Monday, December 29, 2008

Sermon - Holy Innocents - Matthew 2:13-18

Matthew 2:13-18
Holy Innocents
December 28, 2008
“The Blood of Many – the Blood of One”

I hope you all had a merry Christmas filled with family gatherings, good food, peace and joy, and also meaningful time to ponder the mysteries of God's love in Jesus Christ, the true reason for the season.

Today's sermon, as well as hymns and prayers, are based on the Gospel reading for the day, from Matthew 2. For at least 1500 years the church has observed this strange day in our calendar, commemorating the slaughter of the “Holy Innocents”.

And with all of the “good vibrations” of the Christmas holiday, all the syrupy-sweet warm fuzzies our culture builds into the holiday, and especially here in the church where we celebrate our Savior's birth and focus on its actual meaning.... Still, it's kind of shocking, three days after Christmas, to be faced with such a gruesome story.

We know the background – the wise men from the East came looking for the one born to be king of the Jews. But the current, earthly king of the Jews, a wicked man named Herod, took exception. Through deceit he tried to trick the wise men into leading him to this potential rival. But God intervened, and saved the Christ-child. In Herod's anger and fear for his throne, he ordered that all the newborns of Bethlehem be killed – just to be safe and sure. And once again God intervened, telling Joseph to take Mary and the child to Egypt until Herod's death.

These first martyrs, these first to shed their blood for Christ, were children of the Old Testament covenant, and part of God's family by his grace. They were saved, even from death, by the blood of that other child – the one that escaped. But Jesus would not escape God's wrath. In the fullness of time, that Christ-child, as a grown man, would stand silently before another Herod. He would shed his holy precious blood in an innocent suffering and death to save those children of Bethlehem, and all of Rachel's and all of Adam's children.

In all the grief and mourning that must have followed such an unspeakable slaughter as the murder of those children, there was still hope, because of Christ.

Perhaps your Christmas wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For most people, it's hard to meet that ideal. If even the first Christmas was beset by trouble and sorrow at the death of these children at the order of a wicked man, what makes us think our Christmas will be immune from sorrow, or even death?

But as Christians we know that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God's love in Christ. And that love was made known on earth with a little child born in the midst of a cruel and wicked world. A little child, that gives us sinners hope.

I'd like to share with you an article by Donna Marmorstein of Aberdeen, South Dakota, called,

“Can Death Obliterate Christmas? Ask Herod”:

It's a long quotation but I think you'll find it applies well to our text today, and echoes the same sentiments I've mentioned. Marmorstein writes:

Early in December, when stars seem sharper and bluer than at other times, Christmas music seems to sharpen them even more. I unpack my age-old Christmas record collection. I’ll put on “Goodyear’s Great Songs of Christmas” with Mitch Miller and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I’ll brew some cinnamon tea, light a mulberry-scented candle and write Christmas cards. Usually, when stamps, return labels, address book and cards are arrayed before me, the carols swirl up together with the tea steam, and my toes turn warm. A deep, bone-radiating satisfaction takes over. Renewing contact with friends is one of the best parts of Christmas.

But this year something went wrong. It started when I tried to write a Christmas greeting to my aunt. How can you wish holiday cheer to someone who just lost a husband to cancer? Her chance of merriment at Christmas is about nil. My pen froze in midair as I tried to think of something to write. How jolly will her Christmas be, as she tries to mix celebration with grief? And his death will mar Christmases to come. My uncle’s voice, singing every morning as he shaved, now stilled. His jokes, smiles, and positive outlook--all gone.

And what do I write to warm the spirits of friends whose youngest child drowned in a lake this summer? Merry Christmas? Right. Every mall, every shop they enter where toys just right for a 6-year-old boy sit on display will become a torture chamber. No message I write can convey joy without pain. There’s no way around it.

My address book isn’t what it used to be either. Every page has abandoned addresses now. My grandpa, long gone. My grandma, who every Christmas cooked up fudge divinity and sugared walnuts, can’t receive my Christmas greetings now. My other grandma--whose flashbulb ALWAYS malfunctioned Christmas morning--is dead, too, and I would love to feel her knobby, blue-veined hand on mine once more, and watch her “fiddle with” her camera now. Her sister, wise, warmhearted Auntie Faye, died Christmas morning in her sleep at 97. Her address still echoes in my book.

All the expired addresses accumulate, and suddenly ripples spot my envelopes. The candle flickers out, the record player grinds to a halt. Stars blur and fall. The needles on the tree all turn brown and drop to the floor. Death creeps into my address book. It grips my pen and tries to overpower my Christmas. No carol seems able to withstand its ugly claw.

But then the turntable starts up again. The Coventry carol.. [is] ..the only carol I know that mentions Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to destroy the Christ child and, consequently, Christmas. Pain, grief and fear riddled the first Christmas. This problem goes back a long time.

Herod, however, did not have this day. Death does not have this day. In fact, the whole reason behind Christmas was to overthrow the power of death and sin and hell. So when death creeps up and grabs a loved one, Christmas kicks death in the teeth and says, “You can’t keep that one. That’s mine.”

Death, where is thy sting? Stuck somewhere under the mistletoe, I suspect. The needles fly back onto the tree and turn green. Falling stars rise and shine, resharpened. My cold tea steams up again. The candle relights. Appropriate, hopeful words spill from my pen onto cards. And Christmas, if not always merry, is always, always victorious.

And I would add, Jesus is always victorious, and in him we are always victorious. Even in the face of wicked men who seek to harm us. Victorious even over death. Even in the grave we Christians rest secure, for we know the one who has brought peace on Earth and God's good will toward man – Jesus Christ our Lord. In him we are Holy Innocents. Amen

Friday, December 26, 2008

Concordia Theology Videos has some videos posted.... I can't link to them directly. But the second one (August 2008) is interesting. The panel includes Dr. Raabe, Dr. Hermann (a classmate of mine) and Dr. Diekelman (1st VP of synod). Dale Meyer, seminary president, moderates.

This roundtable discussion is on the restructuring proposal. I made some notes as I watched/listened.

Diekelman talks about how as a church body we are in decline, cites the numbers. Says the question the president asked is, "are we best structured to accomplish our mission?"

Meyer asks, "so are there any hard proposals yet?" Diekelman admits they are not final but this is a work in progress.

Raabe wonders if the word "synod" is helpful or not, with its many meanings.

Hermann, too, seems to emphasize that theology should inform our discussions of structure.

Diekelman: we're not changing the constitution or foundations (doctrine, etc), but how do we govern?

Hermann observes districts vary in size, staff, etc...

Raabe makes a good point, that the first quesiton is "what do you want the districts to do" then answer, "how big do you want them to be".

Hermann says how the Lord calls congregations to work together with each other.

Theology is a group process- being together helps us avoid falling for fads of false doctrine, and being lone rangers.

Raabe points to the question of national/local duplication.

Hermann says part of the conversation at the convocation that wasn't in the written report is how local congregations identify with synod, and that maybe that identification would be better with the district than the (national) synod.

Diekelman asks people what they know about the current structure, and observes, "some" don't know. He says as we talk about this, we will re-discover our identity, and then the structure will fall into place.

Diekelman goes on about adult baptisms/confirmations, people who didn't grow up in the LCMS. They won't be familiar with the structure??

Some of the other proposals are discussed. Interesting - the difference between congregations and pastors as "members" but not individual congregational members. The talk is to change it, so that everyone who belongs to one of our congregations will be a "member of synod". Hmm...

Meyer recites the history of the LCMS dealing with "clergy dominance" by maintaining a strict balance of clergy/lay representation.

Raabe supports proposal that doctrinal statements require 2/3 vote. This illustrates consensus.
I'd also like to see it clarified exactly which resolutions are doctrinal, which are binding, and in what way.

Hermann observes "don't just use theology as a boundary or hedge, but allow theology to fashion and form the structure". Pair up strong with weak churches, rather than isolate smaller churches. Honor the weaker. Nicely said.

Raabe: accountability starts on the local level, pastor accountable to other local pastors.

Hermann: Danger of making decisions only on fiscal reasons, but also on theology.
This, to me, is a VERY key point.

Rabbe: We are good at addition, we need to learn subtraction (of the many rules in the bylaws). I agree. Let's streamline.

Hermann: We need to be transparent about which things are matters of money, accountability or doctrine. Why are we doing what we are doing, in each case.

Meyer gets on his soapbox about "relevant" again. I heard him say some things about this at a recent pastors conference which concerned me a little, but that's another story....

Plug for the September symposium, Concorida Journal, etc.... I'm tuning out now.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sermon - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2008
“The Usual and the Unusual Christmas”

A decree went out from Caeser. It was a real time in history. Quirinius was governor of Syria. Nazareth. Galilee. Bethlehem. Real places. Real people facing real problems – travel, taxes, a difficult pregnancy, finding a place to stay.

