God is so trustworthy. Faith always looks to God, to Christ, outward, not inward. And there faith finds its certainty.

You may say, “yes, but how much faith do I need?” And Jesus says, “only a mustard seed” But that seed of faith will always grow in his word. You may say, “What about my doubts and fears?” And Jesus says, like he says to Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe!” And you may pray, with the disciples, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!” And he will, by his Spirit, through his Word, in his Sacrament.

Faith looks to the promises of our baptism and the promises in God's Word, and the promise of his truly present Body and Blood for forgiveness, and faith is strengthened.

When doubt and fear ask the question, “who gets in to the kingdom?” Faith answers, “I do, but only through Jesus Christ my Lord. Who died for me, who lives for me, and who promises me life in his name.”
Of all the uncertainties and likelihoods and unlikelihoods and questions of life, here is one sure and firm and certain and unquestionable and rock-solid truth to cling to. Jesus died for you. You are saved through him.