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.