Joseph dutifully obeyed the authorities. He did what Caesar said. He had no choice. But because he was a righteous man he had given Mary the benefit of the doubt when he had the choice. He would have divorced her quietly. But a higher authority prevailed, and once again, Joseph obeyed. He did his part.

Mary was betrothed and with child. Not quite married, but more than just engaged – still it wasn't normal for her to be great with child and going on a journey. But she too was an obedient to her authorities and to her Lord. She did what she what was expected of her.

What a strange mix of the usual and the unusual this Christmas story is. Everyday people and places and events – with that twinge of something special. A hint of greater things to come.

It's God's way. He uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. Bread and Wine become the body and blood of Christ – the very medicine of immortality. Simple water becomes a flood of righteousness, washing away every spot and stain of sin. Imperfect pastors (is there any other kind?) speak words that unlock the very gates of heaven, “I forgive you in the stead and by the command of Christ”. The simple doing the extraordinary. The everyday touching the eternal.

And so it continues with the birth of a child. Not an unusual event. Children are born all the time. He was swaddled up lovingly, and carefully laid in a makeshift crib. In our great fortune, we're used to hospitals and sterile precautions. No such measures for most children who have been born, especially back then and over there. Still, Mary and Joseph did what they could to care for this little one, this special infant boy.

And as usual as he was, he was certainly unique. As everyman and everyday – like us in every way, yet this one was different. Without sin. Perfect and holy. In a regular infant we can see shades of the innocence that predates sins, but that's really just in comparison to ourselves. In this extraordinary infant, we see the very image of God – the living word of creation made flesh. The eternal Son of the Father humbled, made low, for us. Always, for us.

What a blessed union of the everyday and the once and for all. A paradox of cosmic proportions – God and man joined in this one person. Unfathomable power and authority placed in the care of these two humble travelers of little means. Indescribable glory and majesty shrouded in the swaddling clothes of a newborn. God's plan for eternal salvation hidden in the peace and calm of a dark night in a small town, long ago.

Yes, the usual meets the unusual, and this is God's way. The baby would grow and learn, as humans usually do. We suppose he learned his father's trade, and did his work, as one would expect. He took care of his widowed mother, as a son did in those days. He observed the religious traditions and practices of a pious Jew, with little hint of being anything more than a carpenter from Galilee. But he was more.

When the time came, things got unusual. He went to be baptized. The heavens opened, and God declared, “This is my Son”. He did battle with the devil – as we all do – but he won, as we cannot and do not. He began doing miracles – highly unusual! He preached a message unlike any other – his words had authority. Perhaps he was the Messiah? But he didn't meet the usual expectations. Instead of triumphant glory, he sought humble service. Riding a donkey instead of a war-horse. Being baptized instead of baptizing. Instead of being served, washing the feet of his own followers.

No, this was not the usual itinerant preacher, the everyday wanna-be messiah that had come and gone so many times before. This is not just another religious leader with yet more rules and regulations for us to follow, laying out yet another path for us to work our way up heaven's ladder. His was a kingdom of grace. And his kingdom would be no regular religion just like any other. It was not of this world.

This Messiah was one who came to die. If we look into the manger and gush over the image of a sweet and pure child, but see no cross, we miss the whole point. If we forget that this precious child came to shed his precious blood for sin, they why are we celebrating him anyway? For this is the perfect and spotless lamb of God, appointed for sacrifice, to take away the sins of the world. This doesn't happen every day. But it did happen on Good Friday. The Christ laid in the manger is the same Christ nailed to the cross. The Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes is the same Christ wrapped in grave linens. The one whose birth was peaceful and humble and ordinary was destined for a death that was violent and humiliating, and.... ordinary. Romans crucified people all the time. Such a death was part of life for ancient Jews.

But then the usual gave way to the unusual once again, and Christ conquered death. And this is his greatest miracle. This is what no one expected, even though he said so.

On this Christmas Eve, we do all the usual things, read the usual readings, sing all the usual hymns, light the candles, like we always do. We'll go home to our regular places at the regular times, and do our holiday traditions in the usual way, with the usual foods, and the usual folks. But through it all, and behind it all, and in it all is our God – present and working his extraordinary salvation. There is nothing common about his grace in Jesus Christ.

May your everyday Christmas be filled with those unique blessings brought by the lamb of God, the babe of Bethlehem, true God, true man, the firstborn of the dead, Jesus Christ. For God so loved the world that he sent us his Son, and believing in him we will not perish, but have eternal life. Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sermon - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38
Advent 4
December 21, 2008
“Mary's Impossible Faith”

We've had a very busy Advent season. We've heard from John the Baptist. We've remembered the Shepherds and Angels. We've covered all the usual prophecies and themes, we're almost ready for Christmas. But there's another Advent personality we haven't yet considered – Mary. Our lectionary puts her before us today. We read our Gospel text from Luke 1, an event called the “Annunciation”, in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Christ-child.

Let's consider today the words of the angel, the reaction of Mary, and what it all means for Advent, Christmas, and faith. We'll see Mary's faith, and in it, we will see our faith – faith in Mary's Savior and ours – Jesus Christ. We'll see how in Jesus, God accomplishes the impossible, and gives us every reason to respond like Mary, “Let it be to me as you have said”.

No we don't venerate the Virgin Mary like our Roman Catholic friends. Scripture gives us no indication that she was any more or less a saint or sinner than you and I are. She needed a savior like all of us. She is righteous only by grace through faith, like you and I are. Nor is she some sort of extra go-between mediating God's blessings to us. There is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ.

Still, Mary serves, like all the saints, as an example of faith. Through her life, God brought many blessings to all people. Her role as mother of the Lord Jesus is certainly special, and we honor Mary's memory if only for that. But there is more. Mary, especially in this text, is a shining example of faith in God's word of promise – even over against what seemed impossible.

Contrast Mary with Zechariah. Just a few verses before our reading, Zechariah lost his speech as punishment for his lack of faith, when the same angel told him he would become a parent. But he and his wife were old, and she was barren, and he doubted God's ability to do what he said. Zechariah, a priest, served God daily but didn't trust him when given this extraordinary opportunity.

Mary, for her part, made Zecharaiah look bad. She was not a religious professional, but a young woman- probably about 13 – but she believed the promise the moment it was spoken. She wasn't troubled that an angel appeared, but she was greatly troubled at his greeting. That greeting was, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" Why is this greeting more troubling than the appearance of an angel? Perhaps because Mary knew she didn't deserve God's favor, that she was no one special, and for God to be with her of all people.... well, why her after all?

Why any of us? For in Christ we are all highly favored by God. In Christ, the Lord is with us. One of Jesus' names, “Emmanuel” means just that. God with us.

Mary didn't even seem that bothered that she would bear the Messiah, or that this child would do great things and reign on David's throne. Her only question was how it would happen, not whether it could. Mary believed God when many would have said, “impossible”.

Isn't it interesting that Mary doesn't seem to blink that an angel would appear to her? If Gabriel showed up on your doorstep, I think you might be a little shocked. It might be hard to hear anything he said, much less believe it. But Mary listened to the word of God – and paid attention. She believed it, and wanted to know more. How will this be?

Some questions are sinful questions, and some are the questions of faith. Zechariah's question when he heard the news of his son was one of doubt. “How can I be sure, since my wife and I are old?”. Mary's question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” may sound the same, but it was a question of faith. Questions of doubt challenge God, and assume he can't do what he says. Sinful questions which assume we know better than him. But the questions of faith, like Mary's, yearn to simply hear more and learn more and grow in the word of God we receive. And the angel gives Mary her answer.

The answer was sufficient. The power of the Most High would overshadow her, and by his Spirit, she would be with child. With God, all things are possible. “I am the Lord's servant” she replied, “Let it be to me as you have said”. That's Mary's response of faith. That's her saying, “Amen”.

“Let it be to me as you have said” is the response of any faithful Christian to God's word of grace. Your sins are forgiven, “Let it be to me as you have said”. This is Christ's body and blood given for you, “Let it be to me as you have said”. I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, “Let it be to me as you have said”. In Christ, you are highly favored, and God is with you. Let it be to me as you have said.

All along, this was God's plan. Did you notice the connection to our Old Testament reading from Second Samuel? There God promises David to build him a house. In fact, he promises him an offspring who would build the House of God into an eternal dwelling. To Mary, the angel promises her Son will rule on the throne of his father David. Jesus is that davidic king who rules eternally. He builds the house of God, the church, and the gates of hell will not even prevail against it, against us.

This impossible-sounding plan had been coming for some time. When a virgin from Nazareth responded in faith, the plan moved forward. When you respond to the Gospel in faith, it moves further forward. And impossible as it seems, God's word continues to bear fruit, and build his church, living stone by living stone, to stand the test of eternity.

Of all the miracles God did, is there anything more impossible than the virgin birth? You could make a case for the parting of the red sea, or the feeding of the 5000, or any of the great and mighty wonders. But perhaps the most impossible thing is accomplishing our salvation through his Son. Through a baby who was born, a man who suffered and died, and who rose from the dead, just as he said.

With God all things are possible.... according to his plan and promise. With God, all things are possible... for our salvation. With God, all things are possible by his grace, through faith in Christ. Therefore, let it be to all of us as he has said. And may we celebrate the birth of our Savior with joy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Battle in the Culture Wars

So our City Council in Racine just approved a LGBT Community Center. You can read the story at the local paper's website here:

Rather than comment and get lost in the string of sniping back and forth that follows the article, I'll share some thoughts here -

I'm glad there was no taxpayer money used to fund this. I think there is an important difference between allowing something and, through use of state or local public funds, actually promoting it. This is what true tolerance is about - allowing something you disagree with.

Still, if I were a local Councilman, I would have voted against it. If you truly believe that an activity is immoral, then wouldn't you oppose it? For instance, if someone wanted to open a community center that helped people learn how to - oh - cheat on their wives. I would oppose that.

I'm sure there are "haters" on both sides of this issue. But I wish that level-headed people who disagree could talk about it without the emotions flying.

Just because I believe something is wrong to do doesn't mean I hate everyone who does it. I know some very nice people who do some things I don't agree with - even some of my closest friends and family. But they know where I stand, and they also know I don't hate them for it.

In fact, everyone I know does a lot of wrong - we call it sin. Nobody is perfect. We all need Christ's forgiveness. But as a Christian and as a pastor, I am especially concerned when sin is normalized, accepted, and even lauded.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sermon - Advent 3

John 1:6-8,19-28
Advent 3
December 14, 2008
“Pointing to Christ”

We all know it's not polite to point at people. Pointing means you're talking about them, and usually not to say something nice. So momma always said, “don't point”.

But every Advent, we have a visit from John the Baptist, whose primary role was as a pointer. He pointed, of course, to Jesus. He talked about, preached about, and prepared the way for Jesus. Even his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins found its fullness in Jesus Christ.

Now John was a popular guy. The gospels tell us “all of Judea” went down to be baptized by him, and while that's certainly a figure of speech, some estimate as many as 250,000 responded to John's preaching. The Jewish leaders were threatened enough to send delegations to John, “who is this guy?” And Jesus himself heaped praise on John. “Among those born of women none is greater than John” You'd think it would all go to John's head.

But he was a humble man. His dress was simple – rough skins, not fine robes. His diet was meager – insects and wild honey, scavenged from his home in the wilderness. His life was a living sermon of sorts.

But more than that, John knew his place. Great as he was, he was still unworthy. He was a sinner. His job was to point to someone greater, more powerful. “After me comes one more powerful than I, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” John preaches about someone else, talks about someone else, John points, not to himself, but to Jesus. And today in our text, he still points us to Jesus.

John didn't want to be a distraction. He very well could have been. The devil always wants us to take our eye off the ball, or rather, off our savior. And our sinful nature becomes a willing accomplice. That's why we see Christian holidays secularized. It's why we see Christian preachers turn into self-help gurus. It's why we see Christian people more worried about what they can do for God than what God has done for them in Christ. Anything to distract us from the one who sacrifices himself for our us, Jesus Christ.

John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Look! There's the one you should be looking to, not me! He's the one you should pay attention to. He is the lamb of God, the sacrifice for sin – for all sins – the sins of the world. He will lay down his life to save yours. Oh yes, I baptize, but my baptism is based on him, and derives from him. My preaching is to prepare HIS way. I need to be baptized by him, I'm not even worthy to undo his sandals.

So what about you, fellow Christians? Are you distracted, or are you beholding the lamb of God? Are you tempted to look somewhere else? What's got your attention? Is it your work? Is it your lack of work? Is it your responsibilities at home? Is it a family situation or a health problem? Are you caught up in the day-to-day so much that the Ancient of days is missing from the picture?

Or are you so content with yourself that you don't see the need for the lamb of God? Are your sins not such a big deal? To that, John would preach, “repent!”. For if you don't see your sins, you'll see no need for them to be taken away.

We are so often the ones to bemoan people who take the “Christ” out of Christmas, but in reality we do the same. We take the Christ out of everything, when we live like he doesn't exist, when we make other gods to follow and trust in them. We even foul up the celebration of his birth with our own forms of pollution – bringing our own sinful issues to bear, focusing on our selves and our wants and needs and priorities and NOT on our neighbors and certainly NOT on Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12 tells us to, “fix our eyes on Jesus”, and that's good advice. That's faith language. In other words, trust in Jesus. Believe in him. Not just in general, but in specific. Trust in his suffering and death on the cross for your sins. Trust in his promises made to you in your baptism, and in his forgiveness offered to you at his table. Believe that he has done ALL the work of your salvation, and that it is finished, as he said. Don't fix your eyes on your own good works and your own victorious life and your own prideful purposes, but instead, fix your eyes on Jesus, who will bring his good work in you to completion.

Jesus was never distracted in his work for you. He kept the goal always before him. He had to be in his father's house. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. He was not derailed by the temptations of the evil one. He was not deterred by faithless men who refused to receive him. He set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. He submitted to arrest, injustice, mockery, torture, and execution. Not my will, but yours, O father. He would not be distracted.

But we are not Jesus. We need the reminders. We need to be pointed to him again and again. Even John became doubtful, when he was arrested, he sent his disciples to ask if Jesus really was the one. And Jesus said,

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Open your eyes, and open your ears. What do you see? Jesus acting like the Messiah – because he is the Messiah. Jesus doing the miracles that are his calling card, but more importantly preaching the good news that is his purpose.

If even John the Baptist needed reminding, if even the pointer needed to be pointed again to Jesus, then so do we. Behold, look, see – the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sin of the world – your sin and mine. Focus on Jesus, your savior, and not on yourself or your sins. Fix your eyes on him, trust and believe in him, and live. That's how to keep the Christ in Christmas, and in every day – by faith.

In Jesus Name, Amen.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sermon - Advent 2 - 2 Peter 3:8-14

2 Peter 3:8-14
Advent 2
December 7, 2008

There are lots of ways to sin, and many forms sin can take. In this season of preparation for Christmas, perhaps some of those sins take a more prominent place. At this very busy time of year, we can easily become distracted, caught up in all there is to do. Perhaps we grow jaded over time, despondent, and even depressed. Some are just downright crabby. The “Bah Hum” bug bites more than a few of us. What is meant to be a season of joy and peace and hope and love can be, for many, a time of stress and sorrow and conflict and consternation.

Some can't wait for Christmas to come, and some can't wait for it to be over. Which brings us to another common species of holiday sin – impatience. How often anticipation goes sour, and our looking forward expectantly becomes looking forward cynically, perhaps too eagerly, as in, “let's get this over with already”.

Come to think of it, it's not just at Christmas that we are sinfully impatient. Everyday life brings lots of patience-testing. From the car to the grocery store, to the kitchen table, to the cubicle to the classroom to even the church pew – we are impatient at all times and in all places. After all, what is impatience but a form of selfishness. We want whatever we want, and we want it on our time, as in, right now! After all, my time is more valuable than yours, my priorities are more pressing, and my schedule is more important, even if it's only in my head.

And if love is "patient and kind" our impatience and unkindness is unloving, and breaks the command of Jesus.

And so also, our impatience leads us to other sins, and we are short with people – we speak hurtfully. We misplace our efforts and short-change our neighbor in order to get where we're going. We even sin in our thoughts against that person who takes too much of our time.

But it's not just our neighbor on the receiving end of our impatience. We can be, and often are, impatient with God himself. St. Peter says,
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise vas some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Just as we sin against our neighbor, so do we sin against God. Just as we are impatient with that person, so are we impatient with our Heavenly Father.
When God does not act on our time table, as is so often the case, we grow impatient. When our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears, when our waiting for an answer becomes unbearable. When God's promises seem so far off and hard to believe...

Peter reminds us who sets the schedule. God is not slow, he is patient. Perfectly patient. Sinlessly patient.

Now, some might end this discussion right there – we are impatient, God is patient, so go and be more like God, Amen. But it's not that simple. For our sins of impatience need to be dealt with. We don't get off the hook so easily. A day of judgment is coming, and the very creation will melt before God's holiness, and all the works of sin will be exposed, so Peter also says.

God wants us to repent, and he wants us to be forgiven. Bring your impatience, with all your other sins, to the cross of Jesus Christ. And wait for God's forgiveness – you won't have to wait long! While God is slow to anger, he abounds in mercy. He is patient with sinners like us, who need his constant grace and mercy. He takes the long-term perspective, and he can wait forever.

But he won't. And this too is good news for us who believe. Over the millenia, God's people have prayed the simple prayer, “come quickly, Lord Jesus” echoing some of the last words of revelation. We long for the day of his return in glory, the defeat of all our foes, and the restoration of all things. And yet, he hasn't come yet. 2000 years and counting – must God have forgotten? Perhaps he is just really slow? No, he is patient. We wants all men to be saved. But his patience has an end. The day of Christ's return is appointed, and it will happen.

Just as God remembered his promise to Adam and Eve, and thousands of years later brought forth the offspring of the woman who would finally defeat the serpent. Just as God remembered all his promises to Abraham, Issac and Jacob, to Moses, to David, Solomon and the prophets. Patiently, patiently, promising. And finally delivering. The baby was born. He grew up, and preached, and suffered and died, and rose and ascended, and sits – patiently waiting to fulfill the final part of the plan.

And since he's told us the plan, we see things differently. Since we know all this is temporary, that all our stuff and all our things, and even our earthly life is temporary. Even the sun and moon have an expiration date.... Since all of it will come to an end – that changes our perspective. It focuses us on things above, our hearts and minds are set on Christ. And his Spirit guides us with an eternal perspective. We live “lives of holiness and godliness” not out of fear, but in faith – with an eye of that day, and in grateful response to his merciful patience with us through Christ.

As we wait for Christmas, let us not grow impatient with each other. As we wait for the Lord's mercy, let us not lose faith in his promises. As we repent of our impatience, let our sorrow give way to joy and peace as we cling to his forgiveness in Christ. And as we wait for the day of his salvation – in patience and peace, but also with eagerness, we pray with all the waiting church, “come quickly, Lord Jesus” Amen.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Rev. Torkelson on Restructuring

Dear Blog Readers,

I received the following letter from our South Wisconsin District's delegate to the recent convocation on synodical restructuring. Having heard Rev. Torkelson address this issue in person, and also having grave reservations about the proposals myself, I submit this letter for the benefit of our district and others.

Thanks for your thoughts, Rev. Torkelson!

-Rev. Tom Chryst


Dear Brothers in the South Wisconsin District,

As many of you know, a proposal to restructure the LC-MS is rapidly approaching.  As the clergy delegate from the South Wisconsin District to the so-called “theological conference” in August, I became convinced, for a number of reasons, that the proposals being set forth for Synodical restructuring were not in the best interest of the Synod’s pastors and congregations.

Among these reasons, I include the following:

1.The theological and Gospel foundations of our current structure were completely ignored in the Conference itself.

2.The proposals, as a whole, point to a greater centralization of Synod and not necessarily a greater sense of our congregational identity.

3.The proposals address the wrong problem—the main problem facing the Synod being disunity and uneven confession of our theology. This hampers missions considerably. A confessional church body will, by its very nature, be a missional church body. (Witness the ecumenical movement as a negative example of this truth).

4.The impetus for restructuring does not emanate from the congregations, but from the Synod’s leaders’ wrong perceptions of the problem in our Synod.

I have been travelling the District, as has President Wille, to measure attitudes toward this process.  The response, at this point in time, has been singularly negative, crossing political/theological lines, as well as small/large congregational lines.  Suffice it to say, the prospect of restructuring is not a popular one on the grass roots level.  Many see this as a power play.  Too many times now I have heard pastors tell me that the solution is simple.  We simply need to return to the Lord our God through His Word.  Unity will come when the pastors and congregations are freed from the constrictions of the national church body to be the mouthhouses of the Lord.  Hearing God’s Word rightly, we can do no other than to boldly proclaim Christ’s love in word and deed in our villages, towns, cities, and regions.

To that end, if the LCMS is going to be delivered from such an unwise direction, the Synod’s congregations are going to need to demonstrate to the national church body that any call for restructuring of the Synod must needs come from them (the congregations) and should aim to confess the Gospel as well as our current structure does.

In other words, the congregations need to speak now or forever hold their peace.  I am lovingly asking you to consider taking the following steps toward assisting your congregations in avoiding what could be a mistake of absolutely stunning proportions on the part of the national church body.

1.Please go over the proposals with your church councils, elders, and be ready to summarize the problems with your congregations as a whole, utilizing newsletters, bulletins, whatever communication options you have, in order to catechize the laity on the problem.

2.Select a lay delegate to the 2009 District Convention who is concerned not to allow this to continue and be willing to put forth delegates to the 2010 National Convention who feel the same way.

3.Overtures, overtures, overtures.  The SWD is one district which is providing a special floor committee dedicated to the topic of Synodical Structure And Governance at its next District Convention in June of 2009.  I invite you to “weigh in” in the form of overtures to the District Convention.  The more, the better.  We cannot receive too many.

With regard to overtures, I ask you to consider the reasons I listed above, as well as your own concerns, in writing your overtures.  Please remember that a good overture is short and to the point.  What the President of Synod needs to see is a large number of such overtures.  Please ask your congregations to consider the overall benefit of weighing in with an overture, as well as your circuits.

Above all, I ask that you pray for our Synod.  The proposals on the table will change the Synod at its most fundamental level.  This is not merely a “rearranging of the deck chairs” but a centralization of authority which will likely breed further distrust and sap the dynamics that come from a vigorous confession of the Gospel in our congregations and localities.  Please pray that the Synod not make such an unwise move as to restructure along the lines it is proposing and that she put the Lord of the Church first in her confession and in her mission.

The Lord bless you all richly this Advent season as you prepare for Christ’s Second Coming and the celebration of His first.

Sincerely in Christ,

Rev. Daniel T. Torkelson, Pastor
Zion Ev. Lutheran Church, Clyman, WI

SWD Clergy Delegate to the 2008 Theological Conference On Synodical Structure And Governance

Time to start sending Christmas Cards?

I found some fun cards over at The Wondermark Goodsery

Virtual Advent Wreath

Check out the spiffy Virtual Advent Wreath in my sidebar, curteousy of the Curt Jester.

Sermon - Advent 1 -

Mark 11:1-10
Advent 1
November 30, 2008
“Christ is Coming”

A new church year has begun. The wreath of four colored candles is out, the paraments are blue, and we're singing, “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel”. We're starting those midweek services, and pretty soon it will be Christmas – but first – Advent. Let's not pass over this time of preparation, in which we focus our attention on the coming king.

Christmas is coming. The manger, the angels, the shepherds are coming. The little town of Bethlehem is coming. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is coming. In the secular celebrations, Santa Claus is coming to town, but here in the church we know that Jesus is coming. The king is coming. That's the theme of this season of advent – the word “advent” itself, means, “coming”.

With all that in mind, it makes sense, doesn't it, that our Gospel reading today takes us to Palm Sunday. For Jesus went many places, and he came many places, but one of the most memorable was when he came to Jerusalem riding on a donkey.

When Jesus comes, you better take note. When Jesus comes, it means something. He arrives with a purpose. He comes with a plan, and he always accomplishes it. Let's use his coming on Palm Sunday to focus our thoughts on the other times and ways he comes – and see today how he comes to us, and what he comes to do.

Palm Sunday – the “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusaelm. Jesus knows the plan. The disciples are to find a donkey, he tells them where, he tells them what to say. He knows how it will go, down to the last detail. But he also knows the bigger plan. He also knows what the week will bring, and how by Friday he will face death, and on Sunday he will conquer it.

The people welcome him with cries of praises, “Hosanna!”, which means “save us”. And that's what he came to do, though they had no idea how. Still, they knew his arrival was important, they knew he was special, and they put their hope in him. They showed him honor – strewing branches and coats before him, preparing his way with the best they had – humble as they were.

Wasn't it the same in his first coming – at his birth? He came in humble form – a baby in a manger – no room at the inn. Sharing a stable with ox and ass, attended by shepherds. Yet there were hints of greater glory – stories about angels appearing. Strange men, foreigners, visiting with expensive gifts. This child had come to bring peace on earth and good will to mankind.

Jesus comes, and we notice. Well, at least we should. But when he came to sleepy Bethlehem, very few noticed. When he came to Jerusalem in triumph, even though they took note, their expectations were suspect – did they know they welcomed the Lamb of God, the sacrifice appointed for sin?

So much for Palm Sunday and Christmas, but did you know he still comes today? He still comes – to us. He comes when 2 or 3 are gathered in his name. He comes when his word is preached. He comes when sinners are convicted and forgiven. This is his plan, his purpose, still.

He comes in baptismal water – a common substance made holy and miraculous by his promise – a lavish flood of grace. He comes in the humble form of bread and wine, which are his true body and blood – always with the same purpose – for the forgiveness of sinners.

He comes to us – but do we notice? Or do we neglect his means of grace? Do we think of church as a chore? Do we receive his sacrament by thoughtless rote? Do we forget his daily gifts flowing from the waters of our baptism? He comes to us, but do we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and lips to receive?

When Jesus comes, you see, it's always worth taking note. For he comes to us, too, with a plan and purpose. He does not come to condemn, but to seek and save the lost. He comes to find that one wandering sheep – that's you – and bring you into his fold. He comes to dig up that precious treasure – that's you – to be his prized possession. He knows just what it will take, and he is patient. And whether you see him or not, notice him or not, understand him or not, sing Hosanna or not – still he comes in grace and mercy with gifts for you.

But at his second coming, his great and final arrival, on “that day” - everyone will notice. All eyes will see him. We'll hear the trumpet and shout of the archangel. The dead will rise. And he'll come in the clouds with great glory and all his angels attending. It will be impossible to miss.

And we will receive the fulfillment of all his blessings. We will be called sheep, good and faithful servants, wise virgins, and invited into his eternal dwelling. It will be our day of victory – our triumphal entry into heavenly blessings.

And our enemies will be judged. Yes, Christ comes to them too, but not in mercy. He comes to destroy sin, the forces of hell, and death. He comes to cast the devil away for good.

You see, when Christ comes it can be a good or bad day – depending on your relationship to him. What side you are on. By grace, through faith, we are with him. By our baptism we belong to him. By his word he has called us to believe in him. By his Supper he feeds and keeps us strong in him. And while we are with him by faith now – we will surely be with him when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Christ has come, and Christ will come again. He came as a baby to Bethlehem, as a King to Jerusalem, and he comes to us as Lord and Savior in his means of grace. And he will come again as judge and victor, to bring all things to completion.

When John the Baptist knew the messiah was coming, he preached repentance. And so should we use this season of Advent to repent – for palm branches and coats on the ground are no preparation for his coming – compared to the repentant heart. The heart which knows sin, and knows where to look for salvation – out there – to the king – to the king who comes in the name of the Lord. To Jesus.

Maybe that's more than you bargained for on this first Sunday of Advent. But in the church our minds are always on Christ. And as we anticipate the celebration of his first coming, we anticipate the day of his final coming with eager hearts. For Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. Always, for you.

In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Harrison on LCMS: "It's Time"

Rev. Matt Harrison, whose name is being mentioned by many as a candidate for LCMS president in 2010, has written a paper which describes what is ailing our synod but also suggests a plan of how to fix it. It's all the buzz of the Lutheran blogosphere right now, and you should read it too:

Monday, November 10, 2008

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Pentecost 26
November 9, 2008
“Encouraging Words about the End”

History has an end. There will be a last day, this is very clear in Holy Scripture. The universe will not go on, at least not like this, forever. There is a day, somewhere in the future, that God has planned, in which Christ will come again to earth, and bring all things to fulfillment. It is now, in November, near the end of the church calendar year, that we especially think about the end times.

Like many people today, the ancient Christians in the city of Thessalonica had questions and worries about that day. They had some misconceptions too. So St. Paul writes to them, to clear up the picture, to explain why that day is a good day for us Christians – to give them hope. “Encourage each other with these words” he says. And so Christians have encouraged each other with those words throughout the ages, and so today shall we.

Perhaps it's worth reviewing some basic teachings about the end, the last day. It will come suddenly, when we least expect it. Passages like our Gospel reading from Matthew encourage us to be watchful as we look for it to arrive at any time. Jesus says he will come “like a thief in the night”, that is, suddenly, and not when you think he might.

Many passages, like our Old Testament reading from Amos, paint the day of the Lord as something great and terrible – a fearful day in which God's judgment is poured out. But Amos was speaking to people who had forsaken God for pagan worship. Surely for the unbeliever, the judgment day will be fearful and terrible.

But for the believer, it's quite the opposite. 1 Thessalonians tells us that it will be a good day – a great day – that should give us hope.
So put aside your fears, and hear what God promises about Christ's appearing – and what it will mean for us, his people.

“we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep”

The Thessalonians full well expected Christ to return within their earthly lifetime. And they became concerned when faithful Christians began to die – wondering if there would be a difference between the living and the dead – that somehow their dead loved ones would miss out on the glory of Christ's return. This became a source of grief for them. But Paul says not to grieve like others who have no hope. Christ gives them hope.

In Corinthians, Paul explains, “we will not all sleep”, that is, not every Christian will die before that day. Some will live to see it. But those of us that do will be in the same boat as those of us who have already died. The dead will be raised. And we will all be changed, glorified, and we will all meet Christ together.

The dead will rise. Here's an important promise that gets short shrift these days. We're so accustomed of thinking that we Christians die and go to heaven (and yes, we do), that we forget the final fulfillment of God's plan is that we would rise from the dead. Just like Jesus, whose physical, earthly, human body rose from the dead – so too will our bodies be brought back to life – to live forever with God. Those who die in the faith – while their body “sleeps”, their soul is surely with the Lord and at peace. But at the resurrection soul and body reunite to live in eternal glory.

We will be changed – made “incorruptible”, Paul says. Glorified. We will be like Christ, in his glorified body. We don't know exactly what that means – it hasn't been fully revealed yet. But it sounds good, doesn't it? A physical body that is free of the corruption of sin? No more aches and pains. No more disease or handicap. A body free forever from the effects of the sin which has corrupted us. A body and soul as God intended them to be – perfect and holy.

Together, we will rise not only from death but into the air to meet him. Reminds me of the way Christ ascended into the clouds, after his resurrection, in his own glorified body.

And the promises continue. For there, we will meet Christ and each other, and we will be always with the Lord. What a blessing it will be to see with our own eyes, in our own flesh, what we have known by faith already. As we said last week, being in the presence of the Lord is what makes heaven so heavenly, and we will enjoy it forever, body and soul, with our Lord.

What about all the fire and brimstone? What about the judgment day? What about the locusts and horsemen? What about the lake of fire and answering for all your sins? What about the picture Amos paints of a great and terrible day?

Well Jesus faced that day himself, already. On that dark Friday in Jerusalem, when he hung on a cross for our sins. There Jesus endured the wrath of God's judgment so that our last day would be a day of peace. He took the punishment so we would stand before God free of guilt. He died for us to live – not just spiritually, but also physically – just as he rose, firstborn of the dead triumphant over the grave.

And because of that day of sacrifice, and that day of resurrection, we have a resurrection of our own – a promise yet unpaid but not forgotten. A day of final victory. This is why his resurrection is such a lynch-pin for our faith. Because only in his resurrection do we have the promise of resurrection.

So watch and be ready for his coming. Hear his word, frequently and faithfully. Remember your baptism, where he first raised you from death to new spiritual life. And receive his body and blood – often – for the forgiveness that sustains us each day, keeping us strong and vibrant in a faith that is always ready for its fulfillment.

Live your life in the faith that he has given you, trusting in his mercy and grace. And die your death in a peace that knows the promise of victory, and rest in peace, for the trumpet will sound, the archangel will shout, and Christ will return for his people. And we will be with him forever. This is our hope. This is his promise.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Best Election Comment Yet

Here's the best comment I've read yet on the election, from Pastor Petersen at Cyberstones:
Tuesday's Winner Prophesied
Here is what will happen . . .

the Church will win. The Lord will provide. All things will work together for good. The Lord's man will win the election tomorrow. It will be for the good of those who love God.

That is not to say that the winner will be good. I don't think that is an option in our system. But what will be good is the will of the Lord that He will work for His Church.

Think on the good the Lord did through Caesar, through Leo X, through Napolean and Hitler and Sadaam Hussein. Sure, I'd prefer restful days of peace. But the reality is that restful days of peace are dangerous. They lull us into complacency. The Church militant does not have the option of resting or suing for peace or finding a compromise. She fights until she is relieved of her burden. And when she is too weak to fight, when she gives in to temptation, when she tries to make her own way, then the Lord in His mercy brings the fight to her in the form of persecution - from within and without.

No matter who wins tomorrow, I expect persecution, intolerance, hatred of the Truth, and hard times are coming. The division in our country and the razor's edge of violence we rest upon is not only in the secular realm. It is the character of today's LC-MS and Lutheranism the world over. I don't see any easy days ahead. But I do see good days. I see days when men confess the Truth and learn to love not their lives to death, days when priorities become clear and the Word of God is cherished.

Trust not in princes. Empires fail. The Word of the Lord endures forever. He will provide. One way or another, there is always a Ram in the thicket, Our Lord in the wrath of His Father that we be spared and inherit the Kingdom for free. That Kingdom will not be overcome or cease. So cast you ballot tomorrow and then cast your cares away. It does not matter if you candidate wins or loses. The Lord will provide.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sermon - All Saints Day - Revelation 7:2-17

Revelation 7:2-17
All Saints Day (observed)
November 2, 2008
“An Image of All the Saints”

What does heaven look like? Take a moment and picture it. Maybe you have clouds and angels playing harps in your head. Maybe rainbows and green valleys, or something like a golf course. Maybe you just thought of Lambeau Field.

St. John was exiled to the prison island of Patmos for being a Christian. There, as an old man, he had a marvelous vision – and he wrote down what he say. We call that writing, “The Book of Revelation”. And while Revelation is filled will all sorts of the images John saw, some of them even quite scary, we also see here some of the clearest pictures of heaven in all of scripture.

One striking thing about heaven, pictured in Revelation, is that it's not so much a place as a people. Or, should we say, a situation – between God and his people. John doesn't so much describe the surrounding environment – that's not what's important. But what is important is who is there, and why.

God is there. That's what makes it so heavenly. That's what makes it a good place – a place we want to be. Heaven means a blessed reunion of God and man – a relationship restored to full and perfect harmony, after it was lost in the ancient paradise of Eden. To be cast away from God forever is Hell. But to be in his presence forever, singing his praises, is heavenly. John certainly pictures God throughout his vision – both as a mighty king on his throne, but also also as the Lamb who once was slain – Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead.

But on this All Saints Day, it's worth noting who else is there – his people.

In Revelation 7 we see two pictures of God's people. First, we have the 144,000. Contrary to the teachings of some, this does not mean there's a limited number who can be saved. It's not as if heaven has a big flashing “no vacancy” sign, and the rest of us are out of luck. Here is a symbolic number – 12, the number of God's people throughout scripture – is squared and multiplied by 1000. It really stands for the totality of all God's people, the church, the chosen ones of God.
Then there is the great multitude no one could count. And these are really the same people – God's people. Some say the first is a view of us on earth, and the second a view of us in glory. Others suggest the 144,000 are from God's point of view, and the multitude is from man's point of view. But this much is clear. The number of those saved and standing, ultimately, before God in heaven is great.

John sees this great crowd, and one of the elders asks, “who are they?” We might wonder the same, but the answer is obvious. One wonders, too, if John didn't even recognize some of them. Perhaps as he looked on the crowd he saw Christian friends – apostles and martyrs who had gone before him. “Oh there's Peter, there's Matthew. There's my brother James”

Who are they? Its obvious. “Sir, you know” he says. But this moment is worth comment. Of all the visions in Revelation, few are explained to this extent. The elder makes it plain, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” These are believers in the glory of God's eternal presence.

These are, in fact, all the saints. Can you see their faces? There's .... Arlene and John, John, Gilbert and Betty, Margaret, Lucille, Thelma, Irene, LaVerne, Ruth, Alice and Mildred.

And there, by the grace of God, you and I will be too. For in Holy Baptism, our robes are washed clean in the blood of the lamb. There you were first clothed with Christ. And his righteousness covers you even now, and even forever.

And all the trouble of this world, or as Revelation calls it, “the great tribulation” - none of it compares to the glory revealed there. There, in the presence of God, there is no more pain, hunger, thirst, suffering or sorrow.

What a beautiful picture it is, that God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Like a loving father whose kiss makes the boo boo all better, but even more perfect and full. His tender, loving, mercy will take away all cares and troubles, not just for a moment, but forever. It's almost impossible to comprehend.

By rights, heaven is already yours. You already stand in the merciful presence of God, by grace through faith. One day we will see it in all its fullness, but we possess it even now.

Yes even now, God gives us a taste of it. We have the forgiveness of our sins, and the peace with God that brings. We have the promises of blessings now and future, and in those words we trust. We have the hope of the resurrection, the certainty of things unseen. And we have his gracious presence even now - “Lo, I am with you always” and “where two or three gather in my name, there am I”.

Even now, before the great marriage feast, we have a foretaste, a sample, if you will, of that blessed banquet. When we gather at the rail and kneel to receive his body and blood, we participate in the great communion – the community – of heavenly host, together with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. It's as if the saints themselves are here with us, praising and thanking the God who has brought us salvation.

That's why we sing the same songs. Power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and blessing and glory to God and to the Lamb, forever and ever, amen. We, like the saints, are blood-bought and victorious in Christ. We, like the saints, will live forever. And that eternal life with God has already begun.

All Saints Day – not a day to mourn or bemoan those who have departed this world, but a day to rejoice in triumph with those who have joined the everlasting company, the great multitude in the eternal presence of God. All saints – all holy people – who continuously praise the Holy One, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Today we see images, visions, with St. John of the glories of heaven – not a place, as much as a state of being – God, in mercy, dwelling with his people forever.

For the promise of glories to come, and for the present blessings he so richly reveals – we thank you, O Lord. For all the saints who from their labors rest, we thank you, O Lord. And for the grace to remain in that great company here in life and there for eternity we pray, keep us always, O Lord, in Jesus Christ. In his name. Amen.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Issues Etc. Interview

I participated in an Issues Etc... pastor's roundtable, or, triangle-table, or really, L-shaped table....

The topic was the 7th Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal". You can download and listen to the podcast here for free.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

November Newsletter - Thoughts on the Vote

The following is my "Pastor's Page" for the November church newsletter:

Some thoughts on elections, voting, and Christian citizenship

Dear members of Grace,

Shortly, many Americans will be heading to the polls to cast our votes for President and other government offices. While it is not the pastor's place to endorse candidates or tell you which way to vote, I do think that our identity as Christians does shape the way we look at voting, and helps us determine how to do it.

Here's one way of looking at it. How does your vote express your Christian love for your neighbor? Rather than self-seeking, Christians should consider the needs and well-being of others in all things. Think of voting as an exercise of love and service to others.

Have you prayed earnestly for guidance? God won't tell you whether to vote for Obama or McCain, but he does give us guidance in his Word. Some of the platform positions of these candidates or their parties may or may not be in line with Scripture. When a candidate takes a position in opposition to God's Word, this is troubling. What issues are the most important to God? What issues seem most important to each candidate? A Christian should weigh the various issues first against God's revealed Word.

Then again, some of the issues of disagreement have no direct scriptural guidance. God doesn't say whether taxes should go up or down, and on whom. God doesn't say how our nation should conduct its diplomacy, how we solve our energy problems, or what the best qualifications or experience for the job might be. Still, for many of these questions, God gives us earthly wisdom, to use to the best of our abilities. And in our calling as citizens, our nation asks us to lend that wisdom in the form of our vote.

Another thing to remember is there is never a perfect candidate. We are all fallen and sin daily. We are always going to be choosing between the “lesser of the evils”. The only perfect ruler is the one sitting on Heaven's high throne.

And even if our candidate loses, God still charges us to “pray for all those in authority”. And we know the government agent, as God's representative, is due honor and respect. The Fourth Commandment and other passages remind us to honor the authorities God places over us, pray for them, and submit to them.

Finally, pray for our nation, and for your fellow voters. Pray that whatever happens, God would “work through all things for the good of those who love him”, as he has promised. Trust in God to bring about his good purposes, in his good time, according to his good pleasure. And give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy as citizens of this nation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Footprints Limerick

Footprints in the Sand

There was a man who, at low tide
Would walk with the Lord by his side
Jesus said "Now look back;
You'll see one set of tracks.
That's when you got a piggy-back ride."

H/T Today on the Interwebs (with links to more famous poems as limericks)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon - Reformation Day - John 8:31-36

John 8:31-36
Reformation Day (observed)
“Truth that Frees”

There's a real temptation for us Lutherans as we observe Reformation day. It's a temptation to wave our Lutheran banners, thump our historical confessions, and puff ourselves up with the pride of our pure doctrine. We sing our Lutheran hymns with gusto, and sort of Lutheran patriotism exudes from our celebration. But where is our focus?

We too often make today about Martin Luther – a great man and hero of the faith, who famously faced down the most powerful man in the world in his great “here I stand” speech. Who translated the bible into the language of the people, who left the safety of the Wartburg castle because the people needed him, who debated the Roman Catholic false teaching persuasively, and whose work laid the groundwork for the church bearing his name. But where is our focus today?

It shouldn't be, and it's not about Martin Luther. It's about Jesus. It's always about Jesus. It shouldn't be, and it's not about Lutheran pride (as Paul says, boasting is excluded). But instead we mark and celebrate the rediscovery of the truth – the truth of the Gospel – the truth that sets us free – the Truth of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners, like you and me. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone – not by our good works. This is the truth of the Gospel we Lutherans make such a big deal about on this Reformation day.

Of course, our heritage and history are important. We can rightly look to the reformers and our fathers in the faith and thank God for the work they have done. How Christendom might be different today had God not led these men to a clear and true confession of the faith. How many would have missed out on the assurance that a reformation understanding of the faith brings?

Jesus says in John 8 that the truth of his teaching is what frees us from the slavery of sin. A fitting reading for Reformation day. Not because today is a sort of “Lutheran independence day” in which we shoot off our liturgical fireworks. Not because we celebrate freedom from the pope and the Roman Catholic church. But instead, because we take note again, of the importance of truth and the freedom from sin the Gospel truly brings.

Some taught then, and still teach that freedom comes from your own efforts and your own work. That in order to be free from sin, one must fully commit, or earnestly endeavor to do what is right at all times in all places. Try your hardest, follow the law closest, and maybe, just maybe, you can get there. But this is slavery to the law. Human works will never free us from sin. Only the divine work of Jesus Christ can do the job. This is grace – not that we save ourselves, and not that we even help, but that he, Jesus, does it all for us at the cross. There is where true freedom is won. It was earned by him, for us. We can only receive it as a gift.

Likewise, the truth is under attack, now as then. Satan has always attacked the truth, from his first lie, “you will not die” to so many others throughout the ages. The Father of lies is a prolific author. He is crafty and slick, telling us what we want to hear. Stroking the ego of our sinful nature, playing to our pleasures and playing on our fears. “Did God really say...”? He assails the truth with doubt, challenges it with false claims, and demands evidence for all things unseen. Luther's hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” says the “Old evil foe” who seeks to “work us woe” employs “Deep guile and great might”. Deep guile – that is, an “insidious cunning in attaining a goal; crafty or artful deception; duplicity”.

Today, one of Satan's greatest attacks on the truth is a full, frontal assault. It's not enough to challenge whether what Christ says is true. Now he says there is no such thing as truth. At least there's no objective truth. What's true for you may not be true for me, or someone else. And no one religion has the truth, but all have part of it, or even when they disagree, they somehow are saying the same thing. Confused yet? Me too. But that's kinda the point.

To all this, Jesus word says again, “Hold to my teaching. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. In an age when truth itself is in doubt, Jesus makes a very specific and bold claim of truth. It's as if he says,

“What I teach is true. Anything else, anything that says otherwise is false. You disciples of mine, remember what I say. Hold to, cling to my words. Always keep my teachings, my doctrine, before you. Only then will you be free from sin, death, and the devil's lies. But if you forsake my teaching, you are slaves again to sin. If you believe something else, you are falling for the falsehoods. I am the only way. Good works will not set you free. Praying hard, clean living, even coming to church every week won't set you free. The truth will set you free. My words are the only truth.”

And what are those words? Well there are too many for one sermon, but that's why we come here again and again. The main point, however, is what the Reformation re-discovered. That Jesus died for you, to pay for all your sins. That Salvation is a free gift. That you, the believer, live by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

And you do not just live, but you are a member of the family. The Son of God, the only Son of the father from eternity, has taken the form of a servant, and freed you from slavery to sin, making you a child of God yourself. You're part of the family, as Jesus says, “forever”. That's a truth we can believe in. That's a hope that does not disappoint.

So the proper way to celebrate Reformation day, fellow Lutherans, is not simply to talk up the German monk who nailed the document to the door. It's not to simply sing our Lutheran anthems with gusto. It's not just to point with pride to our historical heritage. The proper way to celebrate is to rejoice in the truth, and the freedom of Christ. To dwell on and in his word. To receive him as he comes to us, in his Supper, also according to his word. To give thanks for our baptism, where he washed us clean, made us his people, his children, according to his word. And to therefore live in the truth and freedom that only comes through the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

For his truth has set us free, and he is the way, the truth, and the life.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LCMS on Facebook

I noticed a group on Facebook:

"LCMS Lutherans for compassion and change"

Uh-oh, I thought. Red flags here.

Here's the group description:

a group of LCMS Lutherans who are seeking for the compassion of Jesus (not the dogma of Walther) to be the main characteristic of the synod. We're a group of disciples of Jesus who wonder what would happen if we acted more in trust and blessing, and less in fear and control....more in unity of the essentials and less in uniformity of everything. We welcome anyone to join in the conversation!

My thoughts:
1. I am tired of seeing the false alternative of Compassion vs. Doctrine, or Mission vs. Doctrine, or Love vs. Doctrine, or Dogma, or Theology. There is no reason we can't strive for both. You NEVER hear anyone saying that we should eschew compassion in order to pursue doctrine. (See "Maintenence vs. Mission")

1a. What's wrong with the "dogma of Walther"? I find that when people choose the word "dogma" instead of "doctrine" or "teaching", they often seek to stigmatize it.

2. What does it mean to "act more in trust and blessing, and less in fear and control"? To me, this is law-talk. Of course we should all be nicer, kinder, more loving. But isn't being Lutheran primarily about the Gospel? Isn't it the love of Christ that motivates our love and compassion, and not the scolding of fellow Christians in our fellowship?

3. "Unity in essentials" is pitted against the straw-man of "Unity in everything". While I know the traditional/confessional/conservative wing of the LCMS places more emphasis on unity, they do not, in my experience, seek to legislate unity, but instead they encourage it. They do not seek "unity in everything", as if that were possible, but they do decry the "every-man-for-himself" mentality in which each congregation is a rule to itself. That's part of "walking together".

What exactly is "Unity in essentials", anyway? It seems a rather squishy kind of unity. Whose definition of "essential"? What would that be? Shouldn't we, couldn't we strive for more?

Suggesting some are in favor of an absolute uniformity in the LCMS is, however, dishonest at worst and mistaken at best. But what we have now is very far from the unity we could have (and once did have).

4. Reading through some of the discussions, I started to become VERY concerned about the denegration of doctrine, by layperson and clergy alike. Some disturbing stuff there. Is this how people in the LCMS really think?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Just a Theory"

When believers in creation and believers in evolution argue (or discuss), the conversation often turns to evolution's status as a "theory". It usually goes something like this:

Creationist: "Evolution is just a theory"

Evolutionist: "So is the Theory of Gravity"

But according to this article, there isn't really any agreement in what constitutes a "theory" and even, what separates science from "psuedo-science".

There's more to this discussion that sound-byte slaps. Epistemology and the Philosophy of Science are worth considering too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


At our confirmation class tonight, while discussing the care of our bodies under the 5th commandment, the question of tattoos arose. Of course the 8th graders just want to know if they can or can't get one. But I encouraged them to think of the whole question in terms of the commandments.

"First of all, consider the 4th commandment" I said, "if you are under 18, the first thing you have to do is honor your parents..."

To which a quick-witted student quipped, "So we could get a tattoo with a heart that says 'Mom'?"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Siemon-Netto on Dr. Tiller

Dr. Siemon-Netto has a recent piece, re-posted about the blogosphere in several places. The whole thing is worth the read, but he ends with this powerful anecdote:

Down in Wichita, Kansas, there is a physician by the name of George Tiller. On his website he boasts that he has already performed 60,000 abortions, mostly late-term, and week after week he is killing 100 more unborn babies.

Dr. Tiller does not think of these fetuses as clusters of cancerous cells. He knows they are human because he baptizes some of them before he incinerates them in his own crematorium. You don’t baptize non-humans. Dr. Tiller knows that. He is a practicing Lutheran. His former congregation, Holy Cross of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, excommunicated him as an unrepentant sinner. But the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which belongs to the ELCA, communes him. Did I mention that he kills 100 human beings every week and has already done away with 60.000? Sixty thousand! In Nuremberg they hanged some fiends for murdering less than 60 — zero point one percent of Tiller’s toll.

While the Tiller story is dispicible enough, I was fascinated by the response of these two Lutheran churches, which couldn't be further apart on the matter. Kudos to the LCMS congregation for taking a stand against unrepentant sin.

Holy Cross, the LCMS church here,
and Reformation, the ELCA church here.

And some say that a Lutheran is a Lutheran...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 22 - Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14
Pentecost 22
“Come to the Feast”

Today we come to another kingdom parable of Jesus, and this one uses the picture of a wedding feast. As usual, the earthly story has a heavenly meaning – here are both words of law and judgment but also grace and mercy. Here again, Jesus points us to the Gospel, and the free gift of salvation he offers, which he won for us at the cross. Let's take a closer look at the parable of the wedding feast.

As usual, the stories Jesus tells capture our imagination. The king throws a feast for his son's wedding. He invites the guests, but strangely, they don't come. You'd think they would be honored. You'd think they would come quickly and joyfully to the feast – not just any wedding, but a royal wedding – an invitation from the king himself! But some ignore the invitation – we aren't told why. Then the king invites them again, and they find better things to do – tending the farm, minding the shop. Even more bizarre, some mistreat the servants bearing the invitation and even kill them. Talk about “don't kill the messenger!”

Here the heavenly meaning is clear. God the Father, the king, sends invitations of grace and mercy, not to a literal wedding feast, but to faith in his Son. And here, Jesus summarizes the history of God's chosen people – who repeatedly ignored his grace and mercy, and even mistreated and killed the prophets. Soon their mistreatment of God's messengers would reach its apex as they put the very Son of God to death. They would even kill the Apostles, all of whom met violent death except for St. John.

And so, Jesus predicts the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, which came to pass nearly 40 years later. In 70 A.D. The Roman general Titus sacked the city, and dispersed the Jews from their homeland. The very temple of God was destroyed. Jesus knew it would happen. It was the punishment of God upon a people who, as a whole, rejected his repeated calls to faith, and finally refused to hear the good news of his son. But it is a mere shadow of the final destruction in store for all who reject the Christ in this life – a foretaste of the condemnation and wrath to be revealed on the day of judgment.

So the king turns to others, inviting anyone and everyone to come to the feast. Here we have the invitation to the Gentiles. The Gospel is free and freely preached to all people – rich and poor, men and women, young and old, from all tribes and languages. And so we have seen the good news of Jesus Christ touch every corner of the world. Most of us have come to the kingdom only through this world-wide invitation, and thank God for that. For now we enjoy the blessings of his banquet, the lavish food of his feast.

What about the garment? In ancient wedding custom, appropriate dress for such a high occasion included a special garment which was provided by the host. To reject it was to reject the host's generosity and favor, and would have been a social insult. The man seemed to accept the invitation, but in reality didn't. So the king treats the man harshly who was found without proper attire. He had no excuse for his lack of wedding garment.

The garment reminds us of the robe of Christ's righteousness each of us has received in Holy Baptism. There he covers our sin with his grace and mercy, which keeps us our whole life through. When, at Christian funerals, the body of our loved one is brought here to God's house, a white pall – a garment – drapes the casket, to signify that robe of righteousness.

And we do well to receive this garment. For too often we are tempted to think our own clothes will do. But the filthy rags of our own good works do not make us presentable. Only what he provides will do. Only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are we made righteous and holy. Our own works are simply a response to his goodness, but they don't earn us a thing. Salvation is a free gift. The invitation of the king is without cost.

And what Lutheran could read a story of a great feast given by the king and not think of the Lord's Supper. For in this royal feast, he gives us all the same blessings – forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. We are worthy to receive such things only by faith, and especially faith in the promises of Christ, “this is my body- this is my blood.... given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”.

The feast of the Lord's Supper is also a foretaste of the feast to come. It's not an accident that Revelation pictures the kingdom to come as a wedding celebration – the great consummation of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. When we gather at his table here, we gather with all the people of God from all times and places, and even those already gathered to him.... we join at table in a grand feast of celebration and receive his bountiful provision. What could be better?

In this parable which Jesus told during Holy Week, he compares the kingdom to a great wedding feast. And he warns of destruction and dishonor for all who reject the invitation and the king's provision. But for those who receive the gifts he gives, the King and his Son provide a royal banquet without end. Thank God that through his Son Jesus Christ we are invited to the feast. May we wear his robe of righteousness with thankfulness and celebrate with him eternally. And today, receive our foretaste of the feast to come, as we gather at his invitation.

In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mission and Maintenance, Again...

I once blogged about a commonly-promoted false alternative in the LCMS, "Mission vs. Maintenance".

Recently, I was checking out church websites doing some "forward scouting" for some members of our congregation who are moving. And in a church newsletter posted online, I found this blurb:

In measuring the effectiveness, the maintenance congregations
asks, “How many pastoral visits are being made:” The
mission congregation asks, “How many disciples are being
made?” ——taken from “Issues”

First, I should point out they are NOT quoting from the radio program, "Issues, Etc." but from the print journal out of Concordia, Seward, "Issues in Christian Education".

Second, I am peeved again that the false alternative between mission and maintenance is alive and well.

Third, I notice the focus of the mission approach is on results, and the focus of the maintenance is on process? That reminded me of the recent insightful post by the Lutheran Logomaniac.

But really, this obsession with counting has got to stop. Measuring, assessing, visioning, revitalizing, all these secular/business approaches which actually keep us from doing what we should be doing - preaching, teaching, and confessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ - to anyone who will hear it - even if they are already members of our congregation!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Harrison Blogs

Hey, I've noticed that Pastor Matt Harrison has been blogging quite a bit lately. He's definitely worth checking out.

You might also want to stop by Harrison for President and check out more about him.

Another Pastor Confusing Kingdoms

Local story about a pastor clearly endorsing McCain from the puplit.

My response on the newspaper's blog site:

This pastor crossed the fine line between speaking the truth of scripture and making a logical leap which was not his to make.

Clearly, abortion is against scripture. Voting for McCain or Obama is not clearly taught in scripture.

Endorsing specific candidates or even specific plans in the political realm is not the place of Christian pastors. Ours is to teach the principles of the Bible and let parishioners connect the dots themselves in the booth.

Unfortunately, too many pastors on both the right AND the left muddy the waters between these two areas of life.

He should go and learn what this means."Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's"

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew 21:23-27
Pentecost 20
“Good and Bad Questions”

The question was this, “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words, “Jesus, who do you think you are? Where do you get off making a mess of our temple, overturning tables and chasing away our merchants? And just what gives you the right to criticize us, the powers that be? We are the chief priests, the elders of the people! Don't you know who we are?” A lot of questions tied up in this question, “By what authority...?”

Now, when Jesus matches wits with the Jewish leaders – it's never a fair fight. Whether they are trying to trap him with a question about taxes, or about marriage in heaven, or some other funny business, these so-called wise men are perpetually rebuked, defeated, and made to look foolish by the simple country preacher.

They can't even answer a simple question about John the Baptist without a huddle and conference, and even then, the answer is, “we don't know”. They really thought they knew the answer. They just didn't want to say. They were afraid of the crowds that followed Jesus, and would simply find another time, when the crowds were gone. They would get this Jesus yet, or so they thought.

But why the challenge in the first place? Why didn't they believe in Jesus? Why didn't they recognize his authority? Why didn't they listen to his preaching and teaching?

And why don't we (at least, not all the time)? These are good questions, aren't they? In our reading from Phillipians today, Paul warns them not to grumble or question. So are all questions bad? How about the rhetorical one's I'm asking now? Today – the question of questions, and questioning. I think we'll all agree, there are good questions and bad questions.

The bad questions are the questions of rebellion and sin. They are the questions that challenge rightful authority – and are really a challenge to God. This is the kind of question the Jews asked of Jesus. “By what authority....?” they asked, but it was less a question and more an attack, an assertion that he doesn't, in fact, have the authority to do what he does. They thought they were the ones in charge, but that had misused their authority. They ignored John's call to repentance, and they had no use for the good news of Jesus. They weren't interested in the truth, as much as in their own power and prestige, their own precious places of honor.

Jesus turns it around on them. He questions them, and thus exerts, rather than explains his authority. “I'll ask the questions, here” he says, and puts a tough one to them.

When it comes to our questioning, there are certainly good and bad questions. There are simple questions of information - “what's for dinner?”. There are questions of life-long importance, “will you marry me?” And then there are the questions of faith. “What must I do to be saved?” “Can God love even me?” “Do you believe this?”

The Jews ask Jesus a question which is really a challenge, a question of rebellion. Jesus asks them a question of faith. Did they believe in John or not? They took it as a political question, and gave a political answer, looking foolish in the process. But what Matthew reveals is their lack of faith in John's authority, and in Jesus' authority.

Do we trust Jesus' authority? Now there's a question. Our sinful nature sure acts like we are our own authority. We decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, according to the convenience of the moment, the pleasures at hand. Then we rationalize away our sins and faults and failings and blame others, blame situations, sometimes even blame God himself. But when the question is posed to us by God's law.... when we hear Jesus saying “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind.... Love your neighbor as yourself”. And when we ask ourselves how we measure up... then we go into a huddle, like the Pharisees. And what will our answer be?

We must answer honestly. We have failed our Lord. We don't love God or man as we ought. We have no good answer for our sin.

And the questions we ask, lacking faith in God, also are without excuse. Now, mind you, it's not that any question is bad. Certainly God's people have questioned, wondered, and sought answers from God. And when done in faith, such questioning is good and proper. Think of the 12 year old boy, Jesus, who questioned the elders at the temple. And they were amazed with his growing wisdom and stature. Or when we ask questions for learning, “what does this mean?” in our catechism... And even those questions of repentance, “Will you forgive me, O Lord?”. These are all good questions.

But when Paul says not to grumble and question, this is a different thing. This kind of questioning challenges and doubts God. It places our own wisdom above his. This is the questioning of pride, which seeks to make God answer to us, which puts God to the test. We are in no place to judge him, and yet we so often forget our place.

So how does God answer? To the bad questions – sometimes he does not answer. Like Jesus, “neither will I answer you”. Some questions don't deserve an answer, because they are not really questions but challenges. And God is not subject to us. Other bad questions get answers we might not like to hear. Questions of doubt and rebellion might be met with stern rebuke, or harsh words of law.

But those good questions – God answers them with Good News. His word is a treasure trove of answers for questions of faith.

Q: “Who then, can be saved?”
A: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.

Q: What will happen when I die?
A: Fear not. Christ is risen, and we too shall rise.

Q: Will God hold my sins against me?
A: Your sins are forgiven. Now go and sin no more.

Q: Does God really love me? A: For God so loved the world he sent his only Son.

All good questions, and the answers are good news. For when we come to God through Christ, in repentance and faith, we always find our answer. And that answer is Jesus Christ crucified for sinners like me.

“By what authority do you do these things?” they asked. Bad question. “Jesus, what word do you have for me today?” A good question. Hear today his word of forgiveness and love. And believe it, for his sake. In his name, Amen.